How do artists make a living from their art? I interviewed a bunch of them and discovered the answer is simple (by being creative) and infinitely complex and fascinating.
I talked to:
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Welcome to art for all, the Sketchbook Skool podcast. I’m your host Danny Gregory. Each week I bring you stories, ideas, interviews and inspiration to keep you company while you work on your own creative project. Whether you are painting, writing, composing or cooking dinner, I hope this episode inspires you. That’s our mission at Sketchbook Skool, to help encourage art for all.
This week we are going to talk about how to turn your passion into a full time job. What’s involved in making a living as a creative person? How do you make ends meet while doing what you love? Let’s ask some experts, the fakulty of Sketchbook Skool.
When I was a senior in high school, thinking about my future, I was quick to dismiss the idea of becoming an artist. It seemed so hard to make a living. In most any other kind of career, there seemed to be a clear track I could follow. Get a degree, use that degree to get an entry level job in a company and slowly work my way up the ranks. If I wanted to be a writer, I could start as a cub reporter like Jimmy Olsen in Superman comics. If I wanted to be in business, I could start in the mailroom. If I wanted to be a doctor, I could be a resident. But I had no idea how you started out as an artist or an illustrator. It seemed such a huge leap. Artists had their work in galleries and museums and they sold for zillions of dollars. I had no idea what you did to get there. It just seemed like some sort of magical process cloaked in mystery. Making a living and being an adult seemed daunting enough. So I decided I would just take myself down one of the broad, clearly marked avenues that were indicated with flashing signs. Economics major leads to business school or Wall Street. History or poli sci major leads to law school or journalism. English major leads to publishing. With no role models to tell me otherwise, I trudged toward these well-lit glide paths.
In retrospect, things mights have been easier if I had gone to art school. But I’m not so sure. My son went to the best art school in the country but he didn’t graduate knowing exactly how to proceed to become a self supporting fine artist. Art school didn’t spend much time teaching him about real life, about how to enter the industry, to earn a living. In the end he found his way to making a living but it’s only tangential to making art. That seems to be the way with so many who set out to be full time artists,
Is it just a filtering process that takes all those high school kids who like to draw and figures more and more ways to cull the herd, cutting it back until there are just a small handful left who actually get into the galleries, the rest diverted into teaching middle school art, working as designers in banks, painting on occasional weekends, or just hanging up their pens and brushes once and for all? Is it a giant obstacle course? Or have I missed how it really works?
How do artists actually make a living? Not the top 1 percent who marry supermodels and are represented by the Uber galleries, but the majority of creative people who are able to commit to making art and still manage to feed their families. How do artists make a living?
To find out, I talked to the people I know who are doing it. The teachers of sketchbook Skool. Most of them are full time artists who have figured this problem out. They are all terrific artists of course, who have put lots of effort into refining their skills, but they are also good enough at being independent business people to put bread on the table. So I called up a few of my pals and asked if they be willing to share how they do it.
The first thing I discovered shouldn’t have been a surprise. They are very creative in their approach to filling their wallets and their days.
Here’s British illustrator Ohn Mar Win on all the ways she applies her talents to makes ends meet.
I sell images on various image libraries. or little doodads. I call them. I teach workshops. I teach online I sell designs for products like greetings cards gift. wear, stationary. Fabric. I also have an Etsy shop and I am about to start self-publishing.
In Manchester, England, Andrea Joseph also supports herself by making art but she has woven together her own creative way of doing it.
I do book illustration or some editorial I organize really Fab. drawing events I teach workshops I work for various Charities who use artists in in the judicial system Working with people whose lives are in chaos and I love that work. I sell my own work, make a drawing that hopefully will sell. There are just so many different aspects to it, which is scary at some points, but it also really keeps things very interesting too.
I called up Mattias Adolfsson in Sweden. Mattias started his career as an architect, then went in to video game design, two career paths that had him working for companies that could provide him with a regular paycheck and benefits. But then he decided he just had to dedicate himself to making art full time and walked away to create his own business as an illustrator.
About half of my income comes from my books and selling original work.
I’ve a French firm that I worked together with collaboratively who make baby blankets now, baby clothing and then the rest is commission work, all kinds of stuff like American magazines. I work more or less all over the world. Stuff with animation industry also, for movies or television shows. So it’s it’s a strange mix I’m surprised that it’s possible to uh to do the stuff. I do. I didn’t even think that it could work being an illustrator. I think it’s all part of the the internet thing that it’s possible to to work all over the world, even though you’re sitting in a small little unimportant country in in Europe.
