Most Artists Fail! 5 Reasons Why Things Go Wrong (And a Solution)

5 reasons most artists fail header image. A pencil drawing torn in two with art materials.

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. 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.

Artists are sole-traders, entrepreneurs who must create something out of nothing and convince a stranger to buy it. They have to find the time to dream, to plan and create their artwork, then to promote, market, and sell it. It’s high pressured, insecure, and solitary. It involves a keen work ethic, discipline, and an ability to self-motivate. Talent is not enough to succeed. Sadly, most artists fail because the lifestyle is not what they expected.

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

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 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? 

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 town called Bognor.

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 an art school.

They enter the graduate treadmill. They are forced to pay a king’s ransom to learn how to think like an artist, 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.

Further Reading: Selling Your Art in Galleries, Is It Worth It? (Maybe Not and Here’s Why..)

I meet a lot of disgruntled art students who feel cheated by the system. They leave college with a degree, 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?

The stats are sobering. According to the Insititute 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. In time you might be lucky and establish a reputation and a waiting list for your commissions but what do you do about today?

Are you able to chase the work? Can you be pro-active? 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. Burnout is a real issue.

Further Reading: How to Avoid Overwhelm for Artists who are Burning Out

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.

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.

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 artists 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?

Further Reading: How to Motivate Yourself to Draw When You’re Not in the Mood

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!

Further Reading: 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. 

Further Reading: Build Rapport With Your Collectors and Sell More Art (Get This Right and the Rest Will Follow)

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

Further Reading: How Do Artists Title Their Work? So It Sells

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.

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.

Further Reading: How to Prepare for an Outdoor Art Fair (Your No1 Problem Revealed)

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 draw while I’m selling at work. I stop and start between customers and the act of drawing is another sales device to encourage people to start talking.

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 for not being something else, I relaxed. That’s a self-imposed pressure I don’t need.

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

It’s all very simple.

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why most artists fail. Pencil drawing of an elephant torn in two. For Pinterest