Yesterday Alexis Ramos wrote, “I’m impressed that you’ve worked as an artist full time for all of your life. What would you recommend to a young person like me who wants to make a decent living as an artist?”
Thanks, Alexis. Your letter reminded me of something said recently by one of my dealers. I was actually trying to get him to take on a couple of promising young painters. He turned them down. “These artists have not yet ripened, Robert,” he said. “They’re not yet marked for destiny.”
The “destiny” remark was unusual, so I asked him about it. “The artists I believe in are those who eat and sleep their art,” he said. “They compulsively chip away at their statues, and this gives value in both the short and long term. They need to be lifers, like you, Robert.”
I protested that I wasn’t always a lifer. When I was in art school I had the distinct idea that fine art was a sham. Somewhere along the way I somehow fell in love with my art-making process. After that, sham or not, I just had to do it. Sometimes I think I did it because I was incompetent at everything else.
To answer your question Alexis, here are a few ideas:
Know that others have gone where you wish to go.
Put “getting good” ahead of “making a living.”
Learn to be alone and to be your own best critic.
Cut back on impedimenta and outside distractions.
Work more hours than the average factory worker.
Notice interesting directions and go there again.
Become a perpetual student of your own progress.
Don’t expect too much help from anyone or anything.
Stick to your vision, but don’t fear change.
Do not be adverse to developing skills.
Know that raising standards has to be chronic.
Know that marketing is easier when you have quality.
Be curious about everything, including how you turn out.
If you fall in love, accept the gift, surrender.
Thriving is all about self-education. “Go to your room,” is my advice that has had the most significant effect. Funnily, all kinds of would-be lifers somehow neglect to do just that.
PS: “When love and skill work together expect a masterpiece.” (John Ruskin)
Esoterica: “Starving artist” is one of our popular myths. Dentists would starve too if they didn’t know a molar from a bicuspid. Getting into the mode of perpetual self-generated studenthood may not immediately make all of us thrive. The human psyche has too many other frailties for that. But it’s a direction that gives maximum satisfaction — a feeling of personal accomplishment and the possibility of worthwhile public enthusiasm. You can try other directions like spin, shock, extreme narcissism, smoke, mirrors, etc. While some of these may very well work for you, they might also represent the sort of sham that I noticed when I was your age.
Steps to success
by Maxine Price, Wimberley, TX, USA
“Get good, Get unique, Get recognized.” The first thing to do is master the skills of being an artist. Quality is important. Being unique, different or developing a style that is not like anyone else’s is the hardest thing to do. Remember that just being different is not enough — one has the have the quality to go with it. Getting recognized is going to be a lot easier if you are good and unique. I would add, take the risks necessary to get recognized. Enter competitive shows, put your work out there, however you can. Quality and uniqueness will pay off. Although, an artist should never feel that they have “arrived” even if recognition comes your way. Always try to do better than your last creation.
by Vita, Sutton, QC, Canada
I can’t avoid dueling on the text you have sent and the esoterica in particular. If we take this quote seriously we should begin to wonder about the state of contemporary art. Love is a broad word that could indicate either the love for the self or for humanity. Skill has also doubtful meanings since no one seems to go to their room in order to develop it but rather relies on random devices. Currently, we could sarcastically say that the “love” of art is in the hands of those with the manipulative “skill” to fulfill the public hunger by glorifying meaningless abstractions as works of art.
by Linda Blondheim, Gainesville, FL, USA
Being a full time artist means you are driven by your work. It is an obsession. I think the most important thing which has gotten me through all the years is determination. You must be willing to stay the course no matter what the roadblocks are, and there are many. You must be willing to sacrifice a high end life style for a few years too. Creativity is not just on canvas. You must be creative in marketing, budgeting, and time management to succeed in the arts.
by Diana Nicosia, Boston, MA, USA
There is a very good book with material by Matisse Matisse on Art. He wrote it for students so they might understand the life of an artist. I recommend it. I have been supporting myself full time as an artist for most of my adult life. It takes courage to be an artist. However, we have only one life to live so it’s best to live it to your own personal goals and joy.
Live like Jonah in his whale
by Tom Disch, New York, NY, USA
Usually I’m skeptical about power point lists of “Things You Must Do to Succeed,” but your advice for today is truly exemplary. Everything you say is true, not only for the art of painting but for the other arts as well. You must let your Muse eat you alive, like a shark. Then live like Jonah in his whale. Another way of saying, Go to your room, young man, and stay there!
