How to make a living as an artist

How to Make a Liveing as an Artist drawing by Dan Holst Soelberg

I recently heard this episode of Marc Maron’s podcast WTF that set off fireworks in my head. Here’s a link. Rhett Miller is the guest and he talks very candidly about his life and experience as a musician.

Rhett lived with artists and other passionate young creatives when he was younger and saw what a struggle it was for visual artists to make a living. He realized that music made more sense to him.

“You make a painting—that painting doesn’t do shit, it just sits there. One person buys it one time. You know, if I do a song I could play it every night, I can put it on a record, I can sell it. So, it just seemed like an easier commodity to negotiate.”

It’s a lesson every artist learns. Being true to your vision and uncompromising with your artistic integrity is the most important value when you’re committed to a creative life. It’s the first commandment, and it’s your driving force. But the second creative commandment that Rhett figured out at a young age, is finding a medium that you can sell to make a living. The two commandments can co-exist, and it’s the responsibility of the artist to find that balance.

This idea has shaped my creative pursuits. It’s the reason I started making books. Books are, as Rhett puts it, commodities that seem easier for me to negotiate.

If you’re creative, you do commercial work, and it’s rare that commercial work respects artistic integrity. The creative people I know compartmentalize. They put commercial work in its own category and they do it in order to fund personal art-making. I do it myself. I’m a graphic designer and I take on commissions for artwork. We haven’t given up, sold out or compromised. It’s quite the opposite. We’re finding a way to make a living so we can continue creating autonomously. The goal for every creative person—the holy grail of the artist—is to work for a personal vision and make uncompromising work that finds commercial success on its own merit. No changes, no adaptations. It just sells itself.

What does “make a living” mean? The answer is entirely personal and it defines how you live your creative life. You need to define it for yourself by answering three questions:

1. What comforts can’t I live without?

2. How much money do I need to get them?

3. How do I want to spend my time?

That’s the formula for every artist and it is a struggle. A non-artist doesn’t struggle with these questions. The non-artist who struggles with these questions is suppressing an inner-artist.

If you’re an artist, you must find a way of living that supports your creative life, as much as your creative life supports your way of living. This is a beautiful and dynamic balance. It’s a state of bliss. How you spend your time becomes a habit that either helps you live in bliss or hinders your bliss.

If you’re wondering how you’re supposed to know whether you’re doing something that helps or hinders your bliss, the answer is remarkably simple. If what you are doing does not help your bliss, it’s hindering your bliss.

Yes, I have read Joseph Campbell. And yes, I know life has a habit of throwing curve-balls at bliss in the form of injury, sickness, disease, disorders, death and just plain bad luck. That’s why the life of an artist can be so hard. There are so many reasons for giving up and catatonically drooling at a continuous stream of videos until you shrivel up into an arthritic fist of sore wrinkles. As impossible as it feels to commit your life to art, living without art doesn’t just feel impossible for the artist, it is impossible. There is simply no other way to be. Likewise, making a living has no alternative. We’re all in the same boat.

I’m going to conclude by saying something that only people who have committed to a life of art can understand: there is no such thing as a “starving artist.” The “starving” some artists do is superficialthey earn less, live simply and have few possessions. But what they gain is focus, commitment to a vision, and less time spent on distractions like expensive leisure activities and maintaining possessions. Without the liberties that money affords, artists are more resourceful and find more time to spend making art. Hard-working artists who really do starve are just like non-artists who starve: they lack opportunity, privilege, and resources necessary to navigate our capitalist system. They simply don’t know how to apply their skills in a way that is marketable. As Rhett Miller put it, they haven’t discovered a commodity that is easy to negotiate.

Maybe you’re an artist who hasn’t yet discovered your commodity. So, how do you do it? I’m going to explore that throughout articles and interviews in the coming year. Stay tuned!

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4 thoughts on “How to make a living as an artist

  1. Good post. In software, we use the term “scalability”, and not just in reference to how many people can access a site or database at any given moment. Creating an intellectual work—whether art, writing, music, drama, or software—that is intended for duplication via broadcast or publication can break the scalability constraint between hours and effect: The net result, whether one measures in benefit to society, enjoyment by others, and/or dollars has the potential to (but is not guaranteed to) scale orders of magnitude beyond time invested.

    The choice to produce non-scalable vs. scalable work is orthogonal to artistic integrity. IMHO, integrity is more about the choice of benefit measurement (e.g. dollars to the exclusion of anything else, or as an enabler for the others?) and what one does (or doesn’t do) in attainment of one’s goals.

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    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Chris. We all share a creative impulse, and the way we create reveals a passionate need for self-expression. I think the software analogy is a good one. Can I interview you for a future article?

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  2. This ties into, creative hobbies and non creative hobbies. Artist who work day jobs have creative hobbies, non artist just have hobbies without pressure. The difference is creative ones are not deemed sucsesfull unless they make a living in the creative hobby. Example, a woodworker hobiest, shows their work and is told how great it is. That they are so good they should sell their work and quit their job. Now the one speaking is into sports as a hobby, but are never expected to drop everything to be considered sucsesfull. They just ski on some weekends.

    Sometimes I wish as creatives we could just have fun creating without having to be in the $$$ to be deemed sucsesfull. Although many creatives would love to do both. This may even help push some creatives to be more active in their creativity. Others not so much. Usually society judges sucsesfull creativity based on the money made. The sad part is most creatives are way underpaid for their creativity or hobby.

    Creativity and enjoyment of life is why we are here. So why is it so undervalued, by society?

    Just brainstorming some thoughts. Your post sparked some ideas I’ve had for a while.

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    • Thanks for the great comment, Bill. I think our capitalist culture puts too much emphasis on developing skills and selling a product. Pop music is a good example. A pop song is a slick, formula-produced arrangement presented by an attractive singer wearing highly polished fashion. I’d rather listen to music that’s original and interesting made by someone who can’t sing well in the traditional sense. I’ll take Tom Waits over Katie Perry any day.

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