The Art Biz ep. 173: Starting Your Art Career

This post might be for you or, as you’ll see, it might be a gift you share with another artist.

This isn’t for artists who want to dabble and keep art as a hobby. I so respect your desire to enter and exit the studio whenever you feel like it, but this isn’t for you.

This isn’t even for artists who want to set up a side hustle of selling art here and there to make some extra cash. Again, I respect the fact that you want or need to do that, but what I share here isn’t for you.

Lana Tyler painting
©Lana Tyler, In a Mare’s Eye. Oil on canvas, 20 x 24 inches inches.

This Is For You If You Are Serious

This is for anyone who is serious about building and living the life of an artist.

I hate to even call this episode “Starting Your Art Career.” “Starting Your Art Business” isn’t any better, but the algorithms seem to prefer these options. 

The words Career and Business imply a financial goal and that can’t be the end game. It’s more like “Starting Your Artist Life” because it requires a devotion to the work, not to making money.

It’s not about making a living as an artist because it is too much pressure—on yourself and especially on your art—to make the leap to making a living when starting out.

In her book Big Magic, the book for artists I wish I had written, Elizabeth Gilbert writes, “There’s no dishonor in having a job. What is dishonorable is scaring away your creativity by demanding that it pay for your entire existence.”

The bottom line: Don’t even think about making a living from your art in the early stages of forming an art business. It’s too much pressure and unrealistic at this point.

Listen to this on The Art Biz

This Is For You If You Are Asked For Advice

This is also for you if artists ask for your advice about how they can do what you have done.

Maybe you teach or you have a lot of Instagram followers and are consistently asked for your counsel. If you want to spend time responding, by all means do so.

But there is no need to spend time going into depth, unless mentoring is one of your things. Just send them to this episode (#173) of The Art Biz.

I’m going to give you some practical steps to take, but you first have to hear me preach from my pulpit.

When you set out on this path, you must commit to the work and to the life of the artist. You are going to need, above all, patience.

You are creating a life around your art and it will take time—especially if you have led a parallel life with a different identity.

Michele Clamp painting
©Michele Clamp, Goldfinches. Watercolor on cold press paper, 9 x 12 x 1 inches.

You Are an Artist

You might be accustomed to labeling yourself with a different moniker.

I am a teacher … a graphic designer … an engineer … a mother … a student … a writer … a doctor … a dentist … a lawyer.

By the way, I've worked with all of those artists before. Artists who were previously any one of those things. 

It’s time to try on the word Artist instead. As long as you are maintaining your studio practice, you have my permission (in case you need it) to call yourself an artist.

You might hesitate to call yourself an artist at first, and that’s normal.

For many artists starting on their paths, saying “I’m an artist” sounds presumptuous. Know you are not alone,

I'm an artist

sounds presumptuous

You must build your confidence so that you don’t require outside approval. There’s no sense waiting on The National Board of Artists to anoint you with the title of artist because that isn’t a thing. You have to do this for yourself.

I’ve learned that it’s easier for those with art degrees to call themselves artists—probably because they have a single piece of paper with an official seal on it.

But that’s only a degree. Having an official piece of paper doesn’t mean you’re an artist.

What Makes You an Artist

Having shows, selling your art, and receiving grants doesn’t make you an artist.

You don’t have to sell the work to be able to say “I am an artist,” though I certainly understand that showing, selling, and having a stamp of approval from others is helpful.

What makes you an artist is devotion to the work you do in the studio.

You only have to be devoted to the work. In his book, The Creative Act: A Way of Being, Rick Rubin writes, “The goal is to live your life in the service of art.”

That may sound dramatic when you’re just starting out, but it’s 100% excellent advice. I’ve worked with thousands of artists over the years and I know that dedicated artists live their lives in service to the art. It’s not in service to a job. It’s a much higher calling than a job.

You may still be taking classes, learning from others, which is expected. Never stop learning.

Continue to find your way past the technique and knowledge of your medium of choice. Even better if you try every medium that sparks your imagination.

The principal mandate for starting your art career is a devotion to the work. Not the medium. The art.

Anna Canfield charcoal drawing
©Anna Canfield, Port Night. Charcoal on 140lb cold press watercolor paper, 11 x 14 inches.

You are not a medium-specific artist

You are an artist

You are not a watercolor artist or a ceramic artist. You are an ARTIST. The medium is irrelevant.

As an artist, you will find whatever medium is necessary to relate your message.

Replay that last thought again. The medium is irrelevant.

Artists—true artists—will find whatever medium is necessary to relate their message. They don’t confine themselves to a single medium.

Aim for work that you can call your own. That isn’t derivative of your teachers.

Be wary of all teachers that ask you to make work like theirs. The best teachers help you find your way rather than guiding you to copy what they do. 

I’ve learned this in my own work supporting artists in their businesses.

For years (longer than I care to admit) I stressed business structures that needed to be done in a certain way. Of course there are some non-negotiables, which I’ll get to in a minute, but I now know that everyone is different.

There is no single trajectory to success.

In my programs, such as my new ESSENTIALS training, I offer options based on what I’ve seen implemented by artists throughout the years.

There is no single trajectory to success. Each artist must find their way.

Just as you must find your voice in your art, you must also find a style for running your art life. Try on suggestions and see how they fit.

I’d love to help you find your way. See Establish Yourself: Essentials for Artist Success.

The Artist's Life is Difficult

For a long time I avoided working with artists just starting their journeys because I didn’t see the devotion in many of them.

