The truth about being an artist

During the last lockdown, I found myself thinking about my artistic career,
the uncertainty since the beginning of the pandemic, and the good and bad aspects that there are generally in the art fields.

If someone have told me 20 years ago that I’d become an artist,
Id have simply laughed. Me ? Artist ? No way !
I became interested in photography very late.
It started when I was in high school and before that, my interest in art was very limited. My first memory of art was when my parents took me to an art museum. I was maybe 10 years old and I remember finding the art displayed very boring. In fact I just wanted to get out of the museum (and now I go to this same museum at least 3 times a year).
I also remember that when I was in elementary school, I liked to put on shows in my bedroom. I remember putting posters on my bedroom door, saying that I was going to sing and dance. And probably too afraid that my family would show up, I canceled my shows each time (haha).

And here I am now : 33 years old and I’m an artist.

Since I’ve been an artist,I’ve noticed that they’re mainly two types of views on artists : they are people who envy them, who are fascinated by them (and who may think that it’s “easy” to be an artist), and those who think that artists are lazy and useless for our society.
Well guess what ? both views are unfounded.
Being an artist is often difficult but being an artist/making art is useful for society (just think about how the lockdowns have proven this) and therefore it requires a lot of work.

While thinking about these views, I wanted to share my experience with you.
The pros and cons of being an artist.
If you’re an artist or if you want to become one, don’t hesitate to share your opinion with me and the others readers, in the responses to this article.
Before I start talking about my experience, I want to say that this article isn’t a complaint. Nobody forced me to become an artist. I became one because I wanted to. Just see my article as a mix of my view and advice.
Also, please keep in mind that it’s just my opinion and that other artists are most certainly having different experiences.

Well…The first thing you need to know is that…being an artist is really really difficult (it’s a huge surprise, isn’t it?!)

There are many reasons why it’s difficult and the first one I think of
is the financial one.

  • Money is needed

Unless you’re rich and/or your art is selling (very well) as soon as you start your artistic career, you need to be very careful with how you manage your money and how you can earn it. Because being an artist means spending a lot of money and often earning very little.
In my case, as I’m a photographer, I spend a lot of money on equipment (computer, external hard drives, camera, lenses, tripod, etc.) and production (printings, framings). I‘m talking about my experience but I think that it’s quite the same for videographers, painters, illustrators, etc.
On top of that, I also made the mistake of spending money, for several years, on open calls. A lot of open calls require artists to pay a fee just to submit their applications. Those fees are non-refundable and they don’t guarantee you that you’ll be selected. Therefore you should avoid them at all costs !
The art world is a sometimes devious world where some people won’t mind asking penniless artist to pay large sums of money just to send an application / just to exhibit in a small unknown show / just to be published in an unknown magazine and you can’t be sure whether it will boost your career afterward. So you have to be really careful.
Also, you have to take into account the additional costs : insurance, charges, non-reimbursed travel, shipping of work, etc. So yes, being an artist means spending a lot of money.
If you manage to sell your work regularly, that’s perfect.
But it’s not always the case.
So there are several possibilities for you. For example, you can do artist residencies and get paid. It’s a very good option but don’t forget that you need to be selected first. You can also do day jobs which will finance your artistic career.
In my case, I’m also a freelance photographer. Don’t be mistaken, I don’t see it as a day job. I love doing commissions for other people and responding carefully to their requests, and I think that my work as an artist and my work as a freelance photographer feed off each other. It’s definitely not about the money here. I really enjoy that and it’s one of my main jobs.
In addition to that, I sometimes have day jobs. For example, I sometimes work as an extra in films and series. And all of my jobs help me a lot with my artistic career.
The financial aspect is absolutely not negligible when you’re an artist.
It’s a very important concern and, even those around you talk about it (huh).
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked if I make a living from my work. I understand the concern of some people (like my parents) but I’m soooo fed up : my money only concerns me, I don’t share my bank account with other people.
And I’m not a big spender so I can anticipate and manage my expenses,
which I think is essential for an artist.

  • Being out of ideas

As a freelance photographer, when I take photographs for clients, I respond to their requests. Even if I put in the images my own style, my own creativity, the priority is that the clients get the photos they want.
If they want a portrait with their dog, I take a portrait of them with their dog. And I put my style in it. What I mean is that their wish defines and guides the result.
But as an artist, it’s totally different. Your creativity depends entirely on you. On what you have in mind, on what you want to do.
There are days when ideas flow but there are also times when there’s nothing. Nothing, rien, nada.
My photographs’ ideas always come to me as visions at any time.
When I force myself to have new ideas, when I sit down in front of my computer and my notebook, it doesn’t work. So I try things, I work on other projects and I keep on reading books, watching films/series, and going to exhibitions. But I always do that with a certain distance because I definitely don’t want to copy & paste. This kind of “being out of ideas period” can be short as they can seem long (I write “seem” as it’s relative to each person).
But it’s quite difficult because having the urge and even the vital need to create but not knowing what to create is frustrating.
And when you’re an artist, when it’s your main job (or one of your main jobs), you have to create. Even if you’re not represented by a gallery, even if you don’t have a deadline, you always have the pressure to create artworks regularly. The work of an artist is what makes the artist.
To exhibit, you have to create. To make yourself know, to sell your work, you have to create. And to create, you need ideas.

