The Worst Time to Start Your Art Career

The worst time to pursue an art career is when you’re desperate – desperate for money, desperate because time is running out, desperate for attention.

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If you’re laid off from a day job, it’s tempting to think “Now I’ll have time to focus on my art.” I’ve been hearing this a lot over the past two years and it worries me.

It’s okay not to run out and find a job right away and to dedicate the newfound time for your art as long as you have money in the bank.

I remember reading somewhere that you need at least three years’ worth of income to start any business. (Trust me. I made the error of not having enough capital when starting my own business.)

Building an art career takes time. Lots of time. It also takes extreme dedication, discipline, confidence, and, above all, hard work. You’re going to be working your a** off.

You have to take care of yourself and your family first. Get some money coming in and work overtime to get that art business off the ground.

How about you?

Has being laid off from a job led you to a new art career? How have you approached it?

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24 comments to The Worst Time to Start Your Art Career

  • Alyson, a big thumbs up on this one! I was self employed as a jewelry manufacturer for twenty years when I decided to start shifting to art. I gave muself at least 5 years – if everything went right – to get it off the ground, and then this recession hit. I’ve added several morre years. I learned from jewelry that in selling a handmade product, the biggest issue is getting a customer base and while I’m developing that, I’m working 3 jobs (jewelry, organic landscaping, and art). I haven’t sold anything from my website, but I have sold several pieces because of it. It is a sales tool in that people can look at a piece on line, after seeing it in my studio, while deciding to buy it.

  • I agree, this is an awesome post. First of all, it’s really hard to get in a creative mode when I’m too busy worrying about having enough money to take care of myself.

    I work as a contract attorney to pay the bills and have been looking to snatch up overtime when I can get it (which isn’t easy to come by in these times), but doing so has allowed to ease into my art career. Ideally, I’m looking for a permanent bread-and-butter gig so I can focus more on savings and delving more into my art career.

    Thanks for writing this up!

  • I guess there’s an exception to everything! I started an art career when I got laid off from a day job down in New Orleans only a month after I’d gotten it – just disgusted at the thought of job searching again. So I went into a marketing frenzy, sold a poster design, paid my rent and never looked back.

    That worked for me.

    The big difference is this: lifestyle expectations. If you want to earn as much from your art career as you would as a bank teller or whatever other regular day job, save up till you’ve got three years in the bank and do the high road. Do it part time till it equals your other income and kiss off the day job.

    But if you’re willing to downscale your expenses dramatically and completely change your lifestyle, it can work to just shove the whole idea of regular income and accept that you’ll be doing some low end art gigs for a while. Using eBay is a good idea. It can get you through any number of financial scrapes either part time to supplement the job-thing or as what to land on when you’re out of one.

    Doing a style that people are willing to commission is important. I had to shift emphasis from the nature scenes and prehistoric animals I loved to doing portraits and celebrity portraits to reach people who wanted to pay for my art. You have less freedom of choices in the low end, but don’t let that push you to burnout. Balance that with enough time to spend on your artistic growth and subjects close to your heart. Market the subjects close to your heart, find their audience – they have one, your tastes are not unique.

    And get online, today the Internet has opportunities I didn’t have when I went for my street license in New Orleans. I could’ve landed smoother and maybe moved more of my tropical fish if I’d known about eBay at the time, I was pushing them to the wrong audience.

    Keep in mind that street sketching can work anywhere tourists visit – they will watch and often buy off the easel if they see you doing the magic in person.

    So there’s some thoughts on it. For most people dropping to a quarter their previous income would be devastating, for me it was liberating because I also quit a lot of pointless expensive habits like eating out in favor of blissfully having the time to do whatever I wanted and the joy of doing something creative for a living. There’s immense satisfaction in knowing you’re keeping your head up just on your art. Those intangibles can make it all worthwhile.

    So it is a choice – just show both sides of the choice. If you can do it, saving up three years in the bank to get started is a great way to go. But if you’re in a pinch it can at least help pull you out of it.

    • I certainly agree with this!

      I’ve never done anything but paint so I have no other lifestyle to compare this one too, but my income makes people who have had other kinds of jobs balk.

      I live simply and do what I love. It works for me!

  • What I think is interesting is the strange turns that your life can take, leading you in directions that you didn’t originally envision. Back in the 80′s I took a shot at professional nature photography; luckily, I kept my day job :-). It was a very tough market, and still is, but I had done my homework and knew to be cautious. Fly forward 20 years or so, and I was at a point where I had had enough of my current career (I was a senior management kind of guy on the technology side of banking), and it had had enough of me, it seems. I had an idea to re-energize my photography work, since I know that business pretty well, and at the end of a long list of things to pursue was an idea about working on some software for managing art businesses. Along came WorkingArtist, which was in the midst of some changes of its own, and next thing I knew, I owned a little software company :-). Presto chango, and I’m working on art business software for individual artists, studios, galleries, art fairs, workshops, etc etc etc. The point of all this is that when you follow your dream, your dream may have some surprises for you, so be prepared for the ride. Do your homework and have some idea of where you’d like the ride to end, but don’t be too locked into that. And for God’s sake, have fun.

