My artist story is a curious path of self-discovery. I knew very little about business when I started and how I should go about this journey. My story may be unique, or you may recognise parts of your own within it. Either way, I hope you find it insightful, helpful and it breaks down some of the barriers between you and your destination as a professional artist.
I am lucky to have a role model in my mother, who is also an artist. I have watched her since I was a child and learnt so much from her professionally.
However, when I came into the world, she was already at a level where her paintings were sought after, people came to buy her work, and commission her to paint. Was it just a matter of time to get to that stage, continuously improving until it’s easy to sell your work and people know your name?
My love of art started from a very young age. Growing up in a creative family meant that I was surrounded by art and encouraged to draw. I loved watching my mother paint and often took ‘sick’ days to stay at home and sit in her studio with her while she worked. I can still smell the heady mix of watercolour paints, pencil erasers, and instant coffee.
On the days when I did attend school, I loved inspiring others, and ran a small pattern-drawing class during my lunch hour when I was seven. A group of girls sat around my table with coloured pens and took part in my step-by-step demonstration. I also won colouring competitions and enjoyed being one of the ‘arty’ ones in class who got the best jobs during team projects.
When I moved into high school, my mother took me to meet my new art teacher, who she happened to know well. The art room was inspiring and intimidating at the same time. The smell of oil paint, white spirit and a range of new materials opened up a world of potential to me. After a brief chat with the art teacher, I told her I was going to be an artist when I grew up. Most likely the same statement came out of the mouth of every art student who passed through that day. That’s nice, dear, she said with a sigh. A look of gratitude at my enthusiasm mixed with a healthy dose of realism crossed her face. I did become an artist when I grew up. She has been one of my biggest supporters.
Art classes in high school were good because they were hard. I found them challenging, and I wasn’t the best or the most talented by far. We saw work from the years above, some great art. I struggled with drawing, with oil paint, and with inspiration. Which was good because I had a lot to learn. I had to find my thing. I eventually found my thing through pen and ink drawing and photography. My attention to detail and love of text made for interesting art projects and my work was uniquely me, even if not that good. But I worked hard and got better.
After high school, I went to art school and had the best few years of my life. My first experience of living away from home and finding a group of art friends was so wonderful that we are still in touch today. Again, I was challenged as an art student, and amongst people who were much better than me. Always surround yourself with people who are better than you; it’s the best way to learn. And as I will explain later, they are not really better than you, just different, and probably further along in their artistic journeys. Art is like a fingerprint, it is uniquely you. Even if we start out by copying other artists as recommended, the best artists move through this stage and find their own unique expression that becomes their signature, their fingerprint.
I was lucky to have parents who worked in the arts, so actively encouraged me to pursue my passion and go to art school. But as a post-graduate, I felt lost, unprepared and ill-equipped to turn what I could do into a business. My work needed a lot more time to develop, but I also needed to get a job to support myself, so I wasn’t able to continue with it initially. I chose temporary jobs in hospitality and retail, jobs I could get in and out of quickly if needed, should an amazing art opportunity come my way. It never did, and I spent years working like this during my twenties. I still painted on weekends and days off, but often felt too tired to do so; these types of jobs take huge amounts of energy and there was often nothing left for my art.
I sold a few paintings here and there. I had a couple of exhibitions with my mother which I loved doing, although I knew my work had a long way to go. After taking time off to travel around Australia, I got a job creating a series of paintings for a restaurant when I got home, which was wonderful. This resulted in painting every day for three months. I remember it being a happy time and I felt fulfilled creatively. But when that ended, I had to get a job.
During my twenties, I thought about pursuing my interest in nutrition, and whether that would make a suitable career until I got time to paint. I studied for four years in London and qualified as a nutritional therapist. I loved working in this field, although the paint kept calling me back.
In hindsight, I should have made the time to pursue my art, carved out some space and taken a chance, even if it meant getting a loan to cover my expenses. Waiting for opportunities that never come will lead you further and further away from the work you truly want to do, and the further you let it take you, the harder it is to get back.
Saying that, maybe I was too young and it was good to have these experiences and jobs before committing to my art. My retail and hospitality experience was brilliant for my customer service skills and I learnt a lot about people and business there. Travel is always a great experience, and lead me to Tasmania in 2012. I’m not sure I was mature enough to run a business back then. I certainly did not know how to start one.
I love the concept of the movie Slumdog Millionaire and how the main character’s often tough experiences gave him the answers he needed later in life at exactly the right time. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without my experiences, and each one added something to my skill set. No one asked me why I wasn’t working as an artist. They accepted my decision to do what I was doing, but I never asked myself that question either. I was the one who needed to ask.
