Turning pro


Dear Artist,

Many of the letters that come my way are from artists trying to make the transition from amateur to professional. In this “feel-good” age where freedom reigns, the road is muddy. Amateurism is mistrusted. In medicine, for example, one does not usually entrust a broken arm to a witch doctor. In the arts the equivalent is done every day. There is historical precedent. Admired bright lights such as Gauguin, Van Gogh and Cezanne proceeded in their amateur ways. Many of the stars continue to be reassessed. “Cezanne,” said William Blake Richmond, “mistook his profession. He should have been a butcher.”

In the here and now professional qualities are noted and admired. Professionals, it seems, are people gifted with an extreme willingness to buckle down. They access books, mentors, workshops, and other professionals to learn the standards required. They work their craft and seek ever higher levels of proficiency. Intuitively they know that quality wins. This understanding reaches to the materials they use and the ideas they generate. It’s inside this “sense for quality” where they find their meaning and purpose. Here you also see steadiness, passion, love of process and a philosophic outlook. A central ego-force drives the pros. While they may be self-absorbed, they are not usually selfish. They may be messy but their attitudes are tidy. They may be fully loaded with abilities and techniques, but they’re open to the new.

The professionals I know have a special understanding and an intimate relationship with time. It’s respect — not just for working time, but private time and the knowledge of their own spans of creative power and efficiency. Very often pros will work regular hours — whether they feel like it or not — and they can go to work when times are not so hot. Pros keep their shops.

More than anything professionals have trained themselves to get started and to keep at it — which would go for Gauguin, Van Gogh and Cezanne as well. Pros know how to light their own fires even when fuel is wet and a cruel wind is blowing. Their self-containment and self-reliance become so wondrous to behold that regular people can become confused and suspicious.

Best regards,


PS: “Professionalism is knowing how to do it, when to do it, and doing it.” (Frank Tyger)

Esoterica: You can tell professionals by how they touch their materials. Quality stretched canvas, for example, or quality watercolour paper, trumps canvas boards and construction paper. But even stretched canvas doesn’t always cut it these days. With so many amateurs and hobby painters out there, canvases are manufactured down to a price. Pros are fussy. They feel the goods. Canvases or kumquats, because pros make high demands on themselves, they tend to make high demands on everything else.


Getting the good stuff
by Gene Black, Anniston, AL, USA


“Franklin Gorge”
acrylic painting, 22 x 33 inches
by Gene Black

When I started painting I used cheap goods and my work was obviously amateur. A wonderful friend and art mentor convinced me to take a workshop and to use good materials. Buying a few expensive brushes was painful and I did it with a grimace. Within a week of getting “the good stuff” I discovered that the cheap stuff just makes for harder work and lesser results. I, too, feel the goods. There is joy in feeling the bristles of a quality brush, seeing the richness and lush color of truly good pigment flowing onto the paper or canvas. It even feels better going on the surface. I learned early to stay open to the new, to experiment even when I know another way to do it. I joined an experimental painters’ society which helps me to embrace innovative techniques. We have to remember that if some of the greats had followed the traditional ways we would be missing so much fine art.


No fall-back career
by Jean Wilson, Des Moines, KY, USA

You left out the one thing that I have observed makes a huge difference in the success of artists who manage to make a living with their art. This includes all forms of art, especially the performers. Those of us who never learned another job end up doing art. It is all we have ever known. Those who work at establishing a fall-back career inevitably fall back and that is where they end up. Those of us who had to sell art or starve managed to make it. The funny thing is listening to the people who envy our position and attribute the success to some God-given talent. I always make a point of reminding them that the reason I have a career in art is because my parents allowed me to major in painting. They did not insist that I get a fall-back career in art-ed or graphic design.


Amateurs have it made
by Melinda Cooper, Monticello, FL, USA

I would love to make the transition from professional to amateur. All the hobby artists I know do exactly what they want, when they want, from the heart — and not to pay the mortgage. It’s too late for me now, I have no other job skills. I’m planning on being a hobby artist in my next life.