Weighing comfort and passion
by Kathy Gear, Tucson, AZ, USA
In college, after being told that I would never make my living as an artist, I wanted to go into the theater. I interviewed with the director of the department who asked me if I liked to eat three meals a day. When I said yes, he advised me to go into science and not theater. I was so disappointed that I burst into tears. But perhaps he saw the lack of determination to pursue theater at the expense of my then standard of living as a precursor of future failure in the field. Had I truly wanted theater or art badly enough, I would not have thought about a “decent living,” I would have starved to be in the field I thought I desired. I’ve made a “living” in science but have finally come back to art, but without the expectation of being able to retire on it. I’ve lost too many years of practice.
Only so much to put out
by Wafa Daya-Tarrab, Long Beach, CA, USA
As a mother, artist, and a wife I feel pulled, stretched and torn in so many different directions other than the one I want to pursue the most, so I can understand very well your advice to Alexis and wish I can spend the time that I like doing my art, because that’s when I find my true calling and forget my self and time and all… But reality and practicality of my life only allows me to spend as little time to do so, since my daughter requires a lot of care and supervision. I often feel torn between my responsibilities as a mother for a young lady with special needs that by itself gives me so much to put out there… and puts a hold on me as well.
There is 1 comment for Only so much to put out by Wafa Daya-Tarrab
by Laura Culic, Toronto, ON, Canada
I love reading your letters, and your advice is the best — except I think you missed the mark in your response to Alexis Ramos. Everything you advised is true, but what you neglected to mention is that the Dentist would also starve if no one knew he had a practice. He has to advertise — he has to let people know he exists. To become a successful artist, one also needs to get out there. Alexis, and anyone else who wants to earn their living this way should also make an effort to:
Apply for juried exhibitions held by art societies.
Apply for juried exhibitions/sales (such as Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition)
Attend above mentioned exhibitions, sales, shows, whether you got accepted or not.
Apply for membership in Art societies, whether local or national.
Go to the galleries.
Apply to local art groups as an instructor, or offer painting demos.
Apply for an artists’ grant, residency, etc.
In other words, pit your work — your very best — against that of other artists. View your work with a critical eye — how does it stand up? It is very difficult to develop that critical eye if you are utterly self-absorbed, working alone in your studio. And admittedly, its also very scary to put your art — your heart and soul — out there, on the line, to be judged by others. But its necessary. This is a passion, but its also a business. And don’t give up.
Finding motivation and conviction
by Jacqueline Wood, Memphis, TN, USA
I have been “into” Art, and guiltily considered myself an Artist since I was a child. But I feel that I have been somewhat of a traitor to the trade. I have allowed the noise of life to distract me from things that I would love to get done, and have sorely lacked the drive and motivation to force myself to be what I truly desire to be on the inside. I know it’s easy to do this because there are so many things we can use as an excuse to “do this later” or “maybe I’ll paint next weekend. ” You stated in the letter that even you had not always been a “lifer” — How so, and what events in your life led up to your becoming a “lifer” and what prevented you from being so before? As well, have you ever struggled with motivation and conviction?
(RG note) Thanks, Jacqueline. As a young person, seeing poor work gain ascendancy and good work stand neglected tended to discourage my participation in the game of art. Working privately and to my own standards, and building a bit of confidence, I gradually fell in love with my own art activity. This love story turned me into a committed lifer. I’ve never had much of a problem with motivation because I’ve always been curious as to how things might turn out and if I might improve.
by Jennie Rosenbaum, Springvale, Australia
Creating definitely is a compulsion — it’s like an addiction and I suffer withdrawal if I am stuck without it. It’s fun to watch the journey, I often feel that I am outside the person painting and watching somewhat bemusedly — it’s hard to reconcile that person with myself. One part of your letter that stuck out for me was being our own ‘best critic’ — I am definitely my worst. I frequently fly into a rage or a depression over my work. While that feeling helps me work harder and harder and learn more and more, sometimes it is crushing. I would love to learn more about becoming my own best critic — or to at least stop beating up on myself quite so much. It’s that which most gets in the way of my development.
(RG note) Thanks, Jennie. With a bit of self-delusion you can develop two personas, two egos. One knows exactly what she’s doing, and the other thinks she’s hopeless. It’s a beat up, yes, but both amusing and productive when you understand it’s a game.
Art-making as a profession
by Dustin Curtis, Decatur, AL, USA
Sometimes it’s hard for us artists to accept that we need to work hard, for many years possibly, to get to where we want to get. That’s the way it is in any “business,” and if we want and need to make a living as an artist we are in “business.” Nobody starts out at the top in any endeavor, but for some reason many artists, including myself, have the idea that we should start at the top. It’s a true saying that we have to pay our dues, and I think that’s what you mean when you say, “go to your room.” Why should it be any different for us than it is for other people in other professions? If an artist doesn’t like the word profession, then that artist is most likely not trying to make a living from their art, and that’s ok. But if we’re interested in making a living, we need to approach it as a profession.
