The Successful Artist’s Guide to Making a Living as an Artist

Key Considerations for Going Full Time

At some point, you are going to take a giant leap toward making a living as an artist.

You have to trust that it’s right for you and have faith that you will do what is required to make it work.

Timing

You won't wait for the perfect time to make this big move because you realize there is no such thing as the perfect time.

There will never be a moment when all of the stars align and give you a galactic shove in the right direction.

If you don’t take action now, you’ll regret it later. If you don’t take action now, you won’t be any closer to the vision you have for your life.

Before we dive into the details I want to be clear about this.

Making a Living as an Artist Isn't for Everyone

Something (not necessarily good) happens internally when you begin to think of your art as making money for you rather than an enjoyable activity.

Lori Sokoluk exhibition
Vancouver, BC artist Lori Sokoluk with her work at her Deer Lake solo exhibition.
Photo courtesy of Jeremy Klassen, JCK Studios.

It takes more than passion to be a full-time artist. When you’re putting your work out there for all to see—AND asking for money for it—you feel exposed. Vulnerable. Not everyone can handle this. Not everyone wants to handle it. Not everyone should handle it.

Once the decision is made … once you decide to move forward with an art business … I encourage you to embrace your ambitions. Don’t hide from them or be embarrassed to admit that you want more for yourself and for your art. Remember that your business and career are choices you have made to be in charge of your life.

There is no reason to postpone your plan. NOW is exactly the right time to begin building your art business.

In this article, I’m going to walk you through considerations for turning your hobby or passion into a full-time art business. Let's start with the most important.

The Work

Your studio practice is your #1 priority. Always.

Artist Dawn Williams Boyd
Dawn Williams Boyd at her sewing machine in her Atlanta studio.

If you're not making art, you have nothing to share with the world. If you have no art, you have nothing to sell.

Without the art, you are not an artist.

Your #1 Priority

The old institutional barriers to selling art have been eroding for two decades.

As this Artnet article about the new, empowered artist asks:

If the old rules and norms only keep hurting you and people like you, what sense would it make to keep quietly observing them?

On one hand, this is a good thing. It gives artists (you) more control.

But it also means that there are more artists than ever who are trying to sell their art, and too many of them are marketing it prematurely. It's easy to post something quickly on social media, but much harder to do the difficult work in the studio. You absolutely must be devoted to the latter.

When you share your art prematurely, you haven’t taken the time to develop as an artist. If this is you, take a deep breath and remember that, above all, you must make art in order to call yourself an artist.

A Body of Work

Your first step to becoming a full-time artist is to make a cohesive body of work.

You may already have this work, or you may find that you need to spend more time in the studio.

June Kellogg Art
June Kellogg's exhibition at the Friend Memorial Library in Brooklin, Maine.

The definition of a body of work varies from artist to artist. For one artist, a body of work might be defined by size. For another artist, it might be color, media, or subject matter. For yet another, it might be an installation.

The emerging artist is most concerned with producing a body of work defined by a recognizable style. This means you are looking for quantity as well as quality. A few pieces by a new artist won’t convince the art establishment of your capabilities. You need enough for a solid exhibition.

Confidence Takes Time

The confidence you need will only come after  hundreds of hours in the studio.

You’ll be rewarded when you focus your creative energy on making a body of work that you’re proud of. Only then will you have the confidence to put it out into the world. That brings me to my next point.

Commitment

There’s a romantic vision of living the artist’s life, toiling in the studio day after day. Covered with paint, glue, clay, or dust. Forgetting to eat because you were in flow. Staying up all hours because you were inspired. Following the obligatory diet of wine, cheese, and crackers that comes with the circuit of art openings.

Painter Jan Clizer
Jan Clizer working on a color study for the final painting in a series of commissions for
Gamble Sands Golf Resort in Brewster, Washington.
Photo by Jessica Mackenzie.

And then there is the reality—the part that just might suck.

Working on deadlines. Sending another email invitation. Dealing with difficult personalities. Moving past the rejections.

They're all part of the new you. You must be committed to this extraordinary life that few are fortunate to experience. How do you prepare?

