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What It's Really Like to Be a Professional Artist

In our 9–5 series, we ask our favourite boss babes what their typical workday entails. This week, the Toronto-based painter and Instagram star Elly Smallwood gives us a glimpse into her daily grind

professional artist

Elly Smallwood in front of her own work

Age: 26

Length of time in current gig: Five years

Education: Bachelor of fine arts, Ontario College of Art and Design

Typical hours: I’m my own boss so whenever I want to work, I work. In general, I work at my studio six days a week for about eight hours a day, but those eight hours might be in the morning, or at 3 a.m. It’s whenever I feel like it, basically.

What time do you wake up? There are loud hood vents above my apartment, so I’m pretty much up at 8 a.m. every morning whether or not I want to be.

What do you usually wear to work? Jeans and a T-shirt. Most artists have “paint clothes,” an outfit that they wear just when they’re working, but all my clothes end up being that—I don’t own clothing that doesn’t have paint on it.

Do you do anything before going to the studio to make sure you’re ready to put paint to canvas? Not really. I think it’s a big misconception in the art world that you need to be inspired to be able to work. To me, going to work is just going to work. You show up and maybe for the first few hours you don’t make anything great but as long as you’re there and you’re making work, that’s beneficial to your practice.

What’s the first thing you do in the studio to start your workday? I sketch for at least the first hour to warm up before I start painting. I sketch a mix of everything—things that are in my mind, sometimes I’ll have a photo to work from. Then I look through all of my sketches and from those I’ll combine them, like using an idea from one sketch and a colour from another, into something I want to paint on a large scale.

What is the vibe like in your studio? A few months ago, I got a studio with a few of my friends, which has been pretty amazing. It’s a very encouraging vibe. Everyone’s really supportive even if you’re trying out some new, weird stuff.

How does your art reflect who you are? Art is so personal. Every single piece feels like a piece of your soul on the canvas. People see a lot of different things in my art, but for me it’s about my fascination with humanity and the world around me, and a very intense desire to capture that.

What’s the best part of your day? So much of the day is practical stuff and making art that doesn’t work and just putting the time in at the studio. But there’s always a moment when you know you created something great and that’s really satisfying.

What’s the worst part of your day? Probably going home at the end of the night. I’m not really able to make art at my apartment. I can still do sketches but for me it’s just a weird emptiness not having art with me all the time.

Which artist do you really admire and why? Lucian Freud is one of my favourites. He’s the grandson of Sigmund Freud. He made beautiful paintings and it was a fascinating process where he was often painting his children naked and he would have them lying there on his couch, every single day. He also painted his dying mother and again it was a year of him coming every day to paint her. That connection between the artist and the subject, you can really see it in the paintings.

profeshional artist

What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received? One of my teachers told me to look over the long run and not get caught up in what’s happening right now and I found that really useful because there were so many moments when I wanted to give up, like when I was starting out and couldn’t afford a cellphone or even groceries sometimes. When I thought, “I can’t do this as a living, it’s just not going to work out,” I would try and think back to that advice.

Did you ever have to work a day job to support your art? After graduation I worked a few different jobs, like at the Gap, H&M and as a restaurant hostess.

What was the first piece you sold? I sold an abstract flower piece around 20” x 30” through a gallery for $600. The first sale I made on my own, without a gallery, was was a large portrait for $1,200. Someone from New York saw my work at the OCAD Graduate Exhibition. [Elly’s paintings now range in price from $1,200 to $13,000].

What was the turning point when you could live off your art alone, sans day job?  Seven or eight months after graduating. It was a struggle. Most months I made rent and then $15 or $20 extra that I’d spend on food. It wasn’t until about three years after graduating that I was able to survive comfortably.

If someone wants to be an artist, what qualities do they need? The ability to be self-critical and be your own boss, which is a very specific skill. Realistically, if I make mediocre work, I’m not going to get in any trouble. My boss isn’t going to tell me I’m slacking off. If I don’t show up for work it doesn’t matter. You need a lot of self-control and discipline and the ability to look at your work and figure out where you need to go with it because there’s no one telling you what you should be doing—and that’s tough. There’s not a lot of careers where there’s no one to give you direction at all. It’s only you.

How much time do you spend every day on marketing yourself and on business stuff? An hour or so—some posting to Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr and some on stuff like sending images to collectors, and finalizing contracts.

After a full day in the studio, how do you unwind? With more work. One of my favourite hobbies is stick-and-poke tattooing so maybe four or five evenings a week, I’ll tattoo. [She has tattooed herself, most of her friends and the majority of her boyfriend’s body.] I find tattooing relaxing because it’s still making art but it’s a mindless kind of art because I don’t need to think about every mark.

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