Above is a first glimpse at new work… a small portion of the larger piece. This is part of a Kantha exploration. The material is silk, the stitches are worked with YLI quilting cotton. the longer I worked on it the more it reminded me of tire tracks in freshly fallen snow…
I read a lot! And I am not referring to novels and escape literature, my reading list includes many great essays and books on how to live and flourish as an artist. I recently received an article titled “How to Become a Great Photographer”. As I studied the essay I quickly realized that one can draw direct parallels and interchange the title of photographer to artist. After some contemplation I decided to compose my own list of how to achieve personal success as an artist. I am not referring to monetary or exhibition opportunities as success. Success must bring one personal joy and as such serve as the jumping off point for reaching higher and embarking on even more creative challenges.
Let’s get started with my personal Seven Tips of How to Flourish as an Artist
1. Study the styles of artists you like
I often hear from students that they can’t get the results they want consistently despite having unlimited sources of inspiration. While I discourage artists from copying what others do, I encourage them to examine how they do it. Ask yourself the question: What makes the work of the artist you admire so great? What are the colors they’re using? How do they use (or not use) specific techniques? How can you incorporate these technical details in your work? What are the details that make it stand out? What was their inspiration?
Since I am writing primarily for textile artists I urge you to pull out art quilt books. There is no such thing as “No longer current”, “It has been done before”, or “This book is way too old to use as a reference.” I’m very interested in innovative quilting so I study international quilt makers by creating small samples in their specific style. These samples teach me a lot about technique, colour and fabric manipulation. I also study art history. I admire muted colors, soft light and the visual and tactile textures. These observations have been incorporated into my body of work from the beginning.
I remind you: I am not saying you should copy. Don’t ever copy someone’s idea and art! But just as we learned in school, art college and university, the art field is in a constant state of change and the learning process never ends.
2. Don’t rush!
I have stated it before, talent is highly overrated: A creative person evolves and acquires skills that can be applied as needed. For most of us it takes serious investment of time to get somewhere. Growing as an artist and a person is something that changes constantly. Looking back at my older work I regularly ask myself the question “What was I thinking?” but just as often I have to admit to myself that I am still happy with the results. Yes, I could execute many of the techniques better these days, but the work serves as a vivid reminder that I started somewhere. I can see how much I have grown because I never gave up, despite feeling like I created visual art that was not as sophisticated.
Never destroy your older work, instead take time and review it. Examine it and see what you don’t like about it and ask yourself why you don’t like it. This valuable information is also a from of self-critique. Take your time to view and comment on your work. Make notes into your sketchbook. Take small breaks between individual pieces, and come back with fresh eyes to see your creation. Take a photo (just use your smart phone – no need to bring out the tripod and set up the big camera) and look at the work on the computer screen. It is a much more objective way to evaluate your work than pinning it to the design wall.
Here is something important I have to share: Try to not show your work to people right away, and instead save it for yourself. You might see something entirely new after a certain time or find that the work was not quite finished. Adding and removing specific embellishments has strengthened many of my pieces!
3. Tools and Supplies
I won’t pretend that I am working at my kitchen table. But, I started on an old kitchen table in the corner of the master bedroom about 19 years ago. I graduated to the dining room table, later to a makeshift basement studio, and these days I am fortunate enough that my current studio space is my dream studio with the million dollar view. However, I am keenly aware that this could change at any time and returning to a basement or spare bedroom does not worry me. I know that I have the ability to adapt. Constance Howard coined the statement: “An artist can create anywhere.”
Just last year I had the “smart” insight to invest in a new sewing machine. I don’t have regrets but my favourite machine is 17 this year. I know it in my sleep and it is not worth much to anyone else – but to me it is like a best friend. I don’t stash a lot of fabric, although after my recent purge I feel I have more than enough to keep sewing for another 20 years without purchasing anything else.
