8 Common Mistakes Artists Make
& How To Fix Them
By Julien Delagrange
Introduction: The Unwritten Rules of the Art World
Today, it seems there are no rules when it comes to creating contemporary art. Everything is possible, and there are no clear do’s and don’t’s. An artist can experience the ultimate freedom in the artist studio, but when they come out of the studio and enters ‘the art world’ aiming to grow their career as an artist, they can quickly encounter some difficulties and common mistakes artists make.
When it comes to an artist’s career and actions, numerous unwritten rules in the art world can make or break your career. The truth is your art will only be taken seriously when you stick to certain norms and standards.
In this article, we will be sharing these norms and standards. The unwritten rules of the art world are much less accessible or convenient to discover, and most artists must learn them the hard way, often losing many years of their career or sometimes even never discovering them.
These rules are inside information, and only by being an ‘insider’ you can get to know them and become successful in the art world. But how can one become an ‘insider’ if nobody tells you these rules? A paradox holding back many artists, and we aim to break this tendency to share everything you need to know as an artist, but nobody is telling you.
As a result, we are pleased to present eight common mistakes artists make and how to fix them. Instead of discussing apparent ingredients for success—such as willpower, sacrifice, or discipline—we will share specific actions, the things to avoid, and how to do things the right way.
After reading this article, you might consider reading our extensive article on How To Succeed As An Artist/Painter, purchase the printed publication How To Become A Successful Artist published by Phaidon, or feel free to head over to our Services for artists to get featured on our platform or to request personalized 1-on-1 advice.
1. No Recognizability: Having No Characteristic Visual Language and Technique
Our first crucial mistake many artists make might seem obvious, but it is much more challenging to address or fix than one might think. It is to say, the art world is immensely competitive and saturated. There are more artists today than there have ever been before.
With art being a product that can last for hundreds of years, today, there are more paintings than walls to hang them. Or, we have more artists in the world than we have art galleries to represent them. As a result, you MUST stand out.
The only way to do this is by having a very characteristic visual language. If you think about it, all successful artists can be identified at first glance when seeing their work. We don’t need to see their signature or a text card on the wall to know it is theirs.
When one sees a painting by Jenny Saville, we immediately recognize her voluptuous bodies, pink skin tones, and virtuoso brushstrokes. If we see a giant steel spider, we don’t hesitate for a second and know it is one of Louise Bourgeois‘ iconic Maman sculptures. If we see polka dots or pumpkins in sculpture, painting, fashion, or installation, we instantly know we are in the presence of an artwork by Yayoi Kusama.
They stand out because they have found their trait, style, medium, subjects, and motifs and have pursued them radically. Do things differently by following some things which are only yours, and do it radically. As a result, you will achieve a recognizable oeuvre. And doing so, you will stand out and be recognized as your career grows.
From our experience as a contemporary art gallery and as a platform examining contemporary art, this is the number one aspect galleries and collectors are looking for from a visual perspective. As a result, we can not understate the importance of having a characteristic visual language and technique.
2. Inconsistency: Radically Changing Your Style and Vision
From an artistic production point of view, there is nothing more harmful to your career than switching things up radically in the middle of your (growing) career. Galleries and collectors look out for artists who are consistent. The continuity of your oeuvre is critical.
If a gallery is exploring the possibility of working with you, or a collector has recently bought an artwork by you because they believe in you as an artist and see great potential in the growth of your career and thus the value of your works. Suddenly, you change your style completely; I guarantee the gallery director and collector will lose trust and interest in you as an artist. As a result, you have to start from square one.
Even more, you could risk damaging your artistic career permanently. If your oeuvre switches too much, you will be seen as unpredictable and thus unreliable for a long-term collaboration or as a long-term investment. As a result, collectors and gallery owners will hold back and prefer not to invest in you as an artist and go for a more consistent artist.
Yes, it would help if you evolved as an artist, career-wise and in your artistic production. But the development must follow a particular line and, above all, a vision. It is possible to start practicing a different technique or medium or change your overall visual language as long as it aligns with your vision and artist statement. The most important thing is to be consistent in the story you tell.
As a result, we highly advise all artists to write down an artist statement and use it as a compass, reevaluating it at least once a year. This might seem a formality or even a useless task, but in reality, it is a beneficial exercise, connecting your practice with your vision and setting out why your work is relevant today. Your philosophy enables you to create this continuity throughout your oeuvre. It challenges you to reflect upon your works, making it a very healthy thing to do for any artist.
Please don’t use this artist statement as something to post on your website or to send out to collectors and gallerists, but use it as a personal tool that will support you throughout your career. When you are being questioned about your work on the spot during an interesting conversation, you will already know the words and tell your story consistently from conversation to conversation.
