Can Being a Successful Artist be Predicted?

by Owen Garratt | The Art of Being an Artist

How on earth can you predict who’ll be a successful artist?!successful artist_opt

N ope, it’s not shaking chicken bones or wearing a monocle.  It’s not going to a certain school or skipping school altogether.  It’s not the kind of art you do either.

Being a successful artist comes down to the company you keep. More specifically, the range of company you keep.

Business Insider released an article called “Here’s The No. 1 Predictor Of Career Success, According To Network Science”, and while it’s focused on the more traditional mainstream business world, the main thread applies equally as well to artists.

The main point of the article (which is well worth reading on it’s own), is that the primary quality successful people have is an ‘open network’ not a ‘closed network’, that is, successful people don’t limit themselves to the same-old/same-old day in and day out. They’re part of numerous and varied groups of people, and this varied input is the impetus for success.

The article is written for the Protractor and Stats set (vis: nerds), so certain artists will poo-poo it offhand as not applying to them, but if we separate the message from the messenger, there’s quite a bit of gold in the article.

On one hand, we all sort of know that keeping an open mind is accepted as being a good thing, and we all know dyed-in-the-wool types that burrow into their ruts and for whom any sort of change or variety as a portent of doom (They’re the ones who, even though it’s tough to describe exactly, insist on ‘regular’ flavored toothpaste.) (ba-dum*tish*)

Let’s examine this from an artist’s point of view…

False modesty aside, statistically and by most measures, I could be considered a successful artist. I’ve been doing it full time as of this writing for almost 20 years and I have a cushy thing going that most other artists would love to have a version of too.

Depending on whom you ask, common thinking is that I’m “just lucky”, or that my art is of a certain caliber, or that I know and understand marketing, or that I’m a one-trick pony and have been flogging the poor beast to its knees, etc., but this article shines a light on another possibility, and one that may explain these other phenomenon.

You see, I know a hell of a lot of people and run in circles that people are often surprised by.

I went to high school in a farming community of about 500 people on the Canadian prairies, and I’m still very close to them. Yet I’ve lunched with Hollywood producers, dined with Inuit hunters, and hobnobbed with members royalty from three nations. I have close friends who’re farmers, dentists, oil rig millionaires, auto mechanics, top life insurance agents, mortgage brokers, engineers, an Air Force Major, and a chap who stocks bread in a grocery store. Last week a dear friend who has a PhD in molecular biology with whom I was a finalist on Canada’s Greatest Know it All on the Discovery Channel came to dinner at Mortgage Manor with her family (I got 3rd, she got 2nd).

What’s interesting is that most of these people I’ve met since I turned 40, yet my best friends are still the ones from way back in Wawota, Saskatchewan.

I foresee scads of artists raising their hands to complain that “that’s fine for YOU, but I’m an introvert and meeting people is difficult!”

For the record and despite appearances, I’m what we call a ‘gregarious introvert’. I enjoy people (in small groups), and consider deep conversation with worthwhile people and belly laughs and occasional tears to be among the highest of pursuits. I find myself on an airplane every 4 or 6 weeks for some conference (where I’m the only artist), or a holiday or gig.  But after some of that, I need to be alone and quiet. Entire weeks will pass where I don’t leave the house and don’t see anyone other than wife and sons (though I recognize that’s not all that balanced either).  One of the reasons I became the Drum Sargent with the local Firefighter’s Pipe Band was so that I’d get rooted out of my studio at least once a week!

But I’m curious.  I enjoy a little chit chat.  I don’t mind talking to the busboy or the bank teller or the gal behind the desk at the dentist’s.  Without being intrusive, I like to hear about how things are done, or what’s new, or how people came to be where they are. (I draw the line at drama. I refuse to have anything to do with it.)

The point is that I’m not one of those backslappers who charge around pouncing on people and being the life of the party, nor am I afraid of interaction. Sort of in the middle, but mostly quiet (I’m an only child) with bursts of vivaciousness.

