The Ultimate Guide for the Self-Taught Artist

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I am a self-taught artist, and I am very proud of what I have accomplished and where I am today.

At the same time, I understand exactly how challenging it can be to be a self taught artist. For one thing, a lot of questions come up:

Did I miss something by not going to art school?
What sort of training or classes should I take?
How do I find the best classes?
What do I need to work on / practice / improve to be a better artist?

How do I create a portfolio?
How do I use Social Media?
Do I need a website?
Do I need a blog?

How do I make money?
Am I good enough to be a professional artist?
Is being a professional artist rewarding?
Is it fun?

What art supplies do I need, and what art supplies are best?
What other art tools do I need?
Which drawing tablet should I buy?
Which computer should I buy?

How can I make it all work with my job, my family and friends, my social life and so on?

If you are thinking about becoming an artist, or a better artist, or if you already consider yourself a good artist but are considering doing it professionally, for sure you will have some, if not all, of these questions.

The Ultimate Guide for Self Taught Artists

I have put The Ultimate Guide for the Self-Taught Artist together to answer these and other questions, and to share my experience and knowledge, as well as lots of resources and inspirations available to you right now.

If you are wondering how to become a better artist, how to get started as a professional artist, or how to become more successful in your business, I hope this guide will help.

But first let me answer a very basic question:

What is a Self-Taught Artist?

Simply put, a self taught artist is one who has not received any formal education.

Many people – you, for example – may have artistic abilities and talent, and perhaps you’ve been doodling, drawing, painting or creating digital art since you were young. 

Maybe you have even developed your talent to a pretty high level without having taken a single art class, or just the one or two that were available at your public school.

But you may not have gone further. The idea of going to University as an Art Major, or going to an Art School, may have seemed appealing, but there are lots of reasons why people decide not to:

  • Art School is too expensive, or seems like too risky of an investment
  • There isn’t an Art School or Art Program where you live
  • You are too busy with work, another school program, family and friends – even with art itself!
  • You aren’t sure you are good enough
  • You don’t like, or don’t perform well in, a formal learning environment like college
  • You just don’t know how to proceed

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There are a lot of other reasons for not pursuing a formal education in Art School, and they may all be valid at the time they arise, but too often we kick ourselves afterwards, thinking we made a bad decision or were just too afraid.

And we feel like maybe we missed our chance, and now it’s too late.

But here’s the good news – it’s never too late, and there may be much better options available to you right now, for education, guidance and career advice – online courses and information sites which will give you everything you need to be a better artist – either just for yourself or as a profession.

And why are online training and resources better?

  • They are much less expensive!
  • They are more flexible and can fit any schedule
  • There is less, or no, pressure to pass tests or reviews
  • You can choose the courses and information that’s best for you and the most interesting
  • They are often put together and taught by self-taught artists like you, and so they give you what you really need

And really, there is a ton of stuff out there! My own site has lots of courses, articles and advice, as well as links to friends of mine and other professional and fine artists who are making it happen right now.

So, if you are wondering how to study art without going to art school, this may be the answer.

But let’s talk a little bit more about what exactly is available online.

Online courses

Improve your art skills and learn how to make money as an artist. Check out my courses about Making Money as an Artist, Color & Light, Color Palettes, GIFs, Posters and more!

There are excellent, affordable art courses which cover:

  • Art techniques, from basic to advanced
  • Color theory and usage
  • Light and shadow
  • Perspective
  • Composition
  • Realistic objects and still lifes
  • Portraiture and the human body
  • Landscapes
  • Interior design
  • Characters, cartoon and comic book art, animation
  • Selling your art and managing your business

And really so much more.

One thing I can definitely tell you from my own experience is that even if you have good skills already, there is still a lot you can learn that will make things easier, save you time and effort, really improve your art and – if this is your thing – make a lot more money.

So, if you are a self-taught artist, it may be time to learn some important stuff that you could never have learned on your own.

What kind of other resources are available online for a self-taught artist?

