Artistic Productivity | Cornerstone of a Successful Art Career

Having spent over 20 years in the gallery business, I’ve noticed a key common trait of financially successful artists: they are constantly in the studio, hard at work. I would describe these artists as productive and prolific.

The realities of the art market today are such, that in order to generate regular sales and establish a strong collector base for your work, you have to have significant inventory. To a certain degree it’s a numbers game. You have to have enough work available so that you can show the work in a variety of venues and get the work in front of enough people to reach the buyers.

My research has shown that, on average, successful painters are creating nearly 80 pieces per year. Successful sculptors are sculpting 55 pieces per year. No matter what your media, you should be working to increase your productivity and boost the number of pieces you are creating.

 

Source: Xanadu Gallery's 2009 State of the Art Survey

Simple Suggestions to Become More Productive

Dedicate consistent time daily to your art

Even if you can only carve out an hour or two, set aside fixed time daily that will be devoted to creating.

Focus

Try and keep studio distractions to a minimum. Turn off your computer and phone while you are working. You will be far more effective and productive if you aren’t constantly being pulled away from your art by the constant stream of distractions that plague our lives.

Set Production Goals

By setting goals about how many works you are going to create, you will push yourself to work harder to reach those goals. I suggest setting a weekly production goal. It doesn’t matter what that goal is, (and it can vary widely depending on medium and style) you  will create more work when you have a production goal.

Quality

Of course, productivity isn’t the only factor – successful artists also create high-quality work. Creating a tremendous supply of poor-quality artwork will not lead to success. In today’s competitive art market, quality has become even more important.

An artist once asked me, “Which is more important, quantity, or quality?”

“Yes!” I replied.

For today’s artists, it’s not an “either, or” proposition. To be a financially successful artist today you must be both efficient and proficient in your craft.

Can You Wait for Inspiration?

Some artists would argue that trying to be more productive is futile, as inspiration doesn’t come on demand. I love artist Chuck Close’s response to this idea:

01f/34/arve/g2661/072“The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you’re sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that’s almost never the case.”

Chuck Close

What Do You Think?

Has productivity played an important role in your art career? What are your greatest challenges when it comes to productivity? Do you have advice to share with artists who are struggling to create more? Share your thoughts and comments below.

Graph Source:  Xanadu Gallery’s 2009 State of the Art Survey

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39 Comments

  1. I love to be productive! I believe that the more work I produce, the sooner I will advance on the learning curve and the quicker I will reach my goals. I recently took the step of contacting galleries with the goal of getting my work shown there. So far, I’ve visited with two gallery owners. Both were attracted to my work, and both asked me how many pieces I had in inventory, which at the moment is about 20-25. I have turned down the first offer to exhibit because of the six-month “rental” commitment plus commission. But the second gallery owner with a traditional consignment business model (40% commission, period) wants to talk again in February when he will have the space available. I believe that having a decent size inventory was one of the factors that led to acceptance from both.

  2. I would agree with your production importance. But I find the number of 80 paintings a year to be a bit high for certain types of artwork. I paint in a hyper realistic style and the best production that I have produced in the last 10 Years has been around 20 paintings. This year has had it’s healthy share of distractions an I will be lucky if I knock off 10 paintings. As I become more and more focused on my technique my paintings take longer and longer to complete. I hope other artist that paint in a hyper realist style don’ t feel under productive if they don’t hit that 80 painting mark. If I attempted to hit that mark my eyes would bleed and I would likely go insane…… Just saying

    1. Excellent point Kevin – and to be clear, those numbers are averages, and it would be expected that there would be a wide range of production depending on style. The important thing is not to hit these numbers, but rather to reach your personal, optimal production.

    2. Exactly … style governs speed/production and since when is art a timed event? Medium and style are critical. Your work is gorgeous. I am more concerned about getting a piece right than whipping something out less than satisfactory. I don’t ever want an example of my work hurried. We’re not a factory assembly line. However one wants to describe an individual artist’s output, it must be done with excellence in mind over any other consideration.

