How To Fail As An Artist...

For weeks I’ve been posting articles about how to succeed as an artist, now I’m going to show you how to fail
I have posted articles by Jack White several times before and though they can be long they are always worth reading and following his advice…this article was excerpted from Fine Art Views, a newsletter about art and fine living by Clint Watson who allows sharing in my journal

Jack White has the title Official Texas State Artist and recently Governor Rick Perry appointed him an Admiral in the Texas Navy. Jack authored six Art Marketing books. The first, “Mystery of Making It”, describes how he taught Mikki to paint and has sold over six million dollars worth of her art.

Here are 12 ways to fail as an artist

  • 1. No one can find you. You are hiding in the closet, whispering your message. People who care are looking, but you are so well camouflaged not even those closest to you can find where you are hidden. You do busy work and play artist, but you have yet to lift the cover and expose your ability.

Many of you are hiding in broad daylight and you have done such a wonderful job, you have managed to escape selling enough of your art to pay for your supplies.
I want you to move past the masses earning under $1,000 a year; thus, affording you the opportunity to walk among the top 8% in your field — nay, I want you to walk in the rarefied air with the .005% who earn over $1,000,000 a year.
I will show you the clear route, only you can decide to travel this path

  • 2. Focus. More artists fail for lack of focus than any other reason.

Until an artist can find a voice/style that connects with the buying public and stay with it long enough for the foundation to take root, he will always be way back in the pack, frustrated and angry because he has not been “discovered.”
Many begin the course, find a medium they love and a style/voice people are willing to pay to own. Just about the time the noise from their hiding place is being heard, they get bored and literally go back into hiding by changing mediums, style/voice and subjects…Focus or Fail

  • 3. Distractions. Artists see movies of fellow travelers sitting around sipping wine and breaking bread, exchanging ideas. The great ones barricade themselves in their studio and work. Those who fail, find excuse after excuse not to produce work. “If only I had a larger studio,” is an enormous excuse for distraction.

I often tell the story of how Bonnard had to paint in his bathroom, because it was the only blank wall with enough light and large enough to thumb tack his un-stretched canvases.

If artists are not complaining about where they work, they are out chasing rabbits. The one thing a foxhunter does not want in his dogs are those who chase rabbits. All too often, artists lets the telephone, friends, family, social networking, children, depression, substance abuse and addictions, distract them from working on their craft. Art is a jealous lover; she wants all your attention.

  • 4. Business knowledge or the lack thereof. The one thing I admire about those artists who do crafts for a living is they see their art as a product. They understand they are in business to earn a living from what they produce with their hands. They have no problem being commercial. Those, whose minds are warped by the “art-talk schools”, see selling what they make as prostituting themselves.

Another big reason artists remain in the less than $1,000 per year income bracket is they never build a business plan. No business plan means certain failure. They get hung up on creating, not figuring how they will sell all the “stuff” they make. Unless you can see your art as a product and yourself as a businessperson selling that product, you will forever remain at the bottom. Art is a business, just the same as clock making. The only difference: there is a need for clocks. There is no need for what we make; we are selling “wants” not "needs".

  • 5. Jealousy. I read where Picasso was jealous of Braque and Braque was jealous of Othon Friez. For those of you who have never heard of Othon Friez (1879–1949), he never reached much fame; however, when he and Braque painted together for a few years, he had a much easier time executing his skill than Braque, thus the jealousy.

I heard an artist say one time that he was jealous of the young children artists becoming so famous. I explained he only knew part of the story. One of the young “superstars” came to America with her parents from the war-torn Bosnia. Alexandra Nechita was eight years old when her parents bought her books on famous modern painters, stuck her in the basement and told her to paint. They found a promoter to market her as a “prodigy”. He invested $200,000 and began the process of setting up a marketing plan. The promoter took 75% of all the money earned. The young lady became a star and the promoter got filthy rich. I ask you, Why be jealous of a child who has been robbed of her youth? We have met her on two occasions and find she has sadness in her eyes.

The only person who is hurt by jealousy is you. We harbor no jealousy. Eliminate that word from your life. Happiness is more important than money. I talk a lot about money in my books but only to show you wealth can be achieved. I don’t suggest you covet filthy lucre.

  • 6. Pricing. Art is only worth what people perceive it to be.
    A Van Gogh sold for $80 million because someone believed the painting was worth that amount. We look at our art as something we do where people are paying us to learn the trade. Every time a painting sells we need to replace the piece. We can use the money received from that sale to live to paint another one

Artists fail because they get a skewed idea of their worth. As long as your art is selling too cheap, then that is the price point you will be selling at. Like water, your price will seek it’s own level. Artists think they should raise prices every year or so. Not so, raise your prices when you are selling more than you can produce.

