Initial Steps in Your Career

Living the Artist’s Life: Updated & Revised
by Paul Dorrell

Excerpt from Chapter 4

How do you begin the process of putting your career together, gaining a following, and achieving your goals?  Well that’s a complex, multi-layered question which I’ll address in stages.  I’m going to begin with some fairly obvious topics, since I’m obligated to cover the basics before moving on to the subtleties.  So even if you feel you’ve already mastered these aspects you might want to browse this section; you never know when a useful idea will come up.

How Will You Know When You’re Ready to Show Publicly?
By this I don’t mean showing in a gallery, but in public venues, since before most galleries will consider your work, they’ll want to know where you’ve exhibited.  But before you begin that process, you may want to ask yourself whether you’ve realistically evaluated your work, since we’re all on occasion guilty of self-deceit.  To do this, ask a few qualified critics to give you feedback.  And please note, by critic I mean someone who isn’t in love with you, isn’t a relative, and doesn’t owe you money.

Rely on people who will be honest, who have a good eye, and appropriate sophistication for what you do.  This means that if your work is avant-garde, then a devotee of Thomas Hart Benton would likely not be a good choice.  Whoever your critics are, consult them, and the harsher aspects of your inner voice, before you commit to exhibiting.  After you’ve covered these bases, then by all means proceed.

Example: In my case, how did I know when I was ready to begin approaching literary agents?  Because after having written for fifteen years, I’d become confident in my work and my critics felt the same.   Once I achieved that, I doggedly went after the agents.  Four offered me representation.

What if I had approached them five years earlier?  I’m certain that all would have turned me down, and I’d have slid into that common pit of rejection/despair.  My work wasn’t mature enough at that point.  Similarly, I advise that you don’t push too hard for public exhibition until you know you’re ready.  There’s no rush; take the time to prepare and grow so that you blow away your viewers the first time out.

You may still be in art school when this occurs, or several years out.  However it works, you can be sure of one thing: there’s no way you’ll be as well prepared for your first show as you will be for your fifth.  But diving in and undertaking that first show is how you’ll learn to prepare for the later ones.

Establishing Goals and Setting Deadlines
If you’re working to become a successful artist you’re essentially working to become self-employed, building a career that eventually allows you to quit the day job.  One of the best ways of achieving this, apart from creating magnificent work, is to master the task of defining goals and setting deadlines.  I realize this is a given, but have noticed that artists don’t tend to excel in this area of career-building, while other professionals—architects, executives, lawyers—often do.  Why?  Because the firms they join assign them goals which if they don’t fulfill, they’re fired.  For artists and other entrepreneurs, goals must be self-fulfilled.  No one fires you if you fail, but if you’re always broke and your career going nowhere, it amounts to the same thing.

Most artists would frankly rather just create than be bothered with this stuff.  I don’t blame them; so would I.  Unfortunately if we don’t have a specific goal that we’re constantly working toward—with a deadline assigned to it—we likely won’t create with as much drive and focus.  I constantly have to assign difficult goals to myself and my staff, then we must achieve them in a certain amount of time if we’re to take care of our families, as well as all the careers we’ve been entrusted with.  I dig some aspects of that, especially when success results, but do weary of the process now and then.  I’d a hell of a lot rather just be working on my novels.  Unfortunately they’re not bringing home the bacon yet, so I must remain focused on setting goals and deadlines.  Because I enjoy the art biz, that’s not such a bad thing.

Everyone I know who is successfully self-employed, be they artist or restaurateur, is faced with this same chore.  Those who master it normally succeed; those who do not normally don’t.  Of course it would be great if all you had to do was get into a gallery, blow everyone away with your first show, then sit back and field the calls from collectors, critics and talk-show hosts.  After all this does happen—to maybe one artist in a million.  That’s what is known as Right place, Right time, whether you’re a sculptor, actor or musician.  For the rest of us, building up a career is a process that takes many years.  You may as well accept that likelihood, with the self-imposed goals and deadlines that will help make it happen.  It’s not really a drag, especially when accompanied by successive achievements, and a lot of fun, along the way.

Goals and Deadlines: An effective way to handle this task is write out the goals you want to achieve this year, then over the next few years, then over the next ten.  You should assign a deadline to each, since a goal without a deadline is just a wish—to paraphrase Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

Set your sights high but be realistic.  Otherwise you’ll needlessly set yourself up for failure and depression—which none of us needs more of.  Go back and review the goals every few months, adjusting them to suit the changing course of your life, since all our lives are constantly evolving: tragedy, ecstasy, failure, success.  Honestly assess if you achieved what you set out to, and if you haven’t, why not?  Don’t be too hard on yourself, since you are your own best ally, but do kick yourself in the butt if necessary.  That’s been a regular practice of mine all my life, though I do it kindly.

Example:  Here’s a set of goals that I helped a painter in his late ‘20s throw together.  It’s typical of what I’m referring to.  In fact you can find dozens of sample goal sheets online, but this one of course applies to artists.

Jake’s Ten-Year Plan
This Year:
Join an artists’ coalition.                                  Start Date:_______  End Date:_______
Get accepted by a cool gallery.                        Start Date:_______  End Date:_______
Participate in at least one group show.           Start Date:_______  End Date:_______
Submit to six juried shows in other regions.    Start Date:_______  End Date:_______
Participate in Open Studios Weekend.            Start Date:_______  End Date:_______
Finish one painting every week or so.             Start Date:_______  End Date:_______
Get a handle on my partying.

