Figuring Out Your Artistic Practice

Today I offer my first post on a 4 part series that elaborates on What You Need to Know to Keep Maturing as an Artist. With optimism, these articles offer you new ideas and avenues to explore while embarking on a career path in the arts.

The first series of articles in Figuring Out Your Practice,  offers insight into making decisions about your practice that distinguishes you from others, helps you define your story, identify challenges and create productive habits.

Defining Your Artistic Practice

“A title is an empty vessel waiting to be filled.”


As a student, at a well-respected institution that produced excellent thinkers and creators in the visual arts, I had the hardest time reconciling my creative pursuits and identifying myself with the title of artist.

Part of the problem was that I hadn’t quite figured out what defined my practice and how I would express that through a particular style. I felt very much like a ‘student’ with so much more learning ahead of me, not an ‘artist’ or ‘human brand’ with a well-defined sense of style, artistic practice and sense of direction.

Even though I was going through all the necessary steps to meet my goal of becoming a creative professional, I hadn’t yet found my uniqueness, or what made me different from so many other artists out there working with the same subject, using similar materials.

Most artists consider themselves unique because they are “creative” and “expressive”. They also consider each one of their works unique because each piece is individually made (not a copy of an original).

While this perspective alone may make someone unique, it is a uniqueness that serves only the individual artist, and not necessarily the end-user (the person who buys, listens to, or reads your work). If you have a goal and interest in making a living from your art then I encourage you to consider the perspective of your customer or patron as well.

This world, the western world specifically, is a place of abundance; an abundance of artists, an abundance of art and an abundance of choices. If you have not considered the impact your work has on people and the reasons why they would choose your art over someone else’s, then you have some homework to do.

Your journey in defining your art practice and business methods becomes your reputation and your brand. The emotional experience or practical reasons people have in interacting with you, or purchasing your work is what makes you and your work unique.

It starts with knowing what your strengths are, what your motives are and what purpose you serve to others.

“There can be no happiness if the things we believe in are different from the things we do.”

~ Freya Stark

Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso were good friends that developed cubism at the same time, both of them were outstanding masters in their field, yet it’s Picasso’s name that has become part of the collective awareness.

Why that is could probably make for an interesting article, but if I were to make an educated guess I would say Picasso was aware of the impact his work had on patrons and galleries and that he had a natural talent for networking and affiliated with people who were interested in collecting his work, as well as promoting it.

If you want control over your career, your journey should start with a road map and the only way to know what map you’re following is to know what motivates you. What kind of artist are you? Do you want to see your work in galleries and museums, exclusively collected by wealthy patrons? Or are you happy with selling to the public and seeing your work in the homes of people just like you?

These are two extremes and there is no right or wrong answer. Anything that works for you and aligns with your beliefs is good. There is a catch though; you have to decide which sandbox you want to play in. You can’t be everything to everyone, choose which direction best suits your values, talents and the people you want to associate with.

Developing your strengths, evaluating your weaknesses, and identifying your talents and skills bears some thought.

This is no small feat. It takes a lot of soul-searching and requires some objectivity. Look through your past. There are reoccurring themes and reoccurring patterns; you’ve cultivated habits over the years. Are those habits and interests still working for you? Do you need to upgrade your skills? What have you learned about your craft and business practices along the way?

In marketing terms, you are a human brand, and every decision you make from visual communication to the way you interact with strangers reflects your values and becomes the experience in which people remember you.

Take inventory of your past and incorporate it into your future. Make a business plan road map (or a career road map), a story which will help you define success on your terms.

Some of the methods you can use to map out your career and future goals are: combine collage images that define your map; draw it out; write a story about it; write a poem, or if you’re musically inclined write a song. However you do it, do it for yourself.

Consider the following when defining your practice and business:

  • The reason you are drawn to a particular art form.
  • Materials and tools you are drawn to when creating your work.
  • Color choices and reoccurring images you incorporate in your work.
  • Subjects that you incorporate in your work.
  • How you are contributing to a subject area that is represented in art history.
  • Your audience and how convenient it is for them to appreciate your work.
  • What experience your work contributes to your customers needs.
  • The types of organizations and groups you like to affiliate with.
  • If your work can easily be transported and distributed via the web, mail, or delivery.
  • The person that might be interested in your work.
  • Whether some form of knowledge is required to understand your work.
  • How qualified you are to run a business and produce the kind of work you want to.

