5 Reasons Why Most Artists Fail and Things Go Wrong

Home » An Artists Life » 5 Reasons Why Most Artists Fail and Things Go Wrong

Kevin Hayler: Professional Wildlife artist, author, and traveler.

I know why I failed as an artist the first time around and it still haunts me. The reason I failed had nothing to do with making money. No one comes clean about the real reasons why most artists fail.

Artists fail because the lifestyle is lonely, insecure, and the hours are long. Artists also fail because they’re dreamers and think that good art sells itself. Artists fail because they don’t know how to market their work and run a small business.

Let’s break this down into manageable chunks to fully understand the hurdles and round it off with some positive solutions.

Disclaimer: When you buy something via my affiliate links, I sometimes earn a commission at no extra cost to you. I only recommend trusted sites.

Why I Failed as an Artist the First Time Around

Imagine. I was young, had a life on the factory line with workmates, had some money coming in, and lived in a shared house.

I gave up work to sit on my own in the dining room painting landscapes and any commission I could find. I did this day-in, day-out. I made money only if I could do a painting a day.

My idea of socializing was to get art supplies and visit galleries. And what was there to talk about with my housemates after a day spent painting? 

This is important if you intend to make art a career: Is Being an Artist Lonely? Read The Truth

You have to know what life is like on a day-to-day basis to fully appreciate the problems. They are as much emotional as they are practical.

I carried on for 3 years, let it fizzle, and gave up entirely after 5. The loneliness was intense. 

It was only after a successful exhibition and a trip to America that I woke up and realized there was more to life than a living room in a small rundown seaside town.

Don’t underestimate the effects of solitude. The fear of revisiting that state put me off giving it another go for ten years.

Artists Fail Because They Have False Expectations

It’s a sad fact that many artists are set up to fail from the outset with wildly distorted regard for their own talents and worth. Let me explain.

Many artists with a genuine flair for art have been encouraged throughout their childhood by proud parents putting them on a pedestal for their talents. Some justified, some not.

“You’ll be an artist when you grow up”

What does that do to an artist’s ego when they’re confronted by an indifferent world? Or put another way, the truth.

Inevitably, they end up being pushed towards art school.

A higher education where they are forced to pay a king’s ransom, with no practical help, no direction except for the tutor’s own bias, no technical skills, and no guidance beyond the end of year show.

A talent snuffed out by a pretentious elite who dismiss representational art as craft.

I cover this in more detail here: Is Art School Worth it? Is it a Waste of Money?

I meet a lot of disgruntled art students who feel cheated by the system. They leave college with a degree, are saddled with debt, and end up getting a job doing something entirely different. What a waste of time and money.

Most Sole Traders Will Fail, and That Includes Artists

Be honest, are you ready to be self-employed? Do you realize what working for yourself entails?

Artists are sole traders, entrepreneurs who must create something out of nothing and convince a stranger to buy it. It involves a keen work ethic, discipline, and an ability to self-motivate.

Talent is not enough to succeed.

The stats are sobering. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, 20% of sole traders fail in the first year and 60% fail within five.

There’s no paycheck at the end of the month. You have to hustle for your money. Over time you might be lucky and establish a reputation and a waiting list for your commissions, but what about today?

Are you able to chase the work? Can you be proactive? Have you got the energy? It’s tiring. You never really stop thinking about work, it’s very hard to get away. It’s with you all the time. There’s a tendency to over-work. Burning out is a real issue.

It happened to me, read this: What is Creative Burnout? And How to Recover Your Life

Giraffe portrait. A fine art pencil drawing by Kevin Hayler.
‘The High Life’ A Pencil Drawing by Kevin Hayler

Most businesses have peaks and troughs throughout the year. It’s boom and bust. As a business person, you have to make hay while the sun shines. There are no days off just because you feel like it. 

You work hard today because tomorrow there may be NOTHING. 

You will hear wage-slaves wistfully remark how lovely life must be to work for yourself. Their eyes glaze over imagining no boss looking over their shoulder, going home when they want to, all that crap. Don’t be taken in by it, they might be freer than you are.

You will work harder, for longer hours and probably for less money. That’s the reality. If you make a success of it, you are the exception and not the rule.

Get to Grips with your Art business with Katy on Domestika

Artists Fail Because They’re Unprofessional

Too many artists fall in love with the idea of being a Bohemian devil-may-care artist. They love talking about the projects they’ve never done and never will do. They bask in their artistic identity and prove it by dressing up.

If you look like an artist, you must be an artist – right?

Wrong – working artists tend to look like everyone else. They’ve got nothing to prove.

There is some lee-way to be different but not much. First impressions really count and you must be clean and well-groomed, surely that should go without saying.

