How Being an Outsider Can Make You a Better Artist

By Carolyn Edlund

David Couper

Artsy Shark recently spoke to David Couper, coach and author of “Outsiders on the Inside“, an acclaimed book on transforming your career by turning your  differences into assets.  We discussed how artists can use their “outsider” status to enhance their work and their marketability.

AS: Artists often perceive that they are outsiders. How do they identify and accept this?

DC: Identify as a successful rather than negative outsider. Artists are often seen negatively as outsiders.  Some of the myths that we buy into are the struggling artist, the “starving in a garret” or the eccentric and mad genius.  But the reality is that there are successful artists – not only the names we all know like Andy Warhol or Mary Cassatt -but also artists who have a fine life with a good income selling through galleries, developing art as a business whether it’s greeting cards or personal portraits, and supporting themselves by teaching or through grants.

Accept both internally and externally that it is possible for you to be successful.

  • Internally, you have to give up some of the stories you may have been told by your parents.  Learn to trust yourself through meditation or other centering activities, or learn to give up perfection or procrastination.
  • Externally, you may have to take more classes, understand how the business side works, or get out and meet other artists more.

AS: Talk about how artists can use their unique characteristics to brand themselves.

DC: Celebrate your uniqueness. Everyone is unique, but we often believe that the only way we can be successful is to be like someone else and conform to a cookie cutter version of an artist. Although it’s useful to see what other people do, and to look for things that work whether in marketing or in technique, at the end of the day you have to be yourself. Having the courage to identify what makes you different is vital. Many successful artists realized that they were different, but did not compromise on what they believed in, whether it was Picasso and his blue period or Bolero with his rotund figures.

Take time to look at yourself and to take an inventory of what you like. What do you do, and what do you think that is different from others?

Outsiders on the Inside

If you are stuck trying to work out what makes you different, especially on a positive side, ask a friend to honestly but respectfully give you feedback on how they see you and what makes you unique. This information may be incorrect, so be careful to analyze so you can decide on the truth of it.  Then own that difference and make it your unique trademark or brand.

AS: What steps can an “outsider” take to find success?

  • Accept that you are different and that is OK.

One of my clients took up her calling to be a sculptor after she declared that she was not going to be like her father, with a steady job and a pension, and that was OK.

  • Decide that it is possible to be different and successful.

Look at both famous people and regular artists and see how they have achieved success.  If an artist chooses to keep his or her expenses low by living in an affordable part of the country and by minimizing the gifts and toys and other costs of living, he or she may discover that selling one or two major pieces a year is enough to keep them financially strong.

  • Analyze what makes you different.

Look at all the information you have from your own intuition and database and from other’s opinions and decide what is a possible positive and what is a negative. If you are always late, that is probably not going to be a positive.  If you love the color blue and produce only pictures in that color you may be able to make that your trademark.

  • Emphasize the differences which could appeal to a buyer.  Take your positive differences and think about what could make then enticing.

For example, painting blue paintings might appeal to an audience who is used to looking at surreal or “out there” art. Sculptors might find homeowners who are creating new outdoor spaces and want a unique and interesting sculpture as a focal point.

  • Find out how to connect to these new customers.  Hang out with them whether it is literally through a professional group or networking or online using different social networking tools.

If you were painting portraits of children you would want to find parents or grandparents who might want a custom approach to the kids’ portrait.

  • Sell yourself.  Don’t get scared.  Don’t get nervous.

Value yourself appropriately –not too expensive or cheap. Create success from your strengths.

  • Above all, persist. You may make mistakes, but that’s OK.

People may not like your artistic vision. People may not even like your work.  It takes practice not to get affected by negative feedback, but know that it only takes one buyer to make you a paid artist.

Do you feel like an outsider? David Couper’s book is easy to read, extremely helpful and cleverly written.  It’s full of ideas for making the most of your differences and finding success.


  1. Another inspiring article. I am an outsider and I use it to my creative advantage. I’m currently building an artist collective that plays right into this idea of outsider. It’s exciting to live in the realization that what makes art successful is not fitting in, but standing out and differentiating. (Yee HAW!)

  2. every artist past present & future is an outsider reaching out with their art vision for the world to find and see.
    ‘Insider’ ‘outsider’ such utter nonsense.

  3. Great article! I will have to add this book to my reading list! I am an outsider, and agree that can be an advantage! Though it is important to strongly connect with colleagues and customers, for me, it is also important to continue to expand my horizons. Meeting new people and exploring new ideas, without becoming entrenched in one group, is essential to my creative life.

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