The Evolution of an Artist (The Basement Years)

My first bachelor apartment was a total sh*thole…and I loved it. It was big. It was cheap. And, it came with an absentee landlord. The perfect spot for an artist.



My first bachelor apartment was a total shithole…and I loved it.

Not only was it big and insanely cheap, it came with an absentee landlord. If you wanted to play your music really loud at all hours (which I did), or smoke copious amounts of weed (which I also did), you were free to do so.

Another great thing about living in a total shithole, is that you’re not concerned with keeping up appearances. This is especially great if you’re an artist; art can get messy.

Over the next several years, I splashed about completely unfettered, and in the process, made a huge mess of the place. It was a lot of fun.

Even better, it was during this time that I really came into my own as an artist. After struggling for years, I was finally able to control my hands, and bring my visions to fruition.

Due to an ongoing war between another tenant and the landlord, and owing to a rapidly deteriorating building, it was time to seek out more respectable digs.

There is absolutely no comparison between the work I made before entering that apartment, and the work I made while in it. I arrived an amateur, and I emerged a professional artist.

The evolution continues.

The Evolution of an Artist (The Party House)

When I first moved to Toronto, I lived in a huge party house in midtown. It was a lot of fun. Almost too much fun. It was there, that I decided to devote my life to art.



ABOVE: David McDonough, Nausea, mixed media, 16 x 20 x 1 inches (one of my earliest surviving artworks)

When I first moved to Toronto, I lived in a huge party house in midtown. It was a lot of fun. Almost too much fun.

Despite declaring war on my brain cells, it wasn’t a total wash. It was there, that I decided to devote my life to art.

My first works were acrylic on canvas, and they were awful. I produced about four, then decided to experiment with other materials.

I tried my hand at just about everything, but the results were always the same – awful.

Finally, almost by accident, I discovered glass. I had a broken picture frame and on a whim, I decided to paint it. I loved the vibrancy it lent the colors.

Over the next two years, I worked almost exclusively with glass. My subject matter was all over the place, and I’d yet to develop a unique style, but I did improve, and I knew I was onto something.

Eventually, everyone went their separate ways, and I moved into my own place.

While I was still a ways away from being able to produce what I do today, the years I spent in that party house set the foundation for my artistic practice.

How I Became an Artist

There is no easy way to become an artist. For most of us, it’s a struggle. Here is how I stumbled upon my passion.



ABOVE: David McDonough, Look, mixed media, 18.5 x 22.5 x 2 inches

As a child, I was always drawing, and my parents had to force me to play with other children.

In elementary school, art was my best subject, and I won numerous competitions and awards.

In high school, I discovered apathy, and I quit drawing. Art was just an easy subject.

In University, I discovered weed, and it amplified my apathy. I didn’t take any art or arts related courses.

Once out of school, I slacked my way through most of my twenties without any drive or ambition.

One day, after a lengthy bong session, it hit me: I had no hobbies or interests. That really bothered me, so I laid down the bong, and I picked up a brush.

Because I had neglected my talent for years, my first efforts were downright awful. Undeterred, I practiced non-stop, and in so doing, I rediscovered my passion.

After four years, and hundreds of hours, my art had gone from awful to okay. After another four years, and thousands of hours, it was good enough to start showing.

It was tough at first (I faced an almost overwhelming amount of rejection), but I refused to quit, and I applied to the best shows over and over again.

After developing a unique style and building a consistent body of work, it slowly began to get better, and I went from showing my art to nobody, to showing it to thousands.

That is how I became an artist.

I still have a long way to go, but I am definitely on the right track.


Whether you paint, sculpt, act or write, sooner or later, you will feel the sting of rejection. Guarantee’d.



ABOVE: Damien Hirst, Immaculate Heart – Lost, 2008, sculpture, 36 x 24 x 11.5 inches

Whether you paint, sculpt, act or write, sooner or later, you will feel the sting of rejection.

As demoralizing as it is, rejection isn’t all bad – no really, it isn’t.

Whenever it happens to me – and it happens to me a lot – I try to remember the following:

  • You aren’t really an artist until you have been rejected. It is a right of passage.
  • Only serious artists have the courage to face it regularly.
  • The only way to avoid it is to stop taking chances. Do you really want to do that?
  • It forces you to evaluate your art – honestly.
  • It forces you to evaluate your website, biography, and statement – honestly.
  • It balances out the successes and keeps you humble.

And last but certainly not least:

  • You are an artist because no matter how many times you are rejected, you will never, ever quit.

Building an Artist’s CV

Just like any other career in any other industry, an artist needs a curriculum vitae (CV). Like a bio or statement, it’s obligatory. Here’s how to build one.



ABOVE: My Booth at the 52nd Annual Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition

Just like any other career in any other industry, an artist needs a curriculum vitae (CV).

Most juried competitions and exhibitions require one, as do galleries. This could prove difficult, if not intimidating, to a self-taught artist without an exhibition record. It needn’t be.

With time, just about anyone can build a CV. The key is to start small and to recognize that you probably won’t get into the bigger shows until you’ve been around the block a few times.

How do you build an exhibition record from scratch? Here’s how I did:

My first show was called an ‘Art Walk.’ Most local business associations have something of the sort and really, the only requirement is that you too be local (or at least be willing to travel). These are better than showing your work alone in a cafe or bar because they give you the opportunity to talk to other artists – you should always talk to other artists.

By participating in the above show, I learned of a couple websites where curators, galleries and art associations post calls for submissions. In the Toronto area, I use Akimbo and Instant Coffee (both have postings for all of Canada). If you’re outside of Canada, ask around.

