Face Making

Artist Gwenn Seemel’s bilingual blog about art, portraiture, free culture, and feminism.

How to be a professional artist

2012 . 10 . 29 - Comments / Commentaires (15)

- -—[version française]—- -

To be a professional artist, you must do three things:

1) Make art every day.

This requirement should go without saying. You cannot be a professional in any industry unless you are practicing that profession on a regular basis.

2) Behave in a business-like manner.

This requirement has some flexibility. Different artists will choose to play with business conventions in different ways. For example, most artists will not wear a suit and tie and, depending on the circles they move in, they will not be considered unprofessional for eschewing this bit of etiquette.

Mostly, this stipulation is about showing respect for your colleagues and your patrons. It consists of showing up on time and answering queries about your work promptly, among other things. It’s about being polite even if your art isn’t. Another way to put it: don’t be a flake.

3) Be recognized as an artist by your colleagues.

This requirement might seem to smack of in-crowd politics, but it’s not that at all. It’s actually a matter of demonstrating your commitment to your career choice in such a way that others cannot help but acknowledge it. This could translate to simply doing your thing for long enough but, to accelerate this process, you might also focus on getting publicity as an artist, obtaining gallery representation, earning an MFA, or winning grants and other prizes.

Eric and Tracy Bryant

Gwenn Seemel
Eric and Tracy
acrylic on canvas
24 x 36 inches (combined dimensions)

You’ll notice that making a living as an artist doesn’t appear among the requirements for being a professional artist. That’s because making money is not necessary in order to qualify as a professional, but, perhaps not surprisingly, money tends to flow towards artists who do all of the above. That’s just part of what makes being a professional artist—also known as an entrepreneurial artist—better than being any other kind of artist.

- Can artists make money?
- How to price art
- Artists’ contracts

CATEGORIES: - English - Business of art -

Gwenn Seemel on Liberapay     Gwenn Seemel on Patreon

(15) Comments / Commentaires: How to be a professional artist

-- Pattie -- 2012 . 10 . 29 --

Hi Gwenn, these are all so important bu I especially agree with number 3!  Here’s to the ‘entrepreneurial spirit’ in us all!

--- -- - --- - ---- - ---- - --- - -- ---

-- Bonnie Meltzer -- 2012 . 10 . 29 --

#3 is quite important. The respect from other artists is not only congenial but is often quite practical, expanding opportunities.  I have often been asked to refer other artists for exhibitions or projects. A network of artists also makes it possible to share information about not only
list but techniques and materials.  Like any other occupation, business it is important to have good relationships with your peers.

--- -- - --- - ---- - ---- - --- - -- ---

-- Gwenn -- 2012 . 10 . 29 --

It’s interesting how both of you really related to #3.  The inspiration for the post was meeting one too many self-proclaimed professionals who couldn’t handle #2.  I just had to say something! smile

--- -- - --- - ---- - ---- - --- - -- ---

-- Svein Koningen -- 2013 . 05 . 11 --

I totally agree with your 3 must do’s.  However I’m not sure that you can call an artist a “proessional” if they are not living from their art. I know there have been exceptions like vincent van Gogh but these days artist living on the dole should perhaps be called, just that, artists.

--- -- - --- - ---- - ---- - --- - -- ---

-- Gwenn -- 2013 . 05 . 13 --

@Svein: I get why you want to make the distinction, but, as you pointed out by making an exception immediately, I’m not sure that it’s actually very useful.  Also, the point of this article is to ask all artists (whether or not they make a living with their work) to raise the behavior bar, because I, for one, am tired of the way “artist” seems to mean “flake” to many people!

--- -- - --- - ---- - ---- - --- - -- ---

-- kate powell -- 2014 . 01 . 18 --

Number 2 is on of my list of annoyances about not only artists but other professionals.  Part of being businesslike as an artist I believe is a certain basic generosity of spirit, a getting outside of the me-ism space that art brings with it when you are in front of the easel. 

When an artist is talking about their art, I want to see it; if I love it I want them to know it.  If a young artist or unsure person is being creative and tentatively posts, I hit like and say something, if possible to encourage.  IF you are in any situation other than by yourself, showing up for “them” is just as important as showing up at your easel; it is part of being businesslike.  I have one girlfriend I dearly love who is a bead artist; she is like family.  And I see her time and again not show up for anyone else’s work, never hit like, never comments, never shares anyone but herself, etc.  And she is STUCK.  I have tried (she IS a friend) to get her to see this stuckness has a lot to do with her holding onto her own preciousness without opening her hands to others and being part of the larger community but she won’t go there.  So, stuck she is and may stay stuck. 

