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…

Taking the Leap – Revisited (YET AGAIN)

I was organizing some photos on my hard drive the other day when I came across this picture of me from my engineering days. Hard hat, fire resistant coveralls, and a full gas mask – ready to inspect a distillation column in a chemical plant in Baton Rouge. I’ve posted it before, but it cracks me up, so you get to see it again:
Every time I see this photo, I am SOOOOO THANKFUL that I’m an artist now. BEYOND thankful, honestly. So thankful that sometimes I think I should frame it and hang it in my studio so that I have a daily reminder of how thankful I should be.
Because the girl in that photo was miserable. Really, truly, miserable.
For starters, this is what it looks like when I’m on the job now:
Big improvement, right? But that’s just gravy. Even when I’m stuck inside in my unfinished dungeon of a basement studio, I still feel blessed.
I realized the other day that I’ve actually been doing this art thing for a living now longer than I was an engineer. My job has become so much like eating and breathing that I don’t normally give it much thought – it’s just ME, it’s what I do.
But less than ten years ago I was a ball of stress, agonizing constantly about what I could do for a living that would make me happy, or at least less miserable. I went through a phase where I was going to go back to school for physical therapy, another where I was going to be an accountant (oh my, it’s embarrassing to even admit that), and another where I was convinced being an art teacher was the way to go. Art was my thing, even back then, but it took me a long time to decide that I was going to hang it all up and paint for a living – mainly because I was afraid.
See, I’m a closet security freak. I used to make a lot of “safe” decisions. I picked the sensible school, the sensible major, the sensible job, the sensible place to live, and figured since I was minimizing risk, everything would turn out well and life would be great. BIG surprise when I found out that the sensible job in the sensible place was pretty much awful! All of the sudden the floor dropped out from under me, and my perfectly planned life seemed like a big mistake.
Since then, Nate and I have both quit our jobs and moved around a lot, just trying things out. Some things worked for us, some didn’t. Some choices we made were kind of dumb and we laugh at them now (buying a house in Highlands Ranch – I’m talking to you!). Some things were wonderful surprises (moving down to Evergreen when we thought we’d be up in the mountains forever). Sometimes it was scary, a lot of times it’s stressful, and it’s always completely ambiguous this way – there is no road map when you decide to strike out on your own. And I’m not gonna lie, the art paycheck is lower than the corporate one was. Essentially, nothing is all that secure for us anymore, but I love it.
I love that I get to wake up, spend time laughing with my kids, then spend the hours while they are at school doing what I love. I love the process of creation. I love that even the business side of my art is an ever evolving process. I love that I don’t have all the answers. I love that sometimes, I can go hike to a crazy beautiful place with some good friends, laugh the whole time, do a painting, and call it work (okay, I confess – I usually feel sort of guilty on those days). And while Nate might not always love his job as much as I love mine (lawyers, accountants, and contracts, oh my!!), I think he loves the challenge of creating a business too. It’s a constantly moving target – always a challenge.
It’s not for everyone – this sort of job takes a lot of self-discipline and motivation, and pretty thick skin. Well, REALLY thick skin, actually. But in the end, I’ve gone from a very sensible, structured life, to something that resembles constant chaos – a beautiful mess, if you will. I’m never caught up, there are no guarantees, and sometimes I have to work really hard to stay positive when things are slow. But I think it’s good. No regrets.
I look at some of my blog posts about taking the leap from years ago, and I want to tell my younger self that it worked out okay. That it might not be how she envisioned it, but it works, and that she shouldn’t be so freaked out about everything. That she should just breathe, and try to be more authentic.
Back then, this was my favorite quote, and I think it still is. It’s how I try to live my life:
“What we have is based upon moment-to-moment choices of what we do. In each of those moments, we choose. 
We either take a risk and move toward what we want, or we play it safe and choose comfort. Most of the people, most of the time, choose comfort. 
In the end, people either have excuses or experiences; reasons or results; buts or brilliance. 
They either have what they wanted or they have a detailed list of all the rational reasons why not.” 
~ Anonymous
I found this one more recently, and it speaks to my inner security freak:

“Too many people are thinking of security instead of opportunity. They seem more afraid of life than death.”  

– James F. Byrnes

So, there it is. I took that leap a while ago and it’s all right. It really is. And if you’re thinking of doing the same thing (or you already have), I hope you’re in for an awesome, wild ride.

Taking the Leap – Revisited

“Meadow Creek Spring”
Oil on Panel

WARNING: long, rambling post ahead… Sorry!!

