Ask the Art Professor: How Long Did it Take You to Jump Start Your Art Career after Graduation? What Was Your First Job?

Portrait Drawing

“How long did it take you to jump start your career after graduating from RISD? What was your first job?”

It took me about 6 years before I felt even remotely “legitimate” as an artist.  Looking back on it now, I know now that there were many mistakes I made terms of launching my career that could have been easily avoided had I thought things through more carefully at the time.  Mostly, I allowed the period between graduating from RISD and going to graduate school to last for too long.  While I am glad that I took some time off before going to graduate school, those four years were very hard in many ways, and things didn’t really start to take off for me until I got my master’s degree.

To begin with, I was wrestling with my transition from RISD to the “real world” which was extremely difficult.  I had been so accustomed to having the amazing artistic community at RISD, and then to have it all disappear one day felt like a traumatic loss.  I scraped by financially, (I was very insistent to make it on my own, with no financial help from my parents) had no studio space, made $376 per week, and lived in a crappy apartment in Boston.

My first job was as an art teacher at an after school program at a public elementary school.  Just picture 120 kids, ages 5-11, with about 9 teachers spread out between the playground and the school cafeteria everyday for 6 hours. It was complete pandemonium, and I cleaned up more pee and throw up that year than I care to remember. On top of that, I found the other teachers there unbearable with their petty concerns and catty conversations.  None of them had any shred of a clue about being a visual artist and I felt completely isolated from them.


An early portrait drawing of mine from 1999

The job was exhausting and miserable, to the point that I found myself too physically and mentally wiped out at the end of the day to be able to make any art. My feeble attempts to make art at that time never went anywhere. I used to attend life drawing sessions to draw, I did the occasional self-portrait, I sketched friends from life, and I drew in my sketchbook when I could.  I had initially wanted to be a portrait painter, but after several unpleasant experiences with clients, I quickly gave up that initiative.  The artwork I was doing still looked like student exercises, and I couldn’t figure out a way to make the transition into work that looked professional. This went on for about a year and a half.


An early portrait painting of mine from 2000

Then one day I ran into one of my former RISD Professors in Boston.  He had been one of my favorite teachers, and so it was wonderful to see him again. He asked me how my artwork was going.  I was completely mortified and had no choice but to tell him that I wasn’t making anything. I was full of excuses:  I didn’t have a studio space, I couldn’t afford art supplies, my job was too demanding, etc.  He said, “Clara, you were one of my best students, you have to make your art.” He gave me his phone number and encouraged me to visit him and show him my new work.  That was the wake up call I sorely needed at the time. I felt creatively inspired for the first time since I had graduated from RISD, and was determined to stop making excuses and get to work.


An early figure painting of mine from 2000

I started hiring models privately and worked on oil paintings in my living room. This created a structure that I could work within in that when the model showed up,  I had no choice but to get to work. I knew that I was paying the models, so every minute was precious and I learned to work quickly and efficiently on my oil paintings.  I also bought a little $500 etching press and created drypoint prints (a non-acid intaglio printmaking technique)  in my apartment. The oil paintings depicted bizarrre, multi-limbed figures while the drypoint prints explored similar themes within the context of a human skull.

Although it makes my skin crawl right now to look at these works, (what was I thinking?!?)  these oil paintings and drypoints are what I consider to be my first professional body of work.  For the first time I was working serially and in a concentrated, focused manner. Making these works taught me how to be a professional artist. From time to time, I would visit my former RISD professor and he provided important feedback on my work that kept me inspired and going.  I continue to do this to this day.

I also started showing my work in local juried shows which was a good experience in terms of getting my work out there and seen. Although I was finally making my work steadily, I still felt like my career wasn’t developing the way I wanted it to. That was when I made the decision to go to graduate school.


An early drypoint print from 2001

Once I had my master’s degree, that’s when my career really started to happen.  I started teaching at the college level and through those school networks developed professional relationships with other artists. I had finally found the kind of serious artistic community that I had been searching for all this time.   I eventually stopped entering juried shows because I started to get invitations to show at exhibitions by other artists and curators at more high profile, regional venues. And most importantly, I had no problem making my artwork because of the experiences I had in the years before going to graduate school. 

ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

FB    Youtube    Pinterest     Instagram    Twitter    email    etsy

Prof Lieu offers video critiques on portfolios for students applying to art school and working artists. More info.

Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories!  More info.

ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.

Related articles
“How do I change careers to pursue my passion for art?”
“What are the career opportunities in fine art?”
“Should I pursue a career in fine art?”


3 thoughts on “Ask the Art Professor: How Long Did it Take You to Jump Start Your Art Career after Graduation? What Was Your First Job?

  1. I have one more year left in undergrad and am already terrified at the prospect of graduating! I feel like my school has taught me so much about art but very little about making a living as an artist. Hearing stories like yours are very helpful, especially your sharing the details of what jobs you worked and explaining how you moved from juried shows to more prestigious venues. Thank you for a great post!

  2. It sure is tough….I have no creative community outside Deviantart which itself as a community has significantly slowed down since I joined it. I tried about 2 art social events, felt out of place at them being fairly shy and since my artist career is slow to get off the ground, I have to wear myself out at jobs that pay very little for what it does to me since I’m supposed to be smiling and loud…haha….ha >_>. The company makes my resume look a lil nicer, does that make the suffering worth it for the moment? and a paycheck I guess…yea, I guess I have to eat, right? -_-

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s