Once online, I scrolled through the submissions and waited for appropriate calls to come up. Many shows are juried and have very specific requirements but, you will likely come across a few that simply ask you to drop your work off and pay a nominal fee. Not only are these guaranteed shows, they often take place at good galleries and include opening night receptions – you should always go to these receptions.

Another boost to my CV came from joining an artists association. Some are hard to get into, but others only require a membership fee. Not only do these organizations provide lots of useful information and networking possibilities, they often hold group exhibitions. If you’re a member, you’re pretty much guaranteed a spot in one of their shows.

As I met other artists, I asked them if they had a website and/or business card. Most did, and I was able to view their CV’s and learn of juried shows, galleries and other venue’s I hadn’t heard of before.

Every time I came across a new artist, show, gallery or venue, I followed them on sites like Facebook and Twitter (I still do). I have shown my art in places I discovered through social media.

Finding success as an artist takes time and building a CV is no exception. As yours grows, so too will your opportunities.

Next Up: Rejection

Great Art Documentaries

I love documentaries, and I really love art documentaries. Fortunately, a lot of film-makers do too. Here are some of my favorites.



I love art documentaries. Here are are some of my favorites:

The Mona Lisa Curse – 2008

The art world lost an important voice when Robert Hughes passed away in 2012. This feature length documentary follows the acerbic critic as he recounts his life’s work and rails against the rapid commodification of contemporary art.

F for Fake: A Film By Orson Welles – 1975

Authorship, authenticity and the value of art are examined through the recounting of Elmyr de Hory’s career as an art forger.

The Mystery of Picasso – 1956

The most important artist of the 20th century paints on film – nuff said.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child – 2010

Based on and including footage taken back in 1985, director Tamra Davis shines a light on the life and times of Jean-Michel Basquiat by interviewing those who knew him.

This Not That: The Artist John Baldessari – 2006

Conceptual art is rendered less confusing in this profile of one of its leading practitioners, John Baldessari.

Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present – 2012

The reigning queen of performance art is given her due in this surprisingly humanistic account of her life and work.

Beautiful Losers – 2008

Punk, graffiti and hip hop go hand-in-hand-in-hand. This documentary highlights the connection between street culture and high culture by showcasing the works of a collective group of artists including Harmony Korine and Sheppard Fairey.

Waste Land – 2010

The collaboration between art star Victor Muniz and a group of garbage pickers from Brazil is recounted in this uplifting and empathetic film.

In The Realms of the Unreal – 2004

As Picasso is to Cubism, Henry Darger is to Outsider Art. Reclusive in life and renowned only in death, little is known about this enigmatic figure. In The Realms of the Unreal attempts to change that.

Manufactured Landscapes – 2007

Follows Edward Burtynsky whose stunningly beautiful photographs serve to document how man and industry have irrevocably changed the natural landscape – for the worse.

Goldsmiths: But is it Art? – 2010

Goldsmiths College has produced some big name artists among them, Damien Hirst. This two-part, BBC Four series follows a group of students as they prepare for their masters show.

NOVA The Film – documentary on the New Art and the Young Artists behind it – 2010

An insightful look at emerging artists, their methods and their artistic philosophies. None of them are famous – yet.

Exit Through the Gift Shop: A Banksy Film – 2010

The joker of the art world, Banksy introduces Mr Brainwash to a life of blockbuster shows and over-priced/over-hyped art. Documentary or mockumentary, it doesn’t matter – this is an entertaining watch.

Art:21 – Art in the 21st Century – 2001 to present

The world’s most important contemporary artists are profiled in this long-standing series. Even better, they can be viewed for free on the PBS website. PBS rocks!

Ai Wewei: Never Sorry – 2012

Anyone can be a political dissident, especially in the free world. Being a political dissident in China, that takes balls! If you watch only one art documentary this year, watch this.

Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock? – 2006

Once or twice a year, there’s a news story about an artwork being bought for peanuts then appraised for millions – this is one of those stories, or is it? An interesting look at how provenance is or isn’t established.

Random Art Thoughts: Part 2

“If you create because you want to be famous, you’re a moron. If you create and you don’t want to be famous, you’re full of sh*t.” Me.



  • If you create because you want to be famous, you’re a moron. If you create and you don’t want to be famous, you’re full of shit.
  • In art, education is incredibly important. Especially in the beginning, artists with BFA’s and MFA’s hold a huge advantage over those who are self-taught. You can be successful as a self-taught artist but it will be harder and take longer to become so.
  • It takes time to develop skills. Don’t be discouraged if your early work falls short.
  • Success won’t come overnight (or anywhere close). Stay the course.
  • If you’re not confident in your work, don’t expect anyone else to be.
  • Making your art is not enough. You need to promote it – constantly!
  • Most artists have no business acumen. If you do, you will hold a distinct advantage over them – even if they’re more talented then you.
  • Set realistic goals but shoot for the stars too.

Stage One of My Artistic Process

I recently took my camera on a trek across Toronto and along the way, I captured almost everything that came across my path. This is how many of my projects begin.


building 1

ABOVE: Before  

BELOW: After

building 2

I recently took my camera on a trek across Toronto and along the way, I captured almost everything that came across my path.

Good or bad, I deleted nothing and finished the day with plenty of shots to choose from.

Once home, I began pulling needles from the haystack and in so doing, selected an initial batch of ten.

I printed the chosen ten then removed various elements from them via tracing paper.

This is how many of my projects begin.

Stage two to come.