    3. I agree with you Kevin. I do think my own production needs to increase but as a realist style painter who also must fit in commissioned portraits and teaching, this number certainly seems unattainable! I am looking at doubling the number of completed studio works next year though and I have seen the principle work with my more prolific friends.

    4. Thank you Kevin for your comment! Right, hyperrealistic painting is a spécial universee….. Productivity do not mean exactly quantity and each painting should be sold for higher prices. That’s the particular challenge hyperreaistic painters face in this world where a simple blank canvas is presented as a work of art in museums…….

  3. I am reading a book called, “Creativity, Inc. (Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration”. It is written by Ed Catmull, co-founder and current president of Pixar Animation and also president of Disney Animation.
    It is inspiring, fascinating and engaging. I totally recommend it!
    The sections on planning, just rushing in and DOING it, randomness, the think tank and so much more are wonderful.
    I should probably read it over and over and over.

  4. One of the biggest leaps forward that I made earlier in my career came about when a gallery owner offered me a solo show: it was to take place in a few months, and he wanted 18 new paintings. Like Kevin above, I paint in a highly realistic style, and my work takes a lot of time. I froze, gulped –and committed to do it. It was a challenge, and I had to put aside many other things in my life for a time — but my art improved, I hit my goal, had a successful show, and gained real confidence in my ability to produce at a higher level than I’d thought possible.

    1. Helen I had a simatsituayion in the year that I produced 20 paintings and I did learn a lot in the process and grew as an artist. I have to so in looking back that my work suffered from the rush to meet the show deadline. The quality suffered for the sake of quantity. This probably would not be true in other styles of painting. I know when it is time to stop painting when I start to get sloppy (which may be just loose or painterly in other stylistic modes) the thing I learned was to keep out the distractions from my studio time and to completely focus. Pushing my limits never helped the quality

  5. Thanks for the insight.
    One observation, I have a friend who is a very hard working painter and she created very high quality, refreshing oil paintings…and lots of them.
    She has both the quality and quantity but has a hard time to connect with galleries in the U.S. The fact that she’s French and be in the U.S. for just a few year may play a role. But I also see others who are new comers and being very successful.
    Any thoughts?
    Here is her website: http://www.vdaval.de

  6. Yes! I am in the studio everyday with the exception of illness or family obligations. I think that the # of works is a good benchmark and look at Jason’s graph as “Guidelines”, to quote Geoffrey Rush in Pirates of the Caribbean. For example many if my works are diptychs and triptychs, the largest being 5’h x 10.5′ w.
    The key for me is to be more efficient with my time in the studio by implementing many of Jason’s time management suggestions.
    Thank you for all of this!

  7. My problem is I must work now, part-time. Prior to that I was far more productive, post retirement. So, it is a double edge sword: I need to produce the work, find gallery representation/sales so I will no longer have to work part-time….
    And it is not a matter of not finding enough subject matter to paint I have PLENTY of work planned, just need the time, or time management…..like a couple of hours a day at least.
    But, I am working on it. I am currently working on a piece.
    Also a good production mode to follow is having more than one piece in production at a time. While one is in a drying stage, or whatever, begin a new one and so on.

  8. I’m always composing paintings in my mind when I am not in the studio. And when I am there, it’s a sacred space where I show up and work. As I start to leave the studio, after a long day of painting etc., I often stop on the stairs, say goodbye to my space and promise to return. My problem now is weeding through the work that’ s been shown many times and hasn’t found a good home. In January, I plan on purging to clear my head, heart and to refocus. I plan on dividing the work into several categories and assess. I also plan on painting some large pieces in the next few months and I want to be firmly committed to those images and to clearly think them out before I begin. Of course I’ll do studies but examining older or less “successful” work might help me with this.
    So this is my comment on a few recent posts. Too much inventory, what to do in downtime, consistency and productivity!

  9. A couple of quotes I try to remember:
    “Inspiration does exist but it must find you working.” Pablo Picasso
    “Inspiration is getting to our studies at 9 am.” Eugene Delacroix
    “Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.” Vincent Van Gogh

  10. Like Helen, it helps me to produce if I have a concrete goal and deadline. I signed up to do a large show 2 years before the exhibition date and I did it solely because I wanted to make a commitment that would force me to produce more work. It worked! I produced enough work to fill 95 linear feet and now continue to build on that inventory. I have sold a few pieces since then, but strive to produce more than just enough to replace what has sold. I’m still seeking gallery representation, but I want to be sure and have enough pieces at the ready should I get into more than one gallery. Like Kevin, my work has elements of very fine detail so the more I can produce before I get into galleries the better…then it won’t be so hard to keep up!

