8 Steps to Jump-Start Your Art Career

By Carolyn Edlund

I often speak with artists who are frustrated, and sometimes not pleased about how their careers are going. They are looking for guidance, suggestions, or representation. This is totally understandable.  It’s tough out there, and can be very discouraging and confusing, particularly if you’re going it alone. Eventually this leads to one very important and unavoidable fact – the bottom line.

The absolute bottom line is this:

Like it or not, if you are an artist and you want to make a living at it, you are a businessperson. And – you’re in marketing and sales.

A lot of questions come up. “How can I find people to buy my work?” “Should I try to find a rep?” “Why doesn’t my work sell?” or even, “I’m not sure what to do, or if I’ll make mistakes, and so I freeze and do nothing.”

Quite often, I go over specific steps with clients to help them understand what they want out of their art career and how to get there. Here are eight basics to get focused and jump-start into action:

  1. Make a plan. Define what it is that you want to do. Write down your plans, in general and then more specifically. Is it realistic? Are your goals too narrow, or too broad? Write a five-year plan. Where would you like your career to be in 2016?
  2. Define what you need to do to get there. Who do you need to meet? Where do you need to live? What steps lead up to your goal? Read extensively on how the business of your future career works, and how the successful people got there. Get very clear on the circumstances you will have to create to make it work. Decide if your perceived goals will fit your lifestyle, and your level of ambition. If not, redefine what you really want. That’s perfectly OK. Your goals belong to you.
  3. Break it down into bite-size pieces. It can be overwhelming to think that you have to find a prestigious gallery or start giving your own workshops if you’re just starting out. Work backwards from the goal, writing down each step in the process, to what you can do today.
  4. Take action now. Do something every single day to move your art career forward. It may be placing a phone call, improving your website, finding a great photographer to shoot your portfolio, or making a To Do list. Cultivate this habit, because it’s something you are doing for yourself, and it really matters.
  5. Be willing to adjust. Perhaps you are running into roadblocks, or circumstances are changing. That five-year plan isn’t written in stone. Adapt and get creative with new plans.
  6. Don’t do it alone. Get a mentor, take a course, surround yourself with people who believe in you, and participate in your community.
  7. Be willing to pay those people you need to make your business work. Delegate tasks to avoid being overwhelmed. Hire a bookkeeper or accountant, get someone to clean your house while you are working, have someone watch your children so that you have studio time. You might need marketing assistance, a coach or a website designer. You could actually save money by paying for services which would eat up so much of your time that you cannot create.
  8. Don’t give up. If you think it can’t be done, then you’re right. Persistence is the most important factor in making your plans a reality.
You knew when you started that it wouldn’t be easy, but you also know it’s worth the hard work. Basically you need some talent, a plan, an understanding of how business and commerce works, and a lot of effort. Working toward a defined goal with a specific road map is much more productive than having a vague idea that you want to be “successful”. Successful people didn’t get there by accident, and they rarely made it overnight.
Do you consider yourself to be a successful artist? How long did it take? What’s your best advice for other artists who are starting out?



  1. Great list for the artist, getting going and maintaining the momentum is often the hardest part of any business. http://www.fishink.co.uk

    • Absolutely! I find that to be true with many artists I speak with. Working with a group or guild, or a friend whom you agree to be accountable to can help set and reach goals.

  2. I don’t consider myself a successful artist yet, but it’s something I’m working towards, and this is all great advice! Thanks.

  3. Great article Carolyn! I need to follow Step Four!

    I shared your article on my blog:

  4. “Working toward a defined goal with a specific road map is much more productive than having a vague idea that you want to be “successful”. Successful people didn’t get there by accident, and they rarely made it overnight.”

    I think this is the most important thing for me now. I started make & trying to sell art cause it was fun, but I feel like I’m floundering about with no direction. I see where I want to be, but need to focus on how I will actually get there. Thanks!

  5. Chrissy, You are not alone. Many artists experience the same thing. Art school does not usually teach business skills, but you need them to run your art business.

    I work with artists in private consultations every day. We work on defining their businesses, understanding their market, setting goals, and creating strategies to reach them. It’s hard work, but in reality unless you do it, you won’t be able to build the business you want.

  6. Tyreece Gary "TY" says

    I would like to thank you for the information you have given me and others involving the steps to starting an art career. The information is valuable and will be something to consider. I always enjoyed drawing, but I never knew or had any set goals on what I wanted to do with my artistic talent. Therefore, this article is valuable and I will begin to develop goals for what I want to do with my talent, besides waste it and not share it with others. Thank you

  7. How can you get someone to just look ago your art and tell you what works? Give you suggestions on what market would benefit you by looking at your art and get you into those areas where you can showcase it? How can you get those mentors that are needed to help you?

    • Great question, James. Do you belong to an art community, in person or online? Join a salon, an artist discussion group or even a Facebook group to get feedback and take advantage of the experience of others. You may find a coach or a consultant (usually paid) who can help you identify your best market, and provide a critique also.

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