Paul Gauguin was a stockbroker for 11 years before he decided to become a painter. With his career change, he split with his wife and children and ruined his own life. He became depressed and even tried to commit suicide.
People hear that story and think, “Why in the world would anyone with money want to quit their job and become an artist?”
As an artist yourself, dear reader, you probably identify with this poor chicken. Working a day job is just the worst. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Some artists have had crazy demanding day jobs and still managed to build a successful art career. Kelly Rae Roberts was a social worker. Matt Leblanc and Hugh Mcleod were advertising executives. I worked for internet marketing firms for six years before I went full time with The Abundant Artist. There are a lot of stories like these.
Last week an artist posted a question over in the ArtEmpowers forums. I’m paraphrasing here, but essentially her question was how do I build an art business while I have a day job?
I get this question a lot. It’s tough, no lie. There’s a reason that so many young artists refuse to get a job – how can you make art, show it, and sell it when you are working for someone else 8 – 10 hours per day? You need time to be creative.
Plus, if you’re not a young artist you might have other things to think about like romantic relationships, children, pets or even (gasp) vacations and relaxation time! What’s an ambitious artist to do?
You Have to Want It
Above all, here’s the issue: you have to want it enough. You have to want it so much that other things don’t matter.
You have to want it so much that you’re willing to forego television, movies, sleep, nights out with friends or exercise. You have to be willing to sacrifice a lot of what you want right now for what you want your life to look like in the future.
You don’t have to totally neglect yourself or let everything go, but you have to want it so much that you wake up thinking about art and go to sleep thinking about art.
If you have a good job, or even an okay job, you have to ask yourself: do I really want to become an artist full time?
It’s a hassle. You’re going to work long, grueling hours with little to show – probably for years before you have a big enough nest egg to quit and enough collector interest to keep up your momentum.
Lisa Call is an example of an artist with a great day job who still has a day job and an active social life. She does her art when she’s not working, and she’s perfectly fine with that. You can have that life. There is nothing wrong with that – Abundant Artists find joy and fulfillment with the life that they want.
How to Do It
Still with me? You’re sure you want the life of a full-time artist? Before I share my thoughts, here are a couple of good quotes from artists I mentioned above.
Matt Leblanc – “When I was working full time and working on building my art business, I was always telling people that I was training for a business marathon. If it doesn’t hurt and you don’t feel like stopping, then you are not working hard enough to succeed.”
Hugh Mcleod – “If you accept the pain, it cannot hurt you.”
Kelly Rae Roberts – “Starting an art biz while stilling working a day job is absolutely possible. You’ll need a few things: a vision for what you’re working toward, passion as fuel, and commitment to go the distance one small step at a time.”
Matt, Hugh and Kelly Rae are all artists that worked demanding day jobs while building their art business. Notice that they don’t sugar coat what it takes. Most of the artists I talk to don’t spend enough time on the business side of their art business. You may prefer to be in the studio, but if you’re not making enough money from your art to live on, then you need to spend more time marketing and selling – it’s really that simple.
Matt told me once that he spends 50% of his time on the business side of his art. More when his Fusion show is coming up. After talking to dozens of artists who’ve made the full-time day job to full-time artist transition, here’s what I’ve learned:
- Be insanely jealous of your time. Your art business is your second job. If you were working for someone else, they would expect you to show up at a certain time. You have to set the same expectation for yourself, and for your family. Let your people know that you will be spending every Tuesday night on your art business, come rain or shine. If you don’t have a whole evening each week, then make it 20 minutes per day. Something is better than nothing, and consistency is better than binges with long breaks.
- Sacrifice. I’ve mentioned this a few times already, but it bears saying again. What can you cut out of your life to achieve your dreams? TV? A recreational soccer league? Can you cut down work hours? I love tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons, but I cut down to one game per month while I still had a day job.
- Take care of yourself. While you need to work hard, you have to maintain the engine of your new business – you. Eat well. Get enough sleep. It’s a marathon and you’ll have to fuel accordingly. This also applies to relationships. Talk to your spouse and your children. Let them know what you want to do and they will support you – if you keep your word and continue showing up. Remember to exercise.
- Focus on the two most important activities. Sales are important. Fulfilling orders is important. Everything else should be closely scrutinized. Will it lead to a sale? Are you budgeting enough time to finish commissions? When I was getting TAA up and running, the website was a mess on the back end. So was my apartment. I didn’t have great business cards.
- Have a goal and an exit strategy. Know what you’re working towards. How much money do you need to make? Can you get by with less than your current income? What will you do when you hit that goal? I wouldn’t recommend burning your day job bridges. When I hit my revenue goal from my business, I talked to my boss and we came up with a two month exit plan. I left on great terms and I know that the people I worked with would love to work with me again if something were to happen.
- Don’t break the rules at your day job. You still have to do a good job at your current job. You can pull back on new projects, though. Be sure you’re working on your job while you’re at work, and keep your art business related activities to lunch and your breaks. If you have noncompete agreements in place or similar contracts, be sure you’re not violating them.
- Live like you’re already on your own. Cut down your expenses. When I decided that I was ready to head out on my own, my wife and I cut our expenses down to the barest minimum. We tried living on what I made from my business and put my salary in the bank. I’m incredibly glad we did that.
Having your own art business can be the most fulfilling thing. It’s an incredible feeling to realize that you will pay your rent by selling paintings that came from your own brain and hand. If this is truly your passion, then you will find a way to do it.
EDIT: We did this really awesome interview with Matt Leblanc on the Creative Insurgents podcast. Matt built a six-figure art business while working a six-figure day job. You can watch the video of the interview below, or subscribe to the podcast by visiting CreativeInsurgents.com.
I’d love to hear from other TAA readers. What did you do while you were working for someone else that made your transition to full time artist easier?