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What Makes an Artist Professional?

What Makes an Artist Professional? post image

By Aletta de Wal, Guest Blogger – There is still a lot of debate among artists about using the word “professional” to describe themselves. For artists who consider themselves “pure artists,” that word often implies commercialism and “selling out.” That’s not how I see it.

I think that there is room for a range of ways to be an artist and that they are all legitimate.

When I feature artists in ArtMatters! and when I talk to dealers, agents and retail art dealers, I ask them to define what makes an artist professional. They each contribute a different perspective.

Not one of them denies the right of artists to consider themselves professional and to define that term as it suits them.

Every aspiring artist I know would love to achieve all of these things: unlimited financial success, national (or international) recognition and an unshakeable belief in the quality of their work.

Moving from amateur to emerging artist and through mid-career and maybe to being an established artist, requires many small breaks. You need to work hard and smart.

I know that’s not the popular notion. These days, blogs promise 10 tips to anything. Many fail to tell you what it takes to get to and through those ten steps.

We’re surrounded by stories of extraordinarily successful, high-achieving “professionals” in many fields other than art, and what made them that way. Identifying the attitudes, actions, personal characteristics and emotional maturity of professional artists is not as easy.

Public knowledge (and media portrayal) of the sometimes crazed, sometimes tortured, antics of artists like Van Gogh, and Jackson Pollock have led us to expect irrationality, irritability and erratic (if not downright crazy) behavior from artists. Though often glamorized in film, few of us in reality would choose to live out our lives like this.

Read the following as though your entire career, respect and success as an artist depended on this advice — and rest assured that it does. Place a check mark next to the professional behaviors you already practice.

  1. Decide to be known as a professional artist.
  2. Present yourself professionally everywhere, all the time.
  3. Respect everyone you meet regardless of circumstances.
  4. Fulfill your promises; be on time; finish what you start and say ‘please and thank you’.
  5. React appropriately in all situations.

Sounds pretty much like a good solid list of how to be a professional human being doesn’t it?

There is no profession where you can leap from the bottom to the top and stay there. Many of you have already been there and done that, so you already know how this works. You “learn the ropes” in an entry-level job, pay your dues for a time and then move up the ranks.

It’s also important to realize that being an emerging, mid-career or established professional artist has nothing to do with age or talent.

  • Many artists in their later years have a lifetime of experience making art, but are still “emerging” because they haven’t shown or sold their work.
  • Other artists enjoy thriving careers early in life and are considered “established” while still in their twenties.
  • Similarly, I’ve met many very talented artists who have never moved past the “mid-career” stage, and some very savvy artists with lesser “gifts” who moved well beyond mid-career because of their business acumen.

In other words, not all artists progress through all three stages — and not all artists want to. It’s up to you to decide how far you want to go, and whether your skills and life circumstances will support that decision.

The above post is an excerpt from Aletta’s book “My Real Job is Being an Artist”.  This book is a professional toolkit for emerging, mid-career or established artists.  “My Real Job is Being an Artist” provides a structured approach for creating, analyzing and improving their art business.  www.artistcareertraining.com/realjobartist 

Aletta de Wal is the author of “My Real Job is Being an Artist”, she is a successful Artist Advisor and a Certified Visual Coach.  Aletta de Wal inspires fine artists to make a better living making art in any economy.


Aletta works with part-time, emerging and full-time artists who are serious about a career in fine arts. Aletta makes make art marketing easier and the business of art simpler. Equal parts artist, educator and entrepreneur, Aletta has worked with over 4000 artists in groups and 400+ individually.


Through her coaching, seminars and books, artists in the vibrant on-line community learn to be focused, organized and confident in all art business matters.  Her clients agree that she inspires them to do the work to be successful, provides the detail to take specific action and supports them through the ups and downs of life as a working artist. Her website is www.artistcareertraining.com

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