Serena Martin’s first art lessons came from her grandfather, who trained her in the formal discipline of Chinese calligraphy, an ancient art form dating back to the 1st century. She spent an entire year learning how to hold the brush at the right angle, a lesson that would lay the groundwork for future artistic discipline building from the basics and focusing on technique just as intently as creativity.
While Serena always loved art as a kid and spent hours each day painting and drawing, she was raised in a family of engineers and doctors and had no aspirations of becoming an artist, so when she ended up becoming just that years later, it was by total accident.
Serena attended business school in college, where she was challenged academically and “barely survived Quantitative Analysis I & II.” After business school she dove into the world of high fashion in Atlanta, Georgia, where she worked for Miuccia Prada and was introduced to the intellectual side of fashion and its power as an art form.
“I began understanding each designer’s collection as their message to the world—how they view the world, their own utopian imagination of it, or disillusionment through sarcasm (if that is a thing), and I find it both humorous and absolutely inspiring. It taught me that art, even through fashion, something most people see as shallow, can be a strong statement to the world.”
When Serena’s fiancé (now husband) was transferred to Washington, DC, for work, they relocated together, and she decided to take some time off for herself during the transition. For the first time in eight years, she picked up a paintbrush and began immersing herself in the one medium that always intimated her the most: watercolor. She decided to paint portraits for her bridesmaids as a wedding gift, and upon receiving them they immediately encouraged her to share her work on Instagram.
“Once I started sharing my art, requests for custom portraits started coming in. I wasn’t making a lot of money in the beginning, but I told myself, if I could make just enough to cover my half of rent each month, then I would keep going. If not I would go find a new job. Luckily I didn’t have to!”
The biggest challenge she faced when starting off? Pricing.
“I was way undercharging for about a year, but I felt guilty raising my prices because I felt lucky that anyone was willing to pay me to do something I loved, so I didn’t feel like I had the right to ask for more money. I did eventually raise my prices because I was only making about $5/hour.”
As her clientele and business responsibilities grew alongside each other, she had the knowledge she gained in business school to lean on.
“My experience in business school taught me a framework that has helped me structure my art business now. It’s important to know how to properly price your services, how to canvas the marketplace to find your niche within it, how to understand the importance of sourcing to increase your margins, and how to forecast and plan each month. It provided structure for me when venturing into a world I didn’t know how to operate in.”
Today Serena operates just fine in a dining room-turned-studio in her apartment in DC, beginning each work day with what she calls the “heavy lifting” of sketching and painting, followed by administrative tasks for her business, an afternoon of painting, and social media work at night.
The best part? Her job title.
“I think getting to be an artist is a reward in itself. Seeing a vision I have inside my head come to life on paper is quite magical, though it can be a double-edged sword. The challenge is when I have a vision in my head, but when I get it down on paper, I know it’s not right. I feel it in my gut, but I don’t know why it’s not right. That disparity drives me crazy. That’s when I have to work through the millions of iterations until I look at it and know that I’ve got it. The process can be maddening!”
While she describes her own style as “romantic, dreamy, and utopian,” Serena relies heavily on the ancient values her grandfather instilled in her during her first art lessons.
“I want my paintings to come alive from the inside. Going back to Chinese calligraphy, when it’s done right, writing as an art form can take on life itself, and this can only be achieved when the artist understands that every details counts.”
With such an intricate process, you might imagine she would become possessive of her work, but Serena sees her art as merely a physical extension of her client’s vision.
“I try not to be too precious about my work or have too strong of attachments. I see my role as a servant. I’m creating something for someone else to treasure.”
Perhaps this selfless mindset is what makes her work so valuable, but Serena credits her business’s success to the positive relationships she is surrounded with in her life.
“My core values are cemented in the belief that my relationships are sacred.The only way my business ever got off the ground and survived is because of my relationships—my neighbors who first told everyone about my work, other artists who I met through Instagram, old college friends who commissioned work, and many, many more people who chose to believe in me.
Through all of that, I realized the only thing that matters in this world, whether I’m an artist or not, is to live relationally and leverage each other’s strengths and help each other when in need in order to move the world forward. I truly believe in that.”
Serena in Ten
- Hometown: Atlanta, GA
- Pets: her adopted cat, Teddy, and Mochi, her Bichon Frise
- Childhood Hero: Walt Disney
- New (Old) Hobby: Horseback riding
- Artist’s Block Cure: Take a full day off
- Favorite Artist Of All Time: Norman Rockwell
- If Not Art?: Retail store owner selling artisan products from around the world.
- Bedtime: 9 PM, every night. “Yes, I really do go to bed at 9 PM every night.”
- Can’t Live Without: Her morning routine: devotional time, walking her dog, and breakfast.
- Proudest Achievement: “That I haven’t quit.”