FAQs – Where do I start?

“Colorado Winter”
Oil on Panel

I get a lot of emails from artists who want to pick my brain on how to make it as a painter. I love helping people out, and manage the occasional coffee date to answer questions for someone who seems motivated and excited to learn, but for the most part, I can’t keep up with the requests. I’ve noticed a trend though – my students and the folks who email me are all asking the same questions. I thought I’d do a blog series answering a few of those FAQ’s. That way, when I don’t have time to get to all the emails, the info is here for you!

The first question I get from people wanting to make it in the art world boils down to: How do I start?

To most aspiring painters, “How do I start?” very quickly snowballs into a thousand related questions: How do I get into galleries? Should I do shows? How do I price my work? Where do you get your frames? Are plein air shows good? Should I advertise? How do I get magazines to cover my work? Should I take more classes? And on and on and on….

Whew – let’s all take a deep breath!!

Most of the time, I encourage folks to stop right there, and go back to the beginning.

So – “How do I start?”

The answer to that is twofold.

First, you need to know where you want to go.

I know, this sounds really simplistic. Most people who paint want to win awards and get into galleries and make money selling art!! That’s what everyone else is doing! Right!? It’s easy to logon to Facebook and see everyone posting show acceptances and gallery announcements and sales and get caught up in thinking that that’s where you want to be as well.

I caution you to think hard about what you want. Everyone’s path is not, and should not, be the same.

Not all artists need to be professionals. Some do, some don’t, and that’s ok. You can still make art, regardless.

Making money as an artist is a lot of work. It requires a lot of perseverance, the ability to juggle a lot of different skillsets, and the fortitude to face a lot of rejection. It’s not for everyone. Even if you love painting more than anything in the world, making a living at painting is a whole different animal.

I have had students do the work to prepare for a solo show or big exhibition, only to find that it took away their excitement about painting. One of them said to me, “You know what? I think I realized that I don’t need to sell my art after all.” Perceptive, and self-aware.

So I encourage you, before you go any farther, to think about where you see your art in one year, five years, ten years… Do you just want to paint what you want and sell occasionally? Are you happy if you just do a couple of shows per year and maybe make a couple of sales or awards, or is it important that you be a professional? Is painting more of a social thing where you want to be involved in a group and do shows with your friends? Is this your true calling and you can’t see yourself doing anything else as a job? If you do want to make a living at it, how does that look? Do you see yourself selling your own work online or at shows? Do you see your work in museum shows and galleries? Do you need to support a family or is your goal just to cover the mortgage?

Before you go asking ANY other questions, take some quiet time and answer these questions for yourself. Be brutally honest. Don’t look at everyone else and let FOMO make your decisions for you. Think deeply about what makes you tick, and where you want to go.

If you don’t know where you want to go, you won’t get there (more on that in a previous blog post here).

Second, you need a body of work.

I know, again, this seems simplistic. But if you don’t have a good 20-30 pieces of work in your studio that show a cohesive style and consistent ability, you absolutely have to stop everything else and start there.

Style is important. It’s easy to put together a pile of paintings from different workshops or classes or mediums and say you have a body of work. But you need to make sure that you have spent enough time painting to develop your own voice. When I look at all those paintings is it immediately obvious that the same person painted them? If I’m a gallery, and I look at your body of work, do I know the general style of what you will produce next? This isn’t to say you can’t paint in different mediums or subject matter, but you need to have a voice that’s your own.

Consistency is also key. Everyone can knock one out of the park every once in a while. The first year I was painting, I got into the OPA national show with the best painting I did that year. The problem? It was a fluke – the rest of my work was not at the same level. I wasn’t ready to be in that show. If someone saw my painting at that show and visited my website, they were likely disappointed by the rest of my work. That’s not a good thing!

We’re not all going to paint a masterpiece every time we step up to the easel, but you should be able to produce work of a fairly consistent quality if you expect to become a professional. If your gallery needs six new pieces in eight weeks, can you produce work for them that is as good as your portfolio? I do a decent amount of scrapers, but I know when a painting is going downhill, and I can recover from that and produce. Can you produce consistent quality work? Can you do it under pressure?

I know it’s not as exciting as setting up your first website or entering a bunch of shows, but if you want a solid start, begin with a good sense of where you want to go, and a strong body of work. If you aren’t there yet, spend the time to get there.

Once you have a body of work that is of a consistent quality and style, and you know where you want to go, then you’re allowed to ask the rest of those questions. NOW you can start!!

Stay tuned, and I’ll tackle some of the smaller questions above in the next few weeks…