  11. I’ve been a full time painter all my life. Inspiration for me is always there. Even when I’m totally exhausted, a good strong cup of coffee and some fabulous loud music with a great beat opens up the gates of inspiration instantly. As if it was waiting for me to open up shop. Then it’s pure bliss time. I paint fast and spontaneously without any plans. I prefer to have an assistant as you can see on my YouTube videos. I average under an hour per painting . At time two-four paintings in one session. The Creative Energy in the universe is always looking for an open outlets. My approach is gratitude and fearlessness which mounts up to pure joy. Visitors, clients unexpectedly pick up on it and connect to the open heartedness. For me that’s when sales happen.

  12. Productivity is a good thing. I’m a little worried that the originality and quality can be lost in the process. I’m painting 40 paintings a year. Half of my paintings is on canvas 24 x 36 and the second half is on paper, size of 11 x 14.
    I am curious how much works of a single artist does your gallery sell per year? And what does quality mean for you?

  13. The 20+ paintings that are gallery ready in our inventories are an indication of the “miles on our brush” but how quickly we accumulate them is more about our journey and who we are. Do we throw stars and petals like flower girls or are we on our knees carefully excavating an archeological dig? Each brings worth and heart into the world. And, each approach is valued, perhaps even by the same collector. The experience of painting is one I value in itself and I’m not in a hurry to rush to the beat of someone else’s drum. When I do have a show deadline the pressure and excitement gives me a turbo charge that cuts through the distractions. At other times the daily painting is my saving grace.

    1. I love this response Cheyenne, beautifully put. I find it is demanding and tiring, so much that I get really hungry. The same as when taking exams. But it’s not a process to be hurried, it’s a process to be savoured.

  14. I have always been productive. I average 1 large oil painting a week and a couple more smaller ones. I always work on 2 or 3 at a time. Lately I’ve been working smaller for marketing purposes. I think at times I am pretty boring to non artist friends because the only thing I’m interested in is painting and other art. When I can’t make it to my studio, I dig out my pastels or acrylics and work on small pieces at home. I have recently been in the hospital and have completed 6 small 5×7 pastels and one watercolor in 4 days. The nurses even provided me with a pad to cover my work space. It’s easy for me to be productive because all I do is make art. Storage is the biggest problem.

  15. 100% right Jason,
    I plan to start my work at 7.00 am and quickly I see that time flees and its 10.00 am. Same again in the evening / night. Before I realize, 3-4 hrs gone in the computer . Focus without drifting away from your work is highly important for good productivity. A successful artist has to force themselves to carve out all kinds of distractions that keeps them off their productivity, especially me.
    Thank you.

  16. I am a very amateur wood Carver/sculptor ,I do heavy construction work full time and as in aging (56) I often feel completely exhausted after working 10 hours and driving an hour,I carve because I love it,and I’m enjoying learning,I try to carve nudes but still suck at faces so no I’m experimenting with clay.the drawing, proportions,planning,are the hardest most time consuming part of my art,I know I need more studio time(and when I’m carving and get “in the zone” my work just happens fast as time doesn’t exist until it’s over. I hope to retire in 4-6 years and study and carve.id love to be able to sell some pieces but I only want to create what I like.

  17. Excellent article Jason and great advice. I agree about production and quality go hand in hand…but….80 per year? Well I know some artists that do more than that, the daily painters doing those 6×6 “Painting a day” kind of challenges.
    Or some kind of loose styles or expressionist abstracts.
    Realistic or hyper realistic ones take quite a bit of time, specially oils. Some very famous artists finish only about 10 to 15 a year.
    I also know some artists that have tons of artworks in quite a few galleries and they sueem to stay there for ever, they just don’t sell as fast. That are flooding the market with second rate art.