Nate and I took a long walk in the woods last night, and while we were talking we realized that this week marks a year since we became a self-employed family!! I’ve been at it longer than he has, since I quit my job when I had Aspen a year and a half ago, but when he quit his corporate job a year ago it upped the ante for my art business. My art officially became one of the ways that we pay the bills, and we both embarked together on this crazy journey that we like to think of as following our dreams.

I’ll admit that there have been ups and downs, and I’ve had my moments of lying awake at 3:00 in the morning wondering what the heck we’ve done, but I don’t have any regrets, and I’d do it all over again if I had to. I’ve been a bit stressed out lately, mostly because the news is so negative these days – in my darkest moments I wonder if we made the right decision to do all of this. In all of my other moments, I KNOW it was the right decision.

I’ve been slowly going through the archives of this blog and categorizing my posts, and it’s been a really positive experience to look back over the past few years and see where I’ve come from. When I started this blog two and a half years ago, I was lead process engineer on an $800 million scrubber project for an oil-sands refinery in Canada. I was frazzled with the stress of being in charge of the process design phase of such a huge project (hello – those are my initials on every drawing and calculation!), managing people for the first time, and dealing with the pressure of being the only female engineering lead on the project, not to mention the youngest by about twenty years. My life was defined by my climb up the corporate ladder, and I was heading for a nice job in project management. I made a lot more money than I do now, and I was completely miserable.

For reference, here I am, enjoying the scenery in the middle of an oil sands mine in Ft. MacMurray, Alberta (and this was a day with a GOOD view – normally I was sitting in a cubicle staring at a computer):

Actually, if you REALLY want to see how far I’ve come to get to this point, maybe I should rewind to my days working for big oil down in Texas. Here I am getting ready to inspect some equipment during a chemical plant shutdown in Baton Rouge, Louisiana – you know your job sucks when the chemicals are so dangerous that you have to dress like this:

Of course, we also spent a lot of time being really bored in the construction trailers, which was also not the best way to spend a day:

I was working for ExxonMobil at the time, and my job (when I wasn’t inspecting equipment), was to design computer programs that would optimize the amount of money the plant would make on a given day, depending on things like oil prices, chemical sale prices, etc etc. It was incredibly unfulfilling, and I hated Houston, so we moved back to Colorado and I got a job designing pollution control systems for coal-fired power plants. More my style, but I still wasn’t happy, and I started this blog to rant a bit about my job and talk about some of the things that made me happy, and it morphed into the art blog it is today.

When I look back at the girl I was then, I’m thankful that I was able to see how unhappy I was, and that I knew exactly what I really wanted to be doing. Before I got pregnant with Aspen, I had decided that I wanted to try and make it as an artist, and I started to get serious about taking the right steps to make it work. I think I first started talking about taking the leap in the two posts here and here. At the end of the first post where I talked about making a career change, I said the following:

“I don’t want to play it safe forever. I don’t want to have a long list of excuses someday. I’d rather aim for brilliance and fail than say I never tried for fear of exiting my comfort zone. I want to move forward – I want to choose experience over excuses.”

When I read those words the other day, I was in the midst of a stressful day and they immediately gave me a sense of peace. I realized that over the past year and a half I’ve left the comfort zone and challenged myself, and I’ve had more wonderful experiences than I can count. I love my job with every inch of my being, and I’m content with my life. I have a beautiful, sweet daughter, a wonderful husband, and I’m living where I want to live. I’m surrounded by beauty every day, and I’m following the dream I’ve had since I was a child to be an artist. And in following that dream (and working with Nate to achieve his), I feel like I’m being the best role model I can possibly be as a mother. I’m blessed to have this opportunity, and I’m going to try my hardest to do my best at what I truly believe I’m meant to be doing.

Now, isn’t it a good thing that I have this blog to remind me where I’ve come from? Nothing like a little reminder of my past life to move me from a place of stress to a place of peace!

Quote of the Week

“The Last to Change”
Oil on Panel

I’m a sucker for good quotes. I tear them out of magazines and write them down on scraps of paper, and fill my notes with them when I hear people speak. Some of them are too good to lose, so I’m going to start posting them here every once in a while.

I keep this one in my studio to remind me how blessed I am to be able to paint:

“You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead, pursue the things you love doing, and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off you.” -Maya Angelou

Quote of the Week

“The Last to Change”
Oil on Panel

I’m a sucker for good quotes. I tear them out of magazines and write them down on scraps of paper, and fill my notes with them when I hear people speak. Some of them are too good to lose, so I’m going to start posting them here every once in a while.

I keep this one in my studio to remind me how blessed I am to be able to paint:

“You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead, pursue the things you love doing, and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off you.” -Maya Angelou