By Arthur Benjamins
1. Becoming a professional artist is all good and well if you can support yourself independently from your art alone.
Many artists would take these logical steps. When I lived in the UK, I deliberately remained an engineering designer up to the point where 'age-ism' began to rule supreme and much less experienced people became the 'new world'.
However, by that time the UK had shown to have fallen irretrievably behind as the leaders of motoring art. That decline started with the late 1980s recession from which it never recovered.
By that time I had pioneered my “Abstract Iconography” - a genre which portrays known and lesser-known icons and iconic images and reduces them to a point where they exist a fraction away from recognizability.
The UK became a hotbed of embarrassed looks, smirks and curtailed small talk, party-time conversations when I answered that I was a professional artist. I might have well told them that I had some kind of venereal disease, such were their stunned reactions.
I am happy to say that the reactions in the USA are diametrically the opposite. The fact that I'm a professional artist elicits genuine interest.
2. It is absolutely necessary that you believe in yourself.
Any hesitation in your conviction will be smelt out like a dog that smells fear. You are not to picture yourself as a 'Sunday painter' and any potential client should come away with the distinct feeling that your work governs every living, breathing second of the day and night.
Nothing wrong with being and remaining a “Sunday painter' and occasionally selling your work for the price of the materials you put into them. I still hear of artists who are happy to remain in that corner and simply don't understand why their work isn't as popular as they hope or galleries beating a path to their doors.
As time progresses and you have several or more shows under your belt, it is imperative that your self-confidence increases – even if sales do not match your efforts.
It is the confidence that you exude, which can persuade the viewer to invest in your work and become a collector, hopefully long-term.
3. You MUST have a 'story' about yourself, your journey, and the individual works you are showing.
People love that. They're not only buying your art – they are also buying a bit of YOU. Long after they've bought your work – they can still savior the atmosphere you conjured when describing your particular piece.
If you don't have a 'real' story about one or more of your works, make one up without too much exaggeration. Embellish your stories and change them as you see fit. Sometimes you have to measure them to the viewer of that particular work. If that viewer comes from Texas for instance, then perhaps mention that a too short of a visit to their state inspired you to do that particular piece of art.
The spoken word is and remains very powerful.
4. Develop a very thick skin for criticism.
Many viewers, have absolutely NO idea what they're looking at or how to deal with it.
Many will venture into a gallery or show with zero knowledge of art or intent to purchase. They see you and your work as an exhibit in a museum. Their questions – invariably stupid – will test the most hardy of individuals.
Be prepared to have serious questions asked by individuals, who are nothing but artists themselves, wishing to short cut their own process by asking all about your own techniques. Their most standard opening lines are, “Tell me, how DO you do that?”. I've now reduced the answering process to surgical precision without wasting my own time by answering, “What medium do YOU use?”.
A great many visiting artists are dedicated amateurs and have nothing else to do but ask you about your business. Unless you actually enjoy giving away all your secrets to them, the pastime is quite nice - but it won't get you paying clients.
I know of an artist who was commissioned to paint on various building walls in downtown Phoenix. As totally expected, it wasn't long before her work got 'tagged'.
Wailing on Facebook like a deranged banshee, she posted pictures of this 'desecration' and which were so minute, that I actually had to ask very diplomatically what or where this 'damage' was.
Take any show without sales or leads as valuable experiences for the next and do not despair. I've seen far too many newbies – old or young – fall into a decline because they didn't sell out at their first show. I felt it was up to me to gently inform them of the many pitfalls that befalls any artist.
5. Talk to other artists about their experiences. That journey never stops. Never.
Many artists have been around the block many times. They will tell you hair-raising stories of their own and if you persevere, it won't be long before you will join their ranks.
The stupidity of people cannot be overestimated. Once you fully realize that, you can learn to roll with the punches. What doesn’t kill you – makes you stronger.
Unlike what I thought before my first USA expo, I felt that 98% of visitors were potential buyers who had payed their entrance fee because they were genuinely interested in buying art for their homes – which are being rapidly built here near Phoenix and beyond.
I was wrong. A tragically high % of visitors will happily drive a (sometimes considerable) distance to put $10 down to treat the show as if it was some sort of museum.
On your perhaps stoney path, you'll meet a vast array of all types. They can be terribly humble or aggressively cocky and it is up to you how you want to listen and learn from them. They all have their stories which you will take on board.
6. Study other, well known, famous and world-wide renowned artists.
Study their work, and techniques. I strongly advise to be conversant with their experiences and personal lives. This adds gravitas to your stories and gives the patron an excellent picture of your commitment.
As a personal example – Dutch-born artists Piet Mondrian came to the USA as a war refugee and Willem de Kooning as a stow away on a small freighter. Apart from being one of their fellow countrymen, I can say that I lived in Mondrian's birth place and am perpetuating his Neoplasticism in my own unique manner. I can also boast that De Kooning and I were both born in Rotterdam, Holland.
I will joke that my entrance to this country did not involve large scale conflicts or hiding away on ships, and is far more benevolent than theirs.
These are not earth shaking details, but if you build it up coherently and with some humor, they do all add up to a very positive and pleasant picture of yourself.
7. NEVER belittle or criticize any other artist.
A potential client may already have one or more of their works.
Even if you are specifically asked for your opinion, it is better to say that you are not familiar with that artist than come out with negative comments which never reflect well on you.