    Very few artists became world famous making tons of money. Quite a lot of us, full time artists, achieve a reasonable level of succes and can support ourselves. Most artists need a day job or teach all the time, then production suffers.

    So the first step in establishing yourself as an artist is to paint full time and make sacrifices.
    The most important step in becoming a full time artist is to keep making art everyday or almost everyday. Get your name out there participating in exhibitions, juried shows, have a proper website, donate some art, etc.

    I used to get together with my friends once a week, now is every two months. That day I also visit some local galleries and do some shopping.
    Grocery shopping is done by a neighbour, art supplies are ordered on line.
    But I still have to spent time with my and look after my pets (two dogs, two cats and two parrots), have to cut the grass or shovel the snow in the winter and keep my house in order…and look after my body and soul with exercises, yoga and meditation.
    Visiting my family twice a year 600 kilometres away twice a year is also my priority.

    I start painting very early and go back to my studio after dinner. No weekends free for me, every day is for painting.
    Having three galleries and keeping them supplied is the goal I have accomplished for now. Also, have a few paintings ready and building some more of the same theme to put in another gallery, is my next goal.

    My process is very meticulous and quite long for every painting, starting by sanding the cradled panels, putting two coats of GLC 100, then a few of gesso with sanding in between. I paint with multiple coats to create texture, etc, etc., one coat of isolation layer before the varnish, which is applied after the acrylic is almost cured.
    For me quality can’t be compromised at all.

    My advice is to keep creating art no matter how challenging it’s. Go the studio everyday even if inspiration is not there, jus priming or varnishing or putting marks on the support, inspiration will come when you are doing, not just looking at the canvas or complaining about artist’s block.

    Paint, paint and then …paint some more. Don’t worry about failure or burn your failed paintings, scrape the paint or gesso on top. I have lots of them waiting to be sanded, but no time to do for now.

    Have goals, start applying to galleries after you have a coherent body of work. Most galleries required about eight to fifteen pieces to get in.
    After that, if you are selling and can keep up with the gallery’s demand, increase your production without sacrificing quality and have enough to apply to another gallery.

    So far this year was my best for productivity with fifty paintings done for my galleries plus four commissions and several paintings for my family and friends on their birthdays or for Christmas, most of which I don’t post in my website.

  18. The 80 painting a year ideal can be a problem for those of us like Kevin and myself, who paint with lots of detail. I average about 15 originals a year and compensate for the problem with making lots of greeting cards, $25 digital prints, postcard sets, and calendars, and busting my butt to go out and find places that will sell them. Right now I have 32 places, 15 of them make great sales, 10 do OK, and 7 are about to get the boot. This not only adds a few extra thousand dollars per year in itself, but people see my images on my website and order original sized art quality prints that are very lucrative. The rest of my work year is spent doing glass art pieces.

    As far as my biggest improvement in universal efficiency, getting up early has been my most effective. Lately I calculated that I could add about 7 hours a week to my life if I got right out of bed instead of laying there thinking about stupid frivolous stuff and complaining that it’s too cold and dark to get up. Taking me a ton of discipline but I am glad every time I actually succeed.

  19. You quote Chuck Close, and I completely agree with him on the working/inspiration thing. His work takes a great deal of time on average. One of his portraits might take a month or more I’d imagine. Smaller ones may be quicker but he is not pounding a large quantity of images. There is always the exception. Quantity is nice but not always possible.
    Working steadily is the most important thing.

  20. As we move into another creative year Jason, I’d like to share my gratitude for all you and your “team” are doing. I tell my creative friends about your website and all the beneficial postings in your Art Business Tips. You are generous with your experiences and certainly help us if we are willing to read and follow your suggestions!

    May 2017 bring you continued success, health, laughter and love.

    Merry Christmas, Happy Holydays, and Peaceful New Year ! Karen B.

  21. When I got started, I had to come up with what I needed a year to live on, divide that by 52, that gives what you need to produce each week, and you have to price each piece by how many weeks it takes to produce. Anything less than this, it is time to get a job with McDonalds.

