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).



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