Different mindset helps to turn passion for art into income
When Paul Flint left a steady job more than a year ago, he set his sights on doing art full time.
Painting had long been something he pursued in his free time on nights and weekends, but sales started picking up, offering him the enticing chance to leave the corporate world behind.
“I can’t imagine anything better than getting to come to the studio every day,” he said, putting finishing touches on a painting in his space in West Greenville’s Art Bomb Studio.
“I would love to not look for another job because this is my dream.”
But living the dream has its price.
“The hard part for me is not knowing when the next check is coming. There’s things I’m doing without because of that,” he said — things like health insurance and having a pet.
The hit-or-miss nature of the income is what drives many artists to find full- or part-time work away from their creations. Some teach, some work in galleries or other art-related jobs.
Tracie Easler, a potter and printmaker in Cherokee Springs, said she knows plenty of artists who work at The Home Depot.
“It makes a lot of sense because they offer insurance, they offer benefits. You know each week that you’re going to have money to go buy paint,” she said.
“Rare is the artist that can earn a living solely from their artwork,” said Mark Pruett, associate professor at USC Upstate’s George Dean Johnson Jr. College of Business and Economics.
But it’s possible, and the only way to do it, he said, is to approach art as a business, complete with bank ledgers, marketing plans and a sense of economic purpose.
Greenville watercolorist Lynn Greer said recognition of artists as small business owners is lacking in society, replaced by an unfair characterization of a “starving” and flaky folk.
“I think people think it’s a hobby and it’s fun, so it must not be a business,” she said. “It’s hard to know how to keep people interested and how to keep people buying and how to keep yourself motivated.”
Elizabeth Ramos, co-founder of the Indie Craft Parade, has grown familiar with the challenges artists face in turning their work into wages. She sees more than 70 of them, many just starting out, exhibiting at the Indie Craft Parade every year.
“If you are a fantastic artist but you don’t know how to sell your work or you don’t know how to present yourself, you’re only going to go so far,” she said. “It’s the difference between having art as a hobby and having an art business.”
Indie Craft Parade recently hosted a one-day conference, the Makers Summit, that aimed to help artists with “how to make the things you love and how to make that sustainable,” she said.
The key to making that happen, experts said, is for artists to change their mindset and think of themselves as businesspeople.
“It’s a bottom-line idea,” said Joe Thompson, who teaches art at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities and is a working sculptor.
“You’re running a small business,” he said. “You’ve got to advertise. You’ve got bills.”
Caroline Lott, an adjunct professor of art at Furman University, said just learning what’s required of small business operators is an important step for artists, whose first thoughts are probably not about business licenses and balance sheets.
“I know so many artists who can paint really, really well, but if you were to ask them about what percentage of their income should they set aside for taxes, they would look at you and blink,” she said.
Because of the nature of creativity, artists said it can be difficult to get into a more analytical mindset.
“You almost need to take a week and think business and then go for two weeks and think art,” Lott said. “The biggest mistake I’ve seen is people who are artists and they say, ‘I’m an artist. I don’t need to know this.’”
In a professional practices course, she teaches young artists some of the basics. Start small, she said.
Learn about basic tax and copyright laws so that you don’t find yourself on the receiving end of a fine or penalty later on.
Get some guidance on writing a compelling artist’s statement and putting together portfolios that will help you market yourself. Carry professional business cards.
Almost everyone is accustomed to maintaining personal finances and a household budget, and artists have to apply those steps to their business as well, said Pruett, who has been working with the Spartanburg arts community to set up a series of business workshops for artists.
Track costs and create a budget for your art.
“If you’re lucky enough to have something that you love doing, pursue it. But give yourself the tools and the knowledge that you need to make that pursuit easier,” he said.
The only way to make a living as an artist is, of course, to find someone to buy the stuff you make. Marketing, artists said, is the single most important step to success.
Greenville artist Kent Ambler, who has been supporting himself with his art since 1997, said his early success came just from beating the streets — sending work to galleries and then following up in person, getting his foot in the door by virtue of persistence.
Flint said that’s a step he knows he needs to take, but one at which he’s admittedly weak.
“I’m not very good at promoting myself. What I need to do if I’m going to keep doing this is find more galleries,” he said. “I just hate the idea of going in there and saying, ‘Look at my work. Look at what I can do.’”
Marketing for artists is all about getting your name and your work in front of the public, said Easler, who teaches a seminar on the business of art in Furman’s Learning for You program.
Some artists do that through an online presence, some through fairs and festivals. Ambler said he reluctantly participated in an art festival several years ago and was surprised when he brought in thousands of dollars in sales over the course of a weekend. Now he does several every year, and they’ve become an important part of his business plan.
Collage artist Judy Verhoeven said her best marketing has been of the face-to-face variety at events like Art in the Park and Artisphere. When people get to know her, she said, they feel more connected to her work.
Cultivating people skills and maintaining relationships are an important part of artist marketing, Lott said. Gone are the days of the stereotypical difficult artist.
“That was over in the ’80s,” she said. “You have a lot of artists who were jerks and had terrible people skills and because they were so talented and brilliant, they still got pushed forward. Anymore, that just doesn’t happen.”
Easler said artists may have to do some research to find out where and how to reach their best market.
“One of the biggest things that you’ve got to make sure is you know who’s going to be buying your art,” she said. “You have to understand who you’re marketing to and then focus your money in that area.”
Pruett recommended artists offer an array of pieces whenever they participate in a show or or other exhibit.
“They’re not all the same thing and, importantly, they’re not all the same price. And that way you start getting a sense for what’s going to sell,” he said.
Many artists rely on commissioned pieces to provide a semi-steady source of income, but getting work like that can take years of gradually building up your personal “brand” and name recognition — not to mention the money to keep your studio stocked with the tools and equipment of your trade.
“Most artists start as doing art and something else. That’s kind of the nature of the business,” said Thompson, who recently had a commissioned piece installed at the Governor’s School entrance.
“Artists often take a little longer to mature, and oftentimes their path to being an artist is circuitous.”
An important, but sometimes difficult, component of marketing, artists said, is making pieces that people will want to buy.
“The problem that most people who become artists have is … they want to paint what they want to paint, and they expect everybody to love it,” Greer said. “And it doesn’t necessarily work that way.”
Greer said that because of her early career in advertising, the notion of appealing to the public’s taste was a given for her when she began focusing on her art more than two decades ago.
“The only way I found to make money from it is paying attention to what the public likes,” she said. “You have got to know that you can find joy in the process while making it joyous for the buyer to buy something.”
In the modern economy, one that has seen many a struggling artist give up on art for lack of income, art for art’s sake is more a flight of fancy than a working artist’s credo, artists said.
“You have to let go of your ego when you are trying to please another,” said Verhoeven. “You have to think about what is going to be attractive to people, what they want, what they like.”
Her own home’s walls are bedecked with pieces she created for herself, compelled by a compulsion to express her inner thoughts and needs. They’re meaningful to her, she said, but probably not something that would be particularly appealing to the public.
That sometimes frustrating reality is one Flint encountered when he made the transition to full-time artist. Certain styles and subject matters sell better than others, he said, and so he spends more time than he’d necessarily like painting those things.
“In theory you can do more work, but in actuality you might have to do work you’re not crazy about,” he said. “I like to do it … when I’m inspired by something, not when I need to pay a bill.”
But bills remain a reality, and so he sets aside days to do more commercially successful pieces and other days to do the things that move him.
It’s a balancing act, artists said.
“Find your own way to make yourself happy and interest the public,” Greer said. “If you can’t do that, you don’t have to give up what you love. You can still do that for yourself, but you’re going to have to find another way to make a living.”