How to be an artist in the 21st Century

How to be an artist in the 21st Century

You’re an artist. Well done. Some brave soul had to do it. How do you become an artist that sells their work without selling out?

“So you’re an artist then….any good?”


“Do you actually sell any?”

“Um, I…”

“My mate’s cousin… now, he’s really good. What do you paint?”

“Well, recently I had…”

“What you should be doing are those dancing couples on the beach…now they’re classy… hey… where are you going… HEY?”

‘Experts’…HAH! You know, the more I learn about art, the less I feel I know about it. It’s not that I can’t paint. I can, and I have had the shows and sales to prove it. It’s just that I have become aware that talent really only plays a very small part of my domination of the British contemporary art scene. Twenty percent talent, eighty percent luck is how I look at it.

The UK art market is the second largest in the world, holding about twenty nine percent of global sales with an estimated value of about eight billion pounds. Hmm, it’s not that I actually want eight billion pounds… Just a teeny-tiny bit of it would be quite nice.

Start young so you can get used to disappointment

“When I grow up I want to be an artist – that or a ballerina”

Children always have the right idea. Blue at the top…green at the bottom. “It’s a grass and sky thing you see”. They have a pure and unique vision on the world, a unique vision that is soon obscured by the clutter and nonsense of everyday life. Try to hold on to this thought. It will come in handy later on.

The best art is consistent. My gallery rejections? Yes, they’re consistent

“That painting is perfect, just what we are looking for. Can you do it with more ducks?”

Galleries are tricky to break into. They never know what they want but they always seem to know what they don’t want. Rejections are part of the job description of being a painter. A way round this would be to hire your own space (expensive), share a joint hire of a gallery space (less expensive but are those others any good to exhibit with?), or – my favourite – offer your services for free as a curator for a couple of times a week. This is handy for grabbing the empty gallery between-shows to hang your own work for little or no cost at all.

The online option is always good as there are sites dedicated to selling but they do take a long time due to the fact that there are usually lots of other people also trying to sell. Sending out your portfolio on disc is useful, but it can get silly when you realise just how many you’re sending without any kind of return “thanks for the disc but it’s not quite what we are looking for today”.

One word, then… blog.

How do you get known as an artist?

Galleries always examine the backs of canvasses as they don’t really know what to say about the fronts.

“What’s that, then?”

“That’s a self portrait.”

“Oooh… who of?”

So how do you get known? I wish I had the definitive answer to this. A cheeky method that a friend of mine uses is to approach a very high profile type and paint them for free (not literally – that is popularly known as assault). Once the high profile sort has shown all of his equally high profile friends, at some point one of them will be willing to actually pay for some sort of artistic rendition of their ‘high profileness’ or someone connected with them. As I previously mentioned, there is no real formula for this.

Remember the ‘twenty percent talent and eighty percent luck’? Erase that now and replace it with ‘one hundred percent determination’.

Hang on to your ego… there’s no such thing as bad art

“I think it was kittens in formaldehyde…that or bunnies”

That art world has mostly been based on ‘the emperor’s new clothes’ ethic. Painting was proclaimed ‘dead’ a few years ago, and now the art world is saying “hang on a minute, with the right CPR we could have painting back on its feet again.” So what does that tell us about the art world? It’s fickle. Looking for a career in a fickle industry will always be hard as somebody will always be moving the boundaries. With so much concentration on high end art and equally the same amount on the low end (the stuff that you buy in home improvement stores, usually to match the curtains) where on earth does it leave us mere mortals in the middle?

The fatal error for any artisan would be to start painting what they think people want or – worse still – giving up all together. If you try to tailor your art to impress galleries or clients you will lose track of why you wanted to paint in the first place, and consistency? Well, forget it.

More like the Turner booby prize

“Conceptual art is a product of the untalented, sold by the unprincipled to the utterly bewildered”

Remember that I told you to hold on to a thought, the child’s thought, the pure unclouded thought? Well, just try and remember how it felt. Forget the rejections, forget the rubbish art and the even more rubbish prints of the very same rubbish art. Forget the fact that one of our leading artists who is worth over two hundred million pounds doesn’t even produce any of their own work and when they do, the critics don’t think much of it. Forget the PC expert who thinks that clipart is going to be more of a unique experience for his business than actually paying you to produce a true work of art. Forget the gallery when they casually ask for more ducks (imagine asking Vermeer for more shadows)

Now remember: “blue at the top, green at the bottom”.

And the winner is…

“Art is making something out of nothing… and selling it”

I have no super equation for success. What will help you through the gloomy periods will be to remember why you became the artist and not the ballerina, the reason why art became a passion and not just a way to try and make money. Stay true to your beliefs, remember the one hundred percent determination which took over from the eighty percent luck with a twenty percent dash of talent. Don’t sell out, don’t try to create what you think people want, just keep producing your very own mini masterpieces. Live for your passion.

Me? Well, I’m still putting blue at the top and green at the bottom.