5 Things Artists Do to Sabotage Their Career

As an Art Director, it’s part of my job to evaluate artists. I’ve seen a lot of artists succeed…and a lot more drop out of the professional art world. From my perspective as an Art Director, it’s easy for me to see the patterns that are more difficult for freelance artists to recognize. Particularly the ways that artists unwittingly sabotage their chances and their careers. Here are my top 5:

1. They Don’t Have Specific Goals.

We all want to be “better” artists, make a “comfortable” amount of money, have “enough time” for personal work, and have a “decent” work-life balance. That sounds nice, doesn’t it? But what does it actually mean? Everyone’s definitions are different, just as everyone’s priorities are different. “Comfortable” “Better” “Decent” and “Enough” are not measurable amounts, and thus you can’t really define them. And you can only work effectively toward goals you define. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say there is a direct correlation between how defined your goals are and how likely it is that you’ll achieve them. 

How much money do you need to bring in a month to earn above your expenses? How much money do you need to bring in to take a vacation? How early do you need to get up in the morning to squeeze in work on that personal project? What are your dream clients? How much time would you like to spend with your kids a day? What annuals would you love to be published in? You have to define your goals. In words. On paper. (Not in a computer file, because you can’t tack that up next to your work station.) Once you have your specific goals defined, then you need to prioritize them.

This is hard work — harder than it seems like it should be. But it is worth it. You can’t hit what you don’t aim at.

2. They Don’t Listen to the Right People.

Social Media is a great tool. Many artists have been able to become successful entrepreneurs entirely because of access to fans via social media. However, like any tool (hammer), it can be used as a benefit (pound nails into wood) or as a weapon (blunt force trauma). The danger of social media is that it’s too easy to go looking for answers we already think we know the answers to. If we are scared that we will never earn enough money, there are plenty of artists on twitter talking about not earning enough money. If we are afraid of going to a networking event, there will be plenty of artists on facebook agreeing that it won’t be worth it. I know so many artists that spend more time on forums than they do making art, constantly looking to validate their worst fears. Peers on the same level as you are great for encouragement and camaraderie. But be wary.

Do you want to listen to other artists who are spending more time on forums than making art? Probably not, because all the top artists I know — the ones who have really figured out this art career thing — are way too busy with paying work to hang around online too much. Sure, they post on social media, but it’s almost exclusively on their own pages. They don’t have time for more than a healthy amount of self-promotion and a bit of keeping up with community and friends. Many of them feel an obligation, as success stories, to post quick advice to other artists. Then they’re back to work. Those are the artists you should be listening to online.

And it’s not just social media. Art Directors and Gallery owners are the ones who get to see the art biz from both sides — they know how the artists think and they know how clients think. The middle ground lends a unique perspective. You have a much clearer understanding of why some artists make it and some don’t than the artists themselves often do. It is the smartest artist that go to the sources (the people that are giving artists work) and follow their advice. Podcasts, blog posts, portfolio reviews, and if you’re lucky, seminars and workshops are how you learn what these people know. It’s perspective worth it’s weight in gold.

So often I see all the Art Directors I know giving the same advice — and a solitary artist contradicting that advice —and artists will listen to that dissenting artist because it confirms what artists fear. I see artists discouraged by non-artist friends and family who say there’s no way to make a living in art because it confirms what artists fear.

See a pattern here? Don’t go looking for the validation of your worst fears. Curate who you’re listening to. Listen to people who have made it further than you have, and are holding out a hand up to where they are. Don’t listen to people who are dragging you down to make themselves feel better.

3. They’re Too Afraid to Fail.

Failure is survivable. Not enough people know this, and artists less than most. This is because we are often our own worst critics. We look at amazing works of art, and legendary artists, and it is so far from what we are able to do that we get defeated by our taste gap and don’t want to show our work. We know we can be better, so we hold our work back until we think it’s perfect. We don’t want to blow our chances with our dream clients so we paradoxically send them less work than potential clients we care less about. We don’t enter annuals and contests because we don’t think there’s any chance of being included or winning. We don’t go introduce ourselves to that Art Director because our work “isn’t ready”. Who told you that you only have one chance at things?

