How to Become A Working Artist: 22 Tips from British Artist Emily Powell
(photo from Emily’s Instagram)
Emily Powell is an amazing artist living in Devon, England who I discovered via instagram.I’m her biggest fan. She’s got an energetic and bright style which is infused with images of boxes + cups of tea, wild animals, stuffed toys and flowers. She’s got an incredibly uplifting approach and I thought it would be great to share what I’ve learned from her thus far. I’m a writer and a painter and so many of her tips apply to any creative pursuit, I hope it helps you with your art and writing too!
- Turquoise Sells: After being an artist for a while, Emily noticed that her paintings with the color turquoise sold REALLY well. It turns out that people love this color. No matter what kind of creative person you are, if you want to have commercial success (AKA make some or your money or all of your money from it), it pays to notice what is vibing best with your people! I’ve noticed that when I write, people respond most when I’m most vulnerable. When I paint, it’s my bears, flowers and boundary paintings (so far!) that have sold quickly. There’s no shame in playing to your audience as long as it brings you joy to do so!
- Paint Fast and Paint A Lot: Emily seems to have amazing energy and she shared with me (in a 1:1 coaching session) that she often paints 4 or 5 canvases at once, bouncing from one painting to the next and back again. Once I discovered that this was “permissible”, it allowed so much more energy in! This can work with writing too! You can start several different writing projects (or paintings) and pursue them simultaneously. I find this way of working allows me to keep moving. I don’t get stuck. If I’m not in the mood for one piece, I can work on the one that has the most snapple and crack for me in the moment.
- Be Happy with Your Work: If you follow Emily you’ll notice that it’s not that she doesn’t doubt herself, sometimes, but she admonishes us to be fiercely supportive of our own work. For me, that looks like proudly hanging my art on my walls so I can celebrate it daily. It also looks like eagerly sharing my art and writing with the public at every chance I get. When I “decide” to be happy with what I’ve done, something shifts inside! Of course I don’t adore every single thing I’ve ever made…but I do have many things that delight me.
- See Where Your Work Fits In: Do research by visiting private galleries and see what stuff is selling for and how they are presenting it. Note the style of the fames and if the work is mostly figurative or abstract. Is it a “cool kids” Miami sort of venue or more figurative or primitive? Where would your work fit best? Approach them! The same thing can work for publishing houses or outlets. Study to see where your writing would fit best for content and style.
- Aim High: Submit your work to ridiculous places. Yes, says Emily, you’ll get a bazillion rejections but you’ll never know without putting yourself out there what is possible. When you contact a gallery send no more than three images and ask if they’d like to see more. Even if they don’t respond, update them regularly on what your’e working on now. Have fun with it!
- Don’t Price Work Based on Time Spend on It: You may have painted something absolutely wonderful in 30 minutes, but that doesn’t mean it should be priced based on that. You have a depth and breadth of experience in your life that nobody else has. Emily started out by pricing her work very inexpensively and raised her prices as she began to sell more and more. Price your work accordingly for where you are in your career.
- Ask Other Artists Out For Coffee: Connections are so good! For me, I’ve realized I may never be in a museum and I may never be on the New York Times Bestseller list, but connecting with others creatives is one of the most GIANT gifts of being creative. Doing this together is so much more rewarding!
- Share Your Journey with Others: Talk about your work. Your ideas/thoughts and dreams. The good bits of your process and the challenges. You can do this via a newsletter, Instagram or through videos on Tik-Tok. Helping people understand your process will help you foster connections with your “people” and this builds trust and, eventually, sales of your work.
- If Your Paintings Don’t Sell: Save them or paint over them. Don’t get sentimental. Emily had some paintings which featured angels but they didn’t sell well. She loved them though and she has set them aside as they have great personal meaning. Painting over old paintings can be so much fun and the rich layers make for really interesting pieces.
- Keep a List of Things You’re Loving Now: This is so that you never run out of things to paint. Here’s a list I wrote for myself recently: The quilt on my bed, my dogs, fancy decaf coffee, my art and my studio, sprouting paperwhites, tigers. Emily also suggests you write a little every day- your first thoughts . You’ll find so much out about yourself and what you are really feeling and thinking. Another way to get an “idea” for a piece of art or writing: You can go on a walk and simply paint (or write) a “reaction” to that little jaunt. Easy-peasy.
