How to make a living as an artist
Please note that a new and improved version of this article can be found here.
Tuesday night, I gave a talk at my local bank about how I make my living as an artist. I was surprised and delighted by the “at capacity” turn-out—it’s amazing what some good old fashioned publicity like getting the event listed in the Oregonian’s A&E section can do for an event!
What follows are my notes for the talk with links to other articles where relevant…
I wish I could say that all you have to do to make a living as an artist is to make exceptional work, but that isn’t the case. For one thing, making the work is only half of the effort: the other half is getting the work out there. But, beyond that, work doesn’t have to be better than mediocre in order to sell. Art’s marketability lies, in large part, in its presentation.
Presenting your work.
- In the modern world, art is seen mostly in reproduction, so learning to document your art professionally is crucial.
- More than any other aspect of presentation, your confidence level about your work will affect how people perceive it. I’ve found that clients are attracted to my work but they’re also interested in me and in committing to my career. Part of buying my work is supporting the arts in general, and, if prospective clients are going to invest in me in that way, I need to make them feel confident in my abilities.
- I’m not affiliated with a commercial gallery, but, when people ask me who represents me, I don’t say “no one.” I say “I represent myself.”
The presentation of your work and of yourself is integral to making a living as an artist, but, in a sense, it’s a prerequisite. Once you have that figured out, there are four easy steps for turning that confidence and polish into a living:
1) Make a lot of work.
- Too many artists make too little work and it’s to their detriment. Making a lot of work means learning more about your medium and developing as an artist.
- I’ve found that making work in series is a boon, both aesthetically and market-wise. By working in this way, I more fully explore my interests, helping me to make the best work possible about a given theme. And, maybe more importantly, making a series of paintings allows me to engage with my audience more fully. Instead of trying to get lost in just one of my pieces, I provide my viewers with many facets of the same issue to immerse themselves in.
2) Show the best of that work to a lot of people.
If you only make three pieces, you’re going to show all three of them—whether or not they’re the best work you can make. If you make twenty, you can easily cut three of the weaker ones and still have seventeen strong works to show! Of course, that means getting good at editing yourself, but it’s worth it because then you can be confident in the work that you’re showing.
3) Be friendly.
This is really the key to selling anything, but, because art is often dismissed as a luxury and a non-essential, friendliness—and avoiding navel-gazing—is especially important for selling work.
- How to get people to see your shows?
- Venues. There’s nothing better than getting your work seen in person. The choice of venue will determine who goes to the show—some people will never set foot in a gallery but they love to be surprised by art in their local coffee shop. Whatever the space, there are a myriad of considerations before you load in a show.
- Advertising. Early on, I got lucky by connecting with a local theater group. They gave me full freedom to create publicity images for their 2004-2005 season, which meant that their marketing budget went to plastering the city with my work. This was infinitely useful for establishing my work locally. They say it takes three hits before a consumer notices a product consciously. The theater group helped make the first hit happen for much of Portland.
- Press. I don’t spend money on advertising: it’s far better to get publicity. When someone else talks about your work, it’s a stamp of approval. Press releases should be short but should make clear to the journalist that it will be easy to tell a compelling story about your work. This is where making work in series is helpful: instead of saying “I paint pretty portraits,” I get to say “I paint portraits of first and second generation Americans combined with US icons and the resulting series is a complex look at our American identity.” One of those statements is going to be easier to write a story about than the other!
- Résumés. Where to send those press releases? A good way to answer this question is by raiding the résumés of all your favorite artists. Chances are that if a journalist writes about one artist, they might write about another. Résumés are also an excellent resource for potential venues and grant opportunities.
- Openings. While we’re on the subject of showing the work in the flesh, openings seem to be missed opportunities for too many artists. On the audience end of things, it’s disappointing to go to an opening and not have the chance to speak with the artist. Receptions are a great way to reconnect with past clients and to meet new people as well as to learn about how well your work is communicating. For more about being a friendly artist, go here.
- Another part of being friendly is being a little like the FBI. I keep detailed notes about my clients. I write down every subject we connect on and that means that, when I see them again, I’m not starting from zero.
- Along those lines, it’s important to find reasons to keep in touch with clients. Most of my work comes from repeat custom and referrals, so reminding my past clients that I’m still around isn’t just nice for them: it’s profitable! One of the ways I do this is by asking clients if I can borrow the work that I made for them on commission in order to display it in a gallery show. This also makes it clear to my clients that I’m proud enough of their paintings to want to show them publicly.
- I give away a lot of work—but only to the right people! It may not seem like the savviest marketing move, but, over the years, I’ve found that my friends and family are my best allies in the marketing world. More than anyone else, they’ve helped me both by feeding me and by promoting my work. It only makes sense to give them something more personal to cheer about.
- That said, I have everyone I work with sign a contract—even my friends. Written agreements are a part of inspiring confidence in friends and clients alike: it lets them know that you value your work and your career. Since I’d never ask someone to sign a contract full of legalese, I’ve written my own commission agreement and model release.
- Commission work. My recommendation: either love it and embrace all of its complexities or don’t do it!
- And commission work is a big part of how I tap into the middle class art market. That particular demographic is looking for something special when it spends its hard-earned money on art.
- Pricing affects who can buy your work, but, maybe more importantly, how your work is viewed. If your market will sustain it, make your price higher—it’ll earn you more money and, surprisingly, more respect. For more information about pricing your work, visit this article.
- In the end, being friendly makes the hard sell obsolete. You should never have to ask prospective clients to buy your work or suggest that it would look great in their homes. As long as you make sure that people know what you’re up to and who’s written about you, you can leave the buying up to them.
- The difference between the people we know as artists today and the people whose work has been forgotten is not talent: it’s hard work and perseverance. Artists are the ones who didn’t give up.
- Rejection is a fact of life if you want to make a living as an artist. I’m constantly applying to venues, grants, and, in a sense, prospective clients, which means that I’m always making myself vulnerable. It isn’t fun, and the only way I’ve found for coping with this is the rule of “2 for 1.”
Making money from your art makes you a better artist. It’s the simple truth and also the reason why I share my theories and experiences.
For a list of all my articles addressing the business of art, visit this section of my blog.