Worthwhile Career Advice from Artist Jeremy Sutton

Once a physicist who traveled around the world selling superconducting magnets, Jeremy Sutton has been a full time professional artist for the last twenty years, with a flare for pushing the boundaries of his work. In addition to creating and selling striking portraits and scenes (selling both as existing fine art and as custom commissions), Jeremy, a Corel Painter Master and author of the Painter Creativity series of books, teaches classes in art and digital painting (Corel Painter, iPad painting, etc), offers online tutorials through his educational web site PaintboxTV.com, and does performance art (live digital portraiture at trade shows, conferences, and special events).

To give a little background about Jeremy, originally from London, he has drawn since he was three. Whilst earning a degree in Physics at Oxford University he also studied at the Ruskin School of Fine Art & Drawing, and subsequently at the Vrije Academie in The Hague, The Netherlands. He came to live in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1988 and changed career from physics to art in 1994. His clients over the last twenty years have ranged from Sir Richard Branson to Cirque du Soleil.

I spoke with Jeremy in August 2013 to glean some insights from his impressive career. Should you have any interest in launching an independent career (especially that of an artist), you will find his advice to be most useful.

Transitioning from Employed to Self Employed

Jeremy SuttonTo anyone who is contemplating the transition from employed life to the life of a freelancer or otherwise self-employed individual, Jeremy first and foremost emphasizes the fact that the path will not be easy.

He chose to work full time as a professional artist back in 1994 after obtaining a green card and being laid off from his job in physics equipment sales and marketing. Should he have fully comprehended the risk and hard work that would go into the life of a self-employed artist, he may have thought twice about it! He has found that working for himself is significantly more demanding than working for an employer. However he emphasizes that the rewards of following your passion, of having complete freedom in controlling what you do with your time, and of making a difference in people’s lives through your art, make it all worthwhile.

To those who choose the path of an independent professional, Jeremy recommends building a strong financial foundation. Your finances must be managed legally, efficiently, and thoroughly, with business separated from personal. In addition to establishing a business structure (e.g. an LLC, a sole proprietorship, etc.), you must make sure that you have obtained and paid for any and all necessary business licenses, trademarked that which needs to be trademarked, and set up a robust accounting system (he has been very pleased with Quickbooks for Macs).

Because there is no guaranteed regular income (let alone guaranteed high income) for artists, it is helpful to have some sort of emergency fund. If such insurance is not feasible, one must be willing to operate in the face of risk. Plan ahead, understand your cash flows, and do not put all your eggs in one basket and rely, for instance, on the promise or hope of a single source of income (e.g. a potential buyer interested in a high margin original piece). You’ll find that many promises, or hopes, do not come through at all, or that hoped for time frames for projects can stretch out far beyond what you originally hoped.

Though diversification happened to Jeremy incidentally, his various pursuits (teaching, performance art, art sales) have been very helpful in weathering the ups and downs of the economy. No one aspect of his professional life serves as a dominant source of income, and at various points in his career, when some of Jeremy’s income sources have dwindled others have been there to allow him to continue as a professional artist. He recommends aiming to have some diversification of your potential income streams for this very reason.

On Establishing a Robust Network of Clients and Colleagues

Much of Jeremy’s success is thanks to his wide network. Naturally social, Jeremy strikes up conversations with almost everybody he meets. His interest in them is genuine; he does not enter conversations thinking through what he has to gain from a potential relationship. Countless unexpected opportunities have sprung from nothing more than friendly interaction.

Jeremy’s top tip with regard to establishing a strong network as an artist is to be equally respectful of, friendly to and interested in, everyone, no matter their station, profession, expertise, or perceived utility. You never know when someone you may assume to be a janitor within an empty building may end up being the department head (this actually happened to Jeremy when he still working as a physicist/salesman and on a business trip in Belgium).

