What it Means to Be a Self-Taught Artist

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What does it mean to be a self-taught artist?  If I never went to art school, can I still be successful as an artist?  Can I still call myself an artist if I do not have a degree in art?  These are all great questions.  I hope I can answer some of them and give some insight into why I chose to be a self-taught artist rather than going to art school.

About Myself

First, a little background about myself.  I took art classes in high school.  However, in college I did not take any classes related to art at all.  Instead, I focused on general studies and biology classes.  I originally wanted to become a veterinarian, but changed my career and decided to become a veterinary technician instead.  The reasons for that could fill another blog article, so I will not go into those here.  

That is the career I had chosen for myself.  Art was just a hobby, something fun on the side.  I enjoyed drawing and painting, and even sculpting, but I could not see a lucrative career out of it.  Most of the people I knew who went to art school ended up studying graphic design, and that was not what I wanted to do.  I also did not want to work as an artist for a company.  To me, once I started to do art as a career instead of a hobby, it would lose the “fun” aspect.  Working for a big corporation designing logos or painting backgrounds for animated movies did not appeal to me.  I wanted the freedom to do my own work, not what other people demanded of me.

However, ten years ago I got a little more serious about my art.  I enjoyed creating new things and even got the idea to sell them online. With the internet, new possibilities abounded.  I could have a store online and sell prints, or even t-shirts with my designs!   Thus my hobby became a little more lucrative, and I could still draw what I wanted.  Along came commissions, both private and corporate, and this seeded the way for me to establish myself as a more serious artist.


Self-Taught Artist: Definition

So, what exactly does it mean to be a self-taught artist?  This literally means an artist who did not go to art school and graduate with a degree in art.  They learned through self-instruction, by reading books and watching videos, studying other artists’ techniques, and even attending workshops and having a mentor.

It is important to understand that, just because an artist did not get formal instruction or does not have a degree in art, does not mean he or she is not an “artist”.  One does not need a degree to study and practice art.  A degree helps in securing certain jobs, such as graphic design, animation,  and technical drawing.  But having a degree does not guarantee a job.  Many highly successful artists do not have degrees in art.  I have lists of artists who I admire, many of them extremely popular and highly skilled artists, who have no formal training.  Many of these artists have shown their art in shows and won numerous awards.  Their art hangs in galleries across the world.  They sell their art, both original and reproductions, for a lot of money.  No one would question that these people are not “true” artists simply because they lack a college degree in art.


How To Train Yourself and Improve

What it does mean, however, is that, as an artist, you need to study and constantly improve yourself.  How does one do this?

  • First, stick with a topic you enjoy, but don’t pigeonhole yourself.  Not everyone has to paint flowers or landscapes, so if that is not your thing, then don’t do it.  However, it is extremely important as an artist to not limit yourself to one thing.  Having a broad range of skills is very important to enhance your skills and improve as an artist.  If you love animals, great.  But don’t only draw animals.  Broaden your subjects every now and then, and you can be surprised at what you can do!
  • Don’t compare yourself to other artists.  This is the single most important bit of advice I can give anyone.  No matter what your skill level, there will always be those who are better than you and those who are less-skilled.  Admire those with greater skill and learn from them!  What makes their art so good?  You can do that too!  But if you compare your art, and say, “No matter what, my art will never be that good.  Look at this garbage!”, then you will never improve as an artist.  If you ever feel yourself doing this, just read the second sentence in this paragraph and take it as mantra.
  • Practice, practice, practice!  Draw as much as possible.  Even if you think your drawing sucks.  Draw anyway.  Draw everyday, if you can!  Even little quick five minute sketches are vital to developing your skills.  Not every drawing has to be finished.  The more you practice, the better you will become, just like anything else.  No one is born being able to draw masterpieces.  Every single artist you admire got to where they are through very hard work and practice.
  • Learn new skills.  Pick up a book about drawing (or painting, sculpting, whatever).  Follow an artist who has a YouTube channel that posts instructional videos.  Study!  Read the book and try to follow the artists’ tutorials.  Learn new techniques.  Practice drawing different textures.  Study photographs, and also pay close attention to details of light and shadow in real life.  You can even take simple classes (online or in person) to sharpen your skills.  If you are lucky enough to live near a professional artist who teaches, you can enroll in a workshop.  Some artists will have these occasionally, focusing on improving techniques such as watercolor painting or colored pencil drawing.  These are invaluable!
  • Start simple.  Sometimes new artists can be too ambitious and take on projects that are way out of their skill level.  This will only lead to disappointment and failure.  We all want to do those huge highly detailed murals, but realistically it is best to start out small and simple.  Work on developing your skills first before tackling a huge project.  Draw still-lifes, practice portraits, work on anatomy and proportions.  Then work your way up to the big projects later.  They won’t go anywhere, I promise you!
  • Follow other artists, and learn from them.  I follow a ton of artists on sites like DeviantArt and Facebook.  It gives me inspiration and I also learn a lot from them.  Many artists will post tutorials and even hold online classes.
  • Keep a “to do” List.  Staying organized is essential.   I always have ideas swimming around in my head!  Keep a pen and paper handy to write down those ideas, and keep a list of things to draw.  That way, when art block strikes, you can look at your list and get fresh ideas!
  • Take lots of photos to use as references.  These are invaluable when it comes to doing your own paintings or drawings.  Get a decent camera, do not use the camera on your cell phone.  You need to be able to see fine details; the camera on your cell phone has a high compression ratio and will make the picture blurry.  You do not need to spend a thousand dollars, but invest in a good quality digital camera.  If you travel, take lots of photos!  Even if you cannot travel, take lots of pictures of flowers and animals outside.  Go to the zoo and take pictures.  This is extremely important, as many artists use photos as references.  Due to copyright issues, you cannot just use any image you find on Google or Pintrest as a reference.  However, with your own photographs, you own the copyright!  There are excellent resources online also for providing copyright-free (or less restricted) photos for use as reference.  A good stock photo website that provides free images to use is Pixabay
  • Join your local art society.  There are many societies out there for different media and topics.  For example, the Colored Pencil Society of America is a group that is dedicated to artists who work with colored pencil.  Some are open admission, others are juried (you have to apply with a portfolio and be selected).  This is great for networking, exposure, and learning.
  • Join art groups and clubs. Both online and offline.  This is in the same vein as the above.  The most helpful groups are on Facebook.  Social media is also good for getting your art exposure.  Local art clubs are a great way to network.
  • Go to your local art galleries.  Galleries can provide inspiration, as well as being a great source of information.  Many galleries and even art stores will have classes held there that can help you enhance your skills. 