I’m an Art Director, and I can’t tell you how many times artists tell me they’ve wanted to introduce themselves to me for years, and didn’t because they were too scared. Scared of what? Not of me as a person — I’m a green-haired teddybear. They were scared of putting themselves out there and being told they weren’t ready and it being held against them forever. “Blowing their shot.” I don’t know where this myth came from that people (art directors, other artists, fans) hold your old work against you. It’s not true. People love to see an artist develop over time — Art Directors especially. Are there mean people out there? Are there Art Directors who will be nasty jerks? Sure. (No that they’re the ones you want to work for anyway.) But even if they are mean to you, you will survive it.

Even if your worst fears came true — you put your work out there and someone shit all over it — that is still survivable. You fail, you pick yourself up, you eat a pint of chocolate ice cream (or whatever your chosen self-care is), and you  try again. Maybe you course correct. Failure is great for learning. In fact, many people say failing is the only way we really learn. We should practice failing so it’s not so scary.

You know what all the studies report people overwhelmingly saying on their death beds? They regret what they didn’t try to do way more than the things they did do and failed at. Take the opportunities you find. Try your best. Don’t miss opportunities because you hold yourself back. Accept it now, sometimes you are going to fail. Actually expect that you will fail some of the time. After the first few faceplates you’ll believe that you survive. And then you are much more willing to try the next time.

4. They Forget to Enjoy Their Work.

At some point in all our lives, we were creating art for the sheer enjoyment of it. Whether it was coloring with crayons or copying comic books or making outfits for dolls, we started making art because it made us feel good. Whether it was enjoying getting lost in the process, or it was a love of getting messy, or it was the glow of praise over our art, we all enjoyed something about making art strongly enough that we kept doing it, and developing skillsets over years. It made us feel special, it made us feel less lonely, it made us feel focused. But whatever benefit creating art gives to us, unfortunately it too often gets buried under the pressure of doing it as a job.

Whether it’s a part-time job or a full-time job, once you have to force yourself to be creative on demand it eats away at the joy of creating. I’ve seen many a passion for art curdle under the weight of supporting life expenses. I’ve seen many artist start chasing what sells rather than what feels good to them. If you are a professional artist then money is a critical goal (see #1), but you have to find a way to balance love and duty.

Some artists have found ways to become entrepreneurs and sell exactly what they love creating directly to fans — and then it is the salesmanship that drags them down. Some artists find ways to create what they wish and have galleries to present it — and then it is the gallery’s suggestions of subject matter and the high commission fee that gets them down. Some artists put all their creativity into client work — and then the feedback and endless revisions brings them down. Over time the difficult side of making art for a living will overwhelm your love if you let it. You have to find ways to remind yourself of the reason you are an artist in the first place — because you love making art. Whether it’s personal projects, vacations from art, vacations to see art, or keeping a part of art “just a hobby” for yourself, there are many ways to regain balance.

And if you find you don’t love making art, and you’re struggling to make ends meet, perhaps it’s time to consider a career change. There are many art-adjacent jobs and careers that you can transition into. Or you can transition out of art entirely and go back to letting it be a hobby. You are an artist whether you get paid to make art or not. Better to love art as your hobby than hate it as your career.

5. They Forget That Being a Great Artist isn’t Everything.

I have a depressing truth for you. Many if not most of the most skilled students I have portfolio reviewed drop out of art. They never learn that making great art is only half of a successful art career — the other half is getting that art seen by the right people. And that’s what Art Business is all about. All the support work you have to do before, around, and after making cool art. And the artists that have made it all the way through school on the back of the best art often didn’t pick up the hustling skills along the way that are critical to surviving as a pro. They didn’t learn to network, they didn’t learn to promote themselves effectively. They didn’t learn to put together a great portfolio — they didn’t have to because everyone always praised their work.

Unfortunately when these artists move from the captive audiences of friends, family, and school into the real world they often flounder. They are not used to hunting for opportunity or chasing down work. And they don’t know how to fail and pick themselves up (see #3). So they often drop out. They’re the artists that Art Directors recall sadly when we all get together to gossip about artists. Because Art Directors know — some artists are all technical skill and gorgeous work. Some artists are all hustle and business smarts. But the ones who really make it are the ones who know they need both and work hard to balance themselves out as professionals.

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