I’ve been an artist for a long time. Long enough to have learned many lessons that come only with experience.
Long enough to also know that there are many things I could have learned from other artists had I known where to find those artists (I started before the days of the internet).
Most of those tips have less to do with art than with attitude. They’re the sorts of things we all need to be reminded of periodically.
Be prepared to persevere.
I don’t know about you, but when I started painting, I thought all I had to do was paint the portraits and get them in front of people. They’d sell themselves and they’d sell themselves quickly. I’d be an overnight success.
The selling part is a discussion for another time (if you’re interested in that, let me know. There’s lots to share.)
The overnight part? Let’s just say I’ve been painting for nearly forty years and I’m still waiting for the overnight success.
Making art is not easy, even when you love what you’re doing. Building a livelihood around it is even less easy. Even when it’s your passion.
The real secret to success is getting up one more time than you’re knocked down, plain and simple. The world doesn’t owe you a living. Neither do the people around you. You may be the most talented artist since Rembrandt, but even he persevered.
Keep going. Be persistent.
Develop a thick skin.
From the first drawing you draw to the last, there will be critics. You will have to learn to deal with people who criticize your work, your methods, your marketing—probably even you. They are as much a fact of life as the sun rising in the east. Learn not to internalize it.
How? Ah, that’s the hard part, isn’t it.
The thing I did that helped me most in this area was deciding with myself what I wanted to paint, how I wanted to paint, and for whom I wanted to paint.
Once those things were settled in my own mind, the criticisms that came because I was painting horses or painting them too realistically or painting for clients didn’t matter. Sure, they still sometimes stung—especially those delivered by artists whose work I admired but whose vision was different than mine—but they didn’t sting as much.
You may need to make the same decisions.
Then go forward with confidence.
Learn to learn from criticism.
Some of the criticism may be warranted, so you can’t automatically discard it all. When an artist whose vision was similar to mine commented negatively on something I’d done, I paid more attention. Maybe they were right.
If a client had a complaint, I definitely paid attention to that. After all, they were paying me for my artistic skill. If they weren’t happy, neither was I.
But I still had to learn to be gracious.
I also had to learn to analyze those criticisms at face value and glean the comments that improved my skills as an artist and in dealing with people (and let’s face it, most of us like nothing better than to shut ourselves up in our studios and make art). Toward that end, I asked myself
- Was the critic an artist more skilled than I?
- If so, is this criticism a learning opportunity?
- What can I learn from it?
- Was the critic a client?
- If so, is the complaint legitimate?
- How can I improve the painting?
In other words, find ways to learn, to improve your artistic craft. Make every criticism an opportunity to learn and grow.
Draw every day.
Don’t fall into the habit of thinking you need to wait for inspiration to strike before you make art.
Don’t accept the lie that you need large chunks of time, either.
I’ve lived both and know they are not true. The best way to be an artist is to be an artist. Every day. Whether you feel like it or not. Whether you have the time or not. Even if it’s just a few minutes to sketch on a napkin, make use of it. Nothing is more discouraging than waking up one morning and realizing it’s been a year since the last time you drew something.
I didn’t have to hear this very many times before I got tired of hearing it. Sick and tired!
But you know what? It’s true! When I came to grips with that realization, I also discovered just how valuable goals can be.
And easy. Start small. The first time I set painting goals, I decided to paint one painting a month plus two for a year. I was painting evenings and weekends then, doing art shows and horse shows when I could, so painting time was limited.
But it worked and for years, I created at least twelve paintings a year. Most of them portraits.
You might also try a time goal. Maybe 15 minutes of life drawing every day. Or even just 5 or 10. Keep a small sketch pad with you and sketch in doctor’s offices, while waiting for your order at a restaurant, or wherever you happen to be. Make it a habit! Have fun with it!
Develop a system to monitor goals.
Goals work best when you have a way to track your progress. It doesn’t need to be elaborate, but it needs to BE.
A calendar is great for this. One with big squares for each day works for me. Find a method that works for you. Decide how much time you want to paint each month, then decide how much you need to paint each day to reach that goal. For each day you paint, record the amount of time you spent. You’ll be surprised how quickly the time adds up.
For some projects, I keep a spreadsheet.
The important thing isn’t how you monitor your progress; it’s THAT you monitor your progress. Seeing how much you’ve done toward a particular goal is a great way to get or stay motivated to keep up the good work.
Don’t let your goals rule you.
You may be thinking this is a contradiction. It’s not.
Life happens. There will be days when, despite your best planning and intentions, you just can’t paint or draw. Don’t let it stress you out. That’s part of the reason I like weekly and monthly goals in addition to daily goals. If I miss a day, I can make it up somewhere else and the weekly or monthly goals provide the incentive to do so.
For the longest time, my art was my small business and I treated it that way. Every line I drew was for a portrait in some way. I never drew for fun or just because something interesting caught my eye and wanted to be drawn.
Don’t do that!
Whether you paint for personal pleasure or as a livelihood, have fun. For some, creating art will become like a job and will require you treat it like a job, maintaining regular hours and behaving like your own employee.
If that describes you, try not to lose sight of the joy of painting (as I did). Keep in sight the reason art drew you in the first place. Take time to nurture that, to grow it as you grow your career. You won’t regret it.
By the way, it doesn’t hurt to learn to have fun apart from your art, too. We all need down time to refresh and revitalize.
Which of these resonant most with you? What advice would you add to the list?