Your Transition To Full-Time Artist

In Go Pro: How To Turn Your Hobby Into An Art Career, Julia Kirt and I discuss the early steps for starting to sell your art.
Laura Petrovich-Cheney has a different concern.

Laura Cheney Art
©2011 Laura Cheney, Farewells to Clancy. Salvaged boat wood, 45 x 45 x .5 inches. Used with permission.

She asked in a blog comment about the step after one begins selling: transitioning into full-time artist. She said, “I am a school teacher – so like a few folks here – 50 hours a week are dedicated to the day job… But I would love to know how to transition into a full time artist. Advice?”

Deep Thought

What are some steps that you suggest someone take to transition to a full-time artist?
Is sacrifice involved? Sacrifice of what?

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19 thoughts on “Your Transition To Full-Time Artist”

  1. First you make the art. Carving out the time to develop a body of work you are proud of is hard while carrying on a day job but its that commitment to the studio and developing your voice as an artist that is required to build a full time career. Of course the work cannot stay in the studio, so deciding how you want to share it and who your audience is comes next. I look to my art to decide who the audience for it is and that guides the direction my promotion efforts go (vs. deciding on a market and making art for it). Make the art, articulate longer range goals, take one step at a time toward them, making art the whole time.

  2. I pretty much agree with what Helen said .
    I have a friend in a similar situation who decided to give one full day a week to her painting . Within a year she had enough pictures for an exhibition which went well and she’s continued from there. I think she still does her other work, although perhaps she has moved to less days there by now.

  3. I am also a full time teacher who spends many hours doing after school activities. I have been an artists for many years and am looking forward to becoming a full time artist in 5 years when I retire from teaching. I have signed up for online courses, participated in art shows in the summer when I am off, and had an annual show at my studio/gallery in my home. I also keep my website updated.
    My problem is finding the energy at the end of the day ( when I don’t have marking) to go to my audio and create art. I have a 5 yr plan, and will continue to make art to bring me closer to my goal.
    Any other suggestions?

  4. Katheryn OldShield

    Full time “working artist” is a business position as much as anything else. Let me echo Helen. Before you quit your daytime job of 50 hours, create that body of work that provides your stock-in-trade. You do need inventory, and inventory that you are proud of, and others not only admire, but actually shell out money for. Maybe you have another means of support–but a lot of folks go into businesses that they’ve set asside financial reserves for, not only to start their business and fund it a couple of years, but also to support themselves during that buildout and launching. You not only need a business plan–which is a map more than a document set in stone–but a marketing plan–and I am speaking AS a former owner of a Brick & Mortar business unrelated to art. Also, the endurance developed working that mere 50 hour a week job PLUS your committed studio time and production schedule will prepare you for the hours a business owner REALLY puts in, which is easily 80 hours a week, plus likely you dream work through issues, so you are rarely really “off”–yes, you are working at something you are passionate about, that drives you, but maybe not always all that romantic. Also, while you have that full time paid position, pay off your bills, ice those credit cards, live under your means and practice frugal. It will serve you well. Maybe you have connections and have a collector’s base already paying for your work. Congratulations! But learning to keep that cultivated and GROWING may be more work than you thought, and not as steady as you’d hoped once you are independent. A monthly paycheck is very addictive. Utilities seem to expect you to have one. What about health issues? Insurance certainly may be a concern, as well as doctor bills themselves. Working with a mentor to develop your art business skills, as well as developing your voice and your stock-in-trade BEFORE seeking the liberty of an artist’s life is prudent. Then some of us get plunged into it ready or not, because our skills/gifting are what we have, and survival means using exactly that. It may not be as liberating a life as anticipated, except on the canvas.

