The Secret

-By Arnie Fenner


A common question students ask is, "How do I become a better artist?"

The answer is easy, even if it sounds flip: "Work. Study. Experiment. Think. Try to connect with an audience. Work harder."

The other most common question, whether asked directly or in a round-about way, is "What is the secret to being a successful artist?" Success meaning, for the sake of this post, being able to make a living creating art.

And that answer, too, is easy:

There isn't one.

Muddy Colors has run some absolutely stellar posts in the past about portfolio construction or social media promotion or expanded educational opportunities. Read this, experience that, try this approach, discard that one: all of the advice is solid and worthwhile.

But there is no single formula for success: there's no list that, once checked off, ensures...anything.

The hard truth is that it's an extremely competitive market for painters, designers, illustrators, and sculptors, with lots of people with similar skill sets vying for the same jobs or gallery space. Technology has had both a positive and negative impact on the arts, on the one hand broadening exposure opportunities for creators and on the other devaluing art by making it seem both common and "free" (at least when it comes to the Internet). Societal shifts have impacted the retail environment which often can (and does, as we're seeing now) translate into less work for artists: many traditional avenues for creatives have either constricted or disappeared entirely while those that do remain have increasingly used price as a deciding factor in who and what they use for their goods, not quality. Political strife and economic uncertainty cause corporations to sit on their wallets rather than open them for new employees or for more experimental work or for sponsorship of the arts in general. Andy Warhol once said, “An artist is somebody who produces things that people don't need to have.” I don't agree: I believe that art (and thus the artists), regardless of the myriad forms it takes, is important to a more rounded, more fulfilled life. (That's a conversation for another day.) But even as I don't agree with Warhol (who made significantly more money in his lifetime than I ever will, which means he must've known something), I know from having worked in the corporate world for over 35 years that when times are tough, the artists (and the work they produce) are among the first the bean-counters deem expendable. (Partly because the business execs don't understand how we artsy fartsy folk think, partly because they're too dim to value what they themselves can't do. If you see a corporation struggling or failing outright, much of their problem has to do with an inability to appreciate creativity and the creative thinkers who work for them. The more polite term for them is "Philistines." The impolite, but more apt term is "Dumbshits.")

It's a tough world. And there's no such thing as "fair." I know artists that struggle to pay their bills and secure work who ideally should be courted and revered by clients and the public; I know other artists that have so much work they're booked years in advance. Why is this guy hot and the other guy with similar abilities not? Oh, I'm sure with some thinking and sussing, some things might be pointed out or some opinions offered, but really...there's no predicting who gets invited to the feast and who is left on the outside looking in. And for those who do achieve a measure of success...it's not always easy to maintain. Styles and trends and tastes change without notice and the artist (while remaining true to themselves) has to change with them.

Because there's no single secret to becoming a successful artist—or staying one.

Truthfully, when it comes right down to it, it should be obvious. Success hinges on the answer to the question opening this post: Work. Study. Experiment. Think. Try to connect with an audience. Work harder.

Plus one other important thing to mix in: Network. Talk to people. Don't hole up in your studio and not interact with your fellow artists. Art can not created in a vacuum. Reading and maybe posting on a blog or website or on Facebook or Twitter are not substitutes for sitting across from your peers, looking in their eyes, and sharing experiences over drinks. Get the hell out of the house every so often and meet the people you respect and admire and who are doing the same things that you want to be doing. Don't avoid conventions or classes or workshops because they're "too far away" or "cost too much" or "I don't fit in." Any expense may result in some temporary belt-tightening, but it almost inevitably pays off in the long term. Don't be a wallflower when social opportunities arise. Don't wait for others (and this includes art directors, publishers, patrons, and gallery owners) to come to you: reach out to them. Grow your circle—in person—just as you grow your skill set. The more people you know, the more people will know what you do and what you're able to bring to the table. And the more experiences you have, the more you interact with others, the more your artistic sensibility will grow and, in a perfect world, the more unique and, possibly, in demand your work will be.

Hmmm. Maybe that is a secret. If so...consider that cat has been let out of the bag.

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