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So you want to be an artist? Here's how one woman made it work
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Gainesville artist Connie Reilly paints in Gallery on the Square Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019. Reilly has climbed her way up to painting high school portraits to being commissioned by royalty in Bahrain. - photo by Scott Rogers

Working as a professional artist for 45 years, Connie Lynn Reilly of Buford has climbed her way from painting high school portraits to being commissioned by the royal family of Bahrain.

And it has been a climb — not a walk or a stroll or a takeoff. Even today, Reilly said her career as a full-time artist proves a struggle.

“Just know that you’re only as good as the miles of canvas that you cover,” she said. “I think we get impatient and want to be there right now, and for some it takes time. Be patient with the process. Where I started and where I am now is like a story.”

In her mid-20s, Reilly started making her first profit as an artist while painting part-time for a local high school. She would complete portraits for sports teams and graduating seniors. Reilly said she started off charging as little as $15 to $30 for the paintings.

Her career as an artist took flight in the ‘80s when her children left the nest and she decided to devote herself to her craft full time.

During that time, Reilly started showing her work in local exhibits and winning awards. She said one of the best ways to make an initial sale as an artist is to enter into local art shows. She also recommends building an online presence through a website — a much easier task these days with platforms like WordPress and site builders like Squarespace — and social media.

Beyond Atlanta and Gainesville, Reilly said other booming art communities in Georgia include Blue Ridge, Buford, Marietta, Roswell and Nacoochee Valley. Reilly’s work is currently on display at the Gallery on the Square in Gainesville.

To supplement her income as an artist, Reilly has spent years teaching art lessons to all ages and skills levels, which allowed her to gradually build up her clientele.

“Artists don’t like the business part of it,” Reilly said. “You have to put as much time doing the business part of it and getting commissions for painting.”

From time-to-time, Reilly will use agents to assist her with finding galleries. She said agents can prove helpful if they are not already representing a plethora of people. When they take on too many clients, she finds that their work output declines.

In her experience she said agents have the ability to distribute artists’ work into places they may not be able to get into otherwise. On average she gives her current agent 20 percent of her sales.

Reilly said one of her proudest accomplishments includes founding and becoming the president emeritus of the Southeastern Pastel Society in 1987. She later went on the win the artist of the year award from the National League of American Pen Women in 2012 and landed a grand commission painting members of the royal Al Kahlifa family of Bahrain in 2000.

Despite the glamorous moments of her job, Reilly said many people don’t realize the hours put into the profession.

Some years she’ll paint up to 30 portraits, working up to 60 hours a week. She said the workload fluctuates from year to year, depending on the amount of art commissions she receives.

“Most people think, ‘Oh, you get to sit and paint, that’s so fun,’” Reilly said. “They don’t know the agony and the ecstacy of it, and the hours and hours. People don’t understand the hours it takes. You have to put in that time if you want to keep it going.”

But the grind is worth it.

They’re not just impressive pictures on the wall: Some of Reilly’s work has touched people at their core and changed their lives.

She recently painted a portrait for a family who lost a daughter in an automobile accident.

Reilly said the mother was unable to talk about losing her child for a year. The father of the deceased girl asked Reilly to paint a portrait of his daughter, without notifying his wife beforehand.

“He didn’t know if she’d be able to look at it,” Reilly said. “That painting is more than an image. There’s a soul that comes through. This woman was able to heal because she has that picture of her daughter.”

Reilly considers herself a realist at heart, gravitating toward painting and drawing people, flowers and other living things. She said she finds nothing greater than the creation of a human being.

Two of her most-used art media include pastels and oil paint.

When purchasing materials to create art, she stresses the importance of investing in quality tools.

She urges beginner artists to get the best materials they can afford. Reilly said even for those who don’t have the funds to purchase a wealth of materials, they can start small.

She recommends beginning with sketch paper and pencils, then accumulating more items over time.

For those taking art classes, she said their teachers are a great source for asking about proper materials.

Through her journey of developing into a seasoned artist, Reilly said she faced an abundance of challenges. She has taught herself not to become overly discouraged and critical of her work.

She finds that being an artist, like being an author, can become isolating. Reilly said she learned not to turn into a hermit when creating her art and has taken the time to break up the normal pace of her job.

If she could relay the honest truth to budding artists about pursuing their dreams as a full-time career, Reilly said she would tell them to expect failures in the process.

Through experiencing doses of failure, she said artists can learn to grow.

“When you first start, don’t expect every piece to be a masterpiece because you’re going to have some that are not as good as others,” she said. “Don’t beat up on yourself for that, just keep on going. Know that it is definitely a journey. There’s a bitter and there’s a sweet along the way — just focus on the sweet.”

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Gainesville artist Connie Reilly paints in Gallery on the Square Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019, while minding the downtown Gainesville business. - photo by Scott Rogers
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