Monthly Archives: June 2014

Brief Reprieve From Time

Painting by Vanessa Pesch | Saltwater Birch Studio June, June, June.

The weeks go by slowly, the months seem to disappear. I’m sure that only gets worse with age. Though it’s a pleasant, therapeutic side-effect of painting – that (occasional) brief reprieve from a sense of time. The kind that arises from intense focus, and lets you forget existence, with all its joys, disappointments, pressures and hopes.

Painting by Vanessa Pesch | Saltwater Birch Studio

Painting by Vanessa Pesch | Saltwater Birch Studio

Painting by Vanessa Pesch | Saltwater Birch Studio


Not to mention it also provides a nice distraction from the army of relentless mosquitoes waiting to maul you at your door (the not-so-pleasant side of living in a forest!). Every season certainly has it downsides, though the bright, blooming flowers, and Vitamin D surplus, more than make up for the occasional bite.

Painting by Vanessa Pesch | Saltwater Birch Studio


Things No One Tells You About Becoming An Artist (Part 2)

Earlier this week, I introduced the first instalment of lessons I’ve come to learn about pursuing an artistic career. Here is the final part of this series:

13. “Artist” does not sound like a “real” job, which means when answering the “so what do you do” question, you’ll likely be faced with a flurry of facial expressions ranging from confusion to disbelief to worry/pity. I think because some people assume “artist” is just another way of saying currently unemployed.

Sometimes it helps to be more specific when answering this question, ex. saying you’re a printmaker, or oil painter, or illustrator. It reduces some of the ambiguity, though the pity face still makes the occasional appearance.


14. The urge will be strong to undersell yourself. Don’t. Know that if someone really loves, and wants your art, they’ll find a way to pay for it.

As an artist, I hear this a lot: “if I only had the money…” There are some people for whom this statement is true, but typically that line is used as an excuse. A polite way of saying that they may like, but don’t love, that painting, or, that they don’t see the value in spending $120 for a painting when they could buy a mass-produced printed canvas at Walmart for $30. No matter how often you hear that phrase, resist the temptation to reduce your prices – discounting may make your wallet slightly larger, but it will also decrease the individual value of your works (which is not a good thing..especially for people collecting your work). 


15. You’re going to get rejected…a lot. Maybe not as much as writers, but enough that you sometimes wonder if it’s worth it. Try not to take it personally, or as a sign that your work isn’t good. You don’t know the circumstances – the gallerist/jury may have a preference for abstract or conceptual works, or there may have been a flood of excellent proposals this year etc.

It helps to expect rejection – and to put things in perspective, I was just recently told of a fellow artist who applies to 30 galleries every year, and gets accepted to 3 at the most. That’s a lot of rejection letters! There’s even blogs dedicated to rejection letters (a personal favourite: Rejection Letters of an Emerging Artist). If it’s any consolation, these letters are typically very sensitively worded and encouraging. I just take it as a battle scar – a small wound you’ll be proud of in the future.

Things No One Tells You About Becoming An Artist (Part 2) | Saltwater Birch Studio

16. There’s a lot of competition. It helps to figure out what sets you apart (i.e. what you’re good at) and make that your primary focus.

17. Physically making artwork is only a fraction of what you do day-to-day (taking up at most, 20-30% of your time). The rest of the time is spent applying for grants, responding to calls of submission, researching galleries, doing self-promotion, designing promotional materials, attending openings/exhibits, thinking of new ideas, researching said ideas, etc. Unless you’re lucky enough to have an assistant or gallery representation to do some of this for you (not jealous..not jealous at all).

June | Saltwater Birch Studio

18. You’ll make a lot of excuses to yourself. A common one that crops up is: if I only had a larger/quieter/better located studio then I’d work better. Recognize the problem is not usually the space, it’s procrastination (which has its roots in fear). Figure out where this fear is coming from (the Artist’s Way helps with that) and you’ll find the excuses will drop away on their own.

19. Stick to a schedule, especially if you’re working from home, aka the black hole of time.

20. There will always be ups and downs, financially and creatively. Progress is not a straight line. Like a runner training for a marathon, you just have to keep at it, push through the setbacks, and appreciate how far you’ve already come.

June | Saltwater Birch Studio

21. Your family may be among your harshest critics. They may mean well, but it doesn’t always come across that way. I find it helps to look at all critiques objectively, regardless of the source: to determine if it’s just a comment concerning personal taste (they don’t like your choice of subject), or if it’s constructive criticism (like that skyline is slightly crooked).

22. Don’t be afraid to take a non-art related job, so long as it leaves you with enough time and energy to continue your artistic practice. You’d be hard-pressed to find a professional artist who hasn’t had to take a side job at some point. We all have to pay the bills (and student loan debt) somehow. It’s not defeat if you don’t let it steer you off your artistic course.


23. You have to believe your work is good (or at least fake it until you do believe it). Otherwise, it will be very difficult to get people to take you seriously. I mean, who would hire a lawyer who thinks they’re not a good lawyer? In the same vein, you should champion your work, or at least accept compliments proudly. By this, I don’t mean walk around saying you’re a great artist, but rather to try to strike the balance between pride and humbleness, that way you don’t come across as either obnoxious or insecure when trying to promote your work.


24. Despite the occasional harsh words, the compliments and supportive people far outnumber the naysayers. People know it’s not an easy field; they respect the guts it takes to do it anyway. Plus they probably like your work!

25. Don’t be afraid to experiment and take your art in new directions, if that means new subjects, colors, styles etc. There can be a push to “find your own style”, implying that once you’ve found it, you should stick to it. Marketing-wise, it’s a good strategy, but for creativity, it can be deadly. Personally, I just find it too constricting to approach art that way, with the added loss of being stripped of the joy of experimentation. So, experiment away! And know that style is fluid – constantly changing and evolving.

