Going pro


Dear Artist,

Steve Koch of Clackamas, Oregon wrote, “Wondering if you might write on what it takes to go from being an amateur to being a professional. My dad was an independent businessman — if he didn’t get going, it wouldn’t get done. How to break the glass ceiling from one level to another? I know it’s not just “hard work” — ‘cause I have been doing that all my life. I was just introduced to Steven Pressfield’s book, “Turning Pro,” but I believe it was written for writers. How about some advice for painters?”


“Tribute 21: Retroactive I”
1963 collage, oil & silkscreen ink
by Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008)

Thanks, Steve. In his 2012 manual, Turning Pro, Steven Pressfield offers a jump-start list:

“Habits and qualities that the professional possesses that the amateur doesn’t:

“The professional shows up every day.
The professional stays on the job all day.
The professional is committed over the long haul.
For the professional, the stakes are high and real.”


“Statue of Liberty”
1983 lithograph collage on silkscreen
by Robert Rauschenberg

Here are a few additions for the painter:

The professional is on a first-name basis with his materials.
The professional moves toward mastery through work and earned experience.
The professional’s painting is recognizable as his own.
The professional grits his way through difficulty, self-doubt, rejection and reinvention.
The professional self-validates privately through good work.
The professional finishes, titles, signs and shows.
The professional is honest in his unique vision.
The professional neither complains nor explains.
The professional surrounds himself with other professionals with complementary skills.
The professional understands that failure and success are the ebb and flow of a life committed to art.


“Bicycle, National Gallery”
1992 foil print limited edition
“You can’t make either life or art, you have to work in the hole in between, which is undefined. That’s what makes the adventure of painting.” (Robert Rauschenberg)



PS: “Turning pro is like kicking a drug habit or stopping drinking. It’s a decision, a decision to which we must re-commit every day.” (Steven Pressfield)

Esoterica: In the story arc of all transformations, something must die in order for something else to be born — your transformation involves a similar sacrifice. Begin with understanding the death or deaths that must occur — security, title, distraction, the expectations of others or fear — and let them go. Commit to a year with no other income — save up for it, if necessary. As for moving between glass ceilings, explore the routes of those whose trajectories you admire. Crystallize the specific stages of your desired professional path. Plan and work your tailor-made moves with creative truth as your goal. A daily — an hourly — commitment to making better work is the burning centre. Memorize your route to streamline inappropriate tangents, troublesome working relationships or repeated, unpleasant lessons. “The hero wanders. The hero suffers. The hero returns. You are that hero.” (Steven Pressfield)


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“The professional does not wait for inspiration; he acts in anticipation of it. (Steven Pressfield)



  1. I think- more than anything- that the professional believes in him/herself and the work that is being created. Unfortunately- within the context of my not/traditional fiber medium- I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve been in where an uncountable number of persons couldn’t even decide if they actually are artists. I just feel sorry for them- as that question never even came up for me. But even more unfortunately- are those who just have to keep taking another class- or attending another workshop- or feel the need to learn another new technique- as if those situations/things will somehow make them more original. Our society does not award originality- it awards compliance. Growth is necessary- ongoing and endless- but until you stop seeking external growth and fully commit to your own internal connections and inspiration- you will never achieve your full actual potential. Of course- that takes time-and both guts and balls- because you have to be able to pick yourself up off the floor after an occasional crash and burn- and keep going- because you’ve realized no one but you can make you do anything.

    • Wonderful reminders to consider we have it innately in our soul to create. Artists. I have always been an artist. I am.
      Now to trust and quit seeking improvement .

    • Congratulations on calling yourself an artist, I am a Fibre Artist from New Zealand who has won many awards for my work, one recently accepted into the Houston Quilt Show . The hours we spend creating in fabric are endless, but it is yet another journey towards using our creative skills to express the feelings within, yet the value placed on these art works is minimal and considered a lower form of Art. compared to other mediums, this is reflected on the price people pay for , wonderful comments. thankyou Kathleen Burford

    • Great to read your upbeat, encouraging, and realistic comments, J Bruce. On this forum, your tenacity is indeed evident and to be applauded. Thank-you for you input as an adjunct to Sara’s wonderful piece.