In addition to courses, there is so much more out there. You can find:

  • Directories and information on art contests, challenges and online showings
  • Communities of artists and art clubs
  • Libraries of art books and links to the best books for sale
  • Freelance sites for finding work and getting paid
  • Reviews and recommendations of art supplies, and guides to what you’ll need
  • Reviews and recommendations of the best computers and software for artists

Between online classes and all the other resources, you as a self-taught artist can find everything you need, and you may end up feeling more informed, connected and confident. Indeed, the decision not to go to art school may well bet the best one you’ve ever made!

But let’s go over some of these things in a little more detail. In this Ultimate Guide for the Self-Taught Artist in 2020/2021, I would like to talk about:

What types of art there are, and which have professional potential

What art courses you may need, and where to find them

What art supplies you will need, and where to buy them

What kind of computer, tablet and software would be best for what you are doing

How to become a professional artist, or how to make more as a professional artist

What Are The Different Kinds of Art?

I’m going to keep myself to listing the different kinds of visual arts, to keep our discussion more focused and applicable. That is, I won’t include dance, music, culinary arts, etc. I will also exclude photography, film and video here, although they really are visual arts, and a lot of us often dabble in those as well.

We can say that the main forms or styles of visual art are:

  • Drawing
  • Painting
  • Digital Art
  • Animation
  • Cartoon, Comics and Characters
  • Collage
  • Crafting
  • Sculpture
  • Tattoo and Body Art
  • Graffiti and Street Art
  • Fashion and Costume Design
  • Architecture and Interior Design
  • Web Design
  • User Interface
  • Product Design
  • Advertising

You might notice that right away we get into some crossover and mixing up of styles or techniques. 

For instance, cartoons, comics and characters may involve drawing, painting and/or digital art. 

Drawing may refer to pen and ink, pencil drawing, pastel or paint pencils (which may also be called painting), markers, or various digital drawing techniques. 

Painting, too, may refer to various forms – watercolor, pastel, oil – and may also be physical, “traditional” media (literally a canvas or board, paints and brushes) or digital painting.

It can all get a little confusing, but what is not confusing to most artists is what they do. 

That is, if you have always loved taking a pen to paper (or a stylus to an iPad, or a brush to a freshly stretched canvas), then that is, or at least might be, a big clue as to what you should be doing.

That said, much of the fun of making art is in trying to do new things, dipping your toes into the vast pool of styles, techniques and media. 

If you have only drawn characters, why not try to paint a landscape? 

If you have discovered your passion and talent just working on paper, see what you can do on a computer. 

If you love the characters you scrawl into the margins of your notebooks, get a cheap, or even free, animation program and bring them to life.

There are few, if any, limits to what you can do or what you can try.

We might want to make one big distinction here, though, and explain the difference between digital and traditional art.

  • Digital art is any artwork that is created on a computer – whether it be a laptop or desktop, a tablet or a phone, or any other digital device.
  • Traditional art refers to physical artwork made with paints, pens, pencils, makers, materials like cloth, glass, stone, anything like that. And it is made in a physical way, on paper, canvas, board, wood, glass, walls, floors, sidewalks, skin, hair – well, you get the idea.

Now this clear distinction does not mean that there is no crossover. 

You can make a sketch on paper, scan or digitally photograph it and transform it on your computer screen. 

You can create a picture on your drawing tablet, print it and wreck it with water, dirt and feathers.

In fact, these days artists are regularly beginning with a physical sketch or image and fully realizing it using their computer and graphics software, or sketching ideas and outlines on the computer screen only to complete them as a physical painting or illustration.

In fact, this collusion of physical and digital is often both inspiring and productive, and can be the best way to accomplish certain tasks – animators, for example, quite often work in this way.

As a very broad, but usually accurate, statement, digital art is more used, more marketable and generally more compatible with the professional market, the jobs you will find and the needs of your clients.

That doesn’t mean you should abandon traditional media, if that’s what you’re best at and what you love, and certainly many professional artists work almost exclusively in traditional forms. 

You should probably keep a couple of things in mind, though:

  • If you work in traditional media, and want to be a professional artist, you will have to bring your artworks into the digital realm – photographing, scanning or re-creating them.
  • Even if you are convinced that traditional media are best for you, and that you are best in them, you might want to give computer art a chance anyway – so many people I have known, even those who don’t use computers at all, were totally surprised by how they took to working on a screen, how natural and easy it was and how quickly they got up to speed.

