Making a Living in Art

Artists are weird.

I didn’t know I was weird growing up, but you can see it when you look at old pictures of me…

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And then again when you look at more recent pictures…

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I am driven by some desire… need… NO… requirement to create. Chances are if you are reading this then you are an artist too and you can relate to this feeling and maybe even put it into words better than I can.

As a visual artist I’m constantly inspired by shape, color, rhythm, pattern, texture, space, and scale. I’m inspired to the point where the only way I can really process it or fully understand it is to try and capture and communicate it. The mediums I’ve harnessed to attempt to do that so far are photography and cinematography.

Being an artists can be incredibly frustrating. Sometime the mediums I am comfortable with are inadequate to serve the creative expression I’m trying to communicate. Sometimes you have an overwhelming desire to create something to satisfy the artistic urge, but no matter what you can’t create anything you love.

As I went through college I always had the sinking suspicion in the back of my mind that making a living in art was a pipe dream. Photography as a profession? Impossible in a world where everyone has a camera in their pocket. I was so convinced that all artists were “starving artists” that I even considered other career paths. I applied for the the speech pathology program. I almost became a computer programmer.

But then, somehow I did it.

I’m doing it.

And no, it wasn’t as straight forward as taking amazing pictures of subjects I loved and selling them. My path was long and twisted. But I’m here now. I get paid to be an image maker. A pixel pusher. A movie maker.

I think I’ve learned a few keys that will help you do it to. But before I get to that I have to tell you that it’s not easy, but it’s not as hard as you think.

If I could tell people one thing about my work or myself as an artist, it would be that I'm nothing special. My work is nothing special. Anyone can do this as a profession. Anyone can acquire the skills necessary to make images or films like I do. It requires work. It requires a true passion. It requires blood, sweat, and tears.

People see the amazing locations and beautiful images. They don't see the thousands of dollars invested in equipment. The thousands of failed attempts. The early mornings and late nights. The physical, mental, and emotional toll a creative field exacts. They don't see the insanity of hours, weeks, or months that are sometimes invested in getting just one shot.

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If you are really an artist than you will understand that none of the obstacles I listed above are of any real concern. You’ll embrace them as part of the process. Even if it takes you years to start making a living in art, you’ll know that it’s necessary to fully satisfy and realize who you are. You’ll know that the pain of not creating is far more painful than anything you’ll experience getting to that point.

Okay. So with that preface out of the way, here are three of the things I think I’ve learned that are keys to you becoming a gainfully employed artist.

  1. Create meaningful work.

This is so important. especially when you are starting out. Some artists have the tendency to try to create the work that they think will sell. They end up creating work that they are not passionate about. I don’t think it’s ever been more true than it is today. People want to buy the work that has true meaning. If it doesn’t mean anything to you, how can you expect it to mean anything to anyone else?

When you are first starting out use the fact that you are not a paid artist to your advantage! You have no boss. You get to create exactly the work you want! Lucky you!

When I was starting out I loved great food and product photography. I was amazed by it and wanted to learn how to create it. I also was passionate about food (who isn’t?). I started tinkering in the kitchen and in the garage. I made messes. There were many failures. But the result was some of the first images in my budding portfolio that I was proud of.

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I experimented with shape, color, rhythm, pattern, texture, space, and scale. I learned as I went and it was this learning and body of work that landed me my first job as an artist. Years later, when I had the chance to have a candid discussion with my supervisor, he revealed that when he was reviewing my application and going through the interview process, the work was good, but the fact that he could tell that I cared about the work was more important to his hiring decision.

2. Be Creative

It is really hard to be creative on demand. Have you ever suffered from creative block? Ever struggled to come up with an idea? It’s a frustrating experience and even more frustrating when you’re on a deadline and your job is literally to be creative on demand. Having been in this situation enough times I’ve developed a 4 step process to being creative. Yup that’s right, being creative is not a single thing you are, it’s a process that you do.

