Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The Professional Artist versus The Artist

I have been thinking alot about my role as a professional artist versus just being an artist. Whether one is an artist or not is brought up on the QuiltArt list regularly. It seems many people get the "professional artist" mixed up with "the artist" parts. Let me explain from my point of view.

An artist is one who creates art. The artist may or may not sell and/or show their work.

A professional artist is one who creates art and is making it a business...meaning constantly seeking out show opportunities, sales opportunities and other ways to make money from their creative endeavors.

Well, let me tell you, there is a really big difference between the two of them!

An artist may decide to just wait for the muse to strike and then create at that time. An artist might decide to not create art for a while although they usually keep something going somewhere. An artist does not spend many hours on the computer seeking show opportunities.

A professional artist keeps a complete catalog of their work, which includes images, descriptions and information about shows and awards involving each piece of work. The professional keeps up a current artist statement. The resume is keep up to date. Calls for shows, galleries, museums are all searched twice weekly and considered for appropriateness. Shows are entered on a regular basis. Packets are sent out regularly to different galleries and museums which include a digital submission of images, a list of those images including pricing, size, etc., a cover letter, that up to date resume and anything else that might be appropriate.

A professional spends a lot of time (probably more that half of a workweek) doing the business part of being an artist. Maintaining accounts, banking, writing notes, contacting different places to arrange for teaching, writing lessons, writing articles, keeping bills straight, shipping and mailing, getting postcards and business cards printed, getting images taken, resizing images multiple times to fit various requirement (why can't everyone use the same size and resolution?), etc. etc., etc.

A professional artist does not work a 40 hour work week but more like 60 hours per week which factors in time to create, time to reflect, time to contemplate, time to renew, time to view others' work, time to read professional magazines....ugh...maybe that workweek is more like 80 hours per week...I do take Sundays off...well, sort of.

Want to become a professional artist? Be prepared to create even when you don't feel like it, doing the business even when you don't feel like, meeting deadlines, fusing with little details, hauling stuff around, cleaning the studio, going to the studio even when you are tired, teaching even when you are really sick, and making nice to people you don't really like.

Want more information about how to do it? Read Alyson Stanfield's new book "I'd rather be in the studio". Her book is filled with lists of things you need to do! Don't just think about it...do it!


Anonymous said...


Tomme said...

I totally agree with your comments, Liz. I'm an artist; my husband is a professional artist. I have to say, I like my role better. I don't have to do all the 'business' part - filling out show applications, looking for shows to enter, updating a website with new work all the time, and on and on. Of course, on the other side of that coin, he gets to set his own hours, work at something he loves doing, and enjoy his association with other professional artists. Both roles are available to any of us -- we simply have to make a choice, and be willing to do the work necessary to succeed.

Sherryl said...

I think I will stick to being just a plain old artist. The other sounds more like a pain in the butt. Many professional artists quit regular jobs to have more time to be an artist. What did they really exchange the time for? Sounds just like another job to me, just with more stress and pressure to perform. I am sure that works well for some, it would never work for me. Thanks for the explanation.

Anonymous said...

Exactly so! And very well put!

Karen Newman Fridy said...

I would agree with you and add that there is some middle groud there as well...I sell but I do not teach (yet, anyway)...but I do consider myself a 'professional'

One thing, and I hesitate to say it since I don't know you, but you make it sound like you don't like it very much! I trust that's not really the case...?

Gerrie said...

I am an artist, who is sometimes lucky! :-) My daughter is a professional artist and she is going through exactly what you describe. She is preparing for a big show and she has to paint even if she doesn't feel like it. It is her life now.
But, she is so much happier and I am so proud of her, especially her work ethic.

Anonymous said...

I too agree with what you said. And, I think a lot of people yearn to be professional artists, but expect to be able to perform at it like a hobby. Whether people like to call it that or not, what one does to earn a living is a job. And, it really doesn't matter whether performing the work required for that job is one's passion, there is always, in any job or profession, going to be tasks that we really aren't crazy about doing...but they have to be done if one wants to succeed at earning a living at that job or profession.

I'm not a professional artist, heck I'm not even an artist, even if I do make art from time to time. But, I am a professional at what I do for a job, and it isn't play time all the time, and neither is any other job or profession.