What Form of Art Makes the Most Money?

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Any one of these forms of visual art have money-making potential, if your aim is to become a professional artist. 

That said, many jobs will involve:

  • Basic drawing and coloring skills
  • Calligraphy and lettering
  • Web page design and decoration
  • Accurate depiction of objects and people
  • Animation (often very simple)

But don’t worry if you don’t do, or don’t think you can do, some of these things. 

You can effectively focus on your specialty, and you will always find work if you know where and how to look (more on that below).

It is important to have some basic skills available:

Drawing – objects, characters, landscapes, logos

  • Color Theory
  • Composition, Perspective and Relationships
  • Lettering
  • Digital Software
  • Understanding of Digital File Types and Standards

But again, don’t be overwhelmed! 

It is good to know as much as possible, in order to be as marketable as possible, but these things can be surprisingly easy to learn – especially if you find a teacher whom you like.

And, at the end of the day, if you can draw a beautiful rose, or a cool doggy with a bit of personality – even if you haven’t a clue what a digital file is – you are valuable on the professional market and can definitely find work.

What Kind of Art Classes Should I Take?

Online courses

Improve your art skills and learn how to make money as an artist. Check out my courses about Making Money as an Artist, Color & Light, Color Palettes, GIFs, Posters and more!

Can you teach yourself to be an artist?

This is a fascinating question with different possible answers. 

Or, maybe there’s just the one answer: Yes and no.

What I mean is, if you have talent, and love to draw, paint, illustrate or otherwise beautify your world, that is just what you’ve been doing all along – teaching yourself art.

You draw something, see what you like or what you’d change, you draw it again, you practice and practice, and you get better and better. 

You look at art books, check out Google images, websites, comic books and graphic novels, billboards and magazines, and teach yourself what is beautiful, what appeals to you, what you want to create next.

The whole time you are doing what you love and you are learning, improving and growing.

And yet, at the same time, the self-taught artist has never been taught the easiest, or the most effective, way to convey perspective in a landscape, or mood in a human face, or realistic balance between compositional elements.

You would never have had the benefit of somebody explaining the importance of complementary colors, the dramatic emphasis of light dynamics and how to easily and beautifully realize this, the thousand ways to make what you are already doing easier, faster, better and even more fun.

And the self-taught artist generally never gets any feedback or real criticism from anybody but friends and family members – that is, not from anybody who is essentially impartial and who has a trained eye. 

  • Are your drawings, paintings, illustrations as good as they can be? 
  • Are they good enough for a professional client? 
  • How, exactly, can they get better?

You’ll notice that I keep referring to professional art and what you need to become a professional artist. 

But please understand that I don’t assume this is you. 

You may be reading this guidebook for self-taught artists just to become better, and have no interest in making money.

And so learning a few basic things – from somebody who has experience, who really knows the techniques and the tricks, and who has the ability to teach – is so important and such a good idea for any artist, professional or not.

But where can you find good art classes online?

There are so many places to find high quality art classes and courses, and there is also a lot which is maybe not so good. 

But even if we just focus on the good classes and teachers, it is a little overwhelming to wade through the seemingly endless sites and endless possibilities.

I mean, it is always a good idea to find a teacher you click with, somebody whose attitude and presentation you like and from whom you think you can learn. 

And if you can find somebody who really knows their stuff – not just art, but what a self-taught artist may have missed or may need – so much the better.

But really there are hundreds, maybe even thousands, of sites just for art education, and sadly the chances of stumbling upon that one ideal teacher can be pretty slim. 

I have done this stumbling and searching already, though, so that other self-taught artists may not have to.

I am an artist and a teacher, and I think I do a pretty good job at both. But more importantly, I think I can really help other artists – especially self-taught artists who have talent and inspiration but maybe haven’t (yet) learned some pretty important basic stuff.

I wanted to get my own teaching courses to as many people as possible, and I have done a lot of research to find the best internet schools. 

And so on my own site – Art Side of Life – I have partnered with a couple of really outstanding online schools:

  • Evolve Artist Program – art college education at the fraction of the cost
  • Skillhare – Get 2 FREE months – 1000s of art classes
  • Udemy  – the biggest library of online courses

Art College Education for the fraction of the cost

I invite you to try Skillshare Premium for 2 months.

