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  • Writer's pictureAmy

7 tips to succeed as an artist (from an artist who hasn't "made it")

Close your browser right now if you only want advice from people who are making 6 figures. This isn't that. But I have been dedicated to my art practice for 8+ years and these are the best tips (for promoting your work) I have for you. Take what speaks to you, leave the rest.



Intros

Before I dive into it, let me introduce myself a little.


I've always been interested in the arts and improving my skills as an artist. I didn't go to an art high school or college. I took art classes when they were offered, taught myself and attended a 5 week intensive at Gage Academy of Art (highly recommend).


I've always needed color. As far back as I can remember I've used watercolors. I used the Crayola watercolor trays through my childhood and it wasn't until after high school that I started to get nicer supplies. At Gage I learned some skills to help me draw "classically" and also how to oil paint. I can't recommend Gage enough.


But I was very skeptical of an art degree and very wary of collecting debt. So instead of an art degree, I painted and worked while I got my degree in Business management (TCC + UWT)


During college (and after, obviously) I started to work on art as a business. You can see my full resume on my about page. If you take a look at it- look at the time frame. For reference, I finished my first "fine art" professional piece in 2016. Things have been slow. If you're an artist looking to go into fine art, just know that it takes so much time, sacrifice and investment. Some people get to go the short route, but it's the very few. For most artists, this path is an investment and it can be really hard.


But anyway, here are some things I've gathered on my journey so far and I'd love to share them with you in the hopes that your journey may be a little faster and your burden a little lighter.


1. Invest in yourself

  • Time: Making the work is an investment of time. But there is no business to build if the work isn't there. Make the absolute best work you can, as fast as you can. But remember, just start. The more work you make, the better it'll get.

  • Art skills : If you really want to do a thing but you don't know how consider:

- asking around someone may teach you for free

-Youtube it

-buy a course/ebook

-check out a library book

-take a course (Gage?) Individual artists often sell classes as well

You can figure it out yourself but it may take twice as long. It's exponentially faster to learn from someone. For instance, I recently acquired a camera. I will be Youtubing and asking my photographer dad for tips and help.

  • Business skills: See art skills (above). Reading blogs and podcasts can help as well. What I've learned as I've tried to "learn business skills" is that no one knows the sure- fire way to sell art. You will get so much of the same fairly useless advice. I think hearing testimonies from other artists is great. I have started to pick out the common threads from all the advice. Also, I take the advice I know I can follow (play to your strengths). I know I can build an email list and write a blog post so that's what I'm doing. I can't make 5 paintings a week or launch a new merch product every month so I'm not doing that.


2. Show it

This one may be obvious.. But show your work. Show it online and show it in person.


Online:

  • post the jpg

  • post it on the wall (smartist is fairly affordable and SO worth the money)

  • post it being made

  • post it in video form

  • post it with you next to it

  • post it with price

  • post it after 6 months, a year, forever (if you still think it's good)

  • post it when it sells

  • post a review from the person who bought it

No one is annoyed that you're "promoting yourself". You're doing a service to others when you should them something you made. It brings people joy. Plus social media is not showing your post to everyone. So the work need to be posted frequently even if it feels repetitive to you.

You also need a website because it shows that you are professional. And being professional means that you are easy to work with, reliable and worth the price tag. But you can start that with just a few pieces and you can start with a free site. If you don't want to get a paid site with a shop feature then set up an etsy and/or paypal and/or stripe etc. Anything where it's easy for people to pay you, get that and link it on your website.



In-person:

When something is on the more expensive end, people often need to see it in person. That's why it is SO important to be seen out in the world.


Some people are very choosy about where they show. And cool for them. There are good reasons for that, especially if you are playing a very long game and aiming for PRESTIGE.


But I think- show wherever: 1) you like their vibe 2) have an agreement 3) the potential benefit outweigh the costs


And if you start aiming for more prestigious opportunities, just don't add "Joe's coffee house" to your resume.


We all start somewhere and we all need to sell work. I have standards but I want to be flexible and creative about showing.


September 2021 I hosted my own solo show out of my apartment. People may call that an open studio. But I called it a show and I made smaller works specifically for the show (12 total) and I sold 10! And I loved it and I think other people loved it. So it was very exciting and a learning experience.


I'm a big believer in creating the event or opportunity you want. Plus it's exciting to get to make that experience from nothing and bring joy to other people. It's hard work and can be a real gift to others. I'm aiming for CJ Hendry status.




