‘Professional artist’ is not one of the things you commonly see on lists of professions or careers – except at schools which cater specifically to artistic children, career advisers, books and even computer programs that intend to help young people choose jobs for later in life rarely mention art as a possible path. Most people wouldn’t even find that surprising – art is well known for being a challenging career, even for those with talent and determination, and success is not assured. Yet none of that is going to put off a true artist who needs to create to express themselves, and for whom art is always a natural part of their lives. But what makes a professional artist?
It’s not business cards or high grades from high school or university, and it isn’t even the amount of time devoted to art. Many people don’t start their art careers as full-time artists, but instead hold down two jobs – one for the rent, and one for the love of it. That need not make their status as an artist any less professional than someone who spends ten hours of every day working in their own studio. Of course devoting time to art is important – to development, artistic growth and the production of work – but that time can be in the evening after office hours, or in the morning when the children are at school, or the main focus of the weekends. So what is the magic ingredient?
Actually, of course, there are lots. The first and most important is probably self-determination, the personal decision that you are an artist, and that this is a part of your profession and not simply a hobby or a pleasant way to pass time. This involves a commitment to your work, and a willingness to make it one of your priorities. No one else can help you with this aspect – it comes entirely from within and must be something you truly know about yourself. If you give it thought and decide that you aren’t comfortable making this sort of declaration, then the life of a professional artist is not for you, because that is a necessary part of being one.
Another vital component of the professional artist’s working life is knowing who they are as an artist. That means being aware of your style and what suits you and what speaks to you, and what doesn’t. This is not to say that experimenting with new things from time to time is a bad idea, or unprofessional in some way – as we’ve discussed in the past, such exploration can be valuable to your development as an artist. But even these experiments should fit into your overall style. You need a recognizable voice, one that represents you and makes you stand out from everyone else. Someone who has visited your studio or seen your work in a gallery should be able to see your work hanging somewhere else and think ‘I’ve seen that artist’s work before.’ Professional artists go for depth as well as breadth; explore yourself and know your style.
This leads to a separate but equally important point. You must have a relatively substantial body of work. Galleries who are interested in representing you, or collectors who are considering purchasing some of your work, will not be interested in waiting to see your portfolio until you’ve had time to put it all together and paint some more. Keep good, close-up photographs of work that you sell, to remind yourself of the past and to show to prospective clients for a general idea of your work, but make sure that you have work in hand. Fine artists often don’t work entirely to commission – some will not work in that way at all – but however you work, you need pieces you can display when called upon.
Publicity and media is also a part of the professional artist’s life. It’s often not the artist’s favorite aspect, and its true that it can take time away from creative sessions, but as we’ve said so many times before, no matter how great the work, it won’t sell if no one can see it. You need to get the word out – and you need to take responsibility for that yourself. It’s fine to have an agent, to rely on a gallery which also handles PR, and so on, but ultimately you need to know what is going on in your career, and that includes knowing what publicity endeavors you’re engaged in. This is true even if you don’t really like doing it – no profession is perfect!
Building a relationship with other professionals in the art world is also key. Participate in relevant events and gatherings, and keep in touch with people you meet there who might be useful contacts further down the line. Take part in local events, and get to know local artists or art professionals. Try to end all relationships – with agents, galleries, dealers and so on – amicably. You never know when you’ll need their expertise again. The idea of a lone artist struggling away in a garret attic may be romantic, but it’s not realistic. The art world is just that – a whole world of its own, with its own rules and assumptions and networks. Make sure you’re a part of that.
Of course, within all this, there is enormous room for personal preferences and choices. Different people find different things more challenging or alien and so need to emphasize different aspects of the career choice that is being a professional artist. What’s your top choice for what makes a professional artist? Let us know in the comments!