A big-name, rich collector buys all of your available work. A patron of the arts funds a year of studio practice. A NYC gallery wants to feature you in your very own solo show. Some white knight changes your life forever, sweeps you up on their horse and carries you off to fame.
Those are what we call big breaks in the art world.
But here’s the thing about big breaks, they don’t come looking for you, you have to make them yourself. And most often, big breaks often take the form of much smaller breaks that you find along the way, some might be larger than others, but they all push you further down a path that you are paving as you go along.
There’s no set way to become an artist. Some people go to art school and do residencies, others start a youtube channel and sell stickers on RedBubble. My point is, there is tremendous flexibility in how you choose to sell your work and the kind of artist you choose to be. Personally, while I’m drawn to big-name artists that sell work at tens of thousands of dollars, I prefer to make my work more accessible to the average person.
If you want to become a full time working artist, you have to want it. I don’t mean wanting it like you might want a bag of chips, I mean the kind of intense desire that fills you up inside. You have to want this so much that you’re almost completely unwilling to accept failure.
You have to be willing to create these opportunities for success yourself. For me, that meant sending hundreds of emails to galleries, art consulting agencies, staging companies, interior designers, curators, and when they didn’t respond, I’d wait six months and send them another email with my new work. It meant sending my work to online magazines, local papers, small-scale art and literature publications, etc. Starting out, I’d often spend more time trying to get my art out there than I would creating it.
My first break was actually displaying my work in a local coffee shop, then I got into a small-town art gallery, then a consignment relationship with an art consulting agency. I got all these opportunities in the first three months of opening my business, but I had only sold one painting so far. It’s honestly amazing how far a professionally worded email will get you. I wasn’t experienced, I was 19 and not even studying art in school, but I was asking. Having the courage to ask is vital.
But the more time I went without having sold a painting, despite these initial successes, an inevitable doubt starts to set in. Should I really be doing this? Is every dollar I spend on art supplies another dollar down the drain?
Then four months roll around, I sell a print and a small watercolor. Two more months, nothing happens. I reached a point where I was seriously considering quitting, so I used that insecurity and doubt as fuel to keep me going. I write more emails, make more work, get involved in my local art community. I get my work published in a magazine, a student newspaper article written about me, but no more sales. I revise my prices, update my website, create new and more experimental work, and while my online community of people who appreciate my art is growing, I’m still not making enough income to cover expenses.
But late November rolls around and I sign up for this craft show, completely free for vendors (which, if you’re into selling your work in craft shows you know it’s a rarity to not have to pay a $300 or above booth fee). While I don’t really expect my work to sell, I slash my prices down by about 30%, bring in a bunch of watercolor paintings and some of my more expensive original works, advertise the show on social media, and I wait.
In three hours I’m almost completely sold out. I had the second best day of profits out of everyone there, and that feeling of validation was incredible. People liked my work! And even better, they were willing to buy it!
I took every opportunity I was capable of handling (and some that I wasn’t but made it work anyway) and I made my own success.
Moral of this story? There are no big breaks that happen on accident, only the breaks that you make for yourself.