3. Say goodbye to scary networking, and say hello to "making connections"

Wait.. Isn't that the same thing? Yes. But if it helps you then think of it as making connections or making friends.


We live in the easiest time EVER to network. (and yes, I'm an introvert)

  • yes, you should go to the shows other people have. Get on the gallery's mailing list and show up to the thing. But I've done this and still haven't connected with anyone. But I'm realizing what I have been doing successfully (and it's so exciting) >>

  • I have been seeing amazing people on Instagram (artists, curators, galleries, magazines). I follow those people. I like and comment on their stuff. I send them things that made me think of them. And it's EASY and NATURAL and FUN because on social media we are all doing the same thing and it makes us all so human. It feels good when someone appreciates what we are doing. So just because they are "more successful" than you or have some place of power, that does not mean they don't still love genuine praise on social media.

By connecting naturally online, it's almost as if we know each other. It's an in-road. Show up to their show or apply to their open call. If they are an artist, ask if they want to collaborate, start a group or throw an event.


Just by being active and following people I genuinely like-- I am so much more likely to get connected to that person. Galleries have followed me back (WHAT). And yeah, I haven't shown there yet. But it's all about showing up, timing and being genuine. Now if I go to the show in person, we have something to say to each other. Instead of "Hi I'm Amy, I'm an artist I like your gallery..." It can be- "Hi, I'm Amy, I love your gallery. I follow you on Instagram, I loved your last show." And even better, if they recognize you because you are online acquittances- "Hi, I'm Amy. It's so good to finally meet you in person. I love following you on Instagram"


This sort of organic online connection is how 3/10 of the artists got connected to me and are now in my upcoming exhibition I'm organizing.


So give it a try. Knock on doors, comment on things. Follow what you love,(not just people you think will give you something)



4. Collaborate, seriously

I admit, I need more of this. I've done 1 collaboration, past tense. I think you could consider the group exhibition a collaboration.


But I know I need to do even more collaborations because they are so fruitful. I won't say that I sold work because of the collaboration (probably some prints). But it sent more people to me and it gave me some credibility.


In 2020, Grit City Magazine reached out to me and asked me to do a watercolor inspired by Tacoma for their 1oth print issue. I did the thing, it went well. (This was my first publication experience, and I will say that going forward I always request to see the article before it runs. The formatting/design wasn't really my taste. It wasn't anything detrimental, it just taught me something to do next time). Afterwards, I received feedback from people around town that they had seen me and it made me seem more successful. When people see a second source saying that you're cool then they believe it. (That's why reviews are so powerful).


*Also, I originally got that opportunity by designing something random just because I wanted to and posting it on my Instagram. Opportunities come whenever, wherever for reasons we don't see coming


My point is- that person you collaborate with has their own circle of influence and when you work with them it can be beneficial for both parties.


I recommend having a written agreement and dreaming big. Collaboration can mean SO many things. It doesn't have to mean your art on a product. As long as both parties are promoting it and involved in it, I consider that a collaboration.




5. Play the game

It's cliché, but true: you miss 100% of the shots you don't take.

  • Apply to opportunities (free and with a fee). Paying that opportunity fee is an investment in your work/business.

  • Reach out to magazines or Instagram pages to be featured (or to share your event info)

  • Write and keep writing your bio and artist statement (you have to submit it to everything so it's good to have it on hand but also make sure it's up to date)

  • Be persistent and try new things: I recently started sending out press releases for the first time. I got 2 no's. I resent the emails a week later to gently remind them. Several people responded positively the second round.

Applying to opportunities is a whole thing. Generally, I'm looking for things that are going to be 1) achievable 2) reputable. By achievable I mean, I like to apply to more local opportunities rather than national or global because I have a higher chance of acceptance. I also check who is hosting the open call. If their website sucks and their social media presence is low, then it might not be a good fit. But if it's a museum, gallery or good publication then it's worth your time.


I also like to apply to open calls from print and online magazines. It's such an honor to get featured and it builds reach and credibility. The print magazines are often distributed to galleries, so you never know who could see it. Grants are also good opportunities apply for but they often have more narrow requirements. If you see one that fits you, jump on that.


If you're not getting loads of rejections are you even trying? APPLY! But know that the reason people get turned down from opportunities has so much more to do with fit and timing than it does quality of your work. Which means, you need to apply often and resubmit to the same opportunities.


