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How to become an artist... am I there yet?

I find it quite hard to call myself 'an artist' or 'a printmaker'. From what I can gather listening to my favourite 'Ask an Artist' podcast and reading 'real' artists interviews, this is very common. When do you actually 'become' an artist?

Part of my problem is that I didn't go to art school so I don't have a degree in art. I have also never held a creative job. I have nothing 'official' to give me a hint what I should say when people ask "so, what do you do?". Add to this the fact that the answer "I'm a printmaker" is likely to elicit a blank or puzzled look, the alternative "I'm an artist" conjures assumptions of an easel and brushes being involved and it all seems rather complicated. Also, if you don't actually make enough money to pay the bills does it even count? Is it a 'job' if no one employs you? And if you stick at it and start making some decent money (fingers crossed!) when do you cross that threshold and become 'A Professional Artist'??

I didn't always have this problem. I've done some rather unusual jobs, the most notable being several summers driving passenger boats for French Brothers on the River Thames from Windsor. This was a summer holiday job whilst at school and university, and I could officially call myself a skipper, with a stamp in a book to prove it. I studied Maritime Leisure Management at Southampton Solent University, got a First and had pieces of paper which pointed towards possible future job titles. There were a few bumps on this road to eventual academic success but I was ready to take my official qualifications and go looking for a 'proper job', one with a clearly defined job title.

I became a 'Marina Manager' and was based on Loch Lomond in Scotland. Yes, you're seeing a pattern emerge, I like water! It was the only 'boaty' job I could find that was well paid enough to allow me to afford rent but suitable for someone fresh out of university with some slightly weird skills (I can park a 75ft single engine boat and throw a loop of rope over a post 20 feet away). It was a bit of a trek from Berkshire where I grew up but it was an adventure and that's what your 20's are for after all!

I've sailed since I was about 11 and would choose Swallows and Amazons as my desert island book (that's where my love of water began). It was whilst sailing in Scotland that I met my husband. I loved my time up north but was clear that I didn't want to stay for more than a couple of years, fortunately he agreed to move south and we've ended up in a lovely village on the Surrey/Berkshire border.

When we moved south I was stuck with the same problem that had taken me north; there's a distinct lack of well paid, water based jobs in Berkshire or Surrey. I turned my hand to teaching with the job title 'Lecturer'. I'd enjoyed being invited back to university to deliver lectures about my dissertation and so I became an FE Lecturer in Travel and Tourism. Whilst a lot of the students were aiming to work at nearby Heathrow Airport I had more varied tastes and so taught units such as marketing, sustainability and (my favourite) farm and rural tourism. I was just getting to the point where I wanted to pursue a masters degree, focus on sustainability and move to teaching in higher education when our first child changed all my plans.

I admit I hadn't realised quite how life changing children would be. I meant to go back to work after the first child but when the time eventually came (lecturers get a good annual holiday allowance!) number two was in the planning so it didn't make financial sense. My husband had promised I could return to the masters degree at a later date so I clung to the idea of a few years out and then returning to further my career.

By the time child number two was a year old and I'd held the job title 'Mummy' for about three years I needed to do something. I wasn't sure I had the energy for the masters, or that it was realistic or practical yet, but I needed to do SOMETHING. Both my parents are creative, my mother by profession. They dragged my brother and I around numerous art galleries as children and were rewarded with requests to accompany them by the time we were teens (especially if this involved a cheeky trip to London or even a day in Paris once!). Their walls are filled with a huge (and ever growing) range of inspiring artworks. I've always regretted not pursuing art to degree level having studied it at GCSE and A level. I've also always scribbled in sketch books, so I found an evening drawing and painting course at a local arts centre as the 'something'. It involved learning techniques, mainly in pencil and watercolour and mainly by copying a picture. I soon tired of copying others work, but it had got me creating again, and I was thrilled when a very good friend commissioned me to draw her a pet portrait.

I armed myself with a pencil and sketch book at all times and the numerous detailed drawings of sleeping babies and toddlers morphed into quick sketches of children on swings, digging in sand and even scribbling at easels in art galleries!