Personal network-based opportunities can spring up from your peers and from keeping in touch with people through email newsletters. Two of Jeremy’s latest and most enjoyable professional opportunities- one with the de Young Museum in San Francisco and the other with Cirque du Soleil- were the result of contacts referred to him by his artist neighbors in his shared studio building and by Jeremy’s newsletter.

Jeremy heartily recommends utilizing a tool such as Constant Contact and keeping people updated through an email newsletter. Create an art newsletter in which you update your network periodically and share your exciting art news. Build up your newsletter subscriber list, including subdividing your subscribers by interest areas for more focused mailings.

When it comes to actually following through on opportunities with clients and buyers, as well as offering customer service and problem solving, Jeremy recommends in-person meetings as the most efficient, followed, if in-person not possible or practical, by a phone conversation. In-person and voice communication is much more effective and efficient than email. Jeremy frequently picks up the phone in response to email questions, and find he saves much time compared with emails going back and forth. As a matter of professional practice, when entering into any agreement, make sure you are on the same page with clients and have everything clarified in writing to avoid any misunderstandings down the road. After a conversation you may wish to send an email note confirming what was agreed (e.g. “It was great speaking with you. To summarize, I will... and you will...”) or a written contract (e.g. elucidating the terms of a sale or a short-term project).

On Establishing Prices for Your Work

One of the most difficult issues with which a new artist contends is that of pricing. With regard to fees, Jeremy recommends the following approach:

  • Start with research
  • Utilize industry standards
  • Analyze your business, how much do you need to earn per hour, what are your costs of sales, what are your fixed costs, etc
  • Base prices, where possible, on history of actual sales
  • Be gradual with increases and consistent with quoting

When researching prices, look at the prices charged by artists similar to yourself (in style, medium, location and experience). Take prices you see advertised on web sites in context; you see what an artist is advertising, and, without talking directly to the artist, do not know if these are the prices at which he or she is actually successfully selling work. Visit galleries and look for works comparable to yours. Balance out your online and offline research with insights from your colleagues in the field.

Should you be a graphic artist, Jeremy heartily recommends referring to the Pricing & Ethical Guidelines Handbook printed by the Graphic Artists Guild. It will provide acceptable price ranges for a wide variety of artistic tasks (e.g. magazine covers, two-page layouts, etc.) along with many other helpful pointers, including sample contracts. Free to members of the Graphic Artists Guild, the handbook may also be purchased for under $40.00.

Test prices in the marketplace that you think to be reasonable given your experience and skills and adjust them until you find a good rate or price range that works well for both you and buyers/clients. Once clients accept a particular price or rate, you will set a precedent upon which you can build and to which you can refer in future negotiations.

It is of great importance that you be consistent with your pricing to establish credibility, integrity and trust. Be wary of giving special discounts since they can have unintended consequences, beyond being a hassle to manage, such as upsetting your loyal long term clients and collectors, as well as training your clientele to expect discounts.

Do not drastically change your prices. Once you have established clients you want to protect their investment in your art, so if you change prices, raise a little, not lower. Your clients will be happy to see that their purchase is now worth more than they paid.

The Benefits of Constantly Challenging Yourself

I asked Jeremy about how he deals with hitting artistic blocks. He reframed the question to asking what is his greatest challenge artistically. Jeremy sees his biggest challenge as an artist being a tendency to fall into a rut, do what’s comfortable and create the same sort of thing over and over (a challenge with which most of us are all too familiar). To maintain his own interest and motivation, Jeremy naturally pushes himself into uncomfortable territory and is always exploring new tools and media.

This tendency has manifested itself in the way Jeremy has explored and adopted new media. His odyssey through art-related tech began in 1991 when someone looked over his shoulder at a sketch he was drawing in his sketch book and suggested Jeremy meet a friend who made painting software. A few days later Jeremy sat down with a Wacom tablet, Macintosh computer and PixelPaintPro software and was then invited to demonstrate use of these tools on the Wacom booth at SIGGRAPH conference in Las Vegas two weeks later!

