Practical Guidelines for Artists (Just in Case You Were Looking for Some)

Let’s face it: artists walk a pathless path where nothing is clear

The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you.

–Chuck Close

This is a well known quote from Chuck Close, but it is one that I appreciate revisiting. And it fits in with my usual list, one that I only share after being asked repeatedly (keeping the wise Buddhist admonition in mind that no one really wants to know what you think unless they ask you three times).

So only read on if you really really really want my practical advice.

1. Your work is the most important thing. This is so much more important than getting shows, good reviews and the accolades of others. Making the best art you can is your job. All the rest of it comes second.

2. If your work doesn’t delight and captivate you, then you are doing the wrong thing. You are the primary audience for what you make. Please yourself first and foremost.

3. Be “professionally persistent”: That means doing the research, following up, keeping at it.

4. Be ye thick skinned. Very thick skinned. Art is subjective and not everyone is going to understand what you do. You need to find those who do connect, but that can take time.

5. Do not compare your work with others. Do not walk into galleries in Chelsea and say, “My work is SO much better than this!” It has nothing to do with better or worse. You can learn by watching how other artists have achieved success, but that is different than comparing.

6. The art world is—for most of us—DIY (“do it yourself”.) No one else is going to do this job for you. You are an entrepreneur and responsible for the business of you: R&D, manufacturing, marketing, sales, public relations, accounting, customer service, community relations.

7. Fight the black beast of discouragement. When it slips in your back door, stab it dead.

30 Comment

  1. excellent advice. I think I agree with almost everything you said . But one point. I wouldn’t stab the black beast of discouragement to death. This is because It is a part of you, part of your self. As such, it needs to be tamed, contained, perhaps outwitted, but not killed. And this beast never truly goes away, it gets smarter as we get smarter.T he best we can do is to truly try to understand what is going on

  2. Amen, Deborah – very well and succinctly stated. G

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thanks so much, and so good to hear from you!

  3. Wonderful, Deborah. My worst downfall is # 4…………and my of my, I need to go get a good knife sharpener.

    Thanks for a great post.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      I think thin skinnedness comes with being an artist. I think you only get tough by really working at it. Thanks for your comment.

  4. Hmm been struggling with #7… and #1 is so important… THANK YOU

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thanks Lynette. Yeah, I think 7 is tough. Vigilance required!

  5. well said!

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thanks Val, I know you know this terrain intimately.

  6. Thanks for the reminder

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thank you Lisa.

  7. we need to be reminded of this more often than we might like. thanks

  8. Tamar Zinn says:

    Thanks Deborah. No matter how many times we remind ourselves of what it is that really counts, it is helpful to read another artist’s perspective.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thanks Tamar, always a good thing when we connect.

  9. Thanks again Deborah, wonderful post. I’m on a residency right now and shared this with my fellow artists– words we need to hear again and again.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thank you so much Tracy, and so glad to see a comment from you. All the best on your residency.

  10. all so true! yes, i had to battle the beast to get the xhib i now have up in a public park, and it was hard but worth it, fibre art gets such a cold shoulder..
    i was told it was too abstract, too highbrow, not real art, would make the park look messy…but it is up and the blossom is a beautiful serendipity!
    it’s about the gorgons being gaia’s guardians, and gorgonian coral being a climate change indicator, and the libyan myth of how coral was created… i have fibromyalgia and it’s taken 3 years from idea to installation but seeing it up is worth all the struggle 😉

  11. An excellent reminder thank you

  12. Nancy Ferro says:

    NO. 17….I am a turtle…stick my head out when good things happen…back in when not so good……

  13. Thank you, Deborah. An illuminating post! a friend of mine and I were talking about these very points last night and this morning I found it quoted in a MoMA students’ blog: the right words at the right time!
    Thanks again.
    By the way, I very much like the image you posted on top of it. I’d like to know where it comes from, who is the author. Can you enlighten me again? 🙂
    Mariarosa, from Italy

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Mariarosa, Thank you for your comment. The image is from an installation at MOMA from two years ago. I don’t remember who the artist was but could track it down if it is important. Thanks for your comment.

      1. Deborah, thank you for your reply. What a pleasure to see your artwork, and what a pleasure to discover, click after click on the various artists’ names, their marvellous works! Dear Deborah, dear artists, let me tell you how I am pleased to have made such a discovery. I am Italian, I live and work in Italy. I will certainly follow your blog. I hope you will count me in in spite of my mistakes in English 🙂
        As to the MOMA image, Deborah, I was curious about it because of the “veil”: it reminded me of certain paper works I had seen on artists’ books. Now that I know that it was an installation, it isn’t so very important to know more. Thank you so much again!

  14. Seth says:

    Very well said Deborah. I think this post should be on the wall of every working artist out there.

  15. Just catching up with this, Deborah. Great advice which I will revisit often! Thank you!

    1. Thank you- I am a closet artist and never show my work these days- but I can’t turn away from my art even though I don’t “do it professionally” I was creatively “stunted” by my mother who always wanted to be better than me. Making art for me- is the most painful and beautiful things I do as a human being (second to motherhood). Thank you for your words Deborah.

      1. deborahbarlow says:

        A “closet artist” but one who speaks with such verve. Thank you for this comment Carol, I was really moved to read your words.

  16. Charlotte says:

    Today is the right day to tell me this. Thank you Deborah. You are always right on time.

  17. Good advice for artists in any medium.

  18. Augustina Wear says:

    I agree with idea but why must use black as a negative

    “Black is Beautiful Baby……Don’t be hating!

    With such a well written article is it you just could think of another adjective pity!

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