FAQ's: the artist's life

If you plan on being a working artist, keeping inventory records is an essential component of your business. When I started painting, the idea that I would someday have an inventory that needed managing seemed rather remote. It really wasn't until I first started putting work in shows, and selling work, that I realized how important it would be. Almost immediately upon my entering work into multiple physical exhibitions, things got confusing.

There are a lot of art inventory methods out there and I am not going to pretend I evaluated them all, I did not! I happily fell into using Artwork Archiveabout seven years after I started painting -- just enough time to have quite a lot of work to add. Over the past years the developers at Artwork Archive keep adding features, which serve to make my business run much more smoothly.

Inventory tracking systems aren't a substitute for a good website and well-organized personal files on your computer! So do get organized, and get some sort of repeatable system under control. No matter which method you settle on -- even if you start by keeping lists, or a spreadsheet -- track your work. Give it a name, write down the dimensions and medium, the price, and give it an inventory number (especially if you use inventive names like 'Untitled I'!)

And record that same information in some fashion on the back of your work, to close the loop!

I really enjoy the artwork of so many artists, past and present. Off the top of my head I'd have to mention Jules Bastien-Lepage, Joan Eardley, Hokusai, Albrecht Dürer, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Vincent van Gogh, and the Canadian painters The Group of Seven, Emily Carr, and Clarence Gagnon. And I would say my current approach to painting and my painting life has been strongly influenced by contemporary artists Daniel Greene and Burton Silverman.

And science in all its forms has long been a source of wonder and inspiration to me; everything from biology to chemistry to geology and on. There's inspiration there to last centuries!

I am also inspired by the great outdoors, by good writing, by brilliant minds, and by anyone who is working hard at their job no matter what it is.

Oh, some sort of ego the size of a jumbo jet, a complete disregard for common sense, an ability not to listen to the sound advice of others, etc., etc.! It's also nice if you can draw. Seriously, though, there are so many different types of art and so many different approaches that I can't really identify one set of skills that apply to everyone. And we all have different ideas of what 'success' means.

Develop business skills; constantly work at improving your art skills; try to avoid getting in a rut and repeating yourself; understand that relationships matter just as much as talent; work hard to develop your own vision rather than catering to trends.

Most important is to love creating art, because success may not mean financial security, it may not mean fame, it may not mean a full-time job in the arts. It may simply mean being happy producing work that you love.

That's a tough question. What I have found over the years is that most projects and commissions tend to be exciting in some way: either the subject matter or composition captures your imagination, or the client is one you consider important and you want to honor them, or the audience is one you particularly want to connect with. And it's important to find that exciting element and hold on to it, as that feeling will keep you working on the project with enthusiasm through the difficult stages (and there usually are some of these for every painting!)

To begin with I was simply happy myself to be making art and making a living! Now it's about the happiness art can bring to others. For example, with portraiture, there's something about telling the story of a life in such a tangible way that really resonates with people. With botanical art, my collectors often mention a feeling of peace, or connection to the land or a favorite locale.

And I like to use my skills to help other people, businesses, artists, etc., promote their own work -- I want us all to succeed.

I also love the flexible schedule of a freelancer; having time to think; having my cat in the studio with me; and most importantly, making a living doing something for which I seem to be well-suited.

I really like to be outside doing anything from gardening to sailing, hiking, plein air painting, sketching, that sort of thing. Except when it's super-cold! I used to spend a ridiculous number of hours on end working in my studio. Now I achieve a better balance between indoors and outdoors.

I also read a lot, and in the winter I pick up more indoors hobbies such as printmaking, quilting, knitting, carving, playing the piano. I like making useful objects. I particularly love learning how to do skills by hand.

You mean beyond the usual 'lack of income' issue? When I started freelancing my biggest challenge was that I was not very knowledgeable about business. I had to learn from scratch about sending proper invoices, how to make your materials look professional, that sort of thing. I spent a lot of time researching what others did.

A business woman I knew could see that I was trying, and gave me some good basic advice about how to run a small business and actually make a profit. When I started looking at the process as being a matter of sales, creating a consistently high quality product, delivery, supplies, promotion, costing, etc., I was able to start making a living.

Recent years have seen great improvements in courses preparing artists for the real world, and I like to see emphasis on what might be called 'freelance prep'. There are full-time positions to be had in various aspects of art and design, but eventually many artists -- both commercial and fine art -- will end up working for themselves in some manner.

Business fundamentals--billing, contracts, professional conduct, marketing and branding, self-promotion--are an important part of a professional artist's life. Artists can keep themselves up to date in these areas in many ways: online, library, class, on the job, at a conference, and there are some very good books on business for artists/small business that can help you target what you need to know.

