How to build a career as an artist

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Here’s a post for all the people who are trying to be artists. It is not a friendly post. I do not think that people who want to create art need to get paid to do it. Do you get paid to have sex? No. Same thing. You love it, but you just do it after work. And sometimes, if you are driven mad by it, you leave work in the middle of the day for it.

Treat art the same way, and you will stay sane. Really. Here are five things I would nag you about if you were talking with me about your burgeoning career as an artist:

1. You cannot do art if you are starving.
The starving artist routine is total bullshit. I know because I did it. Once you know that you are not going to make rent, you can’t really make art. Because your sense of self-preservation insists that your brain focus on the possibility that you will be out on the street. Your brain cannot stop solving that problem long enough to solve the problem of what is truth and beauty.

Here are some things I did while I was becoming a writer: I ate only bagels because I didn’t have enough money for anything else and then I got anemic and had to go to the doctor but I didn’t have health insurance so I had to lie and say I did in order to get the iron pills I needed so that I didn’t pass out from exhaustion the moment I woke up in the morning. Believe me, I was not making great art during this period.

2. Art emanating from a black hole is a choice.
There’s a reason that Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paintings look like horror films: Because his life was a crack-house horror film. And there’s a reason that Picasso is tearing apart voluptuous women in gorgeous surroundings: That’s what he did in real life.

So don’t kid yourself: Your art reflects your surroundings, and you can live like a pauper, but that limits the range of your art.

During my art days, I did not go out with friends. Ever. Because I didn’t even have enough money to go to a coffee shop. And I was always cold because I lived in Boston and didn’t have a winter coat. At many points I did not have a home, so I just sort of carried my laptop around and wrote and hoped that something would come up by the end of the day. And I almost never had clean clothes because I didn’t have money to buy detergent.

So I wrote stories, every day, about not seeing anyone, and my mentor would say things like, “How about adding a character so that the narrator can have a conversation?” And that would strike me as a revolutionary idea.

3. Real artists will make art no matter what.
You do not need a studio, or a desk, or peace and quiet. Really. Because making art comes from a place that you cannot stop. People who need to make art make art no matter what.

Do you know how many blog posts I throw out? Maybe two a week. Because sometimes something happens and I absolutely have to write about it, and I see, from the beginning, that there’s no way I’ll be able to relate it to careers, so it’s going to end up in the blogging trash can. But I write it anyway.

Do you know Christo and Jeanne-Claude? Wait. Here, look at some photos. The guy is nuts. He thinks so big that it makes him crazy. He’s been making plans to put up cloth all over Central Park for 26 years. He can’t stop himself. Finally, he did it. But who knew if it would ever happen? This is what I mean. If you need to do art, you just go there. Nothing stops you.

So if you think you’re an artist and you are not making art now, but you think that in the right circumstance you’d make art, you are lying to yourself. I’m sorry. But it’s true. Unless you are starving. If you are starving, see point number one: You need to get a job.

4. You do not need to quit your day job.
Are you making money and you’re wondering if you should quit your job to do art full time? Take this test: Did you marry rich? Do you have a trust fund? Do you have reliable buyers for almost everything you produce? If you did not answer yes to any of these, then keep your day job.

Don’t tell me it’s crushing your soul. This whole blog is about how your soul does not depend on your job or your boss or your paycheck. Click on some links and read them.

Also, most corporate jobs can be creative outlets because businesses solve problems. So if you are an inherently creative thinker, you probably bring that to whatever job you have. You can’t stop yourself.

5. You are not a better artist if you can do it full time.
I don’t want to see snooty comments on this post about how great you are for being able to support yourself with your art. Because I can do that too. And you know what? I was not a worse writer when I could not support myself. The only difference between artists making money and artists not making money is that the first group is better at business. And there is no evidence that artists who are better at business make better art.

Do you want to know if you’re going to be good at earning money from art? Take this test about networking from UpMo and Pepperdine University. The test will tell you how good you are at networking. And if you are not good at this test, you are not going to be good at selling your art, because the days of discovering someone with a sawed-off ear in an insane asylum are over. You need to market yourself. Do you want to know why there are so many crappy films in the world? Because there are so many great networkers who want to direct.

So everyone can stop being a snob about asking people how much money they make from their art. And everyone can stop thinking that the be-all-end-all is to quit the day job and do art full time.

Do you want to know how to be an artist? Make art. Do it because you need to do it. Because you think you will die if you don’t do it. Stop making it a career problem. It’s not. And, I leave you with one of my favorite posts, that I never get to link to, about me making myself crazy being an artist.

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  1. Scott
    Scott says:

    For anyone who’s reading down this far and is still interested in this topic. I’ll give you my $.02.

    I’m not sure what the median age of the reader of this specific post is. Outside of regular readers – I would guess that the primary readers are a. people who are out of undergrad – working a day job and are here because someone forwarded a link of encouragement or b. people who have artistic pasts (and presents) and balance that with another income. This post is more for those of you who are recently out of college, facing massive debt and doubt – because I’ve been there myself.

    This will probably be a long post, but I am putting it here, because this is information that would have helped me immensely after school, and perhaps it will help you.