Pat .F in Winnipeg said...

My artists' co-op had a guest speaker, an accountant I believe, who told us that 70% of being an artist is marketing. That makes a 40% gallery commission a bargain

Anonymous said...


Thank you for your insight. I am pretty sure I want to be just an artist who occasionally sells a piece, and your comments certainly cemented the idea in my head. I like the idea that creating my art is my therapy--something I can do escape the job!

Anonymous said...

I have been struggling with trying to be the artist who makes money. It's just not easy, well, doing either, but you need a secretary, and a PR person to help out. Trouble is, you just don't make much money, so people don't want to help for nothing. I hate doing shows, and there aren't too many places that take quilts as art. Snobs abound in the "real" art world. So I keep making my own designs and entering quilt shows, and making special orders for customers. I hand quilt. Not too many of us left! It's not a living, but it keeps me off the streets! Patty Ashworth

Anonymous said...

Absolutely right on target, Liz! I still have my day job (although I'm down to 4 days a week for the last year) but I am a professional artist as well. My studio day has now turned into half a day of studio time and half a day of applying to art shows and submitting to gallery's requesting portfolios. I am thrilled that finally galleries are asking to see my work instead of me sending in blind portfolios.

Everyone grows at a different rate as an artist and have different agendas to work out. As we grow, we define ourselves differently. I make art for me with the intention that someone else will be struck by it and want to live with it.

Melinda said...

Interesting post. I'm at the point where I'm thinking about marketing and promoting my lecture, workshops, saleable artwork more assertively, but have been reluctant because many 'professional' artists I have spoken with have little or no creative studio time. I suppose it's finding the balance, but I wouldn't like to lose the heart and soul of my art making.

Terry Grant said...

This is all so true, Liz and I don't think there is necessarily a correlation between being a professional and making better art than the non-professional artist, though, as in anything, the more art you do, the better it gets. I put aside several years of my life trying to be a professional artist and did all those things you talked about. It didn't work for me because I was not making enough money to justify it. I got a day job, worked for years and then retired. Now I am an artist, but without the drive to teach, to write, to pursue every possible venue. It is a joyful existence and I have been surprised to have had more success at this stage than I ever expected. Go figure.

Anonymous said...

I can totally agree with what you are saying Liz. Especially the part about marketing. Like a lot of artists I fall somewhere in the middle..I feel like a semi-professional..that is I work regularly..even when I do not particularly feel like it..also I keep a complet list of my works and where they have been and where they are going..do some teaching, lecturing and curating..but not 24/7. I set my time to work a minimum of 4 hours per day...this often is longer..but it is regular
I think that is a main key...setting aside the time to be an artist.
warm regards
Peg Keeney

Anonymous said...


I agree with your take on the professional life. It's more all-consuming than anyone can possibly imagine. The marketing and all its manifestations (from networking to showing and competing, both online and in real life) takes an enormous chunk. And then there's the time we need to research and buy supplies and frames ... time to DO the framing to save costs ... time to take classes and read professional trade magazines ... time to visit museums and galleries and on and on. Still, I am happier doing this than any other job I've ever had. It's all good!

Fannie said...


I've discovered what it takes to be a professional artist over the past year, and your article summarizes my discoveries very nicely. Amen, again, and thanks for the validation. ;-D

I'm thinking the best one can do is to organize, execute, be flexible and delegate or distribute tasks that can be done by others. It's not a perfect answer, but it can help with balance.

Great article! I enjoy creating, and I love being an artist, and working on becoming a professional artist.

Anonymous said...

Liz, this is a nice post. And thanks so much for the mention! I'd also add that professional artists are passionate about sharing their work--getting it out there and creating a dialogue. That's why the business stuff isn't so awful for them. It's just something they know they need to do to keep it up. They don't know any different.

sharon young said...

Hi Liz
I'm a newbie to quilting and have been given your link by Pippa. I found your post extremely interesting and very true, as I've turned my art /fashion knowledge into a business in the past and know just how hard it is and every word you say is true. In fact that's why I'm reluctant to show my artwotk more than twice a year at the moment as I don't want to get into that cycle again.
I was really shocked at your experience with the anon critic and can only say how unnecessary I fell it was.
I love your colour blocks BTW, fantastic designs and colours.