3. Having No Frame of Reference: Get To Know Art History and Today’s Art World
Of course, one can not write down a relevant artist statement or have a solid foundation to build a compelling oeuvre or a professional career in the art world without having a reasonable frame of reference when it comes to art. As a result, it is of primordial importance to get to know art history and today’s art world first before you can join the debate and participate as an artist.
As an artist aiming to grow their career in the art world, you can be sure your knowledge of (recent) art history and overall intelligence or critical thinking will be tested by galleries, critics, collectors, and institutions. As a result, it would be naive to believe it is possible to make it as an artist without immersing yourself in art.
As we have mentioned, the art world is highly competitive, with numerous artists competing for the same galleries and collectors. As a result, the requirements to succeed as an artist are diverse and even demanding. As an artist, you are expected to have a solid knowledge of art history. In art, as soon as you put a mark on a canvas, you engage in a historical dialogue of thousands of years and thousands of artists. As a result, the canon of art history and contemporary art must be ready for knowledge.
You must educate yourself, have degrees in art history or the arts, stay up to date by reading contemporary art magazines, subscribe to art platforms, follow renowned social media channels, visit art exhibitions and significant museums, stay posted on the most important art events such as biennials, and experience the art world at first hand by visiting art galleries. Only this way will you discover the subtleties of art and the way the art world works.
4. Inconsistent & Indiscreet Pricing: Follow The Market Standard
A common mistake that can prevent you from having any growth career-wise as an artist is pricing your artwork wrong. A great misconception about contemporary art is that you can charge whatever you want for an artwork. However, as with any industry, there is an evident market standard for artists depending on their curriculum vitae and the offer versus the demand.
Only the correct prices will result in good sales. And only by building a steady history of sales can your art and your career as an artist increase in value.
When you are a beginning artist—meaning you haven’t had any exhibitions at real commercial art galleries (discover the different types of art galleries in our article The Art Gallery: Everything You Need To Know), nor have you won any renowned art prizes and your artworks don’t feature in any public or institutional collections—your prices will be situated between $200 and €2.000. By doing so, your works are primarily valued based on their decorative qualities.
When you become an emerging artist—meaning you are an artist who is still in the early stages of their career, exhibiting at some commercial art galleries by invitation, but not yet making a mark on the art world by being collected by institutions or featuring in institutional exhibitions—your artworks should be priced between €1.000 an $10.000. Now, you transcend the decorative qualities of your works and have achieved an additional artistic and art-historic value, becoming a collectible object and investment with a potential return on investment, raising the prices of your works.
As a mid-career artist—when you start to receive proper validation from the art world in the form of institutional exhibitions and by being collected by renowned private and public collections—your works will be situated in a price range of $10.000 up to $50.000. When you become a truly established artist, you will sometimes surpass the $50.000 mark to approximately $500.000. Feel free to discover more about the value of art by reading our extensive article Why Is Contemporary Art So Expensive? next.
When it comes to pricing paintings, there is a straightforward formula to determine the correct prices for your works. You will notice these prices resonate with the aforementioned price range depending on the artist’s career phase.
The sum of the dimensions of the painting, meaning height plus width, results in the asking price for the painting when multiplied by the artist index number.
(Height + Width) x Index = Price of your painting.
Once again, the artist index number depends upon the validation you have received from the art world. As a beginner artist, your index should be between 5 and 10. Doing so, a 100 by 80 cm painting will be priced at $900 up to $1.800.
As soon as you exhibit more frequently and become more serious about your career as a painter, you can apply an artist index between 10 and 15. Doing so, the same painting of 100 by 80 cm should be priced at $1.800 up to $2.700.
When you become a true emerging artist, you are frequently invited by commercial art galleries to participate in group and solo exhibitions. You start to gain genuine interest from various collectors building the foundation of your selling history; your artist index number should be between 15 and 25. The asking price of the 100 x 80 cm painting has now achieved the market standard in galleries for emerging artists, resulting in an asking price between $2.700 and $4.500.
Suppose you would start to surpass these numbers due to increasing demand for your artwork. In that case, you will have a steady and decent gallery representation that can advise you and use their experience in growing artists’ careers when pricing your artworks. From here on, pricing your artwork will no longer be an issue for you to solve by yourself. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to find the proper gallery for you and to truly invest in a long-term synergetic collaboration.