Udemy has the biggest library of online classes

This way I can not only offer my courses right on my own site, but through their institutions as well, and hopefully reach and help as many people as possible.

Some of my courses, which I think might really help a lot of self-taught artists, are:

Online courses

Improve your art skills and learn how to make money as an artist. Check out my courses about Making Money as an Artist, Color & Light, Color Palettes, GIFs, Posters and more!

These courses and others can really help you understand and master things which you may have never really learned.

Yes, you may already have a good feeling about these things, and enough talent to realize them, but there is nothing like having a complete understanding of the techniques, tricks and theories of both basic and advanced art processes, not to mention how to fully use today’s remarkable graphics software.

Please feel free to check out my courses at The Art Side of Life, or go to Udemy or Skillshare to connect with me and lots of other great teachers.

Because the self-taught need teaching too!

Finally, I’d like to provide a quick list of essential art books, which can teach you so much about the most important aspects of art and technique. There are a lot more of these on my Resource Page, but here are some of the best:

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What Art Supplies Do I Need? And Where Is the Best Place to Buy Art Supplies?

There is a very simple philosophy when it comes to art supplies – Less is More, and Better is Better!

It is so much fun for a new artist (or any artist) to scroll through pages and pages of Amazon listings and gaze at pens, pencils, fine paper, paints and brushes, cool easels and studio lights, but it can get a little overwhelming and distracting – even to the point that we are maybe more focused on the art stuff than on the art itself.

I’ve always thought it was better to have a few very really good quality items than a helplessly jumbled drawer of a dozen different brands of colored pencils, so many markers that many have long ago dried up, ridiculously expensive erasers I don’t even remember buying and paint tubes that, with the weight of all the other supplies piled on top, have leaked all over the 10 different types of drawing paper I was sure I needed.

No, instead I would rather have 1 or 2 really good set of colored pencils, enough paper that I love so that I don’t run out, a few pens that I actually use and a smaller selection of the very best paints and brushes. 

Good art supplies make everything easier, make working nicer, and make the end product turn out better.

That said, I also recommend that you stretch your boundaries a little – or at least make sure that, if you want to stretch, your studio is ready for you. 

So, as one example, if you draw but you don’t really paint, have a few paints and brushes on hand anyway, and once in a while throw some paint around and just see what happens!

But again, you may want to stock your supplies while repeating the mantra Less is More and Better is Better.

Here I am going to list the basic art supplies that you might want to have on hand at all times. In each case I will specify a few brands that I feel are really great – good enough quality for the most advanced professional or fine artist, but also a product that will make growing, learning and experimenting easier and more fulfilling.

For more suggestions, you can always see Art Side of Life’s Resources Page, and for the best selection of art supplies I recommend either Amazon (where you can see lots of real customer feedback) or, for a more expert selection, Blick Art Materials – a family owned and operated business since 1911.

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What Kind of Computer, Tablet and Software Should I Buy?

What kind of computer is best for an artist?

What kind of tablet is best for an artist?

What printer is best for an artist?

What scanner should I buy?

What is the best art software in 2020?

Yeah, here, maybe more than with art supplies, we run into a real danger of being overwhelmed and kind of losing the plot.

Computers, tablets, printers and scanner, and all kinds of tech available to artists right now are, after all, really cool – even seductive.

But they are also incredibly powerful, allowing us to do things which even a few years ago would have been impossible, or would have required impossibly expensive tech.

And they let us do pretty much everything else more quickly, more easily and more consistently, and can help us produce artworks that are higher quality and more compatible with professional and industry standards.

Even if you are working exclusively in traditional media, if you want to display your work online, like in a cloud-based portfolio, or if you ever will want to create pieces for professional use, you’re going to need a computer.

And if you are a working professional artist, or a digital artist, you will, of course, need a good art computer, and may also want to consider a tablet, printer and scanner, and industry standard, professional quality graphics software.

Believe me, I know – any one of these items can be a major investment, and together they will really add up. But you don’t have to get everything all at once, and can add to your arsenal as you go along.