    In music, the specific example that is often given of this balance is the American composer Charles Ives. Ives lived in musical obscurity at the beginning of the 20th century and wrote some of the most challenging music imaginable. While little of it was played in his lifetime, Ives would go on to become one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. Aside from his musical work, he was also the vice president of an insurance agency and continued to write and work for much of his life. Add the fact that very few people recognized the genius of his work during his lifetime, that much of his music was never played an you have a classic story of artistic struggle.

    Until you read any one of his biographies and get to the part of his life where one night he came down the stairs of his home crying and said, “I can’t do this anymore.” For the last 20 years of his life, he never wrote another note of music.

    While this blog has some really solid advice, the one thing that is inferred, but not said explicitly is that art takes time. There are technical skills required to create any kind of art – and the maintenance and advancement of those skills takes concentrated and focused time. The core question at work here seems to be “What are my priorities?”

    A temporary diversion – one thing to consider in an arts education – formal or informal – is that many artists focus on the “how” of their art but not the “why”. The importance of this issue can not be overstated. If you have a solid understanding of why you do the things you do, then the issue of how will be more easily resolved.

    As an example of priorities, if you find that you’re spending more time at the bar with friends then you are working on your art – your priorities are telling you something. For some people, this is merely an issue of time management. But for some people their priorities are out of whack with their perception of reality.

    If your concept of why you create art is clear, then a day job is nothing more than a vehicle for income while you work on your art, and the challenge is in utilizing the elements of the day job that work for you.

    I will use a personal example. Please realize that I am a very self-depreciating person so anything that I write about myself is stated as factual and not self-aggrandizing.

    I am an instrumentalist. I attended prestigious art schools at both the undergraduate and the graduate level. I have performed on both American and world premiers of guitar literature, have national and international tours under my belt and have performed with some of the best musicians on the planet. In short, I’m not a clown or a hack. I know what I’m doing.

    Several years ago, I was several years out of my undergrad school and playing a GB (General Business – like a cover band) gig. You see, the thing about making money playing music, is that most of the gigs that pay – are gigs like this one. While you will run in circles with people who can’t play their way out of a paper bag, you will also find extraordinary musicians with major credentials playing at the same crappy bar as you because – it’s a paying gig.

    So in this story were playing cheesy music I loathed in some dive restaurant in the middle of nowhere for people who didn’t care. At this point in my life, I was completely despondent. I was working a day job for benefits and to pay off my school loan, and doing this gig on weekends to keep my chops up and I just felt awful. It suddenly occurred to me, “Wait a minute. Why do I feel this way? The whole reason I started playing music was because it felt good, and now every time I pick up my instrument I just feel bad. I don’t EVER want to feel this way when I play music.”

    And so I quit. I figured that I would work hard, pay off my school debt and do something else with my life. But the things in life that are important to you stay inside of you, even in their absence. It took a while, but I started realizing that the things that were causing me such pain was the fact that I had lost my connection to my instrument. I couldn’t quit music – because music had become an integral part of who I was. I could get rid of music no more than I could get rid of my skin.

    So I kept my job. And then got one that paid better. I played in a lot of local bands that paid nothing, but because I had a day job IT DIDN’T MATTER that it paid nothing. I played the music, because I enjoyed the music. I decided that, for me, the best balance would be teaching music in a college environment. Teaching was something that I did well. It allowed me to give back to beginning musicians and it would give me the flexibility to pursue my music on my own terms. To do this, I needed a master’s degree. I worked hard, and got a scholarship to a well regarded school on the opposite coast of where I lived. I got my degree this past May. I got another gig and another day job to pay bills and now keep sending out resumes and working towards that goal. Was going to grad school in my mid 30’s an easy thing to do? Not at all. It was a culture shock and a calculated gamble. But it was necessary for what I wanted to do in the long run.

    So I can’t say, “don’t waste your money on grad school”. Even though I had a scholarship, and was working – I still had to take out loans to cover the difference. My advice is if you DO go to grad school have a VERY clear idea of what it is you want to do with that degree.

    I’m married, so also realize that my priorities are different than they were 20 years ago. If someone came up to me at 17 and said, “Hey we have a rock band and we’re going on tour. We have no idea about money or food or where we’ll sleep but you will be able to play in front of people every night for the next couple of months.” there’s no question I would have gone. But once you start working with issues like rent, and bills – money becomes an issue. Once you start waking up on strange people’s floors to the house pet eating its own vomit several inches away from your face – accommodations start to become more of an issue.

    I could get a cruise ship gig and make enough money to pay bills. But I know now that that type of gig is not for me. Many of the paying opportunities that come to an artist will require doing things that you might not want to do. If you understand the WHY of what you do, those issues will be easier for you to grasp.

    One final observation along this issue of why. Realize that some people are artists and some are artisans. And here’s how I make that distinction.

    To me an artisan is a person with a high technical skill set who enjoys the physical activity associated with that skill. For example, my mom is a tolle painter. She would be perfectly happy to paint the same items over and over again – because she enjoys the act of painting. As a musician friend of mine said, “I don’t care what I play – I just want to play the guitar.”

    An artist by contrast is someone who enjoys the physical activity associated with creation. To the artist, painting the same flower over and over is an anathema to their existence. The WHY of their art is based in discovery.

    I don’t know if this helps any of you. I have strong feelings about this because I’ve been able to do both for a while and am finally moving towards being able to synthesize the two.

