Art in the Professions
So you're dreaming of the day when you can stay home and draw the hours away, without a care in the world. You're looking at artists who have made names for themselves, with a pit of envy in your stomach. You know
you could make it as a professional artist, if only you knew where to start!
But the idea seems pretty daunting at first. But with a bit of planning, you can begin your journey as a professional artist. Be ready for long hours, daily drawing, and lots of marketing! Being a professional artist takes more than simply opening up commissions and waiting for clients to shower you with money. It takes planning, dedication, and lots of hard work.
Evaluate Your Situation
The first step toward becoming a professional artist is to examine your current situation and decide what expenses you currently have that need to be paid for. If you have rent, electricity, and cable bills, you’re going to need to make at least that much in order to survive. Write down all of your monthly expenses, and be a little generous with the amounts (I like to round everything up to the nearest 5 or 0), to give yourself a little wiggle room.
Once you’ve figured out what your cost of living is, you’re going to want to try and remove as many expenses as possible. Keep only what is vital to your survival -- food, shelter, electricity, etc. It’s going to be tough starting out, and the less money you need to spend, the better your chances of succeeding as an artist. As you gain clients and steadier work, you can begin to add those less important expenses back in.
Now you know a bit more about your own situation, and what you’ll need to make as an artist. Using this, you can figure out the minimum amount of money you need to charge for each piece of work. If you need $600 every month, but you can only get two paintings done in a month, you’re going to have to charge $300 for each painting. If, however, you can get 12 drawings done in a month, you can instead charge just $50 for each painting. Lower pricing at the start of your career is very important, because you have no popularity with which to support yourself. Once you become a little more well known as an artist, you can raise your prices bit by bit. But when starting out, you should aim for the lowest possible amount. Once you begin to have very steady work at these low prices, you can begin raising your prices by $5-10. At the beginning, you aren’t going to have a name for yourself that you can stand on, so you’ll need to depend on something else to get you work (such as competitive pricing).
It’s important to note that even the lowest price you need to charge can be quite expensive for most clients. You probably won’t find many people willing to buy $300 paintings from you, until you’ve built up your business a bit more. When starting out, it’s better to do several smaller paintings, rather than a few very large ones. This will help you build a foundation of fans and commissioners, while also fattening up your portfolio. A well-stocked portfolio is a good sign for potential commissioners. They like to see that you can do good, consistent work.
If you’re still having trouble getting started, it may even be worthwhile to give out a few free commissions. Free art has a way of attracting all kinds of people -- people who might later decide to buy something from you. Don’t assume that those looking for free art are cheapskates and aren’t worth your time. Anyone who shows interest in your work is worth your time. Even if they never buy a commission from you, it’s likely that someone who has been treated well by you will tell their friends about you and your work -- and one of those friends might just be your next regular customer. Never underestimate the power of word of mouth!
Have a Back-up Plan
Let’s face it -- taking that leap into self-employment is terrifying. What if you can’t scrounge up enough customers to make ends meet? What if no one buys any art at all? For this reason, it’s important to have a back-up plan. I find it’s best to live with roommates or loved ones until you’ve really gotten up on your feet as an artist. Just be sure to talk to them thoroughly about your plans, and make sure they’re 100% on board with picking up some slack during those first slow months. Don’t assume there will be a safety net there for you when you fail. You need to put that safety net together yourself, and make sure it’s nice and sturdy.
Even if you live by yourself, it’s possible to make a transition into self-employment as an artist. This route will be exhausting and very difficult, but it’s possible. Without anyone to cover your rent when you can’t make it, you’ll need to keep a part-time job (or possibly even full-time, depending on the cost of living where you are). Working a “day job” means you’ll have less time to spend on your art and building up your business. You’ll essentially be working around the clock, for a while. Days will be full of money-making (maybe a job at McD’s, maybe just cleaning cars in a parking lot), and nights will be full of drawing and promoting yourself. Once you’ve set your business up and laid out the foundations, you can quit your day job and focus entirely on your art. But it might take a while for this to happen. Be patient, and don’t lose heart. Once you’ve struggled through the first bit, you can claim your sweet reward!
Keep Detailed Records
Record-keeping is an insanely crucial part of being self-employed. I like to use Google Docs for my records, as I can access them anywhere. I have laid out a spreadsheet for each year, and sectioned off each yearly spreadsheet into months. Every month I mark down who has commissioned me, how much they paid (and when), what type of job it is, and whether or not it has been completed. Keeping records of all your clients is very, very important. When a refund needs to be made, you won’t want to be digging through your finances trying to figure out who paid what and when. It’s so much easier to have that information at a glance, whenever you need it.
In addition to keeping records of your clients, it’s important to keep track of your expenses. Expenses can be written off when you do your taxes (and yes, you do need to pay taxes on commissions!), which makes it easier on your wallet when tax season comes around. I think of it this way: Either I can spend money on art supplies and write it off of my taxes, or I can not get anything, and pay that same money regardless. To get the most for your tax money, it’s a good idea to make at least a few expenses throughout the year. These can be shipping costs, art supplies, advertisement, etc -- anything that pertains to your business (and only your business).
Don’t Spend the Money Until the Job is Done
One thing I’ve learned, that I wanted to be sure to include, is to never spend the money you receive until the project is completed. You never know what might happen, and it’s good to keep the funds at the ready if you ever need to give a refund. I cannot stress how important this is! It’s so tempting to take the money and run, but this is where a lot of artists trip themselves up and get in a lot of trouble. You should always be able to give your client a refund of some sort, until you’ve fulfilled your obligation entirely.
Know your Product
How well do you know yourself as an artist? In order to sell your art, you need to understand exactly what it is that you’re selling. Ask yourself these questions:
- What do you really want to draw?
- What are you willing to draw?
- What will you absolutely not draw?
Try to be as descriptive as possible! If you can’t define in words what it is that you do, how will you ever get the message across to your customers?
Once you’ve figured this out, you can move on to the more difficult questions:
- What are your strengths?
- What are your weaknesses?
- What do people like about your work?
These answers might take a bit more work to figure out. Write journals asking your watchers what they like best about your work. Request critique wherever and whenever you can. Don’t be shy -- email your friends asking them to give you an honest evaluation of your work. This won’t be easy, but it’s a very important step. If you want to sell your work, you cannot be living in ignorance. Being a professional artist means knowing which areas you are really terrible at, and which areas you’re really good at. You need to be very, very honest with yourself, and you need to encourage those around you to do the same. No artist is perfect, and no artist can do everything. You need to find that one thing you do amazingly well, and use that as your focus.
In the end, it's important to realize that the journey will be very long, and very difficult. If you want to become an artist because you think you'll make lots of money, you may want to reconsider your plans. Working as a professional artist is a labor of love. It requires an extreme amount of dedication and time, and the reward is being able to do what you love every day, not piles of cash. Be sure to plan everything out in as much detail as you can, and be honest with yourself about whether you can make it work.
Most importantly, don't ever give up. It might take months, it might take years.. but you can reach your goals, if you keep working at them.