Updated: Jan 16
By Cameron John Robbins
Whatever your artwork may look like, there is a superabundance of articles, books, video tutorials and seminar classes to help you improve the technical aspects of creation. This is not one of those. This article is about some of the things they don’t seem to talk about in art school. But these things will become very relevant as soon as you try to turn pro. Some of these lessons took me years to learn or embrace. I share them with you so that you might be empowered to shorten your learning curve.
1. Be able to answer the following questions: What do you do? Why do you do it? Why should anyone care?
Being able to give compelling answers to these questions is critically important. Making art is a very personal and emotional endeavor, but this bit is not about you. It is just a straight-forward business reality. As Simon Sinek says, people don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it. You need to be able to articulate your Why in order to persuade people to care about What you do. You also need to be able to explain how your work will benefit them in language they will understand.
People don’t care about solving your problems. They care about solving their own. The only way to persuade them to buy into what you do is to explain how it will solve some of their problems. After all, your primary reason for buying groceries is to feed yourself, not to enable the cashier to feed themselves. I’m sure you’re a compassionate person who genuinely cares for the welfare of the cashier. But that’s still not the first reason you buy groceries. Also, people don’t need to be taught why they should buy food. That is not the case with art.
Explaining what art is good for and why it has value is not easy. Many artists struggle with how to articulate this because they don’t really know themselves. All they know is that they feel compelled to make their art. Some inarticulate, mystical, primordial force within drives them to create. But if you want to be a professional, you need to be able to articulate how art will improve people’s lives in terms that are relevant to them.
Explaining it all to prospective clients gets a lot easier when you realize that what you’re actually creating isn’t a physical object. It’s feelings and experiences. The drawings, paintings or sculptures may be the item a client takes home with them. But they are merely the delivery vehicles for the real product you sell. People don’t buy a drill because they want a drill. They buy a drill because they want a hole.
The Mona Lisa single-handedly generates millions of dollars in revenue for the Louvre every year. That doesn’t even include the millions of products featuring her likeness that are also perennial sellers. How does it do that when the original painting hasn’t been sold for over two centuries? Because what people are paying for is the experience they will have when they stand in front of it and the feelings they will feel. In terms of motivation, inspiration, achievement and human progress, is there anything that can be more valuable or productive than the way people feel?
What do you do? Why do you do it? Why should anyone care? I can’t tell you what your answers to these questions should be. But I can tell you that for the sake of your professional success, you had better have answers; even if it’s just for yourself.
2. Make a lot of unified work before moving on
There is value in trying new and different things (materials, styles, themes, etc.). But don’t jump around from one thing to another too quickly or too often. You will learn far more from making 20-30 similar pieces than you will from making just a few. For one thing, nobody creates a masterpiece every single time. In any body of work there will be a large percentage of average work of varying success, a few disappointments and hopefully a few gems. By making more work that is similar, you get the law of averages working for you. Also, by limiting the variables over a larger number of pieces, you will see faster and more easily what works and what doesn’t, and why.
When I first started working as a metal chaser in a bronze art foundry, I felt like I was having to solve a hundred different problems every day. That was because each piece I had to put together was different in size, shape, and level of detail. A metal chaser is the one who reassembles the various cast bronze pieces into the final sculpture. But the lost wax process is so complicated and passes through so many hands that by the time a piece gets to that point, there is nearly always a problem which needs repair. After having solved those problems for a few hundred different sculptures, I realized that there were only about five things that were ever going wrong. By then I had learned not only how to solve those problems with confidence, but where to look for their possible occurrence.
The same thing happened for me when I went from being a painter in a general sense to being hyper-focused on portrait painting. Each portrait was of a different person, and I made aesthetic decisions calculated to make each piece as good as it could be on its own. Because of this, there was still a satisfying level of variety. There was even some room left for play and experimentation. But most of the variables were compressed enough so that over time I gained insights and made improvements many times faster than I had up to that point. Those improvements could then be applied to any other subject.
