One of the biggest challenges any artist faces is the great question of how to balance time spent making art with the rest of life’s responsibilities. In this article guest writer Fabienne Jenny Jacquet shares her thoughts about the importance of making time for art.
If I were to make a film of my ideal artist life (‘Once upon a time in Hackney?’) the camera would capture productive hours spent every day in a light-filled studio blissfully planning and making paintings. Now and then I would recline gracefully on plump cushions and leisurely gaze at a half-finished piece, looking for inspiration while drinking cups of fragrant tea. Glorious evenings would then be spent checking out the latest art openings and chatting with fellow creatives about our latest projects. Curators, buyers and gallery owners beat my door down while journalists would beg to feature me in their glossy publications. Of course, the reality of my life as a painter is nothing like this. Less ‘The Great Gatsby‘ and more ‘Working 9 to 5‘, without even a hint of Dolly’s dulcet tones to serenade me.
Once you leave the comfort of art school, it is a big, bad world out there where most of us are faced with having to make ends meet, struggling to find affordable studio spaces and having to combine work with family responsibilities. Our dream artist life can often seem instead like a never- ending balancing act to find enough time, money and space to remain creative. In 2018 research by the Arts Council showed that just one third of the money earned by visual artists comes from producing art and 68% have additional jobs to make ends meet. The harsh reality is that there is also more to establishing and sustaining a successful professional art practice than creating work in your studio. A fair amount of time and energy has to be spent on marketing, networking, developing a social media presence, finding opportunities to exhibit and dealing with mundane administrative tasks such as keeping records of sales for tax purposes. So how do we keep our sanity and drive when everything conspires to take us away from our real calling?
Believe in yourself and your work
Take a deep breath, make your work more visible and encourage feedback
Faced with financial pressures, it is easy to start thinking that art-making should take a backseat or to even doubt the wisdom of embarking on an art career that might not bring much of an income, especially in the beginning. Don’t listen to nay-sayers who tell you that you are wasting your time being an artist, after all if you don’t believe in yourself and your work, why should anyone else? Instead, see your practice as essential to your long-term self-development and well-being and the time spent in your studio as key to fulfilling your dreams. For many years I was embarrassed to describe myself as an artist or a painter. My family was not supportive of my creative ambitions and my French father, himself a painter, when he heard that I was attending Central St Martins simply dismissed it with ‘There are no great women artists. Apart from maybe Camille Claudel’. As a result, when someone asked me what I did with my life I would mumble and mention whatever day job I was holding at the time. Now I say it loud and proud: ‘I am an artist’, first and foremost.
An effective way to build up that self-belief is to make your work more visible and to get feedback from others about its impact. This could mean hanging your work in your home or studio and asking people to comment on it, sharing it on social media, starting a blog about your practice, creating an e-newsletter to update people on what you are up to and making the most of open submissions opportunities for art shows and art prizes. The Artquest and the Art Rabbit websites for example have a good, up to date listing of high-profile artist opportunities that are worth considering. You might also want to organise your own show, open your studio to the public or even turn your own home into a temporary gallery. Social media is an easy and cost-effective way to quickly get, hopefully positive, feedback on your work from other artists across the world but also from collectors, curators and galleries. Positive feedback will sustain you when you start to doubt the value of what you are producing. Self-confidence does not come easy for many of us and coping with rejection, or even total disinterest, will always be part and parcel of sharing our art. Putting ourselves and our work out there can be scary but building a supportive network of contacts will also bring more opportunities in term of sales, exposure and might lead to joint projects such as group exhibitions or starting artist-led exhibition spaces with other creatives.
- Hang your work in your own home and consider loaning works to enthusiastic friends – you’ll make space in your storage and also increase the number of people seeing your work, as well as make your friends happy!
- Share your work on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter – become part of a social network of artists and benefit from feedback. The connections you make on social media can also easily convert into real life connections in time – people you can exhibit or paint with in the future
- Start a blog to share ideas, processes and thoughts. This can also improve the visibility of your website if you have one and the blog is linked to it, as Google likes content that is regularly updated.
- Begin sending regular e-mail newsletters – you could advertise this on social media and mention ‘newsletter only’ offers on works. Make it feel like part of an exclusive club your followers need to be part of.
- Seek out local art trails and open studio events that you could be part of. Consider exhibiting with others to minimise costs and the amount of time invested in organisation.