  • 7. No direction. Let me pose a question to you, “How are you going to know when you get there, if you don’t know where you are going?” Successful artists just don’t get up and think because they hang that tag around their necks one day, they will make it. Failure to set goals on where you plan to go is at the foundation of most failures. If you plan to drive from Carmel to Naples, chances are you will mark the route on a map. Make an artist career map
  • 8. Attitude. How you think about things is more important than the events happening around you.
    Artists develop a syndrome taught in art schools. It is a malady titled, “Artistic Temperament”. With this temperament follows rudeness, excuses, slovenliness, laziness, clutter, addictions, non-commercial attitudes, un-professionalism and a perfect reason for failure. I do spend a great deal of time addressing attitude and the pseudo-sickness of “Artistic Temperament” in my writings
  • 9. Art that Connects? What sells is art that connects.
    There is an exception: When art gets to the level of auction houses (like Christies or Sotheby), it then has more to do with ego-of-ownership rather than the art making a connection. My doctor spent $70,000 to buy a Nicolai Fechin. It’s not one of his best, but my doctor can say he owns a Fechin

Artist’s whose art is not selling is simply not producing a product that connects.
If you want to do your own thing, then keep your day job and fill your garage with your creations. One day your family will have the unhappy task of burning those masterpieces

On the other hand, if you would like to enjoy some of the fruits of your labor while you are living, then you need to pay particular attention to what I am saying in this paragraph.
Those who do not make art that connects with people will not earn a living with their craft.
At an outdoor show I once saw a man who made a “chicken call” out of a paper cup and a rubber band. He had people lined up to buy his creation. I recall a couple drilling a hole in a big rock, sticking in some flowers and selling out the first day of their show. Their stuff connected.
When we send a painting to one of our galleries and it does not immediately sell, we know we did not make one that connected to the buyers. The reason people buy art is because they feel linked to the piece. It may just be one color in a painting or the feel of the alabaster in the sculpture, but there is a correlation. Make art that connects or fail…this is the reality of our business

  • 10. Failure to produce. This sounds on the surface like something you would not have to tell artists. Yet, their failure is never having artwork to sell. Isn’t this amazing? As we say in Texas, “You cannot sell out of an empty wagon.” Failures suffer from an ailment known as “I’m going to.” This is not like cramming for a history exam the night before. Artists must produce constantly if they plan to earn any semblance of a living from their craft. Of the two eBay artists I’m helping, one makes a dozen paintings a week and the other two or three. Guess which one will earn $40,000 this year.
  • 11. No fun. Fun is one of the keys to success. If you cannot have fun, then art is not where you need to be. Great work comes from great joy. Leave the angst for the movies; do art that’s fun. Your life is not a dress rehearsal. We only pass through one time. Select art you enjoy making. If you love what you are doing, there is a good chance others will feel your happiness and attach with what you are producing.
  • 12. Artistic Suicide. I’m not talking about putting a rope around your neck and jumping off the balcony as my dear friend and master artist, A. D. Greer did. Nor am I referring to leaping off the Golden Gate Bridge.
    I am talking about things like this: Mikki and I were freely helping direct a young artist’s career and seeing some nice results. I sent a blast email to friends, including him. This was early in our computer days when we didn’t know about Bcc. The young artist took our mailing list and began an aggressive marketing program. What he failed to realize, two parties on our list were dying of cancer. As a result, he lost a free marketing coach because he committed “artistic suicide.” Never cheat anyone, especially friends

In another instance, I know one artist who has continued to try to develop an art form and use oddball mediums at the expense of producing a product he could earn money with. He has done all he can in his power to sabotage his own career. We never tell anyone directly what to do. We gave him suggestions, but he never heard us. He had a mind-lock on doing something different instead of making a product that would connect with the buyers. There are times we must abandon the sinking ship and jump into the dinghy. At least the little vessel will stay afloat.

Other examples of artist suicide: Artists start selling well and then change styles or subjects. Another is the artist cheats the gallery by selling art directly to customers who first saw their work in their gallery to avoid paying commission.

Professionals will produce and failures make excuses. In one of my recent blogs, I talked about the importance of honesty. I got a scolding response telling me how arrogant I was and that I was a horrible critic. To set the record straight, I’m not a critic. I’m not arrogant, I’m confident. I simply speak of things I’ve learned after 40 years in this business. Take what works and toss the rest…..Jack White

Any thoughts on Jack’s advice?…Janis


  • Kay Clark
    Kay Clarkalmost 2 years ago

    Very interesting Janis and very true. Thank you for sharing

  • You’re very welcome…thanks so much for the feedback Kay..

    – © Janis Zroback

  • Jim Phillips
    Jim Phillipsalmost 2 years ago

    Some very fine and important points made Janis. This was an excellent article.

  • Thanks so much Jim…glad you like it…

    – © Janis Zroback

  • Beatrice Cloake
    Beatrice Cloakealmost 2 years ago

    Thank you Janis for all this hard work putting this article together.
    Very very interesting indeed!