I am the last person who would try to talk you into an artist’s life because I know—really know—how difficult it is. Not from lived experience (because I am not an artist with a studio practice) but from supporting artists for more than two decades. And, yes, I did go to art school, though I came out on the other side with two degrees in art history and spent 10 years working in art museums.

I’ve witnessed the toll that the artist’s life can take.

  • Being ignored by social media algorithms is frustrating. You begin to think nobody likes your work, when it’s actually the bots hiding your posts from your followers.
  • Rejection from shows or grants can be demoralizing.
  • Slow sales aren’t just heartbreaking, they can also deeply affect your psyche.

These things are darn near impossible to move past when you aren’t 100% devoted to the work.

You can’t be driven primarily by sales. You must have a higher calling that is your Why. Your reason for pursuing the life of an artist.

Yes, it’s difficult to live the life of an artist, but the rewards are great. I’ve been blessed to witness the joyful moments for many of my artist-clients.

Make sure

You want an art business

I will never encourage you to follow your passion and turn your art into a business because making art and trying to find a market for that art are two different things.

Some artists are thrilled by the challenge of marketing and selling their art. They love to make connections that further their goals.

Other artists can’t stomach it.

Regardless of your feelings about marketing and selling, one thing is for sure. You almost always look at the work differently when you ask money for it. You risk seeing it as a product rather than your passion.

You might wonder how you could change it so that it would find a bigger audience or sell faster.

This line of thinking is the danger zone.

Changing your art for the market is like carving out its soul.

By all means change the work for a higher level of self-satisfaction or for improving it, but don’t change it for the market. That’s like carving out its soul.

Ray Hassard painting
©Ray Hassard, The Basement Door’s Ajar. Gouache on paper, 6 x 8 inches.

If you decide to make the leap and go for the artist’s life, here are the first 6 practical business steps—actions you need to take to turn your art into an official business.

1. Decide on your professional name.

How do you want to be known in the history books? Art history is made up of stories of individual artists, not of company names, so use some version of your name.

Pick a name and get on with it. Use it for everything related to your business.

I encourage women to use their maiden names—a strong opinion based on hearing many heartbreaking stories over the years.

Way back in episode 56 I talked in depth about how to name your art business—even when your name is common or hard to spell. I encourage you to listen to that if you are stumped.

Once you know your professional name, you can move on to these additional steps.

NOTE: My advice is particular to artists in the U.S. You will have to adjust to your location and tweak for individual states.

It’s been a long time since I’ve done these, but I’m pretty sure this is a good order.

2. Decide on your business structure.

Most artists are sole proprietors—especially when starting out.

As you grow, you can consider becoming an LLC or S-Corporation for tax and liability purposes, but registering as a sole proprietor has the least amount of friction for starting your business.

It’s always good to talk with your accountants before committing to a particular structure and taking the next steps.

3. Register your business.

In the U.S., register your business with your state of residence.

Every state has its own rules, and how you register will depend on your business.

My business is an S-Corporation and is registered with the Colorado Secretary of State as Stanfield Art Associates, Inc. I further registered the DBA (Doing Business As) name of Art Biz Success.

As an S-Corp, I’m required to do one annual filing with the State. It basically says, Yep! Still here! Still in charge. Here’s my $16. It takes less than 5 minutes to submit.

Michelle Boerio scroll book
©Michelle Boerio, A certain slant of light/Old October. Scroll book printed with letterpress and monotype, sumi ink, 7.5 x 23 inches.

4. Get a Tax ID Number.

If you are going to be selling, you’re also going to be collecting and paying taxes.

In the U.S., register for a Federal Employee Identification Number (FEIN or EIN). I encourage my clients—even those who have sole proprietorships—to get a separate Tax ID number so that you aren’t using your Social Security Number for your business.

This is free and looks like a super easy online process now, compared to when I had to mail in the application and wait.

After you have the above in place …

5. Get a Sales Tax License.

Sales taxes are the bane of my existence. I have completely changed my offerings so that I don’t have to figure out sales taxes on products that would be taxable. Most artists don’t have this luxury because art is taxable in the U.S.

I have sales tax licenses with the State of Colorado and the City of Golden. I submit sales tax reports to the State, which includes a line for Jefferson County, and a separate filing to the city of Golden—even though I have zero due. Fortunately, I only have to do this once a year.

If I had lots of sales tax due—not sure what the threshold is—I would need to submit quarterly. I’ve never had that problem because much of what I sell isn’t taxable.

I urge you to take free sales tax courses in your location. I attended ones at the state and municipal levels. They were free and extremely helpful.

6. Separate your business and personal finances.

Get a checking account just for your art business, and probably a credit card as well.

I can’t emphasize strongly enough how important it is to separate your business from your personal finances. You need financial bookkeeping for personal and business.

If you ignore everything else here

Separate your business from personal finances.

I will never forget the heartbreaking story of a widowed artist who mixed her business and personal finances and was fighting over the estate’s value with her deceased husband’s children when she should have been mourning her loss. They were going after the work she had done as an artist.

Her grieving process would have gone more smoothly if she had only separated her personal and business finances.

The only reason I know this story is that she sent it to me to share with other artists so they wouldn't make the same mistake.

More To Do

Of course, there is more to do. There’s always more to do.

But there is no sense jumping ahead with those until you get the basics in place.

I want to help you with your next steps in my Essentials program for beginning and emerging artists.

NOTE: This article contains affiliate links. See Privacy + Terms.

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