What Is Artistic Success

What exactly is artistic success?

what is Success as an artist
Every week I write a brand new article to support members of our three wonderful art communities on Facebook, The Artists Exchange, The Artists Directory, and The Artist Hangout. This week we take a look at what really makes a successful artist and do we ever recognise success even when it happens?
Questions, Questions, Questions…
There are just so many questions that need answers when you are an artist. It’s either the artist asking “where’s the best place to buy brush cleaner that doesn’t completely destroy brushes”, or the potential buyer asking “can y’all do this for free”. That last one raises another question from the artist, “Are the skulls of my enemy’s dishwasher safe”.
Every time we artists create something new we spend hours refining it, reworking it, starting over, and researching how we get a forklift truck licence because we know we always need a plan B. 
Step out of the studio for just a minute and you come back and you have to listen to one of the longest audiobooks in history. I say audiobook, it’s a voicemail from that one person who has commissioned you to paint their family pet and who likes to micro-manage your artistic process every step of the way and in between. I’m thankful for the opportunity to paint this and I really appreciate the $15 you haggled me down to, but come on, I only started it five minutes ago.
Being an artist certainly isn’t the easiest job to have, and our social lives are usually a combination of eating canapés at artsy events and spending the rest of the evening thinking about just how much work is backing up. Well that’s what we want people to think but the reality usually involves finding every excuse not to attend the event so that we can carry on painting in our PJs and finally finishing off that commission in time for the deadline of tomorrow. 
Often we have to make excuses not to go to arty parties so that we can finish that family dog portrait for the fifteen bucks that we got haggled down to, which is also the reason we spent 7 years in university learning to create it.  That same 7-years which left us with a bazillion bucks of student debt, and then someone else invites us to a hair washing party leaving us with no excuse at all not to go. 
Then there is always that one person who stands over you watching you create something and the first thing they say when you are done is “did you draw that… wow”. No, I’m competing with Penn and Teller. Questions, there are hundreds of them, so many that I ranked the top ten questions I have been asked this year alone.
  1. Can you draw me? – Of course, because artists love drawing narcissists.
  2. Can you draw me for free? – Because artists love drawing narcissists just for laughs.
  3. Can you paint my dog? – No, that would be cruel and it’s probably illegal.
  4. Can you create a bespoke $5000 painting in return for great exposure? – WTF and no. 
  5. Do you have anything cheaper? – It’s a dollar fifty, do you mean for free?
  6. Can you teach me to paint – No, but I can recommend a degree course and 30-odd years of fine art study.
  7. What were your feelings and your mood when you painted this? – I was on the edge because I had run out of coffee. I was feeling anxious because the store was about to close. What is this, English lit?
  8. When did you know that you wanted to become an artist? – Right after I found out that my asthma and careers teacher conspired together and crushed my dreams, putting a stop on me ever becoming an astronaut.
  9. Is that a photograph? – Is that a compliment or are y’all just slurring my name?
And number ten, what makes a successful artist? – I’ll let you know when I get there.
What makes a successful artist? If I had a dollar every time I have heard that or any of the other nine questions I would be sitting on a beach sipping the rum and cocktails that my staff will have lovingly made for me.
Artists are always their own worst critics, I know I certainly am. I have that inner voice that tells me to give up every other week. Success is something that means different things to different people but when someone asks the question about what makes a successful artist, they’re usually asking, what does it take to become a really famous artist and earn enough to give up the day job? Just say it if that’s what you mean. 
Thinking about creating art with the only successful outcome being one of fame and fortune sets any artist up to failure. Fame and fortune are both possible, rarer than a rare steak but definitely possible, but they are the end goals and there’s lots of stuff that you have to think about and do if you want to get anywhere close to those goals. 
Success is often a misunderstood word. If we look in the dictionary it says that it means the accomplishment of an aim or purpose. The synonyms for success are: favourable outcome, favourable result, positive result, successful outcome, victory, triumph, nowhere in any dictionary does it ever say to be successful you have to absolutely become famous, or have access to untold financial wealth.
The overall end goal and a measure of success might well be that you wish to become a famous artist who can make a living from selling art alone, but success can be had along the way too and it is really important to recognise when these successes happen. When I started out on my own journey into the arts I thought success meant that I had to have my work hanging in top galleries, and every piece of work I created should be sold. It wasn’t until many years later that I discovered that this is not how this crazy thing we call the art world works. 
When we look back over the history of art the one thing that is noticeable is that many of the most famous artists are famous not because of the hundreds of works they have produced but for the minority of exceptional works that they have produced. When we look at the works that didn’t make the artist famous we will probably find a lot more that we don’t like, and we begin to realise that the problems we have today when creating artworks aren’t too different to the problems the great masters had when they produced artworks. They produced the odd calamity and they probably abandoned more than they ever made too and they didn’t have the internet. 
Not every piece of art will work, not every piece of art will sell, some are experiments that fail, and others might be works that were or never will be recognised. No matter who the artist is or how accomplished they are, there is no artist who will never experience these challenges. Success is figuring out how to carry on and not worry about the fact that a piece didn’t quite work, even the screw ups of work are part of the artistic process, so embrace them. Those screw ups could one day be turned into something that makes your name. 
When I finally figured all of this out I realised that before finally waking up to what the art world was really like, I had fallen into a trap that I had created for myself. I wasn’t recognising the success I was having, and instead I was focussed only on the destination and not the journey. That sounds positively clichéd but if you don’t celebrate the successes on the way it can really drag you down. We can’t magically teleport from unknown to known, there’s a step or two in between. 
I realised about the same time that I needed to stop comparing myself to other artists. Instead I should compare myself only between my last works and my latest work. I had for years been assuming so much about the art world and I had never even thought about challenging my own assumptions. I had assumed that to sell art you needed to be in that one gallery, or exhibit at that one show, or be as good or better than that one artist, but it really doesn’t work like that. First you have to know what it is you are trying to achieve with your art. 
When you figure that bit out you can start figuring out if you have what it takes to create what you are trying to achieve. If you don’t have what it takes then success has to be measured at every step on the way to getting to the point when you do have what it takes and celebrated whenever you reach a milestone.  Anyone can become a great artist, all it takes is dedication and practice. Lots and lots of practice, and then a bit more practice. 

