Is artwork marketable without talent (and developing a thick skin as an artist)

I received this email from awhile back from Bob Hunt:

I've been getting your newsletter now for a couple of month and do find some of the information interesting, but I feel you haven't addressed a real issue that contributes to success. It's talent. No where do you address this (at least not in the newsletters I've received) or in any of the topics in your seminars. All the best marketing, networking, setting up web sites etc., won't do any good if the work isn't marketable. A lot of novice painters get the false impression that if you do all the recommended things you suggest that they'll be successful. False.

Bob, here are some thoughts off the top of my head:

1. First, it's important to note that my newsletter is written for all kinds of artists–not just painters. I am certain you realize this, but because your email addresses painters directly, I feel the need to emphasize the fact that I write for more than painters.

2. What is “marketable” and who decides that? Both you and I know that a lot of art is selling for a lot of money–art neither one of us would spend a dime on. We also know that “marketable” means different things in different markets and in different levels of the art world. I do not believe "marketable" = "talented".

3. I don’t teach talent, so I don’t address it often. I only share the business and marketing side. However, in working directly with clients I am adamant about them devoting themselves to non-negotiable studio time and perfecting their crafts. (Check out this week's Art Marketing Action newsletter.) You are right, however, that I should more often address the role of talent in an artist’s career.

Bob's message continues:

One of the most important things you can suggest is to have your readers get an "honest" assessment of their work to find out if indeed it has value. Many novice painters think they can be successful because of all the encouragement they have received. Usually that encouragement comes from family and friends who don't want to hurt their feeling by being honest with them or don't have the expertise to give an honest appraisal. This is not to say they can't be successful, if they address some of their shortcomings (providing they know what they are).

Only if you have talent and have marketable work will all your suggestions have validly [sic].

Image (c) Bob Hunt, Down the Rabbit Hole

Whom do you listen to?

Yes, artists should always seek feedback on their work, but from whom?  Who is going to be the person who gives them the thumbs up or thumbs down? I have heard so many stories from successful artists who received negative feedback and zero encouragement from certain teachers. Perhaps it gave them determination to forge ahead, but they could have just as easily quit with such an “honest” assessment. At the same time, I agree with what I think is at the heart of Bob's comments. Keep reading.

Bob recently wrote with these additions:

Most artists are very sensitive, and because most paint from the heart, it can be painful to receive negative criticism. They might get turned off because of it and don't think they're good enough to continue something that they love, and have a talent for doing so. The talent just has to grow. They have to learn to have a thick skin. Most importantly, is being honest with themselves. Listen to all the criticism, absorb it and if you think it's valid incorporate it. Not all criticism has to taken and acted upon.

When I do an occasional work shop, I stress that failure is not a failure in it's own right. The artist, hopefully has learned something from that failure and future work hopefully will be better because of it. I also stress, that to improve, you have to take risks, hence more failure, but that is the only way to improve and grow as an artist. If the artist is painting the same way they were 2 or 3 years ago, they're getting comfortable and not growing. This is especially true of some artist, who start to sell, and feel that this is what sells, so no need to try anything new.

Developing your thick skin

Now, we're getting to the heart of the matter. It's not just a matter of someone giving your art the thumbs up or the thumbs down, it's learning how to deal with those assessments. It's discovering what to work on, whom to listen to, and where to go from there. It's not about having "marketable" work (whatever that is). It's about exploring your talent and honing your craft. It's about learning from mistakes. It's about watching your work take on a life of its own after it leaves your studio and seeing how you react to that new life.

Bob, I also like your mention of taking risks. What is great art if not risky?

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43 thoughts on “Is artwork marketable without talent (and developing a thick skin as an artist)”

  1. Bob right in a way, but also a little harsh. I think you tempered it when you said “Who do you listen to” in terms of critiquing your work. Artists have to realize that there are so many arenas out there, and we have to find the nitch that is right.. be it contemporary art, fine art galleries, craft world, specialty medias, on and on. Each of these have many sub-spheres. It’s a big world out there!

  2. The word “talent” is such a convenient word, the implication that it’s something concrete, that we can pick it up, touch it, obtain it if we don’t possess it, or must find another vocation if it is something God-given and impossible to obtain. But technique can be learned, and if this is what you mean with the word “talent” then use “technique” instead. A critique can help an artist improve his or her technique and direct them toward a “marketable” type of image, but nearly all of the great artists of the past were not interested in current fad as much as they were in the greater artistic innovation.