    If you can walk away from this post with only one piece of advice – try this one: Life is a marathon and not a 50 yard dash. There will be times that you want to give up, times that is goes easy and times of incredible difficulty – but know that if you have the long term goals in sight – that will be what keeps you going. If you go into a marathon with a 50 yard dash mentality you’re going to crack at the first real hardship. As Bukowski once said, “Endurance is more important than the truth.”

    Good luck. Be your own critic. Be your own cheering section. Be aware where your perception is myopic and never give up.


      • Scott
        Scott says:

        Hi Mia,

        Glad it helped.

        I was watching the end of a marathon on TV once and I saw that one of the contestants had soiled themselves right before the finish line. Just remember, in any contest the winner is often the last person standing and not how much elegance they exhibit in struggle.

        In life, the things that are important to us are the things that we do. If your art is important to you – you’ll find a way to make it – even if the compromises you have to make are messy.

        If possible though, try not to soil yourself.

        Good luck!

    • JemJr
      JemJr says:

      wonderful, thoughtful reply Scott (from 2 years ago).
      Thanks! Wonder if you care to add to it with your gained experience of the last couple years…

    • RichAsbjornsen
      RichAsbjornsen says:

      What a great post, thank you for your time Scott.

      My craft is painting landscapes. I have been doing it for a long time, but don’t make a living from it. I am 25 at the moment and have recently started one of the hardest jobs I have ever had, which is working in a nursing him for elderly dementia sufferers. Bare in mind I had no previous experience in this area what so ever, needless to say the first 12 hour shift nearly broke me. I decided in my mind to quit, but instead I have decided to carry on for as long as I can.

      • Sarichi Sa
        Sarichi Sa says:

        I worked in an elderly nursing home for dementia sufferers as well several years ago, when I was 20, and I ended up being fired after 2 months because the manager did not feel that I was suited to the job. I had the same feelings as you, that I would hold out even though I was being mentally torn apart. I don’t think about what I saw and experienced there any more because that is just not a side to humanity that I can come to terms with. Although it is good to be aware of the afflictions that some people suffer, it is very depressing and you shouldn’t put yourself through it if it is affecting you both at and outside of work. Trust me. I know some people who can take it and enjoy it but perhaps because I’m an artist as well, it affected me differently. 

  2. madeleine
    madeleine says:

    I must say, though I like the no-nonsense tone of this post, it also makes me laugh because you utterly romanticize the art-making process as something one “has to do.”

    And while to a certain extent that is true, treating your art-making as a job, makes you better as an artist, and more ready to accept the “luck.” that comes your way.

    As far as a job’s inability to be soul-crushing, that is a topic for another time…personally, from my limited scope, I just gave notice at one to start an unpaid internship in radio…I am looking to the future, living of savings in the hopes that be devoting myself to my art, and a career class with the potential to evolve, I am embarking on my own hero’s journey (I’ve been reading Campbell again too).

    Either way though, this post does touch on one thing, art though it is often a labour of love, in order to be taken seriously must be a job too.

    It is not about making something solid once, its about doing it twenty times, then convincing others of its veracity. It is a job.

  3. Diana
    Diana says:

    I’m late to this post but glad I found it. You put it very well Penelope. I expected to hate this post and I didn’t.

    @jrandom Thanks for the Harry Chapin, a magician himself, he says it very well here…
    “Music was his life, it was not his livelihood,
    and it made him feel so happy and it made him feel so good.
    And he sang from his heart and he sang from his soul.
    (And) he did not know how well he sang; It just made him whole.”
    I need to go find my Chapin collection and relisten. I could use some comfort in this economy.

  4. curiously random
    curiously random says:

    I spent 15 years as a starving artist, several of them with children and occasionally homeless. I would not do it again, but I’m not in my 20’s anymore so why would I?

    That said, I think art is very subjective and cannot be grasped at so broadly. I don’t call myself an artist anymore and have no real desire to create for a living, but I have great respect for those who do devote their life to their passion. I choose not to denigrate their efforts.

    Yesterday my son told me I should have been a professional actor. I told him I gave up on that (after several years of training) because I needed to feed and clothe him, but thanks for the compliment.

  5. Alora
    Alora says:

    There is something I think this list assumes, though, and that is the idea that a career of art-making is often both desirable and possible. I completely agree that it isn’t necessary, and that people who truly need to make art need to evaluate if it is really vital they do it as a profession or not. But the fact is that doing great art takes a time commitment that is hard to do if you also have a full-time career. I think the bigger problem I tend to see among artists is their attitude about art as a BUSINESS. It is all too often part of the ‘artist counter culture’ mentality to buy into the idea that it’s cool NOT to be a good business person and that to be one is selling out as an artist. This is crap. If you want to make a living as an artist, you MUST be both. Making a business of your art is often MORE work than having a regular career and making art purely as food for your soul and psyche, but for some people that type of success — just like those of us who make a career out of tech startups — is necessary in order to feel accomplished in their art. That’s fine, but they need to recognize that success as an artist requires understanding the business of art, and that’s a whole different skill set than the art-making. And if you can’t or do not want to do that part of it then, yes, follow Penelope’s advice and do it out of love around a day job.

