The artist is nothing without the gift,
but the gift is nothing without the work.
1 – Introduction
How do you achieve artistic validation? How do you know if your work is legitimate and recognized as art?
These questions came to the forefront during a recent one on one session when I asked one of my students what were his long-term photography goals. His answer was that he wanted to sell his work. Because this student is financially well off I asked him why selling his work was an important goal for him. His answer was that having people buy your work is proof of artistic validation.
This surprised me because no matter how far back I go I have always considered selling my work to be proof of financial success (or failure as the case might be). In short, I sell my work to make money. I run a fine art photography business and selling my work is one of the ways I generate income.
2 – Sales and artistic validation
This is not to say that artistic recognition is not important. It is. However, for me, artistic recognition is separate from selling my work. In other words selling my work and being recognized as an artist are two different things.
The reason for this is because artistic recognition and sales of my work (or your work) are not necessarily related. Being recognized as an artist does not necessarily lead to sales of your work and sales of your work does not necessarily lead to artistic recognition. This is because the two are fundamentally different. What generates regular sales of one’s work are marketing and business skills. What generates artistic recognition is the creation of works of art that demonstrate a unique personal style.
Both require that you have an audience interested in your work. However, how and why this audience becomes interested in your work differs. Because your audience learns about you through your artistic achievements, say for example you received an award or were published in a prestigious magazine, does not mean they will automatically buy your work. For them to do so requires that your work is priced at their price point. If it is priced too high, or too low, sales will not happen.
Similarly, just because your audience buys your work does not mean that you have achieved artistic recognition in their eyes. For example, they may be buying your work because it is affordable. Or, because it has decorative qualities. Or because your marketing is excellent and you made them an offer they can’t refuse, whatever it may be.
3 – Selling Price
What we are seeing here is that price is an important factor when considering sales as evidence of artistic recognition. First, you have to price your work ‘adequately’ (meaning high) in order to consider sales representative of artistic achievement. If you price your work low (meaning cheap) people will buy because of price, not because of artistic quality.
The story behind the image
The sunset that evening was fantastic but it is what happened after the sun had set that made this photograph possible. The color in the sky faded and I packed my gear. Then, the clouds lit up and the light reflected off the clouds colored the landscape a deep shade of red.
I did not have time to unpack the medium format digital camera I used previously because setting it up would have taken too much time and I would have lost the color which I knew would last only for a few minutes. Instead, I used the camera I had around my neck which was the Fuji X100s that I keep handy ‘just in case’ for instances like these.
Because I wanted to capture the entire scene I needed a very wide lens, something like an 18 mm on a full-frame 35mm camera. The Fuji X100s has a fixed 23 mm lens, the equivalent of a 35mm on a full-frame 35mm. This lens was not wide enough to capture the image I had in mind. To solve this problem I took eight different frames making sure I had plenty of overlap from one frame to the next in order to collage the images (or ‘stitch’ them if you prefer) in Lightroom or Photoshop later on.
The light faded right after I captured the last frame. The resulting image is what you see here. Artistic liberty was used to express the emotion I felt when I witnessed this scene instead of showing only what the camera captured.
4 – Marketing
Sales are greatly influenced by the quality of your marketing. At equal artistic quality, the artist with the best marketing wins. I know this first hand because when I first put my work for sale I sold nothing even though my photography has won numerous awards. I was a good artist, or at least that’s what the awards I received were telling me, but I was a poor business person, or at least that’s what my sales were telling me.
On the other hand, I had a competitor who, in my opinion, was a relatively poor artist but sold his work like crazy. While I was dying to make a sale he had a line of people waiting to buy his work. The difference between him and I was marketing and business skills. My work was more artistic but his business skills were better. The outcome was that his work sold and mine did not.
My poor sales were not due to the audience. People wanted to buy art and were doing so in large quantities. They were just not buying my work. Instead, they were buying the work of my competitor who was set up less than 10 feet away from me. Why? Because he was a far better business person than I was. He knew how to sell photographs and I did not. He knew the exact price point that would make people buy, he knew how to talk to customers and he knew how to close the sale. In short, he was a master salesman.
I was a rank beginner. I did not know how to approach potential customers. If we compare his technique to mine I was shy while he was self-assured. I did not know what to say while he knew the exact words that would make people like him. I did not know how to close the sale while he knew exactly what to do to transform interest into income.
Don’t feel sorry for me. I learned. Not overnight mind you, it took a couple years, but I became as good as he was, if not better. Or rather, different because I found my own selling style. Personal style is present in all aspects of life, be it selling, creating art or other.
Fact is there is no direct connection between artistic achievement and sales. One does not lead to the other. Someone can be a good artist and sell little or nothing, someone can sell a lot and be a poor artist, or someone can be a good artist and sell a lot. However, this third possibility is the least common one.
5 – The correct path
So how do you get artistic recognition? The next sections focus on specific ways to achieve recognition in a professional manner.
6 – Training
Artistic recognition starts with artistic training. While it is true that art is ‘whatever the artist wants to create’ it is also true that art is based on artistic concepts. These concepts are no more innate to a new practitioner than are the concepts used in other professions, whatever this profession might be. Concepts have to be learned and practiced in order to be mastered.
The way artists acquire this knowledge varies. The learning process can take many forms, from being self-taught to attending a prestigious art institution to getting a degree. However, regardless of how it was acquired this knowledge is part of your artistic validation. Art is a profession that has its own characteristics. To excel in this profession you have to study and practice.
To be taken seriously as an artist, and to achieve artistic recognition, you have to demonstrate that art is more than a passing interest or a superficial hobby. Describing the training you follow, including how many years you have spent studying and practicing art, is an important aspect of this demonstration.