  3. Seems to me that the only ‘honest assessment’ of whether an artist can make a paying career of art is the form 1040. As you have noted, there is a whole lot that goes into generating income from art that has nothing to do with the quality of either heart or effort that goes into the work. Every successful career artist I know says that talent has very little to do with success. Instead, they credit perseverance and relationships. And, now that I think of it, that’s exactly what you espouse: The artist must make art before it can sell, and must make friends who will buy. I would add, though, that the truly talentless do not make art, or anything else. They can’t. There is always, behind any hand made thing, a nubbin of talent, of desire to make.

  4. Whew! Lots of food for thought here. In my eyes, “talent” and “success” are such grey terms, and you have to find your own meaningful definition for yourself. I guess I see it as a number of threads: technique, style, personal taste, and vision all woven together to find an artistic voice. (That’s what I’m working on these days.) A trial-and-error process that never ends, so Bob’s right that there’s no “failures”. And, BTW, everyone needs a thick skin sometimes. Alyson, I love your comments about an artist’s reaction to watching work take on a life of it’s own after it leaves the studio. That’s priceless!

  5. The problem with using “talent” as a measuring stick is that it’s subjective. I’ve seen immensely successful artists (yes, painters) who I feel have little talent in painting itself. Clearly their customers disagree with me! However, I do think they have great talent at marketing. A few of these folks I’ve met and they are friendly, warm, open, exciting people. They are ‘people people’ as I say, and it serves them well. They could sell anything but happen to also like painting so they choose that. One thing I love about artbiz is that I feel it’s aimed at everyone and gives advice that each of us can choose to follow or not, as it may be appropriate individually for our work, our goals and our personalities. Some days I disagree with the posts (inappropriate ideas for me), other days it’s like a lightbulb going off (new ideas for me), yet other days it’s a bit like a nagging wife (ideas I know and need to get off my butt and follow-through on!).

  6. Great article Alison, I agree with Walter’s comment above. It is all about perseverance and relationships. Most successful artists that I have read about credit their success to their effort as much as anything else. It doesn’t matter how talented you are if nobody sees your work, or even more important… the “right” people see your work. Of course you should always be developing your talent! I would hope that goes without saying but talent alone will won’t get you there.

  7. Some great points here. I think the critical aspect to producing ‘successful’ (whatever that means) art is not to do with talent, but the way you use the talent you’ve got. Having a healthy attitude to your own work is vital – a balance between celebrating what’s good and working on what’s not so good, learning from and even enjoying mistakes, rather than beating yourself up, and being strong enough to realize there will always be people who dislike your particular art. I guess plenty of supremely talented people go under without a healthy frame of mind.

  8. I don’t know whether it’s because I have worked as an illustrator but I see success relating less to talent and more to hard work, regular marketing efforts and originality. The latter is, to me, part of what art is about—finding a unique visual response to this moment in time. Artists need to be both in the world and detached from it—a talent in itself. But opening to inspiration and having the skill and work ethic to follow through seem as important as inborn talent. Though I think some of that helps too!

  9. Lisa said:”What is great art if not risky? Is all great art risky? ” Is all great art even sellable? Does all sellable art even need to be ‘good’? Here in the UK at least there’s a strong market for affordable original artwork simply to match sofas and wallpaper. (pertaining mainly to paintings again) Some of us may not choose that market but it certainly is there and some artists do very well by it.

  10. Oh, bravo to all the commenters and you, Alysson! I’m an artist, husband is in the production end of music industry, I’ve been in the poetry arena – in each and every one it’s persistance 95% and talent (whatever that is in our created market world) 5%. If you believe in yourself, others begin to believe in you too – hey, it’s a universal rule, I didn’t make it. And is it art when a “discovered” artist gets stuck making the same thing over and over and over because s/he’s been discovered and that’s what sells? I’ve just been listening to a band from the late 80s that we worked for – great music, great lyrics: never made it (sad, sad, sad). We also worked alot in the D.C. punk arena…talent (as in: acceptable to the masses): almost anathema. Did they make money? yep. Did all that playing make some of them get better and better? yep. Did their music change? yep. To me Bob Hunt sounds like someone who is convinced HE HAS talent and who is a bit flumoxed that all these others are mucking up the sales arena. To him I would say: Relax Bob. Look at Thomas Kinkade. He’s made a bundle. Is he an artist? a marketeer? a little of each and something else? I’ll let you decide.

