Can a self-taught artist make it in the art world?

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1. Entering the art world

Establishing yourself in the art world is tough. It has a reputation for elitism, where connections to the right people could prove to be just as important as talent.

Even a first-class education can't guarantee success. Art schools offer years of study under experienced tutors and time to hone skills and experiment with different techniques. But this doesn't necessarily lead to sell-out shows and big sales.

So if it’s difficult enough for qualified artists to make a name for themselves, what hope does someone without an art school background have? How can a self-taught artist achieve success and public acclaim?

2. The traditional route

In the past artists needed the support of guilds or patrons, wealthy members of society, who helped them gain commissions and provided funds to live off.

These included families such as the Medicis in Italy who were notable patrons of the arts, supporting the career of Leonardo da Vinci, among others. There were many patrons in the 19th Century such as John Ruskin who backed some of the Pre-Raphaelite painters and self-taught artist JMW Turner.

Some artists relied on their families for assistance: Cézanne received a monthly allowance from his father allowing him to paint. Similarly Van Gogh was given money regularly by his brother which enabled him to continue with his work.

More recently, Francis Bacon, one of Britain's most famous artists, was supported by patrons. Today, private patrons are a rare breed and private financial backing is thin on the ground. There are, however, foundations that do provide grants and residencies for artists.

The art world is now very different from any other era and artists from all backgrounds have many more opportunities available to them to sell their work. They should be prepared to take on many roles.

3. Selling art anywhere

For many artists, earning a living through selling their work would be a dream come true.

These days there are more routes to market than ever before. Many of us like to have a bit of original art on our walls, though we may not have a critical eye. We're often happy to buy something that we like for a modest price. For artists who appeal to this market here are the best ways to reach this audience:

Go online

The internet has made the art world much more accessible. Artists can set up their own online shop but there are also numerous established websites on which to showcase and sell work, such as Axisweb and Affordable British Art as well as craft websites like Etsy and Folksy.

Enter competitions

Many artists have gained confidence and exposure from entering competitions. The first stage of submission is usually digital, saving artists time and money by not having to take the work physically to the location. The Royal Academy Summer Show in London is the biggest open submission for an art exhibition in the world.

Go to an art fair

Two of the best known are the Olympia and Islington fairs held in London. Affordable art fairs are held regularly around the country. Generally these consist of individual gallery stalls displaying the work they sell. There will be numerous stalls under one roof which makes it easy to judge which gallery sells work similar to your own.

Approach a gallery

There are a number of ways to make contact with a gallery. It’s bold, but not unheard of, to make a personal approach taking along a portfolio or reproductions of your work. Alternatively work can be sent digitally. Whichever option is chosen it’s very important that work is well presented.

4. Making money without critical acclaim

Entering competitions and exhibiting locally were key to the success of untrained artists Jack Vettriano and Beryl Cook. Both have earned huge sums of money but haven't achieved critical success.

Jack Vettriano

Jack Vettriano's paintings have captured the public's imagination but have been sneered at by art critics.

Vettriano is a former mining engineer. His success story began when he submitted two paintings to the Royal Scottish Academy’s summer exhibition, an annual competition open to all artists. Both sold on the first day. Prints of his often erotic paintings are widely available and he has achieved great commercial success. While Vettriano has been described as “the Jeffrey Archer of the art world” and his work as “badly conceived soft porn“, he remains hugely popular. In 2004 his most famous painting, The Singing Butler, sold for £775,000.

Beryl Cook

Another financially successful artist adored by the public is former Plymouth landlady Beryl Cook. Her talent was spotted by a friend who sold some paintings on her behalf. She exhibited locally and then nationally, finding a large audience for her work. Her paintings of plump and bawdy characters became widely available and could be found on stamps, posters and greetings cards. However, critics were famously disdainful of her work and Time Out magazine refused to include her exhibitions in their listings. Following her death in 2008 one of her original oil paintings sold at auction for £69,000.

5. What do galleries want?

Galleries played an important role in Cook and Vettriano's breakthrough. But how can they help other untrained artists?

Dan Hipkin, studio director of Ink_d Gallery in Brighton, explains why being an untrained artist needn't be a barrier to gallery approval.

6. Acceptance by the establishment

The numerous routes now available for artists to sell their work are making the art world more democratic and less elite than it has ever been.

Self-taught artist Jonathan Yeo rose to prominence with his portraits of celebrities and political leaders. But support from large galleries and figures from the art world can be career-changing.

The Saatchi effect

Private collector Charles Saatchi has been referred to as a modern Medici for the support he has given young artists. In 1993 he bought all the works of the then unknown art graduate Jenny Saville and provided her with a studio to work in. His backing brought her to the attention of the art world and launched her career. Saatchi's patronage has also made many artists including Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst household names.

Although these artists all received an art school education an amateur could still aim to enter their world by joining Saatchi's online community, in which artists from any background can post and sell their work.

Public galleries

Also of great importance to artists are the many publicly funded galleries around the country. The biggest and best-known include the Tate and the Hayward. The Tate's Director, Nicholas Serota, has been named the most powerful person in art.

Public galleries don't have to make a profit so they can afford to be more daring in their choices of artwork. Having work shown in a public gallery can be a source of great professional pride for an artist who knows it is there on merit.

But whether you crave the acceptance of the art elite or not, there has never been a better time to make money from your artwork. It’s time to get your work out there!

7. Which is your route to success?

Are you ready to take your first steps to fame and fortune? Where will you begin?

Go to an art fair

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Discover what galleries like

Research galleries in your local area, then you'll know which galleries may be interested in your style.

Submit to a gallery show

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The Vettriano route!

Submit your work to a show or competition.

Post your work online

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Sell work yourself

Set up your own website or join an established selling community.

Approach local businesses

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Aim for captive audiences

Offer to hang your work in cafes, restaurants or doctors' or dentists' surgeries in return for a small commission on sales.