But there are a couple of basic rules when it comes to investing in digital art tools:
Get the best you can: the best display – color fidelity, resolution, size – the fastest processor and most RAM you can afford
Better equipment always pays for itself in the long run (sometimes in the short run even)

If you know me at all, you probably could guess that I am sorely tempted to add a third rule – buy Macintosh!

But, as it turns out, while MacBooks, iPads and iMacs seem to be by far the most popular choice among artists, in the professional world Windows based computers – especially really high end products like the Wacom Cintiq tablets – are often the default and the standard.

That doesn’t mean that Windows is used more in the professional art world, or that Mac is – I think both are quite common these days, and it depends a lot on the particular industry, company and usage.

So, for me I choose Apple, because while they are not the cheapest on the market they are also not that expensive, and they offer real speed and performance, superb displays, amazing and useful professional art software, and a wonderfully simple and intuitive interface which makes them a joy to use.

But if you are a Windows user, there may not be that much reason to switch. Truthfully, they offer even more art software overall, including some of the best and most professional programs available. Windows computers also have a nice, simple interface, and have some other benefits as well.

But, in either case, get the best you can.

Really, you should never stretch yourself too much, buying something you can’t afford, and this is especially true if you are just starting out and haven’t really secured yourself with a stable income and clientele.

But to see your artistic creations with true fidelity – rich and accurate colors, subtle shading and powerful highlights and shadows, clarity and high resolution, depth and life – and to know that your computer will neither disrupt you nor hold you back, these things can make all the difference. You will be more productive, more engaged and happy, more confident in your work and more sure that it is what you, or the client, actually want.

And, really seeing what you are doing, and knowing your computer will never hold you back, can actually make you a better artist.

Having said all of this, I believe there is a much deeper and more profound truth underneath the whole idea of what tools you “need” – and it is equally true for both computer tools and traditional art supplies. And that is: if you are an artist, your art will come through regardless. You can be sitting on the sidewalk, scratching pictures into the concrete with a sharp stone and, if you’ve got it, you will make something beautiful.

So, on one hand, if you can’t afford the biggest and the best, or if you can’t afford anything, don’t worry. Just work with what you have and keep on creating, and everything will be fine. You are an artist!

But on the other hand, if you are considering an investment in new technology, and can afford it, you should really think about getting the best you can get. It is a wise investment in your art, your business and yourself.

So as a part of my Ultimate Guide to Self-Taught Artists, here I will include a few basic suggestions for computers (both Apple and PC), tablets, printers and scanners, as well as a few choices for the best professional art software available in 2020.

If you want to see more, again you can check out my Art Side of Life’s Resources Page.

I am also starting to write a series of review and buyer’s guide articles, and so far I have completed and posted the following, which also might help you make the best choice and the best investment:

My Choices:

Computer

Tablet

Printer

Scanner

Software:

How Do I Become a Professional Artist?

Can a self-taught artist make money?

It is actually easier now than ever to make money as an artist, especially using the internet and freelance sites.

And being a freelancer has so many great benefits:

  • You can work remotely – anywhere in the world
  • You can work whatever schedule you like – as long as you meet deadlines!
  • You can work as little or as much as you like
  • You can choose your projects, and are not committed to one project or one boss
  • You can build up a diverse and high quality portfolio
  • You can work in your pyjamas!

But maybe the biggest benefit for a self-taught artist is that freelancers are often chosen for a job based more on their talent and their samples than on their formal education.

When the model was different, and the norm was to apply at, and work for, large corporations, if you didn’t go to a good school you probably wouldn’t even be considered.

Now, working for websites that specialize in connecting freelancers and clients, you can post your work and refer potential clients to it, and often that is the biggest factor in their decision-making process.

You should consider, though, that there are some drawbacks to being self-employed, which is what a freelancer essentially is. 

These include:

  • Possibly inconsistent work/income
  • Must keep yourself focused and disciplined
  • Must account for your own income tax
  • No benefits

Still, this is the new model, and for artists – who are, admittedly, often a bit independent – it is a really great model. And it is a great way for self-taught artists to quickly start making money.

