The Career Journey of Growth-Minded Artists

One of the most-used business metaphors is the ladder of success.

With this metaphor it’s assumed that you start at the bottom and work your way to the top rung in a predictable, progressive fashion. Wouldn’t it be easy if you always knew your next steps?

But this isn’t how your business works.

©Sky Pape, Out There. Water, Sumi ink, Flashe, gouache, colored pencil on paper, 22 x 30 inches. Courtesy, June Kelly Gallery. Photo: Jean Vong. Used with permission.
©Sky Pape, Out There. Water, Sumi ink, Flashe, gouache, colored pencil on paper, 22 x 30 inches. Courtesy, June Kelly Gallery. Photo: Jean Vong. Used with permission.

Think about it. What’s at the bottom of the ladder of success? What is the progression of steps? And, most importantly, what in the world happens when you get to the top?

When you get to the top, are you finished? Is it all over?

I have never heard of a single artist – visual, performing, or otherwise – who thinks they’ve attained the highest level possible in their career.

I think that’s why, even though I use it, I have a problem with the word “success.” Growth-minded artists keep moving the target for success. They’re never quite satisfied.

©Geri DeGruy, After Coffee. Mixed media on paper, 16 x 12 x 1 inches. Used with permission.
©Geri DeGruy, After Coffee. Mixed media on paper, 16 x 12 x 1 inches. Used with permission.

You will keep going for as long as you breathe.

You’re creative, after all. You want to learn more, improve your art, and flourish from accepting new challenges.

You want your art to be seen by more people, to be acquired by ever-prestigious collectors and institutions, and to leave a legacy.

Artists don’t reach the top and say that’s it. They keep going!

Your Art Biz Career Circle

Rather than the using the metaphor of a ladder, I use the circle to explain how art businesses and careers expand. Here’s how it works.

I believe there are three primary areas of focus for an artist’s business:

  • Inspiration – filling your well of ideas – about 20% of your time
  • Studio – making art – about 40% of your time
  • Marketing & business – everything else – about 40% of your time
Your Art Biz Career Circle
Your Art Biz Career Circle

The time estimates here are rough and certainly don’t break down this neatly daily or weekly. You bounce back and forth within the circle as your focus changes, depending on your goals and obligations.

You might stay in studio mode for one day or one week without giving a care to marketing and business. Or you could remain there in mornings and leave the afternoons for business.

At some point, you have to fill the well – you have to seek inspiration so you can continue making art and growing as an artist. This means enrolling in a class, talking with other artists, reading a book, or visiting galleries and museums. It could just as easily mean taking a nap or scheduling a vacation.

Your Expanding Circle

You don’t finish a marketing task and declare you’re done with it. You know you must return to it in the future. Ditto for inspiration and studio. You’re repeating many of the same things to build your business, month after month and year after year.

With this consistency and repetition, you become more sophisticated. You learn what does and doesn’t work, you adapt, and you add new tools, strategies, and technology.

You expand.

So rather than looking like a ladder, your business growth looks like this.

Your Expanding Circle
Your Expanding Circle

The inspiration-studio-business distribution doesn’t change much, but your circle gets larger and includes more responsibilities.

The blue line illustrates the bouncy path you take, while the pink arrow represents the upward movement of your career.

Remember that there is no top of the ladder for growth-minded artists. There is plenty of room for more circles – more advancement – beyond what is visible.

Each artist finds his or her personal trajectory. You will find your own way.

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40 thoughts on “The Career Journey of Growth-Minded Artists”

  1. Tania Jany Brown

    Dear Alyson, I like your analogy for the artist’s journey – the circle. The imagination connection I made was with the playground game of hopscotch (that ought to hint at my vintage). How many of us have struggled and benefitted from leaping well beyond the next ‘space’? It’s taken me years to acknowledge to myself that all experiences – even the ones outside the circle of artistic professional development – expand insight and understanding.