If one looks at my career and interpersonal interactions, the article seems spot on.

Of course having wide and varied relationships doesn’t guarantee success, but it’s an overriding trait seen across numerous industries.

Why, exactly?

In the article, there’s a quote from Steve Jobs interview from Wired in 1995:

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something.”

There’re some who will disagree, but they’re wrong because that’s right on the money!  🙂  And it’s also why having various personal and professional circles is SO beneficial.

You SEE things…

Okay, so you don’t feel like hanging out with a bunch of life insurance agents.  For the most part, neither do I, but there’s a few things we can do to begin the process of expanding our experiences.

1.  Read outside of your routine.

If your entire reading consists of Cosmopolitan Magazine and Harlequin Romances, you could try looking through a few easy “mom business blogs”, or pick up a gardening magazine, National Geographic, or read anything by John D MacDonald. Start looking for new things that catch your interest.

Often this will re-introduce you to something you used to find interesting but had set aside for one reason or another.

2.  Learn outside of your routine.

If there’s a fountain of youth, it’s here.  You needn’t start by trying to learn Mandarin Chinese; you could take a cooking class, or find a YouTube channel and try something new every few days (Alton Brown, Nigella Lawson, and Chow Ciao are three of my favs). Take an online course to learn how to build your website.  You could take one of our courses *cough*.  

Just be sure to set aside strict time for this, preferably daily, even if it’s only 15 minutes during a lunch break.

3.  Travel outside of your routine.

Get out of your rut!  You needn’t sell everything and live out of a backpack while you hitchhike across Asia, but try going for a daily walk and make a point of noticing things around you. Take a different route to The Day Job. Try a different grocery store.  Go to different restaurants, different gas stations, different everything.

4. Meet new folks.  Be friendly.

In these classes and new places, you’ll inevitably encounter new people.  Practice your social skills.  Say “good morning” and “hello” and “thank you” in an ingratiating manner.  Seriously.  If you can’t be pleasant to a stranger, how on earth are you going to manage yourself in front of new clients?!  A warm smile is helpful too.

If you’re taking a class somewhere, make a point of saying “hello” and “goodbye” to everyone and if there’s any chit-chat try to be involved.  Of course one doesn’t wish to inflict themselves where they’re not wanted, but society has conventions for these interactions and it’s important to partake in them and if the chemistry is right, nice acquaintances can bloom.

No one is going to eat you or decry you for being pleasant.

5. But don’t pitch them!

A common misconception is that I and other successful artists who sell a lot are constantly pitching ourselves.


I work my arse off to make sure that it’s VERY easy to purchase my art, and to insure that I present myself in a manner that instills confidence with the client.  And that means NOT pitching them, especially in any kind of social scenario!

Have you ever been in a situation where you meet someone who’s just got a job selling insurance and they try and pitch you in a social setting?  Gah!  It’s awful…  It can even be weird having them hand you a card.

So why would it be any different if WE tried to get business in a place that’s not appropriate?

The insurance chap has an office, and that’s where the business should take place.  IF a chap was to say to the insurance agent “You know, I think I’m getting screwed by my insurance guy and I’ve been meaning to look around…” the insurance agent could dig out a card and say something like “Here’s my card, if you’d like me to have a look, just give me a call”.  Depending on circumstance, it may be appropriate for the insurance agent to ask for a card from the chap, but not always.  Then in a couple of days the insurance agent could drop a card in the mail saying something like “Nice meeting you the other day!” and include another card.

That’s it.  No pressing the point or trying to pin the chap to the mat.

Being an artist is just the same.  Make it easy to do business with you, but don’t be a pain in the fundament about it.

Now…see how observing ineffective insurance pitches taught me how NOT to present myself?

Get out in the world and soak it all in.  Expand your world. You never know where the next breakthrough will be!