There’s a myth that artists can’t be good businesspeople. But the fact is handling all of these streams of income means you have to develop the skills of an entrepreneur to make sure you are getting paid, paying your bills and taxes, and serving your clients customer s and collectors. . Here’s Andrea again.
obviously because we love illustration and drawing and it’s the best business in the world. But being a creative freelancer is really really hard
Next, let’s go to Atlanta, Georgia and talk to Mike Lowery. He’s a successful children’s book illustrator but managing his success is serious business:
yeah business is a big part of it. there’s certain weeks where all I get to do is illustration. And that’s absolutely of course my favorite part of the job, but then there’s certain days where I sit down and just have to respond to a bunch of emails. when I would talk to my students when they would talk about being a freelance illustrator, I would always. Compare it to running a small business. I mean making the days and some weeks can can be almost non-existent. I mean you’re dealing with emails responding coming up with quotes your have to remember to actually get in touch with people who you’ve done work for to make sure that you’re getting paid.
our weakest Point of the business the business side to that we kind of manage but on occasion, it can be a bit a lot of stuff it’s a bit chaotic, uh papers tend to pile up.
We think of ourselves as artists and that being creative and imaginative is somehow antithetical to the sort of rational thinking that business people do. But of course as artists we make practical decisions all the time. We have to learn skills. We have to figure out tools. We have to network. We have to be efficient. We have to solve problems. And we have to work really hard. Artists may be dreamers sometimes but we can train ourselves to be hard nosed and organized too.
I have discovered ways around challenges of being in the business of illustration. So my timetable. On a Monday often involves the admin side of things which can’t be underestimated I’ve just finished this year’s accounts for my tax returns also emails to clients making sure that I’m going to have stock for my Etsy shop and. Looking at different suppliers and [00:04:00] checking on my various student projects. I’m also looking into doing in-person workshops. I’m trying to find the space of that and I’m liaising with suppliers who want to supply our materials for my workshops it there’s so much actually to consider and that’s just a typical Monday. if I just accept physical artwork isn’t going to get done on Monday. I’m much happier throughout the rest of the week. Um, there’s a phrase called eat the Frog do the thing that may loathe the most get it over and done with and then which means I’ve got the rest of the week, uh, Tuesday, Wednesday Thursday, to. enjoy, let’s say the more creative side of things just write down a checklist of what I need to accomplish the next state, it’s written on the back of an envelope and it’s so satisfying to cross things off as [00:05:00] I do them. So I’m looking at this now and it’s like, oh I forgot to do that. So I try and be organized and if something doesn’t get resolved today, I usually factor in a good time scale so that I’ll meet a certain deadline. Anyhow, so I don’t stress out too much about it.
Entrepreneurs who work as one person team are called solo-preneurs. And if you’ve ever worked alone from home, you know how it can start to be a lonely grind. It’s vital to stay connected to the world and not just get lost in your work.
In the beginning it was like suddenly I was on holiday. I’d given up work and here I was I was an illustrator and yeah, I was at home and I wasn’t seeing people and I wasn’t speaking to people like you would in work you wake up in the morning. Is it? Who am I what am I supposed to do today? I work in home alone and it drove me a bit mad. you need something to get out of your pajamas for because there’s nothing more depressing than finding yourself in your pajamas at lunchtime. [00:06:00] Because you don’t have to leave the house. So why change if anyone wrong or message me and said you can see a coffee but yes, yes and I found myself going out Urban sketching all the time and then realizing actually this is making me any money and you know, despite the fact that it’s great and I want to be drawing. I still have to to bring some money in. I still have to make a living my friend has and our Cafe and so I do go and I work there a couple of days a week. Because I just needed to get out of the house and not be on my own all the time and speak to people and see people also what it gave me was a Structure. you need to build those kind of healthy [00:07:00] practices and things into into your day.
When I was a creative director in advertising, my team and I hired a lot of great illustrators. But we never called them directly. We’d speak to their agents or representatives and they would send us over portfolios to pick who we wanted to work with. All of our communications went through these intermediaries so I just assumed that this was still how my artists friends got assignments. I imagined they sat in their gorgeous studios, the phone would ring, and their agents dropped another plum assignments in their laps. I was wrong.
so for about a decade I worked with an agent. I think there’s a lot of misconceptions about agents and what they can bring to this Partnership of you working with somebody else, but the strength that they had was that they would manage. taking care of contracts making sure that I got paid and then sending me a check so that I didn’t have to really deal with that. And then when I would get an email from a client I could just forward it to them and say all right take over. And so then I could really focus on making art
I have had reps in the past. I decided that I was better without a rep. So I handle everything myself. part of me says oh you are such a control freak, but part of me says it actually. I have to play it this way in order to do what I want to do. And the reasons why didn’t work out with various agents was [00:08:00] I am quite determined and tenacious I want to do what I want to do and if their vision and my vision didn’t match, then it wasn’t going to because I have big Visions.