Things No One Tells You About Becoming An Artist (Part 2) | Saltwater Birch Studio

I’ll post some more painting updates next week, when the pieces I’m working on will (hopefully) be finished!


Things No One Tells You About Becoming An Artist (Part 1)

1. It’s not about being the “best”, it’s about being the one who just won’t give up. Your works won’t be perfect – but they will get better with practice. My philosophy: persistence is a greater predictor of success than talent alone.

12 Things No One Tells You About Becoming An Artist (Part 1) | Saltwater Birch Studio

2. Time is your friend. People (including most galleries) won’t take you seriously at first – you have to prove to them that you’re here to stay, and this is not just a hobby. Once you’ve had a few exhibits, which can take 1-2 years, things start to get easier – people will start referring to you as the artist, not the arteeeest. By then, your CV will also have started to grow, which in turn will make it easier to get into more galleries, and get accepted for art grants.

3. “Artist’s fee” does not mean you, as the artist, has to pay, it means the gallery will pay you. Here’s a great list of art lingo definitions, explained in 1-2 sentences, using everyday language. It’s helped me out several times.

12 Things No One Tells You About Becoming An Artist (Part 1) | Saltwater Birch Studio

4. There are three types of galleries: 1) those that pay you to exhibit, 2) those you have to pay to exhibit (referred to as vanity galleries), and 3) those that only represent artists – meaning in order to exhibit, you have to be represented by them, which comes with a whole set of conditions and a contract. Often they take a 50% cut of your sales, have strict conditions on where you can exhibit your work, but, on the plus side, your work is always on display at their gallery, they have access to serious art collectors, and it’s frequently seen as a sign of having “made it” as an artist.

12 Things No One Tells You About Becoming An Artist (Part 1) | Saltwater Birch Studio

5. Paint what you want, not what you think will sell. The few times I failed to follow this advice, it backfired; turns out it’s pretty difficult to anticipate what people will buy. Plus it makes life more difficult than it needs to be, when you’re not even enjoying what you’re painting.

6. Don’t wait for someone to “discover” you – you’ll be waiting a lifetime! If you want to succeed, be proactive – apply to group shows, submit proposals for solo shows, make business cards, have a website etc. Only by getting your name and your work out there, will you have a chance at succeeding – and no one is going to do that for you.

7. The Artist’s Way will become your bible. It’s a useful guide that will get you through blocks in creativity.

12 Things No One Tells You About Becoming An Artist (Part 1) | Saltwater Birch Studio

8. People will question your career choice and/or ask you how much you make.  It’s often people I don’t know well who ask these types of, let’s say brash, questions, but I try to be as polite as possible. In the case of asking about your financials: often it’s because of a false belief they have that artists are either poor and starving or rich and famous, but there’s no in between. So my approach, depending on the person asking the question, is pointing out that there are thousands of artists who make a decent living wage – it is possible. Their life stories may not hit front page news, but that doesn’t make them any less real (for proof, take a look at any reputable gallery’ll see a list of artists you’ve never heard of, but whose sole occupation is making art). 

For those questioning why I pursue art at all – I explain that this is what I really love to do, and leave it at that.

12 Things No One Tells You About Becoming An Artist (Part 1) | Saltwater Birch Studio

9. You will likely never get rid of the self-doubt. In part because there is no right or wrong in art; and without there being an objective definition of makes good art, there is nothing you can compare your work to in order to judge its worth. Even if you’re having sold out shows, there will always be a little voice wondering if what you make is worthwhile or “good enough”.

As difficult as it is, embracing the self-doubt is more instrumental than trying to banish it. To be honest, I’m still learning this step, but so far it seems to entail recognizing the value of doubt as a tool for self-reflection – that it can push you in new and/or better directions by analyzing where you can improve. To do this effectively also means learning when to not listen to the doubt, which may be the most difficult part.

12 Things No One Tells You About Becoming An Artist (Part 1) | Saltwater Birch Studio

10. Every day/week/month, you’re going to envy the 9-5ers. That steady paycheque that calls to you like a glass of lemonade on a hot day. It’s not a bad thing, but it depends on your reasons for choosing it. If you can’t make rent, then yes, obviously, maybe a steady paycheque is not a bad idea. But if it’s just the uncertainty – and the discomfort that arises from it – then it’s a different story, because, unfortunately, uncertainty is the career you chose. You have to learn to be comfortable with it, or work around it.

It helps to remember money is just a means to an end – it’s not a ticket to happiness and fulfillment. So the bigger question is are you happy doing what you do? Does it fulfill you? Can you imagine doing anything else and also feeling fulfilled? This is a bit contentious, because not everyone agrees that your job ought to make you happy and fulfilled. You just have to do what’s right for you, which takes a bit of self-awareness.


11. Connections matter. Galleries tend to stick to artists they know, have heard of, or have dealt with in the past. Unless you’re only applying to (blindly judged) juried shows, merit is not the only factor in whether you’re accepted to participate. A way to increase your chances is to visit galleries often (maybe once every two months), or attending opening receptions of other artists. It’s an opportunity to just get to know the people who work in your field. Another aspect of connections is the second-hand networking: people who know you, recommending your work to their colleagues, acquaintances and friends (some of whom might work in the arts). It’s effective because it comes from a trusted source who isn’t trying to sell them anything.

12. Success won’t happen overnight. Expect to wait a handful of years before you reach financial viability. On average, it takes a new business 3-5 years to become profitable. So treat your art practice like a new business and don’t throw in the towel if by year 2 you’re not where you want to be yet. Patience and optimism help a lot at this stage.

Macro Flowers | Saltwater Birch Studio

On Thursday, I’ll upload the second part of this list of lessons I’ve learned the hard way (there were just too many to fit into one post).