What Do Artists Actually Do?

Life as a working artist is not all coffee shops and art galleries

What do artists actually do in real life? Television often portrays artists sitting around in coffee shops having deep and meaningful conversations, or swanning about in interesting clothes at art galleries, or having dramatic nervous breakdowns, usually connected to drugs and alcohol.

It's true that on occasion you'll find artists doing these things. Yet, most of the time they'll be where they really need to be—in their studio making art.

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Artists Make Art

Young Artist working on big painting.
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Making art is the most important thing that artists do. Their primary task is to create the art of their choice.

This may include installations, sculptures, paintings, drawings, pottery, performances, photographs, videos, or any other medium. Some artists incorporate a number of different mediums into their work.

Art can take many forms, but with the exception of some conceptual art, art is the expression of an idea in some sort of physical form. Artists need to work consistently and produce a body of quality work so much of their time is spent in the studio doing just that. 

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Artists Think About the World

Woman in painting studio having a break while painting watercolour.
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Artists are not human photocopiers. They make art for a reason, and try to share their ideas and visions with others.

Artists spend quite a bit of time observing the world around them. They ponder things, people, politics, nature, mathematics, science, and religion. They observe color, texture, contrast, and emotion.

Some artists do think in visual terms. They might want to do a painting that shows the beauty of the landscape or the interesting face of a person. Some art explores formal qualities of the medium, showing the hardness of stone or the vibrancy of a color.

Art can express emotion, from joy and love to anger and despair. Some art refers to abstract ideas, such as a mathematical sequence or pattern.

All of these interpretations require thought. Next time you see an artist sitting in a comfy chair and gazing into space, that's not necessarily loafing. They might actually be working.

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Artists Read, Watch, and Listen

Centre d'Etudes de Carthage, a library in downtown Tunis
Philippe Lissac/Getty Images

Being able to think about and share insights about the world means learning as much as you can. Because of this, artists spend a lot of time researching and immersing themselves in culture.

Inspiration is everywhere and it is different for every artist. Yet, most have an appreciation for a wide breadth of knowledge and the creative pursuits of others.

Reading books, magazines, and blogs, watching cinema, listening to music—these are important to most artists.

As well as reading about art itself, artists are open to ideas from many sources. They may study science journals or TV shows about nature, books of poetry, classic novels, and foreign cinema, or pop culture and philosophy. They add this knowledge to what they know about technique and their creative skills in order to make their work.

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Artists Share Their Art

Centro Cultural Laurinda Santos Lobo.
Lonely Planet/Getty Images

Part of being an artist is having an audience to view and, hopefully, buy the art. Traditionally, this means finding an agent or dealer who helps to organize exhibitions of your artwork in galleries.

For an emerging artist, this avenue often involves setting up shows in unconventional spaces like cafes or schlepping their work to art fairs. Many also frame their own work to save money and mundane tasks like basic woodworking skills can be very useful.

Contemporary media has opened many avenues to artists, with art community websites, personal web pages, and social media. However, it's important not to just live online—your local art scene still offers many opportunities.

Exhibiting and selling also involves a considerable amount of self-promotion. Artists must market themselves, particularly if they don't have representation. This may include blogging or doing newspaper and radio interviews to promote their work. It also involves finding places to exhibit and designing marketing material like business cards.

Quite often, you will find that artists are good at a variety of basic business and production tasks. It's often out of necessity and is something they pick up as they progress in their career.

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Artists Are Part of the Community

Woman painting in art class.
Hero Images/Getty Images

Art cannot necessarily be a lone wolf adventure. As one lecturer once said, "You cannot make art in a vacuum." Many artists have found this to be very true, which is why the art community is so important.

Human beings thrive on interaction and having a peer group that shares your creative ideals can really help maintain your creativity.

Artists support each other in a variety of ways. They may attend gallery openings and art events, help each other with promotion, or simply get together for coffee or dinner to socialize. You'll also find artists raising funds for charity, teaching, and hosting workshops and critique sessions. 

Many artists also choose to work in shared studio spaces or join a co-operative gallery. All of this feeds into the need for social interaction, which fuels the creative process. It also shows others that artists support each other and promotes a healthy art community to the general public.

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Artists Keep the Books

Woman hand working with calculator, business document and laptop computer notebook.
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In any task that we do, we generate paperwork. To be a successful artist, you need to master the basics of finance and organization and know how to do basic bookkeeping on income and expenditure.

Artists need to know about the tax and business laws in their county, state, and country. They need to organize insurance, apply for grants, pay bills and track invoices, and keep a record of galleries and competitions they have submitted their work too.

This is certainly the less glamorous side of being an artist, but it's part of the job. Because creative people can find it difficult to be organized, they need to pay extra attention to developing good management habits.

Many artists pick up these skills as they go. Some also get help on certain tasks from accountants, assistants, or apprentices. Being a working artist means you have a business and that requires a whole host of tasks that we don't necessarily enjoy. Yet, it's what must be done to enjoy a life of creating art.