Buying himself fame
by Larry Lovett, North Shore, HI, USA

I know an artist who plans to start a museum for all of his unsold “masterpieces.” He now pays thousands of dollars per year just to store his huge collection of gigantic paintings. The result of more than 20 years of effort. He is like Van Gogh in one way — no one buys his pictures. He is not at all famous, or even notorious, and yet he feels that he ought to be. He has money to burn. To date he has spent nearly 1 million U.S. dollars promoting himself. He has written books about his work, had shows in dozens of cities all over the world. He poses with celebrities and sends out press releases. He has several agents and he networks with a whole host of artists who also are looking for their big break. This has been going on for several decades and still he is not famous. He has become quite agitated about this perceived “unfairness.” His belief seems to be that he has “paid his dues” by investing so much money into his art career. He is profoundly disillusioned. How far should an artist go in promoting himself and his own work? At what point does marketing turn into vanity and self-assertion?

(RG note) Thanks, Larry. Delusions of grandeur are not uncommon in our game. Often, the poorer the work — the greater the delusion. It sounds like your friend’s work is neither collectable nor currently suitable for public galleries. But one would have to see the work in order to pass such a lofty judgment on a fellow artist. While what he is doing is indeed based on vanity, to some degree we are all guilty of getting the cart before the horse. But it’s safe to say that most artists love the process more than the promotion — and this characteristic goes a long way in the business of being legitimately discovered.


Day job does it
by Jim Webb, West Chester, PA, USA

Being a professional artist and making a living by one’s art is one of the most daunting, challenging experiences one could take on. As you state in your letter, self reliance and staying the course is the key to increasing the odds of success. High on the list of being a professional artist is knowing your craft. What’s helped me through all the years to stay the course has been my willingness to have a day job not related to the arts. I’ve also found that not joining any artist cooperatives, charities or political activist groups is important in keeping one’s career clean. I practice my art as a plein air painter, mostly in oils. In the sea of artists, I’m finally getting some recognition. Beside the recognition, actually making some money makes it all worthwhile.


The eternal student
by Stella Violano, Thousand Oaks, CA, USA


“Winter Song”
oil painting, 8 x 10 inches
subject study for a large gallery painting
by Stella Violano

I belong to a group of professional artists who meet weekly to share knowledge, critique each others work and paint. Many of these artists are my mentors and have flourishing careers and very high standards for themselves and their work. They have a reputation for perfection and their work is sought by galleries and collectors alike. A quote that is often repeated in the open studio is “Do not ever let a work leave the studio that you would not want to be remembered by.” These mentors who know so much are constantly learning and expanding on their knowledge. Regardless of how successful they are or how well known they have become they still seek one another out for opinions and enjoy learning while watching others paint. We are all eternal students — and this may be one of the keys to success.



Lifetime of experimentation
by Don Campbell, Renton, WA, USA

I am trying to learn all that I can, taking the classes and workshops. I fiddle with this and that. I read how other people do their art and try it out myself. Use photos or not. Grab ideas from the photos. Sit in Starbucks and sketch people as they come and go. I create sculptures based on people I’ve seen and then sketch from the sculptures. I spend hours every day as I go through my routines thinking of art and how something can be done. I combine things and remove, but I have very few completed projects. As time goes on, a few more things are getting done, but still, very little. I see being an artist is a lifetime of learning and experimenting. I guess at this point I’m doing more experimenting than producing. Is being a professional artist the learning and stretching of your boundaries or is it the making of lots of finished pieces and then selling them?


Selling on eBay
by Connie Tom, Willard, MO, USA


“Fishing the Hudson River”
oil painting, 16 x 20 inches
by Connie Tom

I appreciate you sharing your insight into the real, live issues that we artists face everyday. I want so much to make the transformation into the professional league. I am not in any gallery and I am my sole means of support, so I sell my art on eBay, which is not maybe the most prestigious way, but it does bring in somewhat of a regular income. I paint because I have to paint and want to paint, because that’s what I love to do. I have been doing studies of many of the Hudson River School artists, Albert Bierstadt, being my very favorite of all times. Also, Cole, Cropsey and Church, Durand, Gifford, and the others as well. I really like all their work.


Man’s highest acclaim
by Leonard Niles, Grimsby, England

How narrow minded and even complex, ‘be it so wonderful’ has the modern world of art become, it appears to be an enclosed market place presented for financial gain that seems paramount to the hierarchy of elitists who have somehow ascended to a higher plain far above the rest of us, has if placed there by some divine hand who then proceeded to establish rules of correctness and goals, that the rest of us must aspire to. Professionalism apposed to Amateurism, Achievers opposed to Non-achievers. Painters who find time to criticise other painters because they somehow believe that other artistic effort did not match up to their own, that somehow it is inferior and childlike.

