8 Things You Should Know Early in Your Career As An Artist

Artists have always understood the importance of community, but last year, a survey from the Creative Independent demonstrated  just how much artists rely on one another for insight and information--especially in the beginning of their careers. 

More than a thousand artists participated in the survey, and 37% of them were relatively new, having just entered the art world within the last five years. When asked about their best strategies for “figuring things out” and becoming financially stable, more than two-thirds of the artists surveyed said they learned from observing and talking to their peers. 

In the spirit of learning from one another, we asked a group of talented artists to tell us about the things they wish they’d known when they first embarked on their creative journeys. Read on for eight key facts they learned over time--and why you should start thinking about them sooner rather than later. 

Dan ‘Nuge’ Nguyen with Fourth Movement (ash wood, ebonized). Photo: Kevin Tam.

Dan ‘Nuge’ Nguyen with Fourth Movement (ash wood, ebonized). Photo: Kevin Tam.

It takes time to find your voice. 

“The one piece of advice that I could give any artist who is just starting out is that you do not need to make a piece right off the bat that will define your ‘style,’” artist Dan ‘Nuge’ Nguyen tells us. “I think we tend to spend a lot of time in the early days putting pressure on ourselves to make statement pieces that define who we are as artists, but what I’ve learned is that the time I've spent trying to decide on the perfect project is better spent making anything.”

“Ideas are building blocks, and you need to start somewhere. The act of producing will generate more ideas. I am a firm believer that every single project that we make is a building block to our artistic direction. My craft is a constantly evolving form that could not have possibly happened overnight. I would’ve been surprised with what my craft looks like today compared to what I was making two years ago. I wouldn’t even be able to guess what my work will look like in three years because it will have grown a significant amount by then as well.” 

Denigration by Brett F Harvey

Denigration by Brett F Harvey

It’s important to create a community.

When sculptor Brett F Harvey was at university, an instructor repeated the old cliché in class: “It’s all about who you know.” Looking back, he remembers, “I dismissed the statement. I thought to myself, ‘I will push myself to be the best, and, of course, I will find the same sort of success based solely on the quality of my work.’”

These days, he has a more nuanced perspective. “With a little more life experience, my ideas have evolved and come back around,” he tells us. “My instructor’s comments were a little on the crass side, but they were closer to the truth than my idealistic ideas about opportunities arising simply for being a talented artist.” 

While Harvey does believe in the power of idealism--he says it helped him get to where he is today--he also emphasizes the importance of community. “I used to hear 'It’s all about who you know' and think it meant something slimy, like glad-handing, or being a good ol’ boy,” he admits. “I now have come to realize that it can be interpreted more along the lines of, ‘It’s all about how good your relationships are, and how much good faith you inspire in other people.’” 

In other words, forge genuine connections with others, and hold onto them. “You should not build relationships simply to use people in order to get ahead in life, but through being a good person and participating in a community, you naturally participate in relationships,” Harvey concludes. “I believe that people are basically good, and most of them will do what they can to help those around them.” 

On the edge of reality by Irie Wata

On the edge of reality by Irie Wata

Your fellow artists are your greatest resource.  

Don’t know how to start cultivating that network? Digital collage artist Irie Wata has some advice. “One thing that surprised me when I was in the process of building my community on Instagram was how helpful other artists were,” she tells us. “Now, whenever I find myself in need of tips for things like Photoshop or e-commerce, I just send a DM to an artist who appears to have a lot of knowledge about the subject. 

“I wish I had known earlier that other artists are overwhelmingly nice and happy to help, which feels great. It’s like you have a whole bunch of new supportive friends. I would strongly advise new artists to connect with other artists--just go ahead and ask them whatever you would like to know.” 

Résilience de la matière © Valentin Abad

Résilience de la matière © Valentin Abad

Rejection is inevitable. 

Every artist faces rejection; Claude Monet and Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec certainly did, and so did Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol. 

Sculptor and installation artist Valentin Abad understands that when it comes to contests and similar opportunities, it’s usually a numbers game, so he makes it a point to submit about three or four times each year. “I understand that it doesn't have to do with the quality of my practice when answers are ‘no,’” he says. “And I know it is unrealistic to think something will come from every submission, but I still need to try anyway.” 

It’s okay to have a day job. 

This one might sound familiar, but it bears repeating. Alexander Calder worked as an engineer; T.S. Elliot was a banker, and Mark Rothko was a teacher. 

Composer Philip Glass supported himself and his art by working as a plumber and a cab driver. He once recalled running into art critic Robert Hughes while installing a dishwasher. As the story goes, Hughes stared at him and said incredulously, “But you're Philip Glass! You are an artist.” Speaking with The Guardian, Glass remembered, “I explained that I was an artist but that I was sometimes a plumber as well and that he should go away and let me finish.”

While once it was common practice for artists to maintain day jobs, today we make the assumption that professional artists don’t pursue other lines of work. In reality, it varies from person to person. Some artists keep their jobs because they have to, and some keep them because they enjoy what they do. The secret is to find a day job that nourishes and fuels your creative spirit--you want to do something that inspires, rather than hinders, your artistic practice. 

Refraction by Gil Bruvel

Refraction by Gil Bruvel

There’s the creative side--and then there’s the business side. 

“Once it is out of the studio, it is just business,” sculptor and painter Gil Bruvel tells us. “A lot of young artists do not know that. My advice is to understand that and really separate the two--the creative part in the studio producing the artwork and the acute awareness that galleries are businesses. 

“It requires lots of attention and effort to be the best you can be creatively, maintaining your own expression and sticking to your vision in the long-term, while you are simultaneously dealing with the business part of an artistic career.” 

The stars, the moon by Holly Jolley

The stars, the moon by Holly Jolley

You have to set boundaries. 

“Your job isn't your life,” illustrator Holly Jolley explains. “When you work as a freelance artist, it’s hard to set boundaries, and it gets to a point when your work life gently absorbs your personal life. This used to happen a lot to me especially because I wanted to make clients extra happy, even if that went against my own mental health. I used to set unrealistic deadlines for delivering illustrations, and that didn't leave any time for myself. 

“My biggest advice for avoiding this is having conscious breaks, going for walks, making plans, and trying to set timelines. Also, keeping weekends for yourself is good--don't work weekends! In the end, taking these little breaks and caring for myself led to being much more productive and making clients happy anyway.”

El lagarto by Xaviera López

El lagarto by Xaviera López

You must remember to stay true to yourself.  

“At the end of the day, you have to do you, regardless of any bad experiences or poor results in the beginning,” animator Xaviera López advises. “Your time is precious. Don’t waste it trying to be something you’re not--spend it doing what you really want to do. Also, remember that the work itself is the best reward. It is a true privilege to be able to create, to turn ideas into something tangible, to make things that were not physically there before. It is an experience that will challenge you, change you, and make you feel alive. Never take it for granted.”


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Header/Thumbnail credit: Skillshare student Tasha S. for Skillshare Top Teacher team Evgeniya & Dominic Righini-Brand’s Source & Mix: Digital Collage from Vintage Encyclopaedia Illustrations.

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