To succeed in business you need to be:

  • Reliable
  • Turn up on time
  • Keep your promises

How organized are you? Can you construct a routine and stick to it? Are you self-motivated?

Read this: How to Motivate Yourself to Make Art: 11 Kickass Ways to Get Going

Can you put yourself in the shoes of your customer?

  • Deliver what they want
  • When they want it
  • For the price agreed

Can you deal with awkward customers? late payers, or even refunds? A business owner will encounter all types of people and all sorts of problems and patience is essential. Is that you?

You can’t get away with a scatter-brained approach, you can’t afford to hang around waiting for inspiration and you certainly can’t do drink and drugs and think your work won’t suffer. 

Artists Fail Because They Think Art Sells Itself

If ever there was a myth worth blowing out of the water it’s this one. ART DOES NOT SELL ITSELF!

If proof is needed read this: Sell More Art – 9 Selling Skills For Artists (Are You Missing Sales?)

Listen, I trade in a street market, and believe you me, if there was a way of sitting there with a coffee, a slice of cake, and counting my free money, I would find it. 

You sell your work by selling yourself, selling emotions, and meeting a need. 

That does not require the most talented artwork. 

You can’t survive on talent alone. Instead of sales, you’ll get praise, and that wears thin when no one buys anything. 

If you don’t make an effort, those same people who praised your work will stop at another stall and buy some tacky crap just because the vendor knew how to sell it.

It’s all about people skills. You find common ground, make a connection, and a percentage of people will go on to make a purchase. 

You’ll need a backstory people can relate to. Display an artist’s biography for customers to read.

If writing daunts you, listen to Sun Yi and learn how to tell your story with ease. Find his class on Domestika

This post will show you how: Write an Artist About Me Page: A Great Bio in 4 Easy Steps

Throw in a few nuggets that will surprise them.

My best eye-brow raisers are:

  • Being colorblind
  • Being self-taught
  • Traveling all winter

These are talking points to elicit conversation. You need to talk, learn to listen, and know-how to tell a good story.

Your art MUST have titles, the size should be stated, and everything on display must be captioned. 

This post will guide you: How to Name Your Art and Make More Sales – Copy This!

Know what to say about each work. Keep it short and simple, and don’t waffle. Be yourself and above all, smile.

Can You Be a Successful Full-Time Artist?

Damn right you can. I’ve been trading my art for over 20 years now. It’s my second attempt and this time I got it right. 

The way to scale your business is to sell prints. I didn’t know that the first time around.

Read this: How to Make Prints of Your Art – Printing Art Explained in Detail

You abandon the gallery trail and sell your work directly. The hardest part is finding the right selling space. I started in a weekend craft fair, fly-pitched for a while, rented a pitch outside a shop, and finally discovered that my local council would sell me an ‘artists license’ to trade in a particular street.

Check this out: Selling in Art Fairs (5 Tips You Can’t Afford to Ignore)

I succeeded because I have so much passing holiday trade. New people see my work all the time and that really helps.

I conquered the problem of isolation by learning to sell while I’m at work. I stop and start between customers and the act of drawing is another sales device to encourage people to start talking.

This will enlighten you: Is Being an Artist Lonely? Read The Truth

Plus there are regular faces I see every day and former customers who come by for a chat. Loneliness is not an issue.

I’m happy to plod along. I have no desire to be more successful than I am. I gave up any thoughts of being well known long ago. That’s all fantasy. 

As soon as I opted for making a living and stopped beating myself up for not being something else, I relaxed. That’s a self-imposed pressure I don’t need.

If you draw or paint animals read this: How Do Wildlife Artists Make a Living? Copy This and Get Started

I work hard in the summer and travel in the winter.

It’s all very simple.

Pygmy elephants pencil drawing
‘Kindred Spirits’ by Kevin Hayler

If you like the way I draw and want to try things for yourself, this is my basic kit:

If you want to sell your art the simple way, all you have to do is read my guidebook. It’s all laid out for you to copy. Just follow along!

Selling art made simple digital guide for starting a small art business

If You Want to Sell Your Art

Check this out!

Psst…it’s only $12.99!

Has this post helped you? There are many more. Check these out:

Keep in Touch

* indicates required


why most artists fail. Pencil drawing of an elephant torn in two. For Pinterest
The artist and Author Kevin Hayler

Hi, I’m Kevin Hayler
I’ve been selling my wildlife art and traveling the world for over 20 years, and if that sounds too good to be true, I’ve done it all without social media, art school, or galleries!
I can show you how to do it. You’ll find a wealth of info on my site, about selling art, drawing tips, lifestyle, reviews, travel, my portfolio, and more. Enjoy

Leave a Comment

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.