How to Deal With Failure Before Your Big Break

A big-name, rich collector buys all of your available work. A patron of the arts funds a year of studio practice. An NYC gallery wants to feature you in your very own solo show. Some white knight changes your life forever, sweeps you up on their horse and carries you off to fame.

Those are what we call big breaks in the art world.

But here’s the thing about big breaks, they don’t come looking for you, you have to make them yourself. And most often, big breaks often take the form of much smaller breaks that you find along the way, some might be larger than others, but they all push you further down a path that you are paving as you go along.

There’s no set way to become an artist. Some people go to art school and do residencies, others start a YouTube channel and sell stickers on RedBubble. My point is, there is tremendous flexibility in how you choose to sell your work and the kind of artist you choose to be. Personally, while I’m drawn to big-name artists that sell work at tens of thousands of dollars, I prefer to make my work more accessible to the average person.

If you want to become a full time working artist, you have to want it. You have to be willing to create these opportunities for success yourself. For me, that meant sending hundreds of emails to galleries, art consulting agencies, staging companies, interior designers, curators, and when they didn’t respond, I’d wait six months and send them another email with my new work. It meant sending my work to online magazines, local papers, small-scale art and literature publications, etc. Starting out, I’d often spend more time trying to get my art out there than I would creating it.

My first break was actually displaying my work in a local coffee shop, then I got into a small-town art gallery, then a consignment relationship with an art consulting agency. I got all these opportunities in the first three months of opening my business, but I had only sold one painting so far.

Then four months roll around, I sell a print and a small watercolor. Two more months, nothing happens. I get my work published in a magazine, a student newspaper article written about me, but no more sales. I revise my prices, update my website, create new and more experimental work, and while my online community of people who appreciate my art is growing, I’m still not making enough income to cover expenses.

The inevitable doubt starts to set in. Should I really be doing this? Is every dollar I spend on art supplies another dollar down the drain?

But late November rolls around and I sign up for this craft show, completely free for vendors (which, if you’re into selling your work in craft shows you know it’s a rarity to not have to pay a $300 or above booth fee). While I don’t really expect my work to sell, I slash my prices down by about 30%, bring in a bunch of watercolor paintings and some of my more expensive original works, advertise the show on social media, and I wait.

In three hours I’m almost completely sold out. I had the second best day of profits out of everyone there, and that feeling of validation was incredible. People liked my work! And even better, they were willing to buy it!

I took every opportunity I was capable of handling (and some that I wasn’t but made it work anyway) and I made my own success.

Moral of this story? There are no big breaks that happen on accident, only the breaks that you make for yourself.

Trying to find light at the end of your tunnel on the journey of catching your big break can be daunting especially when you are first starting off. However, establishing a daily art habit can turn that daunting task into a piece of cake

2 thoughts on “How to Deal With Failure Before Your Big Break”

  1. HI Kelsey, congratulations on a sell-out show. I have been doing some craft shows and I know what a challenge it is to sell at these events. Sometimes we struggle to make the table fee back. I hope that you might be willing to share some prices that you sold your work at. Would you mind giving size/medium/price that you found worked for you?
    I sell OOAK Wearable Art (using my pour paintings etc as the material for my clutch purses) and OOAK Shabby Chic/Boho bags and a line of limited edition wristlets. People love my items, but most are not willing to pay the price. A lower price for me is not viable if I want to be profitable and not give away the items. I have met many creators who are happy to be paid anything for doing something they love. I would like to treat my art in a more business like fashion.
    Again, I am very pleased with your success, and all of the effort you have put into making it happen. Your success is also our success, it helps knowing that there are folks buying and enjoying the art.

    1. Elaine,

      Thanks for your comment! The craft show I sold at didn’t have a table fee, so I felt a bit more comfortable selling at lower prices than usual. I had one 16″ round acrylic work for $150, an 8″ piece for $30. My most successful pieces were my abstract watercolors, the 9×12″ originals were $20 each and I had 4×6″ postcards for $6 a piece, or 2 for $10. Having some items at a lower price range is a really great draw for customers.

      I completely understand not being able to sell items at a lower price, selling original art can be really tough. I only started making selling my work on a semi-regular basis to people once I lowered all of my prices by about 20% and introduced new products that were $30 and under, postcards being a really good fit for that because they’re very low-effort and low-cost. If the artwork on your designs can be digitized, maybe consider selling stickers/prints/totes from POD services like Printful? Could you make wallets? Bands for watches?

      Hope this helps! Feel free to email me if you want to talk about this more!

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