Artist for life


Dear Artist,

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?”

Los Tres Músicos Acrylic on canvas 20 x 16 inches by Alexis Ramos Mejia

Los Tres Músicos
Acrylic on canvas
20 x 16 inches
by Alexis Ramos-Mejia

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.

In Harris' Land Acrylic on panel 30 x 30 inches by Alexis Ramos-Mejia

In Harris’ Land
Acrylic on panel
30 x 30 inches
by Alexis Ramos-Mejia

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.

The Forgotten King Acrylic on canvas boards 16 x 20 inches by Alexis Ramos-Mejia

The Forgotten King
Acrylic on canvas boards
16 x 20 inches
by Alexis Ramos-Mejia

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.

Best regards,


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.

This letter was originally published as “Artist for life” on July 23, 2007

“I believe art is a powerful language, a way of communicating that can be used to its highest potential if it is practised selflessly.” (Alexis Ramos-Mejia) 



  1. Patricia G Pope on

    Many of us working at Art are also raising children, keeping house, and many other things. What a luxury it would be if only we lived, ate, breathed doing our art. I enjoyed The Painter’s Keys take on this. Thank-you, Patricia

    • philippa hajdu on

      I was thinking exactly that ! it’s often so much easier for a man to become a fulltime artist……homemaking can be a full time job leaving little time or energy for anything else.

    • irene plummer on

      Patricia, this is true. Grace Hartigan made the choice of giving up her child to her parents in order to fully dedicate herself to art. She knew she couldn’t do both, as most men do not have to even consider doing. Most women with children would not be willing to make that choice.

  2. I agree to that , I’ m living my dream ! That was 10 years ago , while working FT , my dream is keep on creating and have a web site to show my art around the world. To all my fellow Artist , Don’t give up !
    Most importantly keep that creativity flow .

  3. I’m 67 years old. I’ve been an artist my whole life but did not always make art full time. I chose to build another career as an art therapist. In my late 20s after art school I had ambitions to further my learning and art practice but I needed to pay the rent. I kept painting and sometimes showing my work the best I could. It’s not always within an artist’s control whether they can be successful in the marketplace. In the 70s, 80s, and even recently women and artists of color have faced discrimination as artists. Now that I retired from being a therapist I’m living my dream of being a full time artist. That hasn’t resulted in gallery representation or recognition despite my efforts at marketing. I’m learning to accept that for me being a fulfilled artist might not mean being a commercially successful artist. I often regret not having stuck with art all along as that may have resulted in greater success and more mature paintings. It’s not helpful to think that way. Artists can and do get exposure later in life. I think artists develop their work and practice in different ways. Encouraging young artists to work a lot makes sense, but they can also be encouraged to live life to their greatest potential whether that means being a life-long artist or not.

  4. There are so many ways geniuses have paid the bills. Michelangelo painted the Sistine Ceiling while dreaming about his passion, sculpture. The Pope was paying the bills. Many artists paid the bills with portraits of the rich and famous, and then the camera came along, winnowing out all but the best. Landscape painters fill vacation houses with landscapes, and then some for their condos in the city as well. Teaching is a wonderful way to think about art all the time, pays the bills, but studio time must be carved out as well. Parenthood? It feeds the muse, and kids do nap.

    Don’t hide your light under a bushel. Share what you do in any way you can. My muse is the most active when I’m actually making stuff. So go make stuff and then figure out what to do with it.

  5. Robert’s advice is perfect. I don’t regret putting painting after the things I needed to do first, like being Mom/wife/daughter/multitasked volunteer, in my younger days. That was all part of my path. Art is about our life, where we’ve been, where we are now, our own story. I painted at night and I still do, and that’s okay. I have a gallery who encourages me and gives me the goal to produce good work. I wish I could bang them out on an assembly line setting, but I can’t. I paint everyday, tho, it keeps me sane. I guess Robert would consider me a lifer :)

  6. I am a lifer too. I paint to keep me sane. Often I wish I could make enough to pay for my expenses, nevertheless I will continue to paint. As a wife, mother, grandmother, among a few other things I realize I have put people before financial success. Finances are only one way to measure success. Looking at my present accomplishments I am thrilled to be able to continue to paint. I live in abundance and joy. What better success is there?

  7. In the 70’s I lived in a small mountain community full of creative people. My husband worked with a fellow neighbor who had 9 children and they all lived in a small chalet-type house. The mother of these children was an artist who didn’t let anything stop her from painting. When the youngest child, a baby, was napping, she would sit on the floor in the bedroom and prop up her canvas against the back of a chair and work on her oil painting whenever she had time. She entered her painting in the Three Rivers Art Show in Pittsburgh, PA, which was about two hours from where we lived. Her painting was of one of the big steel mills in Pittsburgh, and it was bought by the owner of that steel mill and was proudly hung in their corporate boardroom!

  8. Shushana Caplan on

    I am a lifer too. But I did it all. I married, adopted two beautiful boys and worked full time as an art teacher. I kept painting through the years, learning, experimenting, developing. At 72, after I had retired from regular teaching, I received an invitation to exhibit my last series of paintings at a museum in Florida. At 82, I have just finished showing this body of work for the fifth time in my home town, Montreal, Quebec, Canada,to much acclaim. Although I have sold other paintings through the years, I’ve never sold a single painting in this series. Despite that, I consider it my most significant achievement to date. It documents the history of my family as Holocaust survivors who were sent to Siberia during World War ll.
    We are not all meant to survive by the work of our brush. There are other ways to put food on the table. We persist because we must, and if we are lucky and if we are good enough something meaningful and satisfying may come of it. Carry on carrying on and enjoy the journey.

  9. Thanks for this great post! I’ve always said being an artist is not what I do, it’s who I am. I began in commercial art in the pre-digital age. Like many women artists, I married, raised two children, returned to college to study Visual Art & Healing, found a mentor, taught classes, worked with non-profit groups supporting the arts, etc. I began my studio painting practice when I was 43. It was 10 years before I had a solid body of work or could imagine earning a living as an abstract painter. As my mentor said to me, the only person who has to believe in your work is you, others will follow.

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