Ask Selina- Starting Out as an Artist

“For an artist just starting out how would you suggest they get their work out there?”

This is a question I get asked a lot, and it’s a really tricky one to answer because of one major factor- things are very different now from when I was first starting out.

My second disclaimer is that most of my information is about developing your art career ONLINE. That’s because that’s what I did. Two reasons- 1. I’m shy and hate talking about my art in person, and 2. There are millions of people who can find you online. Much more than available for any in person event, gallery opening, convention or market.

There are some suggestions which still fit, but the internet has grown massively in the last decade, and so has social media, internet art communities, how people connect with artists, find and shop for art.

Here are my main suggestions which still hold true:

  • Get your art seen– Put your art on as many online galleries as you can, especially ones targeted to the genre of your art. When  I was starting out, this meant Elfwood, Epilogue, Art Wanted, Deviant Art, Fantastic Portfolios, The Australian Fantasy Art Enclave (which I actually created myself- side tip, if it doesn’t exist, make it yourself!) and more. Some are still around, some thriving more than others. These days there is Tumblr, Facebook Fan Pages and other similar social networks that aren’t art related but still great for exposure. Do your research and get your portfolio on as many sites as you can- FREE sites I should say. I’ve never found a benefit to being listed on sites you have to pay to be a part of (I think I only tried one, once). If you can, keep your galleries on those sites up to date. Every time you have new work, get it up on as many sites as you can, because new art will keep bringing people into your galleries and getting them to know you and your art, and remember you.
  • Always be professional- Some people say any exposure is good exposure. Some people have become famous (or perhaps infamous) through drama or scandal. I tend to think the best policy is to always be professional, right from the start. Yes we’re human and we can slip up, but if you hope to be working with big licensing companies some day you need to have a record of being professional. They won’t want to work with someone who could cause problems for them or their image.
  • Don’t forget to be human– A side note to being professional but just as important. While I don’t suggest running rampant revealing all your intimate secrets and saying everything that comes to your mind, I do think you should always be yourself, because people will want to know the real you. If you can be considerate, businesslike, and diplomatic while still letting your personality shine through then you’re doing great. Look at artists like Ursula Vernon. She has a massive following because people love HER. Her art and writing are fantastic, but her wonderfully wacky personality is what sells the whole package. Another example are the Muppets. No seriously! It’s the reason why I love the Muppets so much. They are all fabulous and unique personalities, appealing and funny without ever being mean.
  • Build your portfolio– When I was starting out, I painted a collection of 10 goddess artworks and put them up on a website and thought “This is it, I’ve got a collection of art people will buy now!”. But the sales didn’t come in like I hoped. And why? Because I only had about 10 artworks in my collection, lol. Everyone is different, everyone will connect to artwork differently. The more artworks you have, the more luck there will be something someone just has to have. When someone says “Do you have something with a unicorn and a mermaid together?” or some other request, if you can say “YES, here it is!” you’re very likely to make a sale and a loyal fan. I’m not saying you should try and have lots of different styles of art, or paint things that you just aren’t interested in, but rather to diversify and explore your own style and subjects that you love and build a large portfolio of those images. Painting what you love is important.
  • Never stop learning– We can all be a little blind to our flaws sometimes. It’s good to have pride in what you create! But I also believe an artist should always be improving themselves. When you look at the art I did ten years ago and compare it to what I do now (lets do that! Check out the two images below!), can you imagine if I had just stopped trying to improve back then? If I’d just gone, “yay, I’m an artist! I like what I do and I’m just going to keep doing it without change forever!”? There’s so many artworks I’d never have painted. I COULDN’T have painted them because they would have been out of my skill and comfort zone. So ALWAYS keep learning, keep pushing yourself. The people who come to see your art will also appreciate it.
    THEN
    NOW
  • Make Art as much as you can– (A lesson I really need to follow myself!). Once you have some people interested in your work, keep them interested by giving them new pretties to see, by making new pretties as much as possible! This also crosses over with the Never Stop Learning tip, because the more you create, the better you get. Practice really is all it’s cracked up to be.
  • Get your own site– It’s super cheap (or even free) to have your own website. Grab your domain name- this is something you’ll need to buy, but is a must in my opinion. Back in the old days when I was starting out (showing my age again) I learned good old basic HTML and made my site myself. These days it’s much easier, with awesome free software like WordPress (THIS site runs on wordpress!) and other content management and blogging software that means anyone can create their website with little to no coding knowledge. Anyway, setting up a website is a whole other subject and I need to get to my point, which is get your domain name and have some kind of website there, so that when someone googles your name, the first place they find is YOUR site, so they see YOUR art. Sure, they could google your name and find your Deviant Art gallery or something else, that’s fine too, but isn’t it better if they come straight to you? Having your own place on the web that is yours, yours, yours is important. And it’s also fun 🙂
  • Meet people in person– Yeah, didn’t I say I hate this part? OK, I also kind of love it. Sure it’s hard, and you’ll feel uncomfortable at times, but it will be very important for you and your art career. I like to get to markets and conventions when I can sell my art and products in person. It gives me the advantage of seeing how people react to my artwork. Which artwork is everyone gravitating to? Which artwork is turning people off? What are they saying about my work when they don’t know I’m the artist? What do they say when they DO know I’m the artist? It’s a fantastic learning experience every time, and sometimes it’s just nice to get some of that warm fuzzy “people really DO like my work” affirmation us artists need. 🙂
  • Learn from and connect with other artists– Forums are probably the best type of place to do this, but I actually don’t know of a good active artists forum any more. I think Deviant Art is probably your best bet but I haven’t spent much time in artists forums for years so I don’t know. There were a lot of great artists forums while I was starting out but most have closed now. Regardless, networking is important in most careers.  Remember, particularly if emailing an artist out of the blue, be nice, respectful and remember relationships go both ways. You could suggest swapping links to your sites, or if you have a blog, offer to do a guest blog, interview or some kind of cross promotion. If you have questions about art techniques or business, try to be specific (otherwise it can just be tricky giving a good answer), and if the artist doesn’t want to share their secrets with you (I’ve found most artists very friendly and sharing though!), respect that, it’s their right.
Now, I said at the beginning that things are different now than when I started out. I think I had it a lot easier back then. There were simply fewer artists online. Goodness, these days I visit DeviantArt and see just a small sampling of the talent in this world and could cry (for joy, and envy, in despair at comparing my art, and happiness at what people are creating, oh, emotional turmoil!). Just remember, you’ve got one advantage. You’re YOU. You create YOUR art. Only you can do that. Only you can paint just your way and create your visions. Know what makes you different, and special, and keep that close at heart as you work. Here’s a fantastic video on “branding” I saw recently that talks about why it’s important to know what makes you, and what you do, unique-