There is no single path that is correct. Each of us will approach the situation differently. My modus operandi is to take off running and figure out the path along the way.

If someone told me that I had to have a written business plan before starting my business, I’d still be an unhappy museum employee. My planning came long after the big leap.

What I did have was commitment.

There's Nothing Easy About Being a Full-Time Artist

The commitment to your art will see you through the rough times.

You aren't going to love everything about running a business. Get used to it. You have to keep your eye on the end goal. Find a way to be happy 90% of the time and you'll excel.

Growth

When you are clear about your commitment, failure will never get the final word. You will keep going no matter what—recognizing that you're going to fail a lot before you succeed.

Be aware of self-imposed limitations, which often present themselves as negative self-talk.

I've heard variations of the following from too many artists to count.

I am not a salesperson.
I am not outgoing.
I am terrible at marketing.
I am bad at following up.

These are self-fulfilling prophecies. You can’t say, “I’m terrible at marketing” without being terrible at marketing.

Artist Sally-Ann Davies
Sally-Ann Davies in her Taupo, New Zealand studio working on a woodcut print.

Instead, opt for a growth mindset, which simply means that you're not limiting yourself with negative beliefs. You're on the improvement train.

Seek Incremental Improvement

Try this reframe and see if it's helpful.

Artists are naturally curious. You're curious about everything from how colors work together to whether the hype of the latest social media trend is worth the effort.

Use some of this curiosity to explore the business side of your profession. Dive deep and get curious about your business and marketing.

How can I make it possible for more people to see my art?
How can I delight the people who have supported me?
Who do I want to meet at this opening and what do I want to learn about them?

You will never reach your goals if you stay safe within your studio and small group of artists.

The professional artist is constantly improving.

Community

I’ve been working with artists long enough to know that those who are part of a vibrant artist community will advance faster than artists who aren’t. In the right artist group, you will hear about opportunities you never knew existed, learn skills, pick up the latest tips and tricks, and gain confidence in your abilities as a businessperson.

Artist Vanessa Turner
Vanessa Turner's gallerist in Bermuda had wristbands made that read I Am A Creative.  Vanessa is in the upper right.

Finding your people is one of the most impactful steps you can take for business growth, which is why one of my first recommendations to beginner artists is that they become involved in an artist group or organization, even if they have to start it themselves.

Not Just Any Ole Artist Group

Being with like-minded professional artists is essential for your growth.

The phrase “like-minded” is key here.

It’s easy to get stuck in the wrong group of artists. Artists who not only have different goals but who, more adversely, have a poisonous mindset.

As I've discovered working with thousands of artists over the years, it's not necessary that the artists in your closest confidence have the same goals as you. It is critical, however, that they embrace the growth mindset I mentioned earlier.

Hanging out with the wrong people (artists or otherwise) is a terrible waste of your time and can only end in frustration. Take the time to find a good fit for your ambitions and don’t discount the value of online communities like my Art Career Success System.

Money

Money isn’t an easy topic for many of us to discuss. It’s difficult to embrace the fact that you want more money. That seems greedy. Unseemly. Beneath the dignity of a real artist!

Trudy Rice makes a living from her fine art and homewares
Trudy Rice prepares for her open studio in Port Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

But we can’t ignore that life is fueled by cash. And there’s a ton of it flooding into the ever-booming art market. Ignoring money isn’t helpful. You need money to live. And I want every artist to be paid what you’re worth.

As a full-time artist, you need to figure out where the money is going to come from.

What, exactly, will you sell? Can you produce enough work to have a solo exhibition or build an impressive website? Can you make enough art that, if it sells, you will reach your income goal? Do the math.

Do The Math

Aim for profitability when you want to make a living as an artist.

This sounds obvious, but almost every new artist-client I start a consulting relationship with thinks they are more profitable than they are.

Staring down numbers on spreadsheets isn’t for the faint of heart. It takes real commitment to understand how you will make enough money to pay the bills, save, and invest.

You must think like an entrepreneur if you want to make a profit. Most artists need more than one income source. There's no shame in teaching, consulting, or selling products.

