How To Become a Successful Artist – the usecase

by Lisa Call on March 15, 2007

in Being an Artist, Goals and Intention

Photograph of saguaro cactus ©2007 Lisa Call

Today Alyson Stanfield linked to my post about respect from her blog with some of her thoughts about when it is time to move on from juried shows. Interesting read.

I’ve been thinking about this prickly topic quite a bit the last few days (okay I couldn’t resist adding an image from my recent trip to the Desert Botanic Garden in Phoenix).

Because I am a requirements engineer by day I started thinking about what type of use case one might have for becoming a successful artist.

From the wikipedia article linked above: use cases allow description of sequences of events that, taken together, lead to a system doing something useful. Each use case provides one or more scenarios that convey how the system should interact with the users called actors to achieve a specific business goal or function.

So here’s my take on a simple use case for how to become a successful artist

Actor: Artist

1. Artist has a desire to become successful
2. Artist has a definition for their idea of success
3. Artist has motivation to become successful artist
4. Artist has time to do the work to become successful artist

Main Flow (Artist definition of success is obtaining quality gallery representation):
1. Artist creates a strong body of quality art (and continues to create throughout the entire duration)
2. Artist creates quality materials to promote the art (and continues to throughout the duration)
3. Artist enters work into juried shows to build resume
4. Artist researches galleries and selects appropriate galleries
5. Artist approaches galleries
6. Artist has work accepted by gallery
7. Artist sells work with gallery
8. Artist repeats steps 4-7 until satisfied.
9. Artist is successful

Alternative Flows:
I. Artist definition of success is selling enough work over the internet to live comfortable
1. Artist creates a strong body of quality art (and continues to create throughout the entire duration)
2. Artist creates quality materials to promote the art (and continues to throughout the duration)
3. Artist researches online sales opportunities and selects appropriate venues (including ones own website)
4. Artist approaches online venues
5. Artist has work accepted by online venue
6. Artist sells work online
7. Artist repeats steps 4-7 until satisfied.
8. Artist is successful

II. Artist definition of success is making quality art
1. Artist creates a strong body of quality art
2. Artist is successful

etc (add different flow for each definition of success)…

Post Condition: Artist is successful

Well, that’s maybe not my best requirements work because I’m being very general.

But what I really want to talk about is why and where an artist might fail, or in the use case world these or often called exceptions – things that might happen that don’t result in the post condition being met but the flow ends anyway.

I really don’t know – not having failed nor planning to. But if I had to guess I would think the preconditions (which are things that must be true or the usecase can’t be started) are a big hold up for many people.

Figuring out just want it means to be successful as an artist is really rather difficult. Why are we doing what we do? What is our end goal? Maybe we have multiple goals. I think that different goals require different actions to reach that goal and not understanding the what the goal they are trying to reach can really trip someone up. There are so many options in the artworld I think trying to narrow down our focus to 1 or 2 can be very difficult.

I know in my path as an artist my end goals have changed many times over the years and I’m not the only one that struggles with this. Paula McCullough left an interesting comment about this topic on my last post – pondering about what success really means. I recently found Paula’s blog through her comments here on my blog and her work on artsocket and really enjoy reading her thoughts on her blog about her adventures in becoming a successful artist.

Long ago my end goal really didn’t exist and I couldn’t even imagine how I might have goals as an artist and I wandered aimlessly not really ever getting any where. Now I have very specific art business goals. It’s taken years to refine these goals and to define what I feel is my definition of success but I feel with them I have a road map that I can follow that will lead me to my desired end goal.

I also think the preconditions for having the time and motivation to reach the end goals are important. When I lose motivation or run into periods where I have no time for the art career things really stall out. Keeping motivation, staying in the studio and office – these are keys to success. I believe success is mostly about hard work, not about divine intervention and getting discovered.

Back in my respect post I was countering the argument that quilters aren’t making it in art world because they didn’t make statement art. I see all kinds of art getting respect out there in the world – not just statement art. So when I look at step 1 of all of the flows – making quality art – I don’t see there needs to be any kind of restrictions on what type of art that is. I think there is room in this world for successful artists of all kinds, working in all media and styles.