To conclude, you must be discreet with your pricing. Don’t show prices on your artist’s website or numerous online marketplaces. This might scare away gallery owners if they see you would be selling your works too cheap online directly to the client. Further, suppose a collector buys your artwork via a gallery one day, and they discover you sell your works on your website, Saatchi, or any other marketplace at a lower price. In that case, he will rightfully feel they have been charged too much, damaging his trust, and they will probably never buy one of your works again—or at the gallery that was willing to work with you.
5. Vanity Art Galleries & Contests: Focus On Mutually Beneficial Collaborations
As a motivated artist who would almost do anything to kickstart their career, you might be tempted to work with a so-called vanity art gallery. These galleries will charge the artist to exhibit at their gallery, and they promise you they will promote your works and will try to sell them to their clients. However, the truth is that their clients are not art collectors but you as the artist.
With thousands of artists, if not more, searching to find their way into the art world and dreaming of having an exhibition in an art gallery, vanity art galleries have identified this as a commercial opportunity to make a profit, squeezing money out of beginning artists’ pockets. They are not real art galleries, as they don’t have a curated gallery program. They do not exhibit artists based on the quality of their artworks but on the size of their wallet and if they are willing to pay to be included in an exhibition.
Vanity art galleries have already cashed in on your collaboration as soon as you agree to work with them. Doing so, they are more focused on searching for new artists willing to pay to exhibit at their gallery for the next exhibition than they are occupied with representing and promoting the artists they work with during the current show. As a result, vanity art galleries often do not have a qualitative gallery program, resulting in very few collectors following the gallery and a smaller chance for sales for the artist once more.
As a result, we strongly advise you to avoid collaborating with these vanity art galleries. So if one day you receive an invitation to work with an art gallery but they charge you money to participate in the show, think twice and be very critical towards their flattering invitation as it is a trick to lure you into becoming a customer for their business, with very little return for you as the artist.
Instead, focus on searching for mutually beneficial collaborations. That’s why commercial art galleries are the best type of gallery for artists—even though the connotation of the term ‘commercial art gallery’ might sound a bit negative. Commercial art galleries make money when they sell your works. Doing so, they are strongly motivated to sell your work, and whatever is good for them will also be good for you.
Further, there are different opportunities and ways to start exhibiting as a beginning artist. Discover them by reading chapter 7, How To Start Exhibiting Your Artworks, of our article How To Succeed as a Painter/Artist next, or read more about the different types of art galleries by reading our article, The Art Gallery: Everything You Need To Know.
There are also online art contests that apply a similar business model with their open calls. For an application fee of around $25, you can enter an art contest which they promise will attract many eyeballs and interesting collectors and galleries.
The truth is, however, the only people interested in or following these contests are other artists in the same boat as you, aiming to kickstart their careers. Yes, there is the possibility of a money prize, but applying for these online art contests can often be very similar to playing a $25 bet in the casino. In the end, the house always wins.
Further, with the primary objective of these online art contests being to make a profit, they will not invest in selecting a renowned independent jury because this would reduce their profit margin. As a result, a possible selection for these art contests will mean nothing in the art world and will not get you any further from a career perspective.
However, art contests, in general, are an important opportunity for beginning artists. One must first identify the ‘real’ art contests from the so-called online vanity art contests. We advise you to only apply for art contests with a long-running history, most often funded by a public institution. Look for art contests in which previous winners are established artists, and the jury is a panel of experts and renowned figures in the art world, such as curators, critics, and established artists.
These art contests will most often have a physical exhibition for all selected artists or the finalists at the show’s end. Doing so, applying for such an art contest is not only an opportunity to win a cash prize but also to have a meaningful exhibition when being selected, which is an excellent asset on your artist’s resume. Further, during these shows by renowned art contests, there will be exciting gallery directors and collectors present, which may open doors for new collaborations in the future.
6. Unprofessional Artist Websites: The Must-Follow Structure for Artist Websites
Regarding the unwritten rules of the art world, there are particular rules regarding having artist websites. Suppose you don’t follow these rules and the archetypical structure for artist websites. In that case, you will be written off as an amateur artist, and many galleries and collectors will lose interest in your profile and presentation online as an artist.
Less is more when it comes to artist websites. Go for a minimal overall look with a white background and a black or grey trendy font such as Helvetica or Roboto. There are only three must-have pages on an artist’s website. A page with a selection of your best works and metadata (title, year, medium, surface, and dimensions), a page with your artist resume (year of birth, location of birth, current location, exhibition history, collections, awards, publications and residencies if applicable), and a page with an email address or contact form to get in touch with you. Some artists could add a section with texts by art critics, a news page to communicate exhibitions, and maybe another page to overview their monographic books—if applicable.