So it was later in life when I became a professional, full-time artist. April 2015, to be exact, I had just turned 37. I moved to Tasmania in 2012 from Jersey in the Channel Islands, got married and began a new life.
Starting out as an artist was scary, but it felt right. This was my chance. I had time, space, and the support of a new husband. This was my time. However, I knew nothing about business, so I had to teach myself the basics while creating regular practice for my art. I rented a studio, showed up every day and worked hard. There was a fire inside me that kept me going, even when no one noticed I was there and my work didn’t sell. Even during those hard times, the fire kept me going and still burns bright today.
The thing about selling art is that it gets easier. When you first start, no one knows who you are, and your work is in its development stages. You don’t have an audience yet, however, people begin to notice and watch what you’re doing. How long you’ll last, how long you’ll stick around…
I’ve seen many artists come and go during my time, and know that one of my special skills is my staying power. I’m in this for the long game, and I would do this even if no one was watching. Some artists burst onto the scene with a bang, have a successful exhibition or two, and then disappear into thin air, never to be seen again. Others try unsuccessfully for a few years, then give up and get a ‘proper’ job. It’s hard to watch, and the reason I want to explore how artists find success.
We know it takes more than talent. There are many talented artists out there who never make it. Yet others have a better understanding of marketing and sales/more money to promote themselves who get out there. We know it takes grit, resilience, determination, longevity and hard work to make it happen. Are these the essence of success?
I knew I had all these qualities, as it took me so long to get here, and it prepared me to do anything to stay here. I knew this is what I wanted to do with my life, to make a living from my art, and I promised myself early on that if I did ever make it, I would share my process and help other artists do the same.
I am lucky to live in a location where there is a fantastic art culture and many talented artists who work well together and support each other. This is not always the case. Some places have a culture that competes, with a feeling of scarcity that there is not enough success to go around, and we must push others out of the way in order to get there. I am grateful I don’t live in a place where this happens, as it is a false belief. There is an abundance of success for artists, and we need to celebrate each other’s success along the way. Creating art is as unique as our fingerprint, so when you think about it like that, there is no competition.
Another myth I find frustrating is that artists are scatty and disorganised. Not the artists I know. While studios can look like a big creative mess to the untrained eye, most artists know exactly where everything is. The successful artists I know are organised, and just because we use one side of our brains more than the other, doesn’t mean the other side is dormant.
As artists, we have to be able to overcome rejection. It always hurts when your art doesn’t get selected for a prize, a gallery says no, or people don’t want to buy your work. We are only human, and unlike other business owners who sell products that are imported or produced elsewhere, we make our art from scratch and put our heart and soul into it, so it hurts even more.
But experience tells us it’s okay that not everyone wants to buy our work. There are people out there who are going to love our work, and our job is to find them. We may not be a good fit for a particular gallery, and that’s alright too. And if our work didn’t get selected for that prize? Then it may not have been the right time, the right piece and perhaps the other entries were more advanced than ours, which is alright as well! We need to keep going and refine our work until it reaches a higher standard. It’s all part of the journey.
I think the hardest part about becoming an artist is the inconsistent income. If you have worked as an employee and been used to a steady paycheck, it is challenging to make that switch to self-employed/business owner and not know how much is going to come in each month, if anything at all. Most artists need some savings or a part-time job to support themselves in the beginning, however, they must also carve out time and energy for their art.
I recommend having a few different income streams to begin with, such as website sales, gallery or shop sales, teaching income and markets, for example. It may also be quite seasonal depending on where you live, with most of your income coming in over the summer months and the sound of crickets in the winter. Then you need to budget and use these quiet times to make your art and build up stock.
Financial stress is real for artists and can be overwhelming. I worried a lot about money during the first few years. Even with a supportive husband and a place to live, it was always important to me to make my own money and maintain that level of independence. So I placed a lot of pressure on myself to make an income from my art, and while this never affected my enjoyment of it, I looked at it commercially and developed my work accordingly to find a balance between doing the work I loved and doing the work that appealed to people and sold. Perhaps I am labelled a ‘commercial’ artist by some, but if I sell a painting today, that means I can buy paint and create more art tomorrow. It really is that simple and allows me to do the work I love.
Sometimes I let it get to me though, and it overwhelmed me seeing business expenses come in such as studio rent and website costs, alongside little to no income. I kept an emergency $50 note in my sock drawer (there are few emergencies that amount could help, but it made me feel more secure), and when I needed to use that, I knew things were bad. I held on though, made more art, and got through, feeling an intense wave of gratitude for anyone who bought a card, a print, or a painting during that time. That gratitude is still felt today even though the financial stress has reduced. I still want to hug them, and repeat ‘thank you!’, but I don’t because a) that would be inappropriate, and b) Covid.
