Aspirations, Requirements, Education, Application


Why would anyone be so daft as to want to become a career artist?


In responding to that question from me, my great pal and artist Roy Taylor replied by saying “Well it beats going to an office every day!”


Perhaps a reasonable reply, but is that enough reason to study a difficult subject, suffer endless rejection until you possibly get a toe in the door, and then you never know if that door will open fully or be slammed shut in your face?


I can’t really say why I decided to walk the long walk, and had never really thought about analysing the reasons until my friend, Nicole, asked me one day if I’d ever considered writing an article about “Growing as an Artist”. I still don’t fully quite know what she had in mind but after she asked me it bugged me until l finally I started the well-worn process of jotting my thoughts down on a scrap of paper and eventually putting those thoughts into words that made some sense. (Well to me at any rate). This is the result.


I feel that the most important requirement for becoming a competent artist, (not really what Nicole requested; hers being “Growing” as an artist not ‘becoming’ one, or is that the same thing?) is does one really, really want to do it? The fact is it needs to be more than a mere ‘wanting’ to become or grow, but rather a burning need to do it.


Many people go into it because they feel it’s a nice thing to do, or it is relaxing (nothing further from the truth), or ‘I’ve always thought I’d like to paint’, or ‘it can’t be too difficult’, and finally, ‘I thought it may be an easy way to make money.’ (Again nothing could be further than the truth.)


I turned my back on art for a while after my dad refused to pay for me to go to Art College after I’d completed my schooling, but it was always there wherever I went and in whatever I did, until I finally gave in and threw myself into it.




Well I guess it does not happen to everyone that way, but I did have the passion in large doses and the first thing I realised was that I needed to know a lot more than I did. I decided to take a correspondence course in Visual Art with the accent on theory. After I completed that I realised that all I wanted to do was paint but I still really did not know how professional artists worked and survived, and so I then literally apprenticed myself to a well-known pro of the time and spent a couple of years working with Johan Oldert. Doing this gave me the rare opportunity to work with and observe a career artist at work. It was very different from the theoretical course I had taken, and without that sort of ‘hands on’ experience I think it would have taken me much longer than it did to make a sustainable career out of it. (If ever)


You need to have real passion, energy, and a burning desire to succeed.




Besides large chunks of passion, you do need to have some natural talent and a creative spirit, also the thirst and desire for knowledge.


I see so many supposedly aspiring artists who put the minimum time into learning the craft, and do virtually no reading and seldom visit galleries or exhibitions to grow their mental abilities. I know a number of people who aspire to being artists who have been overseas numerous times and have not visited a single exhibition or art museum or for that matter ever read an art book. What kind of passion is that? Looking or copying pictures really does not count for much.


Aspiring artists who never experiment or ’practise’ but only make ‘finished’ works to sell generally stay in the same spot even though the work may become seemingly polished and slick, but they never grow as artists. Artists need to test the water and widen their experience and knowledge all the time and glass ceilings need to be broken regularly.


One needs to practise at least as much as one paints finished works. It is like a concert pianist or singer who only performs at concerts but never puts any time into practising. Honestly, how far do you think they would get? Why then do learner artists think they can make good work without going through the same process that every other successful artist in any field has to follow rigorously?


The books “Tipping Point” and “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell discuss the requirements and elements that are needed to be successful. In an occupation such as art where only a handful actually make it to the top and stay there, things like committing oneself to many, many hours of ‘honing ones trade’ as it were, are vitally important. If one is not prepared to do that then the arts are not for you.




‘Is it necessary to have a formal art education?’


I would say yes and that theoretically it should be a big help, but then have to ask the question – how many academically trained students ever become professional career artists, or in fact even end up in the visual arts support industry? The answer has to be very few. When one considers the huge number of non-academically trained artists painting or sculpting professionally who have been privately or self tutored, one must also ask the question if the academic institutions are providing the training required by the Arts Industry per se? Or are they only training potential teachers and lecturers to sustain their own somewhat narrow beliefs?


It seems to me that it is the latter and that it would be to the art communities advantage if alternate art schools could be set up which would give potential art students a choice of going the ‘contemporary academic’ route or some alternative choices?


It seems almost ludicrous to spend years training and commit huge amounts of money to that training, and then not be able to earn a living in the field you desire and trained for. Be that as it may artists still need to be trained. In most cases it is then a choice of to go it alone, (not often a very wise choice) or to go to a private teacher which in many cases can be a fairly risky business. I can say with a fair amount of safety that a large proportion of the private Art Teachers do not have any professional experience, professional knowledge or any real training, so it becomes a case of the blind leading the blind. Not an ideal situation but the learner artist’s choices are few and not ideal.


