A friend was seeking some advice for a 16-year-old who produces some stunning paintings.
It is wonderful work -- the question was how to develop it into a career.
Unfortunately, the truth about the art business is that talent is not enough because the supply far exceeds the demand. Not fair, not right -- it just is. By itself, art is a very unlikely way to make a living. Career counselor Marty Nemko says it very well: Can You Become a Starving Artist?
That said, it is not impossible and while only a small percentage of artists succeed -- remember that some do!
But more important is that success as "an artist" is not the only route available! Even if she never becomes a commercial artist, the skills are useful in other careers and can set her apart. I'm a case in point -- I have ok visual skills in photography, graphic design, and drawing. I would be a mediocre (and radically unemployed) artist -- but compared to other electrical engineers, my art skills were stellar and I ultimately leveraged them into marketing roles where my engineering, art, and communication skills developed into a solid career.
The secret? I knew what I liked to do and was always alert for ways to use them in my job. Before too long, I discovered (i.e., stumbled upon) opportunities. I tried them -- some worked, some didn't. Eventually, it led me to a nice mix between what I like to do and what the world is willing to pay for.
My advice: Keep producing art but develop your other interests as well.
Learn Photoshop and Illustrator. Take courses. Develop your style and your confidence.
Find opportunities to show your work -- visit galleries, talk to artists, show at school and fairs. Be aggressive in this. Even if you never sell a single work, this is valuable life training and will lead you in ways you do not expect. Do not stop because you think you are not succeeding -- stop only when it becomes clear that it is not serving you and not serving your passion.
Most important: it develops confidence. Most artists have a huge blind spot about their own work -- they either think it's way better than it is, or more often, they think it's way worse. Doing it and showing it is the best antidote. "Produce and promote."
More articles from Nemko on ideas for artists to pursue:
At the same time, recognize that art alone is not a high-probability career. Seek other passions and develop other skills -- as many as you can. Artists are almost always good at different things -- music, different media, writing, story-telling, seeing the essence, looking at things differently, design of many kinds such as architecture, product design, engineering. In my experience, doctors (and especially dentists) are frequently artists.
Be alert to things you like to do that also happen to be in demand. Keep doing the low-demand things you love but know that those are probably best to keep as hobbies while you seek marketable skills.
The most frequent advice you will hear is: "Never give up." It is the best advice and the worst. One one hand, you must believe in yourself and you must keep producing and showing. But on the other hand, you have to see what is true. If you focus on one picture of "being an artist," you will fail to see opportunities that don't match your picture. The worst examples are the defiant ones on talent shows like American Idol — the ones who just don't get that this is not going to happen for them.
Never give up on producing and showing -- but at the same time, be ready to switch tactics when new possibilities appear. The path to the mountaintop doesn't look like a mountaintop.