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Be the Outside Zebra by Getting Out of Your Comfort Zone

by Clint Watson on 1/11/2007 11:05:29 AM

(Author's Note - This article was originally sent via email in April 2005. I post it here with a few updates because I think the ideas are worth re-visiting and because we have many new members who have not seen this article.)

This article about marketing art is a bit different. I'm not going to talk about specific steps to take to show your artwork, tell you how to write, or even talk about galleries (although these things are important). Today I'm going to talk about marketing from the perspective of "improving your product." If you have a great product, the market will follow.

Collectors buy artists they consider to be excellent

The truth is that there are thousands, indeed hundreds of thousands of "artists" in the world. In fact, I find that nearly everyone I meet dreams of pursuing their creative talents. I even know a successful cardiologist who walked away from his practice to become a professional artist. My point is there are a lot of artists, and that means a lot of competition. So how to you get the buying public interested in YOUR artwork specifically? If you back up and ask "what is it that art collectors want?" I have found that the answer is that what most of them want is to buy artists that they consider to be excellent. That's the role of galleries, museums, art consultants, designers, etc - they are the filters that in essence are saying "out of the hundreds of thousands of artists, we have reviewed and critiqued and filtered until we have only these EXCELLENT artists to show our clients."

It may seem obvious, but marketing art, or indeed any product is much easier if the product is excellent. You want to "Start with Great Art." Think about some of the most recognized and successful brand names in America - USAA (Insurance), Toyota (Cars), IBM (Computers), Harvard (Schools), Adobe (Software), Google (Search Engines), and Morton's (Steak). These companies are all considered to be leaders in their respective fields. Now think about "brand names" in the art world - Richard Schmid, Kevin Macpherson, CW Mundy, and Mian Situ. I could name many more artists, but you get the idea. The most respected artists (brands) are the ones who display excellence in their work.

If you want to grow and have a more exciting future, you must do something different

How do you cultivate excellence in your own work? It's not easy. Over the years I've spoken with many artists and I've found that the best artists constantly push themselves "out of their comfort zone." As human beings, particularly when pursuing creative endeavors, this is how we grow. That's because nothing exciting ever happens "inside of the comfort zone." I like to say that, "if you keep doing what you've always done, your future will look remarkably like your past!" If you want to grow and have a more exciting future, you must do something different! If you're a landscape painter, do a series of still life. If you always paint small, try doing a huge canvas. If you always paint rural scenes, do some big city street scenes. Here's one that lots of artists struggle with: If you always paint in a tight, detailed style then loosen up! Another idea is to try going on a painting trip with someone who is better than you. You will be inspired and push yourself to a higher level of paining.

One painter whom I admire tremendously is Kevin Macpherson. Kevin is a tremendous example of someone whose art, career and life have benefited from operating "Outside the Comfort Zone." When I first met Kevin, he was already known as a very successful "Plein Air" painter from New Mexico. He related to me the story of how he had become a fine artist. He had been a very successful freelance illustrator working in Pheonix, Arizona and made a very comfortable living. Like many of us, he wanted to pursue his own creative passions and was painting in his spare time. A trip to Taos inspired him and he made the decision to buy a house, close his illustration business, move to Taos and be a full-time fine artist. Overnight, he walked away from a comfortable income and the life he had built, all to pursue his dream of being a fine artist. Now THAT's getting out of the comfort zone. But Kevin wasn't content to stop there. He went on to become known as one of the foremost plein air painters in the southwest and became a highly sought-after workshop teacher. Then, at what seemed to be the height of his fine art career, he changed directions again. He pulled out of one of the most respected galleries in the country and began taking extended and expensive painting trips in Europe. He also stopped teaching workshops! Again, a major change and again, his life got even more exciting; he became even more famous and was in more demand than ever. As a result, his prices skyrocketed. Then he decided to start teaching again, but with a MAJOR twist. He leased an eleventh century castle in central France and students now pay $4,500 just to spend one week with him in France. Now here's a guy who gets out of his comfort zone! But just look what he's gained by doing it.

