What is the most important thing to learn for an artist to be successful? Well, it depends on what you mean by success. For some it's financial security, for others, its acknowledgement from their peers, and still for others, its being able to paint what you want without excuses or failure.
In observing the triumphs and failures in my colleagues' work over the years (as well as my own), I've come to the realization that to thrive (and survive) an artist needs to be conscious of four vital areas of growth.
Many artists have the chops but live in abject poverty despite efforts to succeed. Other artists lack ability, yet enjoy financial success. What's important in acheive success in painting?
1. Concept - This is the idea of what an artist conceives in their mind, including subject, themes, and messages. A concept usually is something with meaning to the artist or to the audience.
Often artists become so focused on technique that they forget the importance of the subject in their work. The subject matters to prospective clients.
Additionally, if an artist seeks to market their work, the subject matter should reflect something that appeals to the customer. Otherwise, the artwork will not sell.
For example, no matter how well-rendered an image of a mason jar lid, it is simply not something people normally aspire to place on their wall.
2. Technique - this is the vehicle that transports the concepts. It represents the ability of the artist to observe the subject and skillfully manipulate the medium.
Unfortunately, the modernist movement discarded technique and championed concept only. The reason there are so many starving artists is due to modernist teachings that "anything goes" and "there's no such thing as mistakes in art."
Without technique the delivery of the artistic message is compromised. It is skill-based, meaning that it can be improved upon with practice. However, as mentioned in an earlier blog post, practice is not the key to growth. It is simply a reinforcement of something learned. An artist advances more rapidly through those "ah-ha" moments, often stumbling across something new and different during practice.
That is why it is important to practice with experimentation. I've learned more through my mistakes than my successes.
3. Aesthetics refers to the pleasing qualities of composition, color choices, balance, movement, pattern, scale, shape and visual weight. Often referred to as artistic taste, this remains the most elusive to teach, but is vital to the commercial success.
Aesthetics includes composition, color choices, contrasts, and edges. I would suggest a study of abstract expressionist art, since it relies on aesthetics without a subject. Even if abstract expression is not to everyone's taste, knowledge of it can have spillover benefits in your understanding of aesthetics. I've taken a course in abstract art from Larry Moore, and it helped me tremendously with my design and color choices in my realistic paintings.
People are drawn to beauty, so imagine what they want to look at hanging on their wall everyday.
4. The Business of Art - This is where most artists stumble.
Artists tend to shy away from business, and it's no wonder. To them, the business side of art is non-creative, and can appear quite boring. However, business and sales is vital to the financial success of an artist.
One workaround I would suggest is to get someone else to represent you. It's difficult for an artist to say good things about their work without appearing to brag. But another person can easily and convincingly describe the merits of an artist's work. They can handle negotiating a price as well as billing and collecting money for any works sold.
Additionally, we artists tend to only see our mistakes in our work, and as a consequence, we undervalue our art. This leads to a low financial return on a painting, and subsequent financial difficulties. Also, the fear of rejection due to price drives artists to lower the prices for their work. However, you will always encounter customers who complain that your prices are too high if the price is anything but free!
Why is financial success important? Think of financial success as the freedom to spend the day painting what you want. Many of us have jobs we don't enjoy, but no artist ever complained about being able to paint as they wished. Think of how freedom from worrying about bills would feel.
In conclusion, I would urge artists to examine all these areas, and address any and all deficiencies, rather than focusing on just one area of concern, because all areas are vital for an artist's success and ultimately, their happiness.