As an artist in her 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and now early 70s, Li has been asked this question a lot. It’s interesting to witness the changes in her perception of what success means to her at different stages of her life. At the same time, she empathizes much with young artists today. We hope to create a series of articles to dive deeper into this seemingly simple yet complicated question for artists.
Li also suggests that we dive into variations of this topic such as:
- How to launch your career as an artist?
- How to sustain your career in art? How to age as an artist?
- How to find your style/strength/niche?
- If and how to find the right business partner?
After spending decades working as an artist internationally, Li understands the challenges of being an artist, but she also agrees that it’s one of the most fulfilling careers you can have, and for a very long time.
Although some of Li’s friends said goodbye to their creative careers long ago as dancers and singers, she continues to paint every day no matter where she is. It’s a privilege and a blessing. Art is what keeps Li in top spiritual, mental and physical shape these days.
How to succeed as a watercolor artist?
1. Do what you love, love what you do
Li was already a talented young artist when she was only 5 or 6. However, her natural ability could not replace the hard work she put in as an adult throughout her career. Between 1975-85, Li continued her full-time job at the Forbidden City in Beijing while working on her own creative collection at night for over 10 years!
The 2 collections: The Dream of the Red Chamber, as well as a sequel The Flower Gods became her signature work in the next 30 years. Both were widely recognized by art experts all over the world and subsequently opened up opportunities for her for decades.
Li had a vision and a focus for herself. She needed no validation from others.
Before she completed Dream of the Red Chamber, nobody else had even attempted to paint every single character from the novel. It was considered a “mission impossible”. There are over 400 characters from a text-based novel published in 1791.
The project was challenging for any artist. Li was only 25 years old and she knew it’d take her years. What if it didn’t work out the way she had planned? What if she didn’t receive any recognition? These were all very possible outcomes.
I spoke with Li about this recently (in 2023). She said she’d have no regret because she had so much fun researching, designing, and creating these characters. She didn’t do it for the fame, but for the love and passion she had for her work.
2. Self care is always a priority
For ten years during the creation of Dream of Red Chamber, Li would come home to have dinner and then lock herself in her studio to focus on the design and development of these characters. She stayed up many nights until 2 or 3 in the morning.
She smiled and said: “Today, many of you could argue that this was probably not the healthiest approach to life, and I’d absolutely agree! I didn’t watch out for my diet or make an effort to exercise regularly. I was quite young then (in my 20s and 30s), but it catches up with you as you age. Prioritizing self care wasn’t nearly as popular then compared to now, I had no idea how to do it properly.”
Balance is admitted very important. Li highly recommends that artists should always take care of themselves first. Burnout is easy, and it can significantly interferes your creative work.
Artists should recognize the solitary nature of their work, finding time to do other things that interest them, including making more time to spend with friends and loved ones.
Relaxation and other hobbies can often be a new source of inspiration.
3. Market yourself or find someone who can
Li has been quite verbal about her struggle with marketing her work. “I wish I had the desire to market myself more. I’m too lazy and I just want to focus on my work.” It wasn’t all her fault either given her career first took off in the late 70s and early 80s in China. Self promo didn’t exist. Even today, marketing yourself is a popular subject in the United States, but not as common everywhere else in the world.
Good news is that marketing is a skill that can be learned. And there’s an alternative, you can find or hire someone else who can.
For years, Li found it difficult to market her work, and she knew she needs to hand it off to someone else who can and is willing to do it. Naturally she delegated marketing to a few people she trusted the most. One was a seasoned art gallery owner who became a close family friend. She also relied on returning customers who enjoyed her artworks so much that they introduced her to future buyers.
Should you learn about and actively pursue marketing ideas as an artist? The answer is: YES (absolutely!)
It is a very crowded and competitive market for artists these days. Though there may be more career opportunities and social media channels where you can showcase your work more easily, people (aka your customers) also have more choices, including cheaply acquired digital artworks instead of buying prints or originals.
This was very different in Li’s early days, where she had to rely on traditional media such as TV and newspaper interviews, gallery shows at major venues such as the Forbidden City in Beijing to be able to talk about her work.
With so many marketing options today, our advice is: keep learning, keep practicing.
Even if this means that you spend 80% of your time focusing on creating art, the other 20% on marketing your work.
Hope you enjoyed reading this post! Let us know what you think in the comments below.