Award-winning painter James Ayers shares his thoughts on how to pursue a career in fine art
I have made my living exclusively as a fine art painter since 1995—as a result, I receive many questions from people considering fine art as a career. I thought it would be helpful to share my experiences and give advice on the subject in one place.
Understand your talents
One of the most important things to realize is that if you have a passion for making art, there is a medium that will help you explore your vision.
You need to be honest about what your abilities and interests are and find a way to develop the skills you have. Explore drawing, photography, mixed media sculpture, or any of the endless mediums that allow you to express yourself. Find your specific calling.
For me, the formal art education I received at the Rhode Island School of Design was an invaluable experience. Having a structured program helped me get the fundamentals of art in a logical way and added to the achievements and awards portion of my young resume.
My advice is that if you are in a position to go to art school, then GO.
What if you are not in a position to go to school full time?
A formal art education is not the only way to learn your craft. There are plenty of successful artists who never got an art degree—but this does not mean these artists did not educate themselves. Improve your skills as much as you can: take classes and workshops from artists in your genre, at community colleges, or online. Also make sure you read and see as much artwork in all styles as you possibly can.
An investment of time in your art knowledge will never go to waste.
Find your focus
When I first started my career, I knew that I wanted to focus on portraiture and realism. I had advice from people that I trusted that I should try to be more abstract and stylized—and I tried.
What I realized was that if I wasn’t feeling it, I couldn’t paint it. I cannot emphasize this point enough: Follow your own interests and don’t let other people’s idea of what you should become dictate what you create. My belief on feedback is to listen to all of it, but filter it—don’t let the advice from others overwhelm you.
Your most judgmental critic will most likely be YOU. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t evaluate your work with a critical eye, but don’t self-censor yourself into a creative box.
In my case, once I determined that I wanted to portray historic Native American cultures, I created my own unnecessary roadblocks based on what I thought people in the Native American community might think of my work.
What helped was for me to stop assuming and get actual input. My Hopi friends in Hotevilla and Old Oraibi put my concerns to rest and encouraged me. I have never looked back since.
Create your network
It is easy to stay locked away in your studio to the exclusion of all else—but do try to resist this urge! You need to get out there: Meet people that create , appreciate , and purchase art.
How do you get in the art-world mix? Try these steps:
First, make sure you have an online portfolio of your work. Even established artists like myself use this tool extensively.
For people interested in a fine art path, get involved with as many live art events as you can. Participate in local shows, art events, and attend gallery openings.
For those of you interested in commercial art, introduce yourself to as many people in the industry as you can. If you are eligible for an internship—take it! You can get your foot in the door of an agency and see how the real world of commercial art works.
I cannot emphasize this point enough. Whatever you do, KEEP LEARNING. You need a continuous inflow of fresh inspiration to keep your brain working at a high-performing level.
Go to galleries and museums and note other artists whose work you admire. Follow those artists at exhibitions and online; for living artists, observe how they continue to innovate in their work.
Speaking of online…Although the internet is an excellent tool for inspiration, there is no substitute for visiting museums in person. You need to see real art at its full size, not just screen-size representations of the art.
One of my most important inspirations was when I was viewing the Museum of Fine Art in Boston. I saw the painting Woman in a Fur Hat by Gretchen Rogers. I would literally stare at this painting for hours—absorbing the beauty in the use of light, the detail of the fur, the expression on the subject’s face. This experience helped me know that portraiture was the path I should also take—and was an experience that would not have been the same online.
Wishing you all the best in your art career
I hope my experiences have been helpful to you. Creating art is a marvelous endeavor and one that can make your working hours a joy.
Here’s to the art and beauty in your life.