What audacity has ‘William Blake Richmond’ to suggest that Cezanne mistook his profession and should have been a butcher? Did Cezanne know he wasn’t being professional? I suspect he thought he was a painter. Cezanne is a part of this wonderful, creative tapestry that we are all privileged to be a part of and are able to contribute to.

No one has the right to classify Van Gogh as an amateur. Here in Britain one seldom hears the word ‘Professional’ attributed to a painter. We have a wonderful pre-fix, ‘Accomplished,’ literally meaning he/she has arrived. There are no recognised parameters which segregate the artistic fraternity into different groups apart from their chosen subjects. Some might misguidedly imagine that painting is a profession — imagining themselves to be the pinnacle. However such criteria could not be applied to prisoners who, being confined in their cells, discovered they had hidden, artistic talent they didn’t even know they had — and suddenly found their work on public display.

As for the quality of materials used by the elite, L. S. Lowry, the English artist, painted on dissected, cardboard boxes from the local store. Did the cave-men who painted on the cave walls know about professionalism?

The world of art is self-perpetuating; it is a vibrant, wonderful, pulsating entity (man’s highest acclaim) enclosing all its individuality, and it will go on for generations to come and others in turn will contribute to it without the aid of rules based on Idealism or Ideology.



“Coming out of School”
oil painting
by L. S. Lowry (1887-1976)


“Venus and Anchises”
oil painting
by William Blake Richmond


“Large Bathers”
oil painting
by Paul Cezanne







Reference to Cezanne
by Tiit Raid, Fall Creek, WI, USA


Sir William Blake Richmond

I enjoy reading your stuff but in your recent writing about “Turning Professional” you include a comment by William Blake Richmond about Cezanne, “he should have been a butcher.” Who the hell is William Blake Richmond? And, why would you include it in your writing? Unless you have some agreement with “William Blake” concerning Cezanne’s work. Very disappointing! I’ll continue to read you, but there will be that “grain-of-salt” festering in the back of my mind as I do. Does this guy really know what he’s talking about?

(RG note) Thanks, Tiit. Sir William Blake Richmond (1842-1921) was a respected painter, sculptor and medalist whose lifetime paralleled Cezanne’s. He was best known for ambitious Classical scenes. Everyone is entitled to an opinion. Richmond was no relation to the English artist and writer William Blake. For those who might wonder where I lay my hands on comments such as that one — I get most of them from our own Resource of Art Quotations. It’s by far the largest art quote supply anywhere — and it’s totally the work of volunteers to this Painter’s Keys site.


Professionalism and enduring legacy
by Teresa Hitch


“After the Storm”
original painting, 30 x 34 inches
by Teresa Hitch

The idealism you expressed is the essence of what I strive for. Quality, to me, is fundamental. However, what of the concept of “professionalism”? While I share your beliefs about professionalism in my own work, personal standards are not guarantees of enduring legacies. An Enduring Legacy: Women Painters of Washington, is an important show at the Whatcom Museum, Bellingham, WA, USA. Significantly, this show was born as a reaction to an exclusive men’s painting group that was established “to promote brotherhood and fellowship among male artists.” Many of the female artists in this show are receiving recognition at this level for the first time. Some have received national and international recognition, but only recently are receiving long-overdue recognition by galleries, scholars and collectors. Ultimately, are “professionalism” and “enduring legacy” connected? Perhaps in an ideal world. Perhaps. Incidentally, many of the paintings are on boards. Viewing it, I did wonder about quality of materials. No doubt, many painted with whatever they had, with whatever they could afford, but the work still radiates “professionalism.”


What is a living?
by Jim Connelly, Jenison, MI, USA


“Study for Red Shirt”
oil painting, 8 x 10 inches
by Jim Connelly

I heard a well know artist say emphatically that a professional artist is one who makes their living from their art. How subjective. What is a living? There are a lot of professional artists from third world countries who make a living (as they understand a living) and their products are sold in a dollar store in the U.S. Some guy sets up 50 velvet panels, grabs a brush and proceeds swiping an identical peach colored swoosh on each. Before noon he has 50 original Elvis portraits. Is he a professional artist? He makes a living? In your letter most of what you mention are attitudes, habits and philosophy, and rightly so.