Motivation must be internally driven
by Luann Udell, Keene, NH, USA
Years ago, I was board president for a small start-up non-profit group, whose mission statement was to support small craft and farm producers in our state. I was just getting started myself, and it seemed like a good fit — I could learn and help others along the way. It seemed to be a great cause, too — helping fledgling artists and small businesses get on their feet and in the door. I was surprised to find that some people were not as impressed with the venture as I was. Why not? I asked them. Well, they said, no one had helped them when they were first starting out. But they agreed that sounded kind of selfish. In the end, they felt that there was no such thing as a free lunch. Either you had the gumption to get where you were going, or you didn’t. You either believed in your art or your business, or you didn’t. You were either willing to work hard, against all odds, because it was that important to you, or you weren’t. I felt they were being harsh, and they said maybe.
A year later, I returned to them and said, “You were right.” I realized that, odd as it seems, too much encouragement early on can be just as deadly to a new venture as not enough encouragement. You can spend a lot of time supporting someone/something that isn’t really that committed to the process. You can waste a lot of energy on folks who aren’t really in it for the long haul. Sometimes it’s just a matter of that person finding their stride on their own terms in their own good time. Sometimes people head so far down one path (that isn’t right for them), it’s almost impossible for them to turn it around and start over. Too much “help” at the wrong time doesn’t do anyone any good.
(RG note) Thanks, Luann. My friend Egbert Oudendag used to say, “The best way to help artists is to hinder them.” Needless to say he didn’t care for grants, scholarships, sinecures, tenures, residencies, or any form of free lunch.
by Cleah Bunting, ON, Canada
What would you say about artists taking sabbaticals? For an artist to discover what they need — in order to create, a year somewhere out in the middle of nowhere.
As a full time practitioner in the arts I discovered that I needed to get away and went to a remote small town where I thought I would be left alone to discover a voice all my own. However I realized that was not true–people were constantly going out of their way to make comments, suggestions and worse manipulate my situation. I had made a conscious decision to not get involved in any relationships to just devote a full year to my craft — sans gallery, sans family, sans my own demons. I needed to work on shapes, contours, speed, brush stokes, application of paint — to me I seemed very busy. I unfortunately suffered major consequences for this — the town could not understand why I wasn’t with anyone — I became strange, my persona developed around rumors. For example: that I talked to myself, I was gay, I was a man (I am a woman), I was poor, I was stupid, I was rich, I was crazy, and so on. I became sick, dizzy, anxiety ridden — emotions came out of me that I had previously been protected from experiencing while I was at school. Thoughts of Matisse, Emily Carr and Picasso all doing the same thing. Were they subject to such society scrutiny? I realized the importance of an artist carving out a niche where they are able to create — but also to have people around them who protect them when they are at their strongest or weakest in their career.
(RG note) Thanks, Cleah. Sounds like an excellent setting for a Stephen King novel. They might have burned you as a witch. Maybe some women treat women that way, but women can be wonderfully supportive of others as well. I’m a believer in new environments, buckling down privately and finding out what the self-anointed sabbatical can offer. Try another town.
Make art or make money
by Skip Rohde, Asheville, NC, USA
When young people ask me that question, I ask them, “Do you want to make a living? Or do you want to make art?” If you’re an artist for life, you’re making works that appeal to you, not necessarily the public. If you’re making a living, you’re making works that, of necessity, appeal to the public. Along the way, an artist for life will find the right places to market the works. Hopefully it will generate enough income to at least pay the studio bills and maybe make a decent living. This may take many years. I’m not there yet, but I will be. If you’re focusing on making a living, you take note of what work in your medium is selling well, and you make stuff like that. You put the desires of the marketplace in front of your own. A lot of artists do this, do it well, and enjoy it. The artist just starting out needs to think about which way they’re going to go. It’s a fundamental decision to the way they approach art.
Painting for pure joy
by Jane Champagne, Southampton, ON, Canada
Last week, for the first time in 11 months, I went out to paint. I went to a favourite, private place I had painted before, and produced the best painting I’ve done in years. Being ill for so long seems to have eliminated any remaining thoughts of pleasing people — clients, family, friends — or vestigial “shoulds” or any of the other old habits that get in the way, and I painted with pure joy, for the love of it. All that love for life and gratitude for being alive flowed through the brush — I really can’t describe the experience, just that it was unique.
by Bob Rennie, White Rock, BC, Canada
My ophthalmologist has suggested that I have a corneal transplant along with a lens replacement because of cataracts. He tells me that this surgery will significantly improve my vision, but will take about one year of recovery. I have talked to a senior friend who has had replacements in both eyes. Indeed his vision has improved once he overcame some double vision, but he tells me that his eyes are still very light sensitive. Naturally I am concerned how this will affect my ability to paint. I am wondering if there are other artists who have had the surgery and could comment.