Not to leave those that are not part of the community, but being involved in community thrive is fabulous because of the level of enthusiasm for sharing and giving a leg up to others I see.  That is also part of professionalism. 

Replying to emails, going to openings, communicating, sharing toys. 

This hit a nerve.  Part of this month long reflective time I am in.  Thanks Gwenn!

--- -- - --- - ---- - ---- - --- - -- ---

-- tim -- 2014 . 01 . 18 --

hmmm…talking about the money part is always odd, so…i utterly, completely agree that it is really this simple to become a professional artist. and the list is interpretable. for me the 3 work together as a dynamism, reinforcing themselves into an self-supporting system that sort of holds itself together the more you keep it going:

#2 - do what you say - don’t be a flake

#3 - you’ll be recognized as a colleague - so you can get the social interaction necessary to find places to show - distribute - perform

#2 - do as much as you can for as long as you can - so you will have a lot of work that you’ve consistently completed

#3 - tell as many as you can while you’re deep in the midst of it all - people will ask as much about the lifestyle as they will the objects and moments you create

#1 - which is making art as everyday life - since practice makes ya better you’ll continue to get better at

#2 - lather rinse repeat

but the entrepreneurial part is metaphoric, much more about an individualized strategy for exploration and expression than it is a business plan for branding and acquisition. never for a moment let yourself think it is onlysome sort of “do what you love and the money will follow” spiritual journey either. there are many many legitimate, respected ways and sustainable lifestyles and the wild fame and wealth that you see at the top is as rare as that of pro athletics, or politics.

Kyle Abraham, a dancer who recently won a MacArthur prize said the first thing that he’d do was pay off his student loan debt. the art trumps most considerations at some point in our career path, some folks a lot more than others.

thanks for the venue, Gwenn.

--- -- - --- - ---- - ---- - --- - -- ---

-- Ruth Guthrie -- 2014 . 01 . 18 --

Thanks Gwenn this is great advice.

--- -- - --- - ---- - ---- - --- - -- ---

-- Bon -- 2014 . 01 . 18 --

Good post until you got snobby with the MFA crap. Interesting how you think that is needed.  Most of the greatest cinema artists ,  writers or musician/rock stars etc didn’t get a MFA. Is there ART any less. However be a painter or just simply a visual artist and you need a MFA.  Getting my MFA was like being in prison for my creative mind. All I got was debt and wasted time. Nothing that school taught me would have ever matched the years as a teen working with top painters in my city as an assistant. Snobby crap like that is horseshit.  You’ve said to have an open mind in the past. You should practice what you preach.  There’s no one way or one road into the arts be it music , film, photography or painting.  I remember what our teacher told us the first day. First rule: There are no rules. One of the best things I ever heard in art class, and that was in junior college art class before art school..

--- -- - --- - ---- - ---- - --- - -- ---

-- kate powell -- 2014 . 01 . 18 --

Wow, Bon, I think we read different posts.  I even went back and reread Gwenn’s post.  It sounded to me that she is saying you can do #3 several ways, and only one is to get an MFA, not that to be an artist you have to get an MFA.  WTH?

Enjoyed the other comments; Tim’s yes yes.

--- -- - --- - ---- - ---- - --- - -- ---

-- bon -- 2014 . 01 . 18 --

Hi Kate…  I jumped harder than I should have on the post. I was just getting off a long flight from Hong Kong while waiting to connect to another flight to go back to Chicago so I read “How to be a professional artist” and I thought well there’s really no true answer as this is only an opinion. So I skimmed the post agreeing with the first two, and I saw the MFA and responded to quickly. Looking back now I think I just got fired up over how I see young artist pushed to get BFA’s or then a MFA. None of that matters in the art world. The real people who buy just don’t give a crap about stuff like this. They ( buyers or galleries ) want great art, that’s all.  Anyhow, my apologies for getting fired up. I think Gwenn is cool so it was really ranting at a growing issue I see with art schools and a mentality that really makes fine young talented artist go heavily in debt that I was posting about. 