Don’t feel disheartened if you are not in the studio as much as you would like
Nurture your muse and feed your inspiration
It is very easy to exhaust yourself, and your ideas, when you are in your studio all day trying to make and finish a piece of art. I have learned to take regular breaks to recharge my batteries and to use that time to read magazines, listen to music, watch videos or simply let my thoughts drift and daydream. Studio work does not have to only be about putting paint to canvas. It can also be about thought-process, research, observation, thinking about what you saw when visiting a recent show or dropping in to see what other artists that share your studio space or building are doing. When I started painting, I quickly realised that for me ‘life’ and ‘art’ are not and can never be separate entities. Instead, making art is a central part of my life and what happens in my life, the people I meet and the experiences and adventures I have, the sadness and the joy, all feed into and inspire my art even if I am not always consciously aware of it. Seeing things from that angle means that I give myself studio breaks because I know that even when I am not in front of a canvas, I am still gathering ideas and sensations that will ignite my art. For me art is life and life is art…
- Your brain is a melting point where observations become ideas. If you find you are not getting to the studio as often as you would like, remember that life is feeding your bank of observations – the potential beginnings of works of art. It may help to actively ask yourself – ‘how could my experience feed into my practice?’
- If you know the limits of how long you will be able to stay in the studio; plan before you get there. Write down a list of activities you would like to pursue in your workspace, and prioritise. Also make sure you have all the tools you will need – it can be so frustrating to turn up at the studio with an intention that cannot be fulfilled because of lack of foresight.
- Art needs energy. Forgive yourself and be realistic. If you can’t get to the studio because you don’t have enough energy, be thankful you didn’t get to the studio and end up having a frustrating time! The more you familiarise with your capabilities the more likely you will be satisfied with your studio time when you are fortunate enough to have some.
Accept having ups and downs as a part of artistic life
When it comes to art I am a control freak, very driven and a perfectionist. When I was doing my art degree a wise tutor, the painter Clem Crosby, told us to remember that even well-known, established artists produce many pieces of work that they are not happy with and that will never see the light of a gallery and be shown to the public. His advice was ‘you don’t need every piece of work to be a masterpiece…’. Many days spent in the studio will result in work that you are not happy with, or in no finished work at all, but that does not mean those hours have been wasted as you are still developing and learning through the process of making work. Establishing your practice in general takes time: It is a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t be too hard on yourself and if you start thinking that your precious and limited studio hours are not resulting in enough finished work, remind yourself that your art career success is a long-term goal.
- Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to produce masterpieces every time you have an intention to make art.
- When you are about to start a new project or idea, consider an intention to enjoy the process, setting up frameworks for yourself with regards what materials you’d like to use, what ideas you’d like to consider or what formal aspects you’d like to focus on, rather than fixating on the finished work of art you dream of creating.
Don’t neglect your health, including your mental health
We all have been fed the romantic ideal of the misunderstood artist who lives a life of poverty and libertinism, indulging in sex, drugs, turpentine and rock’n’roll before dying of consumption or syphilis, but not before descending first into total, yet photogenic, destitution and madness. This might make a good film or novel, but I prefer to look after myself through diet and exercise so that I can continue to use my body, and mind, to create for as long as I can. Art-making can also be very therapeutic in itself. When I was very sick a couple of years ago and as a result homebound for large periods of time, being able to slowly focus back on my art kept my mind engaged and gave me a real sense of purpose. I also started blogging about art because I felt it helped me still be part of a community while I could not go out and socialise. Good ways to look after yourself might include taking regular breaks, trying meditation and exercising regularly. Try taking a walk in the park, swimming or cycling to your studio to boost your activity levels. Being alone in a studio and the creative process in general can feel quite isolating and introspective, so remember to make time to speak to friends and family to remain connected to the outside world. If you ever find yourself struggling with mental health issues don’t hesitate to ask for help. The Samaritans and the mental health charity Mind can provide invaluable support at a time of crisis. If you are still at art college many institutions have provisions for mental health support for their students. If you have a disability there are organisations, such as Shape Arts, that help break down the additional barriers you might face to establish your art practice.
- Remember to take regular breaks and exercise regularly
- Consider forms of meditation
- Remember support is out there if it ever feels like too much
Don’t get a job you hate
This is a tough one if you have financial and family responsibilities. It would be much easier and more financially rewarding for me to get a full-time, non-creative job than to work part-time as I currently choose to do. But I have tried it and it made me miserable and I felt drained all the time with nothing left to give to my artwork. So, you want to think about what is practical but also listen to what your guts are telling you. Some creatives choose to work on their craft only during evenings and weekends and that is a very tough compromise. Whatever you choose, remember that the harsh reality is that you can’t always neatly schedule when inspiration is going to strike. Make sure that the job that pays the bills does not have a negative impact on your physical and mental health. This means reducing stress by avoiding toxic work environments and making sure that you are very clear with your employer on the number of hours you can do each week so that you have enough time set aside for your art practice. There are many roles such as teaching, art administration, graphic and web design, illustration or copywriting that allow you to use some of your creative skills in the workplace. The Arts Council website is a good source of job vacancies for creative roles and agencies such as Timewise Jobs help those who want flexible working patterns. New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz once said in a Facebook post that ‘We all need to remember that except for like 1% of 1% of 1% of everyone in the art world, almost no one in the art world makes money.’ The reality is that we have to make a living to sustain a long-term practice but if you go into art just to get rich quickly and for instant recognition, you might be sorely disappointed.
