The #1 Mistake you are Making as an Artist


It is kind of funny that the number one mistake I see artists make doesn’t have anything to do with technically creating work. It’s not using the “wrong” materials, not their proportions, or their skill, etc. It goes much deeper than this…

The absolute biggest mistake I see artists make is: Undervaluing their work.

Creating art takes practice. It often takes many years, lots of patience, and a whole bunch of money (art supplies aren’t cheap, neither is school) to learn to create effectively. I know in my case I’ve spent the better part of my life working on this skill, and that is exactly what art is; a skill. One people get hired for, one people make a living with. I also spent years of my life and quite a bit of money to go to post secondary school to further my skills, just as most people do to be able to gain the knowledge and experience they need to work in a specialized field.

Although whether one needs or should go to art school is another topic for another day (one I will do soon) I know that not everyone does or can go through a post secondary education. There are plenty of people out there who have made art a living without doing this. These people still put in countless hours of practicing and honing their skills.

Art is undervalued in our society. We all love it, buy it, use it, appreciate it on the outside but very little thought seems to be put into it otherwise or into the artist themselves.

This mentality has been so ingrained in us that, as artists, we do this to ourselves. We don’t value our own time or work. It becomes a vicious cycle that perpetuates this notion that art has little value. People hire for things they either can’t do themselves or don’t have time to do themselves. It is usually the former they hire/purchase for. Like I said, art is a skill, it is a skill like anything else. When your pipes are clogged from the main line and just plunging them won’t help, what do you do? You call a plumber. When you’re in need of high quality printing for that book you’ve written, what do you do? You go through a publisher or hire a printer. Car breaks down? Tow truck and mechanic. Tooth ache? Dentist. Packaging design? Graphic designer. Big party? Event planner.

This is the biggest mistake I see artists making: they undervalue themselves and their work. You should be charging a fair fee for materials, time, and skill. If you cannot even cover material expenses you’re doing yourself a huge injustice.

I see this almost daily. I am in a lot of art groups online and know many artists, so this is something I see people struggle with. I see people posting online in search of illustrators for next to nothing, expecting free work, low balling excellent pieces of art, and even not paying for commissions they asked for. I see artists fighting for attention and work, offering their services at severely discounted prices just to snag the job, working for free, advertising along the lines of “professionally done illustrations for only $5 a page”. Then they do the work and sign a contract for exclusive rights to whoever hired them for that $5 a page. What is the point in this? You aren’t helping yourself or others, you are teaching everyone else that your work is worth $5 and that, that is the amount other artists should be working for. Paying yourself cents on the hour for work isn’t helping you get anywhere, just like working for” exposure” isn’t.
This doesn’t mean that you cannot ever discount your work. Say, you feel very passionately about a project, but the person just cannot afford your regular fees, there’s nothing to say you can’t work out another arrangement, use a payment plan, offer them a discount, etc. Where it hurts you is if you offer this to everyone and don’t charge enough to pay yourself.

Believe it or not it is okay to turn down work. I’ve done it many times, especially in illustration. I want to be the right fit for a project, I want the person hiring me to be proud of the work accomplished. If they are writing a book, I want them to be able to shout about it from the roof tops when they are done. If I don’t think I can do their work justice or it isn’t something I feel I could do well then I will respectfully pass. I’ve had plenty of people ask me to work for free, do sketches of their characters, etc. I politely decline and let them know that this is what I do for a living, what I went to school for and that I simply cannot afford to work for nothing.

For example, I’ve had people ask me to provide sample sketches for a book they’ve written when they were looking for an illustrator. These people are in talks with other artists as well. They ask you to do the sketches, and I tell them I would be happy to arrange that, but I will have to charge a small fee for my time. This could be something as small as $10 or $20 depending on what they want a sample of. They are asking other artists to do the same, so they can see who they would like to hire. While I understand their thought process of wanting this for free (you don’t pay to interview someone), that is what a portfolio is for. Say, you do the sketches, then what? Then you’ve done the work with no guarantee you’re going to be picked, they then have the sketches that you developed (creating the characters is a big part of the job) and they can use those sketches for whatever they want because you’ve handed them over and you’ve done so for nothing.
Savvy successful businesses don’t give everything away for nothing, if they did they wouldn’t be able to grow or even survive. We keep alive this notion of a starving artist because we do it to ourselves. Yes, the market is saturated, but most are, there is still enough room for people to create and make a living. There are clients out there for everyone.
The more you respect your work, the more others will. In turn, the more we collectively do this the less we feel the need to. When we value our work and our time, we are sending out the message that other people should as well.

I have worked with wonderful people who value and respect my time, talent, and what I do. The right clients and buyers are out there for you, there is room for all of us in this wonderfully beautiful art world we have created. It all starts with you.

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Until next time my Creative Friends!

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