Here’s the Business Insider article.

Thanks to my buddy Cory Huff of The Abundant Artist who posted the article on Facebook!

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  1. El Wenche Winlove

    I just love these emails from you. Every time I read them, I start to believe in myself again. 🙂 I moved from Norway to London in November and am trying hard to believe that one day I WILL start selling my work. One day…

    Thank you.

    • Owen Garratt

      Thanks for the kind words! 🙂

      Building an art career is a lot like those dominoes layouts where you spend forever getting set up, there’s lots of “whoops”es, and finally you’ve got everything set up and with just a tiny touch, the entire thing sets in motion.

      Do great art. Always be developing your skills in art AND marketing. Set up a proper infrastructure. Know who you’re speaking to and how to communicate with them…

      And knock over that first domino!

      • El Wenche Winlove

        Thanks again.
        But thinking now, after reading your answer to Rosann, isn´t it about having your work shown as well? Even if nobody buy? To let people recognise your work? Building a name? and all that stuff?

        • Owen Garratt

          Building a name and recognition is essentially branding, which is the most expensive and wasteful use of marketing time and dollars. it’s called ‘institutional advertising’, and it’s the least effective thing we can do.

          It’s putting the cart before the horse.

          Focus on transactions and recognition will follow. What’s more intriguing to the public, “this artist is getting a lot of recognition”, or “this artist has sold over $250,000 in the past six months”? or “Sold out at every showing she’s had” or “has had her prices climb 400% in the past year”?

          Sure, there are things we can and should be doing to accompany our effective marketing; press releases, blogging, creating and posting video, writing, charity appearances and so on, but not at the expense or exclusion of proper, results based marketing.

          Exposure is a mug’s game! 🙂

          Typically it’s more about trying to impress the art establishment. I’d rather spend my time with clients…!

  2. Rosann

    I AM that gragarious person that talks to everyone – in grocery stores, coffee shops or anywhere else I happen to be. If I run into the same people over and over again, eventually I let them in on the fact that I’m an artist and if it comes up again, I give them my website (and now my brand new business cards). I definitely DO NOT ‘pitch’ anyone. However, it’s still not getting me to them and their contact info. What is my next step?

    • Owen Garratt

      Hey Rosann!

      Just to clarify, this post is about keeping open and expanding where you gather influences, not about selling per se, and not about scooping in clients in line at the Safeway 🙂

      Since you seem to be on the right track in terms of keeping open (which I really think means “enjoying life”), the sales question is better explained in much, much more depth elsewhere.

      However, in line with this article, sales are always best conducted in an atmosphere and an environment congruent with it; specifically, not everywhere, and not anytime, and not to everyone.

      A gallery is a good place to sell art because everyone coming in there knows what it’s for. But hanging art on consignment on a wall in a restaurant rarely works because that’s not why people are there. They’re there to dine.

      So in terms of getting the contact info and being able to “dribble on them” (an marketer’s inside joke), it’s got to be A) done in a place where it’s not off-putting; an art show for instance, and B) we have to have things set up to snag the random ones we encounter.

      How do we do that?

      Easy! We make out websites as engaging and user friendly as possible with ways the prospects can sign up for more info, join a newsletter, get a sample, join a list, etc.

      On my art site there’re 8 separate ways for people to “get in the loop”…

      So finally getting round to your question, here’s the sequence of events:

      – You stride into a coffee shop and greet the folks you recognize.

      – Someone says to you “Hi! I see you all the time…blah blah blah…what do you do?”

      – You say “I’m an artist”.

      – They say ” Eh wot? Really? You look quite normal…!”

      – You say “Ha!” or something equally suitable, and if you’re feeling bold, you slide them a card.

      – A little more chit chat and you hit the road.

      – The aghast person is intrigued by your card or catalogue or whatever and visits your site.

      – The now intrigued person spends 10-15 minutes on your site and wants more of you, so enters their info in one of the numerous ways they can on your site, and you’re in!