- Scribble Without Caring: Forget about the final “piece” or about selling. Just let go and have fun. Be loose. Emily mentioned to me, in our one on one session, that she notices when she gets overly focused on detail it’s like she gets too tight, too constricted in her painting and mark making…the looser she can be, the better the results. Tip from Emily if you are feeling constricted: Try painting with your arm stiff..i.e. “Paint from the shoulder”.
- Take Good Care of You. “Praise the good “bits” in your painting”, Emily encourages. Be kind to yourself and give yourself grace. We all have bad days and Emily encourages us to take tea breaks, walks and to connect with friends. This is so important if you’re wanting to become a working artist.
- Don’t Worry About It Making Sense: Maybe your’e anxious because you’ve been painting large abstracts one day and highly detailed mini portraits of walruses the next. No problem! “Be as random as you like!” Emily says. It’s all coming from you so trust that there will be a thread running through everything you make. Your taste will be there. Your essence…your style. Bottom line, if you like it, paint it. Write about it . Others will be interested too.
- One Dodgy painting doesn’t Make You a Dodgy Painter; Just as one bad essay doesn’t make you a bad writer. There’s no rush to get “great”. Just keep making things and be gentle with yourself. But don’t stop.
- Market Your Work Back to Yourself: Get your work framed. Style it beautifully in your home and photograph it. Paint a wall a bold color to spotlight a painting. Emily did this constantly in the beginning. Pretend you’re shooting it for an Anthropology catalog (or wherever you’d be stoked to have your work shown!). Ask a friend to borrow her home! Create a huge gallery style wall of all of your own work and share it on your socials.
- It’s not about Outcome It’s About Output I once heard somebody say that we each have about 1000 bad paintings in us! Now, I don’t believe that exactly but I agree with Emily, it’s important to be more factory than warehouse. Keep making and writing and painting and releasing it out into the world…..and, over time if you can hold it all loosely…something will be happening to you and your work.
- Make A Mess: Creativity often flourishes in a mess. In Emily’s photos on Instagram I often get a glimpse of her messy paint jars and brushes akimbo. Phew! It was a relief to see this and, I’ll admit, whenever I clean up my studio, it feels harder to create in there. A little mess is very good for me. Don’t try to spend your days staying “neat”.
- Hide All Your Old Work: This tip came directly from a 1:1 coaching session I had with Emily. It immediately helped me. I had been painting in a room filled with all of my paintings staring back at me and I hadn’t realized how overwhelmed it made me feel . I turned them around (put the painting side towards the wall) and put as many as I could into storage. The quieter, zen-like space was instantly more comfortable and inspiring.
- Be Brave. Tell people about your ambitions. Tell them where you’d like to see your paintings (or writing) out in the world. What are your dreams? Speak them to somebody!
- Paint (or write) OUTSIDE: I’m so thankful for this tip. It’s so much fun to take painting out doors. This year, I’ve painted on beaches, in public parks and alongside waterfalls, splashing with families. There is something magic in that process. The energy will be felt in your work.
- Host Your Own “Open Studio”: Pick a date and create an advent. Serve champagne + truffles (or hot dogs and kombucha) and invite friends and family (and all of your friends on social media) to come and see your work. Print some merch or small prints if you’re feeling it. Put price tags on all of it. Notice what pieces people gravitate to and ask them why. Tell them your hopes and dreams. If you’re just starting, put modest prices on your work. I had such a blast doing this this year.
- Got To the Hardware Store: There you can buy chains, foam brushes, ice scrapers, squeegees and any number of weird implements to paint with. One of Emily Power’s heroes, painter Joan Eardly, from Scotland would beat her paintings with old tree branches dipped in paint
I hope you’ve found some inspiration here! You can follow Emily HERE at Instagram and take her amazing courses here. I highly recommend her book Start Painting Now too. It’s just coming out in the US in July 2023.
If you’re longing to take your own creative work more seriously- no matter what your discipline (writing, art, music, poetry, film sewing etc.) please check out SHINE, our salon for working creatives.