Advice to my 17 year old wannabe artist self

Recently I was asked by the Art Chatter podcast hosts Gaynor Leverett -Jaques and Karen George what advice I would give to artists just starting out. They were seeking out thoughts from a number of artists they knew for the fiftieth episode of Art Chatter and the request really got me thinking. You can listen here

To do this I went back in time and pretended that I was speaking to my 17 year old self. You may find this interesting if you are starting out or are currently feeling frustrated with where you are in your art world.

When I was 17 I absolutely already knew that I wanted to be an artist. I felt it in my bones. I always had a project of some kind on the go – a painting or a sketchbook or an idea. I regularly made sketches and paintings and explored different techniques. I had started to visit galleries and exhibitions and looked at what famous and not so famous artists, mostly painters and sculptors in my case, were doing.

But at that time I didn’t really have a very fully formed idea of what it actually entailed to feel that I could give myself the name – artist. Way back in the late 1970’s I had this idea that real artists were generally people who made their living selling art and that this was the only rationale for legitimacy in the ‘right’ to call yourself an artist.

Only people who had their art in galleries, or so I thought, were real artists. You had to have a successful selling practice to be an artist, otherwise you were a Sunday painter, an amateur who ‘did it for fun’. What I now know is that the ‘doing it for fun’ bit is the whole point or at least a very important part of it and should in no way be derided.

I wish I could go back in time now and say to that 17 year old that she was already an artist, that she already thought like an artist and that the compulsion and need to paint and practice was enough and that art is about process and love, and not entirely about sales. I wish I could go back and say to her that doing it for fun is absolutely fine, in fact that the playing, exploring, making mistakes and learning from them is a crucial part of an art practice and that it never stops being that way.

Can I just say that again. It never stops being that way.

As a 62 year old pretty much unknown painter who sells paintings regularly I now know that the selling is nice but it is not and never will be the reason that compels me to make art. Having a creative practice is everything and the selling when it happens is the icing on the cake. I now know that selling art is a completely different skill set to making art.

So here are the words that I sent to the podcast. As much as talking to the 17 year old me, who incidentally has not changed her art ideologies so very much, I would say this to anyone of any age who feels the need to make or create anything. As you practice – you will find that the art is in you and as you practice you will get better at what you do through commitment and exploration.

I think I would say if you haven’t already just start, just begin and keep practicing. Try not to be distracted by the artists who have been putting their work out there for longer than you have. It’s a terrible thing for imposter syndrome to torture yourself with feeling others are all better at creating work than you are. They are simply at a different stage in their art ‘journey’.

Art is about expression – it is not I believe about being brilliant at for example life drawing, but learning by studying life drawing is worthwhile. Crossing off accomplishments does help you to build confidence and to gather a basket of resources that you can introduce into your work. In fact finding a way of expressing yourself by learning techniques is a vital part of the process to finding your own way.

The ‘art journey’ analogy is something that I used to find a bit contrived but it is a truism that experience has taught me that we are all exactly where we are meant to be because quite frankly we can’t be anywhere else. If you are just starting you are just starting and you will not be in the same place as someone who has been practicing for 5, 10, 30 or 50 years. Of course the quality of your work will be determined by your commitment and the time you put in.

Stay true to yourself and what you really want to make. Never stop learning from others but equally try to find a way of expressing that feels authentic to you. Recognise that we all have our own handwriting and that this will make our work uniquely our own. But you need to work at finding that handwriting – it is there but it can appear contrived if you always copy and deny your true expression to come through. Strangely although this is theoretical you will find it through exploration – it is there inside of all of us.

What you will also find through experimenting is that you naturally lean in to certain media. I am a painter – I’m naturally drawn to paint – it is a media that I find enables me to express myself. But give me wool and knitting needles and it leaves me cold. There is no enjoyment for me in dropping stitches and I don’t feel remotely compelled to try to get better at it.

Decide what is important to you. Do you want to do this as a creative outlet for yourself or is it important to you to sell. Both are legitimate reasons for a creative practice.

But remember that sales really should not be the rationale for making – sales are a bonus when they happen and to succeed in selling you have to go on a very different journey to your creative journey. You need grapple with the essential business elements that need to be put into place to get your work seen through networking, social media, websites, mailing lists, blogging, building relationships with galleries. Then there is all the practical stuff to learn around framing, shipping, invoicing, paying tax and so on.

Try not to be distracted. Tune out of social media sometimes. Our best work is made when we manage to isolate from external influences and create from a place where we are in the flow.

When you start and if you haven’t found your medium of choice it’s a great thing to enjoy looking at work by other artists. Go to art galleries, study work you love through seeking inspiration and also sometimes by emulating or copying as this can help you develop your technique and lead to finding your style.

Find inspiration in the world around you and delve deep into your own imagination. Go on courses, do workshops – but move into your own artistic space. You can do this by integrating what you have learned with what you discover by experimenting, exploring and playing with different media.

Keep an open mind, don’t be afraid to fail and make lots of crappy art – failure leads to all kinds of exciting things and is to be embraced. I have written another blog post about failure here failure is a wonderful thing – I’ve been doing it all of my life and now I actively seek it out.

When you are ready be brave and put your work out there. The first time you do this is excruciating unless you are a total extrovert but believe me it gets easier as you begin to recognise that your art will be loved and reviled equally.

People are obviously drawn to different styles and have polarised ideas of what constitutes beauty so recognise this and learn not to take dismissal or lack of interest personally.

Start small on social media and then move on to cafes or any space you can find – get over yourself and simply know it’s just your art on a public wall.

Seek out other artists who are ahead of the game and ask them questions. Artists are, I have found , always very happy to share what they have learned. With time you realise that creating art is not about competition and whatever you give comes back at you – what goes around comes around. There are many artists and non artists who have helped me immeasurably through advice and encouragement and I have always tried to be generous in sharing what I have learned over time.

Finally and most of all enjoy the process – that is key to everything and once you learn this everything else will flow from it. This is something so many artists will tell you but it is absolutely the truth. Process is everything! It is where the art begins and ends through the making.

Never forget that it doesn’t have to be all cerebral or serious – art is at its best I believe when you can see that artist has been having fun. It always shines through. And another thing be your own quality controller. You will know when it is right. And when to stop. And when it needs more. Art happens as a result of doing and in the process making a series of micro decisions and responses made with love and with a love of life.

As the wonderful David Hockney said, “The only real things in life are food and love in that order, just like our little dog Ruby. I really believe this and the source of art is love. I love life.” (From an article written by Will Gompertz for the BBC website 1 April 2020)

This article is copyright Mary Price 2023 and you are welcome to share so long as you acknowledge me with a link back to this article.