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5 Dumb Mistakes to Avoid When Launching Your Art Career

Christopher Gallego, American, b. 1959, 2008, Charcoal and graphite on paper, 21 1/8 x 13 1/4 in., Sold

Self-Portrait, 2008
Charcoal and graphite on paper, 21 1x 13 in.
Private Collection, Savannah GA

It may be an unwise man
who doesn't learn from his own mistakes,
but it's an absolute idiot
who doesn't learn from other peoples'.

~ Frasier Crane


Christopher Gallego
June 7, 2019   10 Comments


Our biggest regrets in life are the things we never tried.

Boy, do I disagree with that one.

Disagree because the older I get the more I lament over all the moronic, humiliating, often devastating blunders I committed as a young artist.

Things that I never should have tried but did anyway, emboldened by the rationale, Ah, what the hell. I can hear the consoling voices now...

But we learn from our mistakes.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained, etc.

Agreed, but I personally believe we learn a helluva lot more from achievement. Which is wonderful to experience and just as nice to reflect on. Or as the holiday advertisers say, it's the gift that keeps on giving.

So if you're launching an art career of your own, I invite you to learn from some of my costlier mistakes. This in the hope that you won't have to go out and make them all yourself, only to learn that you shouldn't have made them in the first place.

Besides, you'll have your own whoppers to learn from in time:


Mistake #1. 
Thinking Your Gallery is Your Friend

5 Dumb Mistakes to Avoid When Launching Your At Career–Blog Post by Christopher Gallego–Image:Empty Gallery

It's easy to delude yourself into thinking that the artist-gallery relationship is a friendship. Especially when you're new on the scene and everyone in the place is going nuts over your work.

Heads up—your gallery is not your friend. Doesn't matter how friendly they are.

Not unless you're a veteran enjoying a healthy 10 to 20-year run with the same gallery. In which case, you're probably on firm enough ground for a friendship to blossom, and endure a few challenges. Usually however, it's just a business partnership.

But your gallery isn't your enemy either. They want you to flourish. They want you to be happy and productive. And they want to profit from your work. 

So don't ask them for favors, and don't burden them with whatever personal tales of woe you might have (and we all have them).

Failed romances, financial troubles, health issues, are to be shared with close friends or life partners, not with the gallery management or staff. An artist's troubles, especially, can be seen as signs of instability, flagging you as a risky investment.

And to a gallery, every artist is a good or a bad investment.


Mistake #2.
Anticipating Collectors' Tastes

Painting what you expect others to love is another great way to self-sabotage. 

For example, everyone loves flowers. So beautiful floral paintings should be an easy sell, yes?

No, not if you suck at them.

Never sold a floral in my life (haven't done so many either). Because my heart just isn't into painting them. So how can I possibly compete with some of the freakishly-talented masters of the genre out there?


If You Don't Love Your Work,
Someone Who Loves Theirs
Will Beat You Every Time


5 Dumb Mistakes to Avoid When Launching Your At Career–Blog Post by Christopher Gallego–Image:Lucian Freud–Self-Portrait

Lucian Freud: Reflection (Self-Portrait), 1985
Oil on canvas, 
Private Collection, Ireland

Another example: how many people do you think are turned off by Lucian Freud's paintings?

I don't know either, but I'd guess quite a few.

And how successful was he? 

Point is, what matters most is your passion for your subject. That's what enlivens your work. That's what sets you apart. If the passion is missing because you're painting what you "should", the work will go flat.

So scan your surroundings for the things you love. Then paint the hell out of them, no matter how unusual they seem, no matter how exposed you may feel. And don't ever fear the naysayers or the critics. Because the stronger your work, the stronger the reaction to it, positive and negative.

5 Dumb Mistakes to Avoid When Launching Your At Career–Blog Post by Christopher Gallego–Image:Rubber-Gloves

Rubber Gloves, 2005
Oil on wood panel, 8 x 13 in
Private Collection, Dallas, TX


Mistake #3. 
Not Preparing for an Artist Talk

There are few experiences more traumatic than showing up for an artist talk, brimming with confidence that you're going to knock it out of the park...and then going completely blank.

What happened? How did you lose the ability to speak? Why did your IQ suddenly drop 30 points?

Here's why–
You're on unfamiliar turf.

