5 Lessons in Going Pro: Tips for the Up-and-Coming Artist (that I learned the hard way)

Disclaimer: I still consider myself new to this.

Yes, I've been making art forever and I've sold a good bit of it over the years, but I still have SO much to learn about the art market and even about my own work. As an artist who's been practicing for a few years, however, I like to think I've gained some wisdom. Most of these things were told to me years ago by artists who had been in the game much longer than myself, whom I then ignored. Had I listened to them and put their advice into practice back when they gave it, I would be much further along in my career than I am now. My hope is that, if you are a practicing artist or want to be, you won't be as hard-headed as I am and will actually take this stuff to heart. Trust me: It will save you years of wasted time and gobs of wasted supplies (aka money).

If you aren't an artist, I think these words will still add some value to you if you apply them to your specific context, whatever that may be.

So, here we go.

5 Lessons in Going Pro:

1. Getting a degree does not make you a professional.

After I graduated from college with my Bachelor of Fine Arts, I basically proclaimed to the world, "I am now a professional artist!" This proclamation could have been true, but I made it not so. After I got my degree, I didn't make anything for a year. Really, not a single thing. Because I'd had the luxury of working very large-scale in school, I had this pretentious idea in my head that I only worked large-scale and needed the studio space and materials to do so. Eye-rolling and face-palming are acceptable reactions to this sentiment. I obviously also needed a space to paint in that was very well ventilated because, you know, fumes.

At the time, I was a newlywed living in a little apartment, and we didn't have the space or the money to make that happen; not even close. In hindsight, I clearly see that these excuses were cover-ups of plain old fear. I could've worked small. I could've switched to drawing or painting with acrylics in order to be able to safely make art indoors. But to save myself from the vulnerability of making art in such new unstructured territory, outside of the classroom, completely self-regulated, I made endless excuses about why I couldn't even begin. And, unfortunately for 22 year-old Kimber, in order to be the thing, you have to do the thing.

Professionalism is a daily choice; not an attainable status.

2. Good studio hygiene is actually really important. Clean the damn brushes. Cover your pallet when you’re not using it so your paint doesn’t dry out. Put things away when you're done with them. Keep an organized (and limited) pallet. These are things my professors tried so hard to drill into my head, but it (stupidly) took years of not doing these things, or doing them wrong, to figure out that these habits make a huge difference in the quality of work I’m able to produce. Not to mention saves so much money on replacement brushes and paint, and time wasted looking for things in the studio.

Guys, this does not come naturally to me. Not even a little bit, and honestly I feel a little hypocritical for even writing it down because I still am not perfect in this category. I am getting better about it, though some weeks are better than others.

Along the way I've picked up a few little hacks (/common sense rules) to help those who can relate to my slobbish tendencies:

- Use pallet paper instead of a solid pallet. This might sound amateur, but for me it's between this and constantly having dried gummy paint on my pallet because I cannot bring myself to clean the thing on a regular basis. With pallet paper, once I'm ready to start anew, I simply tear off the dirty sheet and there's a sparkly clean one right under it, ready for fresh paint. Unfortunately it's not the most eco- or cost- friendly option, but we're all doing our best here.

- If you use oils, keep little cups or bowls next to your pallet so you can just put them upside down over your paint when you're done for the day. This will give it a longer life-span than leaving it open to the air overnight.

- After you use a paintbrush, at the very least brush it out in your turpentine/water/Gamsol container until paint stops coming out of the bristles, and then put it back where it belongs. DO NOT leave the brush in the tank. I've ruined more detailers than I'd like to admit this way.

If you're like me, this is as much as anyone can ask you to do consistently. I still don't clean my brushes with soap and water as often as I should, but I at least don't forget to rinse them in my brush tank or leave them there to die anymore.

- Stop hoarding your bad art. Here's a great post on decluttering your studio. I just did this and I feel like a new woman.