Options for Freelance Artists

Great, so I’ve practiced, and I’ve become pretty good, now what?  How do I make a career out of drawing?  There are many options and lots of information available.

  • Website. The most important thing for any artist is to have a presence online.  Everyone and everything is on the internet.  Having a website is like having a home base.  It is a way for people to find you and your art.  Imagine, in this day in age, how many businesses have websites.  The ones who do stand out in search engines, the ones who don’t get lost.  A website is a place where you can send people to see your art.  You can display your portfolio, talk about yourself and your art, have a way for people to buy prints, and give people a way to contact you.  Making a website does not have to be difficult or expensive.  Signing up with an inexpensive webhost such as Lunarpages, and using WordPress makes building webpages very easy.  There are also other artist portfolio websites online, some for free and some that you have to pay for.  Behance is an example of an online portfolio website.
  • Social Media.  Second most important is having social media.  Again, everyone uses some type of social media.  Having a presence on social media will not only allow you to have a greater online presence, but allow you to communicate with your fans in real time.  Post works in progress, finished artwork, talk about your new gallery opening, direct people to your online store, anything.  Have as many social media accounts as you feel comfortable updating.  The most essential ones for an artist, in my opinion, are Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and DeviantArt.
  • Licensing artwork.  Now onto how to make money.  You can choose to license your art for sale on products.  In the olden days, artists had to contact publishing companies to license their artwork for sale as art prints and merchandise in catalogs.  You can still do this if you choose.  However, the internet has created opportunities for artists to make money off of their art without having big galleries or traveling all over the country trying to sell their art in physical stores.  Some companies like The Mountain are always looking for new artists to add to their t-shirt line. 
  • Online Stores. Many artists use a type of online store called a print-on-demand store to produce art prints and merchandise for them.  These stores, such as Zazzle and Redbubble, will provide the products.  The artist uploads a high resolution scan of their artwork, and it is printed on the product when the customer orders it. This saves the artist from having to keep a lot of stock on hand, and having to deal with packaging and shipping themselves.  There are online stores that specialize in only doing art prints such as posters and canvas prints, and others that have a wide range of merchandise to choose from.  FineArtAmerica is a good example.  The downside of these stores is you only get to keep a small percentage of sales as commission (usually 10%-20%)  Here is an excellent article with a comprehensive list of over 250 places online you can sell your artwork.
  • Sell prints through your website.  If you do not want to use an online print on demand store to print for you, you can sell your own prints.  Some artists will invest in a high quality printer, others will outsource the printing to a local print company.  In the end, the artist is responsible for packing and shipping the prints.
  • Sell art through galleries.  This is still an option for many artists.  Many traditional artists like having a brick and mortar gallery to display and sell their art.  This has advantages and disadvantages.  The advantage is having that storefront can increase your exposure.  There is nothing like seeing a piece of art in person.  The disadvantage is paying rent for the gallery.  Many new artists choose to share space with other artists to save money.
  • Participate in art shows and contests.  This is a great way to get exposure as an artist as well as make money.  Many art shows will award prizes, and this can be added to your cv.
  • Commissions.  Taking commissions is another way to make money.  I have discussed the advantages and disadvantages of doing so in another article.
  • Freelance design work.  You can choose to do design work freelance.  This is similar to commissions but on a corporate scale.  Some designers are found through their websites or social media sites or galleries like DeviantArt.  Others use a site like 99Designs to take on projects from companies.
  • Sell original art online.  Many artists choose to sell their original artwork online.  There are several websites that are really good for this.  Websites like Etsy and Storenvy are good for any type of art, but most people use it for handmade crafts.  Ebay can be used for art as well, but I do not know many artists who make a  lot of money this way.  Websites such as SaatchiArt and Artfinder are online art brokers who are the go-betweens for the clients and artists.  Many of these online brokers do take a good percentage of sales, however.  Offering originals for sale through your website or on your Facebook page is another option and way to minimize cost.
  • Patreon.  A lot of artists use crowdfunding tools such as Patreon to help fund them while they create art.  This is great if you can get enough followers to help you get some regular monthly income.  The downside is you have to update regularly and continue to produce new content, especially for your Patreons.

Conclusion

It is very possible for an artist, without formal instruction or an art degree, to have a successful career in art.  However, choosing a career in art, whether you have a degree or not, means lots of hard work, practice and patience.  Not every artist will be world famous, but with hard work and dedication it is possible to be successful.

Images provided by Pixabay.

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