What is the difference between a successful artist and an unsuccessful one?

Sheila Chandra - Monday, August 28, 2017

What makes the difference between growing a thriving career and not? Here are some of the qualities you’ll need to be a successful artist.


 Successful artists are committed

Absolutely no one gets a free ride in the arts. So you need to be committed. That can be a problem if you’re just starting out and need to support yourself as well. But your commitment will make sure you utilize every spare half-hour to work on your projects, promoting your career and improving your skills.

If being an artist doesn’t make you leap out of bed in the morning then it may not be the life for you. The only exception is if you love the work, but it scares you and you tend to procrastinate for that reason. Even then, you’re going to have to get a handle on your procrastination if you want to have a thriving career as a successful artist.


Successful artists are focused

This is slightly different from commitment. A successful artist generally has a well-focussed brand. Something that they’re well known for, whether it’s painting plump, jolly ladies, or making sculptures in nature from the natural materials in that place. They may also sell prints or photos of that work, or lecture on creativity etc. as a way of creating various income streams within what they do, but they’ll be well known for that one thing. They don’t also sing, and paint and write and sew and expect to become well known for all of them. That’s because each of these different ‘brands’ requires equipment, marketing to a separate audience, and makes them, in effect, only ‘part-time’.


An example of an artist who became more focused and found success

Moreover, artists who have lots of ‘brands’ are instantly forgettable. Let me give you an example. When I met Stik, he was a street artist, a maker, and a performance artist. I know he enjoyed all those roles and I’m sure he had a reputation among his friends as a maverick creative person. But to get to a wider audience of people who didn’t know him personally, he needed a finer focus than that. I told him he needed to choose one art-form. Just one. I didn’t know it, but the work that had the most distinctive style was his street art. He’d been painting on walls around Hackney for the preceding 10 years – and many of the local community recognised his style. He went with street art, and never looked back. Today he’s one of the most well-recognised and collectible street artists in the world.


Successful artists concentrate on business

Making great art is one thing. I’m going to assume you already know how to do that and you have a product/experience that others want. But you’re not going to get anywhere just hoping those people will flock to you because of your excellence. You’re going to have to get out there, learn your industry, and find opportunities to promote and sell your work.

Ironically most artists spend only about half their time actually making artworks. The other half is spent writing contracts, negotiating deals, promoting themselves, running an office, maintaining their website, making new contacts and garnering commissions/gigs. If you’re not happy doing this, I’d suggest you don’t have the temperament to be a commercial artist. And being a commercial artist (as opposed to making commercial work) is what’s needed if you want to keep going, fund your projects, and a lifestyle that allows you to concentrate on your artworks.


Successful artists work at a decent pace

If you like to paint or write songs every few months or so – or do the odd gig at Christmas – then you’re unlikely to make it. You’ll be up against people rolling out of bed and planning every single day how they can make it as a successful artist. You have to make the time consistently to work, and you have to be prepared to work at a decent pace and to the deadlines that come up (or that you set) in order to do it. If you simply like the idea of being an artist…. sometimes, when you’re in the mood… then stop pushing yourself to make it anything other than a hobby.


Successful artists are good at self-promotion

More than at any other time in the last century, artists now have to be little PR machines. This is because of restructuring in the arts over the last 30 years and because of the rise of social media. When you’re a megastar, you’ll probably have a social media consultant managing your social media accounts – but until then it’s down to you. Likewise, most companies will only be interesting in commissioning/signing you if you already have a large platform that you bring to the table.

Self-promotion comes naturally to some people. It’s harder for many introverted artists. But you need to overcome your shyness and make sure you get your name out there as much as possible. Every important commission, show, opening, event etc. should have social media coverage and local/national press. Become an expert in your field and you could garner extra attention by being interviewed on your specialist subject when it hits the news for any reason.


Successful artists work on their technique

Over the longer term, the better your technique, the easier it will be to grow your career, and to find projects that stretch you. For instance you may start out making relatively small size street art works, and eventually learn to drive a cherry picker and paint the whole sides of tall buildings. Or you may be a singer who learns how to write lyrics. Or a journalist that is commissioned to write books. Either way, keep up your confidence by letting yourself learn and grow. Take lessons in some part of your craft that scares you. Or work on it alone in secret until you feel ready to make it public. Invest time in growing what you’re capable of, and you’ll delight both yourself and your audience.

If you want to know how to set up the essential infrastructure you’ll need as a successful artist, download a free excerpt of ‘Organizing for Creative People’.


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