Becoming a professional artist - David Cheifetz,
David Cheifetz, "Nucleus," 5 x 5 inches, Oil on panel

On becoming a professional artist: “Until you actually just sit down with ironclad intent and start making your art, failure is guaranteed.” David Cheifetz explains what you can do to succeed.

I wrote the following article a decade ago, at the end of 2012, when the sting of creatively unsatisfying work in the field of architecture still haunted me, driving me to unrelenting focus and tunnel vision for my craft—an almost desperate mania.

I was three years in as a full-time artist, unaware that I was going to become a dad within a year. The aggressive and perhaps unforgiving tone of the article speaks to my state of mind at the time. I was hard on myself and judgmental of other artists, but it was what I needed. Sometimes, in order to do yourself a kindness, you have to be hard.

If I had written this article today, it would be tempered with patience and [hopefully] more wisdom, but maybe that’s not necessarily a good thing. I still agree with the opinions I expressed here, and ultimately the path I’ve taken has afforded me a beautiful lifestyle of creative freedom.

I’m pleased and honored to see this article republished, and I hope that it speaks to the hearts of a few talented artists who are just beginning on their professional journeys.
-David Cheifetz (June 26th, 2022)

Intent and Becoming a Professional Artist

By David Cheifetz

My first dream career was to be an architect, and that’s what I became. After giving it a fair shake I realized that I wanted autonomy, more creative control, and instant creative fulfillment. I wanted to use my hands and my mind and have my creation materialize before my eyes without dealing with extraneous bullshit.

When I began learning to paint at the Schuler School, I noticed there were clearly two types of students: hobbyists and aspiring professionals. There is nothing wrong with remaining a hobbyist artist. However, the aspiring professional must pursue art with greater intent.

The following is only aimed at aspiring professional artists.

The aspiring artist who will succeed won’t waste time making excuses and dwelling on the roadblocks that hinder the creation of his or her art. Age and base level of ability cannot be blamed for failure or success. The drive has to be there. I was fortunate in a multitude of ways (not least of which was having talented teachers), but it would have come to nothing without dogged intent.

I wanted it. I NEEDED it. I was hungry. I worked hard. It was either succeed at art or be miserable for the rest of my life. That’s literally how I saw it. I suspect the same is true for many other artists who have become professional. I put in the time; and not just face time, but deliberate time, quality time.

I scheduled my life around a singular purpose. I found solutions for roadblocks, financial and otherwise. I set myself up for success: I came early, I came prepared, I listened. I thought about painting constantly (mentally painting seems to be time well spent). And I was fortunate.

If you are reading this, chances are that you (like me) are the rare human born into a situation where pursuing your dream career is actually a legitimate possibility. To reject this opportunity is wasteful, even selfish in a way.

Becoming a professional artist - David Cheifetz, "Balance in Red," 24 x 12 inches, Oil on panel
David Cheifetz, “Balance in Red,” 24 x 12 inches, Oil on panel

Put your art first. Do it first thing in the day. People often use obligations or loved ones as an excuse to avoid making their art. But if you make your art, you will be happier. And if you are happier, all other areas of your life will benefit. I’ve noticed a clear pattern in my life: success in one area begets success in another.

Take the direct path. If you want to be a realist painter, don’t hedge your career bets by pursuing a degree (an expensive piece of paper) when an affordable atelier program might be more beneficial.

Don’t have a backup plan. If you have a backup plan, it will become reality. You can always do something less fulfilling later. Right now your intent must be clear. (There is a difference between taking a well-planned risk and being reckless. Being reckless is just another way of avoiding the hard work: You are planning to fail.)

Where possible, eliminate distractions. Multitasking is a mistake. Life is so much more enjoyable when you do one thing at a time and you do it well. And if a task isn’t worth doing well, you have to consider whether it’s worth doing at all.

Prioritize: do what’s most important first. Strive to do less, but with greater intent. Paradoxically, you’ll probably get more done. For me at least, I’ve found this to be true. The same thing applies in micro, within the act of painting. If you jump around the painting too much, trying to get everything done all at once, it will eventually slow you down. But if you take the time to focus on one area, making intentional brushstrokes until that area is correct, you can make good progress.

For some time I’d been using my computer as my jukebox. This was a mistake. The internet is a seductive mistress. Now I make sure to load my day’s supply of audio onto a portable device and then I completely shut down the computer. It doesn’t come back on until after my painting time is over. Ever since beginning this experiment, my days seem so peaceful, and I am more productive than ever. I enter the zone with greater ease.

To have your dream career as an independent artist, the surest path (or only path) is to reduce expenses as soon as possible. Many art colleges are so expensive that the accumulated debt would make being a realist painter almost impossible.

How badly do you want it? Keeping my car would not have allowed me to transition from architecture to painting as a career. I’d rather have creative fulfillment than transportation autonomy.

If your dream is to be a working artist, but the next thing you do is check your email, check your Twitter, order a drawing book off Amazon, or start cleaning the bathroom with the intent to begin your life’s work tomorrow, you won’t make it. That’s it. That’s the brutal truth. You won’t fulfill your life’s ambition. You won’t become a professional artist.

Until you actually just sit down with ironclad intent and start making your art, failure is guaranteed. I fail all the time. At least once a week I avoid my work for a few hours by distracting myself with some other “urgent” task. On these occasions I end the day feeling empty, anxious, and guilty. So do yourself a favor, jump in right away, do the work, and go to sleep tonight with a clear conscience.

David Cheifetz, "The Kettle," 11 x 14 inches, Oil on panel
David Cheifetz, “The Kettle,” 11 x 14 inches, Oil on panel

“Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence also moves. All sorts of things occur to help one that would not otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man would have dreamed would come his way.

I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets: ‘Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, magic, and power in it. Begin it now.’”
– W. H. Murray, The Scottish Himalayan Expedition

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘press on’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.” – Calvin Coolidge

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