Be a 'starving artist' no more 

Best-selling author Chris Tyrell speaks at Quest

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Artists: great at creating, lousy at selling. They often know very little about how to make aliving off their work, especially in Canada where the market for original artwork is small and often regional.

This is the message retired painter, lecturer and author Chris Tyrell brought to 55 Sea to Sky artists at a talk at Quest University in Squamish on Saturday, March 3.

"The big problem is that creative careers are solipsistic, they're an extension of the ego of an artist," he told the audience.

"You have to learn about the customers and stop thinking about yourself."

Tyrell, a professional development instructor at Emily Carr University in Vancouver, was sponsored by VISUALS, the Squamish Valley artists' group, with a grant from the Squamish Arts Council.

He spent many years just scraping by as a painter, and by his late 30s was earning only $18,000 a year. He lived for good reviews of his work, he said, and got many, but was literally "a starving artist," which left him enraged and frustrated.

"I had a creeping awareness about mortality and had to make serious decisions about money. Talent is not a determinant of success in the art world," he said.

"I rarely encounter artists who have specifically stated goals. They need to ask themselves, 'What do I want?' If all you want from your career is a great review, you are 100 miles away from someone who wants to make money at it."

What Tyrell did in his own case was phone a close friend from high school whom he found out was making $53,000 a year as a teacher — the knowledge shocked him.

"I went to bed for three days and when I got up I decided that $53,000 would be my goal, that was what I wanted to earn. I didn't do it the first year, but I passed him in the second year," he said.

In the following years, Tyrell adopted various strategies with the end goal of creating work that people bought, even creating a successful series of prints based on the Hippocratic Oath that sold to doctors throughout the Lower Mainland — all because he one day became annoyed with the art on the walls of his doctor's office as he was kept waiting.

When asked if he felt that was compromising, he said no, because the idea made him explore an area as an artist that he'd never considered.

He used symbolism from the Hippocratic Oath that doctors would recognize and that intrigued him as an artist.

Tyrell's first book, Artist Survival Skills: How to Make a Living as a Canadian Visual Artist, became a best seller; his second Making It! Case studies of Successful Canadian Visual Artists was published last fall.

Zoë Evamy, a watercolourist who is on the board of VISUALS, invited Tyrell to speak at Quest.

"We've been wanting to bring in professional development instructors and mentors," she said, knowing how crucial their knowledge can be to building confidence and business strategy in artists.

"Surviving as an artist is a tough thing to do and there are many different ways of doing it."

With a long, successful career in animation with the likes of Fox Animation, and most recently as a senior art director at Bardell Entertainment animation in Vancouver, Evamy settled in Squamish and began painting watercolours of landscapes and people in the Sea to Sky region, selling through the Mountain Galleries at the Fairmont Resort in Whistler.

Having read both of Tyrell's books, Evamy took the professional plunge and went full time as a painter, working at making a living at creating and selling her watercolours, getting her work seen at art walks and other public opportunities, and running workshops in the Sea to Sky region and West Vancouver in the last two years.

"His work has given me huge food for thought. It's been a major shifting of gears from working full time to painting full time. Chris makes no bones about it being really tough, but showcases people in his books who have been doing it successfully," she said.

Evamy said in her experience artists wanted to create work in their studios rather than develop a business sensibility that could, ultimately, allow them to work full time at their art.

"Last year for me was really experimental in trying out his suggestions. I never considered doing admin before, for example, because I never considered it work," she said.

Tyrell's business tips for artists include:

•Define your idea of success

•Develop your marketing and communications skills

•Create a business plan and vet it with peer professionals

•Have specific goals that are measurable, action-oriented, realistic and time specific. Tyrell calls these "SMART" goals

•Set financial goals, including developing entrepreneurial and sales skills

•Consider the impact of representation and commissions. Do you need to be in a gallery?

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