Ai Weiwei Artist
It becomes harder to even think that one day you will be successful when suddenly and often out of the blue you get critiqued in an unflattering way. Is that critique fair? Stand back from your work and look at it objectively. Is there anything that you could have done differently, or anything that you learned through the process?
Critiques are sometimes great, and sometimes pretty awful, that’s what makes them critiques over and above simply just praise. But bear in mind that some critiques aren’t critiques at all, they’re just someone’s non-artistic opinion. Before the internet I had never in my life met anywhere near the number of part time art critics who wouldn’t know a Turner from a Cezzanne. 
Putting your work out there in the first place is the bravest thing you can do as an artist, it makes you vulnerable, art is subjective and what some people love, others will hate and that goes for those who critique your art too, even the professional critics. Want to know one of the most brutal things someone can say about your art? “I love the frame”.
A bad critique can be a major blow to an ego, the feeling of dipping a toe in the water only to find out that the waters cold and thinking you didn’t make the grade can trip you up. Egos are integral to us as humans, we couldn’t function without some ego, but we have to find a balance that keeps us grounded and objective.
Success might just mean that you need to become a lot more resilient and let go of the parts of your ego that become more bruised by critique. The art world isn’t always a walk in the park, Jurassic Park maybe, it’s not always easy.  Setbacks will happen, and even if you have a hundred successes there will always be something or someone challenging to overcome. 
What else is success?
Sometimes success is simply being able to function as an artist and to keep on producing art, or just giving yourself just enough of a push to carry on. Success for me is more about the ability to carry on regardless and in the words of Jascha Heifetz;
“If I don’t practice for one day, I know it; if I don’t practice for two days, the critics know it; if I don’t practice for three days, the public knows it.”
And whilst Heifetz was a musician, the same rings true for any artist. Every day you have to practice, even if what you produce is really bad. It’s a success to have done something. 
Some day’s success is about being able to find a little time to do something positive. Something that contributes to the end goal even if it is a really small step. A few weeks ago I was successful in finally being able to grab a dot com domain name that someone had been sitting on for years. The week before a success was when a buyer got in touch to say thank you again after buying a piece of my art three years ago. The success for me was that the buyer still enjoyed it enough to reach out, and remembered who I was. 
My end goal of giving up the day job so that I can focus completely on my art has never changed, but the route I am taking to get to that stage has changed many, many times. That’s the really important thing to remember about success, the end goal can be anything you want it to be including fame and fortune, but you have to be prepared to change the route along the way. I call it either a plot twist or a life diversion. 
The successes I celebrate today aren’t measured in sales. They’re important because they pay the bills but discovering a new way of doing things or learning a new technique or just completing a work that has been hanging around, these are all successes and they all contribute to the end goal. 
Finding your own limits is a success in itself but the bigger success is pushing through those limits and going beyond what you thought you were capable of. Taking a risk, not settling into a comfort zone and forever doing the same things in the same way, these aren’t just successes, these are the things that can create whole new art movements. 
Recognising and separating the good success metrics from the bad success metrics that we measure ourselves upon is another success. We might think that our recent work is more popular than the one before it because it got more likes on Facebook, but that’s a really bad metric to measure success by. It just means that the Facebook algorithm probably decided to show it to more people, or more people were online. A good success metric from social media might instead be how many people took just ten seconds out of their lives to write a positive comment, or just leave an emoji. As an artist you should look for those non-obvious successes too, recognise them as success and celebrate. 