    1. Thanks Kathryn! You really hit the many nails on the head about becoming a full time artist! All that is necessary to get your studio practice off the ground can be overwhelming. I struggled for years to try to make art with an exhausting teaching schedule and found it unsatisfactory, realizing that only my full attention was going to get the work to the next level. I decided to “rewire” not “retire”, early from my full time art teaching job to full time-studio artist. I planned many years in advance, paid off all debts, mortgage, learned to live on one salary(my husband’s)..frugal, paid off cars, funded retirement accounts aggressively, and saved $$ in laddered CDs as emergency fund/business fund. I also took many entrepreneur/business workshops, read many books, including IRBITS(great) and started networking. The many skills gained at managing/organizing an art classroom have really helped me mantain all the different aspects of my art business. I am now in the third year of full time artist and have learned so much. Despite knowing it was going to be hard, I was surprised by just how hard. Kathryn was right about the addictive quality of the monthly paycheck.. you take alot for granted. I could go on and on. Still glad I made the plunge though realizing that you need to constantly revise your expectations and your goals. A fluid mindset is helpful though goal setting is very important so you don’t get side tracked by other peoples agendas. Quite a balancing act!

  5. When I quit my day job in 2007 to work for myself, I had a small sum put away into savings (it was maybe a third of what I would make in a year at my former full time job). For a while I worked doing freelance design work while working on my artwork and testing the waters with group shows and at non art gallery spaces like cafes and the like. I started building it from there and at this point I am a full time artist who sometimes does freelance design work as needs be, but I pick and choose what I want to do.
    when I originally quit my job I cut down my expenses drastically (whatever was not necessary was gotten rid of). I got rid of my credit card. I got rid of all debts as soon as I was able to, and now I live a cash only lifestyle. If I do not have the money for something to pay off in its entirety it does not get bought. Most of my ‘exra’ income (after bills) goes right back into the art biz. I had to learn to live on sporatic income and budget accordingly.
    I just files my taxes this year and after 5 years of working for myself my income is now back to where it was before I quit my day job (gross pay anyway). I’m still working on building my business though and there are a lot of goals I still need to meet before I consider myself “successful” at what I am doing but I am sooo glad I chose to do this and have never regretted making the decision.

  6. I’ve known several artists that worked day jobs until retirement age, then began their careers as fine artists. Some worked in commercial art and design, some as art teachers, one sign painter, and myself… one painter and carpenter.
    During the years of working their day jobs they studied and honed their skills, saved money for retirement, invested in their studio infrastructure, and net-worked their client base and established a reputation.
    I know this is not what everybody should do. But, it’s a formula that I’ve seen work over and over. Historically… many of the worlds greatest contributions were made by people over 70 years old.

  7. If you’re transitioning from a paid career to an independent, full-time artist, I would recommend three things:
    1) Before you make the move, spend several years building up a network of people – including other professionals you can lean on (accountant, lawyer, etc), other artists, and those that are interested in art. And don’t forget the network from your previous career – you’ll have many people you know that will want to support you in your new endeavors.
    2) Start exhibiting before you switch. Have a show history under your belt before you become independent. Find group shows, pop-up shows, juried shows, whatever you can to start building your resume before you “go pro”. All those lines on your resume will then be selling points for your work and expertise once you’re relying on it for your sole source of income.
    3) Make a plan of diversification for your new business. Don’t see your new occupation as only selling already created works through a gallery. Realize that there are many options out there for the professional artist, including finding commissioned work, the occasional design project, workshops, giving talks, obtaining grants, etc.
    (and the above suggestion of paying off your debts is a very good one if you can do it)

    1. I had a thought right after my first post – most businesses will have some sort of “farewell lunch” or something for an employee who is leaving after having worked there for some time. Instead of having a lunch, see if your boss will allow you to have a “farewell exhibition” and hang some of your work in the office and celebrate with your soon-to-be former coworkers. Get them to order in some finger foods or something instead of a lunch. Might be worth a try, and it lets everyone see what you’re moving on to do. Might get you a few fans before you have even “officially” started the new career. Probably also a positive/moral builder for the people still working there.

  8. What is working for me is having a part time job, and I think it could be useful as a transition. This may not work for everyone because it is a balancing act. I like it because a part-time job can provide a reliable pay check and a chance to get out of the studio. I have about half of my time to devote to my art and my art business (sometimes more). I’m still starting my career, but I am building up clients and experience, and hope one day I have enough work as an artist to focus on it entirely.

