The Art Biz ep. 170: 7 Essential Verbs for Artists to Embrace

As we learned when diagramming sentences in 4th grade, verbs are where the action is. No verb in the sentence, no action.

The first iteration of my newsletter for artists back in 2002 included a specific art business action at the end of each issue. “Do this,” it said.

My book, I’d Rather Be in the Studio, is broken down into 16 “actions” rather than chapters.

Marieke Tollenaere oil painting
©Marieke Tollenaere, Wave #65. Oil on canvas, 100 x 100 centimeters.

I’m all about action, but am no longer interested in it in the form of obsessive hyper-productivity. I’ll leave that to the bro motivators out there. Action at all costs isn’t healthy.

But action—even the tiniest step—moves the needle.

And action builds confidence. As marketing mentor Ilise Benun said on Jenny Blake’s podcast, “We aren’t inherently confident. It’s a byproduct of action.”

Take a moment to let that sink in. Think about how true it is. 

CONFIDENCE

is a byproduct of action. —Ilise Benun

Look back on how your confidence as an artist has grown as a result not only of reading about something or hearing about it, but about doing it. Making more art. Having more shows. Submitting to more opportunities.

With this in mind, I got to thinking about a few verbs to live by that you might not normally associate with your art career.

See if these resonate with you.

Listen to the Podcast

Michele Clamp watercolor painting
©Michele Clamp, New England Farm. Watercolor on 100% cotton cold press paper, 10 x 14 inches.

1. Devote

Devote yourself to the life of an artist. There are all kinds and levels of artists out there, and it’s easy to recognize when artists aren’t completely devoted to their work or the life of an artist.

Devote sacred time in the studio and devote necessary time in your office.

Lack of devotion in the studio looks like this: work that is all over the place, unfocused, and without direction.

Lack of devotion to a business might look like this: pricing your art too low, showing in the same shows year after year, or having an outdated website.

Lack of devotion yields lack of results.

It’s not about balance, but about an obsession with art. David Sandum talked about this obsession in episode 169 of The Art Biz.

The unshakeable certainty that you are meant for this artist’s life will help you move past the insecurities and get you through the rough patches—as will acknowledging that the road ahead isn’t easy street.

It’s fine if you want to keep your art as a hobby, but don’t pretend that you can reach a certain level of success—whatever that looks like to you—without utter devotion.

On the upside, if you're truly doing the work you were meant to do, you won't be able to imagine doing anything else. You'll enjoy the journey.

Jane Mant painting
©Jane Mant, White Cosmos. Oil and acrylic on panel, 30 x 40 centimeters.

2. Begin

Stop waiting for circumstances to be perfect because that will never happen. 

If you have an idea that you're excited about, and it’s aligned with your vision, there's no time like now to start working on it.

Begin the piece of art or project that has been on the back burner for too long.

Begin teaching a new workshop, as long as you’re qualified and have the desire and skills to teach. Start small and charge less if you have to in order to build your teaching resume.

Begin a new marketing campaign because you can’t wait to share your work with the world outside of your studio walls.

Begin something. Anything.

Sarah Z Short collage
©Sarah Z. Short, To the Sea. Found paper, fabric, and acrylic paint on cradled panel, 36 x 24 x 1.5 inches.

3. Understand

Understand that you are not alone. You are part of a larger community of artists and a distinguished history of art.

In general, artists are a generous lot. They share openly and freely. They want to connect, and they’re waiting to make that connection with you. More on that in a minute.

As you’re working in the studio, think of the legacies of your favorite artists who paved the way through their innovations. Understand that you are here, in part, because of them.

Understand how the art world works. Yes, I believe in breaking the rules or making up your own rules, but you at least need to be aware of how the art world works so you understand the rules that other artists are following, where you fit in, and how you might distinguish yourself.

You have to know the rules before you can break them and forge your own path.

You have to know the rules before you can break them.

4. Connect

Of all the verbs for artists, this is probably my favorite because connection is what gives our lives purpose.

There is much to be done on your own, but connecting frequently to the world outside your studio is essential to your success.

YOU NEED PEOPLE

to succeed

You need other artists to empathize with. You need collectors to purchase your art and provide you with commissions.

You need gallerists and other venue owners to give you the space to show and sell.

You need viewers to see your art, discuss it, share it. All of that adds layers of meaning to your work.

You need connection.

Liza Butts oil painting
©Liza Butts, Instruments of Transition. Oil on canvas, 46 x 60 x 1.5 inches.

5. Avoid

While art is mostly about embracing new experiences and ideas, accomplished artists understand that avoidance is also an advantageous tactic to have in your back pocket.

Avoid making comparisons between yourself and other artists. It’s useful when you are starting out to have teachers and mentors, but to soar, you must know who you are as an artist. You must find your own voice.

Avoid distractions that take you away from your art and your life vision. Obviously this is easier said than done.

We encounter distractions every second of the day. They are insidious, and some are more trouble than others. As you mature as an artist, you’ll be able to recognize the big distractions that force you off course: commissions that are wrong for you, invitations that aren’t aligned with your goals, and professional relationships that take you for granted. That brings me to …

Avoid people who crap on your dreams. Limit time and set boundaries with family members and people who don’t get you. Life is too short to waste your energy with toxic relationships.

