How to become a successful artist is a question we have probably asked ourselves at one point. But what makes a successful artist? At a micro level there are a tons of things you can do to improve your chances of success. Many might be related to the art you practice, whether it be photography or painting. But too often artists get wrapped up in so many of the minor details without looking at things in a broader perspective. I have met a lot of artists and photographers over the past decade or more. Some have been incredibly inspiring in everything from their personality to their craft. Based on some of my conversations with them I like to think there are at least 3 things at a macro level that I believe anyone looking to become successful in a visual arts related field must do. These could likely be attributed to other aspects or professions in life but I will try to make this more relatable to those in the arts.
Identify & Fix Your Shortcomings
Theodore Roosevelt once said, "If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn't sit for a month." Knowing how to identify your shortcomings is not easy for most people. I believe we as human beings are egocentric by nature and being able to look past our faults is always difficult. Eliminating this side of us is probably impossible but with concentrative effort and maturity we can make improvements. This first step is to be a little self-effacing and accept you are not the world’s gift to the art field. Let it be your family and friends that dote on your work but take it with a gracious grain of salt otherwise you will believe everything they say as truth. By having a willingness to set aside praises and accolades you are better suited to take yourself off any pedestal you may have placed yourself on and forces you to recognize the “My Way” is not always the “Right Way”. Once you have done that look at everything else relating to how you conduct yourself as a person and an artist when you interact with others. Be mindful and even empathetic toward your clients so you have a clear understanding of what they want and make sure that you fully understand what is expected of you whether it be a commissioned piece and it’s deadline or the terms of a photography contract for a wedding.
Don’t Just Hear What You Want
Avoid “Selective Hearing”. Selective hearing is what I like to call it when people hear only what they want to here and disregard everything else. You probably know people like this but as part of the humbling process identify those areas you are prone to selective hearing. I say identify and not “find” because no matter who you are, everyone does this to some extent or another. Some people say “I always look at the bright side of things”. That is great! But if you find yourself always running into problems with clients, vendors, business partners, contracts, etc. just make sure you are not prone to selective hearing by discounting or simply ignoring those things that don’t suit you. Clear communication is not just you talking concisely but also hearing and understanding what others are saying to you.
I met a photographer like this once. She was constantly having problems with her clients. I had a strong sense she lacked self-discipline in general but when she was going to sue a former client over payment for a project, I suspected there was more to the story. I was confirmed after she mentioned about an opportunity coming her way. She said that she was going to be getting represented by an art agent who was going to get her photography seen in high end galleries in the U.S. and parts of Europe. I asked her how the agent had found out about her. She said that it was through a friend who knew this agent. Well I learned later that this friend did not know an art agent but had said that this photographer “should” get an art agent to represent her and that perhaps if she had the right agent she could get her work in high end galleries around the U.S. and even Europe.
Continue to Evolve
Evolving as an artist can sometimes be difficult to do. Especially if you have a set style you do not want to change. But evolving is more or may not even be related to the art you create. Evolving might be based on things you do to make it possible for you to create your art in the first place.
I recently had a conversation with a president of one of our suppliers. Even though he had sales reps, he enjoyed making the occasional sales call because it helped him keep in-tune with the needs of his clients as well as his sales skills up to date. We were discussing how FinerWorks had entered framing. I told him that it was simply part of our evolution. One thing businesses need to do is to always be willing to evolve in different areas. This might be within the overall structure, technology, staff or even product offerings. Sometime it will be with a goal in mind, other times it might be out of sudden necessity.
Failing to make intentional efforts to find ways you can improve might ultimately be what creates gains in sales or exposure. For an artist, it might be how you approach a gallery, display your portfolio or even how you dress at a show. If you truly want to successfully represent yourself to a certain clientele but are not willing to make the efforts required on your part you will find it very difficult to accomplish your goal. As an example be willing to gravitate to some of the things they do and develop your methods and presentation so that it appeals to those clients personality as well as taste.
Or perhaps it is something more basic like book keeping or maintaining your website. You might be making sales but have a website that still displays a dancing Elmo. If you are one to say you don’t have the time or know how, then find someone who does or make the time or make the effort to learn how to do those things. I know one successful artist that had a very old website representing his work. It was hard to navigate, not mobile friendly and generally loaded very slow. His business cards prominently directed people to view some of his work on his website so people were going there but who knows how many potential sales he lost because his site was not current with the browsing habits of today. We had been making his prints for years, however I noticed that he was not doing as many as before, only noticing his work come up a few times annually. When I finally got a chance to catch up with him he said that sales had been down over the past 3 or 4 years. I asked him how people were now ordering prints from him. He said that it was the same way as always, online and at the occasional art show. Together we looked at his website and compared it to how some other artists’ websites looked. We walked through the purchase process on his site and I showed him how it worked on some of the other devices like a phone or tablet. I then showed him some of the third-party sites he could list his prints for sale. Ultimately, he took my advice. Setup a brand-new website on the Shopify platform and started to list prints on Etsy. He is now seeing some dramatic improvements in sales. Already I think I am seeing his orders come in once or twice a month which for him is not bad since he sells each giclee print for $400-$500 each.
You have heard of Karma right? Or perhaps the saying, “You reap what you sow”? I think that is true with everything in life. There are those people that are always in trouble, struggling to get by or always facing challenges in life. Not all of them but some will be where they are because of the decisions they make, how and who they interact with. You likely know people like this to some degree or another. But I have found that one of the best things you can do is to be a resource for others. When it comes to the visual arts related field, there are a lot of opportunities and best of all it does not have to cost you a lot of upfront cash. Just a willingness to invest in yourself and others. As an example, a close friend of mine is a very successful photographer and photography instructor. He also is very active with the Dominion Rotary Club which meets at the Dominion Country Club located on the outskirts of San Antonio. This is the country club for the same neighborhood that some professional sports players live as well as notable celebrity entertainers who call San Antonio home. Being in both such proximity to the 1% as it is called today and being willing to serve the underprivileged and needy through the Rotary Club has placed him a very good position to be contacted by prominent business people and even celebrities for photography related services and classes. Plus, his willingness to take on apprentices and interns to help them learn the photography business has provided many new photographers some helpful tools they need when they go out on their own. Ultimately it has allowed his brand to be one which people know and take confidence in.
That is just one example but here are many other things you can do in the arts field. It could also be teaching painting classes, if you are good with designing websites, helping other artists develop their own website. Perhaps even writing a blog for others to learn from describing your ventures as an artist and what you have learned in the past. Or it may even be more basic like helping a new artist setup and sell at their first show or putting them in contact with a gallery you have worked with. Remember in the visual arts related field, it is not just about promoting your art but also about promoting yourself. And one of the best ways to promote yourself is by serving others.
The visual arts field like any field has successes and failures. There is no reason you cannot be one of those successes even if you feel that it’s too late, you don’t know where to start or you feel like giving up. There are other things you can also do that many successful artists carry out and that includes studying how successful artists and photographers have achieved the level they have made it to or even understanding your art buyers better. Ultimately it is up to you. Don’t rely on others to make things happen. Find fault with yourself first so you can understand your weaknesses, work to improve everything you can about how you go about your art as it relates to getting in the hands of buyers and collectors and ultimately be willing to share your time and knowledge with others that might also be struggling as artists.