While it’s tempting to offer a bunch of low-priced items for sale, it doesn’t always make sense. Again, do the math. You’ll discover that it takes just as much marketing effort to sell a $150 reproduction as it does to sell a $1500 original.

Where will you spend your energy? What venues are best for showing and selling your art?

Venues

Promoting and selling your art online is fine, but exhibiting live is critical for your professional growth. Nothing can replace the viewer’s experience of seeing your art in person, and nothing can replace your satisfaction from bringing the work together in a single space.

Artist Margaret Biggs
Florida artist Margaret Biggs next to her art festival tent.

As you search for venues, it helps to remember that your art career is a journey with phases. The steps you take in the beginning are different from those when you are more established.

Seek increasingly prestigious (and lucrative) venues for showing and selling your art.

Gallery Representation

Most of my students and clients start out with a keen desire to gain gallery representation. Some want representation because they believe galleries will remove the burden of selling (not necessarily true), but most seek representation because of the validation that comes with a gallery wanting to show your work.

Regardless of your reason, please educate yourself before starting on this path. A lot of work goes into a career and a lot of dues must be paid before an artist earns gallery representation.

Above all, make sure you are ready for a gallery.

The good news is that commercial galleries are not the only place for showing and selling your art. In fact, a very small percentage of artists will ever show their work in fine art galleries.

Endless Possibilities

There are so many ways to show and sell your art today.

Artist Mary Duffy
Irish artist Mary Duffy working en plein air.

Depending on the type of work you make, you might consider working with art consultants, interior designers, or entering public art competitions. You might also enjoy accepting commissions from clients who want a custom piece of art for a specific spot in their home or memory.

The possibilities are limited only by your imagination and, perhaps, your ego.

Productivity

Many artists bristle at the thought of being confined by a clock or calendar. After all, freedom is, presumably, one reason you have chosen the artist’s life.

You can be as free as you want in your studio, but once you decide you want to be part of the art game … once you decide that you want to make a living as an artist … you and you alone are responsible for your success.

People Depend on You

Curators need for you to respond to their inquiries. Collectors and art consultants expect you to meet your commission deadlines. Journalists anxiously await your email because they are on deadline. That's a lot of powerful people to placate.

Oh, yeah, and then there is your art. When is the last time you were in the studio?

Kristin Link Natural History Art & Science Illustration
Kristin Link working in her yurt studio in Glennallen, Alaska. Photo courtesy of Greg Runyan.

As an artist, you’re blessed from all angles with an abundance of ideas. But that blessing can sometimes feel like a burden. How do you know which are right for you at this time? And which are the best use of your time?

How do you decide which people to collaborate with? Which invitations you'll accept?

How do you stay productive while also engaging with the world?

You must impose boundaries around your time and energy. Even more importantly, you must adhere to those boundaries. If you don’t respect them, nobody else will.

Self Management

Success is, indeed, a double-edged sword. More success means more opportunities and more demands on your time. Some of these will be a perfect fit, like Goldilocks’s third attempts (Just right!), and others more like time sucks.

Silversmith and Jewelry Artist Kim Harrell
Kim Harrell in her Denver silversmith studio.

In addition to setting boundaries with your time and with other people, you need to learn to manage yourself. In truth, you can’t manage time. You can only manage yourself, so let's call it what it is: self management.

When you say Yes to everything, you end up saying No to your most important goals. You have to learn to say No without feeling guilty about it. This is some tough self-love, and absolutely necessary when you are the CEO of a profitable art business. (Or when you want to be the CEO of a profitable art business.)

I'm not gonna lie. Those first few Nos are crazy hard to say. But then you start to grow into your power as an artist-entrepreneur fully in charge of your own business.

Productivity isn’t about doing more. It’s about prioritizing the opportunities and working on your highest value tasks and projects. Focusing on what’s most important sends the message to others to take you seriously.

Remember, you are depending on you to make a living. Don't let yourself down.

To start managing yourself better, make a plan (or 3).