  6. Diana
    Diana says:

    Hi, I think the problem for some of us (artists) is that the skills needed for business often are not in our repertoire, or mine anyway. It’s not a matter of thinking it beneath me to be businesslike in my venture as an artist (I envy those artists who have both skillsets. It’s that business doesn’t come naturally to me any more than science does. It’s harder to wrap my mind around business than art, music and literature.

    Also, I am not an extrovert, and business takes a lot of selling (I read all the artists’ marketing blogs too). I get anxious when it comes to selling. And I don’t think selling is selling out. I just have a hard time doing it. I tried door to door Fuller Brush sales when I was a teenager. I was awful! No one is probably old enough to remember what Fuller Brush was, but it was sort of like selling vacuums or encyclopedias door to door. Maybe it created a life-long phobia! LOL

    I’d like to hear from some other artists if they agree that we are not snobbish about selling, just not very good at it. I would gladly PAY someone to do it for me, if I could afford it!

  7. m
    m says:

    I agree with the commenter that said #3 is a fallacy. There are many, many factors that might and do prevent people from making art at any given time. Many artists have had long dormant periods and phases of life where they did not create.

    The test for being an artist IMO is not whether you make art at any given period of time but whether you are driven and compelled by the artistic/creative impulse. What constitutes being an artist is clearly subjective, so your definition need not match mine. But I’d hesitate to present your definition as a universal one.

  8. Writer's Coin
    Writer's Coin says:

    No offense Penelope, but where was this kind of content when you wrote over at Yahoo? I’m shocked that this is coming from the same person. This is an insightful, even-handed post that includes great advice and some great philosophizing.

    Awesome. Can’t wait to see more.

  9. Ari
    Ari says:

    Basquiat’s life a crack house horror film?

    Give me a break. You don’t know anything about Basquiat then. Pick up a book and do some research. He was raised by decent, middle class people, in a good neighborhood. Lived on the streets for a very little time before making it.

    He always had a place to go. Always had friends.

    His work deals with hatian voodoo and the economic times, not crack.

    Please respect the artist, don’t just use him as folly for your lame points.


  10. quinncreative
    quinncreative says:

    You are so absolutely right. I keep telling my clients who think “real artists” don’t have day jobs that once you start making creative decisions through your business checkbook, you aren’t an artist anymore, you are an art marketer. Nothing wrong with that, but if you want to be an artist, you may have to get a day job. Then you can make art decisions about art.

    We don’t FIND meaning in life, we MAKE meaning in life with out art. And that’s the difference between artists and wannabees. If you don’t have a choice about making art, you will do just as you said–make art anytime, anyplace, for any reason. Good for you!

    • Diana
      Diana says:

      Kevin! I just found Cool Cake Photography… Your site IS art! Love it. You have a special way of approaching love in your photo galleries. Very cool.

  11. mamagalen
    mamagalen says:

    Thank you Penelope!!!!!!!!
    I have to tell you that this is a life-changing post! I am an artist who has had all of those jealous feelings. I do have friends with trust funds who do art for a living – now, of course, they make from $4,000 to $90,000 a painting – but they are great networkers (some of them with their parents’ friends, of course) and have been at it for a while – I know they did not start there.

    I had six kids and didn’t even finish art school because I quit my senior year to have my first – really dumb move – but these six kids were something I had to do, like art, and now they’re grown and I adore them all and I’m finally thinking I’ll have time for my art (see my last blog post if you have a sec) (

    Now, I’m unemployed, doing freelance graphic design, and yearning, dreaming, wishing to do my art. Frustrated at the job hunt. Frustrated that my friends don’t have to job hunt… Now, because of your eloquent, revelatory epistle to artists like me (like us), I feel liberated to just do it – whether the MOMA waits for me or not. Hell, I think I’ll paint something today. As soon as I’m done with some freelance and some job hunting. Screw the dishes. I’m painting.

    I love you.

    • Bleakspot
      Bleakspot says:

      Maybe they sell their paintings because they create things that are pleasing to others, who then wish to own these. Maybe they have websites with more than one lone entry.

  12. Erica
    Erica says:

    Wow! This is exactly what I needed to hear. I have been struggling with this concept for years. You are so right. If you love something do it, but it doesn’t have to be what you do for a living.

    This article might of just saved another 5-10 years of confusion.

    This is getting printed and going right on my wall!

      • Ginny
        Ginny says:

        I think that you and Bleakspot really should get together and just piss all over each other rather than pissing on others lives.

  13. Jonathan of
    Jonathan of says:

    Wonderful post.

    I have, on and off during my life, been a self supporting artist. It was not until I became a businessman that I enjoyed the fruits of being an artist, making more that enough for just a cup of coffee.

    This will probably be of little consolation to a writer. However I think the principles apply.

    My first several thousand dollar commission (over 25 years ago) was blown inside of 6 months. My last big commission, (over 54K), well, I am still living in the money so to speak. It was the down payment on my almost paid off house.

    I think it was that once I started to collect collectors that I finally made it. Unfortunately, I left the biz to pursue other goals in life.

    Now it is much harder to get back. Even so, as a business man, I work out my theories. One such landed me 12 sales of my sculptures, directly to a gallery and in New Hope of all places. Then the market went south for me again.

    On to a new theory.

    And even if I hit it dead on it does not guarantee success. One of my pieces has nailed a certain market segment dead on, everyone loves it. Only thing, it has not sold. In the end, I am not a good enough marketer….well, so far.

