How Do You Know When It’s Time To Become An Artist?


[Note from Cory] Today is a guest post from Dan Johnson. I talk to a LOT of artists who are over 40, 50, or even 60 years old who are just beginning the transition to making a full-time living as an artist. Some of them came to art late in life. Most of them, however, put an art career on hold for years because of family, health, or (mostly) being afraid of giving up the day job.

Dan Johnson is a painter and graphic designer from Sheffield, UK. I found his site, RightBrainRockstar, on Twitter. I joined his mailing list and when I got his email where he talked about jumping out and making the transition from graphic designer to full time artist, I thought about how many artists I know who are in similar situations. Even though Dan is not very old, I think his situation will be familiar to many of you.

As we approach the end of 2011, I think it’s good to think about where you want to be in 2012. Dan, take it away…[/Note]


Have you always wanted to be an artist, but you’re waiting for the right time? Maybe you intend to become an artist when you feel you are good enough, or when you’re in a better financial position, or when your kids have grown up and left home. When will that be? 5 years? 10 years? 20?

Let me tell you, if you’re waiting for the perfect conditions before you can become an artist, you will be waiting a long time. The right time never comes, and there will always be some condition that is not quite right, and you’ll have to wait a bit longer, then a bit longer, and a bit longer still. Before you know it you’ll be retired. Maybe then you can be an artist.

If you don’t feel like waiting that long, then you need to take action now. That doesn’t mean you should necessarily quit your job today, but you definitely need to start taking steps towards your creative career, or it will never happen. Nobody is going to come to you one day and say “Ok, conditions are perfect now, you may be an artist.” What you need to do is accept that there will be obstacles, and then do the best you can to overcome them.

So How Do I Do It?

The fact is I can’t give you a step-by-step guide to making the transition to a creative career, because everyone’s situation is different, so everyone will have different obstacles to overcome.

What I can do is tell you about my own creative journey, and give you some guidelines to point you in the right direction.

Disclaimer: My journey towards the Abundant Artist Lifestyle has only recently begun, so some of you may be way ahead of me here. But I know there will be people reading this who are in the same place I was in a few months ago, so if I can help those people to take the first steps on their creative career path, then that’s good enough for me.

So here are the factors I considered when deciding to become an artist.

Recognizing The Need For Change

The first thing that happened for me, was that the dissatisfaction with my current situation began to outweigh the benefits of having a regular job.

I had been employed as a web designer for around four years, but I had never really been passionate about it. Eventually my dissatisfaction grew to a point where a regular monthly income was not enough for me, and I started to think seriously about making a change.

There will always be voices in the back of your mind telling you you’d be crazy to give up a paying job for the uncertainty of an art career. Those voices never really go away (and some of them are actually the voices of real people.)

But when these doubts start to overwhelm me, I can always rely on 3 simple words to get me focused again: “Life’s too short!”

Life is too short to put off doing what you really know you should be doing. It’s a clichÈ, but it’s true. Steve Jobs used to get up every morning, look in the mirror and ask himself “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer had been “No” for too many days in a row, he knew he needed to change something.

So ask yourself the same question. Maybe it’s time for a change.

Assessing Your Financial Needs

Obviously, we all need enough income to buy food to eat and pay the mortgage, rent, bills etc. so you need to think about how you will make money as an artist.

Personally, I was fortunate enough to have saved up some money to ease me through the transitional period, but not everyone will have this luxury, so you may need to do things differently.

Maybe you already have people lined up waiting for you to put your artwork on sale, or to start taking commissions. If so, that’s great, you can start earning money from your art straight away.

But it’s more likely that you’ll have to build up sales gradually, do some self-promotion, and work hard at finding your target audience and getting your work in front of them. So you may need an additional source of income to begin with, until you are more established.

You could potentially keep your current job, but go part-time, or find another part-time job that is in a more creative field. There are plenty of ways to earn money from your artwork too, so with a bit of hard work you should be able to find a way to support yourself.

When I first left my job, I didn’t fully commit to working as an artist at first. I decided I would work as a freelance web designer, but specializing in building websites for artists. That way I figured I could continue to earn a decent income, while starting to work in the artistic community.

I only did this for a few weeks before I decided now was as good a time as any to put all my efforts into my artwork. So I hung up my web designer hat, and officially declared myself an artist.

Now I’m primarily earning money from art commissions, which I get through my art portfolio site. I have had that site online for several years now, so I already have a decent sized audience who I can sell to.

If you don’t already have one, the best thing you can do to start earning money from your art is to get started creating your own art website.

Assessing Your Ability

Another thing you need in order to succeed as an artist is some level of artistic ability.

That’s not to say that you need to be a master painter with a fine art degree. In fact you don’t really need any formal qualifications to make a living as an artist. But you do need enough skill to produce consistently high quality work, and to have the confidence in your own work to be able to sell it.

If you don’t feel like you’re at that level yet, then you may need to get some more training.

This is why I am currently taking an online course in classical drawing and painting. I have a fair amount of experience in both drawing and painting, but I felt like my lack of any proper instruction was holding me back. I didn’t have the confidence I needed to sell my work, particularly with painting, so I decided to improve my skills.

One important thing to note, is that just because you are still learning, that doesn’t mean that you can’t be earning at the same time. An artists never stops learning. You will never reach a point where you have nothing left to learn, so you don’t need to wait until you are an ‘expert’ before you can make money from your art.

I have sold art in the past that wasn’t as good as the art I sell today, and the art I sell today won’t be as good as the art I sell in 5 years time. We are constantly growing as artists, and that growth will be reflected in your work. But as long as there is someone out there who values your current artwork enough to pay for it, then you can start earning money straight away.

The Right Time Is Now

So that was about the extent of the process I went through to get where I am today. To recap:

  • Acknowledge the need to make a change in your current situation.
  • Figure out how you will make enough money as an artist.
  • Determine whether you need any additional training to increase your confidence.
  • Take action!

Sounds pretty simple when you break it down like that, doesn’t it? As I mentioned, everyone’s situation will be different, and there may be other obstacles you will encounter, but this is a good starting point for you to consider today.

There’s an ancient Chinese proverb that says “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

So stop waiting for that mythical ‘right time’, and do something today to get your art career started.



  1. AlisonQuine says

    Well said Dan! I totally agree. You just have to start somewhere. All the obstacles in the world mean nothing, when you start to experience the wonderful feeling of excitement and moments of total peace when you’re following your heart!

  2. EmmaCooper says

    @rightbrainrocks I love this post – it’s very inspiring! The section about recognising the need for change really made me think about my lifestyle and how I could make some changes to begin to invest more time into creative pursuits to begin to work more purposefully towards my goals. I think the most important thing is to take some sort of action and that’s what I’ll be doing after reading this. Thanks Dan!

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