Jeremy’s compulsion to play on the cutting edge of new media goes above and beyond the adoption of new software- recently he played a pivotal role in the creation of new digital painting technology.

After a friend introduced Jeremy to Leap Motion, 3D motion control technology for computing (i.e. software that enables you to control computer with gestures and without a mouse or touchscreen), he picked up the phone to Corel, the company behind Painter, a computer painting program Jeremy has used for twenty years. With several months of follow up, he finally succeeded in sparking a collaboration between Leap Motion and Corel.

The result of Jeremy’s efforts (which were quite impressive, given that he was able to convince the Corel team to divert some of its precious engineering resource into something admittedly new, untested and experimental) was Corel Painter Freestyle, a painting program through which one can create art using gestures detected by the Leap Motion Controller (see http://www.paintboxtv..com/air-painting). Jeremy is actually named as one of the co-inventors on one of the product’s patent applications.

This above-and-beyond passion for innovation exemplifies the level of drive and devotion behind an artist committed enough to his work to make it as a full time professional.

On Fine Art and Digital Media

Jeremy is an artist who loves to experiment with digital media, but still loves the tactile look and feel of traditional thick impasto paint on canvas. For Jeremy a digital print is not the conclusion of his creative process, but just a stepping stone along the path. He works into his prints with unique, one-of-a-kind hand brush and palette knife work using a variety of traditional (i.e. non-digital) media such as acrylic, oil, pastel and collage. He refers to this as post-print painting and includes instructions on his methods in his classes and on PaintboxTV. These hand-executed finishes strike a nice balance between digital printing and traditional forms.

In the world of original art sales, buyers may be hesitant to invest in a piece with a significant digital component, as any digital file can potentially be easily and infinitely reproduced. The market place value of digital paintings is typically less than that of traditional oils, even though today many oil paintings are based on photographic reference and the artist may utilize digitally printed under-paintings or projected imagery. There may also be false perceptions that anything digital is easier to create, or involves less raw talent and fine art expertise, than traditional painting. Though it may be faster to create, a digital work involves just as much artistic vision and effort, talent and skill as any work in any other medium.

Jeremy helps to make art dealers and buyers more comfortable with the concept of art incorporating digital media components with a combination of education, communication, and integrity.

Jeremy draws and paints in non-digital media as well as digital. Where a combined media work is being discussed with a potential client, Jeremy explains the process, how the digital painting is freehand painting with a pen on a tablet, how the artwork is manifested by being output on canvas with pigment inks, the same type of pigments found in acrylic and oil paint. He explains how he then works into his artwork with hand brush strokes and palette knife work using traditional paint media. He then carefully communicates with clients about the uniqueness of his pieces and makes it clear, when appropriate, that there will only ever be one version of a particular work of art in that particular size. This helps to dispel misconceptions about combined media art being inherently less valuable.
Ultimately, trust between a buyer and artist is needed when any media is involved. Here, again, is where good relationships and a robust network come into play. Trust is key no matter one’s medium; well before buyers worried about the reproduction of digital art, they worried about artists creating and selling copies of art the old-fashioned way: with a canvas and a brush.

Digital media is ideal for live portraiture as entertainment and performance since the whole process can be shared on a large projection screen for onlookers to enjoy (you can see an example on Jeremy's site, Paintbox TV).

Final Words of Wisdom to Artists

Once again emphasizing that the life of an artist is not easy, Jeremy shared that the most important thing to understand about being a professional artist and that is that it is a conscious choice.

Artists must be willing to live with uncertainty, to be comfortable with chaos as part of the creative process,  and with complete commitment to moving forward and not giving up no matter what obstacles present themselves, just as in creating a painting itself. This is not something that will suit everyone’s personality. Talent, training and organization can help, but what makes the biggest difference is an active, enthusiastic and full-hearted decision and commitment to choose the life of an artist: not for money or fame, but for undeniable passion. Sometimes being an artist is less of a choice and more of a compulsion. You’re an artist because you choose to, and have to, be an artist!