SKETCH­ING OUT A CA­REER Tak­ing up art for a liveli­hood is more than just strik­ing a brush on can­vas.



Ade­gree from an art col­lege does not al­ways mean that you em­bark upon a path to be­come a suc­cess­ful artist. In­stead, it sim­ply means that you have en­tered a very com­pet­i­tive arena, and that you have to sur­vive a rather high re­jec­tion rate.

“A lot of peo­ple will quit in the first five years af­ter col­lege, when they can­not sup­port them­selves, or they can find no sup­port from out­side,” says Wang Me­ichen, 34.

She grad­u­ated with a master’s de­gree in oil paint­ing from Ts­inghua Uni­ver­sity’s arts and de­sign academy in June.

“I told my mom that I would con­cen­trate so much on paint­ing that I may not have time to have chil­dren. She is OK with it be­cause I have a sis­ter who is mar­ried.

“Many tal­ented girls get mar­ried and give up art af­ter hav­ing a child. I feel sorry for them,” says Wang.

“Once you stop it is un­likely you will restart.”

Her wish to be a painter is so strong that Wang gave up a job as a prod­uct de­signer three years ago. She felt that the work was be­com­ing rou­tine.

Then, when she en­rolled at Ts­inghua she found she was not well pre­pared for the new en­vi­ron­ment.

“Many of my post­grad­u­ate class­mates had stud­ied oil paint­ing be­fore,” says Wang.

“I felt huge pres­sure, so for the first year I did not paint at all but tried to carve out a niche that could cre­ate a clear path for my fu­ture.”

She adopted an ab­stract ap­proach. And for the re­main­ing two years she says she painted from morn­ing un­til 11 pm, al­most ev­ery day.

Many stu­dents of paint­ing now in­cor­po­rate in­stal­la­tion and mixed me­dia into their cre­ations, mak­ing their work eye-catch­ing.

Wang says she is not against the trend but is more fas­ci­nated with paint­ing and the chal­lenge it brings.

“Skills and vi­brant col­ors don’t nec­es­sar­ily make a great piece.

“It is what an artist wants to ex­press that re­ally mat­ters, even though some­times he or she is not un­der­stood by oth­ers.

“And that is the best thing I’ve learned at Ts­inghua.”

Only a start

An artist’s con­fi­dence, how­ever, needs to pass the view­ers’ test.

The first test for art grad­u­ates these days is the grad­u­a­tion ex­hi­bi­tion.

Over the last decade, lead­ing fine arts col­leges like Wang’s alma mater and the Cen­tral Academy of Fine Arts in Bei­jing have turned grad­u­a­tion ex­hi­bi­tions into a car­ni­val for deal­ers, crit­ics, col­lec­tors and or­di­nary view­ers.

Wang says view­ers wait in long lines to see the grad­u­a­tion shows, and their taste is both in­ter­na­tional and di­verse.

She feels that more peo­ple now ac­cept ab­stract art than they did a decade ago.

“They don’t ask ques­tions like ‘What ex­actly did you paint’. They say, ‘I like your paint­ings. They look great’.”

She says the av­er­age price for oil paint­ings at the show, set by the school, was 20,000 yuan ($2,900) per square meter.

She sold three ab­stract works at the show and so did many stu­dents from the paint­ing depart­ment.

“It was a lit­tle sur­pris­ing and a good start for me.”

She says many buy­ers were from fur­nish­ing com­pa­nies and fancy clubs, who were scout­ing for art­works for dec­o­ra­tion.

“The prices are not a prob­lem for them. They want works that are both dec­o­ra­tive and worth col­lect­ing. Some of them have stud­ied art.”

Young artists rarely face sur­vival is­sues to­day since they start to sell their work at school. But they face great dif­fi­culty find­ing a good stu­dio in a city cen­ter.

“The cheap places are in the sub­urbs, and they cost at least 100,000 yuan a year,” says Wang. “Then, we also have to pay for paints and other ma­te­rial. For now, I will share a stu­dio with my class­mates.”

But sell­ing one or two paint­ings is far from enough for young artists.

To launch a ca­reer, they need deal­ers and art in­sti­tu­tions that can pro­vide longterm sup­port, in­clud­ing cu­rat­ing solo shows, cat­a­loging out­put and ex­hibit­ing works at fairs.