  • That is soooo true! To sell anything these days, in this economy, one needs to promote, promote and promote…… not as easy as it was a few years back…. advertising is expensive, so many artists (including myself) rely mostly on social networking and other free tools available on-line to promote their art. And social networking takes a lot of time and does not produce the immediate results…. Totally agree, ideally, one should have some saved capital to grow his business and as a financial backup.

  • One doesn’t always have a great choice. I choose to be an artist because I have always been, at heart, an artist, even when I am teaching astronomy and physics or when I was working in research astronomy. Right now, my other career is again not really a choice (well I suppose it is but I’d be a right schmuck if I chose differently) as it is being the primary caregiver to my mother who has Alzheimers. Admittedly, I also earn money by being an adjunct assistant professor, but that’s still a sideline.

    I think to make chances for oneself one has occasionally to take chances. That said, I don’t have children to worry about nor an invalided spouse, so some choices I am free to make that someone else might not be.

    As always, we are each individuals and the rules and wisdom that might be valid for one or even many of us are not necessarily valid for all of us. I will, however, be successful as an artist. Only, like that actor, overnight success is going to take a few years of hard effort.

  • I don’t think being desperate is ever useful. Hungry, on the other hand, has potential. I can’t need to be successful: I have to WANT to be successful.

    • I totally agree Gwenn.

      I am, however, desperate for a full night’s sleep and some respite assistance (which, yes, I am looking into) as my mother’s condition worsens…

      • Patricia,

        Hang in there. I went through the same things with both of my parents a couple of years ago. Help is available, and you should make use of it to insure that you don’t get overwhelmed. Everyone in that community was clear that you can’t take care of anyone else if you’re not taking care of yourself, so you’re spot on with the idea of finding some assistance.

        • I have noticed that theme a lot! I went for the first time to the VNA monthly caregivers support group meeting and that along with attention to not feeling guilty were major points. I’m being more assertive with my siblings and they are beginning to get the idea that I need their help. (two-by-four, anyone?)

          I will say some days are better (for me and for my mother) than others. And isn’t that always how it is? Thank you for the encouragement, Ron! It does help too.

  • Jeri

    I would say being laid off did lead to an art career. I left corporate accounting when the company I worked for was bought out and my position made redundant. My mother died the following year at age 55, with lots of dreams of the things she was going to do when she retired. I made the decision then that I was not going to save “living” for retirement and a more creative life was what I needed….that was 1992. Sounds like a success story…well to me it is. I now free lance as an accoutant, and work at least an average of 40 hours a week at my art. And have spent time building an art education by taking classes for techniques, reading books and watching videos to gain an understanding of art history. Today I work a 60 plus hour week (both jobs), live a very scaled down lifestyle (for the past 18 years) and I feel I can finally call myself an emerging artist. It has been alot of hard work and I am glad for every step, thought maybe some not while I was living them. I also accept the reality that I may never be able to “retire” in the traditional sense, but I am doing now what I am meant to do, and willingly accept the conditions.

  • Some great comments here! I do agree generally, and am one of those people who quit my job (not laid off, was choice) and sold my house in order to do this. That set me up with at least enough in the bank to live on for 2 years, which worked for me. But I also started when the economy was booming. As Robert says, a key point is lifestyle choices and learning what you need to live on. I now live as an artist on less than half what I earned as a designer. In fact, I’ve lived on the equivalent of about a third but wouldn’t recommend it unless like me someone is single with only themselves to provide for, has flexibility in where and conditions of a place to live, and is living somewhere with a lot of infrastructure support. (art and basic living needs)

    Impulse, risk and surprises are great (I thrive on them) but it’s also nice to not have desperation knocking at the door. Need can drive you, desperation can cripple you. Also the understanding that if you’ve lost your job, then perhaps a lot of your potential market for a beginning artist (ie. lower end of the pricing spectrum) have also been experiencing financial difficulties. It’s probably worth considering.

  • The diverse comments show there’s no one way to make this work. Some people are fine with jumping right in and others do better with a gradual approach. Both work but each requires a different way of working.

    That three year’s income figure is a good rule of thumb to use for diving right in. For starting gradually, it varies.

    Even though economic downturns are hard times to start a business, it’s not impossible and, in my experience, businesses started in hard times are often stronger and better run so they’re ready to go when things turn up.

  • Good article and I (mostly) agree. But sometimes desperate times forces one to be resourceful. A year ago I was desperate and in dire need of income. While I’m not an newbie artist. I needed to do something NEW to create sales fast. I began painting ACEOs (miniature paintings, 2.5″x3.5″) and selling them on ebay. While I am not making a ton of money at this, I am generating needed income. I am enjoying the very big change in format. And it’s fun to acquire global collectors who buy regularly! Next goal is to update my much neglected website. My ebay store link is http://stores.ebay.com/Dale-Begley-Studio?_rdc=1
    Thanks for all your excellent advise.