If you visit several artist websites by successful mid-career and established artists, you will notice that all artists use this structure. Even more, you will discover the most common layout and how to present your selection of works and your artist’s resume. For a more extensive explanation of how to set up a professional artist website, read chapter six of our article on How To Succeed As A Painter/Artist next.
Things you absolutely must avoid on your website are unprofessional domain names—e.g., www.amazingpaintingsforsale.com—free Webhosting showing ads on your site. As mentioned before, prices on your website are a no-go (cf. supra). And don’t write different texts about your works. Only use texts by art critics; do not start a blog on your artist’s website because this is also frowned upon. You will come across as unprofessional and too eager to talk about yourself or sell yourself to the world.
7. Cold Calling/Mailing Art Galleries: ‘Pushy’ Self-Marketing Does Not Work
Even though many people believe becoming a successful artist today is all about marketing yourself, actively selling and promoting yourself as an artist is strongly frowned upon and could have a counterproductive effect. One of the most common daily mistakes thousands of artists make is cold calling or emailing art galleries by the dozen. This has proven to be one of the most ineffective strategies of self-marketing.
More artists are looking for gallery representation than art galleries are looking for new artists. As a result, galleries receive numerous emails and gallery visits on an almost daily basis by artists introducing themselves and luring them to be included in an exhibition. As they are being bombarded by those emails, it can become incredibly annoying for the galleries because it has become impossible to review all these unsolicited submissions. As a result, your email will go straight to the deleted email folder without watching your work for a split second.
This might sound harsh, but it is, in fact, a very logical reaction. Galleries have to disappoint artists every day. And if you think about it, asking or demanding a gallery to represent you out of the blue—which means they will have to invest a lot of money and time in you—is, in fact, not an honorable thing to expect. They do not owe you anything; they did not choose to get to know you; the artist decided that they have to review and consider their works.
In the art world, pushy strategies of self-marketing don’t work. Even more, you come across as an unsuccessful artist because you are not getting invited by other galleries, which will only decrease your chances of being represented. As a result, a more subtle and—even—more polite strategy needs to be effectuated to have the opportunity to work with a gallery.
The main goal or pretext for potential collaboration with a gallery is the gallery director seeing your works. If you submit your portfolio by mail or drop it off at the gallery desk, I guarantee they will not look at your results, certainly not in the proper context.
Instead, it would help if you maximize the chance of galleries viewing your works by chance—think of social media, other exhibitions, graduation shows, or shows at the end of an art contest (cf. supra). So, if they like what they see, they will get in touch with you. And, if they are the ones who contact you, you are in a much stronger position to negotiate or discuss the possibility of an exhibition.
You can network indirectly by following art galleries on Instagram and commenting on their posts. Or by visiting art galleries and chatting with the director or gallery assistant. Be involved in the art world, network in an organic manner, and build personal relationships with various actors, such as other artists, collectors, critics, and more.
But don’t mention you are an artist during your first interaction, or they will immediately think you are another artist who wants something from them. Instead, be genuinely interested in the exhibition you visit instead of only being interested in yourself, and you are much more likely to see that interest is returned to you.
If you would like to read a more extensive take on how to get noticed in the art world and by galleries, make sure to read our article How To Get Discovered as an Artist next.
8. Pursuing Lucrative Purposes: Think about the Long-term
We conclude with crucial advice regarding your objectives as an artist. If you aim to make a living with your art, the best way to do this is by building a solid career as an artist, which is the only thing that can add value to your works (cf. supra). However this takes time and patience, but it is the only way to have a lucrative career in the art world.
Our experience in the art world has shown that people who pursue artistic purposes will be successful and have lucrative careers—both artists and art galleries. People focusing on making money in the short-term, seeking profit instead of artistic quality, are destined to fail due to those notorious unwritten rules of the art world.
Successful artist careers don’t happen overnight. They take time and grow organically. You will notice one exhibition, art contest, or encounter in a gallery that will guide you to the next. And before you have fully realized it, you will be part of the art world, participating in the debate of contemporary art as an insider. If you would like to read an extensive take on how you can earn money as an artist while pursuing long-term success, make sure to read the article 20 Ways Artists Make Money next.
Make sure to read our article on How To Succeed As A Painter/Artist for a step-by-step approach to thinking in the long term and building a career as an artist the right way. Feel free to discover our services for artists, including our 1-on-1 professional advice and promotion services for artists, here.
Julien Delagrange (b. 1994, BE) is an art historian, contemporary artist, and the director of CAI and CAI Gallery. Previously, Delagrange has worked for the Centre for Fine Arts (BOZAR) in Brussels, the Jan Vercruysse Foundation, and the Ghent University Library. His artistic practice and written art criticism are strongly intertwined, examining contemporary art in search of new perspectives in the art