    • Nancy Scoble on

      Many of those taking class after class, workshop after workshop, are not aiming to become an artist. They look to the community for company. Sharing photos of grandchildren or their recent vacation may indicates they can ,yes, afford the supplies yet, still have an extremely hard time answering the question…. Are you an artist? It’s as if it’s been beaten out of them to even consider it is a part of the equation. We cook, sleep, laugh, and create breakfast biscuits perhaps, but heaven help ya if ya declare, “I’m an artist.” It’s as if the word has shame attached to it. I’ve been to enough gatherings to feel this is not random.

  2. Mary Manning on

    Lots of deaths this year, especially seeking approval, becoming a slave to be a do-goodie two shoes, and the courage to follow a strong energy and passion running between brain and gut. Keeping that courage alive is the hardest part for me, like reviving a campfire after a sudden rainstorm. But it is working, because new opportunities are knocking, and experimenting continues without slavishly taking the next workshop or seeking outside approval. This is the hardest lesson to learn!

  3. Thanks for this timely article. Our local arts discussion group have battled with the “professional” definition a number of times. Your article looks at it from a different perspective. Sharing on our group’s FB page.

  4. yes…..I am getting pro at keeping pro – the new site is to offset my Mother’s last days on earth at 90. HOMEWORK is rewarding and helpful – and easy to do when grief or injury make it not possible to be “takin’ it to the streets”. Hope you like it stop in for a quick look. elle

  5. Ole Pathfinder on

    Congratulations to those who have the “chutzpah” to strive to go pro. If I am fortunate, I will never sell any of my obviously modest work, I don’t need to, I don’t want to, and so, I have to satisfy only one customer, the guy behind the brush. Having made such a bold, maybe obnoxious, statement, I must confess that if any person was ever foolish enough to offer me money for one of my works, pride would probably compel me to accept. I am at least as human as the next guy.

    I do question whether we can actually “decide” to go pro. It seems to me to be more of a process of becoming until one day you discover that you are. For most of us it seems like a – don’t quit your day job – situation.

  6. Great letter Sara . you sound a lot like your dad . My first rule as a professional artist , is to BUDGET , after that , paint like there is no tomorrow . Never doubt your motives , and learn to be your worst critic . , as your dad once said , get so good that your work has to be noticed .

  7. After nearly six decades as a pro, this advice: Learn to ride an economic roller-coaster. There are good times and
    not-so-good-times. Add to that…When times are good, don’t spend it all right away. If some is left after necessities, invest in the future…save some. That works if you’re committed. The younger you are the better this advice is. Time is on your side. In tough economic times, don’t panic. And when it comes to your art, all of the advice in this letter is good. Mostly it means KEEP WORKING!

  8. Professionalism as an artist requites much of ourselves but I believe need not be a lonely thing as I once thought. Working on professionalism in my work as on going goal seems to fuel further production and seek professional relationships. It takes time, patience and hard work as any good endeavour does.
    Thanks for the good advice Sara and all the posted comments. Now let’s go and paint!

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  10. Douglas Newman on

    My advice. Keep going to the well. Always have trust that you will know or discover what to do.
    Take a big bucket.

    Thank you for continuing your father’s wonderful legacy. He would be very proud.

  11. You become a pro by acting like one. You are a pro when you know you are an artist, regardless of whether things are going well with your art or not. You are a pro when you do a good piece and don’t stop there, but keep working toward some hidden goal. You are a pro when you realize you paint because you have something to add to the artistic conversation,k, a conversation which keeps going always, and to which we add occasional points of interest. You are a pro when you take ownership for your ideas and let them stand on their own in the market of art and time.

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