Diane Hopetner oil painting
©Diane Hoeptner, Eyes on You Bunny. Oil on panel, 10 x 10 inches.

6. Investigate

Be intensely curious about the world that provides inspiration for your art. Take that curiosity to another level through research.

Investigate your subject matter in depth—from every angle. And I’m not talking about using Google or ChatGPT. Read novels, historical records, philosophy, current headlines, and wherever else the trails lead.

If you don’t think you have subject matter, maybe reconsider your direction. Even if it wasn’t visible or obvious to viewers at the time, even the most abstract artists in history had subject matter. Their art evolved from something other than the materials itself.

Investigate opportunities for showing, selling, and/or teaching.

You’re always looking for the next feather to add to your cap.

Investigate the art scene around you.

Attend shows. Know what’s going on in your community and where you fit in.

Be hungry for the information and experiences that will fuel your accomplishments.

Malti B Lee acrylic painting
©Malti B Lee, Sunset over Florence. Acrylic on stretched canvas, 24 x 36 x 1.5 inches.

7. Finish

As you begin, so must you finish.

The bottom line is that nothing counts until it’s done. Until it’s out of your hands, out of your control, and out into the world.

Finishing isn’t a single step—a simple flourish at the end. Finishing requires a series of steps.

To finish your art, you might glaze the surface, sign it, photograph it, add it to your official inventory, send an invoice, and add it to your website portfolio.

Those are multiple steps to call a work complete.

To finish a project, you might collect and analyze data, send thank-you notes, pay invoices, and clean up related digital documents.

Every artist has a different set of steps for finishing, and you need to know what yours are.

All of the grand plans and brilliant ideas in the world amount to nothing until they are seen to completion.

HOW TO USE

these verbs

Those are my 7 verbs for you to consider: Devote, Begin, Understand, Connect, Avoid, Investigate, and Finish.

They’re actions you’re already taking to some extent, but perhaps you’ll think about them a little more as you go throughout your days.

When you are feeling insecure, remember that you have devoted yourself to the life of an artist.

When you are procrastinating, begin with the smallest step.

When you are lost in the studio, understand and feel the presence of the legacies of artists who have come before you.

When you are lost in your business or feeling lonely, connect to other artists and people who get you.

When you aren’t feeling productive, consider what is getting in your way and take steps to avoid it.

When the work doesn’t feel right, investigate. Go deeper. 

When it’s time to move on to the next project, make sure you finish the current one.

This post was originally published in a very different form on June 1, 2017. It has been updated significantly with the addition of a podcast episode, but with all original comments intact.

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58 thoughts on “The Art Biz ep. 170: 7 Essential Verbs for Artists to Embrace”

  1. My verb for today and this weekend is to explore. I’m going on a four-day retreat in connection with a yearly gathering and I expect many new impressions as I’ve never been there before.

  2. My verb of the day is cupcake. As in party, celebrate — maybe balloon, too. Thanks AS for the vibe. It is a gift to do this work, and it is sacred work. I’m awed to be permitted it.

  3. Grateful—-each moment that I am blessed to see the beauty in creation through my eyes as an artist sees————My art and art-time is a prayerful, sacred time and place and experience.

  4. Sometimes my great ideas for the painting I see in my head turn to crud on the canvas and I and most of my painter friends have a pile of unfinished work to prove it.

  5. May I have your permission to trpost this on my website blog at Faybeccadesigns.com? Giving you full credit? Thank you…very good to remember.

    1. Fay: Glad you enjoyed it. I prefer that you don’t repost exactly as is (duplicate content isn’t good for search engines). I would love for you to quote me and riff off of it. That’d be swell! And LMK when you do.

  6. Excelant advice…..I remind myself of these myself at times….one other that may add, if I may…is find your passion. You can explore each medium….but you may never excel at any any. Find what you believe that you are good at and strive for perfection…..you may never reach perfection in your own mind….but you will get better…..

  7. I’m having trouble with beginning. I’ve finished one painting this year. I’m also sleeping 12-18 hours a day. I think my psych meds need adjusting but it’s taken from November last year until May to find a new psychiatrist that I can afford.

  8. Thank you so much for the verbs. We are doing a plein air tomorrow in Canton, MO and I have a friend who is going too. She doesn’t consider herself an artist an yet she exhibits all but one of the verbs. Can you guess which? Wish us luck tomorrow.

  9. Perfect timing for me as I am getting ready for two big art events. Finish and trust are just the words I needed today. Now I will get back to work. Thank you.

  10. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post. Last night I went to my sister’s Tassy Walden award winners’ ceremony and met two people from the sponsoring organization, Shoreline Arts Alliance. They asked people to come up to speak with them later. So I did. I have a card and an invitation to connect. I will be following up today.

  11. Trust resonated with me so much that I wrote it down by hand. (I’m a believer in hand writing as a means to connect with my brain and heart.) But also Understand that my path is different from that of other more successful (monetarily) artists and to accept that, while still being open to perhaps pursuing a different discipline.