celebrate Success
Have a plan, change the plan, and arrive safely at the destination…
Success is different for everyone, for some the creation of the art alone is enough to be successful, for others it may be that they want to be represented by that one gallery, or exhibit in that one show, or they may want to sell every work they create for the GDP of any given country. They’re all great goals but none of those goals are achievable if you don’t have a plan to get there. If the elevator to success is out of order, use the stairs as they say.  
No one ever becomes successful by starting out thinking, hey, I’m going to fail at doing this, yet subconsciously I think that’s certainly what I did when I started creating art professionally thirty-something years ago. I had no idea what was really important because my focus missed out the important steps I needed to take to get to the point I wanted to end up at. 
Perseverance, determination, and patience, all have a role to play. But so do things like overcoming your fears, pushing the boundaries of what you think you are capable of, and remembering past mistakes so that you can avoid making them again in the future. 
The art world will throw everything it can at you because that’s what it does. If you have the passion, the skill (which is learnable) and a purpose, you can get over pretty much everything else that comes your way. The problem is that people tend to forget that skill needs practice, and they all too often forget the purpose of their work, and then they eventually lose their passion. 
I still have times when I’m all out flat and think that I should bow out of the arts entirely, but one thing above all else that I have learned over the years is to just change the plan and carry on creating. 
There have been times in the past when I have searched for some kind of validation that would give me the permission I was after to walk away from the arts. If I had really wanted to walk away I wouldn’t have needed permission at all. Often it’s about creating the drama, and then you get over it and then you move on. It’s a thing with humans. 
Fame is as fickle as the art world, because you can have a financially successful career without it. Money is an easy measure of success but that defines you as a number and not an artist. Success can be something like creating something on a blank canvas, or finishing it, or just maybe believing that this act of creating alone, is exactly what we should be doing.
It would be great to hear how and what you celebrate as successes in your artistic journey, so leave a comment below and let us all know and we can celebrate with you!
About Mark…
I am an artist and a blogger, and I have a passion for the work of independent creatives. My work is sold right here
You can check out my brand new portfolio website right here: https://beechhousemedia.com and you can also follow me on Facebook at: https://facebook.com/beechhousemedia where you will also find regular free reference photos of interesting subjects and places I visit which you can utilise in your own art projects. You can also follow me on Twitter @beechhouseart and on Pinterest here.
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Comments

  1. I got a real kick out of the questions we've all been asked at one time or another. I am polite to the ridiculous questions I've received but inside I'm full of snarkism. I think I just made up a word here. Good one here Mark! Thanks as always.

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    1. Thanks Colleen! I could write a blog purely on the questions I have been asked over the years! Maybe things people say to an artist, I am sure you will have heard the very same ones!

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  2. Lols the top ten had me in stitches

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