So I guess I’m just repeating myself because I don’t see that the type of work is what prevents an artist from becoming successful – I see it as the actions (or lack of actions) of the artist as the stumbling block.

Although the other thing I have to add is that I think without step #1 (making a body of quality of art) it is really hard to get very far. You can’t promote what doesn’t exist. So I think that means I need to stop rambling and get back to my studio.


Olga March 16, 2007 at 5:09 am

Stunning ramble! I am going to print it out, because it requires re-reading and on paper for me to scribble on. Although I am not a software engineer, I too have always broken aspects of my life into progress charts of one sort or other, and am with you there. The most difficult element however is I think clarifying and refining, and perhaps even adjusting the end goal(s)/ definition of success, and doing so continuously – because I think that that should be revisited in between the repetitions of 4-7.

One also sometimes has to adjust for life getting in the way. A spanner the size of my mother has been thrown into my progress right now, and I wish I could take my stitching to work on while spending hours (!) in hospital corridors. But now you have given me something to mull over while I hang about.

Martha Marshall March 16, 2007 at 5:21 am

Whoa! This is so great, Lisa. I am also printing it out to think about where I am on this path. This makes perfect sense. I love logic, don’t you?

Thanks for this –

Terri March 16, 2007 at 6:35 am

Try to get in the the Masters show in Orlando — I saw a couple of fabric artists represented and they were selling quite well at the show — unlike the traditional media– Masters is at Disney West end – in November I think.

Pat March 16, 2007 at 6:49 am

“Artist creates a strong body of quality work.”
Leaving the “quality” part aside at the moment, how do you quantify the “strong” part? I’m assuming it’s a number or a range of numbers because you need so many pieces in order to enter shows or create a portfolio?

KJ March 16, 2007 at 7:57 am

You’re really on a roll, Lisa… these posts are full of serious contemplation. As you know, my point of view is from the far end of the stick and I’m just riding on momentum now, trying to figure out how to slow down without shutting down. But I can’t help but cull through your points, to see if I missed anything along the way. KJ

Tracy March 16, 2007 at 9:26 am

Wow! What a great ramble. Ditto the printing.
I’m new to your blog; an artist, but not a quilter. I think I’m on that plateau in my art career, and a good set of goals will take me to my next step. Thanks for engineering the way to a plan! Gives me points to ponder for the day!

cynthia March 16, 2007 at 10:35 am

I LOVED this post. I was also thinking about printing this out. In a sense, I thought to myself, Lisa, you are really thinking out-loud here. I get it.

Your post speaks so much to what I am contemplating about with my own art career. I don’t have extensive show or gallery experience. But just reading this is so motivating to me-maybe because it validates the directions and thoughts that I have had in the past few months.

My own case study flow would actually be a combo of 1 and 2.

You’re right though, artists shouldn’t jump on every opportunity to show their work irregardless of venue quality. And, that decision really comes down to knowing your own “flow” and how you want it to play out. Very empowering post, Lisa!

Daniel Sroka March 16, 2007 at 11:22 am

I think that a major hurdle to achieving success is figuring out which flow (to use your word) is the one you want to follow, and then sticking with it. I chose that my goal is to be a self-sufficient artist, to be able to make a decent living from my art. Yet not a week goes by where I don’t question this goal. Shouldn’t I be trying to get into a gallery? Shouldn’t I be spending less time on making money and more on art? Every alternative path is a constant source of temptation, whispering into your ear. Every time I read about a “successful artist” who made it via a different path, I wonder if I should change my goals. Just sticking to my guns, and following through on my own path is a constant challenge.

This reminds me of a post I wrote this January on rethinking my career path:

The Lone Beader March 17, 2007 at 6:15 am

Excellent post. Although I haven’t sold a lot of my work yet, all of the preconditions apply to me… I think I’ll print this out and think about it, as well… And, Happy St. Patrick’s Day from Boston=:)

Alyson B. Stanfield March 17, 2007 at 1:42 pm

Undoubtedly, an artist must first define success before he or she can achieve it. Moreoever, it’s critical to realize that everyone’s definition of success is unique. There is no such thing as a single path to success–especially these days.

I use the word “success” far to frequently and loosely. It’s important to remember the above and to remind other artists of it.