  11. I gotta say that the best success stories belong to those who simply worked their butts off and refused to give up. Thomas Edison used 100 different materials for filaments for the lightbulb before he found one that worked. Bottom line: he _knew_ he was onto something and kept plugging away until he found success. Was there risk? Sure, there was a lot of risk involved in terms of time and expense, but it paid off immensely. Was talent involved? Absolutely — Edison was extremely talented. But it’s his time, effort, dedication, and “stick-to-it-ive-ness” that made him a success.

  12. I would so love to believe that this is true–that it’s all down to talent and quality. But it isn’t. We find examples of this in all fields of the arts. Do the “best” movies bring in the most money…ones that are beautifully acted, well scripted, etc.? The “best” books? The “best” music? I don’t see how anyone could argue that. For as far back as I could remember, everyone knew that, if you played a song enough on the radio, it would sell. I am convinced that it’s primarily down to visibility. Now, how to get it without spending a fortune is another matter. But I feel that’s the key factor.

  13. Getting and honest and constructive critique is great but very hard to come by – I’ve submitted several pieces to various juried shows only to have either a simple rejection or acceptance without comment. In fact the only time a juror made a comment was when she awarded a piece an honorable mention and explained why it didn’t rank higher. It was a very helpful comment. I realize someone asked to serve as a juror has no time to write comments on each piece submitted; but it is most discouraging especially to get a rejection without comment.

  14. Having been a professional artist ever since college (with my cool art degree in hand) I just assume I had talent, and since people pay me for my art – I guess I do. Artist that persevere are going to be successful, those that don’t – won’t be. True artists understand critique; understand having an actual “style” and they do not take it personally when someone does not like the work. If you are just “crafty” you don’t GET it. Some so-called artists get tons of press, but that does not mean they are selling any art – I always say “Don’t Believe the Hype”. Beauty is in the eye of Beholder aren’t I right?

  15. Lots of different issues all tangled up together in this letter. Just pulling out one strand to comment, on talent/success. Artistic talent does not automatically equal success if by success you mean career success: sales/fame/media coverage etc. That’s a whole different kettle of fish. It is wonderful when artistic talent is allied with great career success but if you do any reading at all in art history you’ll see that this is historically the exception rather than the rule. All too many fabulously talented artists ended up in the poorhouse or the madhouse. This seems almost too obvious to state, but still…

  16. I remember reading somewhere that some of the most successful artists aren’t necessarily the most talented, but the ones who get the most attention or cause the most controversy. Damien Hirst may truly be talented. But he’s got a real knack for getting all sorts of attention with really shocking art like a 14-foot tiger shark suspended in formaldehyde. There’s no doubt Andy Warhol. had artistic talent. He may not have been the best artist ever, but he had greater talent in marketing himself, making grand (and accurate) proclamations. Salvador Dali was an eccentric of the first order. Even the old Masters, such as rivals Michelangelo and Raphael, stirred up controversy. Michelangelo was notoriously hard to get along with, and Raphael had an entourage with him at all times. I’m starting to think that in art, just as in business, quality/talent isn’t always the number one thing. You have to do something outrageous to get noticed and generate buzz. However, if you can do it with quality and a thick skin, you’re more likely to have greater longevity.

  17. I always say that, “Talent is DESIRE and the rest is practice.” I don’t believe in the notion that one is ‘born with talent’. Marketing is a whole different ball game though. Knowing whether or not one has a marketable product takes some trial runs, at craft fairs, local galleries, stuff like that. It you do well within the small picture, maybe you have your stuff together enough to spread your wings even farther. It is from those small efforts at first, that an artist is either rewarded with the knowledge that others resonate with their work or not. It is from there that one can gain perspective on their work (talent if you want to describe it that way). If your ‘talent’ is not perceived well locally then maybe more ‘practice’ is in order. That is what I tell myself anyway. I also tell myself that, “The second I think I have arrived? I am indeed finished.” Kathy Ostman-Magnusen

  18. So here’s my two cents worth. I think we all know talent when we see/hear/feel/experience it. And all those who say talent and success have nothing to do with each other, please add me to your court. We all know really talented people who aren’t “successful” and really (financially/socially)successful people who have less than a thimble’s worth of talent. Can talent be taught? Earned? Cultivated? Now that’s an interesting question. Should a lack of talent keep someone from expressing their heart’s desires, their mind’s eys or the way they intuit the world? Of course not. But I think we will always know talent when it’s in front of us. It’s intangible, it’s intuitive, it’s what separates the amazing from the good, the extraordinary from the ordinary. It comes in all shapes and sizes and needs little training though training can bring it to spectacular heights of achievement. That’s my thought anyway.