    Finally, learning frugality has helped me through the lean times. Brown rice has a lot more health benefits than bagels. Oh yea, for iron, use black strap molasses. We use it in the hospital to build up anemic patients that refuse blood transfusions. (I am also a nurse when I am not an artist, its was one of those other things, thing.).

    Also, I buy as many canvases and supplies as I can when killer sales come along. This gives me enough supplies to last lean times like these. I also buy from people who have had to give up trying.

    Then, perhaps the ultimate form of prostitution for some artist, I started creating prints. I went one step farther. I create limited edition miniature prints. They are the size of a business card. I started selling them at $1 each. They are up to $2.50.

    I could not ever bring myself to begging for money. I could sell on of my prints to who ever. Actually a few thousand prints to who ever I meet.

    Hey, now I can always trade for a cup of coffee. Actually about 10,000 cups counting the ones I have yet to do.

    At the least, when someone cannot afford a 6K painting, they can afford $2.50 for my miniature.

    Then just to insure my career is safe from not being able to afford to work, I started photography. It costs nothing to do a digital proof till I find one that can sell.

    The big commissions are very few and far between but are very enjoyable when they come along.

    And I keep working on new theories of how to run my business, make money, put food on the table and be an artist. Maybe one day I will get it right, hit it off and actually have fame and fortune for 27 seconds into the future.

    As to the starving, maybe I should give it a try. I really need to lose about 85 lbs.

    The problem is, I am so busy right now that I have no time to work on my website and get it selling for me.

    I need to go and have a cup of coffee, figure out how I will make enough to pay the bills this month and if there is any time left, think about making some art.

    Up till recent years I have always said that if nursing ever got too stressful I could always fall back on being an artist.

    In the current economy, perhaps I will have to fall back on being a nurse.


  14. Wesley Freeman-Smith
    Wesley Freeman-Smith says:

    I did a google search for ‘how to make a career as an artist’ and this was the first thing that came up… Thanks it was an interesting read, and you said a lot of true things in there. The most successful photographers I know are exceedingly good with networking, and their people skills are fantastic. Have you ever read Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying? It has an excellent portrayal of the whole ‘starving artist’ condition, the protagonist severely isolated and insular, barely managing to live in a squalid flat, and too hungry to write anything… It seemed relevant to what you were saying :)

    Essentially the truth is that one creates because one is compelled to, whatever medium it be, and I know that for myself a life without imagination and creativity is only half an existence. Without art I just exist, I’m not fulfilling any potentials, or expressing myself in any meaningful way. Career is a secondary concern compared to that.

    Thanks for putting your views out there, it was good to refresh my perspective! :)


  15. spunk brophy
    spunk brophy says:

    When he was in his teens, my husband painted his own surfboards. Then his friends wanted theirs painted. Then people he didn’t know wanted theirs painted by him. So it went – he was doing something he loved that people were begging for, and they were willing to pay for it.

    Now he paints paintings and we sell licenses for people to use his paintings for their products (like Converse shoes, beach towels, boogie boards, etc.) We make a good living off of his art, and it’s the only work he’s done in over 20 years. His art supports us and our son.

    I felt your post was a little bitter that you couldn’t make it as an artist and so no one else should. Well, the world needs art. Imagine your clothing without it being designed by an arist, or advertising, or just about ANY and EVERY product you buy – it was designed by an artist. And these people should be paid for their work.

    One person responded to your post that artists can make money, as long as they create art that people WANT. That’s truly the key – if no-one wants your art, you will not make it. And many times, even if they do, you won’t make it unless you know how to think like a business person when selling your art.

    Most artists who are “starving” aren’t doing what they should to sell their art. They look at it as something special rather than as a business. No matter what you do for a living, whether you write books or paint paintings or make music, you need to treat it like a business. Even if it’s art. Otherwise, you’ll fail and you’ll have to get some job you hate.

    My vision is that all artists find their way to create art, do what they love, and get paid for it. I see a world where that is possible……

  16. Sam
    Sam says:

    Pardon me, but you’re calling these posts art? Get real. Writing well is a skill, not an art. Atwood is an artist with words, Jasper Fforde is an artist with words, Stephen King is an artist with words. You, Penelope, are not an artist with words. A a skilled and persuasive writer, sure; artist, no.

    Just because you have a successful blog doesn’t mean you’re an artist. It means you are a skilled writer who knows how to get readers. Grisham is a bestselling author, but his connect-the-dots-plotted books aren’t art.

    Volume of readers does not convert skill into art. I write kick ass technical documentation, and people in several countries read and use my documentation. That doesn’t make me an artist. The novel I’m working on, maybe that will earn me the label of artist, but I’m not quite there yet.

    And regarding art being dictated by your surroundings: really now? In that thought you completely discount creativity. Did Tolkien write about what he knew about firsthand? I’ve been to England and haven’t met any Orcs. Dr. Seuss? Stephen King? Carl Sagan? Just because you didn’t have the vision to write anything other than lonely stories when you were lonely doesn’t mean that other creative types suffer the same lack of vision and creativity. In fact, I’ve always found that the 99% of people who only write from personal experience are not, in fact, creative writers, but misguided autobiographers, at best.