  • Sensitivity, false hope & loneliness

I’m a sensitive person. I’ve always been sensitive and I think that’s one of the reasons which made me become an artist. Because I had things to say. Sometimes this sensitivity is a real flaw, especially in my work.
When I’m not selected for something though I thought it would work,
it sometimes makes me feel so bad.
Even though I’ve been an artist for almost 7 years, they’re always moments when it’s hard. I’ve recently accumulated negative responses and it’s been a blow to my morale. Especially during this period of pandemic & lockdowns.
When it’s like this, I try to think of the positives aspects, to think of all the good things that have happened to me since I’ve been an artist. All the great exhibitions I’ve been selected for, all the good things people have said about my work. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.
Since I’m a “negative” person, I spend more time brooding over the rejections than celebrating the exhibitions, the screenings where my work has been selected. I’ve always had a lack of self-confidence ( I work on that) which means that I get too many rejections, I start thinking about what’s wrong with my work. And yet I know that my work can’t please everyone. That’s normal. That’s what we have to understand : the competition is tough, there are so many artists on this planet so sometimes you get selected, and sometimes you don’t.
Furthermore, unless you live surrounded by other artists and/or be a part of a collective, you work alone most of the time. And you can feel alone physically but also morally. Because even though your relatives support you, if they don’t truly understand your work (and especially the point of doing it), they won’t understand your situation. That’s why meeting and talking with other artists can really feel good.

I know that the facts I’ve just written can be seen as huge obstacles but you have to know that they depend on your life and your personality.
Every artist is different.
And above all, you also have to know there very big pros of being an artist.

My images ready for my next exhibition !

Being an artist is fascinating and rewarding. Yes, it really is.

  • Doing what you love

At the beginning of this article, I wrote that I became interested in art quite late. Before I went to art school, I studied English for two years in a university because I wanted to work in the translation field.
Actually, I’ve never really known what I wanted to do before I went to art school. I remember wanting to be a volcanologist, a baker, an actress, a teacher but these were all momentary urges.
And when I started photography, I didn’t think that I would become an artist. My photographs were definitely uninteresting. They were experiments mixed with photographs made to be published on myspace (haha) so nothing that guided me towards a professional path. But as the years went by, my interest in photography became more and more important and that’s what motivated me to study in an art school.
My studies in the art school went well in the sense that I got my diplomas with honours, and above all, my artistic studies made me grow, gave me a tiny bit more confidence in myself, and made me understand that I really wanted to be an artist. That creating was what I really wanted to.
Since 2014, I have the chance to do what I love. I have the chance to get up every morning and do what I love. Well, I’m not talking about the administrative aspect (haha). But, in a general, I love my job.
However, it would be a lie to say that I don’t get through moments of doubts, moments where I think of stopping my artistic career in order to have a job with a more stable salary, and less stress. I think this happens to many many artists.
But I know that if I changed jobs, I wouldn’t be happy. I wouldn’t be myself.
Because I don’t see myself doing anything else but art, even if it means making many sacrifices. Because there’s nothing else that allows me to express myself, to say out loud what I think deep down. Because they’re nothing else that I’m so passionate about and that makes me feel so good. When I create and especially when I like what I create, it makes me feel very good. It makes me happy and it projects me into the future. I have to admit that it has gradually become a reason for me to exist. There’s a real dependency between my creativity and my well-being.
I recently had new ideas for a new series and it made me feel so good that it kept me awake the first night. I can’t wait to start it !
Overall, I also like looking for open calls, making submissions, sending them.
Even though I know that I do this more than creating artworks, it’s a part of my work that I enjoy, and that matters because it helps me to give visibility to my work. And you need to know that even though you’re not selected, your work has been seen and it still can “leave a mark”.
Last year, a festival contacted me to exhibit in their 2021 edition. I had applied for the 2020 edition and I hadn’t been selected but the jury liked my work and they had kept it under consideration. Can you imagine the joy I felt when I read their email ? I’m sure I’m not the only artist who lived that !
So if you can send submissions to open calls, don’t hesitate (but don’t send your work to EVERY open call ! Focus on the open calls related to your work).
So I’d say that the first pro of being an artist is that you get to do what you love. I’m not saying that people who are not artists don’t like their jobs. I don’t say that at all. But I mean that, as artists, we have a freedom that isn’t negligible since we have the chance to create our jobs. We have the chance to express ourselves through our artworks, to reveal ourselves through them, and to present them to the world. For me, that’s the privilege of being an artist.

  • Showing your work and talking about it with other people

Showing my work to other people is also something that I love. Of course, it’s always a bit stressful because showing our work is always showing a part of ourselves. It’s giving ourselves away. It’s showing how we see the world.
An open diary. For me, the stress comes from that. It’s not about pleasing or not pleasing. I think more about it can resonate with people.
Another stress comes when I have to speak in public (and it’s also linked to the idea of giving myself away, I guess) but actually, that’s something I quickly get over because I love talking with people who come to my exhibitions.
Usually, some people come to ask me more details, my inspirations, or they come to tell me how they feel about my work. And I always find this very enriching because each time I discover different and unsuspected views on my work. And it can easily give new ideas for the sequel.
And meeting other artists is just as enriching. As I said, when you’re an artist, you work alone most of the time. And you might naively think that the grass is greener elsewhere but it’s rarely true : I have more often met artists who shared their difficulties with me, rather than artists who were rolling in money and who were living in villas with swimming pools. Don’t look at that in a negative light. Instead use it to pull together and to motivate each other to move forward. Meeting other artists, especially in exhibitions where you exhibit together, means seeing what other artists create without you knowing it. Seeing works that deal with the same subjects as you but from very different angles, from very different manners. And that’s also how collectives can be born.

I know that the first part of this article may discourage you if you want to become an artist, or if you already are an artist and you‘re questioning yourself. But take the time to think about the things that made you take this path. Think about the positives things that are related to your art (what you were told, who told what, your exhibitions, etc.), and the things you feel when you dedicate yourself to your art.
Being an artist is rarely easy, but art is essential. So you are essential.

French visual artist