These are some questions to get you started in realizing where you are in the pursuit of your goals and in defining your practice.

I want to finish today’s post with a quote from Twyla Tharp, from her book, The Creative Habit. It provides a realistic perspective on the wonderful journey in creating a career.

“I was fifty-eight years old when I finally felt like a ‘master choreographer.’ The occasion was my 128th ballet, The Brahms-Haydn Variations, created for American Ballet Theatre.  For the first time in my career I felt in control of all the components that go into making a dance – the music, the steps, the patterns, the deployment of people onstage, the clarity of purpose. Finally I had the skills to close the gap between what I could see in my mind and what I could actually get onto the stage. “

~ Twyla Tharp

This quote is a reminder that being a creative person and developing a career in the arts is a life choice. It’s a process. It is part of an ever evolving process. It is the fruit that blooms from our efforts.

To you, my friend, I wish many fruits from your labour.

If you enjoyed this post and found it useful, please share your thoughts and this post with others who might enjoy it.

There wasn’t a name attached to the photo I used, but after some investigation, I believe (though I’m not 100% sure) the Photo credit goes to Lee Miller.


8 thoughts on “Figuring Out Your Artistic Practice

  1. Thank you soo much for your post, which I’ve just discovered – so helpful! I have also saved your article so I can sit and go through the questions in my own time. I am currently studying at a post-graduate level – loving the practical side, as I always have done, but I have real issues with my tutors ‘extracting’ the definition of my practice. It makes me feel like I am on a public psychologists coach. I was, in the majority, happy with my approach but the questioning makes me doubt myself. Have you ever felt the examination and questioning unmines what you have conceived? Any thoughts would be gratefully received!

    • Hi P. I am so glad that you found my post useful. It is inspiring and humbling to know that I can be of help to you. Thank you!

      During my studies I experienced the unease that most artists feel talking about their work – this is what you are referring to when you mention tutors extracting the definition of your practice right?

      What you’re feeling is normal. It is a strange thing to put visual explorations into words that convey a relationship between your practice (image making) and art history (categories of subjects and styles) or defined intent.

      I did receive some good advice from one professor, she suggested that when embarking on a piece of work to keep in mind the intent through a word that best describes what that intent is. this is one way to remove it from personal experience and think of your practice in terms of how you’re contributing to a larger conversation on art practice.

      I once heard Richard Serra talk about his earlier works of exploration with steel in terms of verbs and what he could do with the steel; to fold, to drop, to bend, etc. Each piece was an exploration of what would happen if he folded the steel, or dropped it, etc. It was an exploration of the material and how it could be used to express formal elements of sculpture. This was very avant garde for the time, because he was working with the material in a way that was very different from how it was used in the past.

      Knowing how to approach a material or subject can be challenging , but defining it before you create can help with talking about it afterwards. Does that make sense?

      If you have any suggestions on a topic you would like me to explore in a post, please do let me know. It will be exciting for me to do so.

  2. Thanks , as always for sharing your insights. For me, deciding ” which sandbox I want to play in” has been the hardest thing of all. ( When you can’t decide, you just end up doing nothing at all.) I have saved your post & will try to answer the questions you’ve asked here. I think it will help me.
    BTW, your posts are a good length.

    • Thank you! And, don’t give up. Just keep going. It’s the only way you’ll discover your strengths and pleasures, as well as which creative projects bring you joy. You’ll know which sandbox you belong in when you find yourself excited to work on your creations. It’s a process of personal and professional discoveries, an ongoing journey that lasts a life time.

  3. Brilliant! Another gem Filio. I’ve been waiting for ages to have five minutes when I could sit down and read your post, as I didn’t want to just skim through it and miss anything important. I’m glad I waited. You always pose really interesting and thought provoking questions.
    Finding your direction artistically only seems to come with work and the production of more work! But I think I’m slowly beginning to get glimpses of what makes my work ‘mine’, if you get what I mean.
    Anyway, thanks for sharing your wisdom again. I always enjoy your posts.

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