  17. Gifts Occasions
    Gifts Occasions says:

    Well, but an artist too has to live from something. I am doing oil paintings since years and have to admit, most of my income results from direct painting orders on a specified theme. But was that not the income source of most famous painters in the past too?

  18. Isia
    Isia says:

    THis was rather interesting. FIrst of for the writer, Whoever you really are, it’s appreciated enough that you can create a bog that I can find answers to my problems. You are useful to all of us. After all you create responses so you are worthy.
    And for the topic of art, Some of us just have to be artists. Its NEVER good to discourage any one’s dreams. Life is short, if i prefer to struggle,go hungry, die trying over something I love..It’s still my preference. WHY? I am not crazy. I will do anything for what I love.
    Its always better to talk about experiences, rather than telling others what to do. WHen be can bring our experiences together, we can find answers.
    Since I was small, I was trying my hands at art, designing clothing for my barbie doll and singing for hours in the bedroom,getting addicted to cameras and pianos…..then sometimes hardship comes where I have to spend my time as a student studying hard or I wont pass that exam, and I missed my art so badly..Up to this day I am still studying something not related to art..International relations, and because art is important to me,, it stayed with me throught all the times when I am stressed out doing what I dont Love doing. Now i can see my life running out,,and I wished for a studio where I can paint, or a stage where I can air my concerts, bUt I never got to develop them because I am still spendin my time doing what I dont love,,and I am feeling regrets about this. I never had the money to study what i love, I got grants and scholarships to study academic subjects that contributed towards my country. If i only had the money I would have put y every second into art, all of it, and become someone recognized. And maybe there are wanna be’s out there but a true artist knows that he is bu the way he feels, and anyone can know how much money they can make by evaluation their potential. Its the artist decision and no one should discourage anyone or any artist to not do what they love.

  19. doronjo
    doronjo says:

    Very interesting post. I decided to learn to be a graphic designer instead of pursuing being an artist, because I was afraid of what you went through. It’s easier to make money as a designer instead of make a sales of your art. I make enough money to support my self, and design is a creative career even though I have to bend my creative thought with clients’ needs.

    I’ve been painting here and there, wanting to do some more with it. I am getting sick of my day job, and seeking the way to create art freely. I have to keep working on my day job, so it may take a while to build my art portfolio. Yet, I realized that it is making me way more happier to pursue my passion.

  20. Jonathan of
    Jonathan of says:

    You are right in saying that yours was not a friendly post.

    Maybe cynical too. This is not a friendly comment either. Maybe cynical too.

    You see, although on some level, in a parallel universe in a different time do agree with you in some twisted way, your words leave me with just one thought. This of course begs the question, have we met before in some other existence. I am happily married and believe me, this is not flirting. But I am curious if the other me has met the other you. I digress.

    Have you ever heard of the Fox and the Grapes. It is an Aesops Fable. We condemn the things in life we cannot reach. There may be another answer.

    The grapes only taste good when they are in season and are ripe for picking. Like grapes, making a living with art may be seasonal for some people.

    What you failed to understand is that there are artist and there are successful artists. I do not know of any starving artist. All artists I know are either overweight and out of shape, very successful or not currently practicing artists. The successful artists are in the business of collecting collectors.

    Even writers who are successful are in the business of collecting collectors. In other words, successful artist are business people.

    There are unsuccessful entrepreneurs. Do we call them starving entrepreneurs? No. They are just unsuccessful. Whether failures or not depends on how they look at it.

    Me, my philosophy is everything is a win. So, to get into the show I just did on short notice this weekend past, cost me about $150 and to travel across three states. Even if not making a dime it would have been a learning experience. I did not do as good as I hoped to but I did learn a lot. Next year I should do double and get about 4 times the residual sales.

    Not getting paid for creating art. Things that make you go hmmmm. Lets carry this thought out. The vast majority of folks do not get paid for sex and enjoy it. My mechanic loves working on cars. Should he not get paid for it? I would love that although he would not be able to do it for long.

    And my wife has a hair dresser who loves hair and anything to do with it. She should not get paid for it. Although I think she is better at coloring than I am, my wife still prefers me. Oh yea, I don’t get paid for that either. Actually, my wife does not pay me for the art I create that hangs in our house as well.

    As for your choice of words, one of which must have come from your mouth, I would not have in my hand with out a latex glove to protect it, unless it was dried and I was in a cow pie throwing contest. Well, no wonder you starved.

    As to art emanating from a black hole of choice. This is one of my favorite debates to hate. My camera man in a video commercial I produced that was shot in Long Island, dreams of doing something from the farthest reaches of his inner horror loving soul. However, to just talk to him you would never know he is a closet horror lover. He is one of the kindest people and brilliant artist, not starving and somehow has an affordable rent in New York City.

    As to being a real artist and making art no matter what, well, you must not be familiar with right brain vs left brain thinking. My best commission single (occasionally manic depressive and restless) was only 7K. Since being blissfully married, my best commission was over 50K (of course it was a monument work). I could not have made the big piece of art no matter what. It required 6 months and lots of someone else’s money.

    As a matter of fact, money has always been an inspiration. I am not a great artist. But money does inspire me in numerous ways and on numerous levels. I do believe it can help create art. Taking this to the absurd, I cannot paint with out paints that cost about $30 per tube and my big canvases cost about $150. Tried stretching them early on. Over stretching makes them a bit funky and warped. Hey, maybe I need to change the name of that early one. Thanks. It shall be called Early Warp In Green. No, just Warped Green. Wow, the creative juices are flowing thanks to you. But then this is a left – right brain thing.

