When to say ‘NO!’

Are you overworked?  As an artist do you find yourself saying ‘yes’ to every show, every gig, mural, commission, one off show piece, etc.?  Do you do this because you are scared that if you don’t it will mean you’re being lazy?  Or maybe you won’t be able to pay the bills….In my first year, I basically said to anything and everything.  I still get do it sometimes and have ended up stressed out and even in tears.  Meeting all the deadlines and keeping it all organized can be a five ton 18 headed snake monster.  It can get even worse when it drains your creativity that you NEED at the crucial moment.  So let’s examine why we do this to ourselves, why it can be detrimental, and learn how to say NO and be happier.

Tired artist leaned on easel, closeup

Like I mentioned before, sometimes you need to pay the bills.  That’s completely valid.  I have heard artists say that they feel like if they say ‘no’ that they won’t get asked to be in more shows.  Like their response will somehow put them on the ‘naughty’ list.  Some people I have talked to are worried that people may perceive them as lazy….they themselves would think that so why wouldn’t others think that?  There are a ton of reasons we take on everything we can.  And sometimes it’s killing our creativity, our reputation, and our production.  The truth is when you don’t have enough time to make your best work you cut corners.  You stay up late nights freaking out about things and skipping details.  I have done it….a lot.  I was once the master of painting things a day before the deadline….or so i thought.  When I look back at any of that work that I crammed for….it’s not awful but its not nearly as good as the stuff I gave myself ample time to work on.  Saying no to more projects will create that time for you to not cram.  Give yourself the right amount of time.

Yeah we all need to pay the bills.  I am so broke half the time and the demands of my 9 year old grow each day, money wise.  When we take on more work from this perspective we can sometimes sell ourselves short.  Have you ever taken on a commission for cheap because you really need it?  Had you just stuck it out and asked for what it was worth you’d obviously be better off right?  I always run into this.  I will take on some job for cheap thinking…damn I need groceries.  Then while I am in the middle of that project someone comes along with a great project with a box of cash and I can’t say yes cause I literally can’t work 24 hours a day.  So the cheap project killed my chances for the better more lucrative one.  I have even been dumb enough to try and take on BOTH.  And both of them were…well….weak.  I am so unhappy with both of them that I don’t usually include them in my portfolio.

Being scared that a gallery won’t ever ask you to be in a show ever again seems so real.  You maybe just started working with a super great gallery.  you had one successful group show and they even sold your piece.  Now they are sending out a call for a new show and they need it done in 2 weeks.  You wanna say yes so they keep calling you.  I mean you tried for 2 years to even get them to let you be in a show in the first place right?!  So you say YES even though in the next two weeks you have 2 surgeries, a wedding, your kid’s birthday and a trip to Disneyland planned.  Oh and you have to finish a solo show in 2 months but you know…..YOU KNOW you can squeeze it in.  After all it’s just a 16×20….how hard could it be?  Then the day before the deadline you wake up in a panic.  Today’s the day.  Shit.  I haven’t even done a drawing yet…..oh man.  Tears at the easel.  Sound familiar?  Over the last ten years I have done this kind of thing a thousand times.  STOP.  STOP it right the fuck right now!  Galleries will still work with you if you say no.  Gallerists know that sometimes people are busy.  They get that you got hustle.  They know about 100 other artists that they may be able to ask to be in the show.  Saying no can be hard but here are a few things to make it easier for you.

Male graphic designer with hand on head sitting at desk in a modern office

Saying NO 101

1. Say NO as soon as you can.  –  My good friend and mentor Eric Rewitzer at 3 Fish Studios taught me this.  When you just can’t play along in a show or cant take on more work and you need to say NO….Do it early.  Giving the gallery or the patron your ‘NO’ right away allows them to cross you off their list and look for other artists that might say yes.  It’s a respect thing.   Don’t leave them on the hook wondering if you can or can’t.  They have shit to do.  Shows to prep and such.  So tell them as soon as you can that you cannot do it.

2.  Refer someone that may say yes  – Sometimes I can’t do a mural or a pet portrait.  It makes it easier for me to say no when I have a referral of someone that might be able to do it.  The client may or may not call them….that’s not your problem.  But it makes it easier on ME to give a referral.  Sometimes it works out and you may get a referral yourself from someone in the future.  Remember a rising tides lifts all boats so tell your clients about your favorite artists in your community and let’s all win.

3. Say NO to the right stuff…..erh the WRONG STUFF  – This one has taken me some time to learn.  But it’s best summed up by the amazing Kenny Rogers song ‘The Gambler’ where Kenny says :

He said, “If you’re gonna play the game, boy
You gotta learn to play it right
You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run


You gotta take on the right stuff and say no to the wrong stuff.  By that I mean, as a policy there are some things I just won’t do anymore.  I won’t draw your tattoo.  I don’t design logos.  I will not paint portraits of your kids.  I do not paint nudes….no matter how bad you wanna take your clothes off for me.  This year I have decided that I can no longer do murals.  Every time I go out for a mural I end up in the hospital….so no go for me on the wall stuff.  I won’t do free stuff.  etc.

Maybe make a list of things that you must say no to.  Stuff that drives you crazy or isn’t in your skill set.  It will really help you with those crazy requests….and it will help you even more when you try to talk yourself into a gig.  ‘Maybe I could paint their baby,….I mean how hard can it be?’  NO!

4. The Blacklist Nonsense  –  Look the work will always be out there.  Stop thinking you wont get asked for the next show.  Say no in a good way and they will come back around.  And if they don’t ask you anymore maybe they weren’t all that great to begin with.

Portrait of an attractive female artist.

I promise saying no more often really will make things better for you.  Also if you are still worried about paying the bills….maybe more work isn’t the answer.  Are you charging the right amount for your work?  What is your sales percentage like?  Are you doing all you can to sell it?  Maybe a review in some other areas will help kick things into gear.  So take a look at the other stuff.  Like I said you need to leave yourself the time and sanity to make your best work and if you are really doing that then you can charge correctly for it and SELL it.

I hope that this helps you think about being less stressed out.  Less deadline crazy.  Less panicky.  And you won’t always get it right.  But do your best to really consider things before taking on more work.  It will pay you back every time.  Please leave any strategies you have for saying NO in the comments.  Take care.

2 thoughts on “When to say ‘NO!’

  1. Thank you Josh for this very honest truth. I’ve had to recently say no to a few hard to miss opportunities because I knew they’d interfere with what I’ve already committed to. But when I do say “No” I say it with blatant gratitude for the offer and an open ended request to be asked again in the very near future. Time is our most precious gift to be used most wisely. This includes time to decompress, regroup, recharge, build ideas, time to reflect and be present and deliver our absolute best. If we can’t approach each opportunity with the best that we bestow…then our purpose, drive and outcome suffers. Ideally, I want each work to reflect time consuming growth. Easier said than, but I’m learning as I go.

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