  2. Hi Alyson, this expanding circle metaphor is exactly the right visual at the right time for me. I’m exploring new directions in my work and am firmly in the “seek inspiration” segment. And Tania, I love the hop-scotch image of making the process more playful!. The more we can enjoy working in the various spaces, the more it will expand and grow. I’ve been in a slump as a result of this frigid winter so thanks for a very motivating post!

  3. Victoria Pendragon

    I have issues with the word, ‘success’

    In the US, it is so often used in a gestalt that includes fame and money. Fame and money, for me, have nothing to do with success.

    I’m a success if I am ‘in the circle/s’ the ones you have been inspired to show us. I’m a success if I’m crazy happy with my life, my work, the effort I’m able to put out to market myself. (Yes, I like putting effort into things… it feels good!)And I am crazy happy with all those things so I wake up a success every day and it is flat out awesome. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

    1. Victoria: Many other times I have written that YOU define what success means to you – and don’t let anyone else do it for you. It’s an entire chapter in my book.

  4. I love the circles. I especially love the way you used the pie graph, showing the actual making of art as just a piece of the business. When I’ve fallen off track, it has always been because I was focusing on a single sliver, rather than the whole. I know that this is just common sense, but as someone who tends to hyper-focus, I appreciate reminders to see the big picture, rather than developing tunnel vision.

  5. Alyson, I love the idea of circles. It is a very organic approach to growth and is similar to the concept of spirals – ever evolving – which is how I view my art calling.

  6. Christine Sauer

    Thanks Alyson! This is a great visual for the trajectory of your art business/career. I’ve also heard the hills and valleys metaphor but the circle and spiral makes more sense. I’m going to add this chart to my art business journal as a reminder.

  7. Christine Sauer

    I also like how the circle pie chart also relates to the circle of influence that has been referenced in several marketing trainings I have participated in over the last couple of years in addition to this blog.

  8. My two cents on the circle is what you told us years ago. 50% of your time is marketing and 50% is doing your art. So my brain has to see half of the circle creating, and all the other things in the other half. The hardest thing I do everyday is go to my studio, so if I don’t see it in the circle, it becomes this left brain consuming thing that makes me feel like a failure. I remember feeling so relieved after you told us that half our time should be the business part of our working and half painting. I had been thinking something was wrong with me because the business stuff was eating into my painting time and I was feeling guilty. Now I have the opposite problem, making excuses that I need to do the marketing before painting. Lol!

  9. I have this on my studio wall:
    Success: To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded. Ralph Waldo Emerson.
    As my Mom said frequently…she’s just doing her own thing!
    Along the way I have learned a lot from your tips and webinars; I thank you! And congratulations on your success!

  10. Just love the circle analogy. In addition to everything you’ve said, it seems that the circle reflects the inclusion of others in our journey, whereas the ladder only has room for one. Thanks for this rich imagery.

    1. Gail – LOVE this inspirational thought. I ordered Thank You cards with my painting on the front and every week I send out one – so many people who are helping me!

  11. I’ve never liked the idea of the career ladder – it sounds like such a constant struggle! Your idea of an expanding circle is much more positive, Alyson, and it leaves room for growth, no matter where you are. It’s so true that an artist’s career is never finished – that’s one of the things I like about it.
    I’d like to share a little about my own career path, which hasn’t been exactly a neat upward and outward movement, to say the least. Perhaps there are others who’ve had to forge their own path repeatedly. I’ve moved so many times, sometimes across great distances, whether permanent or temporary, that I’ve had to start more or less from scratch quite a few times. Not so much with the art as with the business part of it: marketing, making connections, finding venues etc. After my last move I thought: I never want to do this again, it’s so exhausting! But on the up side, I’ve had the opportunity to live and paint in a lot of different places, to be exposed to different cultures and communities, and to make friends and connections in all those places. That has been so enriching, both personally and artistically, that I wouldn’t trade it for a more predictable career. Still, when I read something about “emerging artists”, I have to laugh: I’ve been making and selling art for nearly thirty years, and I still haven’t emerged…

