I got into creating art because I love it. I live for it. Because nothing else has ever made me happier. And so I rode the wave and followed the dream, conveniently forgetting all the things I’d heard about surviving as an artist. I took courses, consumed videos, and read everything I could about the art I yearned to create – all from people who conveyed how easy it is to make a living from their craft, when in reality they make their living from teaching their craft. Nobody ever said how hard it is or how expensive, disheartening and lonely it can be. Nobody said that despite all this, once it’s in your bones it’s impossible to stop creating.
So I’ve put together a list of twelve things you should know before turning your art hobby into a career.
Twelve things no one tells you about being an artist:
We live in frugal times and for most people an art purchase is an excess, not a necessity. These days people prefer to adorn their walls with cheap, wholesale art produced by Ikea or Kmart rather than art that means something to them. For you this means that until you find a market for your work you can add ‘starving artist’ to your resume. It’s certainly not impossible to make a living out of art but, for most artists, finding an audience to invest in their work is astonishingly tough.
To find a market for your art you need as many eyes on your work as possible but to get exposure you need to spend money. It costs money to enter competitions. It costs money to have a website. It costs money to run an online store. It costs money to have an exhibition. You might be lucky enough to get into a free community gallery but otherwise you’re paying venue rental fees, printing and framing costs, promotion costs, catering costs, packing and courier costs, possible airfares so you can be there in person to market your work, and you may not make a single sale. But you need these experiences on your resume because without being a published and exhibited artist no one will take you seriously.
You will need to spend AT LEAST 50% of your time on marketing. Learning and mastering your craft is not enough if you then want people to see it. You’ll be spending your time setting up your shop, writing blog posts, crafting newsletters, building your social media following, networking, creating YouTube videos, writing grant applications, pitching to magazines, entering competitions and organising exhibitions. And then, in one of life’s great ironies, you’ll notice that some of your favourite artists barely do any marketing at all and still have great success.
When printing your work it will NEVER look how it did on your screen or on your painting. Firstly, colour is such an impossible beast to tame for reasons that are far too technical to explain and secondly if you work on a computer screen it has a luminance that paper doesn’t. The first time I printed my work it came out VERY dark and I now have to work differently to compensate. This is why you want to work with a trained fine art printer who can help you fix it and not a cheap photo lab. It’s also why you need to ask or pay for a test print before ordering a full run of prints.
Being an artist means being vulnerable and exposed. It is really hard to put your creative expression and months of work on display in the vain hope that it might get a few likes as people scroll past it on social media. Yet to make sales you need to continually spruik your work which is a struggle if you’re self-conscious about it and worried that posting too often will lose fans.
People will buy your art only once they’ve formed a connection with it. Sometimes it’s enough just to like a piece, but often they will want to know more about the artwork and the artist. They want to know who you are, why you create, why you use the techniques you do, what story the piece is telling. This is difficult if you create on instinct. You will also be expected to be confident, positive, passionate, likeable and grateful. It’s tough when you’re putting on your bravest face and producing your best work and it’s still not enough to convert fans into buyers.
Pricing. Ugh. People will tell you your work is too expensive. People will tell you your work is too cheap. Your pricing structure will never please everyone. You just have to accept that not everyone is your target market and brave their complaints. The prices the majority of people are prepared to pay wouldn’t even cover my bills, let alone my time.
You need to choose a fine art career or a wholesale career because you cannot, apparently, have both. If you want to be respected as an artist it is very much frowned upon to be printing your products on mugs and cushions because it devalues the collectability of your art. But if you want to make money by selling smaller, cheaper, products at a higher volume, wholesale is the way to go. So do you prefer markets or galleries?
Be aware that galleries charge a commission to sell your work which can be anywhere up to 70%. It is so disheartening to know that they will probably make more from your work than you do, but it’s a catch 22 because without their space, contacts and marketing you may not have sold the work at all. Just make sure the gallery you are working with is actually earning their commission. On the other hand, if you prefer to sell prints yourself online you will find that oftentimes people pay more to frame your work than they paid to purchase it, and that’s when you realise that everyone else makes more money out of your art than you do.
You are a small fish in a gigantic pond and you’ll constantly compare your work to others. There will always be someone better than you. There will always be someone whose art is less accomplished but who wins all the competitions or makes all the sales. This is dangerous territory and you have to remember that you are all following your own path and creating in the only way you know how. You don’t know what demons anyone else is battling and what may look successful to you may be a failure to them. Comparison is only healthy if it makes you work harder to be better. It’s only healthy when you’re comparing your work now to how it was a year ago.
Most artists don’t make money from selling art alone. They will have second jobs. They will teach their craft to others. They will write books. They will own galleries. They will benefit from other artists by producing magazines, or competitions, or running artist support websites. They will run courses on marketing for artists or sell artist supplies. They will live off artist grants or crowdfunding campaigns. They will have sponsors who pay them to use and promote their products. Diversifying your offering is key.
With all of this in mind it is SO EASY to start doubting yourself based on how many competitions you don’t win, how many sales you don’t make, how successful every other artists seems. But you have to remember always, always, that you got into this because creating is your lifeblood and not because you wanted to be a successful artist. The most successful artists are the ones that persevere even when no one’s buying their work, who know their value is not defined by how many likes they receive or how many trolls leave hurtful comments. Because they love creating art and cannot live without it and know that everything else is just a bonus.
* To learn how the image was created, see here.