Tips for Survival as an Artist–from Michael Shane Neal: Part 1

by Michael Shane Neal

Today’s guest blogger is renowned portrait artist Michael Shane Neal, who generously offers hints for living a long and healthy artist's life.

1. Set goals and write them down!
List things you would like to accomplish both in the short term and in the long term. You might consider committing yourself to a weekly class, list teachers you would like to study with, techniques you would like to improve on, subject and compositions you would like to tackle, galleries you would like to show with, competitions you would like to enter, etc. Setting goals is the first step to accomplishing them. Hang them near your easel as a constant reminder of what you will achieve.


Image ©Michael Shane Neal, Suzanne DeNeufville.

2. Work hard.
Whether you have the opportunity to devote your entire day, or just a portion of the day to your art, work hard! I have worked 12-18 hours a day for more than 15 years. It is important to devote as much time as possible to your growth as an artist, but you must work smart as well. An hour of painting free from distraction is worth 3 when the phone is ringing and the kids are home from school.

3. Study.
Set aside a portion of each day for study. Read about a favorite artist, visit a museum either in person or via the internet, browse through a favorite art book, sketch from life, etc. Spend quality time developing your skills by reading and studying each day.

4. Tenacity!
Don’t take “NO” for an answer! This can be no truer in the life of an artist. You will constantly face defeat and rejection. Galleries, agents, clients, friends, and even family may at times dampen your resolve. Put your passion to work. Remind yourself constantly that you can and will succeed. Pick yourself up after a bad painting, a rejection notice from a competition, or a negative review from a client. Turn each of these situations into learning opportunities. Ask yourself “what can I do better or differently next time?” Commit yourself to growth from every experience. Remind yourself constantly that you will succeed, that you will grow as an artist, and your decision to follow your dreams to become and artist will become or remain a reality.

5. Thrift.
For nearly the first 10 years of my life as a full time artist I painted every painting on a $2 easel bought second hand, mostly held together by duct tape and a prayer! I rented a small studio that was prone to flooding and had less than ideal lighting conditions. It was important that I kept my overhead low and focused on living off of less than I made. Survival is your main goal. Living frugally whether by choice or not, is important. Getting to the next painting is your ultimate goal.

See Michael Shane Neal's Tips for Survival as an Artist, Part 2 and tips 6-10.

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16 thoughts on “Tips for Survival as an Artist–from Michael Shane Neal: Part 1”

  1. Hi Michael, I had the privilege of writing an article about you for the Portrait Society’s newsletter – years ago now. It was a joy to write that one!

    Thanks for sharing your tips with us. Your career has soared – and now I can see why it has.


  2. Although I respect the effort, the title of this article should’ve been: “How to be a lifelong starving artist.”

    Working 12-18 hours a day for 15 years just to maintain a living seems inefficient at best, and asinine at worst. Working that much because you want to, is of course, a different story.

    Unless you bleed paint (in which case, nothing else but the artist’s life will do), having to work 60-80+ hour weeks is just not sustainable, and advice like this I fear is more counterproductive than helpful.

    1. I agree on several levels.
      I agree with the advice as well: with qualifiers
      having work as a Pro Photo for 30yrs I can assure you that best self assessment , is the hard edit. Are you really ready to quite your’ “day job”?

      I could be way off but when I hear advice like.that above , and forgive me here: I smell trust fund!

  3. There is nothing unusual over working 60-80 hours a week, or more, in self-employment or as head of a small enterprise. It is very common.

    I would say that NOT working that hard and that much is a pretty certain road to failure.

    Besides the creative work — which probably accounts for only 20-30 hours a week — you have bookkeeping and promotion and show-prep and floor sweeping and straightening out the files and keeping the mailing list up-to-date and filling out the IRS’s quarterly forms and sweeping the floor and arranging for catering for the studio show and meeting with the museum board over your proposal and writing letters of thanks. And so forth. And floor-sweeping.

    It all takes time, and there is precious little of it that anyone else can do.

    It beats the heck out of asking, “Do you want fries with that.”

  4. @Walter:

    According to Mr. Neal’s own accounts, he actually works 84 – 126 hours a week (12-18 hours/day). That seems egregious to the point of being very counterproductive, but like I said in my previous post, if you WANT to be putting in that many hours, then so be it.

    Mr. Neal is of course the head of his own business. As an artist he is clearly skilled. But if his ‘business’ REQUIRES 84+ hour work weeks (even after 15 years of same) to sustain itself, then I think it’s safe to say that his skills as a businessman are lacking, even if he’s currently earning a very nice living.

    If his business would fall apart without all those hours, then I would make the argument that he has created an unsustainable enterprise, or at the very least, an unattractive life-consuming business, perhaps more on par with slinging fries than you think.

  5. Hmm…I beg you all to remember that artists tend toward exaggeration, & that, being self-employed means there is no one around to actually validate your hours…Let’s give Mr. Neal a break, & assume that what he is saying is that he gives his career his full concentration & leave it at that…(I’m guessing if we actually clocked him, the results might include soup-making, chatting with a neighbour & watering the plants…)
    But I like your spunk Brooklyn, & would like to see where your art is at…drop a link…

  6. Exageration? Not so sure it is given I’ve realized … quite exausted as you’d figure … at the end of a week that I’ve managed to put in 100+ hours.

