How to Make a Living as an Artist

StClaire art.jpg

I was recently asked “How do you make a living as a full-time artist?” That is the million dollar question for a lot of really creative people out there, and there are so many factors involved in the answer. I’ve seen people become really successful with an art career and some miserably fail. It’s really not rocket science, but there are certain things you should do and some you shouldn’t do that can help or hurt your chances. Let me explain.

A few years ago, a gentleman came into my art studio and told me he was an artist and wanted to talk to me about getting his paintings into my “gallery”. He then proceeded to remove several oil paintings from a cardboard box to show me. I had to explain that this was my studio (where I create and sell) my own art, and not an art gallery per se. And honestly, the level of skill I saw was not something that would inspire sales and sales are the only way an artist can make a career out of creating art.

Just because you want to sell something
doesn’t mean anyone will want to buy it.

I am reminded me of an experience I had when I was four years old. I wanted some money to fund a trip to the store for candy and baseball cards, so I cooked up a scheme involving a handful of rocks. See, I decided I would set up a card table out by the street and make a sign that read “ROCKS FOR SALE”. These were super cool rocks (I thought) and I was sure someone would agree (enough to part with a quarter). No one even stopped to look at these gems-in-the-rough. No one. Important lesson learned: Just because you want to sell something doesn’t necessarily mean anyone will want to buy it.

In my opinion, if someone desires to make a living creating and selling artwork, they need to be willing to seek solid artistic training, critique and learn the basics of promoting their business. 


If you want to create and sell your artwork as a career, get training, and pick your school carefully. Not all art schools or art programs teach actual skills. Visit the school and take a look at the student art and ask yourself a question: “Does this look like something people would actually purchase?” Some of what I see at art colleges look like the students are having a truly cathartic experience creating some really edgy art, but unless that’s combined with real skills learning, how do you make a living with that when you graduate? This is why so many art students graduate and end up flipping burgers. Training is really important. Look, if someone works on my car or repairs my air conditioner or operates on my brain or makes me Beef Wellington at some expensive restaurant downtown, I would absolutely expect they were well trained and have some real ability. Same with art. Same with everything else we do.

I can hear someone say, "So you just dismiss everyone who's self taught? You think we all need art degrees?" And I would answer a definite "no". I basically invented (self-taught) my whole technique I use (with the help of the foundation I received with my training). I'm not discounting the concept of "self-taught" at all. I just think that a person can go a lot farther in any profession we're talking about it if that person got some coaching, and the easiest way to get coaching is school. There are actually "rules" in art that would be really helpful for an aspiring artist to be very familiar with.  Knowledge of those rules will help you create something amazing. When I was a kid, I was bored with normal tomato soup and so...I decided I would experiment with adding orange juice to it. I learned very quickly that certain flavors blend well together and others definitely do not. There are rules. An art degree is definitely not the only way but it's the easiest way. If you don't go that route, try to find a mentor. All I'm saying is that in addition to any possible self-teaching, get trained. Get input from others (and especially experts), which conveniently leads me to my next point:


If an artist has an arrogant personality that doesn't listen to or seek out critique, I don't think that's going to help them move forward. (I have more to say on this subject in an earlier posting if you're interested.) To make a living doing this, you have to listen for criticism and not just TO criticism. Sometimes what an artist wants to paint may be really therapeutic, but won't be sellable. When you look at art creation as a career, you have to find a balance -- it should be both inspiring to you and inspiring to the viewer of your art.  

I’ve had one artist a couple years ago visit my studio and ask if they could make an appointment to ask me for advice as to how to make art his career. That was totally flattering and I liked the fact he asked for an appointment (that was respectful). When you show someone respect, they will be much more likely to help you out with some advice. So seek out other artists and/or gallery owners. If they’re too busy, they’ll tell you, but you may get some really great advice this way. 

The other thing you could do would be to enter your work in juried art shows. If your artwork is consistently rejected or consistently gets attention and/or wins an award, that will be a real gauge as to whether your abilities are what they'd need to be. 


Get professional looking business cards and create a website. The website should have your artist statement, bio and lots of photos of your work, and how to contact you. Do you do commissions? Explain how that works. Don’t be afraid to look at other artist's websites and make notes of what you like and don’t like. If you can’t afford to pay someone to create a website for you, there are DIY website programs out there and they’re fine. Just make it simple and clean and informative. 


After training, critique and creating professional-looking self promo tools, you’re ready to begin actually putting together your career. In my next post, I’ll discuss the variety of ways you might do that and explain what I did (which was a bit less “conventional” than most professional artists out there) but it worked really well for me.