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Professional Productivity in Artistic Work

When I read articles written by various Art Coaches regarding productivity as an artist, I am always dissatisfied. I feel like they miss elemental facts and concepts regarding the process of not just CREATING, but WORKING. Some come closer than others, but what changed me regarding productivity as an artist is the process of WORKING as a Webmaster for more than 20 years. A significant portion of what I did was artistic, and it put me in a place where I had to PRODUCE, regardless of whether I felt like it or not. And with practice, I COULD do that.

I find that in the end, it does not matter whether I sit down to troubleshoot a database, configure a shopping cart, or paint a landscape or floral painting, it is all just work.

When I was young, trying to discover what it meant to not just be TALENTED, but SKILLED, or even GIFTED, I knew I'd never be much, because I had SUCH TROUBLE figuring out WHAT to paint! Or carve, or sculpt, or build.

This is no longer a struggle because I learned as a Webmaster, if I did not know what to do, to go find instruction, inspiration, or a model to copy. Yeah. Copy.

So when I came back to painting, I just sought out the works of others to learn from. I never struggle to figure out WHAT I can do, only to narrow it down to THIS THING NOW.

I did not learn to be a WORKER from a place of CREATING. I learned to be a CREATIVE professional through doing WORK that took me there. So I BECAME capable of painting every day as a professional artists through the Work, rather than the other way around.

So, lest I give you everything here and then feel compelled to repeat it all again in the list of concepts that I feel may help you be a productive worker, as an artist (or author, or troubleshooter, or anything else, actually), I'll get to the list. Now.

  • Copy... A Lot. Those people that say you must never copy the work of others are wrong. Flat out wrong. Imitation of more skilled people is how we LEARN! It is the age old method for training artists. That stereotype of the artists copying works in the Louvre through the artistic ages of Europe is TRUE. They copied to learn. Their instructors TOLD them to copy! Now, "COPY" does not mean PHOTOCOPY, or to copy the FILE and call it ours. It means to REPLICATE our OWN RENDITION of it, in ALL OUR OWN WORK, or to IMITATE the artist whose work we love. The idea does not need to be ours, but the brushstrokes must be ALL OURS. We are most blessed to have the internet RIGHT HERE on our laps, where we can look up any topic we want, and find photographs, paintings, and computer renditions to inspire us and to practice copying to learn new ways to create the thing that makes our own heart sing. So copy. Do it UNREPENTANTLY! (We do not mean doing so ILLEGALLY, you can never copy Their Signature, or pretend that the whole thing was your idea to start with, but you can copy it, and never lose ONE BIT of authenticity.) Of course, over time, we ALTER the things we copy more and more, and we begin to have more visions that are entirely our own. But it doesn't happen easily, and it happens FASTEST if we just let go and copy whatever thrills us!
  • Settle On ONE THING to do right now. I don't mean niching, I mean of all the inspiring things, PICK ONE, and just do it. It is so easy to build up a pile of things we want to do, and keep building the pile without creating anything. Sometimes we start out there, and never become an artist at all. Sometimes it derails us in the middle of a budding career. Just pick one thing, and do it. Sort down to a thing you know you can probably do, and leave the rest for another day.
  • Regardless Of The Nature Of The Task, It Is Still JUST WORK. There are artists who lament that if they try to work faster they'll lose their emotional immersion in their work. That is NOT TRUE. Artists who WORK at it, and who become artistic professionals invest MORE in their art, not less. They are like the mother who STAYS HOME with their children instead of leaving them with the babysitter all day and trying to fit in a day of mothering in a few hours in the evening. Full time artists LEARN MORE about being an artist, they are MORE expressive in their works, and are MORE FULFILLED in their work. So it is just another kind of work. You tell me... Would you rather be flipping burgers or selling groceries all day, or working all day as an artist? Because the ONLY way to make it as a full time artist is to DO THE WORK, because art is in the end, just another kind of work. (Don't worry... some of it will ALWAYS still be play. It just can't NOT be.)
  • Work Every Day. They say create art every day. I won't ever tell anyone that, life and art are both too complicated for that. But Art is Work. And other things are work also. And art includes MORE WORK than just brush on canvas, fingers on clay. Art includes shopping for supplies, research, lessons, searching out inspiration, and much more. Just do SOMETHING every day according to what your life allows, and do something that MOVES THE WORK ALONG. The great truth is that Productivity requires PRACTICE, and honing your work ability. It means you WORK THROUGH the boredom and burnout and come out the other side ABLE to keep going even when it is not the thing you'd prefer to do. Daily application teaches you and refines you so you can work more diligently.
  • Keep Lots Of Inspiration On Hand. Don't just go looking for ideas, save them, and organize them into some kind of sense. It is LEGAL for you to download images, and even to filter or alter colors in Photoshop and save that on your hard drive. You cannot sell the thing you save, even if you've altered it. But you CAN do this much. So I keep folders of paintings, photos, and digital art that inspires me. Much of it I use as a template for my own work. Yeah... I copy it, and paint my own version. It is LEGAL to do all of this. It is also ETHICAL to do it. (Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery in this instance also.) I organize it by topic, and often by the method I want to use to replicate it. I keep folders for Puddle Painting, Palette Knife Painting, Sponge Painting, Acrylic, Oils, Watercolor, Oil Pastel, Colored Pencil, Felt Pen, Line and Wash, etc. When I feel like working on an Oil Pastel Painting, I go dig through that folder first, and usually find a thing I really want to do. I also have sketches of ideas, sometimes with notes, and photos my husband or I have taken, but most of it is on the computer simply because it is easier and more prolific. It is ESPECIALLY important to keep a lot of ideas on hand if you want to be a strongly productive artist who completes more than one work a day. Takes a lot of advance preparation to be able to keep up with that kind of work load.
  • Prepare A Work. The process of painting is really only part of it. There's a lot more that goes into it. Finding the concept, studying it out, working out the layering of the elements in the painting, figuring out the brushes (or sponges, knives, etc), and just how it will be executed. Making sure the paints, canvas, and tools are on hand, and that the workspace is open and available for it. Most works have half an hour at least, and often several hours of effort put into them before the brush ever touches the canvas. Be ready to go and the whole work proceeds faster. There's an efficiency rule to this one. Sure, we can work it out as we go. But we can often do that WITHOUT the brush in our hand, and if we do the prep work first, that work can often be done in between or along side other tasks, so we don't have to keep wet paints and other messy items OUT and vulnerable for extended periods of time.
  • When Time Is Short, Break Tasks Down. I painted a series of three paintings, little ones, over a period of three weeks. I worked on other paintings MOST days (some days there was not time). I painted a border on all three the first day. I painted a secondary border the second day. Each thing I did, I did on all three paintings one right after another, on the same day. I decorated the border the third day, and finished it off on the fourth day. Then I  painted skies and water one day. I blocked in mountains and plains another day. I painted trees one day, and vegetation another, and mountains still another. I broke the tasks down into a compact work set so I could finish a section of all three within a short session of perhaps 15-30 minutes. I have done this with other works also, sponging in a background one day, detailing one section the next, and another the third day to finish a work that was either overwhelming to me, or that I did not have sufficient time for in one day. Most of my works are 1-4 hours to paint, but some I have to work out as I go if I've not done one like that before. Break it up logically - section by section, color grouping by grouping, or some other logical division of layers.
  • Learn Methods. Not all methods are equally efficient! Bob Ross is a method - back to front on the canvas, dark colors then lighter colors to build lighting on objects, and the use of brush technique to create quickly and easily. Puddle Painting is a method, direct applied, spread out, and then blended, then lightly worked and refined. Watercolor Gouache is a method - a combination of additive and subtractive media application combined with blending down pastels, and surface applied white. Heavy Color Build Up With Crayon Blending is a Method for Oil Pastels, that creates a specific look in the finished work, which is NOT FASTER, but which can improve accuracy. Methods help you learn to achieve a professional look in your work, using a combination of techniques and concepts that help you produce a consistently good end result. Studying method can shorten the learning curve and speed up your development as a professional, and can cut YEARS off the time it takes to learn to produce salable works, or fine art.
  • Learn Technique. Not everyone loves Bob's trees. But when we study how Bob creates trees, we can take that technique and carefully learn to produce our own version. Artists the world over use fan brushes to create evergreens, and round brushes or oval brushes to create leafy trees. Some do so in a way you easily identify because they are not as refined in the way they do it. But others refine the technique, and sometimes add a few independent brush strokes to complete it. This, and other brush techniques, media or canvas techniques help us produce impressionistic elements very rapidly, and consistently recognizable, with FAR LESS effort than we would expend if we painstakingly painted every dot individually. I cannot over state the importance of technique to a professional artist. It is one of the things that DEFINES a professional and separates them from an amateur. It is one of the things that FORMS A STYLE for each individual artist - the specific techniques you use, and the WAY you use them is what MAKES your style.
  • Compromise on Complexity. So one of the things we can do to increase the SPEED of our production, is to SIMPLIFY specific things that are complex by nature. Now there are those who argue that the complexity is what makes the art, therefore it can never be compromised or simplified. NOT SO. First, there are things that can be simplified (sometimes using faster technique), that do not change the CORE of the work. Second, we may choose to develop a SECONDARY line of work, using a SECOND style that is faster. So some of our work takes 4 hours for a specific canvas size, and the secondary style that we work in may take only 1 1/2 hours to complete the same size. We may work in a refined impressionistic style for one type, and a rough impressionistic style for another. We choose to develop both a COMPLEX, and a SIMPLIFIED method for our works, so we can concentrate on one, and just whip out the other. You'd be amazed to know how many fine artists practice some form of slop art for 3/4 of the work they produce. This both speeds up the production, and it gives us the ability to KEEP WORKING when we are feeling drained or overwhelmed. It keeps us working productively all the time.
  • Forget the Muse, Do The Stuff. Sometimes we get caught in the feeling that we need to FALL into a state of WANTING to do the work before we begin it. Oh how we miss out when we feel like the muse has to visit us and entice us in, rather than just immersing ourselves and taking the initiative so we invite the muse, instead. I have learned a great truth which has NEVER failed me. It does not fail me with art, with difficult dry troubleshooting, with balancing the checkbook, or with writing a technical book. If I BEGIN THE WORK, I can lose myself in the work. I just have take the effort to START. If I push myself THAT MUCH, that muse rises up, and I am lost in the work, and can be content doing it, and the ideas and intellect that I need, in order to do it, are THERE. But I must first BEGIN. Sometimes it SEEMS like the muse comes to greet me, and beckons me in, but on reflection, I know that I was ALREADY halfway there when that happens. My mind was ALREADY engaged, so the muse was already hanging around. When it isn't there, I know I can GET it, just by going to work. Of course, when we are ill, or feeling overburdened, getting the muse is more difficult, and we may succeed or fail at it, depending on our condition. But we often have to try anyway.
  • More Of What Works. When we are struggling to find our way with creative works, we sometimes get lost in trying to do a thing that we not suited to, that our media does not do well, or that we are not yet mature enough as an artist to pull off. To pursue success and productivity, do more of what you know works. Use that as your springboard for developing more refined technique, and to develop your own methods. Do more of what works ESPECIALLY when you are developing a new method of your own, or choosing new materials such as which type of acrylic paint, for example, to use long term. Do less of what does not when you HAVE to sell the work. Work on refining the things that don't work well, for works that are not critical.
  • Find Your Style. This is part of doing more of what works. When we set out to paint, things don't always work the way we want them to. We may be limited in what our eyes and hands can make of the thing we were trying to replicate. We can NEVER replicate someone else's work exactly. We just can't do it. Our effort will result in something that is generally QUITE different. We may be able to SEE that it was an attempt to copy, but it will be distinctly different. Hers had broad brushstrokes. Mine had mostly sweeping brushstrokes, but also a lot of little dots. She painted one way, I painted another, in spite of my attempt to imitate her! Your style is made up of more than just YOU. It BEGINS with you, but is also constrained by the media you use, the surface you paint on, the brushes and applicators you choose, and maybe even the type of climate control in your workspace. The thing is, when you go about finding your style, you have to compromise by SEEING what works, and then DOING that! You then CHOOSE your subject matter by studying out the works of other artists, photographs, or live subjects, until you can SEE how it is done, and KNOW where the brushstrokes go, how the colors are mixed, where you use wet blending, where you use posterized layering, etc. When you can look at the painting or the photo, and you KNOW how the magic is made, you can probably do it with YOUR STYLE.  When you start smiling in the middle of a difficult work, and you know SOMETHING IS HAPPENING!!!, then GO WITH THAT! Finding your style is always somewhat of a war with yourself, because what you can do well is RARELY what you envisioned as being the thing you wanted. We are something other - and often something less. But USUALLY there is something WORKABLE In there that can be MAGICAL if we decide to settle for what we CAN do, then build on that over time.
  • Work The Work. There is often a place in a painting, sometimes in EVERY painting, where we are not sure if it is going to be a GOOD work, or a failed one. Professional artists tell us, WORK the work. Work the problem areas. Keep trying to get it to work. Sometimes we DO give up in frustration, and if you've been at it a while and are making no progress, stopping for a while, and coming back, can help. But it can also get us LOST, if we've been mixing paints, and cannot be sure of getting the same colors again, or even coordinating ones (in which case we have to retouch more areas of the painting than just the one that is in need of repair). It can be overwhelming to come back to a painting to repair it later, so we only do so if it is a total loss if we don't. But short term, absolutely keep working it. Most often successful strategies are, to add shadow underneath (scumble it in with a small mostly dry brush), add more highlight to the top (various techniques for this), or add surface detail. The other thing that comes up again and again, is, to make sure the STYLE of the problem area matches the other areas.
  • Planning Only Matters If You Follow Through. We have an entire culture of laziness developing in the US, and it really blossomed with the advent of social media, and little snowflake coaches who tell people to manifest their dreams so they will come true. They NEVER EVER mention that any planning or goals or dreams have to be followed by WORKING an EFFECTIVE step by step plan to unfold the realization of the plan. You have to DO THE WORK, Chickie Boo, or you won't EVER see the dream on anything other than the backs of your eyelids.
  • Treat It Like A Job. This is not how we LOSE artistry, it is how we EXPAND our artistry. When we treat it like WORK, rather than just play, we become MORE analytical, and MORE methodic, and we learn to apply technique to express more fully using light, shadow, diversified color, form, composition, etc. We learn to do so faster, and more accurately. The process is MORE expressive, not less, because you become MORE of an artist. Hobbyists are just never quite capable of the same degree of growth as a professional is.
  • Keep Your Materials Convenient. Set up your workspace as best you can. Many of us work in challenged situations, where our art is mixed up with so many other elements of our life that we just laugh scornfully when people talk about how to arrange a "studio". The easel on the dining table, the tote set up in front of the recliner to lay the canvas on, the TV trays that hold all the tools of the trade, the desk in the corner of the room with paint stains on it, the pile of clay on the lap desk, the corner of the shop that always has things spilling over into the woodwork and engine parts. You know. LIFE! But do what you need in order to keep your working tools as accessible as possible, because when the paint thinner is buried in the bottom of a tote, under another tote, with a bucket on top of it, it may discourage you from starting an oil painting, or even from finishing one (true story). This really affects productivity, but reality DOES interfere with the ideal. Just do the best you can!
  • Selling Is As Important As Creating. If you never sell, you will NEVER be productive. Sales motivate us to produce, to experiment, to grow beyond today's skills. Trust me, if you paint a hundred paintings and have not sold a one, your output WILL decrease. Eventually you'll feel that it is not worth it. So find a way to get your work out where it sells.
  • Create In More Than One Style For Simplicity. We already said this, but we don't just mean you should work with more than one style, we mean you should really WORK on that secondary style. Make it yours. Develop your own method. Make the secondary simpler style a professional one, and work it into something awesome and original We also recommend having MORE than one secondary style, and it may involve other mediums, or it may be just one thing you work with.
  • Explore Multi-Creation Methods. This means working more than one piece at a time. It means either interleaving your work, doing a bit on this, and then a bit on that, so you can face the hard stuff in one while you whip out a few simpler ones along side, OR, it can mean painting more than one painting simultaneously with the paint wet on all of them, all the way to full on assembly line art, where we paint six backgrounds, six mountaintops, six water foregrounds, six sets of trees, and then six sets of grassy banks, all one after another, USUALLY with the same color palette, but occasionally with a variant in each one that may involve a few color differences between.  These methods can all provide an increase in production when studied out and modified and optimized bit by bit. Assembly line artists can produce 10-50 11X14 paintings in one day (8 working hours), using simplified compositions and brushstrokes, and they AREN'T entirely slop art.  Yeah, there is often planning time ahead on that, if they are not all replicas of the same work, but the application of the paint happened that fast.
  • Art Isn't Just Fine Art. There are many classifications of art, and they include low end salable art, as well as advertising art, cartoons, and other types of commercial art.  Commercial art is created on demand to meet a specific need, and is highly dependent upon the whims of someone else. It is difficult to please another person, and that can really impact production, but commercial art (including website art and graphics) can really give you the experience to make art the WORK.
  • Breaks Only Refresh You If You Go Back To Work. Taking a break can KILL productivity if you just want to Facebook instead of working. A 15-30 minute break though, can sometimes turn our perspective around, give us a little more energy to keep at it, and maybe even open a door to increased inspiration if we browse sources of imagery during the break. But the thing about breaks is you HAVE to go back to work, or the break never makes you more productive!
  • Sometimes The Break Is The Work. Finding alternate work to do during a break is a great way to keep on working, while giving yourself a rest for the challenging things that wear you out. Take time off from painting to do some blog comments (leave your website URL in the appropriate place), post a blog post of your own, share an image of some of your work, or other marketing tasks. Use it to order supplies (we love spending money, so this really works), or to run and get the mail. Go start dinner in the crock pot, correct your kids' schoolwork, or pull a few weeds in the garden. Alternate work can return you refreshed to pick up the brush again.
  • In Spite Of Distractions. Life provides a LOT of distractions, and sometimes we go out of our way to distract ourselves with non-essential fripperies. We need to find ways to SHUT DOWN the distractions that derail us. I learned to paint, troubleshoot, crochet, study, write, build computers, build websites, create templates, and more, with kids at my feet. Distracting? Often. But I also learned to deal with a thing with them, and then re-engage with the work at hand. Art isn't any difference, though you DO have to keep the kids and pets out of the paint. That kind of distraction just CANNOT HAPPEN!

She could not BE a full time artist. She and her husband own a business, and it is a demanding one. It is their life's work, and art is not. But her soul needs creative work, and their business is not that... Well, beyond the problem solving that takes a mind that is capable of thinking originally, it is not a creative work. And today, she wants to stop, and paint, instead of heading out on their regular intensive rounds.  It isn't the kind of work where she can paint while she waits for the work to resume.

Her first instinct is to tantrum. If she does that, she heaps the blame for her discontent upon her husband, after all, this is HIS enterprise first, and she is just there because they make a fine living when they work together. Oh, she loves the product, she does. But the work is not HER dream. This morning she does not care that the work is not HIS dream either, it is just the thing that is required for him to do the thing he really loves - and that is harvesting a crop, and then packaging it and wholesaling it. It is a major enterprise, filled with things HE does NOT ENJOY, all so he can do the parts of it he loves. And she often feels as though she is along for the ride.

So today she makes a decision. She will not tantrum. She won't grumble. She will go and do the work. She will BE A PROFESSIONAL, and she will be a professional ARTIST, by confining her artistic work to the time she HAS. She will be the one to bend to the demands of LIFE.

She could, in fact, go full time as an artist, and make a fine living. But to do so she would have to give up something that she wants - and that is WORKING with her husband. And he could not do it without her, not nearly so well, anyway. He needs her. And the product is worth bringing to market. It takes priority. It probably always will.

So her painting must wait until tomorrow. Her one day off each week, with so much to pack into it. But she will put it there. Or perhaps she can set things out one evening, block it in the next, and finish it the third evening, if she is not too tired. Because while the business takes center stage, she must be more than just her husband's sidekick. She must be MORE of her. Sometime.

  • Punching A Clock Is Only One Way. I can't function with a time clock at home. I can in an employment situation though. I just work. I get breakfast, check email, attend to anything else that has rolled over from the day before, or come in during the night, and then I work on the work for the day. Sometimes it is afternoon before I get there. Sometimes it is 5 minutes after breakfast. But I am driven enough to work that I do so even without a time clock. If you need to clock in for yourself, then do so. But there are other ways to get into a work mindset, and you can do it the way that works for you.
  • Make Your Own Challenge Lists. Challenge lists rarely provide useful challenges for creative people, because each person is focused on this THING, and their agenda.  Yours won't match. Go ahead and pick and choose, and make up your own challenges, and write up a list of your own if you want one. Me, I don't USE a challenge list, except in a teaching setting where I have objectives I need the students to meet, where they can choose the project to meet them. I just have OBJECTIVES. I want to paint one of THOSE paintings. Then I want to improve it. Then I want to combine it with THAT technique. Or I want to develop my own method for THIS thing. The thing I want you to get from this is to find your own steps to growth, and NEVER put guilt on yourself because you could not finish someone else's challenge list. Just work on improving. Their list isn't the only way to do that.
  • Forget Commission Work... Seriously! If you have never done any kind of commercial art work, you may think that commission work is the holy grail of fine art. It is a tremendous productivity killer. See, you paint this, and you've done five similar paintings, and you charge THAT for them. Someone says, "I'd really like that done in earthtones.". You quote a price that is 50% higher, and they protest. And you HAVE to quote it higher, because you have to SATISFY them! But let's say they DO pay it. You already have the concept in mind, and it is in lovely earthtones, including some brick reds and blue browns. You dive in, and get lost in the work, and you are REALLY HAPPY with it! The unveiling occurs and the client HATES IT! They say something dumb like "I thought you'd just use tan and brown.". And they will say that when your TRADEMARK is using fractured or refractory colors! The thing is, unless you have NEVER DONE any kind of commission work, you ALREADY KNOW that WHATEVER YOU DO, the client is GOING TO HATE IT! It happens every time. No matter how much they specify what they want, no matter how much it is your style with that subject in their specified colors, they will HATE IT. So then you either spend time painting another really stupid painting, trying to stab in the dark to find the thing that flips their switch, or you just tell them to SELL IT AND TRY AGAIN! And they won't. Because they paid 50% MORE for it than your paintings sell for, and they can't sell it for that no matter HOW cool and awesome it is. So don't even TRY for commissions, ok? You won't be any happier than the client about the results!

"I took the job. It was $400 to write an article and create the graphic that went with it. I completed the writing (one day of research, and one day of writing, it is fairly long), and it was approved. I began the graphic, sketched it out, scanned it in, and spent 7 hours painstakingly redrawing and coloring that graphic in PhotoShop. The client hated it. They refused to accept it. Not one bit of it. I spend the next day trying to come up with another concept from the article that I can illustrate, that is not either too complex for me to do, or so simple that it is not worth doing. Late in the day I realize I can branch from the original, so I go to work on that. This time, I turn in the scanned sketch to them. They hate this one too. She blurts out, "That is the ONE area of the article we do NOT want illustrated. It points out our weakness.". I tell her this is the one area you NEED illustrated, because once the customer understands it, it is no longer a weakness! She can't get it. She says, "I really wanted the illustration of the product in the hands of the customer with the look of delight on their face" She wants Rembrandt. I can't do that. I can only BARELY do the hands. She doesn't want that. We finally compromise on the FIRST illustration I did, combined with the product in the hands. The combination sends a message she thinks she can live with. It takes me two days to get the hands right. The product is easy in comparison. Then she wants the article revised to reflect something that she feels the illustrations do not make clear. I am one week into a 3 day job. I have done no other work during that time, and I have deadlines to meet, other clients waiting, and this one job lasting far longer than it should. In the end, I did work I would typically charge $700 for, and I got paid just $400. It also lost me one other good job, because I could not complete it in time, and they went with another professional, and they don't come back next time. The thing is, this was typical. I never had any kind of commission work that involved any kind of artistry that wasn't a disaster during at least one point in the production process, and it ALWAYS kills my productivity, even if I charge more for it."

  • Reality Sometimes Bites. There are so many things that interfere with becoming a professional artist. Our own talents may not measure up. We may not be able to easily source the materials we need. We may work under really sucky conditions because we have no room. Our tools may be inadequate. We may live in Utah where nobody buys art for more than $25, and then they think they've been cheated, no matter how good it is. We may discover too late that paint "sinks in", or that some colors brighten, or dull down, as they dry. Not everybody likes everyone's work, and some things that some creators call "art" are not considered to be so by the public at large, and it may be YOUR art that gets classed that way! Sometimes reality just comes in and smacks us, and then laughs. Stand up straight. You are a professional, remember? We have to take it on the chin sometimes, and then just do the best we can to overcome the problems. Or quit. And sometimes THAT IS a rational option.

"So we always KNOW the thing that we did that was good, even if nobody tells us. I did this painting, in felt pen. It was the first of a new style for me, and I knew it was worth having done. I've got friends who are artists, and this was like one of my best friend's work, but it was distinctively MY style, not hers. I've been courting a gallery, and they are interested, but no sales by me to them yet. I'm so pleased with this I take it to the gallery immediately. She's thrilled. She loves it, and tells me this is a style I should refine. I do it well, and she pays me right there, and takes the painting. She pays me $400 for a work that took me 3 days to do. This is currently my only employment, I'm somewhat disabled and cannot work a job outside the home, and this is now my JOB, I think. I can rock this.

"So I search for other graphics that I can do in that style. I find a boodle and sit down to do another work. This one takes 2 days, and my hand is sore already, so by the second day, my right hand is aching, and I've got nerve stress and mild rhabdo. Enough that it is swelling by the end of the second day. This is SO NOT GOOD. But the work is done, and I take in, and she pays me another cool $400.

"Here I am, with $800 for a workweek. Not so bad. I can do this. Except my hand can't. I have to heal it. I soak it in Epsom salts, and that helps, surprisingly. But it gives me a headache. They can do that. I keep my hands moving slowly, and drink lots of flush fluids, and the screaming pain that sets in that night is coming under control within a day, and is bearable by Monday.

"I have to earn. So I pick up that set of pens, and try again. They are drying out. Good quality Pentel Pens, that I paid more for, so I'd have the best. I've done about four works with them, and even the colors I have not used are drying out. I look them over, and find that the caps have VENT HOLES IN THEM. ON PURPOSE! No kidding. World Class art supply company, and they screw the customer that badly! So I get out the shoe goo and plug those holes. Maybe I can get a few more works from the pens. I've already ordered a second set, and they are Pentels also. At least I'll know to plug the holes right away when they come in.

"I work slowly. I choose simpler works, and just nurse my hand along. I work until it hurts, then I stop and rub it and wiggle it in other directions, and then I start again. That gives me some relief, but I can only work shorter and shorter bursts as it tires. Pretty soon the rubbing and wiggling does not help, and it hurts if I use it, so I stop for the day. Just like spinning with a lap spindle during the break in period.

"It takes me all week to finish a simplified work. My style changes a bit to accommodate the hand cramps and the drying felt pens. It is kind of a miracle, what happens. The gallery owner is speechless. She says, "Kelly, I did not SEE how you could refine the emerging style, but this is IT. You have a compelling linear style, with interlacing, and intricate color usage. It is very impressive. Keep working this one out. In fact, simplify THIS also, and you'll have an outstanding style." Here I'm just trying to get by, and getting by gives me a new talent set.

"All I can do right now with sore hands is this one thing. I can paint with acrylics also, but I haven't managed to produce a consistent seller there yet. Two other galleries do NOT want these. Partly because felt pen TAKES LONGER than paints do - the lines are thin and it is time consuming to fill all the white space. So I end up earning LESS per hour for most of my felt pen works. These, the one gallery owner will pay me MORE for, because they are more salable. But the other two galleries won't. They don't believe in paying a new artist more than $50 per work, and I won't sell this type anymore for that. They take too long to do.

"I work the next week to do another simplified work, and my hand gives out entirely. I can't do anything with it for about four days, and then I can scribble a little foundation work on one page. I do a few rough sketches for planned works every day, and that is all I can do, holding a pencil lightly. I can't work at all on anything significant for about 2 weeks, and then I notice that I can work for about 10 minutes instead of five. But it still isn't much.

"Over the next week I know I am building strength in my hand again, and by the end of the week I have a ROUGH work completed. Not exactly what I used to do, but not nearly what I can do now if my hand is good. But she buys it. It is only $150. But it is groceries for two weeks, anyway.

"I can then complete one full work the next week, and then two the following. Now I have to REFINE my method so that I can do a work each day, or even more. It means both changing the style again, just a little, and learning to do it faster. I do both. I work up to 1 1/2 paintings a day. And I''m selling them.

"This just might work out after all. By the way, I'm a guy, just in case you wondered."

  • Never Niche Your Work. This is another thing you get told that is TOTALLY WRONG! Artists who niche into a single thing, or only doing a single class of things DO NOT MAKE MORE MONEY. The Old Masters not only did more than one thing, they also USUALLY had about four signatures they worked under, producing MANY types of works. So if you sculpt, carve, build furniture, wood burn, tole paint, paint oil landscapes, produce acrylic abstract impressionism, paint large and gaudy florals, and crochet doilies, GO FOR IT! You can just PUT IT on your website in your shopping cart and LET THEM find it, or you can CATEGORIZE it. The MAJORITY of successful artists are out there just workin' it doing whatever tickles their brush hand.  Explore ALL that you are! Of course, if THIS SELLS, and that does NOT SELL, then do more of what sells, and work on getting the thing that does not sell into a thing that does! But don't shut down something you love doing, that you do well, just because someone tells you that you should focus on only one thing!

"I own a gallery. It seems that every artist that decides to "sell their work" or "go full time" is told to niche their work, to restrain their work to just one or two things. Some people believe they have to do this rigorously - one style, one subject matter. And sadly, they do it.

"Emma has been selling all kinds of works to me and three other galleries. She's not yet earning a living, she's bringing in 5-10 works a month, and they are all over the board. I help her refine her signature, and tell her that, and refining her skills, is all she needs to do.

"But she wants a reputation, she says. So she goes for one thing. It is soft florals. Not the bouquets, but natural settings. Lots of pastels. She can sometimes earn more for those, so that is what she zeroes in on.

"Well, I can only use a few of those. So I purchase two a month from her, and she sells the rest to others galleries, and she's producing just as much, but they don't want as much from her. They liked the variety.

"She improves her website and starts selling there, but sales are sluggish.

"She begins running out of original ideas, even when she is imitating a LOT of other artists. She has a style that is kinda cool, but overall, not remarkable. It is GOOD, but not distinctive. Some other things she was doing were becoming very distinctive. But she is told that this one thing is her BEST thing, and that it will always sell.

"She comes in one week with two paintings. They are good, but she is so clearly in burnout that she can't even produce anymore. She almost explodes on me, and I tell her, "Just go home and paint what you WANT to paint, ok?". Because I need more of THAT, but I can't persuade her.

"That week, her husband hides her watercolors, and puts her acrylics back out. He waits two days, and then puts her oils back out. Then two days later he puts out the felt pens and colored pencils. She bites on the colored pencils. One tiny little gorgeous floral bouquet. It is BETTER than before.

"Then she tries a little felt pen sketch, and immediately starts on an acrylic painting. The acrylic is finished, and she works more on the felt pen drawing. She whips out a Bob Ross Style oil painting, and while that is drying, finishes the felt pen work, and does one more colored pencil, and two more acryilcs.

"She comes in at the end of the week with eight finished works. I assess them, buy 6, and she leaves smiling. She has something bubbling, and I don't know what it is.

"But the next week she comes in with eighteen works. Some are variants, and two are new media for her, she's working on a style for oil pastel. She's also developing a new style with watercolor, and it is radically different. She says everyone warns her that if she changes her style she'll lose the old style. She laughs and says, "I've had THIS one, and THAT one all my life, and even though I do a more refined version of both, I still keep those. I had to just look at ME to know the warnings were just stupid. I'm so excited about what I can do with all the different stuff, and all the different styles, and all the different compositions.".

"Two weeks later she tells me, "My paintings are SELLING on my website. Really SELLING. And the odd thing is, I am getting customers who buy more than one, now, and they almost NEVER buy two of the same type."

"This woman is not an isolated example. This happens regularly, and either their sales drop, or they burnout. I can only tell them to be ALL that they are, and just love the journey, once they have skills that are actually salable.

""I don't believe that niching is ever an advantage for a diversified artist. I think it is the cry of the stifled artist, who just does not have the creativity to branch out."

  • Don't Buy The Myth Of The "Ideal Customer". There is no such thing, for ANY business! Why would you spend so much time fantasizing over an idea like that, which never COULD be? A rational thinking adult knows that every business attracts all kinds. The enthusiast, the casual browser, the customer that depends on your product, and the one that only gives it as a gift to someone they do not like! Your style, your production, if TRULY from the heart, and if TRULY married to skills that display it, will be ALL SORTS OF THINGS! And it will attract, or REPEL all sorts of customers. Just SELL the art. Give a good description, and throw it out there for the customer to decide. If a "marketing expert" ever starts in on the necessity of identifying your "ideal customer", then turn away. They don't know how to sell ANYTHING. Because "ideals" NEVER EXIST, and we all know that. Especially if we are married. With children. I don't have the words here to fully describe how ABSURD this concept is. Rather, get to know the customers you DO have and treat them well - don't go spamming them to death either. As we know, art buyers RARELY EVER buy from us MORE THAN ONCE, so don't waste your time trying to please them all, or worse, one that can never even exist. Those customers are JUST as varied and complex as YOU are, and they will buy from SOMEONE ELSE because they want to invest in something else next time, they are just interested in all kinds of things, not just your art. Just accept the variety, and enjoy the ride.
  • Keep Your Clothes and Hands Clean. Contrary to popular belief, painting (or other art production) does not need to be a MESSY occupation (potentials notwithstanding). Practice working with your elbows in, and your hands close to your work. Minimize excess movement, and keep your motions compact and efficient, and your clothes and hands stay cleaner. This makes you work MORE efficiently, not less, and it actually SPEEDS UP your production once you practice it enough that it becomes intuitive. This is achieved by being AWARE of where your brushes, paints, and wet surfaces are. As I am working, I RARELY touch a wet surface, and I only make a brush error outside the canvas with about 1 in 15 works (and THAT INCLUDES paint overbrushed onto the EASEL). I only have paint touch my clothing in about 1 in 40 works, and that is a TINY bit. I get paint on my hands perhaps 1/20th of the time. The exception for hands is when I am using sponges, and then I get paint on my fingers and CAN'T touch anything else until I am done! (And I DON'T typically spread paint from my hands to anything else when I get paint on my fingers from the sponges.) I am simply AWARE of where the paint goes, and I have PRACTICED to be VERY CAREFUL to not spread wet paint around. My husband and I have painted entire rooms without getting paint on our clothing. I NEVER change my clothes before I set out to paint. I have ONE shirt that had a tiny residual blue paint stain on it (and that, I painted over with a floral tree painting), and one pair of pants with a small smear that washed out, and this from painting about 150 works. I am very fast at painting also, and keeping clean does NOT slow me down, it speeds me up. Statistically, professional artists who wear regular clothing for painting (no paint smock), produce at a rate of 3 times as many works as those who wear a paint smock or dedicated painting clothes. Vermeer wrote upon this subject, and said, "The Paint Smock must be done away in order for an artist to be a professional. It is clumsy, and provides the excuse to the artist that they must never care where the paint goes. My studio of 10 artists is never allowed to wear a Paint Smock, and we find that as soon as they stop marking their clothing as they work, they truly become a professional artist, and their output increases so much they take years to get over the amazement of how much they can produce in a single day. They are paid by the paintings they produce, and not by the hour, so they really notice how much they complete. Our average worker produces 10 high quality impressionistic paintings per day." We find that when people wear clothing OVER their street clothes, to produce art, that they work more slowly, they enjoy the work less, they overheat more frequently, they fuss with their smock, and they work for shorter periods of time due to discomfort. We find that when they wear dedicated clothing just for painting (sweats and a T-shirt are popular), they spend time CHANGING their clothing before and after, they work for shorter periods of time, and they do not work impulsively - they will not pop into their "studio" to touch up a thing, and they won't work on a painting on and off while they attend alternate work - they work an average of 1/10 as often as comparable artists, and they produce 1/20th of the amount of work in the time that they DO work, they tend to be painfully cautious and hesitant in spite of being messy. We find that painters who stain their clothing spend 1/3 of their creative time cleaning their workspace, compared to NONE spent by workers who do NOT stain their clothing. We find that painters who stain their clothing spend 4 times as much time retouching painting errors, compared to painters who do not stain their clothing. When you learn not to stain your clothing with paint, your on-canvas work becomes more accurate also. Learn to work CLEAN, and you can produce in all sorts of ways, and you do it with a sense of smiling accomplishment, instead of a sense of always having to deal with messes.

Fortunately I did not say keep your TOES clean. A few days after writing that it helps to keep your hands and clothes clean, I am putting paint into a pallette - liquid paint. The bottle is nearly empty. I tap it upside down, and squeeze - SPLUT! A pile of paint goes into the dish and it splats airily at the end. I tap again, and it goes SPLOT! and two drops of paint hurl sideways and hit my toes. On the OTHER foot. I'm tapping and squirting on the left, and those two drops of paint hit my RIGHT foot. One little drop on my big toe, and one large blop on my second toe. They whiz past my legs, my pants, the floor, the workstand, and everything else they could have stained, and hit my bare foot. I wiped them off promptly, of course, but they would not wipe completely off. I sported a streak on the side of my big toe, and a big swipe down almost the full length of my second toe for the rest of the day. But no stains on the floor, no stains on my pants, and none on my hands either. The painting turned out. No real artistry on the toes though.

  • Keep Your Workspace Clean. This is like baking, you clean as you go. I often take out a set of brushes and a set of paint colors for a work, and put them away when I am finished. But I'll also take out a partial color palette and put those way when I'm done with that segment, so that my workspace stays less cluttered. I clean my tools IMMEDIATELY after I finish using them, and my brushes don't sit in water encouraging the paint to peel and the ferrules to loosen. Fresher paint is easier to clean up than aged, even with quick dry like acrylics. You can ABSOLUTELY go TOO FAR in organizing and cleaning and taking things out and putting them away. Too much can DESTROY your efficiency. There's a SWEET SPOT though, of ORGANIZED FUNCTIONALITY, where we keep things OPTIMALLY clean and uncluttered. Artists who clean up their workspace and tools within 1/2 hour after finishing a work are 2 times MORE PRODUCTIVE than those who do not. Artists who do not clean as they go, LOSE up to 1/10 of their work to accidents or unnoticed theft. Artists who have a fascination with Ultimate Organization produce at a rate of only 1/5 of those who organize Moderately.
  • Keep It Morally Clean.  This runs right back into the realm of addiction, along with several other mental and psychological aspects. Artists that produce works with ANY nudity at all, UNDER-perform at a rate of 1-15, compared to artists who refuse to paint works with nudity. Artists who paint subjects in swimsuits produce at a rate of 1-8 compared to artists who paint human subjects fully clothed. Historically, the major artists who painted nude or partially clothed subjects produced at a rate of less than 20% of the works produced by artists who painted fully clothed subjects (this can also be proven by analyzing the PRODUCTIVE periods in the lives of historically famous artists, many of who had periods when they did paint nudes, and times when they did not do so). When analyzing INCOMES generated from the artwork (not including any other employment by the artist), of artists who paint subjects with nudity, compared to those who do not, the incomes of those who do NOT paint nudity outstrip (funny, huh) the porners by a rate of 40 to 1. Artists who paint fully clothed subjects earn 20 times the income of those who will paint swimsuit models. Both income studies included ALL the works of the artist, not merely the human subject works, and those who paint subjects fully clothed earn more across the board.

"I'd been warned all my life that I needed to keep my life morally clean. And when I began to paint, my father told me that if I did not keep it clean, I'd skew off into a different reality, and it would change how I got work, and the kind of work I got. I nodded and agreed. I wasn't going to paint nudes, I assured him. But I had no idea how walking the line would change my life.

"I painted just one beach scene. Just one girl, just one little provocative thing. Not undressed. Not really. Just a typical day at the beach, I thought.

"Father was not pleased. Mother was shocked. She shocked easily, I thought.

"I regularly sold paintings to a local gallery. You know, landscapes, beachscapes, florals, a few heavily dressed and made up fashion models. The gallery owner teased me that the fashion models were racy enough, and they weren't provocative at all. More like the front of old dress patterns.

