Red Bartlett Pear, detail
Oil on board, 6 x 7 in.
Sounds too good to be true.
The ultimate dream job.
A job where you paint all day, travel whenever you want, and are adored by thousands of fans.
You can even make some money at it too.
So, how about it? Are you fed up with your 9 to 5? Ready to quit the drudgery for a life of creativity and freedom?
If this idea is floating through your mind, then let me share a little secret with you right now:
Painting full-time is a job.
A challenging, satisfying, personally rewarding job. Professional painters wouldn’t trade it for anything.
But still a job. With no guarantee of success and less freedom than you’d expect.
A job with many of the frustrations, disappointments, and heartaches that jobs have.
Sorry to be the one to break it to you.
And there’s more to know before you leap:
The Art World in 2020
• Few collectors have great eyes for art. They’re busy, distracted people who can be blind to the greatest talents.
• Small and mid-size galleries are in a desperate fight for survival, leaving them more reluctant than ever to take on new artists. For the first time in decades, more galleries close each year than open.
• Commercial portraiture is even tougher. The 19th century is long gone, and few are willing to sit for their portrait anymore. Portrait clients. however, still expect to glow with life on canvas.
• This is a lonely vocation. You’re working by yourself most of the time, with no lunch meetings, no coworker support, and little meaningful feedback.
The price for living the life I have - for any serious, devoted person,
is that at times one must live alone, or feel alone.
Photo by Tony Vaccaro
Creativity isn’t All Glory
Case in point–the words you’re reading right now.
In 2012 I took up blogging as an enjoyable pastime. Writing what I felt like and when I felt like it.
In 2017 blogging became a job. Which meant writing every day, same time each day, regardless of mood. Covering topics that interest readers first and myself second, and trashing most of the drafts.
Still enjoyable, but also a grind sometimes.
Painting is no different. It’s a wonderful activity that can expand you while taking stress out of your life.
But an unpredictable career that brings new stress into your life. The internal and external pressure to produce, exhibit, and sell, continually, can be exhausting.
And the bad news?
It won’t necessarily make you a better artist.
Because the market will either tempt or force you to repeat your successes, which will make you go stale mighty fast.
Wonderful. Read on because here’s what your dream job entails:
Becoming Frighteningly Good
Ran Ortner, Brooklyn, NY
Let’s look at two approaches you can take with your output.
The first approach is to crank out a slew of appealing, affordable works of art that will beautify peoples’ homes. It’s a perfectly sensible approach that some artists do very well with.
Except there are countless artists all over the world doing the same thing. Emerging artists from developing countries are practically giving their stuff away. Competing with that crowd will be tough.
The second approach is to devote 80% of your time to getting good. But not just good, impossibly good. Producing museum-quality art and pricing it higher. Remember, we’re talking livelihood here.
This puts you in a completely different category, and some interesting things start to happen:
Your images go viral. Collectors begin stalking you, some even fighting over your pieces. Contemporary master Ran Ortner can’t meet the demand for his work because nobody else paints like him.
Tips for taking your skills to the next level can be found in 5 Unusual Habits to Keep You Growing Artistically (See habit #2).
Wait—the whole point in becoming a painter is to leave my boring, dead-end job. Why would I want to find another boring, dead-end job?
Because this is an expensive habit.
You’ll need a studio, supplies, equipment, frames, storage, and more. Even if you have a financial cushion there’s no telling when your art will support itself, let alone you.
Lack of a steady income, a.k.a. "that day job",
killed my creativity
faster than anything else.
The good news is that work that’s right for you can fuel your creativity while paying the bills.
Teaching and gallery work are the obvious choices.
I’ve also known career artists who loved their side-gigs as personal trainers, interior designers, even farmhands. Take a lesson from our cousins in the acting profession. They audition all day, then do what it takes to keep going.
Learning Damn Near Everything
Collectors ask questions, and they expect meaningful answers. It’s their way of assessing you. If you respond with a bunch of hemming and hawing you’ll lose their confidence.
One of my favorite painters knows everything about everything–art history, conservation, architecture, the molecular structure of paints, and solvents–you name it. And he’s one of those guys you just hate sometimes.
Because he’s supremely talented and a walking encyclopedia. So it’s no surprise he’s got a mile-long waiting list for his works that sell well into the six figures.
A Little Soul-Searching
Funny thing about human nature is how we can get tired of anything; that dream career, that dream home, that dream relationship (Oh, you again).
Drinking Margaritas on the beach sounds like fun but do it every day and even that can get old.
I’m not trying to be a wet blanket. You could be a smashing success right out of the gate, as many artists are. The starving artist archetype lives mostly in the minds of people who’ve never known one. The truth is that some of the savviest businesspeople around are painters, sculptors, or photographers.
Just know that the carefree, stress-free, life of creative expression is a myth. Some art business gurus will tempt you with such a life so they can get your money and quit their jobs.
Loving This Work
That said, in my experience, there’s only one lasting motivation for painting full time:
Nothing else makes you feel more alive.
Not traveling, not hanging out with friends, not making lots of money. You’ll probably have to cut back on those things for a while.
But if the feel of a paintbrush in your hand sets you on fire, if you’d rather be at the easel than anywhere else in the world, then yes, you should seriously consider making this your life.
Because creating art is noble.
You’ll bring inspiration to the world.
You’ll learn and grow all the time.
You’ll be thought of as special. Because you are.
There are real challenges to this life. Chances are you’ll be tempted to quit, probably more than once.
But if you stay with it, the challenges are worth the satisfaction of knowing you had the courage to pursue your passion, and the resourcefulness to make it work.