Cold, expressionless faces staring back at you, adrenaline racing through your system, and most of all, the haunting echo of your own voice. Which for some strange reason doesn't sound like yours anymore.

The solution?
Overprepare.

If you're giving a one hour talk, have two hours of material ready.

Rehearsing will make you sound stale, but do know your material backward and forward. This way if you forget something (and you will) you can always grab hold of something else. You'll be 100% more relaxed and spontaneous if you're bursting with information.

Artist talks are a great way to get involved and build your career, so don't shy away from them. But unless you're a natural speaker, don't try to wing them either.


Mistake #4.
Overpricing or Underpricing Your Work

A director at Hirschl and Adler Galleries once said that overpricing one's art shows a lack of confidence. Which actually makes sense.

Because if you believe you can never surpass your best work you might be holding on too tight with an unreasonable price. Or agonize over finding that perfect dollar figure. 

Chuck Close likened his paintings to grown children who need to leave the nest and get lives of their own. And, like your children, your art will always be yours, no matter where it lives.  Clinging is the sign of an amateur, and will hold you back professionally.

Underpricing, naturally, stems from feeling unworthy. Make it a habit, and unworthiness become ingrained. Same goes for giving too much of your art away.

I find the best pricing strategy has no emotion at all to it, not the rush of going for the jackpot nor the comfort of the easy sale. Find that unremarkable middle zone. Stay in line with the competition, you can always adjust the numbers later.

Let Your Art Be Extraordinary,
Let Your Prices be Typical

Mistake #5.
Saying Yes to Every Opportunity

5 Dumb Mistakes to Avoid When Launching Your At Career–Blog Post by Christopher Gallego–Image:10th Avenue Crosswalk #4, detail

Tenth Avenue Crosswalk #4, detail
Charcoal and graphite on paper
Work in Progress

Why would you say no to a collector who's willing to pay good money for that "special" art project, just because the project is a little out of your realm?

Here's why:
It could be a lousy fit. Lousy and doomed to failure.

Someone wants you to paint their swimming pool filled with inflatable toys. Or their high school sweetheart from an old yearbook photo. Or their dog wearing pajamas and a hat. Should you do it?

(Should anyone do it)?

Only if your heart is truly into the project. Otherwise, you're asking for trouble and likely to disappoint the collector. You'll hate the project and you'll kick yourself for accepting it. And you'll never feel you've been paid enough.

Sometimes, you just have to say no, without the guilt over being too fussy.

But here's the good news...

A high-quality no, the kind that's genuinely supportive of the other, is empowering. You'll feel your confidence rise when the wrong commitments are off your plate. And you'll be dying to get into your other projects.

Just about everyone in the workforce has a specialty. Find yours, work like mad at, and do it better than anyone else. Only then will the right opportunities find you.

Final Thought–
Resilience is King

If you're like the rest of us, your first attempts at painting were probably a little humbling. Putting yourself out there is no different.

You'll feel lost at first, and you'll get knocked down a few times. Even the big names can fail miserably, and they have big reputations on the line.

But no setback is permanent, not for any artist.

And while you can't possibly avoid all mistakes, you can minimize them, and take years off your career-building time.

More artists than ever are becoming successful, even before becoming household names. 

So why not you?

Why not avoid the obvious pitfalls?

Why not get there a little faster? 

Don't worry if you feel you haven't paid your dues yet. If you really want to, you can always pay them later on.

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10 thoughts on “5 Dumb Mistakes to Avoid When Launching Your Art Career

  1. I enjoyed your writing and the suggestions for commissions made me laugh, definitely making it clearer to stay on track with what one is passionate about and to determine what are good fits before saying yes to tempting “opportunities” …It came to mind that a level of fun could be an added bonus in some cases…ie the swimming pool filled with toys commission could be quiet “refreshing” if negotiated well. Great Post – Thank You.

  2. What a great post. I’ve done it and been there, even after only 2 years of painting. I mostly refuse to paint things for people when they ask. Either they like what I’m painting, or go find another artist. I also find as a new artist, that having monthly goals or ‘projects’ will inspire me to paint. But most of my best paintings have had no expectations at all . . .

  3. Hi Christopher, I just wanted to say thanks for this post. It’s great advice! And advice that is worthwhile for me to keep in mind even though I’ve been making my living as an artist for over 20 years.
    Looking forward to reading more!
    -Scott

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