While sitting in an airport terminal, I’m thinking this place is dreaded….. Again my apologies for getting heated up so quickly. I just want to get back home and have a glass of wine and some good pasta… Cheers!

--- -- - --- - ---- - ---- - --- - -- ---

-- kate powell -- 2014 . 01 . 18 --

No problem.  And you have just done #2, by the way . . .  being responsive!

I also think MFA and M-Arch (I was trained in Architecture) are overrated for most people.  It does help you teach at a big University, or a really small one that is self-conscious about its staff . . .

While I was a practicing young architect I wanted to become a painter, which was my first love.  (Long story.)  I had the fortune of knowing one of my favorite artists (neighbor), Billy Al Bengston.  I bought him breakfast one morning and asked him about going back for my MFA.  He asked me how much does it cost nowadays, and I said about $25,000 (now you know my age) and he said (listen up everyone, big words of wisdom from a fine painter):

Nuf said!  wink

--- -- - --- - ---- - ---- - --- - -- ---

-- Gwenn -- 2014 . 01 . 19 --

@Kate: What you say about your artist friend is interesting.  I wonder if there’s shyness at play…?  Also, how does she respond when others support her publicly?

@Tim: I think that money does flow from doing what you love and doing these 3 things…though maybe it’s not always very much of money! smile

@Ruth: You’re welcome!  Thanks for reading!

@Bon: I speak out against the problem of the MFA a lot—most thoroughly here and here although I refer to the issue quite regularly on my blog. 

At the same time, I know the drive some people have towards degrees, and I know it first hand.  I tried to dissuade my partner from going for an MFA for several months until I realized it was futile.  The terminal degree in his field was important to him in a way that I couldn’t fully grasp.  It had to do with his family, his concepts of success, and his search for community.  I don’t want an MFA, but I don’t think they should disappear.  MFAs should however be a lot cheaper as should all of higher education.  What are we trying to prove by assigning/accruing such massive amounts of debt for education?

--- -- - --- - ---- - ---- - --- - -- ---

-- kate powell -- 2014 . 01 . 19 --

About my friend the artist. 

I don’t think she is shy.  It is a possibility, because i was once very shy, and learned to move through it, and who would know?  No one thinks of me as shy.  But take me to a party and I will clam up, back in Jr High!

The day you posted this she posted some work on her FB page, and some of her clients said glowing things about her new work.  One of them, however, went a little further and said she had two pieces like this.  I interpreted her meaning that she was PROUDLY telling others she had two doo-hahs, for instance.  My artist friend went defensive, said she never made two of anything, and on and on for a long paragraph.  SHOOT ME NOW.  Her defensiveness was wildly apparent to everyone but her, I am sure.  It should have been, LIKE LIKE LIKE, THANK YOU THANK YOU. 

Actually, since you brought this up, I have been noticing that only a few of my artist possess quality #2 (you are one).  And part of being businesslike is being thankful. 

I know there is a #4 for me, but that is about teaching/sharing.  I would not know what I know today without many hands and mouths showing and telling me stuff.  I really believe in playing it forward.  I’d like to add that to #2 but it probably is not really a requirement for being an artist, but being a decent human being.  Open handed, sharing, showing, inspiring. 

Love this thread.

--- -- - --- - ---- - ---- - --- - -- ---

-- Gwenn -- 2014 . 01 . 19 --

@Kate: That story makes me cringe!  I feel like I’ve done that before and I’ve certainly witnessed others doing it.

Being businesslike = being thankful.  That is genius.

And, yes, you’re right that teaching/sharing is an element of professionalism.  As you mentioned before, generosity—with ourselves and with others—is key.  It’s definitely something I’m always working on!

--- -- - --- - ---- - ---- - --- - -- ---

Add a comment / Ajouter un commentaire

Name / Votre nom:

Email / Votre e-mail:

(Visible only to Gwenn / Visible uniquement pour Gwenn)

URL / Votre URL:

(Optional / Facultatif)

Comment / Commentaire:

(You can use / Vous pouvez utiliser: < a >, < b >, < i >)

 Remember me for next time. / Retenez mes coordonnées.

 Email me new comments. / Abonnez-moi au fil de discussion.

Please enter the characters you see below / Veuillez rédiger le mot que vous voyez ci-dessous: