The harsh truth of becoming a successful artist

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The fact you decided to visit this article proves of some healthy interest in the topic, or maybe a bit of desperation and disillusion, Either way, you fear- or discovered that becoming a successful artist isn't an easy job. The reason why is simple: Competition and over-saturation. Many people will do the thing you do for less money than you need to pay your bills from. And many companies outsource their jobs to countries that have very low minimum wages compared to that of the country said the company is situated. But this doesn't mean that you will never become a successful artist. The road is just a bit rockier than that of other careers. So, what can you expect? And how can you navigate this road while maintaining healthy expectations?

Hi! My name is Tessa, I’m a Dutch artist, art director, and creative project manager. I love to share my passion for this craft, nature, art and fantasy, and do that by creating this archive and community, alongside my company Tez Art & Design.

Table of Contents (Click to (un)fold)

Having healthy expectations

The harsh truth of becoming a successful artist is that it’s a very rocky road. That doesn’t mean though you can’t make it! You just have to walk that extra mile to become successful. As mentioned before in another article: Art is a passion. This means that art comes from a place that needs to be nurtured. You need to be healthy mentally and physically to some extent to be able to take on this uphill battle. Because, no matter how great being a professional artist seems to be: There are millions of other people that want to do the exact same as you, simply because it’s this deep-rooted passion that lives within all of these artists.
Many won’t accomplish for a myriad of reasons. Others will compromise by making art their side-job, or by having a regular job next to their art.

Becoming a successful artist requires flexibility, persistence, and creativity on many levels, and it means making sacrifices. Probably even more than with most other jobs. And probably even more than you are willing to make. So it’s a good thing that you’re here now to read about the harsh truth of becoming a successful artist so you are properly prepared if you decide to take on this challenge anyway. Because, with solid knowledge, a professional mindset, and a small dash of luck, you will likely end up being that pro-artist you always wanted to be.

The difference between an artist and a professional

Becoming a successful artist requires you to be professional, like you would need to in any other field.
Photo by Ben Rosett on Unsplash

So you decided to make money from your art. And you should, really! Like anyone that learned a profession, you deserve your fair share in our economy. But before you decide on a price, you need to ask yourself: Am I a professional? Or am I a hobbyist or still learning the craft?
The thing is: Many people don’t follow education to become an artist these days. And even when you did: You may not be able yet to call yourself a professional by the end of that education.

Professionalism comes with experience in the field and mastery of the craft. This means that you need to have some core skills and have a solid understanding of what it means to be a professional. You need to have some street-smarts and always be ahead of the game. When you’re approached by a client you need to be able to take the lead and know what questions to ask and what to expect. Because your client might not be able to tell you what you need to know or know what’s coming. So, what does professionalism mean?

What does professionalism mean

  • Have your art fundamentals down, like lighting, form, perspective, color theory, etc. There should be no question that you master these in whatever paintings you make. If you’re exclusively a black-and-white artists, or never work on projects that require drawing in perspective, it’s okay to be weaker in specific areas, but it’s still advisable to at least have a basic understanding of them.
  • Understand what it means to own a business or work in a business setting. There are deadlines, people change their minds, hiccups will occur, and so will other things that are out of your control. You will have to stay professional anyhow. You represent a (part of) a business and have to act as such. When it comes to art, this may even be a bit harder than most other jobs, as your creative juices won’t flow as plentiful as you’d like them to every single day.
  • Despite your ups and downs, you need to have a consistent output of work or be able to work ahead so you can slow down a bit when you’re in a low. You need to have a good understanding of who you are and what your weak and strong points are. Not only in your art, but also as a person. Art is not something you do on the fly, your mental and physical health needs to be adequate. This can be a hard thing to maintain because many artists work alone and/or under great pressure.
  • Especially in the art world, it’s key to build a name. You don’t only get hired for your experience, but also for your art style. Being ‘out there’ on different social media platforms will really help you build that name. In many other fields, a diploma will get you a job, this usually isn’t the case in the art world. Your name will do this for you instead, that is, if you put in the work first.

So in short, who is this successful artist?

Education doesn’t make you a professional, nor does working for, or having a company make you a professional. You need to have a healthy blend of knowledge and street-smarts and a boatload of experience. In short: A person that has the behavior, knowledge, and attitude of someone in a work or business environment.

  • Only following courses while learning art and owning a business on the fly can at some point make you a professional.
  • Following an education, while also being an intern can at some point make you a professional.
  • Following courses and becoming an apprentice in some sort of business setting can make you a professional at some point.

Point is: You need to have a broad skill-set to be able to make it in the art world, while also competing with MANY people that want to do the same in a world-wide market.
Some key skills you might want to nurture as a business-owner, but especially as an employee are:

Being productive is obviously a key skill for any successful artist. Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash
  • Being productive.
  • Be a problem-solver.
  • Taking the initiative.
  • Developing a professional image.
  • Maintaining effective work habits.
  • Demonstrating integrity.
  • Being time-efficient.
  • Be resilient.
  • Communicate effectively.
  • Building relationships.
  • Having self-awareness.

