Building Confidence as an Artist
“How did you get so confident, and how can I get more confident?”
In an odd coincidence, on the same day a friend of mine who is making a very, very big business move asked me “How do you handle the thoughts of ‘Who the hell do you think you are to try this?'”
A Question of Confidence.
I get asked this quite a bit and I find it sort of funny, because there’s a list of about 299 situations that I find myself not feeling confident in.
A lack of confidence is just fear. Now fear’s no joke, but confidence isn’t an permanent thing either.
#1: It’s not like height that, once achieved, stays with you.
One has confidence one minute, then some damn thing happens, and now the confidence has vanished.
One can have a terrific evening at a gala event and have the notion that one was roguish, vivacious, elegant, and oddly, happened not to put one’s foot in one’s mouth. And then once home one notices that one has had a dribble of appetizer schmeared down one’s lapel and that one has spent the evening looking like a fashion-conscious hobo.
Had one noticed that schmear when it happened, one’s confidence would’ve evaporated instantly.
But maybe the biggest thing is that people are deathly afraid of looking foolish.
Here’s the deal: Nobody really gives a crap. Not really. And if they do, it likely comes from a state of jealousy or pissyness anyway. It’s really, really tough to impress people. And they may be impressed one minute, but then notice a schmear down your front and then be less impressed.
If people are so hard to impress, then let’s stop trying.
To that end, if one cuts out the drama and the energy vampires, and stops engaging in debates with idiots online, the stress relief is astounding.
But here’s the important thing to note: people are hard to impress, but by gum they want nothing more than to BE impressive. Everyone looks for every chance to show everyone else how smart they are, or how pretty they are, or how important they are. They’re really too wrapped up in their own horsewash to care about what anyone else is doing anyway. So don’t give it undue consideration.
Advanced tip – if you can feed their own sense of self importance, you become important to their self worth. A kind word goes a LONG way, but dish it out with an eyedropper, not a shovel.
Shovels are for sh!t. 😉
#2: Imagination Quells Confidence.
A lack of confidence is usually as a result of an unnamed dread about an imagined possibility that’s usually SO far-fetched as to be kind of funny when light is shone upon it.
Some folks seem to think that if they say hello to a stranger that they’ll be eaten or excommunicated or something.
Or they’ll set thing up in their heads so that it’s impossible to win. They’ll think “If I don’t sell this show out, I’ll just DIE!”
One thing that I’ve found useful is to quit hanging success or failure on any particular outcome. It’s a test. It either works, or it doesn’t. Or you land somewhere in between.
Unless you’ve bet the farm on something (which is kind of dumb), or are doing something where the cost IS death if you screw up (parachute packing comes to mind, also dumb, I contend), then it’ll work out, or it won’t, and either way, you’ve got more info to use next time.
So some dude at an art show didn’t buy. So what? Find a way to improve what you’re doing, and/or find another dude who’s a better fit. See? No sky falling! 🙂
#3 Preparation can instill confidence.
Have your act together. Know your stuff. And if you really don’t yet, proceed anyway and realize that there’s no real downside.
For instance, the day after I’m writing this section, I’m participating in a celebrity charity poker tournament, and they’ve roped me in as a celebrity (yes, right up there with the channel 6 weather girl and that chap who runs late night car ads).
But I’ve never played Texas hold em’…
I’ve been to Vegas scores of times and have never gambled more than $75 in total.
Confident? No, not really. But I’m chewing through strategy and rules and theory and by 1 pm tomorrow I’ll at least be able to talk about the mistakes I make…!
What’s the worst that can happen?
“If I tank, will I be cast out?”
“Will I be mocked in the streets?”
“Will comment seep out over the internet about my poker-playing ineptitude?”
“Egad, I was a finalist in a TV show called Canada’s Greatest Know it All on the Discovery Channel – if I bomb, will I be derided as a fraud?!?!”
Of course not (well, maybe that last one).
Even if I’m one of the first out of the running, I’ll be pleasant and encouraging and will wish everyone sincere luck (the winner gets a seat at the World Series of Poker). I’ll be gracious, and I’ll hang around/do my fly on the wall routine to see if I can learn anything. There may be importantish folks to meet. The media will be there. The buffet looks nice.
In short, I recognize that my fears are overblown, and I’ve decided to wring some enjoyment out of it.
So what happened?
I learned a lot, met some nice people, and had a great time! I watched, I was pleasantly encouraging and complimentary to my foe’s poker prowess, I didn’t do any of the crappola that people usually do when they’re intimidated, and I soaked it all in. I played a conservative game and placed 43rd out of 118 (when the betting got to $1000 for the blind my days were numbered).
#4 Don’t let anyone throw your game.
It was not lost on me that I beat pretty much all of the Big Talkers. As always there were a few dudes who were out to show everyone how good they were, and how much experience they had, and all the tournaments they’d played in, and all of the money they’d won.
