When You Don’t Know What You Want from Your Art

Michael Newberry

©2010 Michael Newberry, Cutting Through Red. Oil on canvas, 20 x 24 inches.

A few months back, I gave advice for hiring a consultant for your art career. I said that if you’re going to spend money on a consultant, you should understand what you want to get out of the relationship – you should know exactly what you want.

Michael Newberry took issue in a comment. He said there have been times in his career when he’s been totally clueless and wouldn’t even know where to begin. He thought it would be of great service to artists to help them understand what they want.

Point taken.

If you are in the dark about what you want from your art, perhaps these 9 pieces of advice might help.

  1. Don’t quit your day job! You need money coming in while you’re figuring all of this out. If you don’t have a day job, go get one.
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  3. Spend more time in the studio. If you have an inkling that the life of a professional artist might be for you, you’d better be in the studio consistently. You must be making art.
  4. Take more studio classes. Work through all of the artmaking problems you can think of. Then tackle some more.
  5. Attend business classes. Find out what it takes to own your own business.
  6. Talk to other artists for the same reason: to find out what it takes. Ask them about their studio practices, their highs and lows, and how they make a living.
  7. Read artist biographies and art non-fiction. Forget anything you read about alcoholism and drug use. You don’t need either to thrive as an artist. Pay attention to the artists’ paths.
  8. Watch art documentaries to be inspired.
  9. Figure out exactly how much money you need to survive and save and what that means. How much work would you need to sell? How many students do you need to enroll? Can you meet those demands?
  10. Search your soul. Are you prepared for rejection? Are you okay with failing a lot before you succeed? Do you have the emotional support you need? Are you ready to work your butt off?

What did I forget?

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19 comments to When You Don’t Know What You Want from Your Art

  • Alyson, I’d also add these two things to your list:

    1. Find out what it takes for you to say the word ‘no’. This can be for anything ranging from what kind of artwork you will not do to knowing what kind of errands you will and won’t run for a loved one, just because you might work from home. What does it take for you to draw the line? This can help define your role as an artist as much as anything (and these situations *will* come up if you work professionally as an artist).

    2. Attend as many art events as you can. Go to everything from the charity art auctions to the local gallery openings to the big museums shows to the lectures and artist talks. Find out what pushes your buttons, and which crowds you feel comfortable in. Attending these events will definitely give you a good idea of what social circles mingle with the art world, and can help you figure out which ones you feel the most comfortable in (as well as which client demographic you feel the most at ease with when you really start selling your work).

  • Make sure you actually love doing the artwork and not just the idea of being an “artist.” Have a cohesive body of work before you start spending money and time on marketing, and as you said it best….”be ready to work your butt off!”

  • Thanks Allyson. Of course those are useful ideas….. And thanks, Michael… you’ve pointed out some useful ideas for me as well…. I love learning from others.

    Recently in Dave Gallup’s Master class, we discussed many of these same ideas. Of course, we’re all different and all have different ideas about where we want to end up and the path we want to take, but it made me realize how important each of those bulleted ideas you and your guest commenters have mentioned are.

    Each time I started in on your list of identifying WHAT I want from my art career, I just gave up. Lately I’m realizing that what I want is to make the best art I can… So that’s what I’m working on.

    (Although the rejection one is always a hard one… Thank goodness there are the atta-girls in there too!!!)

  • “What did I forget?”

    Remember this country (and may like it) was built using slave labor and basically our economic system today reflects that history. Consistently.
    Forcing people to do things against their will. Like forcing artists to reach WAY past their duties as artist in order to keep up.
    And MANY so-called professionals , coaches & consultants work hard to keep you in line, under the guide of good business advice.

    You forgot to mention that business is ONE way to utilize an LLC.

    Perhaps social justice is in order here more than even we artists could imagine.

  • Be prepared for sabotage and unexpected interruptions. While certainly Robert’s comment on saying “No” can handle most of the interruptions an artist will face, there will be those moments in life that will sucker punch you, and knowing how to keep at the work or even just accepting that you will need to take a moment to process the shock, anger, etc can be very important in keeping on the path of making your best art and putting it out in the world in the most professional way. (Don’t ask, but thankfully no limbs were lost, just trust.)

  • Hard to add to this fine list. I’ll just add these as a stream of consciousness.

    Work hard. The great artists whose biographies I have read were obsessive about work. De Kooning, Matisse, van Gogh – workaholics.

    Criticize your own work. Have your own mind about things and sift through what you are willing to show – it should be your best work.

    This one disagrees with a comment above (kindly). I think you should start showing your work as soon as possible. It is a vital part of being an artist. I do agree that one should be careful about overhead at first, though. See what your market is before you spend – look for free or cooperative venues.

  • Casey Craig makes a good point. Recently the question came up, “If you won a million dollars tomorrow, would you continue to do X” If you can say, Yes, I’d still want to create, you’ll do just fine. If the answer is “No, I’d kick off my shoes and buy an island”, then this isn’t the life for you.
    I would add that this is a job. Yes, it’s the greatest job ever, but you still have to show up regularly and do the hard work, much of which doesn’t get recognized.

  • I’ve been “going at it” with my art since I got out of college back in ’99. I’m still not sure what I want from my art, but I keep making it while maintaining a 9-5. Well I recently got laid off from the 9-5 and although it has left me more time for my art, it’s just as paralyzing. I have time to think about my ideas and critique my art a lot more which is great, but the pressure of finding a job to pay bills has really sunken in now I’m really not sure what I’m supposed to do.

    • Will! I’m so glad to hear I’m not alone right now! I’ve been painting fairly regularly the past three years, but lost my job this past March with no benefits. I’ve survived by the grace of God and the friends I’ve been sent, but charity has run thin. I haven’t had a single job interview and am at the wall now. Pretty hard to concentrate of creativity when you don’t know where you’ll be next week, but I’m painting as if all is well, anyway, because I love creating. I’m also preparing for a group show that I and two other artists are determined to put on – no idea how it will be funded, but we’re working on that. It would be GREAT if anyone out there could share where a literally starving artist can go to keep the rent paid while we work! I’m not giving up without a fight!

    • Will: I’m sorry to hear about being laid off. That day job can really free up one’s mind to focus more on the art career. It’s a catch 22.

  • above all I think the artist has to have an unwavering belief that this is what he or she is supposed to be doing, to the point that the work, the sacrifices, the disheartening moments are not enough to dissuade you from continuing. Being able to look at a body of work you just completed and see where you need to grow instead of holding on to what you accomplished is also essential.

  • Bervyn

    Alyson, thanks for the great tips. But could you elaborate a little on – ‘If you don’t have a day job, go get one.’ Thanks again.

    • Bervyn: I was referring to the sentences that came before that statement. You need money coming in. If it isn’t coming in from your art, get a day job to take care of your financial concerns.

  • Thanks Alyson for bringing this up and including an image.

    What do you all think about the hardest thing is the communication with collectors? The actual painting, learning art stuff, doing paint outs; the art thing, is a natural fit. But really understanding, from the collectors point of view is foreign territory. A friend of mine is a great designer, loves shopping, and seeing that from the opposite side. How many of us artists are collectors, or shop for art? (okay, not lot of us can afford it!) :) A goal of mine is to become more familiar with wearing the collector’s shoes.

    Michael

  • Great list of tips for the time when we forget why we do what we do.
    As for what’s missed, I find it easier to create art, when I see great art performed – whether opera, music, film, visual arts.. It helps to get reenergized that way.
    Thanks again for a great post.