Being someone who likes a certificate, I started exploring what other courses might replace the promised masters degree. I'd been to West Dean College once and had the most wonderful time. I thought maybe a weekend away there would be possible. Then I found the Foundation in Art and Design (FDAD) course. This involves an introductory weekend, followed by nine short courses over two years with an essay and portfolio of work submitted at the end. Ten weekends over two years seemed completely do-able. I reminded my husband of the masters promise, informed him that this option would involve far less childcare on his part and signed up.

West Dean is a stately home that the last owner, Edward James, turned into a centre of conservation for skills that were dying out (I think he realised it was becoming harder to conserve and repair his ancient family treasures). He was an immensely rich patron of arts, particularly noted for his patronage of Salvador Dali, and left a wonderful legacy in West Dean College of Arts and Conservation. The fact that you can stay overnight, in a stately home, surrounded by the vast expanse of the estate and the beautiful gardens makes this a particularly wonderful escape from family life!

The first course I did was screen printing with Jane Sampson. I was instantly hooked. If we'd had the space I think I would have set up a screen printing studio the day after I got home. The problem with doing a weekend course is that you just start to get the hang of it and really explore and then it's over. I completed the very controlled wave print I'd planned but thoroughly enjoyed the last few hours creating a very loose painterly effect background with a very hastily stencilled steam train for my son. I signed up for several drawing and painting courses since I wanted to improve my sketching and recording skills but kept coming back to printmaking (you can see lots more information about my FDAD experience so far in the Instagram stories take-over I did).

I gave myself permission to attend weekly printmaking sessions at South Hill Park for one year. With the eldest child at school and the youngest at pre-school I finally had one day a week to go printmaking and one day to do something at home (by 'day' I mean school day, so a little under six hours!). I tried drypoint etching, collagraph, monoprinting and lino cutting in the studio with huge presses and all the equipment you'd ever need. I used this time to try and really experiment. I wasn't focussed on making sellable work, but more on trying out all the techniques and equipment to see what I really wanted to focus on. It was wonderful to be in a room with other people, seeing what everyone was doing and bouncing ideas around. At the same time I also attended life drawing classes one evening a week. I talked my Mum into joining me and it was a wonderful way of sharing something we both enjoy (she's also a wonderfully helpful critic!).

Then in 2020 the pandemic closed South Hill Park and West Dean and all the craft fairs I had just started to book to sell a little work were cancelled. For 6 months I downed tools and did very little except garden, amuse the children and walk our new puppy. 2020 was meant to be the year I completed the FDAD and got serious about creating. Our youngest child was starting school in September so I would finally get some real time to start creating 'properly' and see if I could make a career out of printmaking. Humph! Although I did manage to set up a website and started using Facebook and Instagram 'professionally' with the notion that if I started early, then by the time I actually needed to use them I'd have figured out how they work.

On 6th February 2021 things got exciting. I popped my completed new print 'Swinley Sunset' online and twenty minutes later the whole edition had sold with two people waitlisted in case any sales fell through. It was so typical that this is still the most popular print I've ever made and there were only five instead of my usual ten! I could have sold an edition of twenty twice over I think! I made a similar follow up print which also sold out. It seems I'm not the only one who's found the Swinley Forest a real place of solace during the past year! The forest prints have kept coming, mainly because I haven't been anywhere else and I have so many ideas I want to get down on paper. They continue to be popular and one has even gone to America.

The other exciting milestone I reached this spring was having two of my seascape collagraphs accepted into an exhibition at Adam's Gallery in Reigate. The gallery has finally been allowed to open so I can go and visit them. I have realised that the marketing and business skills I studied at university are invaluable. Selling via my own website is hard work and I have to put almost as much time and effort into the marketing as I do the prints but as anyone who knows me will attest, I tend to do things my own way, which is rarely the easy way (my parents are not the only ones smiling knowingly!).

So, does this all mean that I can assign myself a new job title? I've got art hanging on gallery walls, a tax return to complete and I've just had my most successful craft fair (despite the footfall being half what would usually be expected). My prints sell regularly and (so long as home school is firmly in the past) I work all day, every day. My FDAD will be completed this year (so long as I can actually attend the final three courses). Most importantly though, I think my work is improving, I'm honing my skills whilst still constantly learning. Am I an artist now? More specifically, am I officially... A Printmaker?

I have a feeling I'll have to keep checking back here to see how far I've come; watch this space.

(Comments and questions are always very welcome)


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