Your Dreams are OUTSIDE of the comfort zone

Sit down sometime and set aside some quiet time to think about your dreams and goals. I guarantee you that every successful artist has thought about his or her goals at some point in their lifetime. Write your dreams and goals down. Now look at those dreams. They will require going OUTSIDE of your comfort zone to achieve. Artists never have dreams like "work at a dull day job and paint once a month if at all." No! People's dreams make them want to travel the world, see exotic places, exhibit their works in museums, and take their personal growth to unbelievable levels. You may be comfortable with your current routine, but it will not get you where you need to go. The great thing is that as you push yourself out of the comfort zone, then your comfort zone expands. You will find that the things that used to feel uncomfortable are now quite comfortable and, at that point, you will find your dreams and goals expanding even further outside of your "new" comfort zone. At that point you will have taken your first step into a much larger world.

What are some ways you can get out of your comfort zone?

1. Take a workshop with a master artist (preferably one who paints differently than you.)
2. Get Rid of Your Best Work
3. Don't Show the Bad or Even Mediocre Works
4. Commit to paint every day (experience is a function of number of paintings)
5. Have your work critiqued (by someone besides your family or friends)
6. Connect with your passion for painting
7. Stand out from the crowd, Find your voice
8. Work in a new medium
9. Take a painting trip to a new place (with someone who is better than you)

I hope this article is helpful to stimulate your thinking. I would love some feedback on other ideas that you have found helpful in pushing yourselves to new levels in your artwork.


Clint Watson
Software Craftsman and Art Fanatic

P.S. - From 1970 to 2003, Ralph Wanger, famed manager of the Acorn Fund, made his fortune investing in no-name, small-cap stocks

And he eloquently describes in his book, "A Zebra in Lion Country", he did it by mimicking the behavior of the "Outside Zebra" in the wild.

Zebras that reside on the outside of the herd are calculated risk takers. They know there is always a chance a lion could pounce out of the bush, wrap his gigantic paws around their neck and fatally sink his fangs into their jugular.

But the allure of lush green grass, fresh water and the cool breeze is worth the risk of an attack. You see...

Zebras that stay in the middle of the herd, the inside zebras (read: 99% of all fund managers in the world), are scared creatures. They don't want be eaten by a lion. So they cower around hundreds of their closest friends. It's a good strategy to stay alive. Problem is...

The inside zebras tend to be thin - gaunt even. The grass they graze on has been trampled on by hundreds of other zebras. What little there is to eat is up for grabs by the entire pack.

For the zebra, every move it makes is a calculated risk. And the same is true for investors.

Now although his book was written for investors, I believe it can apply equally to artists. The question you have to ask yourself is, can you handle the risk of being an outside zebra artist? Or are you satisfied with the average paintings produced by an inside zebra artist?


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Topics: Creativity and Inspiration

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Mary Lou Epperson
via web

Thanks for the "Zebra" article. Perfect timing.

via web
Enjoyed your article verymuch and find that it is true. Some time ago, I tried doing some "crazy" portraits in Acrylic. (I am a plein air oil painter of landscapes). I did them on poster size paper and just had fun without trying to follow "rules". They were very colorful and boldly executed. It was my carefree day--no tension. I usually just filed them away in the garage but one day I decided to include one of them in my solo show in La Jolla. You guessed it, a woman saw it from the window and decided she had to have it . That fun painting sold for $1,000. And I gained a new client.

Your article reminded me of that story and also to get back to those carefree days of painting more loose, crazy, anything-goes paintings and watch what happens!!!

via web
Your article is wonderful.  Thank you so much for your much need support. 

Odette Farrell
via web
Thank you for this great article...


Paula Christen
via web
To get different/improved results, you need to explore different ways to get there. Your comfort zone contains the same old results. The poster above my desk says "Your dreams are outside the comfort zone". I see this daily and anytime I have stretched my "zone", it has always paid me back with clearer insight and confidence. Life is short. Take the risk.

via web
How about walking away from a finance career in order to pursue painting full-time, switching from still-life to much larger landscapes, than starting to work smaller and finally adding plein air. What's next? I can't wait to find out.

Judy Wilder-Dalton
via web
I have printed this out and posted in over my desk in my studio. I try to practice all nine of these. I really agree with #5 have your work critiqued by someone other that family. There are many critique groups out there. I recommend this for everyone.