Two Years from Now:
Submit to six juried shows in other regions.  Start Date:_______  End Date:_______
Design a new website.                                     Start Date:_______  End Date:_______
Increase prices.                                               Start Date:_______  End Date:_______
Book first one-person show in the gallery.      Start Date:_______  End Date:_______
Finish fifteen strong pieces for the show.       Start Date:_______  End Date:_______
Submit work to art magazines to get press.    Start Date:_______  End Date:_______
Finish one mature painting every week.          Start Date:_______  End Date:_______
Finally get to Europe.                           Start Date:_______  End Date:_______

Five Years from Now:
Be in in three galleries in various regions.       Start Date:_______  End Date:_______
Participate in at least one show per year.       Start Date:_______  End Date:_______
Submit to six juried shows in other regions.    Start Date:_______  End Date:_______
Finish one mature painting every week.          Start Date:_______  End Date:_______
Land magazine and newspaper articles.         Start Date:_______  End Date:_______
Increase my prices.                                         Start Date:_______  End Date:_______
Drink cheap champagne to celebrate.            Any date will do.

Ten Years from Now:
Be in five galleries in various regions.              Start Date:_______  End Date:_______
Participate in at least two shows per year.      Start Date:_______  End Date:_______
Continue submitting to six juried shows.         Start Date:_______  End Date:_______
Finish one great painting every week or so.    Start Date:_______  End Date:_______
Make enough money to quit day job.              Start Date:_______  End Date:_______
Prices reflect my many achievements.            Start Date:_______  End Date:_______
Return to Europe; drink better champagne.    Any date will still do.

Unfortunately Jake didn’t get accepted by a gallery until the second year, but adjusted for that by completing several paintings for a one-person show he set up at a swank restaurant on the 39th Street in Midtown.  Of course the show had a deadline, which he either had to meet or infuriate the restaurant owner, so he met it.  Nor did he exactly finish a painting that he was happy with every two weeks, but the last I heard, he was holding himself fairly close to this.  All of the other goals for his first year he fairly well achieved—thanks in part to this rather tedious list, and the deadlines he assigned to each task.  Did he enjoy drafting this?  Not much.  Did he dig it when things began to click?  Sure.  Will he keep redrafting this after he begins to succeed?  Likely not.
If you don’t feel you need this, cool.  Some people can do it just by keeping a mental list that they check off periodically.  But that is not a common trait.  So you might try this in a way that suits you, as long as the process stays in step with your inspiration.  Go back and update it as needed—especially sticking to the deadlines you assign yourself.

I fear that if you don’t do this, or something like it, your career will not really move forward.  Hence that coffee shop where you go to hang out with friends and talk about your careers, and how wish you wish yours was farther along?  Ten years from now you’ll still be having the same conversation, only with less passion.  Please don’t do that to yourself.  Set the goals, set the deadlines, then achieve them repeatedly, since this is a process we pretty much follow our entire lives.  Once things go well, you can write me a note from your vacation spot in Jamaica, and tell me how glad you are that you kicked yourself in the butt all those years ago.  I would enjoy receiving that.

Photographing Your Work
I’m not a technical writer, so I’m not going to get into the intricacies of photography in that sense, but I will cover the basics.
I used to hire photographers to shoot slides and transparencies of my artists’ work.  Now we do everything digitally, whether I’m working with a professional or one of my staff members. A pro will typically charge by the hour, whatever the going rate is.  This doesn’t mean you have to hire the most expensive shooter in town. Instead, try to find an emerging pro who shoots out of his home. You can locate these people on the Internet, or through photography societies.  Later, as you learn about the process, you’ll be able to shoot your own work competently if you wish.

One of my artists shoots her abstract oils outdoors against the wall of her garage, using a basic digital camera she bought for $250.  The lighting is adequate, she crops the garage out of the shot, enhances the contrast digitally, and the galleries all think the photos were taken in a studio. If the day is sunny, she simply puts the piece in mild shade. Because almost all galleries review digital images before asking to see originals, she doesn’t bother printing photos unless this is requested.

This rather unorthodox method works, but ultimately it’s best if you set up a corner in your house where, with the proper lights, you’ll be able to shoot your work indoors, night or day.  When you do, don’t use a flash.  Like direct sunlight, it will wash out color and cause glare.  It’s best if you shoot under controlled studio lighting with covered strobes.  If a background must show, it should be neutral.

It used to be a standard practice to shoot both slides and prints, but now most artists keep everything on disc or some form of digital storage, printing only what they need.  When a client or gallery requests images, you simply send them by e-mail, following up with a printed photo if necessary.  Normally that isn’t needed, everyone is trying to use less paper these days.

Finally, do you need to photograph every work that you create?  If you feel compelled to, sure.  If not, just shoot the ones you’re happiest with.  But please, always be sure to shoot and document a piece after it is sold.  You can use the fact of the sale, and where it was placed, for marketing purposes later.

Speaking of which, please try not to look down on words like marketing and promotion.  Robert Rauschenberg was a master promoter.  So were Diego Riviera, Pablo Picasso and Georgia O’Keefe.  It’s an essential part of the business.  It can be a distasteful part if handled poorly, or rewarding if handled with integrity and passion.  We tend to prefer the latter approach.

Resumes
A succinct, well-written resume is an essential tool.  Below is a typical one, this for a sculptor who works in stainless steel…