Here’s the process:

Step One: Copy

How do I start the creative process? I start by copying.

*GASP*

I know right? It sounds so evil. We’re told all our lives to do our own work. Be original. Find your own voice. Discover your style. That’s all good advice, but unfortunately it does not tell us how to do those things. How many times have you wanted to create something but you have no idea where to start? That really is the big problem with creation. How do you even begin working on something original if you have no reference point?

The key for me is to copy. It’s okay to copy. Find work that inspires you and copy it. Learn what is out there already. We don’t create in a vacuum. Understand the landscape. Look to art history. Do your research. You are struggling to create something unique? How will you even get close if you don’t know what ideas have come before.

Copy the masters in your craft. Copy the best of the best.

I’m not talking about plagiarism.

I’m not talking about cheating.

I am talking about the creative process.

The point of copying is that it’s a place to start. It sets you in motion. It gets your brain churning. But most importantly it will lead you to step two in the creative process:

Step Two: Fail

In the process of copying work you admire… you will fail. It’s almost a guarantee. Great creations are not a result of a single attempt.

Again, society teaches us that we shouldn’t fail. Failure is not an option. Don’t screw up.

We’re naturally afraid of failing because we don’t want to look bad. We don’t want to bruise our ego. Above all, we don’t want the pain and work that comes with going through failure and trying to recover.

We have to learn to love failure. We have embrace it and expect it. We have to change our mindset.

If you are failing you’re on the right track!

Failure naturally comes with side effects. Happy little accidents. Creation. Sometimes entirely new and amazing ideas are born from failure. Sometimes all that comes from failure is redirection. All of the outcomes in this part of the process are okay. Learn to be okay with failure.

Step Three: Learn

In the process of failing, you will learn something. Most obviously you will learn what didn’t work. The natural response when we fail is to cover it up. Erase your mistake. The problem with this is that we can easily forget what led to the failure.

It’s better to document and study our failures. Share them! Think of how much knowledge, experience, and inspiration we could gain from each other if we didn’t let our ego get in the way of sharing our mistakes. Some creative failures can be creative masterpieces in the right hands.

When we study our failures we learn. In the process of learning, you will create something new.

Step Four: Create

I don’t know why, but when we go through the process of Copying > Failure > Learning > It’s much easier to then capture lightning in a bottle and create something wonderful. After we struggle, that’s when a little flash of true creativity will arrive.

Will Smith said:

God places the best things in life on the other side of terror.

It’s absolutely true. Creation is not easy. It takes risk. It takes failure. It takes learning. Society is so quick to reward what they perceive as creative genius. I say we should praise the hard work that went into the process.

Are we too quick to accept praise for the wrong reason? Next time you see and admire a person’s photography and wish you could be as good as them remember what they’ve been through to get where they are. Use that inspiration to start your own creative process.

Remember:

There will always be someone who can execute art better than you can.

There will always be someone with better equipment than you have.

There will never be someone who will create exactly like you do.

3. Charge what you are worth

This is a hard but important lesson. Much of the time, the biggest obstacle to charging what you are worth is YOU. You have to have confidence to stand by a price for your service that will allow you to provide a high quality product to your customer and still make a profit. Easier said than done. 

Does your employer or client value you? Do they take full advantage of your full potential? Do they value what you will become? If not, work towards finding work where these things are true. 

Focus on what value you can provide and get good at selling it. Focus on what works and repeat that strategy instead of constantly getting distracted and looking for the next great thing. Don’t hesitate to change up a partnership if it’s not working, or if a better fit comes along. 

Here’s a video of a role play on this topic that I found incredibly helpful.

From artist to artist, I hope these thoughts have helped you in some way. Either way I’d love to hear from you. What are you working on? What is your inspiration? What is your creative process? What work would you do if you didn’t have to pay the bills?

Leave me a comment and I’ll respond.

Or find me on instagram.

Seriously, don’t be an internet stranger. Let’s chat.

Be good to each other,

-Mark