Linda Shantz
via web
Sounds like an echo, I know, but I agree, excellent article. There's a quote I love, though I can't remember who to give credit to:
"If you don't take risks, you don't drink champagne."

Emma Brooks
via web
Great inspiring article Clint - thanks for linking to it.

Rick Nilson
via web
What you say is right on target. I have added your blog to my list of favorites. I am pretty much a self taught painter. In reference to breaking the rules, I am trying not to, I just don't know what they are. Great stuff and brutally true.

Tina Swindell
Excellence is a great word isn't it. I'm trying to loosen up since I tend to want to get to the tiniest detail. Painting was something I always wished I could do but never thought about actually trying. Eight years ago I bought a book and started with (of all things) portraits. I'm now beginning to do commissioned work. Love it! I took a workshop with Chris Saper in Arizona in July and can't believe how much I learned. I'm gonna try heading on out to the edge of the herd.
Thanks for the article!

This is a really good article...I have always w anted to make a living from my art..I am not here yet as I have just started to work daily on some kind of creative work in the last few months. There isnt alot of opportunity here where I live to connect with really great artists. I am trying to find the art community to have someone criique my work. I try to do different creative things everyday and not get stuck in a rut with the same thing. It is really freeing to do that..I am going to be one of the zebras on outside the herd!!!!

Carol McIntyre
LOVED the zebra story and metaphor....much better than the usual "think outside of the box."

I am currently in the middle of a road change and am a 'zebra'. It is scary and exciting! Thanks for the continued push.

Sandy Askey-Adams
Thank you Clint..

I am glad you put this article out there again. A great article full of encouragement and inspiration.
I love Zebras!!

Joyce Wynes
Great article Clint. I am always out of my comfort zone when I paint my canvases. Exploring all the time. When I show in exhibitions, the first thing my admirers say is "your work looks so different from everyone else's". I guess that is my goal to explore my own voice but when you do you put yourself out there. So be prepared to have a thick skin for awhile until people get used to your style. I live in a very conservative area but still get into juried shows, etc. because I am different then the norm. So you not only have to find your voice but your tribe that appreciates those who go out on a limb as artists and paints what flows out of their soul.

Lori Woodward
Thanks for reposting this "Oldie" - as it is still a goodie, Clint.
I was just thinking about Kevin's work this morning as I ponder what my new body of work should look like.

One thing that struck me about Kevin's work is that he hasn't developed a formula, and that's to his benefit. I own a painting of his, and it's not quite like any of his others - a truly individual painting, but carries his style.

The reason why I was thinking along these lines - I was asking myself whether I am saturating my own market by painting the same kind of images over and over again. Yes, I have a recognizable style and subject matter, but I'm wondering if my work is "You've bought one of 'em, you've bought 'em all".

So this post came to my inbox just when I needed to hear it most! It's good to look back at older posts. Thanks again!

Ann Vaillencourt
The contemplation of leaving the safe zone for a new zone requires facing the unknown unknowns or unk. inks as they are called on wall street, the things we do not know, we do not know. The worst and the best of unknowns are in the mix and we lose the gains without accepting the risks. }computer will not accept the correct spelling of unknown unknown-which is the first three letters of unknown followed by the same three letters again???{

Kerry Dexter
Certainly ideas worth revisiting. I am reminded of a conversation I had with Native American musician and flute maker Robert Mirabal, during which he remarked that change happens at the edges and at the center.

At times, going outside one's comfort zone may mean going deeper into what is already present.

Marian Fortunati
Always great advice, Clint. Thank you.

We do have to do what makes our own heart sing. I do think it's a very lucky person, though, who truly knows his/her own heart.

Then again... we we don't know our own, how could we possibly think we can know another's?

John P. Weiss
Yep, great advice. Sometimes I feel more like the hippo in the middle of the mud pit than the zebra on the edge. It's good to push yourself! I think I'll go graze on the outskirts and taunt a few of those lions! Thanks, Clint.

Rizwana Mundewadi
Excellent, Excellent, Excellent, Thank you great post, very helpful, really practical Thanks Clint, God Bless!
worth saving the piece!

Clint, this article is so inspiring. It is helpful on a deep level, to me, because I needed the reminder that it is the 'excellence' that is the important thing; the wonderful thing; and for artistic fulfillment, the only thing.


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