How Being a Full-Time Artist Will Change Your Life

by Carolyn Edlund

You made a decision to pursue a career as an artist. Is reality reflecting the vision you had for your future when you began?


artist's studio

Studio photo, courtesy Anthony Smith Chaigneau


What might your experience as an artist in business be? Perhaps one of the following:

-being a full-time artist (whose art pays the bills),

-being a part-time artist (who works another job to pay the bills) and

-being an accomplished amateur artist who makes occasional sales.

Back in 1980, I started my business as an artist, and slowly grew it into a full-time job. I quickly learned that being self-supporting artist means that you are first and foremost a business person. When you hit this point in your own creative business, it may lead to some big changes in your approach and the original vision you had. Some of the lessons I learned:

Making sales means you have to create what people want to buy, OR educate them to want to buy what you create (the first choice is easier).

My mixed media clay and fiber sculptural work was never going to pay the bills, so that went out the window quickly. Thrown and handbuilt pottery is fabulous (I love and collect it), but it wasn’t the ticket for me either. I learned that jewelry is a hot category, and that people love fun, whimsical, themed designs. So I made what people wanted, sold tons of ceramic jewelry, and ended up loving the process and the business.

You make a lot of sacrifices.

It’s hard work running a business, and you may find yourself on the road away from your family, or working many long, thankless hours. Everyone else gets paid first – your suppliers, show promoters, your employees, the government. Get used to it. Everybody you know thinks you have the coolest job ever and you get no sympathy.

You revise your thinking.

After discovering the demands of the market I was pursuing, I came to the realization that my style of working wasn’t made to order for the whimsical look I wanted to sell. So I revised my thinking and hired a graphic artist to work for me. She stayed for ten years. I was the “idea” person who came up with concepts for each line.  She helped me create the look that kept our customers buying, and turned our buyers into collectors.

You lose the attachment to your work.

At first, you may have some pieces that you made which you wouldn’t part with, because you have an emotional attachment to them. Earning a full-time living means that you are designing for your clientele, and may mean that you are taking commissions based on what they want, not what you would have produced if given free rein. What I was creating in the studio was a “product” and everything was for sale. I no longer had any attachment.  If a line or design that I was crazy about didn’t sell, it earned a new name – “discontinued.” What I discovered was that it was the journey and the experience that I loved, not the things.

You get a thicker skin.

Not everybody is going to feel the same way about your art that you do.  Some people will be brutally honest about that.  Learn from feedback and always strive to improve your work to the best of your ability. But also realize that you can’t please everyone, and it doesn’t mean you’re not talented.  Don’t take it personally. In fact, don’t take anything personally.

You make your own luck.

Success doesn’t just happen.  It takes many small deliberate steps, focus, persistence and determination to get “lucky.” Anyone who has achieved great success also knows the meaning of great failure. A positive attitude changes everything. Make your own opportunities and hang out with people who love and support you. Now – make those last three sentences into posters, hang them in your studio, and get to work making some of your own luck!



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  1. This is a great article for perspective on just what the choices are and some very valuable lessons.

  2. Thanks, Judy. Everyone has their own story, but those who stay in art full-time learn a lot about the practicalities of life. Accepting the challenges and growing personally and professionally are really worth it. I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

  3. I like the last comment the best – “You make your own luck.”
    It is all up to you. I have been in the artist mood now for almost a year. I’ve set out to become a know artist by making all those deliberate steps. By, keeping my focus, and being persistent, blogging, sharing – and growing my fan base. After 10- months I have almost 5,000 people on my FB fan page, many blog followers and constant sales. I am now a part time artist with a goal of making a living doing what I love. Painting and making people happy with my attitude and encouragement for them to keep the eye on the prize.

    • Pam, I have been following your progress, and you have an amazing group of fans on Facebook! Write a blog post and let us know your secrets!

  4. It’s good to have all these ‘warnings’ brought together so that we know what we’re getting into! Thank you!

    I agree that the final point is the one that we probably need to hear most often. But I think your point about not taking it personally is really important too! I didn’t hear much that was negative about my pastel paintings but once I started showing my greeting card designs to friends and family, I realised just how different our tastes can be – and that it doesn’t really matter! One set of greeting cards that I didn’t much like and only uploaded for sale because one of the children I was teaching at the time drooled over them, has turned out to be a best-seller! So it works both ways!

  5. Isn’t that always the way? It keeps life interesting, not knowing what will fly and what won’t. Usually you get surprised. So, thank God for drool!

  6. The simple art studio business model a Ven diagram…Two circles…The Art I would Like to Make…&…The Art that Sells.
    Your soul is one the other sells your soul…now overlap these circles slightly…and work in that zone.

  7. What a brilliant way of putting it!

  8. Wow loved this article!! And also the comment by Meltemi – I’m off to do my venn diagram, maybe it will give me a clearer picture of what I hope to achieve with my work….

  9. I have been learning the lesson of not taking things personally too, and really listening to advice. It is not about me, but it is all about the art – that disconnect was what I needed to help me be objective and receptive.

  10. You’re right Gwendolyn. We have to learn to accept criticism and not get upset emotionally. A lot of new artists are very wrapped up with their work reflecting their self-image, and it’s understandable. Putting your art up for sale means throwing yourself out into the world!

  11. Great article. I love the last 2 paragraphs. I’m in the process of taking those small deliberate steps to make my own luck so I really appreciate articles like this one.

    • As you continue on your own journey of all those small steps, you will find that you get more and more successful. The real key is to never give up. More people fail because they weren’t willing to stick it out than any other reason.

  12. Barney,
    Your article is really outstanding – readers can check it out here – I highly recommend it. You have a marvelous way of injecting reality into the equation without crushing the dreams that so many artists have!

  13. Awesome article, I really loved “Anyone who has achieved great success also knows the meaning of great failure.”

    Thanks for posting 🙂

  14. Great article. Being creative without feeling the pressure of making money, that’s the way to go!

    • Thanks for your comment – many people would agree with you, and prefer not to have two “competing” factors when creating art. Best to you in 2012!

  15. I think the pressures of making a living as an artist can be very healthy for an artist, aesthetically speaking. A lot of what you mention has to do with social skills–with learning to understand both yourself and your audience–and those are good things for an artist, whether or not they’re making a living!

  16. Gwenn, I agree with you that those pressures are healthy, and they cause the artist to have to deal with reality, make adjustments, and find a way to make a living.

    Recently, though, I spoke with a jewelry artist who had a very different perspective. She felt that the pressures of having to produce dampened her creativity, and that freedom to work on new designs required that she not have to sell them. Interesting viewpoint. I’d like to hear how other people think about this as well.

  17. Everyone needs to find their path. Absolutely.

    At the same time, I think there is too much emphasis put on the dangers of money for artists and their integrity. Maybe it’s not money itself or the desire for money that’s causing artists to lose their authenticity: maybe there’s something else going on for those artists. Maybe it has to do with the current culture surrounding art–that it should be “pure” or unaffected by the world, art for art’s sake.

  18. Hi…. could not find the free download of the article mentioned in your post:
    ” While reading the first chapter of Barney Davey’s book “How to Profit From the Art Print Market” (available as a free download here), ”

    Can you please send me another link? thanks

  19. This was so informative in several ways by making it plain that you have to sell something people want. If the customer isn’t interested than you have no business. Often times at work I had to educate customers on products and its positive benefits which in turn made them want to buy.

    • Thanks for your comment, Nicholas. I agree with you absolutely – educating customers on products and especially the “benefits” to them is a perfect way to make a sale!

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