I ate boiled eggs and tins of tuna in my studio for lunch to save money. Any little profit I made went straight back into the business towards supplies and expenses, or I took my husband out for coffee. I spent very little on myself, just covering my basic needs and taking pleasure in simple things. This habit stays with me today, which is good to have, although I enjoy a massage (part of my self-care routine as an artist) and love treating my friends when I can.
It’s great knowing what you want to do with your life and having clarity about what you want to achieve. Some people have this from an early age, some don’t get it until much later, and some never find it at all. Me, I always knew art was a big part of my life and I wanted to be an artist, but there were a few years during my twenties and early thirties when I felt confused, frustrated and torn between different careers and passions, unsure of which path to take. When I committed to living as an artist, everything shifted and got easier. Even the toughest times were easier because I knew I was going in the right direction.
Making a commitment to your art changes everything. I am still passionate about health and found another way to pursue that passion in my spare time. I love writing and that will always be a part of my life too. But painting and being an artist is my true purpose and reason for being on this earth, and I am grateful to know that and feel clear about my future.
I still feel like I am scratching the surface of what I can do, just warming up to the artist I want to become, which is exciting. So much to learn and my work will continue to develop and refine itself.
Painting is where I feel most alive. It can make me feel anxious when I am doing a challenging piece that can go either way depending on my next move, but I love the challenge and understand those hopeless days are just part of the process, and luckily they are fewer and far between. Painting makes me feel present and relaxed. It is good for my mental health and I am creating something that can bring joy to another human as well as bring an income for me. It’s a beautiful process and one I feel grateful to have mastered.
Landing my first art studio was a highlight. Is there anything more exciting for an artist than to have your own creative space? No more painting on kitchen tables, and living room floors, no more clearing away your art supplies for dinner each night. Absolute bliss! But the reality of having to make money soon descends, and the creative brain switches to the business brain.
I had a fair amount of common sense. I had a good education and had learnt from my mum over the years. But apart from that, I had absolutely no idea about how to create a business and make a living from my art. Yet here I was, sitting in my very first studio, with rent to pay and supplies to buy.
Other working artists surrounded me, which helped. Even though I didn’t know them well enough to ask them how they did it, I could quietly observe them from a distance. They worked hard. They showed up every day and treated their practice as a nine-to-five, or similar hours around their most creative times. I needed to do the same. It was strange at first, as I wasn’t accountable to anyone. No one cared if I turned up at 9 am, 10 am or even 11 am, or noticed what time I left. However, I noticed. I needed to make each day count, even if I didn’t know if it was going to work.
My focuses were:
• Make art regularly and keep getting better.
• Narrow my focus on a particular subject.
• Get my work into a gallery or shop.
• Create an online platform for my art.
• Say yes to opportunities that came my way.
• Make friends with other artists.
My biggest challenge was my recent migration to Australia, settling in Hobart, Tasmania with my new husband and not knowing a single soul. Although I had travelled extensively throughout Australia and had family in Melbourne who I had spent time with over the years, I’d never made it to Tasmania and didn’t know what to expect. As a quieter, less populated state of Australia, I wondered what the art scene would be like. The standard of incredible artists quickly blew my mind. The bar was high, which was great, as it would challenge me to learn and get better. Salamanca was at the heart of it, a beautiful historic part of Hobart, where my studio was now situated. It was the perfect place for an artist to thrive.
I discovered that beautiful places attract creative people. Tasmania is full of talented photographers, painters, jewellers, ceramists and writers. Artists flock to beautiful places to inspire them, and Tasmania, being one of the most breathtaking places on the planet, meant an abundance of creative souls.
Salamanca, in particular, is a heaving collection of restaurants, cafes, galleries, shops and studios. A tourist destination with the famous Salamanca Market held every Saturday outside the row of historic sandstone buildings housing the Salamanca Arts Centre and my studio.
My subjects were all over the place, to begin with. I painted landscapes, and seascapes, drew animals and portraits and pen and ink drawings of anything I found interesting. It was a lot, and it was confusing to my first customers. Some loved my animals, and others loved my landscapes, but they found it hard to understand my place as an artist. I think this a trap a lot of new artists fall into. They spread themselves too thin and try to do a lot of different things. Sometimes this is necessary, to work out what they want to do, what they enjoy and what there is a market for. Perhaps it is a requirement. But the most successful artists you’ll notice have niched down, focused, and become known for one particular subject or technique. Of course, there are exceptions of successful artists who do many things, but the majority are focused.
