How to Go Pro Like Van Gogh (HINT: It’s Not About the Money)
Does the word “professional” apply to Van Gogh? He didn’t make any money and he failed to become famous (even locally) in his own lifetime. Sure, his art fetches high prices now, and is well received by nearly everyone. But that’s his work, not him.
Van Gogh was a failure if your definition of “professional” is forever entangled with financial and popular success. Of course, if you think Van Gogh was a failure, you are a fool.
Your goal is to be a serious artist. To do that means that it is time for you to start treating your work as work. Below, I’ve outlined a few of the basic requirements you’ll need to “go pro”.
You Must Retain Amateur Status
The words “play” and “work” are not opposites, they are complements. No matter how seriously I am going to urge you to take your work, it should never stop being an activity you love doing.
Being an amateur has nothing to do with your paycheck, it has to do with your attitude and motivation. The original meaning of the word “amateur” did not mean “less serious”, or broke, it meant that you were a lover of whatever it is you are an amateur of.
You can be an amateur and not be a professional, but you cannot be a professional without also being an amateur. A professional who has lost their love of what they are doing is what I would call a hack.
Know if You Are Only a Hobbyist
Creating art because you like to do it is a perfectly valid reason: it is reason enough. We should give hobbyists far more respect that we currently do. A person with a few hobbies is far less likely to be living a soul-crushingly stressful lifestyle, will have healthier relationships, and will probably live longer than the rest of us.
That said, professionals and hobbyists are not the same. How can you tell which you are?
Some might start with the following question (which I hate): “If you were rich, and didn’t have to work, what would you do with your time?” The assumption being that whatever answer you give is what you should be doing with your life NOW, not waiting until you get rich.
Here’s a better question: “If you were dead broke, and you knew (for sure) that committing to your art was going to prevent you from ever getting out of poverty, would you still choose to do it?”
If you answer “yes”, then you are not a hobbyist, you are a professional.
Van Gogh made this choice. The result was the best work he was capable of producing. A professional finds this trade-off worth it.
Work as Hard as a Professional
The 19th century writer, Anthony Trollope, had a full time (non-writing) job. Still, he would wake up early every morning and write for three hours, getting 1,000 words per hour (250 words every 15 minutes, exactly). He got his 3,000 words in every day, no matter what. He was like a machine in his level of dedication to the hard reality of creation: you have to be consistent.
A professional artist treats their work like a proper job — especially when not being paid for it.
Work Ethic is Empowering
The fact that hard work and consistency are the fundamental predictors of your success (not financial!) as an artist is empowering. The mark of a professional is that this fact excites and motivates them.
Contrary to the myth, Van Gogh was wildly successful in his own lifetime. His worked his ass off every day. He doggedly worked to improve his craft and skill levels. He produced.
If you don’t find this fact empowering (or worse, find it sobering) then you’re a hobbyist — which is awesome, but don’t ruin your fun by making your art into work.
For a professional, the whole point is that you want this to be your work! So start acting like it.
The Myth of the Muse: No Excuses
Most artists are waiting around for inspiration. Without this mythical inspiration, they feel helpless.
What a writer would call “writers block” is a sham. There is no muse! There is no magical external force in the universe that will take over your body and force your hands to create.
Most days you will put in the work, and there will be nothing special about it. Some days, you’ll be hit with inspiration. The point is to be ready for this inspiration, lay the groundwork for it, and take advantage of it fully.
A Professional Artist Goes Public
An athlete who doesn’t compete is not an athlete. They may exercise, they may train, but I’m not going to call you an athlete until you enter your first contest. Once you do that, I don’t care if you did badly, I don’t care if you always lose, I don’t care if you will never win or make money or get a scholarship, you are a REAL athlete.
Similarly, you may be a horrible artist, you might produce some of the worst work in the history of your medium, but if you put your work out there for other humans to see, read, or listen to, then you are a professional artist.
You won’t magically build a large audience just because you set up a blog to put your stories or paintings on. But you will have broken through a huge glass ceiling most artists are too afraid to face: rejection.
Putting yourself out there is something only the tiniest one-percent of one-percent of artists are willing to do. The rest don’t have the guts to do it. Do you?
You may only have an audience of one, but that’s an audience. Hell, that one person may hate your work, but that isn’t relevant. What matters is that you had the guts.
Showing Your Work is Now Easier Than Ever
We live in a world where the middlemen of art (record labels, publishing houses, etc.) are quickly becoming more of a hindrance than a help. There was a time when they were the gate-keepers between the artist and the audience. That is no longer the case.
The internet has changed the landscape of art. If you want an audience, you can find one.
I suggest that you have a blog (not just a website) where you showcase both your work and yourself. Yes, use Facebook and other social media networks. But your blog is yours. And it will never matter if Facebook changes their algorithms or rules on you.
Everyone should exercise: it’s good for you and it’s fun. Yet, for a small minority, exercise isn’t enough, they want to be athletes.
Similarly, everyone should engage with the arts. Studies abound that extol the benefits to your brain and psychological well-being. But that’s not what you’re in it for.
To be a professional, at anything, let alone the arts, requires that you act like a professional.
- Work harder at this than you do at anything else.
- Don’t allow any excuses for why you aren’t practicing and producing daily (the muse myth).
- Put your work in front of others.
Repeat. It’s really not complicated. It’s just hard. Thankfully, it’s also the most fun you’ll ever have.
Now go lift something heavy,
Nick Horton, ‘The Iron Samurai’, is a poet and musician; was trained in mathematics; and is a Zen-Atheist. Clearly a weirdo.