The Myth of Full-Time Art Making

The “life of an artist” myth is that you spend most of your time making art. In truth, the artist’s life often involves making art less than you’d think. In this post, Ricë shares some of her own experience with making and selling her art as well as gives us some valuable feedback from other artists in the mixed media community. For an extensive look into the life of a full-time artist, as well as how artists fit making art into their day, you can check out Ricë’s books: Living the Creative Life and Creative Time and Space.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Full-Time Artists. We hear someone described that way, and we’re immediately filled with envy. Wow:  what a cool life, that of the Full-Time Artist. We think about all the time we’d have to create and all the time we’d have in the studio and all the time we’d have, period. Time. What a luxury!

Quinn wrote about art as a business last week, and it got me thinking about all the artists I’ve talked to over the years, all the people doing fabulous work who took the plunge and left the day job and began working for themselves, making art to sell. Guess what. Almost all of them told me, often ruefully, that they had very little more time–sometimes even a lot LESS time–to spend actually making art than they did before they pursued it as a full-time job.

Sure, there are people who get to make art all day long, but these are usually not people who are making art to sell as a way of making a living. These are often people who have the luxury of making art because someone else is supporting them and paying the bills, and they don’t have to market their work:  if they sell something on ebay or Etsy, great. If they don’t, it doesn’t matter. The bills will still be paid and there will still be food in the fridge.

What I’m talking about, though, is about the people who decide to make a career of making and selling their art, those of us who need to make money for the bills and the food. The artists I’ve talked to tell me, over and over, that the time devoted to actual art-making, time spent in the studio working, is less than 50% of their days. The bulk of their time is spent on doing business:  marketing, keeping the books, tracking income, taking photos, updating online shops and websites, going to shows. And that’s not even taking into consideration all the requirements if you’re also going to teach–proposing workshops, preparing for the workshops, assembling kits and/or supplies, traveling.

It’s way, way more work than we think of when we think of “full-time artist,” which sounds so lovely and so appealing. And, indeed, it is wonderful. You get to make art and sell it to people who appreciate it. You get to spend much of your time wearing what you want to wear and working where you want to work. But make no mistake about it:  you spend most of your time working. It’s not about artists’ play dates and long afternoons strolling through the woods. It’s about deadlines and commissions, taxes and inventory.

Someone sent me a note last week saying that, in order to have time in the studio making art, she got a 9-to-5 job. It’s something to think about before you get all starry-eyed and quit your day job. I know from experience:  I’ve tried selling my work, and I discovered I’m the world’s worst at marketing. Pricing. Selling. That stuff never ceased to confound me, and in the end it wasn’t worth the stress. That’s why you’ll find my Etsy shop as bare as Mother Hubbard’s cupboard.

Maybe you’re great at marketing and selling, and you’ve got a ton of energy and lots of contacts. You don’t mind hard work, and making art full-time is your dream. Then it may well be the life for you–many others are pursuing that life and loving it. As long as you go into knowing what to expect, you won’t be disappointed. But going full-time isn’t your only option, and options are good. So, before you take the plunge, read what Quinn has to say. Talk to some working artists. Read the blogs of artists who work full-time at their art. Make some lists, think really hard about how you work and what you’re good at and what you’re willing to work hard to learn. Maybe it’s for you, and maybe working just part-time at your art is what would make you happiest.Before you decide, think about what you want.

And then:  good luck!  Whichever way you decide to go, it’s going to be a great adventure~~


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2 Responses to The Myth of Full-Time Art Making

  1. lindamay says:

    This is so true. Even if you reduce your outgo, you can’t (except for the few) support yourself in the style you would like making art. Working, working part time or being supported by another person or by retirement income is the only realistic way to support your art habit. The truly full-time artists in my warehouse complex support their art lifestyle by teaching, having a patron who writes them a check every month or a good friend who will get them through financial emergencies. One such artist in my complex does mainly installations, teaching children (whose school has dropped their art programs) and artist in residencies. The truth about those, is that you generally get yourself to the location on your own dime, they supply the roof over your head but not always the food and they supply the art supplies and you leave your art/installation behind. Some residencies require you to teach or at least present your final project.
    I had a plan that when I retired that I would put myself through a crash course of art mediums and learn design concepts. I read, bought art supplies for every medium, pumped friends who had actually been to art school (they maintain that they did not learn much in their art school) and learned a lot on the job so to speak. I found a passion for metal clay and spent a couple of years learning from a local metal clay expert (who is now flying round the world to share her knowledge).
    What I have learned along the way, besides many art mediums, is that I don’t want to be tied down to any one medium – which is almost a must if you wish to be able to establish a branding for yourself. I function best if I can work in one medium for awhile and switch or work concurrently on two mediums. I find also that jumping around helps me to find paths to explore in each medium which seems to lessen the experience of creative blocks. I love taking fabric and finding ways to use it in jewelery that are not what everyone is doing. I dabbled a little in resin and found that a lot of people were doing it and tried to find new ways to use resin, fabric and metal.
    All of these trends in what I like to do end up making a long R&D period with some making, but not in the quantities necessary to ‘make a living’ at it.
    I am most satisfied with being able to work independently of the notion of having to support myself with my making and to follow my creative streak down paths that I might not if I were trying to sell. I would be satisfied with just supporting my making. I do wish, however, that I hadn’t bought into the ‘myth’ and began my making earlier and not waited until I retired to do so. Making of any kind, quantity, quality does not have to be an all or nothing endeavor. I always felt I did not have the wherewithal after working a long day in a stressful environment as well as a long commute, to produce art. If I had it do over, I would have worked closer to home and in a less stressful job and enjoyed more artistic endeavors, and earlier.

  2. Rice Freeman-Zachery says:

    I think it’s true for many of us that it takes a while to find the path. I, too, wish I’d started doing what I’m doing now *way* earlier than I did; I’m just happy I started at all, though.