I started out using mostly Winsor & Newton and Sennelier professional quality oil paints, and kept to these brands until their qualities became very familiar. I have since added in colors from Michael Harding, Williamsburg, Gamblin, and Rublev. And I have been mixing up my own oil paint recently! It's not hard to do. Pigments and supplies are available from Ancient Earth Pigments and Natural Pigments. All it takes is a muller and grinding surface, colored pigment, oil, and elbow grease. Plus, the pigments can be used to make watercolor, gouache, egg tempera, etc. You can mix your own combinations, as well as use historic pigments that aren't available commercially in tubes.

I also highly recommend using Gamsol as a solvent; it's a very artist-friendly product. I mix it with 2:1 with stand oil or walnut oil to make a nice medium. And I occasionally use Liquin if I am in a hurry, also Galkyd Lite for speed in drying, and Neo Meglip if I want to keep the paint workable.

For brushes I still use some hog bristle brushes, however now I'm venturing into the synthetics with great success. Longevity is aided by keeping the rough dunking in caustic cleaners to a minimum, so I tend to wipe my brushes rather than constantly clean them as I work. At the end of a painting session, I clean all my brushes with soap and warm water.

For canvases, I most often use the Fredrix brand of cotton and linen canvas and sometimes use Claessens linen canvas which I buy in a roll. Lately, I have been mounting the canvas to aluminum panels, which I cut to custom sizes, and I adhere the canvas with Lineco neutral pH adhesive.


Deliver a product of consistent quality, at your highest level of ability.

Be able to deal with the ups and downs of getting paid, mostly not on time. After your business becomes established there will be a more consistent cash flow and you can build a financial cushion. However, to begin with, the best way to handle the feast and famine situation is to keep out of debt. If you leave school with debt, take any job you need to in order to pay it down as quickly as possible, and then stay out of debt to the greatest degree you can.

Recognize what helps you to be creative, what times of day are the best work hours for you, what environment works best, and then try to create that environment and work within that schedule.

Be able to diminish the distractions and focus.

Lastly, build a solid network. The support of family, friends, clients, and acquaintances can help you on both a business and personal level!

Each painting has so many variables. Pose, lighting, background, patterns on clothing, all of these things play a part. I do have ballpark figures I use to estimate if I can complete a particular painting within a requested timeframe, but I purposely keep these loose. The painting process can include any number of surprises.

Most of the very realistic work I do takes weeks and months to complete as I work in layers and so paint needs to dry before I can proceed. And surprisingly, I have found that a smaller canvas is not necessarily easier or faster to produce.

Typically it takes me between 2 and 6 months to complete a portrait, and I know when a portrait is complete not by the number of hours I've put into it, but by some internal signal that says, "That's it! Put the paintbrush down and walk away!"

In my opinion, 'style' just happens; you will discover it when you look back at your work over a period of time. You'll suddenly notice that you like certain colors a lot, or that you really prefer the work you do in one medium over another or one subject matter over another. I used to fret constantly about this style issue, liking everyone else's and not seeing that I had a valid style as well! In fact, in many ways it was one of the biggest wastes of time, worrying about needing a style.

My best advice is to try everything (medium, materials, technique, color palette) that appeals to you, like clothing. The items that suit you will stay in your closet, you'll discard the ones that don't, and sooner or later you'll end up with a particular wardrobe that is uniquely your own. It'll happen when it happens, and it happens by pursuing your art practice on a consistent basis and with intention.

The reality is, you need to be able to like to produce your own art even when it's not trendy, and there's a lot to be said about continuing to experiment. Artists are often afraid that by doing this they will lose collectors, but really, you can keep your work fresh without losing the basic components that make your work yours. And it's important to have fun, to try new things, for your own sanity! Try some new colors on your palette. Try a few different brushes, or add a new technique in with those you already use. A new body of work will pull you out of any rut, and even if it's not as successful as your other work you will have learned great lessons in producing it. This is how you grow as an artist.

Do great work, learn business and marketing basics (these days there are lots of great books out there aimed at artists).

Accept even the most simple jobs and do them well, success will build upon itself.

Don't worry about developing a style or a name, just worry about doing your best and keep learning.

Have a good portfolio website and don't get sucked into spending a bunch of time on social media showing your work to your friends.

Investigate what other successful artists with work similar to yours are doing to gain exposure. Build on these ideas to develop your own market.

Have business cards at the ready at all times, and exchange cards even when you think the person you are conversing with is not a potential client. Network building is an important part of any business.

And I'll say it again -- do great work!

I don’t have much formal art training, so perhaps the most valuable advice I can give is that you don't need to go to art school or have a degree to become a professional artist and make a decent living. That doesn't mean you can't pick up some useful info at a school--an introductory drawing class I took years ago taught me fundamentals that I still apply to this day. (Thank you, Prof. Vincent Castagnacci, University of Michigan!)

Later when I was in the role of an art director, I found that some of the best and most qualified graphic design and illustration applicants I had were the products of vocational schools, where real-life skills were being taught and the expectations for salary and entry-level work were far more realistic than those applicants coming from high priced schools.

