How To Become A Professional Artist

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How To Become A Professional Artist

The 21st Century is an unprecedented time historically if you want to make a living as a professional artist or creative genius of any kind.

With the internet, you can make money with the click of a button by uploading your work. That said, it’s pretty tough to know what buttons to click and how to click them. This article will help you with that by providing some pretty universal rules that’ll apply to the would-be professional artist at anytime, anywhere.

Funnily enough, most of these rules were written long before now. That’s because being a professional artist hasn’t changed all that much. (I’d argue it’s gotten easier and more accessible to a lot more people, but the fundamentals stay the same.)

Let’s start with some rules for the beginner creative who wants to become a professional artist.

HINT: If you follow the rules in this article, you will succeed, regardless of the type of art you create or the economic conditions from which you create it.)

Heinlein’s Rules For Writers (And Other Artists)

Robert Heinlein was a science fiction author back in the good old days of pulp fiction economics.

He once wrote an essay in a writer’s digest magazine, but he admitted that much of the work was grasping at straws. He then stated that writers should follow five major rules if they want success. I wrote about Heinlein’s rules here previously, but I’ll restate them for ease of reading:

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Heinlein’s Rules For Writers
Rule One: You Must Write
Rule Two: Finish What You Start
Rule Three: You Must Refrain From Rewriting, Except to Editorial Order
Rule Four: You Must Put Your Story on the Market
Rule Five: You Must Keep it on the Market until it has Sold

This advice is as true for writers today as it has been at any other time in history. The more you write and publish, the better off you’ll be financially, provided you follow through.

This is also true for any professional artist. If you’re a musician, you need to put out music on a regular basis. Or if you’re a photographer, then the same is true. If you draw, paint or otherwise create, then you need to follow the above rules.

Start working. Finish what you’ve started. Don’t worry about criticism or fears from the back of your brains. Instead, sell your work and let the market decide. Never stop this process – always sell your work and always create more work to sell.

Provided you’ll do the above, you will succeed as a professional artist. However, if you want to maximise your income as a professional artist, then you have to be smart as well as prolific.

What follows are some rules that you should take into consideration. (I would say you should follow them in every case, but hey, I’m not your mother. Do what you want.)

You MUST Forget Critics, Online Naysayers and Other Idiots

People who tell you that you can’t do stuff are everywhere. There’s the guy who says, “If everyone could do it, we’d all be rich” or “It’s not possible to do it professionally” or “Nobody would pay for that.”

Those people are idiots who are disproven by reality. Unfortunately, they’re not the only people you have to worry about.

You also have the critics – the people who talk about grandmasters of your art and how nothing can compare. Or the hyper-analytic forum expert who can nitpick every single new piece of work that comes out, yet suspiciously provides no evidence that he or she has ever done anything creative themselves.

Then, you have the concerned people who say, “you should get a STEM degree and be a tech programmer” or whatever.

Generally, if you want to be a professional artist or make money from creative stuff, you should ignore anyone who can’t produce immediately obvious evidence that they’re successful at making their living from creative stuff.

I wouldn’t ask anyone other than a surgeon their opinion on whether or not my body needs to sliced and diced, and the same is true of business stuff. Don’t let anyone who isn’t an expert tell you how to do things.

If You Want Your Art To Be Your Business, Then You’ve Got To Treat It Like A Business

Speaking of business stuff, if you want to make money as an artist, creative or other off-the-reservation profession, then you need to do one thing very correctly: You need to treat your business like a business.

Here are some pointers:

  • Act like a professional at all times. Sure, you can give off that devil-may-care artsy attitude to your fans, but you need to be on time, courteous and efficient in all business dealings.
  • Account for everything. Income, expenses, assets, cash flow, capital – you need to know what these things are and the effect they have on your business.
  • Fun comes last… there’ll be times you want to quit or you want to take a break. When your project is finished, you can do that. Not until then. ANYONE who tries to tell you, “If you really love it, you’ll always want to do it” is giving you rose-tinted spectacles. With any occupation, there are elements of uphill struggle. Be prepared for those.
  • Sell what sells. I mean, you can concentrate on trying to sell your fine art that kind-of-looks like a paperclip impregnated an octopus, but you’re probably better off creating something people will buy. This isn’t at odds with being creative or producing high-quality stuff, no matter what aforementioned critics and idiots will tell you.

You Must Sell On More Than One Platform

Many creatives, skimping on the above section, are constantly on the lookout for a patron or single method that’ll do everything for them.

This leads to all kinds of business mistakes, much bigger than the one I’m going to mention. But this is still a major problem for most artists and creative types.

They only sell on a single platform.

For authors, it’s Kindle or nothing – or Kindle AND nothing. Crazily, a lot of authors sign up for Kindle Unlimited, which is like selling only on a single platform but also promising to sell nowhere else as well. Big mistake.

That’s among the smart ones who don’t fall into the traditional publishing trap too – we’ll talk about that later.

For musicians, it tends to be YouTube. Or it’ll be Soundcloud or bandcamp or something.

For vloggers, it’s YouTube and that’s all.

You get the idea. If you’re an artist of any type, there’ll be a major player in your field. (The same is true for tech-creative fields too – WordPress themes, Photoshop tutorials, graphic designs, 3D models and whatever else.)

The platform is not your employer. It’s a vendor for you to sell your stuff to. You shouldn’t limit yourself to one place, instead spreading your art far and wide.


To do that though, you’re going to have to have control of your work. It’s not enough to be a professional artist; you have to be a professional publisher for your creative work too.

You MUST Control Your Work

Some musicians still – quite bizarrely – want to score a big record deal or enlist the help of seedy management guys who don’t seem to do anything except take a cut. This is a mistake.

Similarly, authors want to give away their books to an agent who will magically give them a publishing deal and then it’ll all be great.

I don’t know about visual artists or whatever, but I’m sure it’s much the same.

Needless to say, this is the wrong approach. There’s no free lunch, and so when you give the responsibility over your work to an outside party, you also give up control.

You need to control your work. You need to have the final say in where your work goes, what form it takes and how you sell it. It’s a big responsibility, but that’s what you have to do. (See the previous part about treating your business like a business.)

The fact is there are hundreds of different little issues that’ll affect your income as an artist. For an author, things like the day of the week you release a book on matter, as do things like the font that you use on the front cover of your book.

Do you think a big publisher is going to care one bit about going through the effort to change that when you’re one of a hundred debut authors on its books? No chance.

But when you control everything yourself, you can split-test the changes, change them in a matter of minutes and keep the changes for every project you need to going forward.

Final Thoughts

These are the rules I can think of that will help you succeed as a professional artist- regardless of whether you are a would-be painter, writer, songwriter or web design guru.

None of the rules govern how you go about your business, they only ensure that you do. To summarise:

  • Start working.
  • Finish what you’ve started.
  • Don’t worry about criticism.
  • Instead, sell your work and let the market decide. Never stop this process – always sell your work and always create more work to sell.
  • Treat Your Art Like a Business
  • Sell On Every Platform Available To You
  • Always Retain Control of Your Work

Provided you follow these rules, you will succeed as a creative in the 21st Century. Probably the 22nd Century too.

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