- A contented you is one that is more likely to be able to pursue an art practice. Everything, from diet, exercise, to how you spend your time outside of your art workspace, is important and needs not to have a significantly negative impact on your contentment. Be honest about whether your job makes you unhappy. If it does, why? Can you change the situation, or how you frame the job in your mind, or do you need to move on? Are you certain that moving on will not cause even more discontentment?
- Communication and honesty with yourself and your peers is a crucial ingredient to having a healthy relationship with your job. Others may think of solutions to problems you haven’t thought of yourself, and offloading in itself can be hugely therapeutic.
Define your vision, set your own goals and don’t compromise your art
When time is in short supply you want to use it wisely and that means being clear about what you want to achieve as an artist and what success would look like for your practice. Define your own goals and you won’t waste your precious time on trying to keep everyone but yourself happy or meet other people’s expectations. I know an artist whose dream is simply to have work accepted at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition every year; another friend of mine considers that she will have ‘made it’ when she gains gallery representation and makes a living from her art. Once you have a clear direction, it will be easier to use your time, even limited, productively to make that dream come true. I also think it is important to find your own style and unique voice rather than think you should follow a formula or compare yourself too much to other artists. Resist the temptation to create work just based on what you think might be popular or easier to sell. You will end up making work which will not truly satisfy you but also, because you are constraining your creativity, might not be as good as it could be. This does not mean you are closing yourself up to the outside world or not listening to constructive feedback and advice. Most artists are inspired by and learn from other artists and influenced by music, films, literature, current affairs and so on. It simply is about finding and developing your own, unique voice and preferred ways of working. I find it very useful to read other artists’ biographies or artist blogs as they usually give a fascinating insight on how someone developed their style and how they had to overcome many obstacles to create their work and gain recognition. They are also a good reminder that an artist’s life and work can take many different shapes and that you might have to stand up for and defend your work to get it accepted and valued in the beginning.
- Having a long term goal or vision can help you make plans in the short term
- You can look at other artists, but when you’re faced with a blank canvas and armed with a loaded brush, the mark you make has to be unapologetically yours. You cannot make that mark whilst simultaneously looking over your shoulder or looking wistfully at another artist’s Instagram
- Always, always remember however that open submission shows are highly competitive, and rejections are not necessarily a comment on the quality of your work
Avoid the time wasters
When I organised my first group exhibition recently, a few of the artists I had initially wanted to have in the show because I liked their work unfortunately displayed a rather ‘diva-like’, and ultimately unprofessional, attitude. I cut them out of the project very quickly because the time wasted on trying to meet their demands was taking me away from art making and show organisation. Surround yourself with people who have a positive outlook and who won’t be a drain on your limited capacity. You also want to display a professional attitude at all time when dealing with others. Collectors, curators and gallery owners are more likely to want to deal with you if they know you can be relied upon to deliver when needed and respect the fact that they too are busy people. Being generous with your time and collaborating with others is also a good way for people to want to help you in return. I often find myself commenting on other people’s work, chatting with various people involved in the art world about what they do and passing on opportunities to other artists. The result is that they in turn open doors for me and bring to my attention new opportunities. So, although you want to be able to use your time to focus on your practice don’t forget that bringing others into your world and being generous with your time will in the end often be a positive way to develop your work.
- Build a network around you that is supportive and nurtures your practice, and be wary of time-wasters or energy-zappers!
Being an artist is not an easy path and ultimately not for the faint-hearted. But I remind myself every day that I am lucky to have found a way to express myself and gain a sense of purpose. The fact that some people like what I do to the point of hanging on their walls the works I have spent many hours making in my studio, to me there is no better feeling and sense of achievement.
‘They let you dream
Just a watch ’em shatter
You’re just a step on the boss man’s ladder
But you got dreams he’ll never take away’
Working 9 to 5, Dolly Parton
Fabienne Jenny Jacquet lives and works in London, UK. Her work is featured in private and public collections in the USA, UK, Europe and Australia. She is also the editor of the Tainted Glory art blog.