"But this. It changed something.

"Within a few weeks, someone asked if they could get a copy of it. No, they didn't want to buy a print. They just wanted a photo of it. I already had one online. I told them where it was. It had a watermark on it. They wanted one without the watermark. No deal. I'd sell one. I would not give one away.

"The gallery refused the painting. Too far over their line, they said. It was only a bikini. It wasn't anything you would not see at the beach any day. But no. No sale. None of the other galleries in the region wanted it either. At least, not enough to PAY me for it. One offered me $25 for the painting, and said it was the going rate. Two offered to take it on consignment. They assured me they could NOT guarantee payment for me if the painting were stolen from them. I'd just be taking my chances.

"The owner of the first gallery warned me that if I decided to change my focus from clean and wholesome to edgy or over the line, that he'd have to really consider whether my reputation would allow him to continue to carry other works of mine. His was not the only warning. His gallery was the most honest one to deal with in the area.

"My production dropped from one painting every two days down to about one a week I spent a lot of time considering various works which I was not capable of rendering, instead of focusing on the things I could do and getting them done.

"One day two guys showed up at my house. They wanted to know my price for the painting. It was $800. One made a fakey wincing face. The other said, "You think you're pretty special, don't you?". "It is hand painted." I replied. "Hand painting costs more than that most of the time." They left. Before they left, one asked to use my bathroom. I declined.

"I really wanted to sell the thing. To me, it was just another painting at that point. But it did not sell. Instead, the watermarked copy starts making the rounds in my neighborhoods online. I see it on forums, social media, pic-sharing, etc. Someone has rubbed out the watermark in Photoshop, and they've played around with the bikini, and the body of the girl. What they are circulating has MY signature on it. But it is NOT my painting.

"One day my husband and I returned home from shopping to find someone in our house, with the lights on. We could see someone moving around in there. We called the police from our car, and they arrived with lights flashing some half hour later. The crooks had scooted out the back, and the painting was gone, along with my computer, our printer, our brand new TV, and my extra watch and glasses. The painting turned up at one of the galleries a few weeks later, and they called to report it to me, and I did get it back, only because they decided to be honest about the ownership of it.

"I had a conversation with clergy regarding the painting. I told him I did not see what the big deal was. He warned me that moral standards impact our lives in so very many ways that we do not see until we experience it. He said I should have been more careful, and that I should not have had to experience it, if I would just behave myself. He did not convince me. But I did decide to change something.

"I ended it. I had my sister pose in a similar pose, with a sundress on. It covered the top of the arms, the cleavage, and reached the top of her knees. I painted that on over the bikini. I wrestled with it, and felt kind of angry that other people would do something to my art, just because I painted a bikini on a girl at the beach.

"It was many years before I decided I'd be clean for the sake of being clean. But in the mean time, I stopped even thinking about painting anything provocative, and my career righted itself. The painting finally sold, and was altered at the request of the owner to lengthen the cover to over the top of the knee. The buyer said it was quite well done, and she loved the play of the fabric in the light on the beach, and how I had captured reflective colors from the waves in the folds of the fabric.

"Every once in a while that Photoshopped painting comes my way again, and it always comes along with rude and inappropriate comments about me. I really do wish I'd never done it. I did not realize that even a single work in that direction would impact my life, and my career as it did."

  • Addictions NEVER Enhance Productivity. Drugs, Porn, Caffeine, CBD, Alcohol, etc, NEVER enhance productivity. They burn your brain, distract your mind and make your body LESS functional, not more. Study after study by honest specialists has demonstrated that clean and sober artists and workers outperform dirty ones at a rate of 3 to 1 on average, on the HIGH end, and 20 to 1 on the lower end of the EMPLOYED scale. The more addicted a person is, the more extreme that ratio gets, and severe addicts perform at a rate of 0 on a productivity scale. Their INCOMES reflect the same kind of disparity, with people who have never been addicted earning more in their lifetime than those who have been, and addicts earning far less when addicted than people who are not addicted, even former addicts, with non-addicts earning 2 times for hourly rates, and working twice as many days per year.
  • In The End, YOU DON'T DECIDE What Others Buy. I hope you are just the most eclectic artist EVER. But I also hope you have some things that you know will sell if you make them. All the rest is chance. Sometimes we make things we love that nobody else loves. Be adult. Adjust. Because YOU don't decide what you do that is popular, THEY do! I have more than 100 paintings out there, listed. ONE has gone viral. ONE! And it is a nice painting, really. But it is not in any way my BEST painting. I have dozens that are just as good. But I don't decide that. They do. My only choice is to DEAL with it. So when I decide to produce art, I have to consider what THEY want, in order to be productive, because productivity requires a customer.
  • You Need A Sustainable Business Model. This means SO MANY things. It means you have to DO BUSINESS, not just make art. It means that you need to understand that somethings take a LONG TIME to create, or expensive materials to create, but they sell for LOW PRICES. It means you CANNOT compete with a Korean company that produces machine printed works, instead of hand painted. It means you can't charge the same for your work, which is less skilled, and when you have NO reputation, as an established and experience artist charges for their work. The MATH has to work, first of all, and YOU have to work secondly. Your business model may be to produce decor art, or fine art, or commercial art. You may specialize in perennial favorites or in contemporary modernism. You may produce a wide variety of works, or you may only know how to do a series of variants on a work you can sell. You may sell them online on your own website, at trade fairs, through galleries or boutiques, or a combination of sales vectors. Whatever. The Business Model matters, and if yours does not work profitably, then something needs to change.
  • We Call It Professionalism. So it means you work. It means you produce a quality product. It means you never cheat anyone. It means you act like an adult with a business, not like a child who wanted and A for D work and didn't get it. I am a professional. So when work is required, I work, and I give it all I've got at the time.

This is not all, by any means. But I hope it gives you something to chew on that nourishes your soul in some way or another, and encourages you to be MORE of a Productive Artistic Professional.

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