How to Become a Professional Artist
Updated: Sep 30
I still remember my first sale. It was at one of my very first shows and I recall feeling shocked at the idea that someone was willing to pay money to own my painting! I immediately called my mother (an artist herself) and remember her saying, “Now you’re officially a professional!” In that moment I felt like a professional, but perhaps it’s not quite that simple.
That was the definition my mother was given as she was learning. Since then, I’ve learned that the road to truly being considered a professional artist is actually a little more complicated. I’m sure there are many different perspectives on this, but following is what I’ve experienced and what I feel is a fairly typical step-by-step process.
1. Hone Your Skills
The first and most important step in becoming a professional artist is to develop your skills. Build up your knowledge and brush handling capabilities by taking classes, studying expert work, and practicing. If you want to be a professional, you need to get your work to a level where it can hold its own among all the other artists. It’s a tricky thing to define. It’s a lot like the difference between a brand new cake decorator and one with years of experience and training. The difference in skill level is visual.
2. Test Your Work
Once you feel your work is of a high enough caliber, test it. See if your work is ready by entering your strongest piece in a local art show. Watch the audience as they view it. One thing I like to do (even today) is take off my artist badge and browse around near my work so I can overhear and observe viewer reaction. Did your piece sell? That’s also a very good sign.
You can also ask for feedback from the people around you who aren’t afraid to speak the truth but are also not chronically critical. Or, you can observe people who are exposed to your work but have no personal connection, such as the person who assists you when you get a piece framed. Do they seem genuinely impressed with your painting? Take note, but also remember that everyone has different tastes. Try to get multiple opinions.
3. Discover What You’re Good At
Where do you excel? I initially wanted to paint florals, but after many frustrating attempts and almost giving up on painting entirely, I finally decided to try a portrait. After all, I used to sketch people all the time as a young girl and I wasn’t too bad. As it turned out, portrait painting came much easier! It seemed to match the way I think. Look for your area of strength, and that can relate to subject matter, painting medium, or painting style. If one way isn’t feeling natural, try another.
4. Develop a Body of Work
Develop a solid base of ten to fourteen pieces that you feel confident in. They should be cohesive and of a high skill level. Typically, you want each piece to relay a consistent painting style and similar subject matter, if possible.
5. Learn How to Photograph Artwork
This isn’t quite as simple as it sounds. You need to make sure the photographs you produce are of a high quality because they are going to represent your work. 1. There shouldn’t be any blur (so consider using a tripod), and the lighting should be even. 2. Many experts recommend photographing outside on a temperate, bright but overcast day. This creates a kind of natural white box. Mid-day offers the most neutral color tone as well, so perhaps aim to photograph somewhere between 11am-2pm. 3. Your primary image should show the painting image only - not the mat, frame, wall, or any other surrounding material. These items can simply be cropped out using a photo manipulation software.
6. Create a Basic Website
Using that well-photographed initial body of work, create a simple but professional website. Websites are the portfolio of yesterday. If you want to be competitive, you need to be online in my opinion. At this point, the site can be relatively simple, to include your name, a little bit about you, your work, and contact information. You can create a simple site using a website building template such as wix.com, weebly.com, or SquareSpace.com. Many sites offer free versions with a basic template. That’s okay to start with, but eventually you will need to upgrade. While you're at it, you should consider creating a presense on select social media formats. Keep it simple - select a handful that appeal to you and set up an account.
7. Start an Artwork Database
This is also the time to establish a computer database to track your work and exhibitions. Do this early in your career so you don’t loose track. I, personally, like Artwork Archive, but you can begin with a program you already have on your computer or search online for other alternatives. If you want to be a serious artist, it really helps to keep things organized and the earlier the better.
8. Build Your Resume
With a solid initial body of work established, quality photographs taken of your work, a basic website ready to go, and a method to track your career, it’s now time to develop your resume. This means entering local shows, joining local art groups (and participating in their group exhibits), and/or perhaps working with local small venues such as a coffee shop or library that features local art. It’s time to get your work out in public.
9. Expand Your Marketing Efforts
Once you have some show experience on your resume, the next step is to ramp up your website and marketing materials. You’re going to need a well thought out artist statement and bio, as well as a professional looking artist photo that represents your artist personality. This is a photo of you - the artist.
An artist statement is basically what you want to say with your work, what makes it unique, or what you want the viewer to experience when seeing your work. A bio is simply your artist history (education, exhibits, etc.). All of this needs to be added to your website (if it’s not already there), and your website will need upgrading to one that allows you to use your own domain name. A domain name is the website address name (such as JaneDoeArt.com). Most free websites require you to use an extension in your address such as JaneDoe.weebly.com. It’s best to present yourself clear of any such extensions, so seriously consider purchasing one with only the name you decide upon. Artists often just use their name, such as janedoe.com, but it’s totally up to you. Just make it easy to remember.
You should also now have an idea of pricing and will need to maintain consistency in that regard. Price increases should come slowly or after a special honor or professional association. And business cards are still used today to let people know your website address, where they can see more of your work or contact you.
10. Increase the Quality of Venue and Group
As you continue to grow your experience, both in exhibiting and painting, you should hopefully start to see growth in your skill level as well. If you find you’re receiving praise for your work or even winning local awards, you may want to start looking into higher-end exhibits and art associations. Perhaps try entering your best piece in a national show or seek out a solo exhibit at a reputable venue. Go beyond what is local.
11. Always Present Yourself as a Professional
Being a professional is more than just meeting certain goals, in my opinion. It’s also how you present yourself. It’s how you carry yourself, the way you dress, and the confidence you show in your work. When you engage in the art world, dress well, look clean, present your work in the best light…and have professional looking marketing materials. You wouldn’t believe the negative impact an unkempt mat and frame can have, for example. Or on the opposite tack, the positive one that a smartly dressed, engaging persona can have.
12. Decide What Direction You Want To Go In
Now that you’ve reached a professional level in your work, have a solid resume, and professional marketing materials you need to decide how you want to focus. There are many paths you can take as a professional artist. It’s impossible to do everything or every angle, so I would suggest picking two or three paths and focus your efforts on them. The paths I’m referring to are:
Exhibitions and involvement in the arts community
Outdoor art markets
National and international art fairs
Plein air competitions
As you attend certain events, chat with the artists there and get a feel for how that career path impacts their life. Plein air competitions, for example, will involve travel. Commission work will require contracts and ways to communicate with clients. Outdoor markets will mean travel and the need to purchase a proper tent and hanging materials. Observe and ask questions. You’ll find that some appeal to you more than others.
There are many paths to becoming a professional artist because every artist (…every person) is unique. But you can use this information as a general template to help you get going in the right direction and discover your individual track.