Know what makes you unique, special, what niche your artwork caters for, and you’re doing great.

Those are my main pointers. Now, once you start getting people see your art, it’s entirely up to you what you want to do with that! How, where, and whether you want to sell your work is a whole other subject. A big one! But really, getting people to see your art is the first step, and in some ways the most important one, because what is art unless it is seen? It’s sharing my art and writing that makes me happiest.

12 thoughts on “Ask Selina- Starting Out as an Artist

    • selinafenech says:

      Ha, no I don’t… Darn, lost a sale! Unicorns AND mermaids are both subjects I could have more of. Would a mermaid with an umbrella on a unicorn carousel horse count? I’ve got a sketch for that…

  1. Parveen says:

    Thanks so much Selina, I myself aren’t planning on being an artist for my future, but it’s it’s brilliant that you put the effort in to those who do. You are one in a million girl! Love your work 😀

  2. Christina says:

    as a girl hoping to someday support myself by painting – this was a great article and a great read – thank you so much for posting and sharing!
    youre art is truly an inspiration! i think you hit the nail on the head with this post.

  3. Priscilla Hernandez says:

    Selina, thanks for the article… I really need to push my illustration carreer though I’m a mess at looking for licensing and dealing it all myself… so far I’ll keep on painting as much as I can, after a big stop I did this for The Underliving and felt I improved a lot doing it… after it I’ve not stopped, and hope with that, hope and work 🙂 I’ll get through it

  4. Ker Rusk says:

    Great article all around Selina! Thanks. I agree so much about the “never stop learning”. I’ve been so impressed with how you’ve continue to grow through the years and have really enjoyed following it. I’ve seen several other artists who I discovered around the same time just get stuck with where they were and they didn’t develop themselves like you did and it makes me respect you even more.

  5. Brenda says:

    Thank you so much for the advice! It is really great that you take the time to help others. I haven’t painted in a few months and I miss it. I need to get back to it and keep practicing.

  6. Pat says:

    So glad I found your web. Love your artwork and really appreciate your
    info on self-publishing. My problem, however, is also the basic
    technology of putting images online. Haven’t even been able to find simple
    directions to put a photo with an e-mail. If you know of a web or other place
    for info, please let me know. Thank you

    P.S. Just retired so now I have the time to investigate

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