I often get surprised at how many people tend to naturally lean towards strongly polarized views, when the truth most often lies somewhere in the middle. Perhaps we have an easier time identifying with more clear-cut positions. But this tendency usually leads to trouble.
One acute example is the general attitude people take towards building a career in a creative field. On the one side you have the dreamers – imagining a rosy future filled with self-expression, color, fame, travel, fun and free time – and right behind them are the opportunists, ready to sell you your dreams for a few hundred dollars. ‘Become a successful artist in six weeks!!’ ‘Make tons of money doing what you love!!!’ ‘Take control of your spiritual growth!!’ New-age gurus abound and it’s getting harder and harder to differentiate between the false prophets and the true.
On the other hand, you have the hard-core ‘realists’. ‘You’re deluding yourself.’ ‘It can’t be done.’ ‘Why do you think of all people YOU are going to be good enough to make it?’ ‘Get a REAL job.’ These sentiments come flying at us both from our friends and family, who speak out of concern, and faceless strangers you’ll run into online, who presumably have some reason to spend their lives demeaning people on the internet, though I won’t pretend to know what it is.
So which way should we lean? Buy into the fantasy of the Successful Artist, hoping that the next contest you enter or the next course you take will catapult you to glory? Or let your confidence get eroded by the constant stream of ‘realism’ that says you’ll never make it big?
For me, one phrase sums up my entire relationship with both of these currents. “ANYONE CAN DO IT, BUT NOT EVERYONE WILL.”
It’s true. No matter who you are, how much talent you have, or what sort of art you like to make – there is an audience out there for you. This is 100% guaranteed. If you love something, there will be other people out there who love it too. I firmly believe that ANYONE – absolutely anyone at all – can become a successful artist – IF they’re willing to do what it takes. But that ‘if’ is far bigger than most people realize.
It’s also true that for most people, art will never bring a steady income. Being a professional artist – i.e. relying on art to cover your living costs entirely – is a tall order. Even superbly talented and widely recognized artists often have trouble making ends meet only by working in their chosen field – bolt fabric design, children’s book illustration, editorial illustration – but they supplement their income by teaching, public speaking, selling digital resources, writing e-books, or working in completely unrelated fields to help out their budget. It takes years to build up your art career to the point where it can feed your family.
We often avoid thinking about how difficult it is to make it as an artist, and no wonder – it’s not like we need the additional discouragement. We like to think of it in the same way as winning the lottery – sure it’s not very likely, but someone has to win? It just might be me! But facing the reality of it head-on gives you a surprising hidden strength, almost akin to a super-power. It makes you impervious to the thousands of small failures you know you’ll have to shake off on your path to Artistic Success. All too often we see brilliant artists with great potential give up too soon because they can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. But they might have persevered if they had only known the light is there – it’s just that the tunnel is longer than they had imagined. With a lot more twists and curves.
The strategy for navigating these first years is twofold – first, pace yourself. Don’t quit your day job yet if your savings can only carry you for the next six months. Don’t sign up for every art course in existence and spend a ton of money on your new career before you’ve started earning from the skills you already have. Don’t try to simultaneously become amazing at pattern design, landscape painting, pottery decoration and children’s book illustration. If you want to tackle all of these, make them take turns, like kids on the playground swing.
Second – embrace every opportunity to fail. Throw yourself into competitions and open calls for artists with abandon. Write to blogs and magazines and ask them to feature you. Approach clients, studios and agents and ask them if they’d want to work with you. Tackle techniques you aren’t comfortable with. Try drawing things you have no idea how to draw. There is no risk. Failure feels very intimately embarrassing from within, but it’s largely invisible from the outside. No one will know you threw away fifty pages of hopelessly ugly unicorn sketches. Nobody will remember you as ‘that artist who made that thing that didn’t win the competition.’ They will remember you by your victories, and every failure is compost that will feed the flowers of your success.
This is my recommendation – starry-eyed realism. Once we embrace the fact that becoming an artist is a frustrating process laced with a fair amount of tedious drudgery and emotional suffering, we can stand tall and look past all that stuff, all the way down that long winding road to where our brilliant future lies patiently waiting.
Are you more given to baseless enthusiasm or hopeless despair? How do you navigate between the two? Let me know in the comments!
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