“You’ll Never Make a Living as an Artist”

By Carolyn Edlund

“You’ll never make a living as an artist.” Who said that to you?



  • Was it your parents, who wore concerned looks while they tried to steer you into declaring a Business major? Did your eyes glaze over as you imagined a noose around your neck, dragging you to a windowless cubicle in a nondescript office building where you would face a dreary existence for the rest of your life?
  • Was it your friends, who didn’t think big enough to believe that someone they knew could launch a creative career on their own terms, and be successful doing it? The same friends who didn’t have the confidence to create their own big dreams?
  • Was it your ex, who complained that “your stuff” was in the way and what did you think you were doing anyhow? Who didn’t share your creative ambition and didn’t make the effort to understand?

Or was it you? Have you denied yourself permission to do something so out of the ordinary and daring that you never took that leap?

Negative self-talk and lack of confidence have kept countless creative people from pursuing their dreams. Yes, it’s very hard. Yes, you will be discouraged, and yes, you will hear from people who say “You’ll never make it as an artist.” Anything that’s really worth it is difficult.

I get a lot of email, online comments and questions in person from artists who are daring to dream but having a problem with confidence and following through. They are looking for assistance – sometimes they want a rep, who will take all the pain of marketing and selling away from them. Sometimes they need a sounding board, or a decision maker or a partner. Other times, they want to know the “secret” to getting into galleries or are hoping for a referral. And sometimes they have trouble truly identifying themselves as an artist.

Keep these five things in mind the next time you suffer a lack of confidence in your art career:

  1. You are your own best advocate. Even if you hire people to do your promotion and marketing, you alone are the most passionate about your success. Use this drive to speak about yourself and your work proudly. If you have trouble putting your thoughts into words, work on a written summary of your business which is a sentence or two long. Practice this until you are clear that you can quickly recall it. This is called an “elevator speech” because it is short enough to be spoken during an elevator ride. Use it during conversations with people you meet – you never know who could be your next great contact!
  2. Success breeds success. Once you get a few sales or shows under your belt, things come more easily. Getting out of the starting gate can be tough and take a toll on the ego, especially when you are faced with rejection. Don’t give up on pursuing the ice-breaker which will help you get a foothold and build your confidence and your business.
  3. Attitude is everything. Think and act successfully. This doesn’t mean that you aren’t being honest; it means that you believe you are an artist with talent who is working on a career in your field. Give yourself credit for all your efforts. Be kind to yourself and cultivate friends who also believe in you.
  4. There is support for you. I speak with experts all the time who are decision-makers and have the power to advance the careers of artists. Despite seeming heartless to those who are rejected, many of these people have gone out of their way to express how they wish to support and encourage artists. Quite a few of them have been in your shoes. Even though they may not choose your work because it doesn’t fit their needs at the time, don’t take it personally.
  5. Don’t give up. I firmly believe the most important characteristic for an artist to have is persistence. Learn from your mistakes, raise the bar on your quality, improve your efforts. And continue to pursue opportunities. They will come.


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  1. My parents didn’t want me to take Art as an option at school. “You cant make a living with Art” And so I studied business instead, left school at 16 and went to work for a bank! Which I hated.
    Fast forward several years and several un-fulfilling jobs later. I’m now pursuing my passion which is Art. I’m not making a living from it yet but as you said in the article, persistence and a confident attitude go a long way!

    Ali x

  2. Wonderful advise as always. I have taken a huge step, left a full time good paying job to pursue my artistic voice. I have never said never, or waited until the right time, for the right time is now. If an artist waits, the delay could last a lifetime. We are all in charge of our own success. Many told me that I could not market or sell on FB, but I didn’t listen. I marketed and sold more than I can even tell you. To make money as an artist take more than talent, it takes guts! LOL – Be true to yourself, follow your passion and don’t give up, for good things take time, but it is that time you invest in your business that makes you a success.

  3. Great post, Carolyn!
    With all I’m doing in my world and my work, I’m still dealing with those “old tapes” that run through the psyche. The most damaging of which was my mother, an artist in her own right, saying to me, “While you are the better artist [than me], I feel you need to learn something practical instead of going to art school.”

    Wow. For years that was a powerful deterrent to doing things my way. And I would bet good money that many women in my generation were told similar things.