Some of the best websites for freelancers – either those who are established or just starting – are:

  • Upwork
  • Freelancer
  • Fiverr
  • 99designs
  • Guru

Each of these is a little different, and one or another may be the best choice for you, so it is probably best to check out the site’s layout and interface, the amount of jobs they are currently posting and the types of jobs they seem to offer, and see if it feels right to you.

Upwork is, I believe, still the biggest freelance site in the world, and will have the most jobs overall, but they do screen their new freelancers – not so much to make sure you qualify, or are good enough, but more to make sure they don’t have too many, for instance, graphic designers or illustrators (or writers, or translators, or tax accountants, or software developers) at the time you’re applying. 

But, if you get on their site, the clients do seem to have a kind of preset confidence in Upwork freelancers – a real plus when you’re just starting out.

A couple of key things to remember if you are just getting started as a freelancer on one of these online sites:

  • Develop a nice portfolio – even if you haven’t had jobs, or don’t have a big body of work, you can still make some nice drawings, paintings, designs, logos, characters, just for the sake of your portfolio. If you don’t really have a specialty, see what clients are looking for, and if it appeals to you you can focus your portfolio on those kinds of jobs. Or you can make many different kinds of art to demonstrate your versatility.
  • Start out low – you may already have a sense of how good you are as an artist, what you and your time are worth, and what other artists are making, but in the beginning none of that may matter. For your first few jobs it is a good idea to kind of prime the pump – that is, take assignments for even very low money, and complete them way above the level of pay or expectations. Do this once or twice and the momentum, as well your perceived value on the freelance platform, will really take off.

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There are lots of other ways to make money as an artist, including the more traditional model of applying to a corporation, a small company or a studio in a physical location, and going there every day to work – hard for me to imagine, but that used to be they way that most professional artists worked, and in many other professions it still is.

But that old model usually does require either a formal education or a very established work history and an extensive, professional quality portfolio, and so doesn’t really relate to the question of how can a self-taught artist earn money.

As a self-taught artist, you can also always post your art online for sale. You can do this through your own website (which, these days, can be surprisingly cheap to maintain and surprisingly easy to design – see SiteGround for example), or you can use social media like Instagram, Facebook and the like – you’ll need to become somewhat of an expert, though, at hashtags!

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If you are going to try to sell your art online – either digital art or traditional media which you have scanned and posted – you will want to give yourself as much exposure and traffic as possible. This can be accomplished by:

  1. Blogging (as often as possible, but with good quality content)
  2. Entering art challenges and contests (please check out my recent article – 50+ The Ultimate Art Challenges Guide for 2020/2021
  3. Joining online art communities
  4. Following and communicating with other artists through social media
  5. Hiring a marketing specialist – they can be quite expensive, though, so why not learn it yourself?

All of these things, if done right, can increase the number of people who see, and so can purchase, your work. 

They can also lead to other income, like Passive Income made through Affiliate Links.

And art challenges, social media and art communities can also provide you, as a self-taught artist, some valuable feedback and suggestions on your work, and they can give you a real sense of community.

It may seem like we’ve covered a lot here, but this section is actually quite limited, the topic of how to make an income as a self-taught artist is quite vast and complex, and we just can’t discuss everything here.

There are, in fact, seemingly limitless opportunities out there for the self-taught artist, and if you want to learn more about them, and about how to be a more effective businessperson, please feel free to check out a couple of my videos on the subject of being a professional artist:

Conclusion: How Can a Self-Taught Artist Become More Successful?

If you have essentially taught yourself art, or taken only a few limited classes along the way, you are a self-taught artist. 

I’m sure there are so many valuable things you have learned along the way, and so many great experiences.

And there is still a lot to learn, and countless more great experiences yet to be had. 

I hope that you have learned some valuable stuff here in my Ultimate Guide for the Self-Taught Artist, and that you will find good teachers and continue to learn.

I also hope you will keep in touch with me to tell me about some of those great experiences, and to let me know how your journey is going.

Can a self-taught artist become a successful artist? 

With the right tools, teachers, community and – of course – practice, practice, practice, absolutely! 

You can become a better artist and you can make plenty of money.

And you can continue to do what you love, just as I do. In the final analysis, that’s the most important thing – if you’re doing what you truly love then you are already a great success!

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