  22. I live to be in the studio. I make easily over 150 pieces a year with a wide range of prices from just over $100 to over $3000 for large commissions. I’ve moved to social media and studio sales in the last few years, as well as supplying my best galleries.
    One of the secrets is to make affordable entry point pieces for new collectors. Sell them alongside the large pieces. They come back, sometimes years later, but they come back.
    Another point is to stay at it – I’ve been a full time artist for 30 years and make a living at it now, but it did not happen overnight.

  23. Great subject…one of my favorite things to talk about with other artists, we all have our own speed to achieve a certain amount of productivity level for sure. I think the main thing is to set a level of productivity for yourself based on your goals for that year. If you are already in galleries you know what you need to produce to “feed” your existing commitments at the beginning of the year based on sales the previous year. After raising your prices for the new year and if you are pushing yourself you will want to add a show or two and maybe a goal of getting into a new gallery for your work which will require more work….for me setting that goal for a new challenge in the quiet of January gives me a deadline or structure to guide me that satisfies the left brain part and I like the competitive challenge I give myself. Kinda like playing golf where you are competing with yourself or last year’s version of yourself.
    My work is in 11 galleries across Canada and my production levels are over 200 paintings a year…depending on how many small paintings I make that year. I work in large series which greatly helps my production levels. I have learned to streamline my office practices such as inventory, price structure (have an exell formula that increases my prices every year with just a few clicks and is based on price per square inch going from more expensive for small work to less expensive per square inch as the sizes of paintings grow larger). The first shipment of paintings a few years ago to a gallery took me a few days to put together but now that same shipment takes a day. Have a business account with one of the large shipping companies where they come to my studio to pick up the shipment now…I used to take the boxes to a place in town which for me is one hour away. That eats up 2 hours for the round trip. Same with art supplies, I have them delivered right to my door now and with a professional artist account with them the prices are cheaper since I buy larger quantities, no drive for me (again I live in the country and it’s takes me an hour to town). I have a very easy to use website now that takes little time to update, used to take hours and hours. These are a few examples of how I have carved out more paintings time for myself which is the best part of being a working artist in my book. Like ChrtstinaDelSol here, I too have whittled certain activities out of my life that are not as valuable as studio time to paint. What works for me is setting goals based on reality on what I can achieve and continuing to keep my precious studio painting time the biggest part of my day.

    1. We should get together. You sound like my kind of artist! I believe success is part talent, and part nurturing that talent with practical decisions.
      I’m at the point in my career when I am slowing down. Decided not to do any more freelance teaching, and cutting out two galleries. Now I can focus on my favourite things and carve out a bit more time for experiementation. I too made a bunch of changes in bookkeeping and inventory, website management and shipping. All of that is doable, with new technology.
      Good for you, and i wish you increasing success each year!

  24. Regarding glass…what kind of glass are you talking about that the artist can make 500 quality pieces in a year?? certainly not stained glass!

  25. Regarding inspiration, Chuck Close is absolutely right:
    “All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself.”
    .

    When I go out on photo “safari” there are generally couple of photos that “work” and I get out right away. But, since I usually shoot 200-300 or more photos per outing, there are a lot that get passed by; not deleted, but “shelved.”
    .

    When there is a lull in my “idea factory” I revisit folders from previous shoots, which may sometimes be a few years old. I’m constantly learning new methods, so I often apply those new techniques to older images, and frequently come up with “new” winners. My current signature photo, “Franklin St.” which I have on my business card, for example, was taken about 4-5 years ago. Out of the box, it was just an OK image. I liked the composition, lighting, and color, but it lacked punch. In the intervening years I developed some methods of what I call digital interpretation. A couple of years later, I came across this image again and asked myself, “I wonder if I can do something with that, doing this?” After working with it for a day, the answer was *yes*! It’s one of my most popular and best selling images.
    .
    .
    http://www.xanadugallery.com/2013/Artists/Detail.php?InvID=1149764

  26. Productivity is important but for a sculptor size is also a factor so I feel 50 pieces a year is unrealistic. The other element to being a successful artist is the time spent in marketing and selling your work as well as the time spent running your business. I think to be successful you need to be spending at least 50% of your time on that as it is pointless being productive if you don,t get out there and sell what you produce.

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