Editor’s note: Visit Timothy Jahn’s website at TimothyWJahn.com. To learn more art business tips, check out the eMagazine The Business of Art: Make a Living From Your Passion, available for only $3.99 exclusively at North Light Shop.
Periodically I receive wonderful emails from people inspired by my artwork asking for career advice. They want to know how to get from being a student to becoming a working artist. Going from an art class into the gallery world can be intimidating. Unfortunately, there’s no surefire way to make this jump, but here are three steps you can take to help you achieve your art goals.
The first thing would be to find a mentor.
Early in my career I was very lucky to become friends with some outstanding working artists. By working artists I mean those who primarily made their income from art sales or related activities. I’m very much a goal setter and finding a way to make a living from my artwork was paramount in my early 20s. Two of my friends/mentors, Lou and Brian, would invite me to go landscape painting with them. We would pile into a small camper and venture out to the same beautiful fields where the Hudson River painters worked. After a full day of painting, we would sit around the campfire cooking and talking about art. These trips were vital to my early success.
On one of our trips, Lou was cooking a huge dinner for us on the fire and asked me to go into the camper to get some salt. Upon entering the camper, I found Brian placing a fork in his pants pocket. After asking him what exactly he was doing he instructed me to place a fork in my pocket, as there would be a time when I would need it. For the next two hours we stood around the fire chatting about our paintings and cooking dinner. All the while our forks were still sitting in our pockets. Lou finally announced that the pork tenderloin was finished–oh yeah, we ate really well on these trips–so Lou started to cut the meat into bite-sized slices. Brian and Lou pulled forks out of their pockets and without plates of any kind they started to devour the meat. Just before all of the food was gone I knew why I had been walking around with a fork in my pocket. I had to scramble to get a couple bites of food.
This is a silly-but-true story and, yes, we ate like neanderthals for four days. However, I walked away with an important lesson. As we stood around talking, I asked them questions about what I needed to do to become a working artist. The first thing they both said was that young artists need to really develop their craft. Art is a craft; as much as we like to think about the romantic aspects of drawing and painting, there are rudiments to our profession. Allowing ourselves time to develop these skills can ultimately have a huge impact on our future.
On multiple occasions I have spoken with master artists on the same subject and their responses became very consistent: “You have to have the chops,” or “Get good and the rest will fall in place.” Or one of my favorites: “Never let your inability limit your career.” In the end I think they were telling me to have a fork in my pocket and be ready when the opportunity came.
This brings us to the next step, which is to work to improve every day.
If you truly want to be an artist you need to work every day. All of the artists I know focus their energy and put serious work effort forward. Yes, you’re absolutely correct, the 20 reasons that just went through your head as to why you don’t have time to draw or paint, exist. But here’s the fun thing about time: it’s going to pass no matter what. So, if your overwhelming goal is to paint you can rearrange your schedule to paint. When we realize this early on it makes decisions about jobs and time commitments easier to manage. It becomes a very clear math game; there are only so many hours we can work in a week. If we take an outside job and other responsibilities that eliminate our working time, we delay achieving our end goal. This is something to consider with commitments to friends and outside forces.
You can also consider budgeting your expenses so that you’re not attempting to become an artist with a crazy amount of debt piled up behind you. Many times I’ve had to make some serious sacrifices to keep my daily painting routine going. While I felt that what I gave up was worth it, you’ll have to look deep within yourself to decide what’s right for you.
If you’ve committed yourself to some serious painting and drawing time you will accumulate works to show. This brings us to our final step: take a leap and enter shows.
Try to enter as many shows as you can. Put your work out there. Galleries and collectors are looking for wonderful work. If your work is piled up in your studio they’ll never see it. Find shows that seem appropriate for your work. Remember that you’re going to be your own worst critic. By entering shows, you’ll keep your name out in the public and continue to build your resume. Many of us avoid this because we don’t want to deal with rejection.
The rejection can be difficult, but there are some ways to look at it that may help. I get rejected from shows a lot. In fact my goal each year is to get rejected from five shows. Here’s my silly logic: if I enter six shows a year, I will get into one. So my goal is to enter the shows and get my rejections. When I realize I did not get into a show, I divert my attention to something else and avoid dwelling on the outcome. There are so many reasons as to why we do or don’t get into shows. Many of them don’t make any sense.
Works come in and out of favor. Loose work may be popular for a while, and suddenly tight work is all the rage. Don’t change your style for the judges, just keep heading in your true direction and if the work is solid you will have your chance.
A side note: Often times I hear people get upset over the fact that certain people always get into shows. You will read comments on Facebook about artists in the ‘in crowd.’ This may be true, but at some point everyone who may be in the crowd was on the outside. If you consistently enter shows, before you know it you will be in the ‘in crowd’ and people will be saying you have an advantage. Shows are like the lottery, if you don’t buy a ticket you can’t win.
As you go forward with your work keep in mind these three tips. Find a mentor, work to improve every day, and enter as many shows as you can. And remember to keep a fork in your pocket, as you never know when it’s time to eat!
See Timothy W. Jahn’s work in Strokes of Genius 3, The Best of Drawing: Fresh Perspectives. Visit his website at TimothyWJahn.com.