How to become a successful full time fine artist [Interview with Animal Artist Lesley Heathcote]
Lesley Heathcote always dreamed of being a full time artist. For many of us, that dream feels just out of reach. Let’s face it, it’s hard for many working artists to earn sufficient art income to warrant leaving their “day jobs”. Lesley’s journey from an architectural photographer’s assistant in New York City to full time pastel artist in Vermont shows that with skill, determination, perseverance, smarts and a bit of luck you can make it work.
Brothers, Pastel, Copyright Lesley Heathcote
Unconventional Journey to Full Time Artist
Lesley’s spell in New York City after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design (as a photography Major) was interrupted when she returned to Vermont to care for her parents at the end of their lives. She got a lucky break when it came to selling her NYC apartment. Lesley says “My apartment had been in a rough neighborhood that gradually became a nicer one and so I made a chunk of money from the sale that enabled me to work part time and also have time to develop my art form.”
Knowing no one in Vermont she joined a cooperative gallery where she met other artists and developed friendships. Through the people she met she was offered a job in the design department of a local stuffed animal company. As her bio goes on to say, she took the job despite having no training in the field and found that the work further developed her design and drawing skills.
Gradually Lesley began to exhibit more and was able to grow her sales but they weren’t where she wanted them to be. It was then that due to a series of personal issues she decided to leave the part time job (that involved a lengthy commute) and get a job closer to home. As fate would have it, that job closer to home didn’t materialize. Although Lesley still had money from the sale of her apartment to draw upon she was nevertheless thrust into being a full time artist.
“Suddenly I was without a job, she says.” “Art was what I had. I kept pushing it and was able to bring sales up enough to get by. Obviously this isn’t how I would advise anyone to transition to full time.”
Thrust into art business in a full-time role Lesley shared with me that art is different when you are suddenly focusing on it as a job. “It is a transition in how you think about the work, the amount of hours and the discipline you put into it,” she said.
No doubt this resonates with all working artists – we have another source of income to rely on and aren’t 100% dependent on the art business to make a living.
Lesley says “If things had unfolded differently I would work part time and do more art, which is important because it is different when focusing on it as a job.”
Becoming a successful full time artist (building her art business)
You may be wondering at this point, how Lesley became successful having been thrust into a full time role earlier than expected? How did she learn the ins and outs of running an art business? How did she develop her client base?
Lesley has always had a deep appreciation for animals and the natural world. In her bio she says this appreciation of nature has always been a part of what inspires her work. Lesley has also had a lifelong love of animals.
Snowy Owl, Pastel, Copyright Lesley Heathcote
One of the first series of animal portraits she did was of feral cats. Lesley told me how she put together a show with information on them and showed the images in a variety of local libraries. “I viewed it as educational as well as artistic,” she says. “I wanted to drive awareness of what they go through and how they need our help and assistance.” To her surprise Lesley ended up selling some of the portraits and the exhibitions generated inquiries for animal portraits.
Sometimes serendipity plays a strong hand in our lives. But it is more than that, too. Lesley’s motto was to say YES! “I said yes to any opportunity wherever it was.” She advises to get the work out there. “The more you do the more it builds.”
After getting inquiries about animal portraits she put up signs in the community – in the pet store and different public areas letting people know that she did portraits. She also held open studios and art fairs. (Quick aside – I first met Lesley at a Vermont Open Studio weekend. I wrote about open studios in my post on how to find customers for your fine art business.)
Gradually Lesley built her business. She says that like many artists though, she initially had a lot of rejection. “You need to learn how to handle that,” Lesley told me.
Learning how to price fine art
Perhaps the hardest part of becoming a successful full time artist is mastering the aspects of running an art business in addition to your craft. For example, how do you price your art?
Watchful, Pastel, Copyright Lesley Heathcote
How to price fine art is the most popular topic I’ve written about. Posts on this topic have more views than any other, such as How to Price Fine Art Photography and Tips on How to Price Commercial Photography.
In Lesley’s case she began by researching other people who were doing similar work and looked at how to get hers in the mid-range, a range that she said felt reasonable. “Once I was selling more I got a feel for where things will sell in this area,” she says.
Importantly this research didn’t just happen when she was starting out. Lesley told me she recently did research as to what pastel artists are selling at in nearby galleries. “If you go too low people may question why it is too low.”
Lesley’s approach involves using a pricing formula. As a pastel artist she has a base price that covers framing costs and uses a price per square inch beyond that. It didn’t always used to be that way though; she started with a more haphazard approach.
“It has made the biggest difference having a pricing formula. Having a system is really helpful because it takes some of the emotional stress out of it. Art is so arbitrary in a certain way with some artists selling at very high prices and others very low prices.”
Her advice is to find artists at a similar point in their careers, artists who are actually selling of course (presumably those in a gallery). “Use their prices as a gauge to build your own pricing formula,” she advises.
Lesley’s advice is markedly different from the advice she was given which was “just sit with the painting and the price will come to you”!!
Here’s one other tip on how to price your art. She also feels it is important to keep the price the same no matter what the venue is. This way, your clients don’t see similar work at a lower price point than what they paid. I recently had a question about this very topic. The artist was preparing for an art show and thinking of offering work at a lower price than it is available elsewhere.
Winter Fields, Pastel, Copyright Lesley Heathcote
The Advice She’d Give Her Younger Self
Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. I was curious, what advice would Lesley give her younger self?
She said that the first thing that came to mind is that it has been so important in her development is to be exposed to, and work in connection with, other artists. “It has been tremendously helpful in terms of the development of my work, and style, and skill levels, and being an artist, the business and professional aspects of it.”
Her advice to others is to get involved in artist groups and organizations, at whatever level possible. In her situation she found it very helpful to join a cooperative gallery upon moving to Vermont. Lesley is also a member of critique and community groups. She finds it very stimulating to have interactions with other artists. “It has helped bring my level of artwork up,” she says.
I hear this often from other artists and business professionals. For instance I spoke with Stephanie Sammons about this a few years ago in terms of building your online presence. It is really important to build your network. I’ve been a member of a critique group for many years. I find it really valuable for staying motivated and getting candid appraisals of my fine art photographs.
Lesley has also learned about bookkeeping systems and exhibition opportunities through these relationships. She is now involved in a group collaborative opportunity as a result. “It gives an infusion of new energy,” she says about staying involved in these groups.
Each of us will have to find our own path as artists. Maybe it will be similar to Lesley’s unconventional journey and serendipity will play a starring role. Or perhaps we’ll use Facebook and other online avenues to build our business like The Lone Beader (I interviewed Diana L. Grygo for a post on Starting a successful art business online). Or, maybe we’ll continue as working artists and nurture our creative passions on weekends and evenings.
What are you doing? I’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment and let my readers know about your successes and challenges. Until next time …
Heathcote works from her own reference photographs and loves spending time outdoors exploring and photographing nature and animals and doing plein air studies. Lesley Heathcote’s work combines accurate rendering with deep feeling for the natural world. Colors are heightened, light and composition adjusted, to reveal a poetic vision. The work conveys her sense of wonder and love of nature and the animal kingdom. Animals and the earth are portrayed with sensitivity and grace. To learn more about Lesley visit: http://www.lesleyheathcote.com/bio/
Keywords: Lesley Heathcote, animal artist, art business, art marketing, how to become a successful full time fine artist
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I am a marketing professional and a fine art photographer. With more than 20 years of experience as a marketer and image maker during the digital technology revolution, I now educate creative professionals how to create their artistic presence in the changing art world.
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