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How to be a successful self-taught artist

By in How To


Where did you study? Is often one of the first questions an artist gets asked. But what if you didn’t study anywhere? Then you are in good company and most of the artworld agree it doesn’t matter if you are a self-taught artist – as long as your work has merit.

Historically, artists have undergone some form of training – whether apprenticed to the masters of the Renaissance or lucky enough to study at an art school. But the fact is that self-taught artists may be just as successful as those who have trained and some even more so.

A self-taught artist is an artist who has not received any formal art education. Many of us may have artistic abilities and talent but without the means or encouragement to take it further. For many taking up art as a hobby is enough. But many want to take it further and become a professional artist. A self-taught artist is not the same as an outsider artist, a moniker generally reserved for people on the fringes of society who express themselves through art.

Self-trained artist John Hurford has been successfully working as a painter since 1964. His Wikipedia page describes him as ‘a prolific English psychedelic artist’; he describes himself as a self-taught artist.

“When trying to promote my work the first question is: ‘Where did you go to college?’ I don’t have an answer to this,” explains the 74-year-old. “The second question is always ‘who are your influences?’. I also don’t have an answer to that because I feel I’m influenced by everything I see and not by any other artist. I have been advised to just make up influences from the art world but I don’t anymore.”

Despite his success, the path hasn’t always been easy. “I’m often told by experts that they don’t see any references to the history of art in my work and that is a problem. An art education also teaches you how to discuss and explain your work. This is important in writing an ‘artist statement’ which I’m always asked for.

“When I go to art colleges I am envious of all the equipment the students have at their disposal.”

artist painting at an easel
Self-taught artists can turn professional at any age

What is the point of training to be artist?

Studies have shown that being self-taught can make it harder to establish yourself as an artist. Galleries are looking for provenance in new artists and that usually means where an artist has studied. Graduates from top art schools can find the path to success far easier.

Art is one of the most common subjects with older learners. For many latent talents in art can lead to a second career path. I studied Fine Art in my thirties, having never studied art at school beyond elementary level. Around 10 per cent of my peers were mature students.

How do you become a self-taught artist?

The question should be how do you become a successful self-taught artist?  It’s simply a case of practicing art professionally. This means creating  works for commercial gain: selling work through social media and websites, earning commissions and exhibiting in galleries.

In today’s world, there are few things you can’t learn from the comfort if your armchair. Art has become a far more democratic. But there are major drawbacks. Without peer reviews or expert critiques, it can be hard to develop your work. Instead you will rely on family and friends – but are they telling the truth and do they know what they are talking about?

“I’ve had to work out how to use different media, different grounds and techniques without any guidance,” adds John. “This has meant that my way of working changes all the time – I’ve never had a set way of working and change it all the time so I don’t get bored.

“I don’t think a lack of education is as important now as it was when I started in the sixties.”

From a gallery’s point of view, it really should be about the quality of the work. Catherine Gillen, director of UK-based The Brownston Gallery in Devon, which represents John, believes that the quality of an artist’s work should be considered over and above whether they went to art school. ”Some of our most successful artists were self-taught, for example Anthony Amos and John Hurford. Both would no doubt have gone to art college if they had had the chance. It was an overwhelming inborn desire to paint that took over and got them started.”

john hurford painting
Work by successful self-taught artist John Hurford

Can you make a living as a self-taught artist?

There are plenty of examples of highly successful artists who are self-taught – Francis Bacon is among the most famous of the 20th century. Today his work sells for tens of millions of dollars. Other examples include Vincent van Gogh and Frieda Kahlo. Self-taught artists can work outside of traditional fine art galleries, setting up online shops and taking to social media to get work seen by tens of thousands of potential customers and even self-funded exhibitions.

For some artists, being self-taught has been turned into part of the narrative. Artists like former slave Bill Traylor became a significant figure of American folk and modern art – without a formal artistic education. In the UK, Cornish fisherman Alfred Wallis only began painting at 70 but his work has become an important part of British mid-20th century art. And there are many more success stories – and many have come from social media, with people simply putting their work ‘out there’.

The cost of an art degree and concerns it won’t lead to a good job is on the rise, has created a drop in art students, as well as increasing drop-out rates. It’s likely that self-taught and half-taught artists are likely to increase in the coming years.

Group of people during classes in school of painters
Art classes such as life drawing can help develop work

Tips to become a successful self-taught artist

Your website is your gallery: go online and look at the websites of the world’s most prestigious galleries and artists- they all use their websites to showcase their work, and you should too. If you need a website, Artweb can help we’ve got free templates for you to get started from.

Join an artists’ group: this can be based on your medium or geography; it can provide support and you can pool your efforts to promote work, such as joint exhibitions and open studio events.

Never stop learning: one of the benefits of attending art school is how it helps you develop your work. Although there are few things you can’t get instruction on the web, few YouTube videos can replace the benefits of attending short courses, such as life drawing.

Shout loud on social media: get your work viewed by thousands of people online with regular posts online. It can take awhile to get your follower numbers up, but keep going. Social media platforms will often give advice on how to promote your business, as well as offer online shops and business accounts. Short 60-second showreels on how you create work are popular online.

Show your portfolio: not being trained shouldn’t prevent you from approaching galleries with a portfolio of work. As well as viewing work, gallerist will want to know more about how the work is created and any inspiration. Look out for open calls and competitions are often a great way to get your work into the more mainstream fine art world.


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