Building a Career for the Long Term

28 Jan 2015

Patricia Watwood oil painting, Fate, oil on canvas
My painting, Fate, was given an honor award at the
2011 Portrait Society of America International Competition.

For the Portrait Society of America Conference in Atlanta a couple of years ago, I was invited to participate in a panel on Professionalism, Leadership, and Service. I was asked to speak to “Building a Career for the Long Term.” Now, anyone who saw my tax returns for 2010 would NOT have put me on a short list for advice on professional success, but I guess there are different kinds of success.

For artists, commercial and financial success is only one goal. So, don’t ask me for financial advice, but I am happy to share my thoughts on what have been some guiding principles for an oil painter’s long-term career goals.

My 500 paintings: I’ve been thinking about the 500 paintings I’ll be lucky to make in my life, and focusing on how each oil painting will be part of a body of work that expresses my point of view and values. In other words, I have long been thinking “long term” in terms of my chosen subject matter, and how it will reach an audience today, and I hope, in 50 years. So, to develop your career long term, think long term, and envision the work you are doing this year, next year, and in 10 years. We can’t know exactly where we will end up, but think about how what you are doing at this moment will be part of a lifetime of work.

Recognizing what connects it all together
: Art careers and recognition are based in part on the audience ability to understand who you are as an artist, and what are the consistent qualities in your work over all. Galleries and collectors will look at your entire body of work in assessing who you are, and what the quality of your work is. You may approach a variety of subjects and even have a range of style in terms of sketching to finish or different oil painting techniques, but there is always an overarching voice, a common quality to your work that will pervade all of what you make which expresses your fundamental nature and values. Strive to understand what this is in your own work, and find ways to make that unique quality shine to it’s best advantage.

No mind readers here: Who knows what the art world will look like in 10-20 years? What will be trendy? Will galleries still be in business and interested in figuration? Will the Internet play a larger and larger part? No one knows. So, my advice is don’t worry about it. What is going to keep you committed to the difficult work of making art when the wind is blowing in the other direction? My advice to you and myself has always been don’t chase the next big thing. You’ve got to dig deep and find the source of inspiration that will sustain you and your work.


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KatPaints wrote
on 5 Jun 2011 4:16 PM

Wonderful portrait!

I've been thinking about your 500 paintings goal, it is very ambitious. I realize at my age, this goal would be unlikely. It would be unlikely if I expect to create large, major works of a significant size, however I can reach this type of goal if I created a small daily painting. Many artists create small paintings of simple objects within a few hours. You (I) can literally reach your goal in less than two years.

As a designer, I have found that the marketplace shifts slightly each year and much more significantly in about two to three years at the most. Imagine developing a "look" only to find that in a few short years you must change again in order to keep up with the trend. Your comment "You've got to dig deep and find the source of inspiration that will sustain you and your work," rings true.

on 29 Jan 2015 11:04 AM


I agree with everything you have mentioned. The only exception I take is when you insert a projected quantity of work into the equation. I realize what you saying is a "lifetime of work".

Your last paragraph is an elegant statement and a marvelous directive for all artists—especially young artists. Your last two sentences sum it up well. The source of the personal, long-term inspiration needed can only be found deep within ourselves and how we relate to the world around us. In most cases, something this profound can only be arrived at—or recognized—over a period of time.


on 29 Jan 2015 11:40 AM


After spending 43 years in advertising and graphic design, I agree your comments on the shifting tastes of the commercial marketplace. During the late 60s and through the 70s and 80s changes in "style and look" were in a continuous frenzy. Tastes in typography, illustration, and design were changing a rapid pace.

In commercial graphics, it is always essential to appeal to people in a visual language that is right up to the moment. It is the way to sell—the way to capture attention. The pace of change slowed to some extent in the 90s and into the 21st century. However, changes in public taste are always a factor that commercial design must address.

Fine art must lead a different course. I believe that fine art —at its best—must speak to the soul of the viewer. Artwork that speaks with that language does not need to bend with the winds of the moment.