  9. I think it’s important that you’re already selling your work well and that there is a demand for it before considering switching. You also have to be good at marketing and business which are just as important as making great art. If you’re able to put some money in savings so you can relax a little financially that helps your creativity.
    I sold my first painting three years ago on a fluke and a spark went off. It took two years of experimenting, trying every show I could get into, selling online, reading in the middle of the night about art and art business in books (I’d Rather be in the Studio was one of the first), blogs, facebook, and following design and color trends. Participating actively in the arts community and surrounding yourself with successful artists so you can learn from them is important too.
    I would get up and paint at the crack of dawn and all weekend long when I worked full time. My house was atrocious, but my family was supportive(most of the time).
    I realized I could make a living doing this when my sales were steadily increasing. I worked out the numbers and thought it would be tight financially, but sales kept increasing and the transition went smoothly.
    I’ve been a full time artist the last year and it’s the hardest I’ve ever worked, but I have time to paint during the day in a studio instead of at the crack of dawn and my house is coming back together.
    One other thing is motivation. I was loosing my lifetime job and closing my family’s business. I didn’t know what to do. Art was the spark that changed my life.

  10. I too am a teacher. For the past 5 years I have been executing a plan that will allow me to leave teaching in the next couple of years. As a teacher I am lucky that I have a pension to rely on. But I will need to supplement the income somehow. I have developed a following of students who take workshops from me and monthly classes as well. I have been doing art demos for art associations and doing workshops for art groups. They all are looking for people to demo and do workshops, you just need to let them know you are available. Showing every chance I get and getting my name out there has certainly helped to build credibility. I have been juried into several very prestigious national art organizations and that too adds credibility to your resume. If you put together a plan and market yourself judiciously you will find that it happens easier than you thought it would. Good luck to you all in your plans to go full time. I cannot wait to do it myself.

  11. What a great discussion on this forum! So many helpful tips and insights. Thank you all for your suggestions and recommendations. Much appreciated!

  12. I’ll give you the same advice that I received, do something in addition to your art. This was given by someone who, at the time, was the most widely published wildlife photographer in North America, Leonard Lee Rue III. In addition to photography, Lenny also wrote and led workshops. Do, in addition to wildlife photography, I began conducting workshops. My company is currently in its 26th year leading wildlife photography workshops. A few years after entering into the workshop arena, I began writing. Back in the mid-1990s, my first article was published in Bird Watchers Digest. Since then, I have written a couple of books and been published in numerous magazines. I have been one of the editors of Nature Photography magazine since 2001. If I can do it, anyone can do it.

  13. My first attempt at becoming a full time artist.
    (what not to do)
    I wasn’t prepared mentally or financially to take such a drastic step in my life. I wasn’t disciplined. I took many things for granted because I was young and stupid.
    At the time, I was earning nearly as much selling art as I was in my corporate job and most of those funds went straight into two places, more art supplies and a savings account. I figured that as long as I was earning ‘close’ to what I needed, everything would be hunky dory. Wrong! At least for me…because like I said, I was young and stupid.
    Suddenly, I no longer had that 9-5 grind and realized I wasn’t bound by those rigid hours. Art is a creative process but it also requires discipline which I conveniently forgot about. I’d roll out of bed at 11 in the morning (with a hang-over), grab a cup of coffee and plop my naked happy ass in the chair and stare at a blank canvas until I got bored then move to the sofa and lay around most of the day eating bon-bons & watching reruns of the Golden Girls.
    As you can imagine, my career was short-lived. I soon blew through my meager savings, I wasn’t creating new inventory and because of my young and stupid behavior, I forgot the business side of things…I was soon weeks away from homelessness before realizing I needed steady employment and went back to the grind.
    Now, ten years later I’m not so young and hopefully not so stupid. I am transitioning slowly back to becoming a full time artist again. I’m not sure when that will be but I’ve managed to eliminate every penny of debt, live well within my means and have a couple of years worth of expenses in the bank.
    At the beginning of the year I went from the regular 40 hour week down to 32 (just enough to maintain insurance) so I work 4 days and am off 3. (and I did this only after learning how to live on that reduced salary) Those three remaining days of the week are for my art business…and now I treat working for myself just as seriously as I do working for someone else.
    I set the alarm like any other day, get up shower & shave, get dressed and am in the studio by 9am. I follow a schedule with time set aside each morning for marketing, bookkeeping and all that goes with running a real business…and then I set my happy naked ass in the chair and I don’t stare at a blank canvas, I paint it.

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