This is something that can be expanded and debated until the cows come home. As an artist in any capacity, you have to learn to accept rejection, but you don’t need to let it put you off. You need to figure out why your work wasn’t accepted and use that to move forward. Here is a brief overview of submitting and competing for gallery space, which may give you a leg up to keep going.
• Is my art any good? Well, that’s a really loaded question. And where do you get the answer from? Your friends and family will tell you that you have a clear talent, because they want to support you and build you up. But this doesn’t help does it? It also doesn’t help that art is subjective. What one person likes, another doesn’t.
What I will say though, is that you need to master your technique, subject knowledge and context. For example, if you’re going for photorealism, it needs to be absolutely perfect. Your understanding of colour theory, paints, surfaces etc has to be advanced. If you are creating an abstract, you need to make sure you still have some kind of relatable narrative through your use of resources. If you’re representing animals, it helps to have actually studied the animal anatomically, not just recreating a tiger from a photograph. Learn their behaviours and mannerisms. Henri Rousseau made naivety fashionable, but even he went to Kew Gardens to study the plants!
Regardless of what medium or dimension you’re working with; learn colour theory, practice with a range of tools, resources and techniques. Explore composition, what is successful, what creates tension or balance. Make mistakes, develop them, become experienced by doing.
You can’t take shortcuts, it will show in your work. Whatever you do, you need to be the best you can at it. This is what sets apart the amateurs from the professionals.
• What makes your art different? A lot of artists start out by copying. You pick up on an art movement or style you like and you work within that. But the people who are successful are the trailblazers. The ones who come up with new approaches, techniques, subject matter, technology… these are the people who set the pace for the rest of us.
If you want to be recognised and be seen, you have to stand out. You’ll never do that by painting tigers from other people’s photographs. Be topical, be individual, be inventive. Whatever you do, push existing boundaries. What are you passionate about? What lights a fire in your belly?
An excellent example is Turner Prize winner Tracey Emin’s Unmade Bed. “But that’s not art!!!” I hear you shout at your screen. Are you sure? Galleries are full of paintings, photos, prints, collages… even moving images. Emin realised that if a picture representing something can be art, why can’t the subject itself? Why do we have to paint something for it to be appreciated for what it is? Her unmade bed was an extremely graphic and relatable insight to the struggles presented by mental health. Having it installed in front of us rather than presented in two dimensions made it real and therefore made us feel extremely uncomfortable. That response is the debate which reaches higher levels.
I’ll admit, the education system in this country is inherently flawed, as we push young people to churn out the same stuff over and over and over. Class after class of Van Gough landscapes and Hepworth sculptures. I wish we could nurture more independent thinking prior to A Level, but I have never worked in a school where the Head of Department found that acceptable.
• Giving people what they want is difficult. You need to pitch your work to the right galleries.
I was recently rejected from an exhibition which was inviting artists to submit work which reflected their experiences of lockdown. It was entirely my fault that I was rejected and I admit that. I created a series of self portrait Linocuts that detail my personal struggles while in isolation. But I know now that they were rejected because the gallery wasn’t comfortable with selling them.
On closer examination I can see that the gallery in question prefers glass, watercolours and oils; landscapes and still life studies. The kind of gentle beauty that you can hang in any dining room and not worry about the resulting conversation. That’s where small galleries make their money. In short; you need to make sure you’re appealing to their customers.
If you want to exhibit art that is more edgy, you need to look to galleries which reflect that in their ethos. You need curators who aren’t afraid of controversy and discomfort. They’ll represent you with confidence and bring the right customers to you.
Research, get to know other artists in similar fields, join art communities and social media groups. You will gain contacts that can point you where you need to go.
• Oh, and you’re definitely not imagining it, the art world is full of elitism. In some cases you could have perfected your skill, knowledge and subject matter and still not be accepted for exhibiting. Why? Well, art is an investment and as such, buyers want confidence in what they’re getting. They want a name they recognise. They want someone who is established and exclusive. Even if you can paint like DaVinci himself, you probably won’t make it to the walls of the Tate unless you’re married to Mick Jagger. Sad, but true.
You can compensate by going to elite universities, travelling to elite locations and brown nosing the elite decision makers.
But if you prefer your dignity intact, I’d suggest that you keep working bloody hard and point yourself in the right direction for moving forward. Galleries survive on selling wall space and taking a percentage of your sales. They need you to do well so they do want your work. But you have to be in the right place at the right time with the right product. Don’t give up! Your big opportunity may be only days away!