    There’s only myself, my fiance, and my father when he wants too and/or is bored (he’s retired) … there’s not only the art, but the quotes, the websites, the emails, the blogs, the general marketing, the portfolios, the bills, the bookkeeping, etc etc et etc. Get home from working 8+ hours in a studio and then comes the rest of the day.

    Soup making comes in yes – but the phone also goes into the bathroom these days and rarely isn’t on when driving.

    And yes – a small business can fall apart (art or otherwise) without the owner doing what they do in many cases even after 15 years. The cost of having others do it, the overhead of a larger operation, etc can make all the difference betweeen profit and loss.

    I highly prefer to keep my income where it is and put in the time at this point in my life above deligating and diminishing the profit. That’s a choice …

    That said, work smarter not harder – yes it’s important to constantly revisit your activities and determine what is worth the effort, improve, streamline, etc. If it’s possible.

    I would love to have someone else say handle my website – but the fact is it’s a $250,000 site on a cheap day and if I didn’t have a sleep disorder and handle it myself it wouldn’t exist. Besides, I’d never be happy with what someone else did anyway.

    I’ve had my newsletter reviewed by graphic artists / PR people … $5-$10,000 an issue. Forget it – I’m not laying that out! It’s a creative outlet for me anyway so it’ll stay quarterly a best in releases.

    If I outsourced my work – it wouldn’t be mine with signature and it wouldn’t have the value it does.

    Art – as a business – is a trap. I’ve built a business that’s impossible to sell to anyone without the skills to run it – it only has value because I’m in it. Chances are most of you reading this have done the same thing … THAT is why even after X years we’re still putting in so much time.

    It’s a lifestyle choice – artists that make it as a business, entreprenuers alike – most cases we do this because we want to be in this type of work – and often we do it at the expense of personal time, relationships, and even health.

    There are artists that are starving for reasons that can be turned around – most are primarily failing at marketing and business operations – not at the level of their talent. Fixing that can fill a few gig’s on this site!

    Anyway – I babble … this site looks like a great resource and venue for exchange of ideas and advice … enough said.

    Those of you asking for the links and the credentials to a statement are welcome to visit our website. – we also just opened a new blog site there is a link on our home page, as well as links to our newsletters, etc.

    Eric M. Saperstein
    Master Craftsman
    Artisans of the Valley

  7. It is entirely possible that Mr Neal paints whenever he is awake and not having to do business things. And perhaps there is some exaggeration as well. He probably doesn’t do a whole lot of housework or running around for the family but really, if he isn’t using a VA, then he is doing it all himself and being in business means that not only has he to do his own accounting, purchasing, research, maketing, business forms design and printing, photos, etc, etc, but also he is painting. That’s really two full time jobs in one.

    Of course if he’s successful and not also a control addict he would be offloading some of the business work to a VA and devoting more time to painting and family.

    An artist, scientist, whoever has a passion for what they are doing doesn’t just stop after 8 hours. They immerse themselves in it. This means that they are still “working” even after hours.

  8. Alyson B. Stanfield

    Thanks for these comments. I find it interesting that of the 5 points, the comments really focus only on one: time. I don’t think Shane is exaggerating. I know from running my own business that it is quite easy to put in a 12-hour day. Eighteen, however, would do me in.

    I’m turning this into a DTT. Look for it tomorrow.

  9. Alyson B. Stanfield

    Brooklyn: It should be noted that Shane didn’t mention if this was a 5 or 7 day schedule. So it might be more like 60-90 hours a week.

  10. He sounds very disciplined, I know when I work, 18 hours a day is normal for weeks on end, 7 days a week. But then I’ll go through periods of not working at all, most of the other established artists I know seem to go through that as well. The thing that I like most about this is he encourages discipline, learning, working, the full scope of what it means to be an artist. So many young people I meet don’t even sketch an hour a day… you have to have a passion for it. Great article anyway 🙂

  11. I have known Michael Shane Neal for more than 5 years. He is the most skillful, articulate, disciplined artist that I know. I do not know exactly how many hours per week that Shane works, but I do know that he is a very dedicated, successful artist–not the starving kind, although I have known him to grow a few tomatoes in his backyard with his kids one summer! Shane is the most dedicated teacher and is the most sharing, giving human being to others. He runs a very successful business, along with a small staff. He is the youngest portrait painter to ever paint and hang a portrait in the U.S. Capitol–No one else can say that! His work requires a good deal of traveling, but he also reserves time for his small family. You will never meet a nicer gentleman that this guy. By the way, he teaches his workshops dressed in a white shirt and tie–and they stay clean too. This guy is the ultimate professional and will someday most likely fill the shoes of his mentor–the venerable portrait painter of Presidents–Everett Raymond Kinstler. Every aspiring portrait painter needs to take at least one workshop with Shane in Nashville. I count Shane among my best friends. Tommy Thompson

  12. Pingback: Twitter Tweekly from @abstanfield — Art Biz Blog

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