How to Be a Professional Artist: My Top 8 Tips
I quit my terrible day job on a whim in 2004, and haven’t looked back. Here’s what I learned about how to thrive as a full-time artist.
After I quit my job I went to art school for a bit, but then I quit that too. It was clear that I needed to try things my own way. So I did. I tried a great many things, and a lot turned out to be mistakes. After years of struggle, though, I found a level of success and sense of ease as an artist that seemed too good to be true.
Here are my top 8 tips for being a professional artist, in case you want to skip some of the mistakes I went through. I learned these things the hard way, but you don’t have to.
If you feel that you are an artist, you must accept it: you are an artist. Not after you start selling, or after you gain recognition. NOW. To be an artist is a state of being and way of life that requires no external validation. It is older than capitalism and should not be defined by it.
You must also shift your thinking from “I don’t know how to do it” to “how do I do it?” and decide that you will make it happen. You really do need an absolute belief in yourself to make this work. Thanks to the internet, it’s very easy to find examples of successful artists, and the great many ways in which they do it. It can be done, and is often done. You don’t even need to be famous.
2. BE EXCITED
If you’re not excited about your ideas or your work why should anyone else be? Address this on paper by brainstorming the MOST EXCITING things you could create. This excitement will be your motivation to get shit done and your guidance for creating work other people can’t help but love. If you ever lose this excitement, do whatever it takes to get it back.
3. FORGET ABOUT MONEY (FOR NOW)
If money is your main goal, this career is not for you, and I’d suggest finding an easier way. Trying to make the art that will sell the best will kill your creativity and you may start to die a little inside. Instead, focus on finishing your most exciting work and sharing it with people.
4. KNOW YOUR WORTH
Find out how much it costs you to produce work, including materials, education, loans, studio rent, etc. What you charge should pay for all of your expenses AND give you a good living wage. If you live in an expensive area this could be a lot. You’re worth it! You deserve food, shelter, and happiness, right? Find the real value of your work—don’t just copy what random internet people are charging—and be confident about the price you quote when people ask! You honestly can’t afford to undercharge if you want to eat and keep buying art supplies, and doing so perpetuates the undervaluing of all artists in your field.
5. HELP PEOPLE
This gives your work purpose, value, and demand. You can make work that helps people directly—even creating things that just make people happy is a great way to do it. Or you can use your work to raise money for a good cause. I’ve seen people do this through official charity events or personal auctions on places like Twitter. What feels genuinely right for you? Shift your thinking from “how can I sell more work?” to “how can my work help more people?” This will lead to sales, connections, and returned favours naturally, just don’t expect things back from everyone you help. Find causes you are passionate about and help because you want to!
6. RELEASE ALL EXPECTATIONS
EVER. Expectations do not get you results! And they are likely to lead you to disappointment and bitterness. They can be a great wake-up call that you’re doing things for the wrong reasons though. Instead, focus on doing what you love, what most excites you, and helping people. Trust that choosing a positive path will get you positive results! If something you’re doing doesn’t seem to be panning out, it’s okay to move on from it. Focus on moving forward to the next exciting thing, and keep your momentum going.
7. TAKE ONE DAY AT A TIME
Being a full-time artist can be truly terrifying. There will be challenges, uncertainties, and dry spells. When things are tough, the best thing to do is to focus on what you can control that day—take care of yourself, be inspired, make great work, show people, and learn from your experiences. Huge changes very often happen overnight! Remember to be present with your creative self every day, especially when things are tough.
8. BE CREATIVE!
This is far more important than any tactic. If you have a problem, learn how to use your creativity to find an inspired solution. Don’t follow the crowd. Creativity should be your way of life, not just how you make art, so always leave room for inspiration and serendipity. This may sound like a flimsy strategy, but learning how to trust your own creative power and inner guidance is what being an artist is all about!
For more guidance, check out Create Now!: A Systematic Guide to Artistic Audacity. It's an invaluable tool for anyone who wants to build a life as a thriving creative, and keep a copy with you for daily support and inspiration!