how to become a full-time artist

November 9, 2020

the most common question i get: “how did you become a full-time artist?”

wouldn’t it be nice if i actually had a direct answer for you? just one word. that would be ideal, right? you could put your phone back in your pocket, run along, and do that one thing it takes to become a full-time artist. but, how boring would that be if our lives were so congruous i could actually give you an answer. and how boring would it be if being a full-time artist hinged on just one thing?

unlike medical students, we artists have no residency or fellowship to guide us into our career. we have no guarantee we’ll be useful, successful, or let alone, have an art-related job. we’re like jellyfish floating along in the ocean waiting for something to cling to. and that’s terrifying! there’s no step by step process on how to become a full-time artist. my art professor even told me, “if you’re going to be an artist, get used to saying, ‘would you like fries with that?'”

in no way do i think i’ve “made it” as a full-time artist. what does that even mean? what’s on the other side of “making it”? i have so many questions and unreached goals, i can’t imagine arriving to a complacent “i’ve made it” mindset. every artist’s journey is different, and a lot of those journeys aren’t talked about because we’re too busy creating art. i’m happy to share my story, and a few helpful tips i learned along the way. but please know: i’m no expert.

ok, so let’s call this number 1.

1: SET A GOAL

the first thing i did was set a goal. my goal wasn’t necessarily becoming a full-time artist in the beginning. maybe you have more of a refined goal than i did seven years ago. my goal was to paint as much as i could. at the time, i worked forty hours a week in an office. every evening i went home and painted. i preferred painting to going out with friends. i just really felt, and still do, feel at home and at peace when i paint. so of course, that’s what i craved, and what i wanted my life’s work to become.

“how we spend our days, is of course, how we spend our lives. what we do with this hour and that one is what we are doing.” — annie dillard

2. SAY YES (even if it means working for free!)

my friend asked me to photograph her wedding. of course i had never done that before and told her not to trust me with such a special moment. she was persistent and knew i had an eye to capture exactly what she wanted, so after resisting for some time, i gave in and finally said, “yes”. photography wasn’t painting, but it was still art, creating, making.

shooting her wedding generated seven wedding inquiries in my inbox, and before i knew it, i was charging clients to photograph their weddings! of course, i was still painting every week night since my week days and weekends were taken. but i had found something in the art world that paid bills.

saying “yes” can catapult you into a position you didn’t know existed. saying “no” is also very important, but that’s it’s own blog post.

3: BE PRACTICAL

although i am not shooting weddings anymore, i am still photographing families to this day. photography isn’t my hearts desire like painting, but it is practical, and practicality is very important in running a successful business. if your thing that ‘pays bills’ isn’t art, it’s ok. i give you permission to have one, two jobs that have nothing to do with art! some of you may blow up and become such famous artists, you may not need a ‘bread and butter’ income, but if you do, it’s normal, not a failure.

and then you become a workaholic and do the damn thang!

kidding. don’t do it! set boundaries and enjoy life outside of work. but speaking of work…

4: SHOW YOUR WORK!

find opportunities to put your art out there. you’ll never know what will come from that vulnerable, sometimes scary, act. who cares if you’ve never done it before. maybe start with posting a photo of a piece and working your way up to an in-person showing. a coffee shop is great! it doesn’t need to be your favorite gallery (remember, we like tangible goals). it doesn’t really matter how you put your work out there, like nike says, just do it!

one time, i had a friday night art show. i hung two paintings, mingled, sipped on my cocktail, and didn’t sell a thing. not a thing! but i smiled the whole time and met some amazing people.

a year later, the owner of the shop asked me to share a studio space. looking back, i had NO idea that one unsuccessful show would open a door to a life-changing experience of opening my first studio.

5. RELATIONS > YOUR EGO

a great way to start getting your “name” out there while generating income, is to take on commissions. if you don’t know what that means, it’s when a client asks you to create a custom piece of art for them. some artists only take commissions, others don’t take any. i started out taking a lot of commissions. it was a great way to meet clients and turn around work quickly. the work would speak for itself and before i knew it, i had more commissions than art supplies.

the downside to (some) commissions is that you end up creating art that doesn’t feel like yours. and that’s a bummer! i’ve had plenty of jobs where clients have asked me to go back to the drawing board 42 times to make it precisely how they envisioned it. it’s humbling, and that’s ok. maybe take on less commissions if you’re feeling unhappy about that. and it’s ok to back out. i’ve done that recently with a commission. be honest, and tell them you can’t do it, but here’s a full refund. always error on the side of generosity.

but the focus is about your client, not about you.

we don’t always remember what people say to us, but we sure do remember how they make us feel. it’s not about your creative liberty, your art skills, or your ego, it’s about the relationships you build behind your art. my goal is to create a beautiful experience for every single client, whether they’re buying a $25 print or $6,000 painting. each person that walks through my studio door or purchases a print online is important. my goal is for each and every one of them to walk away with a good feeling, not a bad one.

that’s all i got! the end.

i hope to post more on processes and some things that we artists aren’t always the best at, including marketing, the business side of things, absolutely’s and absolutely not’s. until the next post, here’s a list of 15 things you can do right now to begin your journey as a full-time artist:

find artists that inspire you
ask artists questions
find an art mentor
have coffee with an artist
help out at a studio
take an art class
paint, draw, make
photograph your work
take a breath
start an etsy shop
make a print
buy a domain name
have an art show
gift your artwork
pin your work

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