I’ve thought about this question for many, many years now. One of the reasons that I have been so interested in this subject is because art has always been my first love, but I was pushed out of the art program in college because, “No one can make a living in the fine arts.”
Perhaps when I was in college this was true. And looking back, I am happy that I didn’t continue through college as an art major because most academic art programs, then and now, emphasize expression over craft. The traditional atelier experience is usually missing from a college setting.
Creation without technique is hollow, as is technique without creation. Imagine a musician that never practiced his scales and made technical mistakes all through his performance. No matter what kind of passion he played with, the technical errors would ruin it for the audience. And technically perfect music without emotion is soporific. Art is exactly the same. You must have proficiency in drafting, values, color, edges, composition, design, etc., before you can begin to express yourself creatively as a painter. Self-expression in art has been for many decades an excuse for not mastering the basics.
But back to the question at hand: what does it take to be a successful artist? Here are the things that I think you have to have in order from most important to least important:
The most important thing, and really the only thing that will keep you going long-term, is passion. You must love creating your art so much that you are brought back to it again and again. When I returned to painting after years away from art, I felt like I was going to explode because the drive was so strong. The edge is off now, but if I go very long without painting, I begin to have a feeling of impending explosion. I paint because I must.
In the art workshops I have taken, I have noticed that most people quit when their drawings or paintings are “good enough.” They can see that there are still problems with their work, but they don’t feel like fixing those problems. In the three-hour workshops that I have taken, many of my fellow students quit after about 2½ hours. If you are a serious art student, then you must have a drive towards perfection and the ability to make yourself work towards it. Come early and stay late. Solve the problems if you want the growth. This is not something that is traditionally associated with artists, but I believe is critical.
If you have the passion and discipline, then you will stick with your art long term, and accumulate the experience that you need to be good. Go look at some of the early works of the people who are considered great today. They started out as bad as anyone else. If you look through the images of art works from the great western art auctions, Scottsdale Art Auction, the Coeur d'Alene Art Auction, the Jackson Hole Art Auction, the Santa Fe Art Auction, Altermann Galleries Auction, Bonhams, Heritage Auctions, etc., you will occasionally run into an early work by one of the Taos painters, Russell, Remington, Carol Oscar Borg, Edgar Payne or Maynard Dixon that is just embarrassing. It really takes time to train your eye and learn the skills. “See a million and paint a thousand” (anonymous) is a good guideline.
There are two parts to this – 1) support from family and friends and 2) professional support. Because it takes such a long time and many hours of practice to become a good painter (time that you could spend cleaning the house, doing the laundry, hanging out with family or friends, etc.), you really need family and friends who support you through all of the years when your work looks horrible and you are agonizing over it. You need people that believe in you and can see that eventually you will gain the ability to express what you see. The second part of this is gallery or marketing representation. Artists are notoriously bad at putting their work out there. Having a gallery or representative that really believes in you and promotes your work is critical. Here’s the irony. A gallery may take on an artist because they really like their work and believe in them. That belief and support in and of itself can make the artist successful long term. I could name several of contemporary and historical artists (but I will refrain) who I believe are or were successful because they were picked up by major galleries and promoted over several decades, but whose work I believe will not stand the test of time.
This is the least important of all. My husband and I read recently read a great book by Geoff Colvin called Talent is Overrated. We actually read it out loud to each other and talked about it as we read because we thought it was so profound. His thesis is that is that the greatest achievers succeed through endless "deliberate practice" and that what was traditionally thought of as talent may be the ability to learn something a little faster than others or have the drive (passion?) to keep at something until you have mastered it. No one wants to hear this because it is easier to believe that you just don’t have the talent. Lack of talent is the perfect excuse. I believe it was Richard Schmid who said that artistic talent is the ability to see what is wrong or out of place in a work of art. Of course being able to see what is wrong with a work of art is wasted if you don’t have the discipline to work at fixing the problems.
DEFINITION OF SUCCESS:
My college art professors defined success as being able to make a living with art. I reject that definition as being narrow and petty. Life is far more than survival. However, it is good not to starve, because that puts an end to growth.
Most people when asked would probably say that the successful artists are those, like Monet and Van Gogh, who are known and loved world-wide. (Tell that to Van Gogh who never sold a painting during his lifetime, and was supported by his brother, Theo Van Gogh. How much richer is the world because of Theo’s support of his brother?) But being world-famous is largely due to luck, the current directions of various art trends, and the vagaries of popularity. There are many artists who were masters and lived at the time when representational art was going out of favor (like William-Adolphe Bouguereau) who never became world-famous but are truly great and successful artists.
The New York painter, David Kassan said in a lecture I attended, “Art is not about being rich, but about living richly.” And there really is something to this. Being able to do on a daily basis something that you really love is a great measure of success. But there has to be something more than just happiness as well.
I think success in art is part happiness, part continued growth and mastery, and part sufficiency. If you have enough to cover your needs (and reasonable wants), are able to grow and produce on a daily basis, and are truly happy in your work, then you are successful. But each artist will have his own definition of success. Enough income to pay for supplies? Enough income for daily needs? Enough income to save for the future? Living in a picturesque location? The ability to travel? Acknowledgment from your peers? Awards in major shows? Whatever your definition of success in art, passion, discipline, experience, support and talent are an essential part. View shared post