As you can see: These are skills that are expected from you in any business setting. When you have your own business, allowing some slack here and there could be forgiven if you’re willing to account for your losses or learn how to compensate for your weaker skills.

Being a part-time artist

Many artists start this way. First art is a hobby, or maybe education. But at some point, it becomes more than that. You finished your education in arts, or you are noticed by someone and suddenly you can get paid for your passion! Or maybe it was a conscious choice to become a paid artist, only you know!
But no matter the situation: Unless you’re one of the lucky few, you will start your journey as a part-time artist.

Most artists do their art-gigs on their days off and start working less at their regular jobs throughout the years until they can sustain themselves with their art on a fulltime basis. If you’re this person that’s just starting out in the art world: Expect this to be your reality for at least a few years. Make a name for yourself, be visible on social media, connect with other artists and people in the field you want to work in, and when you have some momentum: Start showing only your best work, maybe in combination with WiP’s. But, unless you have a solid goal for them: Don’t show your scribbles and polished turds any longer. Only show people your best, because that’s how you get hired!

Artistic side-projects

Learning art is a never-ending road. We start learning, and we go into our graves learning. Heck, we probably end up decorating the insides of our coffins with intricate designs! But becoming a successful artist is a long and often lonely road. So it’s important to, while you practice, practice something that you will benefit from on the long run, but also gives you joy. This doesn’t mean that you should never do things you don’t like: We all need to learn our fundamentals, and we all need to get into the nitty-gritty of our profession. But while you’re at it, make sure you have some sort of artistic side-project that you can work on and can fulfill you while you’re not working on commissions.

This is really helpful in keeping a healthy mindset. Not all commissions are fun to make. The fact that art is a passion and comes from the heart can mean that commissions that you don’t like or prove to be problematic can start to eat at this passion, or worse, your (mental) health. This is why your own fun side-project can be extremely helpful and should be part of your practice as well.

Some artistic side-project ideas

A project I love to work on. A simple low brain capacity type of art to display my daily life as an artist. You could look at Knofje as my alter-ego. Garlic is life!
I work on this project together with Jade Jez from Steampower Studio’s.
Art by: Tessa Geniets.
  • Creating your own graphic novel.
  • Creating a brand for your online shop.
  • Studying a specific topic that really interests you.
  • Learn something that can benefit your art, like shooting reference photos for your art, or creating videos.
  • Enter contests for visibility.
  • Take an apprentice under your wings. You may not be very skilled yet, but by teaching, you learn a lot quicker and you help someone else on the go.
  • Collaborations.
  • Blogging (like I’m doing right here).

Speaking of income

Mastering art is a long journey. When you follow an education you will at some point be sent out as an intern for a company. When you graduate you have solid knowledge and some experience in the field, but rarely anyone can be considered a professional at that point. This will affect your salary and has to be taken into account.

The same counts for when you are self-taught. You may have the knowledge, but probably not the professional know-how of this specific field (if at all). This too will affect your income greatly. Just remember, especially when you’re on a journey of your own, that you’re technically following an education just like any other artist. Few people that follow an education will earn money while they’re following one. Treat your own journey as such! You’re lucky when you have commissions in this early stage. Payed practice is a privilege only few have when they’re new in the field.

Earning money as a freelance artist

Although I always vouch for not asking less than your local minimum wage as a freelancer, or preferably the minimum wage of Western countries (roughly €10,-+) to maintain your believability, I also vouch for not exposing yourself to the business side of art until your art is at least at a reasonable level. This because, when you don’t have your fundamentals down, even the inexperienced eye will see it and they will very likely not hire you, even if your prices are very low. Which is a very painful experience when you’re expecting orders to flood in. Make sure you have your fundamentals down and have a solid style and business plan before you start exposing yourself as a freelance artist! And even then, know that there are many others out there competing with you.

You likely will rarely receive commissions when you’re starting out. If this is the case for you, it might be wise to undercut the minimum wage from time to time if your client is a solid one. This can be a returning client, a client with multiple commissions, or a client with a good name in the world you want to get into.

Applying for a job

Even when you do have your fundamentals down, have your own style, and know what you’re doing you may have trouble landing a job. Some people get dozens of no’s before they get a yes when they apply for jobs. This means that you may have to find another job before landing your dreamjob. But don’t let all the no’s take you down if art is what you really want to do! You have to remember that it’s a very saturated market. You just need to be persistent and hone and improve your craft while you’re at it.
I do not recommend accepting a job though that underpays you as these are long-term contracts. Plus: It’s illegal to pay employees below their minimum wage. If you are approached by a company that wants to underpay you: Expect them to be fishy and don’t bite!


I’m pretty sure that what’s mentioned in this article isn’t what you wanted to hear. It’s the harsh truth though of becoming a successful artist. I hope though that you got something out of this that will help you on the road you’re on! And if you have a personal experience you’d like to share, either positive or negative, or you are in need of some support or advice: Please don’t hesitate to reply to this topic. You can do so by becoming a member of Life to Legend (you can do so below, or by signing up on the forum). Or you can join us in the facebook group!

More reads about starting your own freelance business

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