Blah blah blah…
It never ceases to astound me how many people run their mouths and can’t back it up. I think it’s a type of bullying philosophy; bullies intimidate to avoid being intimidated themselves. But if they’re really not any good, why are they acting like an arsehole when we’re all going to find out that they suck?
Oh, I forgot…they’ve got an excuse for everything. Pfhfhfht.
This isn’t confidence. In fact it’s symptomatic of a distinct lack of confidence that they try to overcompensate for with bluster.
I had a nice time, and would do it again in an instant, but rounding back to #3, it would’ve been miserable if I didn’t make the effort to know the game.
#5 You needn’t anyone’s permission.
My buddy embarking on a big business venture involving robots and other high tech stuff is having fleeting moments of doubt.
He’s a bonavide genius, and even though he’s got no degree or no engineering papers, he’s created something fantastic and has investment money being thrown at him from all quarters.
And he’s charging headlong into the Big Leagues.
“How do you keep those thoughts of ‘Who the hell do you think you are to be able to do this?!'” he asked.
“Hey, I’ve been fundamentally unqualified to do just about everything I’ve ever done” I said. “I’ve never taken an art class, but I get to sit at the head table in terms of sales. Why? Because while I may not have qualifications, I still know what I’m doing, just like you do.” I said.
“I didn’t wait for anyone’s permission to be an artist; it was my choice, no one else’s. It’s the same with you: you know your stuff, you have a terrific idea, the thing scratches people’s itches, and people pay for that.” I said.
“Okay, but when you started out, were you as good as you are now?” he asked.
“Of course not.” I answered.
“So how did you get the courage to go compete with artists who were better than you? I’m going up against engineers and people who’ve been fooling around with robots for decades” he said.
“Don’t put too much on that” I said. “They didn’t have the idea, YOU did, and you were the one who made it happen.” I said.
“In my art career, once I had a certain level of proficiency to my work, you’re right, I jumped in. Making a parallel to being a musician, the worst thing is to be the best one on the stage – the math works against you.” I said.
“If I’m the best one one stage the others don’t get better, I get worse. It’s a type of atrophy. But on those occasions where I was the obvious rookie, the other’s skill elevated my game. I had to no choice but to cut the gig, and it makes for some dashed quick education. Sink or swim.”
“In terms of art, I knew I wasn’t going to get chased out by mobs of villagers armed with pitchfork and torch, and I actually looked forward to ‘being on stage with the big dogs’ as it were so I’d have my game elevated.” I said.
“It’s natural to be a little intimidated at first, but you’re not to get anywhere by surrounding yourself with people who don’t present a challenge to you.” I said.
“This isn’t medicine or the law; we don’t need anyone’s approval to satisfy customers. If the clients are happy, then ‘peers’ can go pound sand…”
This doesn’t mean that this cavalier attitude and cuff shooting demeanor was always in place.
Early on in my career I encountered artists who (seemingly) had their act together. They’d have people lined up out of their booths at shows, and seemed to sell quite a bit. They were all hugs and air kisses and autographs and photo posing. Often they’d have staff working the booth and they’d only show up for appearances at certain times (which is pretty effective in lots of cases).
Then, many years ago, on one of those days that ends up changing the entire direction of one’s life, we were at show in a distant city and there were a couple of quasi-famous artists at the show.
They both had pretty seedy reputations for selling on the promise of future gains – and of course I’m not going to mention any names.
The first was a chap who’d been around for a few years and had made one of those inexplicable leaps in notoriety where an artists popularity seemed to be for reasons other than artistic merit. Still, one can learn from those who’ve done things that one hasn’t yet done, so I introduced myself as he approached our booth.
He looked at me, then looked at my art, then squinted back at me, snorted, and walked away.
I turned to The Colonel. “Did he just do that?!”
“Are you really surprised?” she asked. “You could tell he was a wanker in that TV interview last week.”
His booth was directly across from ours, and as far as I could tell he didn’t do any better than we did, which was encouraging. Even at that young age I knew that when his sales guy said things to the customers like “We keep making these because it keeps making us money”, it was preventing more sales than it made.
And I was okay with that.
As the show progressed I shrugged off the first artist’s discourtesy and strolled over to introduce myself to the other big wig artist. She was a middle aged woman who did a lot of teaching and had a rabid following of students who hung on her every word, and she apparently got $50,000 for a painting.
As I’d just sold my first original at the $1000 mark, I thought I should go and observe and maybe learn something.
I had never seen anything like it. When she met folks she gushed and fawned, but apparently that only lasted for about a sentence and a half. She was also one of those people who, when talking to someone, was constantly scanning the room to see who else they could be talking to. I twice saw her walk away from potential clients who were in med-sentence to go meet other people who approached, leaving them shocked and gaping.
“Huh. That’s an odd way to ingratiate oneself…” I thought.
As I scanned her large corner booth, I noticed that she’d had team jackets made for her staff, with the “position”/job description embroidered on the sleeve – Senior Marketing Consultant, Executive Assistant and even Print Comptroller.
