Lisa Congdon: The 7 Stages to Becoming an Artist When No One Knows Your Name

Fine artist, illustrator, and author Lisa Congdon was named among 200 Women Who Will Change the Way You See The World — but starting out, Lisa Congdon was just a name. In fact, if you asked Lisa in her early 20s, she would tell you that she wasn’t a very good artist at all. But her journey from not having a clue what she wanted to do with her life to working as an artist known for her colorful style isn’t all that different from the journey many artists embark on.

So how did Lisa go from being entirely unknown to a successful career working as a (non-starving) artist? Lisa recently sat down with CreativeLive to share her story — and her journey is one that many artists may find reflected in the stages of their own journey.

Stage 1: Doubting your abilities. Every artist starts out as an unknown name, but Lisa called herself a “crappy artist” during her school years. While she graduated with a liberal arts degree, fine art wasn’t even on her radar. She knew she needed a ‘real job,” so she worked as a teacher for a decade before realizing teaching simply wasn’t her passion.

Stage 2: Feeling like something is missing. While Lisa knew teaching in a traditional classroom wasn’t her passion, she didn’t immediately set out to try to make it as an artist either. She simply felt like something was missing from her life. She tried — successfully — to fill that gap through creativity and artwork. While art was simply intended to fill a gap in her personal life, she started sharing her work and found others connected with her work.

Image by Lisa Congdon

Stage 3: Collecting inspiration. Lisa is a collector. Vintage erasers. Paper store bags. Scandinavian enamelware. Old books. If you look through her collections, you’ll find similarities between the things she cherishes and the color and lines in her own work. That’s not a coincidence, she says, and over the years, the aesthetic of the things she loves become part of her own individual style. As a budding artist, you may not have a physical collection, but you’ve likely started collecting inspiration and building your own style.

Stage 4: Seeing the possibilities. What Lisa knew about art from the beginning wasn’t very positive. After all, everyone has heard the term starving artist. “It’s important for people to have moments or a series of moments where they see possibility,” she says. “There are a lot of negative things associated with being an artist, like you don’t make any money and it’s really hard. What little I knew about being a working artist was negative. But, at some point, I began to see that it was possible if I just worked hard enough, did the right things and figured out the systems.”

Stage 5: Learning the ropes. Once Lisa recognized the possibility of a career in art, she realized how little she knew about art as a career. “I came into the world of art as somebody who is going to a foreign country for the first time and doesn’t speak the language or know the cultural norms,” she says. Learning the industry norms and terminology and the process of working as an artist was part of that journey.

Stage 6: “Pimp” yourself. No newbie creative is comfortable with self promotion — that’s why Lisa laughingly calls it “pimping yourself.” The discomfort didn’t stop her from sharing her work on social media, however, and getting her artwork out there, even though she was the one doing the promoting and not an agency. It was that willingness that helped to move from someone who enjoyed art on the side to a professional artist. “It felt gross at first, but then, somehow, miraculously, I got used to it and now I love promoting my work,” she says. “The only people who are going to follow you down that path are the people who enjoy what you do — other people don’t have to follow you, so you can pimp away.”

Stage 7: Using art to talk about what matters. Lisa is no longer unknown in the art world — and now she’s using her work to talk about the things that matter. “Now, as an artist, I get to use my art to talk about stuff that matters to me, not just education, but human rights, social justice, truth, and all the things that are important in the world right now,” she says. “That feels like another way that I can use my work to give back.”

Every artist’s journey is a bit different  — some grow up dreaming of careers in the art world as kids, while others, like Lisa, find their way there later in life, almost on accident. While each journey is a bit different, many share the same stages en route to moving from an unknown name to a professional artist.

Now, Lisa shares her journey — and her past as a teacher — leading budding artists in CreativeLive classes on the ins and outs of working as a professional artist from managing time and productivity to working with clients.

Learn Lisa Congdon’s secret formula for managing time and productivity
Hillary Grigonis FOLLOW >

Hillary K. Grigonis is a web content writer and lifestyle photographer from Michigan. After working as a photojournalist for several years, she made the leap and started her own business and now enjoys sharing tips and tricks with emerging photographers.