    What I have learned to do is recognize that when that inner tape starts playing, that it’s my own censor, my insecurity speaking. When it speaks, I allow it to add to my creative edge. I know when I’m feeling insecure about my work that this is the time to really push through. And not just creatively, but in the business too. To take the risk, damn the torpedoes, yes I can and yes I will!

    I also remember that not every gallery, or show is the right fit. Not every audience is going to be receptive to me or my work. And that’s perfectly fine with me. Resistance is a sign that I am doing something right. : )

    • Terri,
      You are always entertaining and your attitude is gutsy and refreshing.
      I had the good fortune to have a father who said “Find out what it is you love to do, and then find a way for people to pay you to do just that”.
      He died about ten years ago, but that is still one of my favorite memories of him.

  4. This is a post abundant with insight, Carolyn! I agree, “attitude is everything”! If we don’t stubbornly believe in ourselves, how can we expect others to? I also agree with point 4 that “there is support for you.” I think most of us admire that “dream pursuing” quality in others and support their endeavors. Additionally, with the internet, there has never been a time to feel more connected with those that share the same interests.

    That said, you must be willing to work ridiculously hard to pursue a career in art. Ideas must be refined and skills honed, and neither of these happen without great self-discipline!

    Thanks for your encouraging post, Carolyn!

    • Well said, Erin. I agree totally with you. Even with the economic realities of today, it still is a wonderful time to be an artist – freed from the confines of a gallery system, artists can be their own best marketing and salesperson. The internet is an immediate contact to an immense audience. Your talents in creating relationships have everything to do with your success.

  5. I learned how much some of my friends truly cared for me when they looked at me in horror after I told them I’d left my high paying day job to pursue new career directions. They were SCARED! I have even discovered that some of my artist friends who struggle like me, have negative outlooks about their careers and express their negativity to me about my goals. It is extremely disheartening and hard to deal with, especially since these people whose opinions I respect highly cause me to question myself and bring out my “old tapes” as Terri Lloyd (above) calls them.

    Fortunately, I’ve got a lot other very strong-minded friends who support my risk and understand fully the difficulties that one goes through when pursuing this type of life goal. I surround myself with these people who need the same kind of support from me. We are a network of strong individuals who are fostering each others growth.

  6. Samantha, my readers may not know that you work as an artist’s agent, so you are truly supporting them in a direct and impactful way. You are really needed by the art community – I commend you for all the work you do.

    See Samantha’s interview here

  7. Thanks for the post. It’s something close to my heart. I was discouraged from pursuing an art career at a time of high unemployment. I trained as an Occupational Therapist because jobs were “guaranteed”. Although I enjoyed a lot of what I did, I frequently felt dissatisfied and frustrated.
    About three years ago I realised I only ever wanted to be an Artist and if I didn’t do it then, I’d regret it.
    You’re so right about support! My husband has been my biggest ally but I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how many of my friends are behind me since I made the move. I’ve made many mistakes and still need to increase my market, but I’m so much happier now, I’m getting my work accepted by galleries. I’ve sold some work, not much yet, but it’s a start!
    I’ve got involved with a couple of art groups locally and the support from the other members has been invaluable. I’d say to anyone thinking about a career in art. If you really want it and are willing to work at it. Do it!
    Sure I’ve had rejections but they’re not as bad as I thought they’d be. At least now I’m getting my work accepted, which is just the best feeling in the world.

  8. Fabulous post and timely too I might add. A friend of mine (a creativty coach herself) and I just started working together through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way – the first couple of chapters touch on some of these issues (Julia refers to any negative thoughts as ‘blurts’). Anyhow I for one feel very blessed to have stumbled across your site when I did and also to have found the personal support I need to help me ‘show up’, now I just need to do the work :>

  9. wonderful post! Your comment on – parents, who “steer you towards a business degree” struck so close to home. In fact my parents did just that and were able to persuade me to major in business! I received my degree in supply chain management, and even managed to graduate with a 3.0 from a well know business school. Despite all that the though of pursuing a career in the corporate business environment literally makes me nauseous (to this day!).

    For that reason I’ve been working hard to build a career doing what I love – art (along with other freelance jobs on the side to make ends meet:) It has been a struggle but it’s worth every second.

    ONE last thing – I don’t hold my parents discouragement against them. Yes it would have been wonderful to have studied fine art formally, however I understand their concerns. In the end I’m happy that I do have a business background. Knowing general financials / logistics has been a valuable advantage when it comes to the art world.