  19. Richard Lee Barton

    Talent is important, probably the most important in art. But talent comes from hard work and dedication. Hype art will not last – thank God….. Take it from some one who has been working as an artist for 35 years. The problem is most people dont know the difference between good art and wallpaper art. Keep up the good work Alyson, enjoy your efforts.

  20. I was talking to another person in the business recently and he said there are Amateurs that are better Talent wise than Professionals. We were talking about artists in the “Craft” arena. I find this to be a very true statement and here is why. When dealing with the public, a professional must meet the needs of the customer, at a Price that the customer is willing to pay. The amateur however does not, especially if he is doing the work for the joy of doing it. (seen alot in woodworkers) I think this is what Bob may have been refering to when he talks about marketablity.

  21. What is Success? It’s different from one artist to another. We all have our own definition of success. Why would anyone (especially an artist) tell another artist that they will never be successful as they are not talented and the work is not good enough? What is “good” art anyway? Who decides? What is good art to one person might be considered garbage to another. There is too much “tearing down” of other people’s dreams in our society. I think that we should uplift and encourage every one to follow their hearts and passion – no matter what our opinion is of it. Who are we to dash another person’s dream? I applaud you Alyson for not judging any one and for providing ideas for all artists to use to move forward towards their own version of success.

  22. A very well-known artist friend of mine said, “It’s not how good you are, it’s who you know.” I’ve thought about her comment many times over the years and I think she has a point. I’m not saying that talent and hard work don’t play a part, they do. But many things do keep happening to me as a result of who I know and what they know about my art. People remember me and contact me. After all, when someone needs an artist, they don’t run to the Yellow Pages. Really, it’s what you always tell people, Alyson, about getting their name out there and getting involved.

  23. Titilola Aladesaiye

    I think whenever you use the term “talent” it can be a touchy subject. Who decides who has this “talent” the art critiques or the consumer. Unlike any subject matter the arts are a very subjective medium, be it visual, film etc. My tastes are different from a lot of people out there I like the term technique that somebody previously mentioned because it is more important to what I think you are referring to Bob. Van Gogh was also thought to have no talent by his contemporaries even he thought so, but despite his lack of confidence he forged ahead and now his paintings are selling for millions. Millions he will never enjoy. So be careful when you use the term talent and i think the best marketing was created by Marcel Duchamp with his “bowl” which looks like just another urinal to me some “talented” person out there calls it art so what do I know.

  24. I remember when ten years in to my professional career, someone said to me at a show that I was really “talented” …I realised then with a mental laugh, that talent was something that came after ten years of sweating & grinding & working & trying…right…talented…like it all came naturally…just lucky…like I just got out of bed & painted a masterpiece…( I still believe that if you work hard enough, long enough, you too can be “talented”…)

  25. I would encourage any artists who apply to “juried exhibitions” NOT to take any acceptance/rejection personally or seriously. Same with sending out portfolios to galleries. We tend to think that any response is a reaction to our talent or ability. I believe that the reality of the situation is usually much more complex and political than one might think, & therefore, has little, if any, bearing on your work at all. The beauty of what Alyson has to offer is that it is applicable to artists in all mediums and on many levels & doesn’t really take the “talent” issue into account at all. That is really not her concern. Helping you to learn how to market what you do–that is the subject. If you have confidence in what you are doing, you don’t need someone to tell you whether you have “talent” or not.

  26. I think this is a facinating article; which invokes much thought. For me, being successful is not necessarily about making lots of money with my artwork. It’s about doing something I love to do and am passionate about; and maybe making a few bucks along the way. Talent I believe is god-given, innate; either you have it or you don’t; and some people are just born with it. I am basically self-taught, did my art courses in high school and only was able to take art history in college. My abilities have always been there, I just had to teach myself certain techniqes.

  27. Yes, some people have natural creative talent. And some people are naturally good at marketing and business. Both need to be developed if you want to make a living creatively…but I think the most important thing is being willing to work really hard and not give up. You can get better at an art/craft, and you can get better at business, but even if you are already good at both, you have to be willing to do the work.

