My Career in … Painting

Rebecca considers herself to be a magic realist figurative painter (pictures that tell stories). To pay the bills she also does portrait commissions, illustration and has had several jobs along the way. This is her story…

So what are you working on now?
I’m just starting a new job with a healthcare organisation delivering health promotion advice part time while working on a new show, so I’m painting and varnishing fiendishly at the moment.

How did you get the show?
I advertised in a high end magazine for portrait commissions, I thought that nothing had come of it (I couldn’t afford a big colour advert). Then out of the blue I had a phone call from a design show inviting to me to exhibit. You have to pay to get a stand and it’s quite expensive so I’m sharing a stand with another artist.

How did you get to this point in your career?
I was considering my options between a career in textiles and fine art and decided on a degree in embroidery. However, I realised it wasn’t the right path and that my main interest was in painting.

After my degree I needed a job to pay the bills while painting so I got job in catering; supervising a restaurant. I soon realised how easy it is to get caught up in work that you don’t really enjoy, however, it enabled me to save up and I was able to quit and paint for a while. I thought it would be easy and work would just come my way… it wasn’t! Shameless self promotion led to a few commissions painting portraits but eventually I had to return to work as the bills didn’t go away.

I decided that if I was going to have to work it would be strictly part time, but that I wanted to do something challenging and worthwhile. I got an administration job in a homelessness charity which I loved and it was very satisfying; I started volunteering on the side and ended up as a project coordinator, but again found myself with no time to paint.

I decided to leave and concentrate on working freelance building up my portrait and illustration business, I was painting, entering competitions and working on commissions but doing little of my own style of work.

Once again I reset my objectives and determined this time that I was going to concentrate on my own goals as a painter. Obviously this was going to take time and money as you don’t become well known and in demand overnight, so when a part time job with a health care organisation came up I decided to take it. It’s part time and although it is worthwhile its not going to take over my life and it gives me time to concentrate on my own work

What are the highs and lows of your career?

  • Money the lack of – hence all the jobs!
  • If you have to work – jobs grow and take up all your time
  • Rejections are very hard – paintings are very personal


  • When you hand over a painting and they love it, even just painting portraits is still great; it is such a privilege to do what you love.

Any qualifications or training you would recommend?

  • An art degree is not the only way in but it does give you projects and targets to meet and although at the time you may not see it as relevant it makes you apply yourself. Actually you get a lot of freedom to work in the studio – not like real life! Plus it can give you practical skills, how to stretch a canvas, what varnish to use etc!
  • Attend classes at local colleges or community centres e.g. life drawing etc. Painting is a skill so practicing will help you improve.
  • You are going to need good business & promotion skills – it doesn’t matter how good you are unless you put yourself out there.

Any particular attitude or personal attributes that help?

  •  You need to treat being creative & painting pictures as a job. 
  • Be a bit arrogant, believe in your own work
  • Be tough, you are going to get rejections don’t let it stop you painting.

How would you suggest people find opportunities?

  • Read artist newsletter
  • Read magazines to look for places to advertise your services. 
  •  Keep up with the art field – read information online, much of it is free.
  • Apply for exhibitions, competitions, & residencies. 
  • Keep an eye out for local places exhibiting art such as cafes and restaurants, some are organised by arts promotion organisations and some by café itself. No real feeling for how successful this is but you won’t know unless you try. Decide on how much exposure you want. Do want to risk paintings getting damaged in the interest of maximum exposure?
  •  Try to get an agent, you will need to tout your portfolio around galleries, be prepared for distressing negative comments though!

Have you got any advice for other prospective painters?

  • Know exactly what you want to get out of it and go for it.
  • Be realistic – look at the house style of galleries and competitions – do you fit?
  • Advertise in monthly magazines – your advert will last longer.
  • Go to gallery openings, have a business card and give it to everyone.
  • If you can get a commission to paint a famous person do it, it’s an excellent opportunity for exposure.

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