  10. Take the experience you gained by being in the business world and apply it to your business as an artist. You can definitely use what you already know as a great asset in your art career!

  11. I have been fortunate in that I had a strong backbone of support from family & friends who encouraged me as an artist and who continue to share with others my work. While social networking has done wonders for artists, word-of-mouth can still be a powerful force when shared from one person to another and so on. Of course you are always going to come across those who people who will degrade you & constantly put you down as an artist. I know because I have experienced this first-hand and it’s painful. I have always felt like I had something special as an illustrator & nothing is going to stop me from achieving what I set out to do from the beginning. When you invest countless time, energy & personal sacrifices the last thing you want to hear is someone saying “you’ll never be famous” or “just give it up”. I am not looking to become famous but we all have a purpose in life & we have to choose our own paths wherever they might take us & at whatever cost. Imagine if all the world’s great explorers, idealists & dreamers had said I give up, forget about this. The same goes for artists and the talents they have been blessed with & have worked for deserve to be shared with the world, so stay inspires & keep the faith. Good things will happen if you’re willing to make it happen, be patient but be persistent & that goes for anything in life, nothing ever comes easy. Shield out all the negative things that are holding you back & turn them into positives. Every day is a blessing- courage+hope=believe

    • Charles, you have a great attitude – I firmly believe that artists must be consistent and persistent to make a living. It sounds like you have a realistic picture of things!

  12. Wow…thanks. I’m only 13 years old, but I’m very shy (I actually have SAD) and introvertive. I have several art teachers all of whom have encouraged me to pursue my talents. However, I know this career choice is extremely risky. I know a couple of artists who have made a living and support 3 kids. Not only that but they are sending their kids to boarding school on the east coast! I couldn’t ever hope for such sucess, but I don’t want anything else in the world more. I’m already insecure because of SAD and my parents laughing at me doesn’t help. My dad doesn’t approve of me. EVER. I show him something Ive been working on for days and he doesn’t say anything. He just blankly stares….my mom isn’t much better. Im labeled as the mysterious shy artist at school, and that’s how people think of me where ever I go. But I really need art…its the only way I deal with the crap I go through on a daily basis….I just don’t know what to do.

    • Rebecca, I’m honored that you read my article and took the time to share your story. I’ve got a little different perspective on your situation – that is that you are so LUCKY to have a passionate love for what you do at this age. Many people grow up and never know what it is that they truly want to do, feeling frustrated because they are in the wrong career. Being so strongly in touch with your direction at a young age is a gift.

      My daughter is like you in that she has always loved art and it has become her life’s work (she is now headed to graduate school and loves it). It can be difficult when your family is not supporting your choice, but ultimately it is YOU who will decide what you will be doing with your life. I encourage you to follow your dreams in whatever way they unfold.

      Read as much as you can about artists who have become successful, learn ways to improve your work, and surround yourself as much as possible with those who support you. And please stop back and visit again!

  13. “Success breeds success. Once you get a few sales or shows under your belt, things come more easily.”

    So very true! Its been years since Ive been through school – had a few shows at first but life got in the way and had to get a real job. Still have a great real job – but this year was big for me. Commissions lead to more commissions and the confidence it builds is unbeatable.

    good article, thanks

    • That’s so true, Eric. Once your confidence level increases, it’s easier to let the rejections roll off your back. You know that you will continue to get more commissions. Often it’s just a matter of time, because it’s a numbers game.

  14. Thanks for posting these positive words. My wife is an accomplished artist, I’m a ‘sort of’ artist… and our artwork has provided the major part of our living for the previous five years.

    There seems to be a seasonal downturn in sales every winter, and this has seemed to be especially so this winter (Yep, June is winter down here). Our main outlet is our local Saturday open-air market. For the three weeks prior to last weekend we had just one sale over three Saturdays… and this did not help our morale. However, last weekend a group of three people came along and made a big purchase of our glass jewellery to give to some special visitors from Japan. Sometimes you just have to stay positive and ‘hang in’.

    We live in New Zealand. I’m guessing that you won’t mind if I put a link to this blog on our local artisan discussion forum ( http://nzartisanmarketeer.yuku.com/ )

    Best wishes… Stephen Coote.

    • Happy to do that, Stephen. And I’m glad you stuck it out even though sales were dismal. Getting through the tough times and staying persistent with your vision is a test that every entrepreneur goes through at times . . . I’ve been there too.

      Best to you both and continue to hang in there!


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