How to Become a Successful Artist: The 3 Pillars of Artistic Success
I've lost count of the number times I've thought and dreamed about becoming a 'successful artist'. I went to art school and graduated a few years ago. Then I found myself asking, 'What's next?' An important and crucial first step in achieving any kind of success is asking yourself: what does being a 'successful artist' mean to me? Is there a certain follower count on Instagram that means you've 'made it'? Does it mean achieving the financial freedom to quit your day job and pursue art full-time? Does having your work in an art gallery or museum mean you're successful? Or is it successful to just make a great piece of art? Regardless, you can't achieve success if it isn't quantifiable.
There are 3 pillars of artistic success that you can focus on:
1. Monetary Success
This type of success means $$$! It means sales, marketing, advertising & building a large following to sell your work to. It might mean achieving that financial freedom to pursue your art full-time if that's what you really want. One of the most important things to focus on if you're pursuing Monetary Success is passive incomes. Passive income is income that requires little to no effort to earn and maintain. Sounds great right? This means having a variety of products like art prints, stickers, or digital downloads. For me, it also meant making smaller originals at a more affordable price point, and streaming my studio time on Twitch. This also means not relying on art commissions as your main source of income. Commission work isn't scalable, and it's incredibly time consuming. There's only one you and a finite amount of time in each day. Investing that time into building a passive income source like prints for example, allows you to keep a product in stock that takes little effort to order, package and ship to your customer. These smaller items can also help build to a more consistent income as the smaller prints will truly be your 'bread and butter' opposed to original work.
2. Recognition & Prestige
This type of success can mean different things to different people. For some it may mean gallery representation, being accepted into juried art shows, and winning awards. Outside of the 'fine art' world, it also can mean the number of followers you have that make you feel validated in your work. While you can't count on hitting the social media algorithm jackpot, it is important to build a presence for yourself online. Ultimately , pursuing this type of success means building a reputation and letting you and your work be known! Focus in networking & building connections with other artists, art collectors, museum and gallery curators, art critics, and writers. When I was in art school, my professors encouraged the fine art route and for the longest time I thought it was the only way to achieve success. Nonetheless, there are a multitude of great resources online at your disposal like callforentry.org, which is an online database of active calls for entry to art shows and competitions around the world.
3. Artistic Excellence
This type of success is all about the practice & execution. It also means your relationship with yourself, work ethic, and building confidence in your work. Going to art school, taking a Coursera or Skillshare course, and educational YouTube videos are excellent places to start. The ultimate way to achieve artistic excellence is practice, practice, practice. Unfortunately there isn't some special secret to developing your artistic skill. Your abilities will be a direct outcome of the amount of work you put in. Talent may give you a leg up, but ultimately achieving artistic excellence means perfecting a skill. It's a never-ending journey where the ceiling (your standards) keeps getting higher, but pursuing artistic excellence is arguably what being an artist is all about!
Ideally you want a healthy blend of all three. It's difficult to sell work without some sort of recognition and following, or quality work to sell. I implore you to look within yourself. What are your priorities? Where are your weaknesses? If you were to rate these three types of success from most important to least important to you, where do they lie? Does the amount of effort you put into each of these areas reflect those priorities?
Where do you need to put in the work?
The ultimate goal of an artist should be to create great art and to show that art to the world. A focus on monetary success without putting the effort to achieve artistic excellence could result in becoming a 'snake oil salesman' of sorts. This type of artist is eager to make a profit, market, and present their work to the world before they have anything to show. They haven't put in the time to find their own creative voice, hone their skill and produce something they're truly proud of. On the other side of the spectrum you'll find the type of artist who spends a great deal of time behind closed doors practicing their craft and creating. They live in the process, and are eager to move on to the next project after they've finished the first. This type of artist could be seen as too afraid or unwilling to put in the work to show their art to the world and market what they've created. They move on to the next thing before doing their work justice.
Take some time to think. Which type of artist are you?
When I first discovered these artistic pitfalls, I was the snake oil salesman. I was eager to grow a following on social media, share what I had created, and make prints to sell of my work before I'd taken the time to really think about the work I wanted to produce and what I really wanted to say as an artist. I felt the financial pressure and desire to 'make it' as an artist at the beginning of my artistic career. Since then I've taken the time to put some work into myself focused on mental health and personal growth. Your work is intrinsically connected to who you are. If you want to grow as an artist, you need to fertilize the soil and nurture your mind before you can reap that growth. I used to focus on Monetary Success and Recognition & Prestige before I'd taken the time to really live this artistic journey and find my own Artistic Excellence.
If you're the other type of artist, it might help to compare to 'the hero's journey'. Every hero experiences a call to action. This call to action is the call to create, and to find your artistic voice. The decision to put in the time and effort to hone your skill and create that amazing piece of work: the culmination of your efforts. If you do stand up to the call to action and make that amazing piece of work, you also need to step up to the second call: the call home. You need to bring that work to the people and do your work justice! This second call is lesser known, and not as often talked about. A good musician who creates a great album spends the same amount of time if not more touring and promoting the album as they did making it. It is also your job to get your work out there. You need to take the time to decide if Recognition & Prestige is the path for you, or Monetary Success is where you'll find that validation. You cannot have either of these without putting in the work to let your work be known.
If you'd like to explore these ideas more in-depth, The Creative Pep Talk Podcast heavily influenced the start of my artistic and self growth journey and this writing. I highly recommend Episode 276: "Type Yourself: Which Self Sabotage Artist Are You?".