Even though what I have said is not only the current situation, but unfortunately that is the way it has been for many years, it is and has been all we have. Until alternative art schools are created and supported, artists will just have to do the best they can in gleaning knowledge and an education any way they can. It would be really beneficial if private teachers could have ongoing training and workshops. Courses designed to this end provided by ‘alternative art schools’ or existing establishments, and somehow have their (private art teachers that is) knowledge and ability tested from time to time. As it is just about anyone can call themselves ‘art teacher’ and charge virtually anything they like. It may take a student ages before they discover that they are going nowhere fast and literally have to start from scratch, poorer and hopefully wiser.


The ‘becoming’ artist needs to read and study as much as they can. This must include some history of art, methods and thinking/thought on the subject, and a vital and useful tool is to acquire a really good artists handbook preferably one such as by Ralph Mayer, but there are really good and cheaper books such as by Emma Pearce (Winsor and Newton) or similar. It is of very little use to buy cheap ‘how to’ Walter Foster (or similar) books and copy the pictures. That generally does more damage than good but is such a common practice.


If you are serious about becoming a professional or even a good amateur artist I would say it is essential to find the very best teacher you can. Ask around and see what that teacher is doing with the raw material that goes through her/his hands. Question the students and the teacher and find out if they can take you to where you would like to go, artistically speaking that is. Too many art classes are in effect social gatherings where the tea and cake are more important than the tuition. Of course there are those that go to art classes as a social statement or event, but they have little to do with art.


Make a point of visiting as many exhibitions as you can, including shows that you may think will not appeal to you. This at least till you know what it is you want to do and then try and keep up to date with artists who have similar interests to those you embrace.


Talk to other artists you admire and ask galleries and arts materials shops to supply you with information and literature relating to their exhibitions and products. If they can’t or won’t do that they can’t be up to much so then look for others who will and can give you what you require. Try and visit as many national and international galleries as you can as this gives you an idea of what is artistically possible and helps the development of high ideals. There are too many artists who buy into an almost incestuous situation where small communities of very average artists end up copying each other. Be brave and a trail blazer and aim high. Go where others fear to tread. Artists are creative creatures so make up your mind to be that – creative and brave! “Fortune favours the brave, and also the creative!”




I am told on a regular basis by one aspiring painter or another that they want to become career artists, and they want to know if they have what it takes and what it will require.


Well that is an interesting and important question. Can they become artists, and what is required? The answer is yes, if you have some natural talent and a strong desire you can become a full time artist, but what will the cost be to you?’


The answer is fairly simple. Lately it has been popular to quote Malcolm Gladwell and his books, and those who do quote him are probably correct when they say that to become a success at anything you need to commit to 10,000 hours of working at it. This will bring you to the starting point.


People throw up their hands in horror when they hear this, but that is what is required. If you go to an art class for two or three hours a week and do no other art work I can guarantee you will never be a successful artist. If you had to go to the golf course or tennis court and hit a few balls do you honestly think you would or could become a pro tennis player or golfer? No never! Art is harder than those things.


You need to do as much work as you can every day. You need to draw and draw and draw even if you are a sculptor. You need to be madly passionate about making art, and looking at art, and surrounding yourself with art. It must be something you are rather than something you do.


Less than that will only make you a pretender or very average hobbyist.


Writers get up every day and type a couple of thousand words – every single day!


Pianists get up and practice for six hours a day, every day!


Artists need to do at least the same.


I must stress this is about becoming an artist and those who are not interested in becoming career artists can do as little as they please. Do remember though that excuses have never made anyone famous! I find many supposedly aspiring artists spend more time and creative energy making up excuses for not putting in the hours than just getting on with what is required.


To return to Nicole’s question – how does one grow as or into an artist?


The artist also needs to learn marketing and selling skills and dealing with a market that is in many cases less informed and trained than the artist is.


Be prepared to learn about computers, selling, advertising and marketing as well as learning all you can about the practice of making art. There are very few who will find someone to do all that for you, and while you are about it learn some bookkeeping too.


Space is limited and there is much we haven’t said or discussed but what we have said in this article is the very least of what is required to make a career in the visual arts.


To return to Nicole’s question – how does one grow as or into an artist?
Again to quote Mr. Gladwell – if you do take the initiative and do what is required then at a certain stage a “tipping point” is reached where magic starts happening.


It would be lovely if one could say that this is all that is required but then


THE MOMENTUM needs to be maintained.


Let me add in closing that the rewards in making memorable and treasured works of art more than offsets the hours of work and study. Approach art with joy and enthusiasm the work becomes a pleasure.


Happy painting!


Till next month….


Written: October 2009


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