Tossed salad
by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada


“True North Strong 4”
original painting, 36 x 48 inches
by John Ferrie

There are plenty of artists out there who claim to be a pro. These are the ones who are always late; they never seem to get a project off the ground, let alone to completion. Their studios usually look like a bomb went off. Their ideas are sporadic and they usually switch horses half way through the race. And they have usually burned a few bridges with various galleries and agents. Sadly these types of artists can really wreck it for the ones who are trying to make it as professionals. Then again, it is all part of the giant tossed salad.



Hard to get a grip
by Ignacio Molina, Bronx, NY, USA

I’ve always been in touch with the artistic thinker in me. When I was seven years young I would try to create things with wood; when I was eleven I would do hats and curtains from a fox tail. It was not until I was thirty that I started writing and watercolors. Now that I’m almost fifty I feel the need to turn pro, but like you say it in this report, “the road is muddy.” Even though I’ve done exhibits, it’s kind of hard to get a grip on what’s the best venue or whom to contact.


An occupation to embrace
by Bobbi Dunlop, Calgary, AB, Canada


“Spring Breath”
oil painting, 11 x 20 inches
by Bobbi Dunlop

The personal traits that have put me on this journey, that began even as a child, are something that I have long contemplated. To read your thoughtful description of ‘us’ gave me a huge kick… but beyond the humour is the satisfaction that comes from knowing that there is someone out there just like me. I had pretty much given up trying to explain myself and my peculiarities to family, friends and students. I’ve learned that to do so induces glazing over of the listener’s eyes and I come across as self-important. To say nothing is the easiest, the path of least resistance.

I have been a self-taught professional artist for over two decades. Early in that time it was necessary to wear many hats: wife, mother to three active kids, president of the school parent council, soccer Mom, manager, you name it. All the while I considered myself a full-time artist and a professional. To do this has taken huge determination and single-mindedness, but with the support of a wonderful husband, it’s been not only possible, but hugely worthwhile.

A question that I am most often asked by my workshop students is “How do you paint everyday?” Rather than jumping on my soapbox and expounding on determination, passion, inspiration and mind-over-matterness, I simply tell them that it’s harder for me to not work every day than it is to work every day. Only the artist in your letter will truly understand what this means. I have to enforce regular days off for myself. This is pretty hard for some to grasp. If an aspiring artist doesn’t understand this concept, then I think the writing is pretty much on the wall. When I’m not painting in my studio, I’m reading about art. When I’m not reading, I’m thinking about it. This is pretty much an all consuming way of life. Who has time to think about shopping, coffee gatherings or a game of golf? I already have one obsession in my life! My kids know that Mom wants a paint brush for birthdays. They’ve come to terms with it.

It’s tough for people, as you pointed out, to understand what appears to be a self-absorbed mentality. I’ve given up worrying about that. And, now I will no longer worry that I’m on the road to eccentricity, as enticing as that truly sounds, knowing that other artists out there are just like me. After all, in what other occupation does one not only look forward to maturity, but embraces it? To know that with hard, dedicated work there is no downside to aging for the artist, just forward marching toward the wisdom and knowledge which awaits us in the twilight of our lives… and perhaps, for a very few, with a little luck, greatness.





Marble Torso

by Kelly Borsheim, Cedar Creek, TX, USA


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2005.

That includes Irene who wrote, “It’s doubtful the poor or average Joe would ever get the gift of a real painting if only those who could buy the best of everything were the only ones out there painting on whatever we can afford to do the best of with.”

And also Jim Pescott who wrote, “Within this environment, are labels like “professional” and “amateur” necessary? Isn’t the real need to simply be encouraged to keep the plow in the ground and to keep focused on, and working at, what we love to do?”

And also Marietta Stevens who wrote, “I didn’t realize I was as professional as I am. Thanks.”




Leave A Reply

No Featured Workshop
No Featured Workshop

Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

Subscribe and receive the Twice-Weekly letter on art. You’ll be joining a worldwide community of artists.
Subscription is free.