I’ve been looking for a topic for my next podcast. Thanks for giving it to me!

Barney Davey March 18, 2007 at 12:52 am

Hi Lisa,

First time here and I’m very impressed with your output. You obviously know how to stay busy. The Web site alone could be enough to occupy your spare time. That you also work as a fiber artist is quite a juggling act!

I stumbled on Martha Marshall’s An Artist’s Journal Blogspot blog where she linked to you here. She said, “Her article titled How to Become a Successful Artist – The Usecase was just the best thing I’ve read in a long time on the steps necessary toward becoming a successful artist, including first deciding your own definition of success.”

In my book, How to Profit from the Art Print Market, I address success this way:

“A word about success; invariably outsiders measure it in terms of fame and fortune which can be a good measure for many artists as well. Nevertheless, success, as it pertains to artists or anyone for that matter, is truly and wholly a personal definition.

Success is getting what you want from your art, nothing more. The notions and opinions of others with regard to how successful you are, or will be, are not important. Of course, the opinion of collectors, dealers and gallery owners, and of some critics, can be important to your fame and fortune. But none of them can tell you how you should decide what success means to you.”

The first chapter is a free download at: I’l be linking to your site from my blog as well. All the best to you. Keep up the great work!

Joanie San Chirico March 18, 2007 at 2:35 pm

I’m at that very point in my career. Funny, I updated my resume today and it makes it look like I’m not showing my work. In the previous years, I had 20, even 30 shows per year, and now for 2007 I have 2.

Resume building was extremely important at one time for me. Now I’m concentrating on quality, not quantity. I use mixed media and textiles and have dropped the “all fiber, all the time” exhibits and am focusing on fine art venues.

It’s an odd definition of success, because I’m selling less now with gallery representation and commissions than I was doing all those small shows.. but the work that I am selling is larger and pricier. A trade off?

Thanks for shaking things up Lisa!

barbe March 18, 2007 at 6:41 pm

I found you thru the artist marketing post too, what a GREAT discussion you have here! I, like you-am trying to find my way, and this post of your really helps. I need to read it over and more slowly. I NEED SPECIFIC art business goals and have felt too insecure or afraid to think about them. Until now.

I spin art yarns, now THERES a toughie to promote! I view my yarns as kinetic soft sculptures-you CAN knit/felt/crochet/loom them or you can just place them as is on a shelf and admire…Art doesn’t HAVE to be functional-and that is the mindset I am having to change. People hear ‘yarn’ and think of it only as a material, not the end art piece.

ps. your fabric art pieces are AMAZING-I am in love with them!

Bob Ragland March 20, 2007 at 12:02 pm

Good information about success. I think success is really subjective when it comes to an artist’s life. To make some thing with one’s hands and get some money for the art is a good measures of success. To be able to have bread and shelter from art is next to a miracle. I have an article in Five magazine ,issue 12. The side bar information contains some of the things that any artist can do to maintain a successful art life and career. Check out 12.
Sincerely, Bob Ragland.

Paula Dapkus March 31, 2007 at 5:57 am

Thanks so much for your thoughts on how to be successful as an artist. While I’ve created art for years, I am just now starting to put together a body of work to sell, and that’s intimidating. All of the questions pop up…is it worthy, will someone like it…is that what makes me feel successful? At 47, I think it was the ‘voices of authority’, that prevented me all of these years from taking this step. But, it is the transforming nature of creating that gives me the courage to take that step. Surprisingly, creating what I want to create has given me self-confidence.
I find that there are a million voices of authorities that tell you,”…in order to be an artist, you must…”. Fill in the blank with; have a MFA, be represented, be commissioned, be an artist of a specific type of media, etc. It’s almost like there’s a list of rules that you have to sign off on. I’ve learned to turn them off and listen to my heart. I think I’ve learned that being successful in life is finding joy in life, and art gives me joy. So, in a way, I’m already successful.
I greatly appreciate how you’ve thought out the process of being successful as an artist, and you’ve given me some great direction. I was struggling with the choice of where to start: selling on my own, or trying the route of gallery. Staring with the question of what does success mean to me, helps me to reframe which direction to take. This will help me to set my goals more clearly. I love your blog, and found it through Martha Marshall’s link. Thanks, Paula

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