Sometimes if I'm on the fence about an opportunity, I will see who has already been accepted/featured in the past. You can also always shoot that artist an email or DM to see what they thought of the opportunity. Recently an online magazine reached out to me. I hadn't heard of the magazine but I recognized one of the artists they featured so I was honored to accept.



6. Don't be afraid to "break the rules"

We live in the best time to be an artist. (yikes, it's still so hard). But we do, because we can promote and sell all by ourselves. The rules have been broken down.

  • Make the art you want to make. Traditional peeps will discourage you from making certain types of art (glitter anyone). The world is bursting with creativity. There's no reason to make rules around what art materials are acceptable.

  • Sell how you want to sell. "They" will also tell you to stay away from prints/merch and that you can't negotiate or run sales.

Prints and merchandise provide other price points for people who don't have the money or aren't ready to commit to an original. Those people may be ready to purchase an original later in life, it's so valuable to sell to them at all stages of the financial ladder.


An argument can be made against negotiating price when selling art. But the galleries want you to forget that it is very common for them to negotiate. I'm always have to negotiate price, especially if I'm selling directly to the buyer because I don't have to pay a gallery commission. Just make sure you know how much you need to get from that painting and never go lower than that. Also, ask for value back during negotiations. Maybe you cut 15% but you are holding onto the painting for an upcoming exhibition. Or maybe you cut 10% but they pay in cash or check to avoid transaction fees.


At the end of the day, it's your work. You're standing up for it and selling it. Anything legal is fair game. Even though the product is magical, it's still a business like any other.



7. Protect yourself

I don't drop off my work without a contract/agreement, I don't deliver work without payment in full and I don't start a commission without 1/2 down.


You are your greatest proponent. So take care of yourself!


I treat every agreement/contract as negotiable, if they really want to work with me then they will work with me. Things I keep in mind when looking at an agreement (this isn't comprehensive, just the top of my list):

  • is this commission amount really what I want (and are they willing to budge on it). Industry standard is 50/50 or 40/60 but if they aren't promoting your work and especially if they aren't an established gallery then that commission should be much less

  • who is liable for damage, what happens if something is stolen or damaged

  • how and when will they pay me in the case of a sale

  • who is responsible for paying transaction fees and taxes

  • how long is the contract for and are you allowed to leave at any time

  • are you allowed to sell your other work in the area. Some galleries want exclusive rights to you and will often ask that you don't sell within the city or state. (this doesn't feel sustainable to me and it's a huge issue for me if they aren't flexible on it, unless they are verryy fancy, then it might be worth it).

  • do they want you to un-list the pieces from your website. Some spaces don't mind you keeping your work in your shop as long as you agree to pay them in the case of a sale. If the pieces stay in your website then it may be like double-exposure and easier for a collector to buy (I don't mind either way, it's just good to discuss)

Agreements are great. Even if nothing goes wrong, you still want to know where you stand. If you meet curator/gallery owner and you love their vibe that doesn't mean your communication is 100% clear. If it's in writing then there is no , "I thought you said". It's not a matter of trust, it's protection for both parties.



A few business things (bonus)

  • get your state and city business license

  • get a business bank account (no personal spending on that card!)

  • do your bookkeeping- keep track of your income and expenses. If you want to do manually, I use a google doc spreadsheet. If you want to pay for a service: hire an accountant/bookkeeper, use Quickbooks or use Xero (same as Quickbooks but better)

  • pay estimated tax - (you know how your employer withholds your federal income tax for you? Yeah well when you're self employed you have to pay that yourself quarterly)

  • collect and pay state sale tax

Other helpful fun resources


I know I know

It's daunting. It's exhausting. BUT it's also wonderful and that's why we keep going.


I 100% believe art can be a lucrative business. We are capable, creative and we have the best product. When things are difficult it can be so easy to believe the "starving artist" myth. But it's not true.


There is no shame in working another job. I know that may seem like giving up. But it's much more common than you think to have a second job while you work on growing your business.


So many non-art related startups fail. But as artists it isn't really an option to give up. We only fail when we stop making art forever. Breaks are great. Alternative solutions are great. We are hungry for this so we will bust our butts to do it however we can. There is no one way to do things, which can make it frustrating but it can also we freeing.


Please reach out if you have questions or just want to chat about art. >>


amylewisfineart@gmail.com

253-495-7991






Disclaimer: This is not professional financial or business advice. This is just my own opinions from my own experience.




















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