An Artist’s Life, Part IV

So, can you really make a living at it?

I get asked this a lot. There’s a perception that unless you’re supporting yourself entirely on art, you’re not professional. That’s not true. Then there’s that old perception that all artists must starve for their art, and unfortunately there is some truth to that.

The word “starving” seems to accompany the word “artist” almost 1:2. This was discouraging when I was investigating career choices as a teenager, especially since my career investigation took place during the 1980s debt crisis; I reacted by developing life-long hoarding tendencies of shampoo and toilet paper because those were two things I never wanted to run out of due to lack of funds. When it came to determine my career path at the end of the 1980s, I veered away from Fine Art in favor of shampoo and toilet paper security and got an English degree, which was actually pretty lucrative once I applied it to business.

Except after sixteen years as a corporate bureaucrat, I got tired of arguing over trivial things like the fonts used on status reports and then going out and buying things like expensive shampoo to console myself. The latest model of whatever I purchased never made me any happier than the last latest model. I was putting off important things in favor of ultimately more unimportant things just like in the Cat’s Cradle song. It was a mid-life crisis!

Mid-life crises aren’t bad, by the way. The mid-life crisis exists to give you the impetus to correct choices that you wish you’d made before time runs out.

In retrospect, given the state of the economy, the decision to leave a staid well-paying career after a decade and a half seems about as well-guided as the Donner party but I no longer wanted to settle. I was starving in a different way.

Anyway. Can you make enough to live on as an artist, even as an old school traditional art artist?



1. It’ll take about five years. Becoming an artist means starting your own business and *any* new business takes about five years to become self-sustainable.

Moreover, you must have business skills such as Project Management, Marketing, and Administration. I spent 16 years in the corporate world developing just those skills, and that is the important order. Project Management is delivery and discipline. Marketing is salesmanship and positioning and relevance. Administrative detail is the stuff like taxes and accounting that you just gotta do.

As for my own five year gestation in the Emerging Artist birth canal, I can say it’s starting to pay off. I started selling in 2006. I went “pro” (full time) in 2008. In 2011, I’m just now able to pay rent. Speaking of rent, that leads me to #2:

2. You better have pretty spare standards of “making a living.”

Once upon a time, we lived in a nice place on the nice side of town with a killer view and an even more killer mortgage. We had two cars, three TVs, and several (I lost count) computers. Anyway, “we” is now “I” and I provide Maslow’s lowest hierarchy of needs for myself and my son. I rent on the other side of town, I bike everywhere (no vehicle), and I have just one of everything. You know what? It’s more than enough. I’m not going to reel off Buddhist philosophy here but it’s something that everyone needs to find at their own pace and not everyone is ready to do that just out of high school.

However, I have a theory that kids who grew up in an economic expansion like the 60s or 90s are more likely to get minimalism than the kids who grew up in a recession because the latter group seem to have an ingrained starving-compensation fixation while the former seem more willing to take risks.

The point here is that you have to be ready to take a pass on the latest gadget and maybe go without a car and be okay with living in a smaller place and develop a strong preference for ramen. You’ll have to be happy living like a student because for the five years it takes to get your business off the ground, you ARE a student. You’re getting an MBA in you.

3. You must develop a HUGE tolerance for uncertainty and risk.

I struggled the most with this one. Some people are built with the ability to give themselves up to the universe and have confidence in their ability to survive; some people panic and get depressed. I’m in the latter category. I’m also insecure and horribly proud and I hate asking for help because it shows weakness.

But there’s a secret advantage that anyone has when pursuing such a risky career: the empathy of everyone who ever wished they could follow their dreams but couldn’t. I suspect there are more people out there like than not and these people will cheer you on. They’ll offer their vehicles to help you deliver work that’s too big to carry on a bike. They’ll promote you and maybe even buy some of your work when you’re short. I know I’ve sold more than a few “pity paintings” but I don’t feel pitiful because of it because someone’s investing in ME. That feels good.

If things are scary and uncertain, it’s okay to call upon people to help. I believe that people are basically good and they want to help. Some of my biggest customers have kids who want to be artists and this is how they show their support. Meanwhile, just when I think I’m ready to toss it up and start searching for jobs with “Administration” in the title, I sell something. The universe comes through. I’m trying to trust it.

So that’s it in a nutshell, friends. Have patience and discipline. Be prudent. Find your inner core of resilience and share your vulnerability.

Then again, anyone with those qualities will do well at pretty much anything.