      Our interactions are to get them to our site (not a free site either *tsk tsk tsk*) 😉 where they are further engaged and are clamouring to sign up for what you’ve got.

      Does that help?

  3. sean moore

    A wonderful post from a savvy marketer and excellent artist. I specially liked that I could just open and read without knowing enigma code and secret handshakes. Weeks ago I paid around $11. and couldn’t get through the fortifications. I gave up. But maybe this is what I signed up for back them. Either way, Thanks,

    • Owen Garratt

      Egads man! If there’s a problem let us know and we’ll get it fixed! I sent you an email with instructions, and if here’s still hiccups, drop us a line!

      And thanks for the kind words! 😉

  4. Robin Arthur

    I think this is an important message for artists, because we generally have to work in solitude in order to concentrate and focus on our work. At least I do! In the past three years since starting my business, I’ve tunneled deeper and deeper into my work and rarely interact with anyone besides my boyfriend (when he’s not traveling) and retail cashiers. Talk about a closed network! Yikes!

    The irony is that I am a very friendly, outgoing person who has always made connections very easily before moving to San Antonio, my current city, and working from home. But now that it’s more important than ever, to help with my business, I’m doing it less. Ugh! Thanks for reminding us that we need to mix it up, be social, get out there and soak it all up.

    • Owen Garratt

      It’s surprisingly common when we’re focused on doing important things how often we to look up, blinking, and realize we haven’t done anything else in ages. It’s important to come up for air once and a while…!

  5. Joshua Berg

    Especially artists often underestimate the importance of schmoozing, networking interaction in general. Ultimately, we want others to see our art, don’t we. I used to do plays in New York off-off Broadway and everyone in them loved the work but there was not much outreach to audience and so next to nobody saw them! It was so frustrating. The idea that we promote without “selling” is also vitally important. Believe in what you do and you will be able to communicate that to others.

    • Owen Garratt

      Bingo! I think the biggest hurdles artists have with selling is negative preconceptions about what selling and marketing is. And those negative preconceptions are well deserved in most cases; everyone’s had a bad experience with a salesman.

      Here’s the thing: selling is nothing more than facilitating the process of engagement and education. It’s not about pinning them to the mat or “not quitting until after the third ‘No'” or slight of hand or bamboozling them. But lots of people think it is, and if it is, they don’t want anything to do with it, and rightly so.

      Once artists understand what’s REALLY involved in effective marketing and selling art, they embrace it, because it’s now the most natural thing in the world.

  6. Mike Martinez

    I am a retired advertising and marketing executive with leading Madison Ave. agencies. Have years of experience in art, mostly oils, some acrylic, some water color, as hobby but know nothing about selling in the art field. Would like someone to see copies of my work and see if they think there is a market for my work and how much it might bring. Can you help? Thanks.

    Mike Martinez

    • Owen Garratt

      Hey Mike! Welcome and congrats; you’re in the right place to get hep to art marketing.

      The first lesson is: the ONLY people who’s opinion matters is the clients. Not me. Not family. Not friends. Not other artists (especially not other artists!).


      Because none of us are your clientele. No one else is bringing their wallets to the table, so no one else gets a vote.

      Sure, it’s nice to get the validation of peers and claps on the back and encouragement, but none of those things can even get you a cup of coffee! 🙂

      Not the answer you were looking for, no doubt. But it’s folly to think that anything non-clients have to say – and EVERYONE’S got an opinion on everything – you’ll need to get in front of potential clients and see what happens. Do a smallish art show. Find art that’s vaguely comparable and begin there – but recognize that that’s just a starting point; be willing to move away from that point asap. (Most don’t really know what they’re doing, so following them is usually ill-advised.)

      Then take that feedback and adjust as needed. Successful people don’t think in absolutes like success or failure…they thing in terms of testing.

      Best of luck! 🙂


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