I have a Swedish agent I don’t get the the commission’s from the agent. The contact me first and then I Channel it through the agent. They drawn to take care of those Dreadful questions about fees and stuff like that.
initially, I thought that an illustrator had to have an agent to be working on children’s books and I got my first children’s book project as an illustrator On My Own by sending out postcards and that sort of thing and then I took that to my agent when I got them and said, here’s this thing that I just started you take over and handle the negotiations stuff. So. That turned out to be something that was misinformed. You [00:09:00] don’t have to have an agent to be working as a children’s illustrator and in some ways it can be better not to have one and I’m making a point of saying that because I think that lot of people who don’t have agents think that in agents job is to bring you more work which can happen. But it’s also really up to the illustrator to you know, be pushing their their work and getting their stuff out there as well.
Here’s Lapin, who is French and lives in Barcelona. Like my other friends, he finds that an agent is a only part of the story. He had to work hard to promote himself and his work to ensure that the assignments keep flowing.
my first agent represented being about 1112 years ago in Paris m but I think it’s now quite easy to make it on your own. thanks to the social media nowadays. I’ve got many clients contacted me directly through Facebook and I’m send the newsletter to the people who subscribe on my website. it’s clients and and your followers to to understand better what you’re doing. since interesting to work with the social media Instagram every enjoy it but it’s also it’s necessary to get aside a real portfolio website to [00:10:00] show more clearly what you’re doing and all the project you can manage
Ohn Mar also used various social media platforms and other tools to get her work out there. It’s a long term investment that can take years to bear fruit.
Ohn Mar: I have been very fortunate that I was mindful to upload my illustrations to Pinterest. I’m very fortunate that I don’t have to reach out to any clients, they find me through Pinterest or my website or Instagram The art licensing show that I went to in May of this year. I thoroughly enjoyed attending that but it is an incredible amount of preparation and effort and something like that is an incredibly long term investment. We’re talkin years and years of being seen at the shows.
what is it like to be successful as an artist? To have security and confidence in your career.? I’ll discuss that right after this short break
Sketchbook Skool is an online art school. But it’s actually a lot more than that. For tens of thousands of creative people around the world, Sketchbook Skool is a chance to start being creative again. To learn to draw and paint, but also to overcome the blocks and obstacles that have held them back. Besides classes and workshops, Sketchbook Skool is also a huge community of creative people. People like you who want to be inspired and get back to the pure joy of creativity they once had as children, It’s a wonderful place and I am so lucky to be a part of it.
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what is the line between expressing yourself and doing what you have to do to make a buck and get assignments? Lapin has a very strong and recognizable style in his sketchbooks. For some clients, that’s exactly what they want. But what if they want something else from you? How willing should you be to compromise?
that’s what I did as a as a beginner, uh freelancer to adapt myself to the commission. But yeah, actually I was not very happy with the result and the glazing client and he was giving me some references of some already well-known illustrator, but they didn’t have enough budget for example to two commissions and directly and yeah, I I decided to not process this way anymore.
It’s hard to imagine finding a great artist like Lapin and then asking him to copy someone else’s style and do it for less. But there are hacks all over and there’s always someone willing to do things for less.
The key is to remember why you are doing this. Why you decided to embark on this path of committing to art. It’s because you need to make the work that is burning inside you. There are things you may be willing to do to keep the lights on but if you stray too far down that path, you are undermining the whole mission, the reason you want out on your own I. The first place.
That doesn’t mean just cranking out the same thing however. You don’t have to just be the donut maker. Creative people take risks and go In New directions all the time.
I got a new kind of commission work. Can I do this? Well, why not and I I do it and I get some more money to be able to uh, do my personal stuff. the end plan is kind of always. To just work as a with my personal drawing because I that’s thing I really love
Working as a freelancer of any kind can be be a wonderful source of freedom. But with freedom comes responsibility. No matter how week things are going, there are no guarantees that the work will continue to flow your way. That anxiety hangs over every freelancers head. What if the work dries up forever? Here’s Mike Lowery.