Planning

It’s easier than ever to find yourself caught up in responding to emails, scrolling through social media posts, and clicking on random links that have nothing to do with how you want to show up in the world. Before you know it, the days have flown by and the list of things you want to accomplish is multiplying. This is poor self management.

You must spend a sufficient amount of time working on your business rather than staying busy in your business.

Beyond Being Busy

There's a difference between being busy and being productive.

Artist Meg Black
Meg Black of Topsfield, Massachusetts, teaching pulp painting workshop, Meg Black Studios, February 2020.

We’ve already established that, as a creative soul, you are loaded with ideas. When all of those ideas are floating around your head they begin to bump into one another.

Each idea has a voice: Try me! Work on me! Pssst … over here! Why are you ignoring me? They can be pesky, demanding, and loud. You either begin to feel overwhelmed by their insistence or ignore them and do nothing.

There's a better option for the sake of your professional growth.

Structure for Your Ideas

The solution is to create a structure for your ideas. Get them out of your head and into a plan before they drive you batty. And before they disappear forever.

You'll have multiple plans for your art business. They'll grow with you, be supplanted by new plans, and discarded altogether. But you need to create this kind of structure.

Make a plan for your exhibition. Yes, the work must get done and delivered on time because, as we've established, people are depending on you.

Artist Diana Jaffe
Diana Jaffe (Hilton Head, South Carolina) delivering a commission to a happy collector.

But you don't want to find yourself dropping off the work for a show and then frantically trying to get the word out at the last minute. Having a plan in place will bring you peace of mind.

Make plans for marketing (coming up next), for teaching workshops, and for having a sale (Yes, you can do that).

Make a plan for turning your collectors into a sales force that works on your behalf because they're so crazy about you and the art you make.

There's a plan for everything! I have templates for most of them.

Marketing

If you've stuck with me to this point, you've discovered that making a living as an artist doesn’t mean that you’re able to make art all of the time. Nor does it mean that just because it's your business that you are going to like every task associated with it.

The more successful you are, the more time you’ll be spending on the business side rather than in the studio. This includes coordinating calendars, organizing shipments, welcoming studio visits from curators, and meeting deadlines.

It might also mean managing team members and satisfying all of those people I mentioned previously who are asking for your time. It most certainly means more marketing.

Learn to Enjoy Marketing

Because you are going to be spending so much time working on your business, for Pete's sake, find a way to be happy about it. Remember, aim for being happy about running your art business 90% of the time.

Let's start with the marketing, which vexes so many artists.

Artist Antonia Ruppert
Chicago artist Antonia Ruppert in her Chicago painting studio.
Photo courtesy Loridah Marie.

Marketing is everything you do to gain recognition and sell your art. It’s something you will need to be consistent with because inconsistent marketing leads to erratic results.

You'll never hear me refer to your marketing as a campaign because that implies there is a beginning and an end. You can’t be reaching out and looking for connections only when you feel like it.

Some of your marketing will be in person. You will be expected to show up for your galleries and for other artists because a huge part of the life of a successful artist is being seen.

It’s more important than ever to create lasting habits and routines when preparing for the numerous responsibilities and opportunities coming your way. Consider a weekly self-promotion routine to keep you on track.

There are all kinds of ways you can spend your time, energy and money. Where is it most likely you’ll find your audience? As you focus on a profitable art business, you must be selective.

Final Word

What I've shared here is a long list of considerations for making a living as an artist. If I had to boil it down, I'd encourage you to focus on 1 thing: Commitment.

When the commitment is there, you can figure out the rest.

When you're committed to your art and your goal, nothing will stand in your way. You will persevere.

Your art is not just how you express yourself. It's how you interact with the world. When you keep it to yourself, you are not doing justice to the art. Nor will you ever be fulfilled.

You Can Do This

Yes, you have plenty of work ahead of you, but what's the alternative? To not go after your dream? To be complacent with the status quo? To live a life of regret?

None of these are acceptable. You can do this if you are devoted to your work.

 

Open graphic in a new tab for printing

Join the discussion on this Facebook post

Development Alchemy + AIM