Here’s another illustration. I once knew a man who’d taught wheel-thrown pottery at a college. Every semester he would randomly divide his class in half. To the first half he would say that their final grade would depend on their five best pieces. The final grade for the other half would depend on their total number of pieces. The first half would always spend the semester trying to conjure up ‘brilliant’ work, while the second half just got on with cranking out volume. The object lesson was that in the end, it was always the second group who produced the most impressive pieces. So, pick something to do, impose some limits on yourself and then thrash that thing until it gives up its secrets.
3. Give careful thought to your brand image
As with any profession, certain attitudes and fashion trends emerge and become widely embraced until a kind of uniform has been established. By all means, be true to who you really are and strive for self-actualization, etc. Just remember that as an artist, you are more than just You. You are also a brand. Your audience, from fans to prospects and collectors, and gallery owners to agents will form certain expectations based on how you present yourself to the world. That means the way you dress, speak and behave will have a direct impact on your success or lack of success as a business.
So, if you want to dress only in shades of pink, wear dreadlocks and tattoo blue stars on your face, you may certainly do so. Depending on your ambitions and your audience, that might be the smartest move you could make. Just do whatever you’re going to do very thoughtfully. For the sake of your brand and business success, be yourself but put all your energy into becoming the best version of yourself that you can.
4. Look for production efficiencies
When you are in art school, you are paying for your time there. So, even though you have project deadlines, there isn’t a lot of emphasis placed on working in efficient ways. Instead, you get to really plumb the depths of curiosity and experimentation. That’s good. That is as it should be in school. But when you turn pro, that gets reversed very quickly. Even though you are in creative production, you are still in production and time is money.
You don’t want to let that stifle your creative process. That’s not my point. But if you can go from crisscrossing your studio fifty times a day and bring it down to twenty times just by rearranging the layout, do it. If you can use 20% less paint and cover a large area 33% faster by introducing a little medium and using a bigger brush, and still get the result you want, then do it. Clients aren’t buying your process; they’re buying your results. Increased efficiency means faster production. That means increased earning potential. That also means you will have more energy to invest in your creative process. Always look for ways to stop the time/money/energy leaks. That way you can redirect those things to where they will do you the most good.
5. Never criticize other artists and their work
This point may be more important now than it ever has been before. In a world where disapproval and vitriol has been elevated to a culture, and rage mobs roam cyberspace, ravenously looking for the next thing to consume, you must be very careful in what you say about others. As an artist, you are in a uniquely vulnerable position. Unlike many other professions, there is almost no separation between the personal you and the professional you. Also, art is one of the toughest products to sell because almost no one understands why it has value (see tip 1 above). You don’t want to make that any harder.
Have you ever heard someone criticize something you love, like a book, a band or a movie? Were you offended? Did you take their remarks personally? You probably did, at least a little. But why? You aren’t in that band. You didn’t write that book or act in that movie. Their opinion of someone else’s work doesn’t reflect on you, does it? It can certainly feel like it does. When they attacked something that you love, you felt personally attacked. It may not be rational, but it is reality.
Here’s the key thing; there is room for all of us in the marketplace, and the world actually needs more artists. The same collector can own your work and the work of an artist you despise, and love both for different reasons. But if you publicly trash the work of an artist whose work is already in the collections of people you hope to have as clients, they will take your attacks personally and will cease to be prospects for you.
You are entitled to your opinions, and you are allowed to like some things and dislike others. Just keep those things to yourself. There are people who thrive on drama and gossip. If they can’t find enough of it, they will try to create some. Such people will try to bait you into saying something they can use toward those ends. Don’t give them anything, because if you do or say something which then destroys your professional reputation, you’re done. The gossips and the hate-mongers won’t pay the price for sharing your opinions. You will. If you truly believe in the value of your work, then you can’t afford to idly throw that away. The world needs the beauty of your creations more than it needs to know what or who you dislike.
And there you have it. No matter what kind of work you create or for whom, if you will embrace these five tips, you will be better equipped to have as much professional success as you wish. This list is by no means exhaustive. But if you only use these top five tips, you will be well ahead of those who don’t.
Cameron John Robbins is the founder of The Gentleman Artist Studio – www.thegentlemanartist.co.uk
He is represented by A. Joseph Galli IV +12182350110 email@example.com