The Realities of a Fine Art Career–Robin Erickson

A Few Minutes with Robin Erickson

The Fourth in an Artist Daily Exclusive Series:

The Realities of Fine Art as a Career

Apple NYC Inside & Out by Robin Erickson, watercolor painting.
Apple NYC Inside & Out by Robin Erickson, watercolor painting.

What did you find most surprising about being a full-time painter?

The amount of solitude was unexpected. Initially I painted only in my spare time because I had a full time job. When I left that job I suddenly had no co-workers to entertain or distract me. Sharing a studio with other painters was not the answer, I needed my own space. So now I tune out the solitude with music or public radio when I'm painting.

What did you find most difficult about starting a full-time professional career?
Promoting my work. I still find it difficult. I am, by nature, a reticent person. It's uncomfortable for me to discuss my work, in a promotional way, with anyone—much less a potential buyer. I just sort of let the work sell itself, or not. Gallery representation is the obvious solution for me.

Do you recommend keeping another source of income while launching a professional career?
Definitely. My husband's supplemental income is essential for us to get by—especially here in Southern California. I would say the same for many other focused, productive artists I know. Sales volume fluctuates widely from month to month, art supply and framing costs can be substantial, and investments in marketing opportunities need to be considered. I think support via a job or a spouse is probably key to the success of most artists.

Do you believe gallery representation is still the best way to go?
Yes, I don't think original art should be purchased without personally seeing it; online images aren't always truthful. However, having a web and/or social media site is high value; it makes me much easier to find by someone interested in just seeing my work.

Did you have a career plan with specific goals when you started?
I had vague marketing ideas sketched out, and with the assistance of S.C.O.R.E. (a service provided through the Small Business Administration) I created a plan that I followed for the first three or so years. Now my goals have changed quite a bit, and my approach needs to be reevaluated.

How prepared were you for the business side of fine art—record keeping, gallery contacts etc.?
Record keeping was easy to fit into a schedule. Marketing was what took creativity and time, because I had no prior experience. I labored over a marketing plan that fit my goals and inclinations. 

What do you wish you had known about the art business before you started?
I wish I'd known the value of self promotion. I thought that being a good painter should be enough. However, for me, the best way to market my work involved marketing myself.  What I mean by that is I took the time to volunteer in arts organizations and art cooperatives in my own community. This served to educate me regarding the people who buy art in this area and how other, more experienced artists approached marketing. As a sitter in a cooperative gallery I learned how to “talk art” with customers. As a board member on the arts council, assisting with fundraisers and gallery receptions I became well known to the art patrons in the region. I donated paintings for a few big fund raising events, and this definitely opened doors. 

Alioto's Pizzeria, watercolor painting by Robin Erickson
Alioto's Pizzeria by Robin Erickson, watercolor painting.

How much of your time is devoted to the business of art? 
The business side of my day varies from perhaps ten minutes to three or more hours, depending on what events I'm planning for. I would estimate the average daily time spent would be 45 minutes. That's time spent actively working on business, not counting the analysis and reflection I tend to do while I'm in the car driving somewhere. I do not teach, which eliminates a great deal of out-of-studio work.

With all the other obligations of a professional, do you have enough time to paint?
No, although it is the most important activity of my day. The biggest cut into my painting time is actually my family and friends and volunteer activities. Also, we travel several times per year, which is great for gathering inspiration but no painting gets done then. However, these are all activities I very much enjoy; they provide balance in my life – and keep the solitude at bay.

Are you able to maintain normal working hours —six to nine hours per day?
A nine hour day would be fantastic—if it ever happened for me. Five or six hours is standard, with housekeeping, cooking, pet care, shopping, around-the-house projects, etc. filling the remainder of my day. These are things my husband does not do and so it falls to me (probably a universal situation for women working at home). I try to paint  seven days per week so I almost achieve a 40 hour week. Most importantly, I produce enough paintings to stay ahead of demand.

What are the hidden pressures of fine art that most of us are not aware of?
Finding a balance between painting what I enjoy most and painting what I think will sell causes me some anxiety. I try to do both, but it isn't always satisfying. The truth is that the artist's passion for a subject is the most compelling aspect of an art piece, and I want my passion to show.

What is the best advice you could offer an aspiring fine artist?
Paint as much as you possibly can. Practice isn't the thing you do once you're good, it is the thing you do that makes you good. Read Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers The Story of SuccessHis account of the reasons for the success of such icons as Mozart, Bill Gates, and many others, was not just that they had a passion for their fields but that each invested the time – over 10,000 hours – to achieve their levels of expertise.

Robin Erickson is a Fallbrook, CA artist who has focused exclusively on watermedia painting. Her work has shown in venues across the country as well as in China and France. She juries shows in Southern California, and has served on the Boards of Directors of Watercolor West and Fallbrook Arts, Inc. She has achieved signature status in the American Watercolor Society, the National Watercolor Society, the California Watercolor Association, San Diego Watercolor Society, Watercolor West and the Transparent Watercolor Society of America. For more information, visit Robin's website.

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After a long career in advertising art, Paul Sullivan is now a full-time watercolor artist. A graduate of the University of Toledo and the Toledo Museum School of Design, Paul has a BA in Fine Art. He is a Silver Signature Member of the Arizona Watercolor Association and a Signature Member of both the Pennsylvania Watercolor Society and the Watercolor Society of Alabama. Paul's work has been featured in exhibitions throughout the U.S. and in China. Visit his website → View all posts by Paul Sullivan →