  • A friend of mine was just telling me the other day that during the The Depression, the companies that continued to promote and market their services/products during that time were the ones that survived and became very prosperous once it ended, while the ones that didn’t just faded away. Even though the surviving companies didn’t do a lot of business during the Depression, they thrived afterward because they stayed in people’s minds and once things recovered and people were able to consume again, these companies did very well.

  • I agree that there are several angles from which to approach this.

    I only started seriously started trying to make money from my art when my literacy tutoring business collapsed because of the economic downturn. On the one hand I do feel hampered by lack of capital and worrying about money certainly doesn’t help the creative juices to flow.

    On the other hand, the need to make money has definitely forced me to put consistent effort into marketing which I never would have bothered with in all the years that I was ‘well-off’.

    I think your advice to keep the day job going is good if that’s possible but at my age, I’m unlikely to find employment so I think it’s just as well to use my need for an income as a spur to keep me motivated with the ‘non-art’ promotional side of things.

  • I’ve been working on my art career part-time while I worked a full-time (and most recently part-time) job to support it. Then, in February, I got laid off. It was totally unexpected and I wasn’t prepared to support myself fully with my art career yet. Luckily, I have a husband who works.

    The good news is, this really pushed me to work on some things that I had been putting off. I’ve begun to give workshops. I gave a talk at a school in March. I’ve been really focusing on my marketing (though there is always more that one can do in this area!) I’ve seen increased views, fans, friends, and tweeps. I had my most successful show ever this summer. In these ways it really helped me to be laid off. I really had to look hard at what I was doing. I’m still not ready to support myself solely through my art (and luckily I have a seasonal part-time job to help out some), but I’m much closer to it than I thought I would be.

    • Wendy: You’ve been doing great! Was there anything you could or should have done differently that would have made you better prepared to jump into your new life as a full-time artist?

  • Kathleen Mathen, Portrait Artist & Environmental Artist...Starving Artist!

    Recently, I attended a workshop in Fernandina Beach, ” I’d rather be in the studio”, with Alyson B. Stanfield. As an artist the desire to create is what makes an artist. Often the conflict is the creative mind works well, but the business mind needs a little work. Alyson was there to help guide us through some of the issues an artist is faced with, and solutions to self promotion, and I recommend the workshop to other artist facing the same dilemma. Recently I was layed off, I understand being layed off and welcoming time to be in the studio. It may not fulfill the financial void, but it fulfills an artist, as only a true artist understands. There were many starving artist throughout history…

    Starving artist
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopediaJump to: navigation, search

    Bedroom in Arles (1888), is a visual representation of the simple living conditions under which Vincent van Gogh lived and worked.A starving artist is an artist who sacrifices material well-being in order to focus on their artwork. They typically live on minimum expenses, either for a lack of business or because all their disposable income goes toward art projects.

    Some starving artists desire mainstream success but have difficulty due to the high barriers to entry in art such as visual arts, the film industry, and theatre. These artists frequently take temporary positions (such as waitering or other service industry jobs) while they focus their attention on breaking through in their preferred field.

    Others may find enough satisfaction in living as artists to choose voluntary poverty regardless of prospects of future financial reward or broad recognition. Virginia Nicholson writes in “Among the Boheminans: Experiments in Living 1900 – 1939″:

    Fifty years on we may judge that Dylan Thomas’s poverty was noble, while Nina Hamnett’s was senseless. But a minor artist with no money goes as hungry as a genius. What drove them to do it? / I believe that such people were not only choosing art, they were choosing the life of the artist. Art offered them a different way of living, one that they believed more than compensated for the loss of comfort and respectability.[1]

    • Kathleen: It was very nice meeting you in Fernandina Beach. Thank you for recommending my workshops.

      I’m sorry to hear you have been laid off and do wish you the best with your new career. Just work work work. And have fun!

      • PS I have to say that I can’t stand any mention of the words “starving” and “artist” together. Even tongue in cheek. I’m going to write more about this.

        • I’m with you on that! Starving artist…and sell-out too.

          The starving artist is not an actual person: it’s an idea or even an ideal. For artists, it’s a comfortable way of being poor; for everyone else, it’s a comfortable way of not supporting the arts.

          And as far as I can tell, the sell-out doesn’t acutally exist. After all, the only person capable establishing if an artist is a sell-out or not is the artist. The label implies that the artist has acted in a way that does not fit with her-his belief system, and, since I can’t understand the inner workings of anyone else’s sense of integrity, I won’t pretend to know whether she-he has sold out or not.

          These are two stereotypes that are very damaging to artists.

  • [...] takes time to start making money . . . and by time I mean it can take 1-3 years so you need an alternate [...]