    1. Thank you Mineke, for making me feel better!!! “Forging paths,” dealing with changes, packing and unpacking!!!! BUT, BUT, still the artist in me ALWAYS. At least at this time in my life, I don’t have to make a living from my art! BUT, materials cost and it’s nice to pass on paintings and be rewarded monetarily along with the accolades!
      My husband passed away 1 1/2 years ago and he was definitely a helpful partner in my art endeavors. Now, I’ve moved to Florida permanently? as it was our southern abode for 1/2 the year, as we were “snow birds” from New England. The terrain is so different and I miss the mountains, etc. BUT of course there’s much new beauty to discover and explore.
      Have only done a bit of painting what with unpacking and finding homes for STUFF! Haven’t gotten to my very outdated website. I’m already a long time member of a nearby gallery where I’ve shown annually. I have found a couple of other smaller galleries I may approach with Allison’s wise and tackful nudging!!!

      Thank you for listening and providing an ear that should understand. Let’s just recognize that it’s not so bad, this emerging thing. It will continue and it’s a good thing. I see your word above… “enriching”. What a perfect word for the life of an artist! Aren’t we lucky!

      Mineke, your letter was amazing (Sounds like you ought to write a book!)
      Gratefully, Kathryn Broland Website:

    2. Thank you, Kathryn, I’m so glad it resonated with you. You’re certainly right that we are lucky. I took a look at your website: your work is really beautiful. I noticed that water is a big theme of yours, so I imagine you should find plenty to inspire you in Florida. Best of luck to you in art and life!

  12. Good stuff. Reminds me of PacMan gobbling up everything in it’s path. But I do recall that I. The game we get to choose our path even if we get gobbled up sometimes. Here’s to occasional reinvention!

  13. Some stories move like an arrow through the trees, others spread outwards like morning glories. The linear ladder and arrow feel much more pre-defined by others rather than intuitive, unpredictable, and surprising.

  14. Alyson, you metaphor is in sync with my life…every facet of my growth has introduced a new dynamic way for me to express myself. (Journalism/Typography/Graphic Design all very creative. The advent of computer technology expanding upon basics and altering my world.) Today, I feel blessed to be in control of my creative endeavors and being in charge of what direction I select for growth. Your program and illustration makes me feel more confident about who and what I am as an artist. Thank you for your energy and constructive development of programs to enhance the lives of creative beings!

    cree scudder

  15. Thanks so much for this article, Alyson! The idea of an irregular, incremental path forward helps a lot with my constant sense of never doing enough and never achieving enough. And also with my tendency to compare myself to with others. I KNOW that my art is constantly improving and I am excited about new directions for my work, but I frequently measure my success on how much I’m selling, which is discouraging.

    The % of time on each activity is also helpful. I find if I paint for three hours a day in the morning I do my best work and it’s the most enjoyable. Then, when that is finished, I have a sense of accomplishment that gives me energy for the marketing and business in the afternoon. I’m learning to value and nurture my enthusiasm and energy!

  16. I love that inspiration and studio are DIFFERENT — I don’t think I’ve encountered that in a model before. Because for an artist (at least for me!) sometimes being outside of my studio is the best place to be…

  17. I love this analogy/model/visual! I always feel like I’m spinning my wheels, and going crazy half the time, but now I’m sure it’s just that my circles are growing and I know that I’m slowly making it up that ‘hill’. Thank you!! I feel much better now!

  18. I need to look at this article again and wade thru the comments but, in brief, this is what I want to know more about…I am an artist who struggles with a number of mental health issues and I’ll never produce the quantity of artwork that I would like (I start LOTS of things which never see the light of day and feel sad about this.) But I am so lacking in “executive functioning skills” that my art goes into boxes or in drawers and little is ever seen, not to mention exhibited or made available for sale! I’m sitting on a trove of finished work, though most is not quite “there.” As in unframed or in some way just not quite ready to show.

    Making art is the single thing I want to do and nearly the only thing I feel capable of (which is not, probably, entirely true.) Help!

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