    Quitting your day job is essential if your great or if you want to be. If your so so, then work away. Nothing will get the creative juices flowing, at least for me, like working with out a safety net. But then, my 2nd most favorite book was the best selling, “Innovators Solution.” It is a book on the theory of how markets work. It is considered the Bible of Market Theory.

    Let see,that book was the reason for quitting nursing and becoming a self supporting artist. Also, that book resulted in selling 14 pieces outright to to a New Hope PA gallery rather than the typical putting them on consignment.

    Of course they were my first 14 pieces. Way undersold them but hey, I still made a lot of money.

    Don’t get me wrong. I was not always an Atlas of the Art Marketing self supporting artists world. I was at one time the equivalent of a 97 pound weakling. Bullies used to kick up copies of Thomas Kinkade in my face at the beach on the weekends.

    Those were horrible days. The 7K commission mentioned above won a national interior designers award. Do you think I got another job from it. Nope. However it did launch an industry doing work like mine in all the restaurants around the world. I was not a businessman. I was an artist. Not a successful artist, only one who made a lot of money.

    Turns out the 14 pieces I sold, there were ones I did not sell. Well, they just sold this past Sunday in November (09) for between 4 to 10 times what he paid me. Lets see, the six hours of the show resulted in about $3336 in sales. Oh yea, they fed me too. They even fed my wife. On top of that, we got sandwiches for the trip home.

    Just a side note here. I did not make $600 per hour at this show. Someone asked how long it took to create one of my pieces. I said 15 years. So, figuring the time I spent learning how to be a businessman and the art of not being a starving businessman and adding that into the mix, I actually only made an hourly wage. I figure my pay should be more than what I make as a specialist nurse. Any extra over the hours it took to create the work gets divvied up. I pay my book keeper (my wife) and my tax accountant (my wife), my cleaning lady (my wife and I am her assistant) and my secretary ( my wife) and my salesman who gets about 10 % (me and occasionally my wife).

    Since she also has a job, this is extra money for her. She has not decided what she will buy with her cut just yet.

    Also some of the money is set aside for paid days off and sick days. I also put some aside for my paid vacation. I am up to four weeks paid vacation now. Of course, if the sales drop, I may have to do like many businesses and make cut backs. The first perk to be cut back will be the four week paid vacation time off. I may gripe and complain about the cutbacks but in the end, I know that they will be important for the success of my not being a starving artist.

    Also there is health insurance, dental and eye not to mention unemployment insurance. Most entrepreneurs are not aware that there is unemployment insurance for if you should have to fire yourself or lay yourself off. It is a program managed by most local banks. Just go in and ask about it. It goes by the name, Saving Account.

    So, if I am making $600 per hour then I will not have anything left over for these other expenses. But if I make a fair and decent wage, not only will these be covered, there will also be money for advertising and putting back into the business.

    In the case of this show, it only cost me 12% commission. But again, the pieces sold for way more than I would have sold them to the gallery owner.

    I guess this speaks to your comment on needing to be a businessman. Here I thought I had to lower the price and consider them lost leaders in my attempt to collect art collectors. In reality, I needed to charge four times the amount (and actually make money for my time and a profit for my business) and as such, increase their value.

    The last comment I agree with. I know a lot of better artist than I am who do not get paid for what they do. I would like to know how good of a networker I am but the creative mind, perhaps an artist who created the UpMo test has sold out. Now a commercial concern owns the name and is making money from the concept.

    Oh yea, the grapes are actually delicious. The only thing, you can only eat them in season. You may have to find other things to eat in the off season.

    Best wishes and how ever you fare, may you fare will.

  21. Aaron Petz
    Aaron Petz says:

    Ugh, making money as an artist. Horrible, the bottom line is money is such a powerful thing that it will sway objectivity in art, as well as arise emotion out of a human either good or bad. With that being said. Make money, and make art… Not make money while making art. :) _A

  22. tim
    tim says:

    Great post!- I like the the take no prisoners approach. It is a clear headed and valuable look at life as an artist. Thanks.

  23. Jean
    Jean says:

    I would love to read some of your father’s poetry. I’m not being facetious. Your description of his work is beautiful, and I’d love to read the work that inspired it.

  24. vivienne o connor
    vivienne o connor says:

    you are a miserable negative person and totally unsuited to giving anyone advice! i am cringing having read your piece. art is a positive action. your stupid approach to life and inability to take care of yourself are not words people want to read when seeking advice. really, you need to keep your thoughts to yourself.

  25. Sarah Carter
    Sarah Carter says:

    I think as artists we are far too good at qualifying our excuses not to make art, when in fact the truth is we are scared of what the art may show us about ourselves. Thanks for boldly calling us out, it was a reminder I needed to hear, “If you want to be an artist, make art.”

  26. Ben
    Ben says:

    This post and the comments on it have been fascinating. I’ve noticed many people take personal offense to the post. It is true that Penelope is very negative and perhaps sees herself as a “failed” artist. But I don’t think that makes her advice any less relevant. I sensed that the primary purpose of the post was to encourage people who want to pay their bills but are afraid that will make them less of an artist. And the gyst of her advice is “Don’t worry about it. You’re still an artist if you choose to make art.”

