Starting out in fine art

  • Disturb (Yellow) © Sian Gledhill 2013
  • Hold © Sian Gledhill 2013
  • Untlitled - Ongoing series © Sian Gledhill 2010
  • Local London Places and 16 coloured balloons (White) © Sian Gledhill 2012

Funding your practice

Before leaving the Royal College of Art (Printmaking) in 2012 I did a 'Prepare to Teach' course run by Chris Mitchell, Head of Academic Development at the RCA. The course helps graduating students who have considered teaching as either as a career in itself, or as one part of their practice. It prepares you for your first experiences of teaching. Through this my details were sent to the ReachOutRCA team. By coincidence they had seen my work at the degree show and saw potential in a related workshop. They asked me to submit a proposal for the Big Draw Workshop and from there on I have been working as a freelance educator with various different organisations and galleries.

There is always work out there it’s just a case of digging and taking hold of opportunities when they are presented to you, however small. It’s often about making your own opportunities and creating jobs for yourself. It’s important to keep in touch with old and new circles of networks as you never know where you may get opportunities. The work I’ve recently been doing as an Artist Educator has been built on networks from the RCA and Tate. 

After graduating from the RCA I cut down my hours working at the Tate to become freelance, which has allowed me to be more flexible. This has been a bit brutal at times to say the least, but it has given me the opportunity to be available for a lot of different and varied projects. The downside of this is not having a regular income and monies come in at different points in the month. Often some weeks I earn less money, which has meant that I have to be quite organised and have a diary planner, separate from everything else, to plot what day of the month money is coming in.

Open Question - should one work for free? 

It’s up to you to gauge how valuable an opportunity will be as an investment of your time. I wouldn’t advise working on multiple internships or anything that exploits your experience for free. It’s really important to value your time and what you do. Thinking time is often overlooked when working freelance.

Top tips

  • Before you do anything make sure you register as self employed! Set up a spreadsheet that accounts for all income, sales and expenditure. And keep all receipts so that at the end of the tax year you can offset your expenses against your earnings. Which means less money to the tax man! 
  • Find out what your skills are: I’ve often found jobs or opportunities, just by talking to people and offering what I can do for them. If you have a specific skill people will come to you as a consultant or specialist.
  • The work market is ever evolving and you have to keep up. Invest time in learning new skills and technologies. This will make you more employable.
  • Accept that you may make a loss in the first year while you’re establishing your practise. Like any business there are start up costs, but you will reap the benefits later!
  • Sending blind emails is fine but use the telephone and try to set up meetings with people. It’s always good to meet people face to face. Always have a CV ready to hand so you can follow up your meetings.

Useful jobs and opportunities websites

Showing your work

My RCA degree show received some really positive comments, but despite interest in my work, there was no immediate success regarding awards or invitations to shows. This can be a disappointment, but don’t be disheartened. There are always group opportunities that happen as a result of being at the RCA. For instance in October, Printmaking exhibited a collective show at the Multiplied Art Fair and a publication launch.

It took some time to recalibrate the thinking process surrounding my practise and how to make work without the support of the RCA technicians. 

After graduating, making work takes a lot longer without the instant access to facilities. I have to save up and justify why I’m spending the money, especially in regards to making prints or film. Since leaving the RCA I have found it really useful building and maintaining a relationship with the tradespeople I regularly rely on. This goes for printing, framing, equipment hire – all the things that cost money but will make your work look amazing. With good people this dialogue feels like a collaborative process.

Also, working on small and medium projects are a good way to work through ideas for bigger and more in-depth pieces of work. Residencies or open house/ open studios are a fun, fluid way of getting work shown to a different audience.

In summer 2013 I exhibited some new work in a show Neither Here Nor There with artist Helen Smith. Over a period of six months, we built up a dialogue to establish a shared theme for the exhibition. This was quite an important process, as we hadn’t exhibited together before. This process also included working with the curators to write press releases and accompanying texts. There was also a Q&A text written up for the show’s blog. 

Don’t forget its not just about exhibiting new work. You will no doubt have a large portfolio of work built up already and it’s important to find an outlet for those works you might have overlooked. In the late summer of 2013 I was invited to submit work to Transmission Commission a project connected to the 2012 Cultural Olympiad.

From here, I was asked to submit something for “The Quiet and the Still”, Transmission Arts, Free103point9 Online Radio, based in New York. Both of these were sound works I’d made several years ago and it was really nice to have those pieces finally recognised at a later date.

Top tips for exhibiting

  • Work with people that you know and have a good dialogue with
  • Start a mailing list - mail out to contacts / use social networking sites to promote shows
  • Set up a blog or website where you can post information about your show. This can include press releases, interviews with artist and curator, and installation shots of the exhibition
  • If possible try and find a budget for a small publication or hand-out. Not much, just something small that people can take away with them
  • Don’t forget to get Public liability insurance and insurance of the work: these are two different things. Artist Newsletter have a good system for this.

Practicalities of filming

Unfortunately you can no longer claim you’re filming for a “student project”. 

In order to make work for the show Neither Here Nor There I had to acquire a filming licence from the National Trust and Morden Council in order to film in public. This is something that I already knew about having spent a lot of time at the RCA filming outdoors. Yes sometimes if you are discreet you can get away with it, but for any professional purpose or for filming with a tripod it is important to get a licence from the organisation you are working for so that if anyone approaches you can show permission and not be bothered!