Wang has been con­tacted by sev­eral in­sti­tu­tions. But she fears that they have no in­ten­tion of helping plan a ca­reer for her. They only want to sell her works, to see how the mar­ket re­ceives them.

“I have dozens of my paint­ings. But I don’t want to sell Cher­rySea­son. them right now. I want to save them for my first solo ex­hi­bi­tion. They are like my chil­dren. They de­serve a de­cent pre­sen­ta­tion.”

Po­ten­tial to grow

Gal­leries also hunt for artists with po­ten­tial to progress.

Zhang Qiao from the Asia Art Cen­ter in Bei­jing’s 798 art district says they don’t work with an artist be­cause he or she is young or old, but they do a check of an artist’s out­put to see whether he or she is an in­de­pen­dent thinker.

Xia Jifeng, the di­rec­tor of Hive Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Art in Bei­jing, fre­quents grad­u­a­tion shows. His in­sti­tu­tion has a project that stages the first ex­hi­bi­tion of an artist still at school or some­one who has just grad­u­ated.

He says they rule out those who cre­ate mar­ket-ori­ented works.

“We see if the grad­u­ate is de­vel­op­ing a sys­tem­atic se­ries of works. If not, it is not the time to ex­hibit him or her. We wait and we are cau­tious.”

So, teach­ers and gal­lerists urge grad­u­ates to first fo­cus on cre­ativ­ity rather than on mar­ket recog­ni­tion.

Cai Wan­lin, the di­rec­tor of Bei­jing’s Rhythm Art Or­ga­ni­za­tion, says many artists’ fame is tran­sient be­cause their ini­tial suc­cess is built on sales and they lack a solid base of col­lec­tors and aca­demic recog­ni­tion.

Ding Ning, a litho­graph pro­fes­sor from the Cen­tral Academy of Fine Arts, says: “It is good for an artist if he or she spends three to five years de­vel­op­ing in­di­vid­ual styles, be­fore he or she comes to the mar­ket.”

Reach­ing out

Some grad­u­ates see em­ploy­ment as a more se­cure choice than be­ing a pro­fes­sional artist.

Chen Yu­jing, 24, a fresh grad­u­ate from the CAFA, plans to work as a comics artist at a web com­pany in Bei­jing.

Her grad­u­a­tion work is a thread-bound col­ored pic­ture book in which she re-cre­ates in a vivid wuxia (Chi­nese ac­tion fig­ures) sto­ry­telling style from her child­hood — how a naughty girl escapes her mother’s pun­ish­ment. The hi­lar­i­ous sce­nar­ios made the book a hit at CAFA’s grad­u­a­tion ex­hi­bi­tion held in June.

But she is not con­fi­dent of mak­ing a ca­reer as a pic­ture­book artist.

She says this is be­cause peo­ple do not take pic­ture books as a se­ri­ous form of art.

“Most peo­ple think pic­ture books are ed­u­ca­tional and only for chil­dren. And some mis­take comic books for pic­ture books.

“But I will keep creating pic­ture books in my spare time.”

Mean­while, Wang says she does not re­gret not at­tend­ing a grad­u­ate school, and she says she is thank­ful for her pre­vi­ous work ex­pe­ri­ence.

“My teach­ers say it makes my works more ma­ture and that it will ben­e­fit me.”

She says her goal is to find a se­ri­ous art in­sti­tu­tion in five years. And she be­lieves that be­cause of the in­tense com­pe­ti­tion, young artists need to pro­mote them­selves.

“You can’t sit at home wait­ing for op­por­tu­nity to knock on your door. It’s mean­ing­less if your work get no­ticed by the world only af­ter you die.”

You can’t sit at home wait­ing for op­por­tu­nity to knock on your door.” Wang Me­ichen, an artist with a de­gree from Ts­inghua Uni­ver­sity’s arts and de­sign academy

from the Cen­tral Academy of Fine Arts present the best of their work at a re­cent grad­u­a­tion ex­hi­bi­tion. Their pieces vary in me­dia and gen­res, from in­stal­la­tions, oil paint­ings and Chi­nese ink art to pic­ture books. Mid­dle right: Wang’s work,

Con­tact the writer at linqi@chi­

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