Even if the client agrees with you, there comes to exist an aura of negativity around you and your work – something you should strive to prevent at all costs.
Instead, voice the positive aspects of that artist's work – even if you don't directly answer the questions directed to you.
You simply voice why your work is different to the others but without making direct and poignant comparisons.
Negativity feeds on itself, it also increases and becomes self-destructive. A day which started out very well, may just end because you let a bad thought or feeling multiply.
9. Not everyone is going to like your work it.
This can manifest itself with blank looks, stares, and wandering past your works muttering some comment or voicing horror at your prices. The vast majority of viewers will not say anything but just move on. Rejoice at the hecklers and others who voice their negative opinions of your work. At least you can answer them or counter them in any shape you see fit.
It is important that appreciative viewers get to understand that your reputation as a serious artist is growing. You can point out various lower priced works which form an affordable platform from which they can start collecting your works.
The importance of this is two-fold. It shows that your are a totally committed artist and which will attract the serious collector. It will also frighten away the enviable time wasters.
Any artist who claims that they are not seeking an audience is lying. We sell our souls to ones who have polarized ideas and passions, conversely hoping they will listen.
Once an artist realizes that the world sees them as entertainment – as monkeys in a cage, ready to be poked with sticks – a large burden will fall off their shoulders.
The world no longer looks at artists as a barometer of social issues, or that it allows its hackles to be raised, warranting ostracizing or widespread condemnation. There has been nothing new since the 1960s. Copyists are being championed through galleries, time and time again and without signs of stopping.
It depends on the individual artist how they allow prevailing attitudes to affect them. If you work to your advantage, you will become stronger, resilient and utterly determined to spread your own gospel and with the sterling assistance of the ones who want to listen, write your own ticket to success.
The old adage is as true here, as it is elsewhere - “If you need something done properly, do it yourself”
10. ALL viewers must be considered potential clients.
No exceptions, as difficult as this may seem or become. Uncommitted or boorish visitors one day may well become a collector of your work. This may take several years or more. I know of one bespoke furniture maker who received commissions from a show visitor 7 years previous!
Even the individuals who talk trash to you, and who you wish to send packing as time wasters, may well become the very best client you ever had.
Many want to fill in empty spaces on their walls. Whether they buy books or art 'by the yard', the ultimate choices are price governed. I've heard visitors bitterly complain that the works on show surpassed their $50 art budget, making me suggest that their local thrift or Dollar Shop would supply exactly what they were looking for.
On the other hand, I've had clients who'll spend $15,000 without haggling or blinking an eye.
The wife and agent of a very well known cartoonist and illustrator told me that a fairly drunk young visitor came to their booth one evening and spent an hour and a half talking about himself, art and the world in general. It was getting late and she was seriously contemplating telling him that she wanted to close the booth and go to bed.
In that one minute of contemplation, the young guy had got out his checkbook and bought $45,000 worth of art.
Every serious artist you'll ever talk to has one or more stories like this.
11. Dealing with galleries will open up new and unforgettable experiences. Be very prepared.
As far back as the 50s, they would champion artists and try and place them on the map. Compared to these days, there were relatively few galleries about and most of them had some real clout in the art world, liaising or colluding with the few big-named art critics who had the power to make or break galleries and artists alike. New York critic Clement Greenberg was one such critic who gained Messianic status. This 'king maker' as he was named, could – and would – single handedly destroy any reputation if it suited him. A flawed character whose writings carried much weight but sounded inarticulate when speaking to an eager audience.
Although their websites will tout for 'new talent', the plethora of galleries that have risen like wild mushrooms, are not geared to introduce and nurture new talent but solely in business to make a quick buck from – in a great many cases – mediocre work..
Their outlook is to garner as many local artists with some track record of success, and to latch onto their clientele in order to expand their own headcount of potential customers.
In order to get an immediate response from a gallery, it is imperative to walk inside to present yourself and your work. If you are fortunate, you'll get either a negative of positive reply. Either way, you'll know where you stand.
Should you wish to deal with them per email, be very prepared never to receive any reply whatsoever.
Beware of the so-called 'vanity galleries'. Their task is to contact and promise artists high levels of success if they would sign up to their scheme where the artist pays a serious premium for an exhibition. To add insult to injury, the artist is responsible for art transport, opening night entertainment and to pay the gallery a minimum of 50% commission for sold work.
Galleries are also notorious for having little or no respect for stored works of art. I have seen them haphazardly stacked against each other with sharp edges digging into the canvas.
Delivering well-packed artwork is no guarantee that the gallery will use them again in storage. In many cases the packaging is discarded as it takes up too much room and can be fire hazard.
12. Accept to put in long hours to promote yourself.
With the advent of the internet, there are many platforms on which to promote your work. Start your own website which putting together is no longer considered to be a black and costly business. Consider the ubiquitous Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Etsy, Fine Art America, Saatchi, Deviant Art. etc. etc.
Up-keeping them is just as important as starting them, which can really bite into your time and take much effort. Once you have your own rhythm sorted out, maintaining them becomes an enjoyable business.
My artists tips are built on the accumulation of experiences spanning over 45 years living in Holland, Great Britain and now, the USA. The beautiful thing is that this experience remains ongoing and I prefer to be honest with the reader and convey the problems they can can face on their chosen path of life. All artists are gifted with that special 'zing', which allows them to connect to a more intense level of existence.
I am proud to be one of them.