  12. As I head off to an Art opening gala tonight for a Street Banner Art Project, I have 2 of your verbs in mind, Trust and avoid! There were over 120 submissions to the art project and 39 pieces of art were selected, mine being one of them. I have submitted a few times and been rejected and finally this year was selected. I almost did not enter this year because of what felt like patronizing rejection phone calls I have recieved in the past. Off I go with Trust and Avoid in my back pocket!

  13. Great list. Thank you for the refreshing discussion of what tends to anchor us down. So my verb for the day is enjoy, as the child with a new box of crayons or as you alone understand, and I will paste the word on my forehead to remember it during those challenging moments

  14. I have to admit that I LOVE that you said “CRAP”! You are so sensible and somewhat refined, that to hear that wonderful hard, somewhat dirty word just jarred and delighted me in the best way!
    Thank you!

  15. Good verbs to reflect on…Thank you, Alyson.

    I invited my sister to come help me work on one of my projects that I had been dreaming of…videos: promotional, about my art and I hope to get to ones about teaching before she heads home. This encompasses several of your words.

  16. This line: ‘Understand that other artists might have a different journey than yours. Accept their path and forge your own.’ Just got me where I live.

    So my verb is Continue. Continue forging my own path.

  17. Carol Fielhaber

    Allyson you are so connected and inspiring. This list could me mine as I have been working on changing my life to include my art and personal growth. I had let my art career sit idle for 20 years and at 60 years old, I knew that it was time as I could miss it and it would not let me rest! I am 64 now, working consistently in my studio and producing things I never even imagined. I have never felt so alive in my entire life and it happens without anyone telling me that I am “okay” because I am learning to tell myself. I have been focusing on each and every one of these “verbs” and working hard to do it without causing damage in other areas. It is possible but I realize that it takes a commitment to complete honesty, forgiveness and compassion toward oneself and toward others in our lives.When these things are in play, it works. Change can be scary for us in our journey but it is also frightening to others who have always seen you in a different light. It has proven to be a difficult change for some close to me but when I keep my main focus for the good of all, it works out. Patience and commitment to your true purpose wins. I love you for what you share and that you are willing to make this available for the world. Thank You My Teacher, My Friend!

  18. My favourite verbs are Determine and Challenge. They both spur me on when obstacles arise and get me into the studio when there are floors to be swept and dishes to be washed.

  19. Once again, thank-you for the timely reminders…today it is especially ‘finish what you start’…thank-you for the reminder.I am grateful for this connection . XOXOXO Patti

  20. Thanks for posting these verbs to live by as an artist. It really outlines our path to exist as a full fledged artist. No job is easy but being an artist and making a living at what you love is sometimes the hardest job one will ever try. There is no business plan out there that makes sense and people can be so supportive and some so not of your passion. We all have to take from it the satisfaction and relaxation which it gives each and everyone of us and the monetary pluses are icing on the cake. I’ve been painting and selling for over forty five years.

  21. My verb today is dare. Dare to step out of the confines of my comfort zone. Dare to challenge the fears that hold me back. Thanks for posting these, Alyson. They all resonate with me.

  22. Thank you so much for your posts!! I need a swift kick in the behind to get me jump started!! I seem to come up with every excuse in the world to not get started!!

  23. “Avoid” speaks to me. I, as we all do, have my inspirations and my Mentors. I know I’m not like anyone else and although I love praise of my art, I am my own critic…everyone else gives me feedback, not criticism.

  24. Oh how I needed this! Thank You So Much. I’m in the middle of a life milestone, new house, new studio with a new baby on the way. I’ve been struggling to find a balance but I will not give up. I make the time regardless, but we all need a boost once in awhile and this post was exactly that.

  25. Ellen Pavlakos

    Allyson Thank You!

    Did I need that today! It was like You were talking to me.
    Thank You!
    Ellen

  26. Brilliant post. I’m a big fan of your book! Action is the way to go!! Thanks for the advice AND the inspiration. An important verb for me is “remember”, as in “remember who you are.”

  27. All great reminders…Alyson, you are a treasure and your consistency is a super example for me to ‘paint’ a minimal # of hours per week. My verb is ‘Start’…when I need a motivator to make art, I go to the studio as the last activity of the night and squeeze out a basic palette: white, an earth tone, red, blue and yellow…I choose an unfinished panel, place it on the easel and put a sticky note on the taboret. I then write what 1 thing I need to do first on the painting the next morning…somehow that process creates an urgent passion the next morning to ‘get in there’ and at least one thing/step to completion. It works every time for me. Getting ready to make art takes time and a bit of energy, so I prefer doing that at a low energy time at the end of my day. Actual painting or crafting works better in the early morning hours before the ‘world’ starts asking for my attention for non-art things. Thanks again, Alyson, for your ideas!

  28. Lyne de Repentigny

    Thank you sooo much for sharing these verbs. They are exactly what my soul needed to hear now. My verb for today is TRUST. Trust that everything is OK, trust that the timing is perfect, trust that this is what I am supposed to do…and that is to create with passion from the heart …????

    Namaste

    1. Thank you for listening and/or reading, Alan. Was there 1 verb that resonated more than others?

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