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.”
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 email@example.com