Making a Living with Your Art: Adjusting Your Expectations Part 1

We’ve talked about this before, over the years: how do you make a living with what you make? And do you even want to go there? It’s a dilemma that plagues many of us who make stuff: do we want to make what we make for the sake of making it, or do we need to turn it into a paying gig, bringing in enough income to support ourselves or at least make a significant contribution to our household?

I have been writing for publication for over 20 years, yet my income from that doesn’t even begin to pull me up toward the middle class. When I hear younger artists talk about their ideal income from their work, I realize that the few well-known success stories—those among us who have managed to write bestselling books and snag really lucrative licensing deals—have influenced the expectations of many of the rest of us.

The truth is that making a living from your art alone is really, really rare, and the reason we all can point to those who have done it successfully is because they are really, really rare. We know who they are because there aren’t that many of them. I have talked to dozens, maybe hundreds, of working artists over the past couple decades, and here’s what I know for a fact: most mixed-media artists who are making a living with their art are not making a living *just* with their art. They are also teaching or lecturing, writing or making video tutorials, blogging (and getting paid for it), hosting workshops at their studios or giving private lessons in sculpting/soldering/painting/encaustic/you name it. I have never talked to anyone who goes into their studio each day and makes art that is then taken away and sold for enough money to put them over the poverty line. There are surely those out there who do that, but I haven’t met them. In fact, the most financially successful artists I’ve talked to almost always tell me that they hardly ever have time to make art just for making art. They wear a whole slew of other hats, from teacher to marketer, and when they are in the studio, they’re working to meet a deadline or produce something for a market.

Here’s a truth: making money and making art involve opposite parts of your brain and completely different ways of thinking. Making money is about figuring out how to get people to give you money in exchange for something you do or make. Making art is about creating something that’s in you that wants to come out. There are people who make stuff while thinking about whether or not it will sell, but the truth is that that is production, and is hardly ever about art-making. You go into the studio and make a clay dragon because you have this idea of a dragon that won’t leave you alone, and you make it and it’s really cool and you show it on Facebook and people want to buy it. Cool! So you sell that one and set about making another one, pretty much like the first one (because people really liked that one) but a little different (because you can’t really stand to make it identical), and that one sells. And more people want dragons, and they ask for one that looks just like the first one (because it was their favorite color) or the second one (because its eyes reminded them of their bulldog, Ralph), and pretty soon you have a bunch of orders. You hire an assistant to help you meet the demand. Money comes in! You pay your bills! Soon you’re making hundreds and then thousands of dragons with the help of a crew of people who fire and sand, pack and ship. You’re an employer. You’re a business owner. You’re a dragon-making machine.

But are you an artist? Oh, sure, you’re still an artist on the inside. But in cranking out all those pretty-much-identical dragons, are you doing what you hoped you’d be doing when you first went into your studio?


Think about that, and then come back Wednesday when we’ll look at another possible scenario.


Ricë is the author of Living the Creative Life, Creative Time and Space, and Destination Creativity. She also blogs at The Voodoo Cafe.

001-005_Y0775.inddFor more advice about being a successful working artist, try Margaret Peot’s The Successful Artist’s Career Guide.





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