When students during a workshop ask what machine I use and then exclaim that it must be the reason for my great work I actually feel a little then aback. I am a good teacher and accomplished artist because I embraced the many learning opportunities provided to me through my London City & Guilds education. Once I graduated with the diplomas in Art & Design, Embroidery and Patchwork and Quilting I continued to hone my skills and set out to create an extensive body of work for exhibition and sale. The only thing you need is your creativity, a good amount of energy and (I won’t lie to you!) hard work.
This is the best practice you will ever get: If you can create something out of nothing you can create the impossible with everything! Just be creative! I have used threads pulled from yardage, twisted seven lengths of embroidery floss together to create a colour I needed now and I have been known to incorporate dryer lint… Keep a network of friends as you just never know what they might have at home that you can borrow for a few hours. Making a sign and posting it on a prominent wall in the studio also works wonders: “Use What You Have”
4. Never compare yourself to others
This statement is one I have seen everywhere. It is so true: don’t compare yourself to others. There are so many good reasons not to compare yourself because it will obstruct or block you. Try not to compare yourself to other artists working in the same genre because they seem to be better or have more exciting concepts. We all start somewhere and you never know what they have experienced! Instead, try to admire and support them. Share what they create and use it as constant motivation to create your own textile work over time. You need to make and take the time to create your own body of work. Seldom can we set a definite time frame for such an endeavour.
5. Don’t be competitive
There is no need to be competitive about one’s work. Avoid gossip, don’t be mean, jealous or envy other artists. Don’t push them out of your social circle. You should instead embrace your fellow artists and the process of getting to know one another to the fullest.
I can’t stress this enough because it’s one of the most valuable things I’ve learned over time. When I started out I encountered numerous artists who were incredibly competitive: They didn’t trust anyone, everyone was “stealing” from them, they would not share supply sources or information of how to price my work. If this sounds unrealistic to you count yourself among the lucky ones. You have supportive artist friends who want your success. Those who can relate to my story: I didn’t let it deter me. I vowed that I would be supportive of emerging artists, provide help if asked and be a mentor (see my definition for “mentor” at the end of this post). I have built up amazing relationships with artists across North America. We are regularly engaging with each other, motivate each other, share personal achievements and disappointments, but also celebrate milestones and ideas.
6. Build a support group and join professional artist associations
Your artist friends will be there to support you as you build your body of work and experience some moments of doubt. Once you have established yourself in a routine and have built up the body of work it is time to join a professional group. There are so many out there. Most provinces in Canada have a provincial Craft Council. Craft Councils help promote and support artists and the work they create. Often they provide opportunities for sale. There is also CARFAC which provides valuable resources to artists of all levels. On a more local level, seek out your Art Guild and Quilt Guild. See what they offer in the form of promotion and support. Embrace your artistic network. This will be excellent for your state of mind and it is a good way to get input, forge beautiful friendships and generate great ideas.
Just like friendships, networking grows over time. Always remind yourself to be genuine about what you want to reach out with.
7. Final insights
There is no definitive book on how to become a successful artist. This blog post covered some of my personal insights to move forward. I could write about fabric manipulation, colour and design, or studio organization (I have certainly done it a few times over the years!). However, I regularly find myself thinking and sharing the less obvious things: to me networking is more important than supplies, sources and sewing machine. Not being competitive and instead being kind and admiring others has enriched my artistic life more than seeking competition within myself and others.
Remember to believe in yourself, work hard, educate yourself, network and have fun. Because if you don’t like what you do, you won’t ever get better – it’s that simple. Embrace the days with challenges. They happen for a reason: you learn something new and you have another opportunity to fill the well!
My definition of a mentor: Mentors appear throughout life, sometimes they are obvious and have been appointed by the artist. Most times they weave in and out of their life. A gentle reminder to tend to the work at hand, a suggestion to help strengthen the focal point in the work at hand, answers to questions about mounting one’s first exhibition or just someone who listens and understands, someone the artist can trust explicitly, that is my definition of mentor.