3. Your work won’t sell itself. I know being told that your beautiful art isn't going to attract crowds ready with their pocketbooks to it just by existing is a big hit to the ego. No artist wants to believe it. God knows I resisted, but it's true. Take a second to grieve this fact, kick some rocks, and then keep reading:

As artists, we also have to be business women/men. People are rightly skeptical of anyone trying to sell to them, so it's up to us to prove that we're the real deal and our work will add value to their lives. Yes, we all hate self-promotion. I sure do. It’s awkward, uncomfortable, and terribly vulnerable. Frankly, it’s my least favorite part of my job and the second I can afford to pay someone to do most of it for me, I will. But, I’m not there yet and you probably aren’t either, so we just gotta suck it up and be bold. Believe that the work you do matters and is worth supporting, and communicate that belief with confidence. Turns out, people generally have a lot of respect for people who do so.

So, embrace social media. Find ways to actively engage with your followers. Invest in a killer website and business cards. Always have a solid elevator speech about your work that you can confidently give to anyone anywhere. I'm still working on all this and learning the ins and outs of it, and so far it's paying off.

4. You need critics. You won’t make your best work if everyone around you is only telling you how amazing you are. We all need to be taken down a notch every once in a while. Personally, my work becomes stale and lazy when my ego gets too inflated. We need people to keep us humble. Invite honest criticism. Find a community of other artists who will be able to look critically at your work and tell you what could be better about it. Thanks to the Internet, finding this community online is a valid option. Fortunately for me, my husband has a pretty good eye for composition and is brutally honest when I ask him to be. That brutal honesty can sometimes hurt my feelings a little bit, but his input is indispensable. Without him my paintings would almost always be deemed "finished" and put out into the world too early.

5. Inspiration won't come to you. You have to go after it.

During the year where I wasn’t making anything, I was painfully unmotivated. I wasn’t having any good ideas and I felt a lot of shame about it. Eventually, after much pouting and excuse-making, I realized the reason for this. It should have been obvious.

I wasn’t filling my head with any inspiring content!

After college, I all but completely stopped reading and keeping up with other artists. I was in a big artistic void of my own making. If you’re not pursuing knowledge of your craft, practicing, staying engaged with the art world, and nurturing creativity through uninterrupted studio time, you simply won’t be successful. If you don’t use it, you lose it. You absolutely must make time for reading books about art and creativity, looking at art, listening to artist interviews... Give your brain the building blocks it needs to get creating. If you need some good content to get you going, I've included a few resources at the end of this post that have been invaluable to me.

Even more importantly, as I said earlier, you have to do the thing to be the thing. Research and content-collecting is important and helpful, but you can't get stuck there. Once you have a few ideas under your belt, get in the studio and make something. Found an artist whose mark-making or sfumato you really like? Heard about a technique or a new medium you want to try? Get some supplies out and start experimenting! You don't need a solid idea in your head for a finished product before you start laying down paint (ink, charcoal, words, etc.). Often simply beginning to make something before you have any idea where it will end up is exactly what you need to get you there. That actually brings me to one final point.

Bonus: You have to make bad art.

So I really did think this was going to be a five-point post, but this is really important for all creatives out there.

As the aphorism goes, "Perfection is the enemy of progress."

You are going to make a lot of bad art. A lot of it. With every single thing you start, it's important to enter into it with the knowledge that it might not work. It might be a bad composition, have some social or political undertones that you never intended to be there, or you might step back from it after working for three hours only to realize that you made the head way too big for the body (true example).

You can't be precious with your work. You just have to show up and do it. The more you do this, the more art you produce, the more your skill will organically improve. Consistently showing up to make your work will create a self-sustaining cycle of creativity. The more art you make, the better it becomes and the more ideas you garner from it, giving you fodder to make more and better art. There will be times when it doesn't feel like it's working, and you'll feel like you are the worst artist in the world. Not just bad; the worst. I ALWAYS feel this way about 85% of the way through a painting, often crying real tears of terror and frustration. These are the times you need to simply trust the process and keep showing up. Make the bad art. Let it be bad as long as it wants to be; just make it. You'll find your mojo again.

By the way, there's actually a word for this: Practice.

Carry on, my friends! Go forth and make things.



P.S. Those resources I promised:

Books: - Art & Fear by Orland and Bayles - The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

- Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon

Podcasts: - Magic Lessons with Elizabeth Gilbert - Art For Your Ear by The Jealous Curator

This blog

Also, if you want some brilliant contemporary artists on social media to follow, check out the "following" list on my Instagram @kimberdrydenart and my art board on Pinterest