Over the years I’ve worked with a lot of Publishers doing illustration for other people’s manuscripts and it put me into a good spot where then as I’m kind of wrapping something up something else kind of pops up. It is my personality to assume that that will not happen again ever again, you know, and I keep trying to kind of plan what will be happening and so I just pitched a project that got picked up that Will last for at least the next two years hopefully three, but even with that in mind, I’m already thinking about like, okay. What else can I be doing while this project is going on to make sure that I have more work later, right? these kids of mine they just they want to eat every day and that is now adds up
The answer is often, be creative. Make more stuff. Make more opportunities. Have faith in your creative abilities and you will find new solutions to this age old problem
I can always make some more money just putting new stuff up for sale so
So I tend to in that case, uh, make some drawings on paper and then sell them and I can I can also start a new project. So I always have other things that I can do before really going out out there and really try to to get commissioned work
this stage have been lucky. It’s it is a trickle of commission work all the time. You read ai lot about other artists maybe like music [00:13:00] groups and suddenly they lose the creativity or they’re not in vogue with the time so it’s always it’s on some levels it’s always a worry about the future it’s part of living as well not being super secure.
me thinking about having work to do as a big part of my brain at points that has been sort of negative where I’m overly concerned that I will not ever get to work again and it has affected my work and my life but I have been sort of lucky that it’s been so steady long enough that it it seems like it’ll kind of keep doing that. But at the same time, you know, I’ll still shoot out emails sometimes and I still do a lot of self promotion. I consider the Instagram thing to be a part of that self-promotion.
With time, with hard work, comes a growing business. After years of just getting by, or having to supplement your creative careers with odd jobs in a coffee shop or working for the Man, you slowly start to feel your feet under you, you learn the rhythms of the work, you expand and deepen your network, you relearn not to panic when the phone doesn’t ring. And eventually, you feel like it’s all going to work out.
Do I feel secure? Yes. the security is more important than anything else [00:14:00] security for my children because I am a single parent and it was a tremendous amount of stress so it’s only been probably in the last. Six months that I felt this is fine. you can have permission to relax take your foot off the pedal. I was dreadfully sick at the beginning of this year. And I think that was another wake-up call to say you’re burning out . This is a signal from whoever you’re absolutely fine. there is no need for you to keep going at the pace that you’re going because you’re actually in a safe place.
when I started doing illustration. It was like jump into the really insecure because I had a steady job and everything was going right. Suddenly. My body just told me you can’t continue with this and somehow it has been working and the. I should probably not worry that much but it’s I think I can probably the worrying kind.
I started on this journey probably four and half years ago. And taken me four years to get to a place where I feel like I can Hold my head up high and look at my achievements and give myself a pat on the back.
I was very critical, uh until very recently of where I thought I was at and it’s only now that I can actually sit back and say you’ve actually accomplished so much and you’ve got so much to be proud of.
If you are thinking of taking the leap into being a full time artist, I hope this discussion has been helpful.
Despite the struggles and hard work, none of my friends regret taking the leap into being full time artists.
Living your dream is wonderful. But dream with open eyes. Bring creative doesn’t mean being incompetent at business, clueless at numbers, terrified of spreadsheets , unable to sell successfully. If you can do all the hard work it takes to be great at drawing and painting, chances are you can figure out how to create a reasonable business too. Don’t sell yourself short.
Save money when opportunities are abundant. Be prepared to compromise but don’t sell yourself out. Get help and support but remember it is up to you in the long run. There is no cavalry coming up with a truckload of assignments
Building a career is a long journey and you need to be prepared. But don’t wait to figure it all out. you can’t prepare yourself for all of life’s vicissitudes. The road twists and turns and you won’t see clearly around each bend. You need to trust your own creative abilities, to know that you can develop solutions to whatever comes up if you are willing to be flexible and imaginative.
Thanks for joining me again for another episode of art for all. And thanks to all the faculty of sketchbook Skool. They are all so inspiring and generous it’s their time and energy and ideas. If you’ve never experienced a class with them, I urge you to start today.
And if you are thinking you’d like to learn more about the world of being a professional illustrator, I’d recommend joining Illustration Nation, our month-long kourse that take stop step by step through the process a pro takes to create a book, a product or an illustration. If you’d like to see what it’s like to work hard on a single polished assignment from concept to production, you;l get a huge amount out of spending time with our faculty of ten different experienced professional illustrators from around the world. Start anytime, work at your own pace, and have lifelong access. Learn more at sketchbook dot school.
I’m Danny Gregory. See you again Next week for another episode of art for all, brought to you by sketchbook skool.