  28. I haven’t read many of Alyson’s newsletters (only recently found the site), but I find this discussion interesting. Every single person has made a valid point and all seem to be in agreement that the “talented” are not necessarily the “successful”. In a small way I’ve been successful locally (meaning I’ve sold art work over the past year), but it is the risk factor that holds many of us back. We have the great desire to be successful, but we lack the courage to take the financial risks necessary to really promote ourselves. Has this fear been addressed somewhere?

  29. To further stir up the waters: It is interesting to note that in the dictionary Talent points to aptitude aptitude is from apt = Latin for “to see” whereas talent is medieval English for a unit of money. Both terms refer to themselves as an innate ability. So talent technically is more the innate ability to achieve payment for your art, whereas aptitude is the innate ability to “see” or understand your pursuit in art. So although talent (in our context) likely refers to the “proof” of someone paying for the art-ifact (you’re a pro!), you may be receiving payment for something other then the artistic merit of the art piece. Wherein if you have aptitude, often money may follow, but this is a secondary issue in the realm of creating art ….

  30. I hear so many people discuss “talent” when, to me, the most important characteristics are: skill, perseverance, determination, aptitude, interest, work ethic, networking, etc. I have seen many “artists” who have great talent but never accomplish much. The ones whom I admire the most are those who never stop learning, trying new things, and creating art every single day. My philosophy is “Never give up!” Tommy Thompson

  31. I have seen a lot of artwork sold that didn’t appear to be risky to me. The audience you pull through medium and subject serve to adjudicate your work and the success or failure of the piece. I have a genuine interest in people. I love to engage them, watch and listen. I love our pasts, and our innate connection to each other. I love our what ifs; Maybe especially those. Mine exist in my mind as both hard felt regrets and lighthearted daydreams. I’m always wondering what yours are. I know that my artwork is a success when I have taken all that is the great in you and put it together with the paint. I turn the canvas and show you your best. You are more than okay, you are a work of art. Not every piece is a success, but I always know by the reaction when I turn the painting.

  32. Just do the Art and the Opportunities follows you. ( Its the natural thing ) Trust me E.CODINA

  33. “ART IS LIFE..REAL ART IS FOREVER” When all these political turmoil and social issues in the world is over. Only art remains, look at the ancient civilizations, Aztecz, Romans, Assyrians, etc. the only thing standing today are there art. Thats all I can say. E.CODINA

  34. I don’t believe in “talent”. If you follow Alison’s advice 1 of 2 things will most likely happen. 1) Your in this for life and you will learn how to make your art the way you need to and learn to be successful (in your own definition of this) OR 2)You’ll get pissed and quit because nothing is like you thought and you’re unwilling to learn and change and make life happen for you.

  35. Ancient Artist: Developing an art career after 50

    Is it Talent, or Self-Actualization?

    Most artists, including myself, will rise to the bait when ever someone bandies about the T word. What is it about the idea of talent that scares us? Is it the idea that there is such a thing, leaving open

  36. Hello, i stumbled upon your website and was suprised to say the least that their is actually people debating these issues. I myself have decided to take the leap forward into my career as an artist. Having been to only one art class my whole life alot of people tell me i have what is called raw talent. Thought provoking all of this was to me but never did i feel the complete urge to pursue it with every spare minute i have until i was laid off from my job. I am only 20! Well seeing as how this could answer the question to a general audience. Spoken from the sister of a fiance of a millionaire artist out of san fransisco. Art is not about how good you are but about who you know. Wonder if that has any validity? So ….maybe i should break into some fancy upscale tea partys and clubs in san francisco to meet some “real” artists….

  37. interesting concepts to the above argument. Are we discussing talent or success here? Sure there are some incredibly talented artists making money but andrew does have a point. networking plays a major part in success. If you’re a household name in the artworld however its prabably out of outrageous controversy. All the artists I’ve ever heared of have done something bizarre to get in the papers. Then they are the ‘in thing’ for a while and anything they do sells.

  38. Pingback: There Are Few Sights Sadder Than A Ruined Book

  39. hey im currently trying to figure out what to do with my life i love to draw digital characters and i want to succeed with my artwork but my parents tell me i need to find out if ill be able to make a market of it how do i know if becomeing an artist will help me succeed in life with income and being able to pay the bills later down the road?

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Get a transcript of episode 182 of The Art Biz (Rethinking Mailing Lists for Artists) followed by a 3-page worksheet to evaluate the overall health and usage of the 3 types of artist lists.

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