  • You’re very welcome Beatrice…glad you found it helpful…

    – © Janis Zroback

  • Guendalyn
    Guendalynalmost 2 years ago


  • Thank you so much…glad you like the article…

    – © Janis Zroback

  • Robin King
    Robin Kingalmost 2 years ago

    Hmmmm…I’ll never understand how doing the same thing over and over and over again is fun. People who earn their money on assembly lines don’t do it for joy. They do it for money. But, generally speaking, they don’t have to be creative and they don’t expect fun. I understand the concept described here about choosing one art-path that “works”…that “connects” and sells. But that concept seems to be in conflict with #11. Well, that’s a personal view. Variety is VERY important to me. I’m an explorer, at my core. To be paid for that was a source of great joy to me thousands of years ago, when I still had my non-art job. I could have had other jobs and earned much more but didn’t take them bec I adored what I did.

    I can’t argue with the logic of this article. Much of it is based on common sense. But some of it saddens me. Maybe I’ll draw that. Or make a tee shirt about it.

    One last thing: Texas has a navy?
    I had no idea.

    Fascinating, Janis!

  • I like exploring too and I do a variety of things, but you can usually recognize my work and I think that’s what he means…I have a style of painting that is all mine and yet I paint a ton of different things…
    Re sadness…the part of having to earn money by art and to actively market is what most artists balk at…but art is a business as well as a profession…you just have to decide which path you want to follow..
    I am following both and having lots of’s quite possible…

    – © Janis Zroback

  • I am not painting to sell, I just sell what I paint and enjoy the process at the same time…that’s where the fun comes in…

    – © Janis Zroback

  • Robin King
    Robin Kingalmost 2 years ago

    It’s not the business aspect that saddens me. That’s a given in the arts, when money’s involved!

    No, it’s the fact that I have no idea what my style/voice is, that people will pay for. And because I know that most of the time this kind of journey takes time (in addition to the hard work, etc.) I’m sad because I started so late. Time is not my friend.

    “I just sell what I paint” How wonderful!!
  • I started out with one plan in mind and found that there is a myriad of things to explore as far as marketing is concerned, and I am still finding them…while you’re exploring techniques move sideways a little…you’d be surprised at what you can find..

    – © Janis Zroback

  • © Angela L Walker
    © Angela L Walkeralmost 2 years ago

    Thanks so much for sharing this excerpt, Janis! It was a very interesting read. :) I also took a few notes as I found some points I need to explore further in 2013.

  • You’re very welcome Angela…I am exploring different avenues this coming year too.

    – © Janis Zroback

  • Cathy Gilday
    Cathy Gildayalmost 2 years ago

    Thank you Janis, I found this article well worth reading and it’s made me look at things a little differently!

  • You’re very welcome Cathy…glad you found it helpful and thanks so much for the feedback..

    – © Janis Zroback

  • Cindy Schnackel
    Cindy Schnackelalmost 2 years ago

    Good article. Wish it were so, that we could just be discovered, wouldn’t that be nice!

    Art marketing is a subject often lacking in art schools. It would be one of the most useful classes. Artists can more easily find their way, stylistically, and technically, than as business people, IMO. Muddling around at business can really waste time and go nowhere, and without something to learn from it can be overwhelming. When I was younger, the idea of operating a business was revolting! I had to get some years on me, before it seemed doable.

    Whether they prefer to keep their art as a hobby or go full out and be self supporting with it, or somewhere in between, taking their work seriously enough to treat it like a business has some nice rewards. Being more productive, focusing on the right market for what you love doing, lead to improvement and self satisfaction.

    I agree with you about not painting to sell, but selling what you paint..kind of the same thing as finding the right market for what you do, rather than conforming to what you guess the market wants.

    Sometimes I get impatient with myself, or kick myself for slacking off on marketing, but never jealous of another artist. If I see they are successful, I’m going to see if I can learn from them. Stereotypes and ‘sour grapes’ attitudes like The Starving Artist, really turn me off. It trivializes art and artists, and I think the jealous and ignorant often use these things as weapons to keep others down, in some sick belief it raises them up. Avoiding toxic attitudes and toxic people is also a good skill to acquire.

  • I agree that marketing is a mystery especially is really tough for most people as it seems so mysterious, so technical in many ways…this year I want to get some concrete information down to share with everyone about how best to get seen and sell work on the net, through POD sites and personal websites etc…too many times people say “I have not sold a thing even though I’ve been here for two years”…
    Sometimes we paint to sell while selling our’s like having a day job…like my products on Zazzle…I am creating pillows that would be attractive in people’s homes…I would not do a sad face or something like that on them..who wants a sad face pillow?
    So I paint what I know people would like but it’s all done in my style….it’s what all the artists throughout history have done..all work in the past was commissioned work…painting to please oneself is a 20th century affectation..
    I too am never jealous of anyone…I have lived too long for that…I know that all is not as it seems on the surface, that’s why a successful artist recently committed never know what’s going on behind the scenes..

    – © Janis Zroback

  • Dlouise
    Dlouisealmost 2 years ago

    Great information, Janis and very well put together,,,thanks so much for sharing!!!

  • You’re very welcome…thanks so much for the feedback.

    – © Janis Zroback