Determining Success

Recently, I got asked by a friend who is studying for Art Librarianship this question in regards to research for a paper she is writing about information seeking behavior and scholarly communication of practicing artists:

“…What is your definition of being a “successful” practicing artist?  What factors do you take into account when thinking about your success?  Do you take social media hits and mentions into account in addition to projects completed?  Are your goals financially motivated, or do you take other considerations into account?”

I tried to answer this question as best I could. And because this question is one which the answers of other practicing artists are very interesting to me, I asked some members of a Facebook female illustration group I’m a part of called Humorless Mutts Club for their opinions and added some responses amidst my own.

To start, I ask myself the question: what is it that I want to be successful at?

I consider myself to be a freelance illustrator. I like this sort of general umbrella term because it allows me to pursue multiple avenues, experiment with different things and not have to constantly redefine my occupation. Once I figured out that seemingly basic but actually-quite-distressing-at-times-fact, what I define as my own “success” at said occupation came into clearer focus. Now to be fair, this idea of success for me changes as frequently as I find something new to be passionate about that falls under my umbrella term of “freelance illustrator.”

To begin any conversation about measuring success, I think one must first start by defining their goals.

Accomplishment (or failure) at one’s goals are, after all, what we measure our success by. It is important for me not to just set large goals, but to map out medium-sized, smaller, and even daily stepping-stone goals on the path to accomplishing my grand art dreams.

Starting at the micro level

I would be lost without my planner in which I make daily to-do lists – I measure some amount of success every day as I check off each thing done. You can read more about my organizational methods in this blog post. It is a good feeling to go to bed with an organized mind and to put all the things I’ve been meaning to do that I’ve had on my mental back burner down on paper. To this end, a very small feeling of fleeting success comes from having a relatively organized mind and life in my chosen career path, which can be very disorganized in nature.

On a broader scale

The several different factors I talked about that are of varying importance in determining how successful I am are as follows (and in no particular order):

  • exposure – space in galleries, space at craft and art shows, attention for my work
  • profit – online sales, in-person sales from shows and galleries, commission sales, book sales, etc.
  • praise for my work – good reviews from critical places, good feedback from family, friends and strangers
  • collaboration – working with other talented and high-profile artists
  • being true to myself – expressing my voice and causes I believe strongly in

Where the money comes in…

Even more generally, a huge way in which I would feel successful at my chosen career path is in fact somewhat through financial means – though not entirely. It is a longer-term goal of mine to make enough income from illustration that I am able to live the bare minimum of comfortably (i.e. not having to decide whether or not to get guacamole, or between Netflix or a good meal one month, for instance) – enough so that I can have some freedom in my art to the point where I don’t feel pigeonholed and have room to experiment when I choose. The ability to experiment in my art is something that is hugely important to me. One of the double-edged sword aspects of working a day job while trying to freelance (i.e., being relatively “unknown”) is that you do have the freedom to experiment with different things as the expectations on you to maintain a certain style are much lower – but by the same token, you are working a day job and not pursuing a career in your chosen field.

Liz Nugent weighed in on how the compensation correlates to the value of her art and the practicality of making a living:

“Yeah, I know it’s cool to say, ‘ah money doesn’t matter, do it because you love it!’ Well, money does matter to me. No, I’m not planning on getting rich as an illustrator. Call it the contrarian within me, but I heard enough times that becoming an artist wasn’t a practical career choice that it really matters to me that I can make it work financially. I don’t need to get rich off of it, but it matters a lot to me that I can pay my own bills and eventually contribute in a substantial way to the financial stability of my eventual family. I think illustration is valuable work, and valuable work deserves that kind of compensation.”

Waxing and waning of goal importance

And too – these different factors by which I determine my success will come in and out of focus depending on my needs at any given time. This is true while I still have a day job – but I can only imagine that it would increase if I break free and start to rely on freelancing solely as my full-time career. For instance, if a certain bill is looming especially near, and I am short on funds, it becomes more urgent for me to make a profit. I might start looking for commission work more actively instead of waiting for them to come to me. To that extent, and the way I previously mentioned, profit is important to my determination of my own success, however outright profit is minuscule in causing me to feel successful. Rather, making money from my work overall is more of a path to helping me achieve less monetary-based goals.

Jennifer L. Wambach very aptly described how the idea of success in art has evolved for her over the years:

“When I was a kid, I thought success meant being famous (having your name well known worldwide, like Picasso). When I was in college I had a professor tell me once, ‘there’s no doubt in my mind that you’ll be making six figures in about five years,’ so for years I equated success with making lots of money. Now that I’m in my early 40s I don’t think either one of those is a good measure of success — some of the wealthiest people I know are the unhappiest, and some of the most famous people in the world are the most miserable (read the headlines of any tabloid for proof). Now, having four young kids at home, I think success means being excited every day to get started on my artwork, seeing some financial rewards (not necessarily being ‘rich,’ but rather having companies willing to pay me for my artwork), and being able to do that along with raising my children. I think the happiness and excitement factor is the truest measure of success. Are you happy and love doing what you do? Are you finding work? Then you’re a success.”


Suggested further reading and watching (courtesy of Jaleen Grove and Lauren Neely Bond, respectively):

I’d love for you to share what it means to you to be successful! Feel free to weigh in in the comments below! Thanks for reading, as always.