Push to move forward
by Cara Bevan
Your letter “Artist for Life” has really shed a light on my own life. I’m 19 and I wish to pursue a career in art as a wildlife painter. I’ve always created art and spent every waking moment honing my skills while I was in high school (which means I had few friends but art enthusiasts like me.) I’m a rarity of the art world I think — I’m a neat freak and a perfectionist! I’ve taught myself most of my techniques and until recently I’ve discovered that some people dislike the extreme realism my art. Sometimes I wonder if I’m really ready for the art world, even though many of people that view my work say that I could be the next big thing. Anyway, your letter has inspired me to press onward despite the criticism people have of younger artists. Thank you so very much for lighting a well needed fire in a young heart!
The role of the dealer
by Alexis Ramos
Thank you for responding to my letter. I have read your letter several times and I find your advice practical and helpful. I will keep a copy of it. After reading the story about your dealer I wondered what the criteria of a dealer is in deciding who is ready for “destiny.” Is it hard work and quality of work only? And, at what point and why does a dealer become the decision maker concerning the life of an artist? Thank you again for including my letter as part of your twice-weekly letters. I hope my questions served to lighten the path for many artists out there.
Making the cut
by Thangamma Cariappa, Indonesia
I can second what Alexis Ramos wrote about the uncertainty of being an artist but to a further degree. Having doodled freely as a child, I had fun creating jewellry from washers, stones and bottle caps and making book marks to supplement my allowance in college but I have never taken the plunge to study art. However, the dream to become an artist surfaces now and again. After 12 years I did apply to an art school but failed to impress my panel of judges at the third and most crucial round of the gruelling entrance exam. I was asked to describe the emotion I felt in creating a red, black and white abstract in crayon and I said I wasn’t sure what I was thinking! The woman on the panel continued to coax me, urging, “Were you sad, angry or did you have a fight with someone?” I told her that I was glad that my drawing evoked certain emotion in her. She was evidently unimpressed.
Disheartened I got a bachelor’s degree in communication, psychology and English literature. However expression through colour and charcoal have been a constant. Yesterday, I viewed an old friends exhibition of a collection she has been putting together for 2 years. I came home and put pen to paper relentlessly. How important is discipline in pursuit of art? Today I’m back to nurturing my artisitic and creative pursuits. I recently quit my job. I’m 22 years old and have my entire life ahead of me. How do I know it is the right career choice to make? 4 years in art school seems daunting… Am I good enough? That is the internal debate. My work has always been deeply personal and apart for a few near and dear ones they have been kept well shielded from people’s gazes. But I guess the journey of self exploration and discovery is worth it and wallowing in an array of different colours would be a better alternative to the uncertainty of not ever finding out. A friend said “wasted potential is the worst thing in this world.” So today I have to make some choices and the hunt for an art school begins! Hope I make the cut…
Enjoy the past comments below for Artist for life…
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Tisha Rose of Hampton, VA, USA who wrote, “Robert, You rock! Do you ever sleep?”
And also Johannes Vloothuis who wrote, “Gosh I like your dealer. He is right! You need to make art your top priority. Although, I say if you don’t go outdoors to paint you will always be mediocre.”
And also Lynn Coleman who wrote, “You can tell your dealer that individuals that eat, drink, and sleep their art are not only mentally ill (obsessive compulsive) but very selfish individuals.”
And also Anne Cooper who wrote, “I must point out that being marked for destiny is often eclipsed by becoming a parent. There is no time to go to one’s room.”
And also Bruce Meyer of Arlington, MA, USA who wrote, “‘Go to your room’ is a little like ‘apply butt to chair.’ Good advice for everyone.”
And also Barbara Fracchia who wrote, “I really wonder about these promising ‘young’ artists. Do you know how many good artists out there are promising ‘older’ artists. When are these people going to get wise to the fact it doesn’t matter how old one is because we are ALL promising artists.”
And also Carol Nelson of Aurora, CO, USA who wrote, “Your advice to Alexis was fantastic. I only wish someone had told me that 40 years ago.”
And also Kittie Beletic of Dallas, TX, USA who wrote, “Funny how you paint and write and sing and stitch and one day, you look up, and you’re a lifer! What a wonderful state of being!”
And also Don Bryant of Johannesburg, South Africa who wrote, “Your advice would apply to most every other pursuit in life.”