And there's nothing like some instruction from someone whose work you admire, or who possesses skills and technique that you want to acquire. Many incredible professional artists also teach classes and workshops, perfect if you don't have the time, funds or desire to pursue a degree.

I started out as an entry-level junior illustrator for a screenprint business, and built on that experience with other illustration and design-related jobs until I had enough skills to break out on my own as a freelancer. After building a very successful solo business I decided to transition to fine art.

Rather than rely on trial and error to learn the fundamentals of the craft and the business, I sought out Daniel Greene and Burton Silverman, two artists I hold in very high esteem and took workshops with them. In my opinion, this sort of targeted learning is of more value than a bunch of required and expensive classes in which you may have little interest.

I don't adhere to a particular color theory, more like multiple scraps of good advice I have picked up over the years! But I will say I didn't get the importance of color theory until I read James Gurney's Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter. If you want some practical color theory concepts that you can actually use in your artwork, I highly recommend this book. It has changed my otherwise dismissive view of color theory as Gurney manages to appeal to artists rather than making them want to stick their fingers in their ears!

In addition to color, I do pay attention to contrast and value, and color overtones (red, yellow, blue). At the start of a piece, I am interested in good composition and design.

I also believe that learning about color mixing by trial and error is very useful. When you try to put a pale thick blue paint with a thin yellow, certain things are going to happen and it's good to know what those are before you waste a ton of paint! Color theory is helpful, but it's the pigment that has the final say. Take some time to mix your favorite paints with each other and see what happens. Those charts you can make showing color mixes are actually a very useful reference tool and are worth taking the time to build.

Color can be used in so many interesting ways and it can be enlightening to experiment. For example, I was sketching in the woods the other day and decided to do some small watercolors of trees using any color except brown. I got some wonderful bark texture from shades of purple and gold and turquoise, really unexpected and beautiful. That sort of playing around on a small scale can really improve your larger work and provide you with some new ways of looking at familiar subjects as well.

A few key rules of thumb that have worked very well for me are:

1) Keep your debt as low as you can, and pay for things in cash whenever possible. You can be far more flexible in terms of location and type of job/salary if you aren\'t worrying about a mountain of debt. When you make money, invest it back in your business -- supplies, training, equipment, whatever you need to keep you up to speed, but don't overdo it. Pay off the debt you have as quickly as possible, even working a second job to do it.

2) Do a regular cost analysis and have a good understanding of how much it takes you to operate your business -- rent, utilities, taxes, etc., down to the paper and ink you use in the printer. Add on a decent profit plus another percentage to cover surprises, and stick to your rates. If you don't, the only person who will lose is you. Think of yourself as a small business, and learn how to run that business profitably.

3) Learn how you work, and make that work for you. By that I mean figure out if you're a night owl, a morning person, do you need a pot of coffee on hand, do you need to take a break every hour, do you like audiobooks, do you like silence. Whatever it is, make that the way you do your work. There's no need to fight against your own nature; you won't produce your best work. Figure out what it takes to get you to sit at your easel, drawing board, or computer for the hours it will take to complete the job, and do that!

4) I highly recommend that you don't do spec work. Your time and talent have value, and people often only value you as much as they are paying you; sad but true. Stick to your rates and do equally good work for everyone. That being said, occasionally you may want to donate something for fundraising efforts. In that case, keep the upper hand. Artists: you choose which causes will receive your donations and how frequently; designers and illustrators: make sure you retain complete creative control of your aspect of the project, and that others on the project are volunteering their time also.

5) Put your title and contact info in your email signature, starting now. Use it when you write to everyone. It will remind people who you are and what you are. If you have a website or social media where people can see your work, include the link.

6) Have some friends or other business people you can get together with for coffee every now and again and talk about work challenges or just have a laugh. As a freelancer life can be quite isolating. Find other busy creatives and take a break when you can, it will help immeasurably!

There's always more to achieve but I'm very content with my current situation. It's important to strive and to have attainable goals, but it's also important, particularly for a freelancer or solo worker, to recognize when you've met intermediate goals and to give yourself a pat on the back.

I am extremely happy to have been able to pursue life as an artist for so many years and in so many capacities. I have worked in many aspects of graphic design, web design, illustration, and fine art. I've been able to use my skills to help other businesses, particularly start-ups, and put marketing and promotion knowledge to use for them and for myself. And there's so much more to learn!

Now I am at a point where I am concentrating diligently on fine art with portraiture and botanical art as a primary focus. The challenge of creating a perfect likeness is all-consuming and it is a great way to employ a wide variety of artistic techniques that I have picked up over the years. To be able to paint a portrait and bring happiness to people on a personal level is a wonderful feeling! And the botanical work feeds my own desire to express a connection with every aspect of our natural world, its complexities, and the way we are tied to every plant, every rock, and even the air we breathe, at an elemental level.

To be able to devote my life to this pursuit absolutely meets my definition of success.