How to create artwork that has 'staying power'

By Usha Seejarim for the Art of Access

During the 14 interviews on The Art of Access Webinar Series last year a recurring theme that emerged via the various experts in contemporary South African art was the need for artists to create artwork with staying power. Its what curators look for in artists, its what critics, gallerists, collectors and auctioneers seek in individual artist's work. A key component of artistic staying power is the ability to be authentic in one's artmaking; a clear sense of sincerity, honesty and individuality. This article details 6 ways for artists to have staying power through creating authentic artwork.

1.“Be yourself, everyone else is taken” Oscar Wilde. Artists are a product of their unique history, circumstances, influences, context, and environment. This can only be reflected in one's work when the artist is able to acknowledge and embrace his or her specific context.

As artists we are sometimes embarrassed or insecure about our own outlook or we don't think that our particular views or style would be interesting for others. The truth is that everyone has a peculiar story to tell and when that narrative is expressed in an authentic and specific way, it is received with as much recognition.

It is impossible for imitative work to last. Sooner or later the audience is able to discern falsity and a dishonest approach is completely unsustainable particularly for the artist. It is important to point out that referencing a particular style or artist is very different from copying. Referencing is a transparent process of acknowledging a particular movement or specific artist and using that style to make a further comment. Copying an artist and pretending that it is one's own is very different.

So how do I know what my story is?

2. Dig deep and know why you do what you do. Knowing “Your Why” is crucial for the sustainability of an artist's career. It informs every career decision and also every artistic decision. In the Craft your Practice and Finances workshop that I teach, this particular exercise has been a huge “aha” moment for many participants. Some of the questions in this exercise asked are: What motivates you? What inspires you? What do you get out of this? Why do you do what you do? Our “why's” are often related to personal life changing experiences or a deep rooted sense of lack that we have experienced.

Often we simply do what we do without knowing why. Becoming conscious of the motivation for specific artmaking allows for incredible clarity, the ability to make decisive choices and take proactive action in ones work.

Creating artwork from this kind of lucid position is very empowering and allows for the production of art to begin with confidence and continue with surety.

3. Find your own style and express it with confidence. An artist's style is an extension of their personality. Is your work bold or quiet? Busy or structured? Expansive, colourful, serious, humorous, constructed, spontaneous........allow your personality to reflect in the work that you make and assert it! This is who I am!

As individuals we are each attracted to a certain aesthetic and as artists we are acutely aware of this. When you are able to express confidence in an aesthetic that appeals to you, then you give the audience permission to experience that same beauty. For example it may not be “fashionable” to paint with bold colourful, loud strokes, or it may not seem trendy to paint in a naturalistic way. But if this is your style and you use it in a contemporary way, then sooner or later a growing audience support will ensue.

4. Take a position and stand your ground. There are so many artists who sit on the fence with their work. It is neither here nor there. It is trying to say something but is somewhat shy, unclear, or ill-defined. As a result, the audience reads the ambivalence in the work and are unconvinced. It takes a lot of courage to take a position. Once you do, this is a very powerful place to be and making artwork from a clear position allows you to push the limitations of your subject matter, make critical comments and reflect the world as you see it.

5. Don't worry about what others think about you. Sometimes artists perceive a collective critical voice of the artworld that can be unfriendly and debilitating. It is however, just that – a perceived critic based on ones own lack of self confidence. The truth is that there will always be an audience that supports your work and one that finds your work less appealing. Both will acknowledge an artist's work regardless of their preference of style.

What happens when I receive a bad review of my work?

Critical feedback is a necessary ingredient in the development of artistic practice and one can choose to embrace criticism with a professional attitude of personal and artistic growth. Approach the criticism with maturity and assess if it is genuinely constructive or inaccurate. If constructive then utilize it to improve your work, if negative and inaccurate – simply discard it.

When criticism is personalized it can easily become a reason for self doubt. It takes a lots of courage to either make changes or stand ones ground.

Martha Graham said “What other people in the world think of you is really none of your business”.

6. Produce obsessively. Create a steady rhythm of production and keep the momentum over a sustained long term period. This approach to producing art, builds the creative muscle and by the shear amount of time and energy invested, one inevitably produces authentic work. A continuous rate of production refines technical skills, develops subject matter and ideas begin to recur providing conceptual clarity. It is through doing that one becomes.

Commit to a dedicated amount of time everyday and give yourself this time to produce art. Even if it is just an hour or two a day. The key is to keep consistency, and if this can be taken to a level of obsessiveness, even better.

It is not possible to have 'staying power if you don't stay with it. The outcome of success is linked to clear and purposeful persistent and consistent effort.

There are a number of other things that artists can do to increase visibility of their work, attract commissions, pro-actively create opportunities and quickly grow one's audience. These are taught in more detail in the Craft Your Practice and Finances workshop - contact Usha at to find out more about the workshop.