Copyright and licensing

Posting your images and films online is a good way of promoting yourself and showcasing your work. But learn how to protect yourself - make sure any images that are posted by other people is authorised with your permission and that the source or your name is credited.

Building networks 

The very notion of networking can conjure up fear and loathing. But on a very basic level it’s just talking about yourself and finding out about what other people do. It’s about establishing new friendships and bonds. 

The key to networking is being able to deal with any kind of situation or question and it’s a skill that I picked up working at the Tate. There have been many events that I’ve been to where I don’t know anyone and often the opening line to a conversation may dictate how long you talk to them. Learning how to talk about your practise and what you do in ninety seconds is really hard but was one of the most useful things I learnt as part of my professional practise at the RCA. 

It takes time to build up new networks, but it’s also important to remember those established dialogues you already have. Maintaining existing networks is important because you never know where it may lead. I have often found that from dialogues with friends and colleagues come ideas for shows or articles, something happening instantaneously or maybe several years down the line.

Top tips

  • Treat networking like your friendships. You are not going to get on with everyone so if you don’t get on with someone, try not to force it!
  • The elevator pitch: learn to talk about your practise in one sentence
  • Always follow up leads. Pursue all avenues and opportunities - you never know where they might lead
  • Don’t forget to keep in touch with people when you move on from a job 

Sustaining inspiration /self care/life after art school

Creativity and making work is a balancing act. Through out this year I have had periods where I have been really productive and then moments when I’m in the research stage where I feel like I’m being really unproductive (current state of mind) and the making slows down. Usually this is the point where all I can do is think about food and cooking. But somehow this in turn allows me the space to think about making work. 

There is often a long gestation period between works. Keeping a sketchbook where I can draw and doodle, means that when I’m having quiet moments I can go back to my thoughts when I’m ready. This may be in a physical or electronic way. I find taking photographs on my phone or using Instagram focuses the looking process and is a really useful way of keeping a visual diary. 

As much as I try to keep informed of the London art scene, it’s also important to think about how much work is shown internationally. Making time to travel to other countries for art festivals has been really important for both sustaining inspiration and my self-care. 

Travelling elicits something in the imagination and allows the mind to wander. Festivals can give a focused and intensive burst of art looking and I always return armed with new finds and fresh inspiration. I’ve just returned from the Venice Biennale, where I discovered Richard Mosse and Ragnar Kjartansson. Also, Documenta in Germany may be a hassle to visit, but was well worth the trip last year. Split across four cities around the world, it set up a dialogue between international artists all engaging in the same global themes. 

Top tips—self care

  • Maintain friendships, dialogue and keep laughing
  • Read a combination of serious and silly books
  • Find a few magazines you like and get a monthly subscription.
  • Daydreaming is essential for the imagination 
  • Learn the art of “getting on with it”. Perseverance and learning how to deal with rejection
  • Exercise helps me keep focus and deal with stress

Selling your work 

I predominantly make film work, so I have had to adapt my approach when it comes to selling work. Although people have invited me to exhibit my films, there have been no sales. However, I have been able to sell the themes and ideas I explore as a filmmaker and performance artist, by turning them into several paid educational workshops. 

More recently I have returned to photography and print, not only as a means of exploring image making, but also to allow me to make more sellable work. Making editions can be a good way of selling more affordable, tangible pieces. As well as exhibitions, print fairs are also worth looking into as another outlet for your work. 

Pricing is different for everyone and there is no fixed set of rules. However it is important not to undersell yourself and you must factor in the time it takes to make the work. Printmaking or photography is still time consuming in terms of the production and material costs. Often I’ve had to rely on waiting for a sale in order to fund the framing of more work. 

It’s tempting to change your pricing depending on your audience or market, but I’ve always tried to stick to what I want and need as a return on my skill and time. In a recent show, rather than reduce the cost of some of my more valued editions, I created a different run of smaller more affordable prints.

Top tips

  • Don’t expect sales or success straight away
  • Don’t be embarrassed to consult friends or ex-graduates about how much they charge
  • Be prepared to have two tiers of prices. One for private sales and one that encompasses gallery mark-up or commission
  • Learn how to be a good sales person. Always have a business card to give out
  • Presentation is key when selling. Work on your branding and marketing to make the artwork even more desirable

Planning and organisation

Everyone works differently, and you have to find your own rhythm to juggle work and play. As a practicing artist you don’t just make work, you also have to deal with your own marketing and organisation. When working on several projects at the same time, as I have done this summer, I have found it necessary to block out time to work on each project. I’ve also found it necessary to make lists and crossing off another ‘to do’ is the only thing that keeps me calm.

Having had over a year out of the RCA, I’ve realised that making work seems to take longer and I’ve had to be frugal with experiments. If I want some work framed then I have save for it. Similarly, I want to make a film using super 8 film, but have to factor in that a 3min roll costs £45 for the film and processing. I have learnt to allow a week extra on a project or show, so that I can prepare for mistakes or the delays in production. Always keep an eye on deadlines and make sure any applications or texts are ready one day before the actual deadline. This allows for one more day of proof reading and any amendments necessary.

I find spreadsheets the most uncreative things, but they are essential when it comes to tax, budgeting and keeping track of projects. When applying for residencies or funding for projects, you will often be asked for spreadsheets to help show how you’ll budget for the project. But once you’ve done a template it gets easier.

Top tips

Sian Gledhill graduated from the RCA in 2012 with an MA in Printmaking and is a practicing artist, based  in London.