article written by Atticus Gordon
So you like making art, and you want to become a professional artist, but where do you start? How can you tackle this difficult road? As I’m sure you guessed, there is no single straightforward answer, the way is as varied and shifting as there are forms of art. However, I think it’s import that artists collaborate, share their knowledge, and help one another. In this spirit, I want to share some experiences from my young career to help and inspire you on your artistic path.
Work, work, work, seriously, get to your studio! Work as much as you can, develop bodies of work around the same idea, play, experiment, keep your work fresh, never get trapped repeating the same tricks.
The first time I showed my artwork it was pouring rain, I loaded my garbage-bag-wrapped paintings into an Uber and frantically hurried them into a cafe. I had to hang the paintings awkwardly above chatting couples and quickly answer the many questions flung at me as I barged through the Café’s standard routine. Nerve-racking, yes, but also thrilling. By this point, I had been painting seriously (or what I considered serious then) for about three years. Bridging into exhibiting work can be tricky, but it’s a necessary step.
I recommend starting at cafés. When I was starting out, on the advice of my girlfriend, I printed high-quality images of my best paintings and made a portfolio. Then, portfolio in hand, I approached cafés to asked them if I could exhibit, I usually stuck to places that I knew showed artwork. Fo
r two years I kept a body of paintings exhibited at different Cafés throughout Ottawa. The sales aren’t amazing but when you make a sale it’s awesome; something you worked on intimately made a strong enough impression on a stranger that they exchange it for money, what a strange but gratifying feeling. Exhibiting at cafés gives you experience. You learn how to communicate, plan, transport, hang and show your work to the public. Most cafés don’t take a commission which is an added bonus. In my humble opinion, the young artist should continually show work at cafés.
Being a professional artist means that you frequently exhibit your work to the public. So you want to build up that artistic resume by showing anywhere you can. Having exhibition experience will help when applying to more professional settings. My first proper exhibition, a solo exhibition, was at Uottawa’s student-run art gallery (one of the perks of art school is the opportunity to apply for shows in a professional gallery). When you begin to show in more professional settings it’s important to know what type of work a gallery shows and whether or not your work fits. The first galleries I showed at were through group shows. The young artist should keep an eye out for calls to artists, mainly from artist-run galleries, pop-up galleries, and arts organizations, as these will be more likely to show emerging artists. Artengine will be your best friend. Their Artlist is a weekly email covering calls for artists, exhibitions, arts job postings in the arts and more.
Being an artist means a lot of writing. Sometimes I spend periods doing so much application writing that I can only dream about the feeling of bristles moving pigments across the canvas. This is the reality, you will be writing lots. You won’t get accepted to every place you apply, but try not to get discouraged and just keep slogging it out.
A significant source for commissions and general promotion of my work is Instagram. It’s an excellent way to keep the world updated about your practice. Get an online presence and keep it active. Having some sort of internet presence is a must in today’s art worlds. A website is a necessity when you want to start applying to galleries, and Instagram is a useful promotion tool for your work and events.
Here are some final pointers for the emerging artist: Go get involved in the art community happening around you. Go see art openings, learn about the various art worlds in your city from commercial galleries, to hobbyist galleries, to the professional institutional scene. Volunteer to learn and help. Take every opportunity you can! And more than anything else have fun, enjoy your work and the work being made around you – life’s too short.