How to Become a Professional Artist: A Beginner’s Guide
I still remember my first sale. It was at one of my very first shows. I recall feeling shocked at the idea that someone was willing to pay money to own my painting! I immediately called my mother (an artist herself.) I remember her saying, “Now you’re officially a professional!” At that moment, I felt like a professional. But it’s not quite that simple.
That was the definition my mother learned as she was training. Since then, I’ve learned that the road to being a professional artist is a little more complicated. I’m sure there are many different perspectives on this. The following is what I’ve experienced and a relatively typical step-by-step process.
Last Updated May 2020
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1. Hone your skills
The first and most important part of becoming a professional is to develop your skills. Build up your knowledge and brush handling capabilities. Take classes, study expert work, and practice. If you want to be a professional, you need to get your work to a level where it can hold its own among established artists. It’s a tricky thing to define. It’s a lot like the difference between a brand new cake decorator and one with years of experience and training. The difference in skill level is visual.
2. Test your skills
Once you feel your work is of a high enough caliber, test it. See if your work is ready by entering your strongest piece in a local art show. Watch the audience as they view it. I like to take off my artist badge and browse around near my work to overhear and observe viewer reaction. Did your piece sell? That’s also a great sign.
You can also ask for feedback from the people around you. Look for people who aren’t afraid to speak the truth but are also not chronically critical. Or, you can observe people who see your work but have no personal connection. This can be someone like the person who assists you when you get a piece framed. Do they seem impressed with your work? Take note, but also remember that everyone has different tastes. Try to get many opinions.
3. Discover what you’re good at
Where do you excel? When I was a new artist, I wanted to paint florals. I almost gave up on painting entirely after many frustrating attempts. I finally decided to try a portrait. After all, I used to sketch people as a young girl and I wasn’t too bad. As it turned out, portrait painting came much easier! It seemed to match the way I think. Look for your area of strength. That can relate to the subject matter, painting medium, or artistic style. You may accel at oil painting rather than acrylic, for example. If one way isn’t feeling natural, try another.
4. Develop a body of work
Develop a solid base of 10-14 pieces of art that you feel confident in. They should be cohesive and of a high skill level. You want each piece to convey a consistent artistic style and similar subject matter.
5. Learn how to photograph artwork
This isn’t quite as simple as it sounds. You need to make sure the photographs you produce are of high quality — they are going to represent your work.
- There shouldn’t be any blur (so consider using a tripod), and the lighting should be even.
- Many experts recommend photographing outside on a temperate, bright but overcast day. This creates a kind of natural white box. Mid-day also offers the most neutral color tone. Aim to photograph somewhere between 11 am and 2 pm.
- Your primary image should show the painting image only. It should not show the mat, frame, wall, or any other surrounding material. You can crop these items out using photo manipulation software.
6. Create a basic website
Using that well-photographed initial body of work, create a simple but professional website. Websites are the modern version of a portfolio. If you want to be competitive, you need to be online. At this point, the site can be simple. You need your name, a little bit about you, your professional art, and contact information. You can create a simple site using a website builder. Sites like wix.com, weebly.com, or SquareSpace.com offer free versions with a few basic templates to choose from. They’re okay when you begin your career, but you will need to upgrade later.
7. Start an artwork database
This is also the time to establish a computer database to track your work and exhibitions. Do this early in your art career, so you don’t lose track. I like Artwork Archive, but you can begin with a computer program you already have or search online for other alternatives. If you want to be a serious artist, it helps to keep things organized from the get-go.
8. Build your resume
So now, you have a solid initial body of professional art established. You have quality photographs of your work. You have a basic website ready to go. You have a method to track your career as an artist. It’s now time to develop your resume. This means you need to enter local shows, or join local art groups and participate in their group exhibits. It can also mean working with small local venues such as a coffee shop or library that features local art. It’s time to get your work out in public.
9. Expand your marketing efforts
After you have a little bit of a show history, it’s time to ramp up your website and develop some marketing materials. You’re going to need a well thought out artist statement and bio. You also need a professional-looking headshot that represents your artist personality. This is a photo of you, the artist.
An artist statement is what you want to say with your work. It’s what makes your pieces of art unique or what you want the viewer to experience when seeing your work. A bio is simply your artist history (education, exhibits, etc.). Save these items as shareable documents and add them to your website as well, if it’s not already there. Your website will also need upgrading to one that allows you to use your own domain name. A domain name is the website address name (such as JaneDoeArt.com). Most free websites require you to use an extension in your address, such as JaneDoe.weebly.com. It’s best to present yourself clear of any such extensions. Artists often just use their name, such as janedoe.com, but it’s up to you. Just make sure it’s easy to remember.
At this point, you should have a solid grasp of pricing. You will need to be consistent about it. You want to be able to pay the bills, but also understand what a fair price is. Price increases should come slowly or after a special honor or professional association. And finally, business cards are still used today. They let people know your website address where they can see more of your work or contact you. They’re nice for on-the-spot promotion.
10. Increase the quality of venue and group
As you continue to grow your experience, both in exhibiting and painting, you should start to see growth in your skill level as well. You may want to start looking into higher-end exhibits and art associations. You may even find that you receive praise for your work or even win local awards. Try entering your best piece in a national show or seek out a solo exhibit at a reputable venue. Go beyond what is local.
11. Always present yourself as a professional
Being a professional is more than just meeting certain goals. It’s also how you present yourself. It’s how you carry yourself, the way you dress, and the confidence you show in your work. When you engage in the art world, dress well, look clean, present your work in the best light. Be sure to have professional-looking marketing materials. You wouldn’t believe the negative impact an unkempt mat and frame can have, for example. Or on the opposite tack, the positive one that a smartly dressed, engaging persona can have.
12. Decide what direction you want to go in as an artist
You’ve reached a professional level in your work, have a solid resume, and professional marketing materials. Now you need to decide how you want to focus. You may want to create a business plan for art like any other profession. Where do you want to go with your career and how can you get there? There are many paths you can take as a professional artist, but it’s impossible to do everything or every angle. I would suggest picking two or three paths and focus your efforts on them. The paths I’m referring to are:
- Exhibitions and involvement in the arts community
- Gallery representation
- Outdoor art markets
- National and international art fairs
- Plein air competitions
- Commission work
As you attend certain events, chat with the artists there. Get a feel for how that career path impacts their life. Gallery representation means you need to form a relationship with a gallery owner. Plein air competitions, for example, will involve travel. Commission work will require contracts and ways to communicate with clients. Outdoor markets will mean travel and the need to buy a proper tent and hanging materials. Observe and ask questions. You’ll find that some naturally appeal to you more than others.
Get help following your path
There is no one answer to how to become a professional artist. There are many paths to becoming one. Every artist, and every person, is unique. But you can use this information as a general template. Following these steps will help you get going in the right direction and discover your individual track.
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