7 – Awards
Another way to receive validation of your artistic skills is to enter juried competitions. These are organized locally, statewide, nationwide and worldwide. The wider the scope of the award the more significant the award. It is best to start with local competitions and, if you are so inclined, move up towards larger competitions. As you move up the competition will get more fierce because you will be facing artists of a higher caliber. However, the award you will receive if you win will be proportionally more meaningful.
8 – Publishing
Publishing is another important aspect of getting recognized as an artist. Just like awards the larger the audience and the more renowned the publication that features your work, the more meaningful it will be. The idea is to start small and grow from there. Submitting your work to a national or international magazine right off the bat is not the best idea. It will most likely lead to a rejection letter, or email, and may cause you to get depressed. Instead, start small by submitting your work to local magazines, newspapers or websites. Once you have been published a few times submit your work to magazines that publish in your state then move to national and eventually international magazines. In other words, gain experience locally and move on from there. Here as in any endeavor experience pays off in multiple dividends. Local success will build your confidence and will allow you to tackle challenging submissions with positive energy.
Your first publications are likely to be relatively modest: a photograph in a magazine or maybe an essay about your work illustrated with a selection of your photographs. However, it does not necessarily end there.
If you continue down the publishing road you may have the opportunity to have a coffee table book of your photographs published or even several. In the age of self-publishing, this does not necessarily mean working with a publisher. You can self-publish your book by doing the layout yourself or with the aid of an editor and get it printed on your own.
Whatever form this publishing takes place it is the response of your audience that defines the level of your achievement and the measure of your artistic validation.
9 – Exhibits
Showing your work is another way to get recognition. Of course, just like publishing, where you exhibit your work makes all the difference. However, just like publishing, starting with moderate ambitions and moving up from there is a good idea. Attempting to have your work featured in a national level show when you never exhibited before will only result in pinning you next to photographers whose experience is no match for your own. Instead, cut your teeth on local shows and progressively move to bigger and better shows. Your first show may be modest but nothing says you have to stay there. Look at it as a starting point, not as an end in itself. We all have to pay our dues one way or another. The goal is to build confidence and experience, not to be an overnight success. This approach will pay off in the long run.
10 – Teaching
Teaching can be a form of artistic validation. Passing your skills to others, sharing what you have learned during your career, helping other photographers benefit from your experience, preventing others from making the mistakes you made, can be a validating experience. However one needs to have both the skills and the desire to teach.
Knowing how to do something well is not the same as knowing how to teach this subject well. Teaching is a self-reflecting activity that requires preparation and reflection. Preparing for a class and reflecting about how you taught this class is as important as teaching the class. This makes teaching a time-consuming activity that will take away time that would otherwise be spent photographing. There is, therefore, a time and a place to do so, if you are so inclined.
11 – Accolades
Being endorsed by people who play an important role in the field of fine art photography is another way to receive validation as an artist. Such endorsements act as testimonials. Having important people in your field say good things about you gives you credibility.
12 – Personal style
Developing a unique personal style is the highest form of artistic achievement. It is also one of the most difficult. This is a work-intensive endeavor. A personal style takes years to grow and develop and it is based on a unique vision for your subject. The way you approach this subject and the way you represent it in your photographs is fundamental.
An important aspect of developing a personal style is knowing who you are as an artist. For your style to be personal you have to be true to your personality. Your artistic taste and your life experiences influence your work more than anything else. It is therefore important that you know what you like and dislike in the domain of art. Which artists do you gravitate towards and which ones you stay away from? What you like to do and not do in your work? And, most importantly, what is your personal vision for your work?
13 – Conclusion
Validation takes place when your work is recognized as being worthy of interest and artistic value. The key to this is creating work which is uniquely yours, work which is recognizable as yours because of the unique style in which it is executed.
Developing a personal style is, therefore, the key to artistic success. Having work that is different from other artists makes you stand out among the crowd. It gets you noticed by judges, publishers, gallery owners and other influential people in the industry. It should be number one on your list if you seek validation for your work and if you are serious about being recognized as an artist.
Developing a personal style and expressing a personal vision is the subject of my next two essays. The first of these two essays will focus on the theoretical considerations and the second on the practical aspects of developing a personal style. If this subject is of interest to you I recommend you read these two upcoming essays. I also recommend that you attend one of my workshops because personal style is a subject I teach in every workshop.
14 – Workshops with Alain and Natalie Briot
If you enjoyed this essay you will enjoy attending a workshop with us. I lead workshops with my wife Natalie to the most photogenic locations in the US Southwest. Our workshops focus on the artistic aspects of photography. While we do teach technique, we do so for the purpose of creating artistic photographs. Our goal is to help you create photographs that you will be proud of and that will be unique to you. The locations we photograph include Navajoland, Antelope Canyon, Monument Valley, Zion, the Grand Canyon and many others. Our workshops listing is available at this link:
15 – About Alain and Natalie Briot
You can find more information about our workshops, photographs, writings and tutorials as well as subscribe to our Free Monthly Newsletter on our website here. You will receive 40 free eBooks when you subscribe to my newsletter.
I create fine art photographs, teach workshops with Natalie and offer Mastery Tutorials on composition, image conversion, optimization, printing, business and marketing. I am the author of Mastering Landscape Photography, Mastering Photographic Composition, Creativity and Personal Style, Marketing Fine Art Photography and How Photographs are Sold. All 4 books are available in eBook format on our website at this link: Free samples are available so you can see the quality of these books for yourself.