I’ll say it again: there was a gal, who I think turned out to be a sister-in-law, who had a football jacket with this artist’s name and image across the back, and her own name and and “Print Comptroller” emblazoned on her sleeve. And the gals weren’t wearing them in the booth – they were wearing them outside as day-to-day wear!
“Huh.” I thought, “That would seem to take a certain confidence…”
So I went in and had a look at the art and these prints that necessitated comptrolling, and it was…well…I’ve had unfavorable reviews from time to time, and they sting, and art is always subjective…so I’ll just say that it was akin to those American Idol contestants who honestly don’t know they have no sense of pitch.
I’m not a fan…
I’m still not entirely sure if her confidence came from the incredible fluke that she could sell any of this, or whether the muck sold because rubes were bamboozled by her air of confidence. Probably a feedback loop of both.
Either way, I immediately became suspicious of the merits of confidence…
Then the artist swanned over, struck a pose that I think she meant to be Stevie Nicks but was more Witch Hazel and said “Hel-lo there! Welcome – now you can say that you’ve met The Artist!”
I have been speechless exactly three times in my life:
- When I was six years old and wore my bathing suit swimming with grandpa and forgot to take underwear and caught ‘myself’ in my pant’s zipper…
- When I tried to propose to The Colonel and all that came out was high wheezing and polite gargling…
- Meeting ‘The Artist’…
I had a striking moment of clarity:
I need never be intimidated by another artist again. If this gal can sell her stuff, then there must be a way for me to sell mine too. In fact, I saw a couple of things of hers that I could adapt – not the air kisses or print comptroller jackets – yet I could also see that there were an awful lot of mistakes being made as well.
I may not always feel confident, but I needn’t feel intimidated either.
After the show, when my powers of speech and invective returned, I made a decision. I was going to find out how to ‘do shows’. I was going to quit dabbling. It was time to get serious.
- I was going to learn how to set up a booth so that it was appealing AND portable.
- They used all kinds of science in creating retail environments, surely the same things apply to shows…?
- I was already an experienced salesman; but what was I missing about the specifics of people buying art?
- How do I handle inventory?
- How do I process transactions?
- What kind of lights should I use?
- How do I keep “in front of mind” of all of the people I met in the weeks and months afterward?
- How can I use shows to keep in touch with people?
- How can I avoid unprofitable shows?
- What myths get perpetuated, and how can I tell if something’s worth doing or not?
And I’d do it WITHOUT being rude, or uppity, or pretentious, or scamming people by telling them how much my work would be worth down the road.
I’d find out what was important to people when they bought art and I’d deliver that experience to them.
It wasn’t easy, or cheap, and for someone who fancies himself a bit of a brainiac I made a lot of dumb mistakes, sometimes repeatedly, but over the next several years I immersed myself in study. I made contacts and I made friends. I read, I attended lots of shows, and I became that guy who maybe asked a few more questions than was prudent or would try asking some things that might’ve crossed into personal or proprietary information, but I was always respectful and appreciative.
Over the next decade I sort of channeled my inner Sherlock Holmes. I detectived (a new word!), I interviewed, I spied, I bought lunches and dinners and drinks, I attended shows outside of my industry, I collated data, I poured over research papers, I studied trade show industry journals, I interviewed authors, I puzzled, I reasoned, and I thought. Hard.
And most importantly, I tested…
A by-product of this was confidence.
I KNOW this stuff.
All false modesty aside, I doubt there’s 5 people in the entire world today who know more about monetizing and maximizing revenue from art shows. I’m not saying it to brag (maybe just a little) but as a statement of fact.
Sure, I still get a little anxious from time to time. What if there’s a blizzard? What if I dribble mustard down my front? What if my iPhone goes dead so I can’t take credit card payments and I can’t plug in anywhere?!
Then I’ll handle it.
I’ve got the experience and the systems in place to overcome, including not eating mustardy foods and having a pocket battery phone charging backup thingamabob.
So I guess confidence has an element of faith in it. I don’t mean in an overtly biblical sense, but faith in oneself, and that things generally work out alright if we’ve prepared reasonably well.
I’ll take this opportunity to segue into our course on Art Shows (crass commercialism, I know)…
But seriously, if you want to learn to do something, why go through all the gyrations that I had to?
Our new course The Ultimate Guide to Profitable Art Shows is everything I’ve learned; you’ll have the confidence of knowledge and experience on your side.
Sure, it’s not free, it might even pinch a little, but only ONE extra sale in an entire year should more than recoup your cost. And you’ll have the benefits of my experience for years to come!
I can promise you that this course is FAR less expensive than figuring it out on your own!
I’d have done just about anything to have a resource like this when I started out; gotten a paper route, stacked shelves, worked at McTomaine’s…anything!
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"I'd never really done art shows before, but after I got The Ultimate Guide to Profitable Art Shows, I did over $15,000 in business from my very first show!
I only had two prints for sale in my booth, and I only used a small fraction of what was in the course; I can't wait to implement more!
If you're an artist, you NEED this course!"Mike Wreggitt