I think I needed to go through this stage, and I found a market for my art. I sold cards, prints and small paintings through a co-op gallery, had a few commissions and said yes to any opportunities that came my way. To stick at it, even when nothing was happening during the quiet winter months when there were no tourists around, was challenging. I started building up my social media, set up a Facebook business page for my art and focused on Instagram, which I enjoyed. I started to gain a local following. The opportunities to exhibit my work came along and I said yes, holding my first exhibitions, some were more successful than others, but I was in it for the long game, and knew I needed to go through this stage to get to where I wanted to go.
Persistence, not taking myself too seriously, always learning, always working and improving, and focusing on the long term got me through the hardest times.
I remained optimistic and celebrated wins along the way, no matter how small. A painting sale often meant a fancy coffee and maybe even some cake. This was a happy day and gave me a bit of encouragement to keep going.
My parents have always been my biggest supporters and my favourite people to share my achievements with. My husband is also supportive yet had a healthy dose of scepticism about whether this would work, which was realistic and pushed me to work harder and prove to him I could do this. I needed to make money from my art and believed that I could make good money one day, but it was going to be slow in the beginning. While he supported me financially in the first few years, I always felt driven to earn my own money and reverse the favour in later years. It never sat well with me to be supported in this way, even though I was grateful for it. I needed to do this for myself, even though my mother told me that this is what marriage is all about. You support each other at different times when you need it. As my husband is older than me, he will retire before me (who am I kidding, artists never retire), so it is likely that I will continue to provide an income for us both during this time and reward him with a lifestyle he deserves. I feel strongly about this, no matter what happens in life.
My ambition to succeed as an artist made me think commercially about what I am doing. Some artists get criticised for being too commercial, but I just see it as a way to continue making art. If I sell a painting today, I can buy materials and make more art tomorrow. I can now help other artists think more commercially about what they are doing because we need to pay bills and put food on the table just like everybody else.
Being commercial doesn’t have to suck the magic and creativity out of what we do. We can have both. Create work we love, provide joy to our customers and get paid well for it. While this may mean thinking differently about your work and its public appeal, making art every day should be the goal.
My business skills were very basic in the beginning. I worked out my business expenses, which were mainly my rent, my travel to the studio and back each day, and my supplies. Plus a few software costs like the website and apps I used. I worked out how much these cost me each month and what I needed to earn to cover them. Some months I did it and made a profit, other months I made nowhere near. While the inconsistent income was stressful and the feast or famine state hard to manage, I got better at budgeting and keeping money from lucrative months to fund the quieter months. Still, it was only enough to get by and not the way I wanted to live long-term. I kept improving my art until I could put a higher price on it. I looked for other income streams, such as writing or teaching. My drive to succeed was strong and something I worked on constantly.
I learnt a lot about online business, especially social media marketing, building a website and starting an email list. It was slow in the beginning and I made mistakes as I was learning. Then I discovered a business program in Sydney which has been a life-changing experience for me. Studying alongside other business owners, joining a community and being a small fish in a big pond has been a wonderful experience, which challenged me and helped me grow in so many ways. The skills I needed to learn changed my business for the better. It is now my pleasure to pass these on to other artists and help them succeed. Together, we can make it easier for the next generation of artists and so on. I believe all art education should teach artists these skills as they are fundamental to our practice.
Making art is a unique experience for every artist, and we all make art for reasons personal to us. For some, it is a hobby, a way to unwind at the weekend after a busy week at work. Some turn that hobby into a side business, which brings in a bit of money to top up their primary income.
Others know they want to make a career from their art and do it full-time. It then becomes a business, and some business skills need to be gained in order to make this happen. A healthy mixture of passion and obsession goes into making this a reality for those artists who want it badly enough.
I am one of those artists. While I had other jobs and passions along the way, if I am true to myself, I can see that art was always in my heart. I did well at school, and it was amazing how many of my teachers tried to steer me away from choosing creative subjects for more academic ones instead. But I knew what would make me happy and headed off to art school with a smile on my face and no money in the bank.
Studying business alongside art would have given me so much more of a chance in the early years. However, I worked it out for myself over time and finally got to the place where I could support myself financially.
If art is your passion, and an important part of your life, then I urge you to find a permanent place for it. Whether it’s alongside a job or even another career, if it is important to you, then please find time for it. Life is way too short to live a life not completely true to yourself. Art is a fulfilling way to spend your time, and it’s a wonderful way to spend a life.
From This Business of Art: How To Become A Professional Artist by Hannah Blackmore.