    The comments have highlighted how much our concepts of art conflict. Some see art as just a product; some see it as something that, necessarily, must not be motivated by money. Those definitions are ultimately useless. In the end, art is just a name we slap on a whole lot of things because we can’t think of a better word for them.

    Scott said something brilliant when he compared “artisans” and “artists.” These definitions that he uses are not widely known, nor are they the “true” definitions, but they can help us to understand a whole lot about human nature. Some of us get off on the act of producing and could produce the same object on end. Some of us get off on the act of creating something new and are often bored with it once it’s done. Both types of people get called “artists,” because they make something that resembles art, but the personality types are completely different.

    Penelope’s point about networking in relation to art is also a very good one. I’ve also realized that it’s more than just what she says, which is that artists need to network in order to sell. It’s that being an artist really isn’t that fun if you don’t have a social network that supports what you do. It’s no fun if you feel like you’re creating in a void. We tend to think that most artists are either lonely, depressed, and poor, or successful, surrounded by fans, and rich. But, even if you’re not rich and you only make art in about 10% of your time, you can surround yourself with supporters, and being an artist will be a lot more fun.

  27. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    An inspiring video – – about a man who is an artist and found a way to continue to make art even though he became blind. He refers to himself as a blind visual artist. He is a photographer. A good example of your last paragraph.

  28. Istria
    Istria says:

    Art is not a full time job, art is the way of your everyday living, if you live and do something with your love not for money, then that’s the art! Money can be as a result, but in no way cannot be the goal of occupations of artist

  29. Johnny Lee
    Johnny Lee says:

    Good to know that there are others out there who’ve gone through the starving situation, and realize it actually hurts the art, and kills creativity.

    I also agree that having more time (due to lack of a job) to do the art, doesn’t necessarily make you better. Not unless the job was hurting creativity by activating that lizard brain.

    Great post.

  30. Azzi Kalili
    Azzi Kalili says:

    This article is fabulous – I almost feel as though I wrote it! Only I was cold and scrounging around in London when I started out.

    Yes there is an ‘optimum creativity threshold’ – just enought time, money, resources and physical/mental capacity to be creative. Any less you are too sick/time poor to make good art, any more you have the luxury of too much choice and time – and end up procrastinating.

  31. Robert
    Robert says:

    ok to are wrong..point blank..being a full time artist is doable without starving..just do it because you like to do it and dont want to waste your time doing some hum dum shit everyday..and if you are a real artist you can alwasy be inspired no matter your income or the contents of your stomach ..oh and the real question is do you have a day job? because i dont think bloging is going to get you anywhere…and yea your gonna comment and say im being a bully..ok grow up its bs im calling it like i see it.

  32. Robert
    Robert says:

    and to add…if you get into the situation where you are starving it would open your eyes to a new feeling to express.

  33. Daniel Falk
    Daniel Falk says:

    Art-making appears to be many things, but if you specifically want to sell you art, then, I agree with you Penelope, it’s the great marketing game, and to be played well. It’s the same in any field, the effective talking head gets the worm. So we artists move our careers more rapidly forward by positioning ourselves clearly and with constant motivation to succeed at your goals. Set the right goals for yourself, and be committed to achieving them to produce great results. Live well, and be happy! This always helps you through the hard parts!

  34. Spat
    Spat says:

    An artist makes art like it is their job, and it is, because a true artist doesn’t have a day-job. Their standards would be too high to suffer doing anything else, anything other than reaching the perfection that art allows them to… anything other than answering to themselves.

  35. jake taylor for the Academy street
    jake taylor for the Academy street says:

    Hi I have worked in the spiriiual Business also as a musician being the songwriter for my band The Academy street, why should u not be paid for Art if an Artist or band donates time and energy to there craft of course they should be paid in the same way a Plumber or carpenter should be paid, there are some people in life who want things for free but arn’t prepared to give there own service in an ideal world things would be free, unfortunatley we do not live in an ideal world.

  36. Helana Bell
    Helana Bell says:

    I just had to comment on this blog as I am currently working full time and doing an art degree with the aim to become an artist and also teach.

    I think this post is utter rubbish, it is hard to earn a living as an artist but it is not impossible.

  37. Jeff Myers
    Jeff Myers says:

    There are to main patterns to lives that involve painting. One is the amature that loves to paint, which is great! The second is a pro level understanding that takes massive amounts of time but in the end is worth it! They both are fine.

  38. Mina Grace
    Mina Grace says:

    This is all amazing, sound advice. I didn’t have it all laid out for me years ago when I quit my fulltime corporate job to become a fashion stylist- an art form in itself. Now my work is dedicated to helping other women make a great living expressing their talents and artforms. Anyone who is dedicated to ‘doing their art anyway’ can take a heaping spoon full of truth and keep going

    Thanks for sharing

  39. Deborah
    Deborah says:

    Hi, why I refused sell my artworks and I know I am great artists by all my life from the child. I feel I am scared to sell my artworks to anyone because might they will be ruining it or throw away! Or could they copy my ideas of my artworks? Do I need to confidence my artworks? I did been sold my artwork in once and I was upset and worried! I know it is wrong and I should be proud but I didn’t! So can you help me?

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