Sunday, December 1, 2019

Making a Living at Art

What's a tripod got to do with making a living? Read on!


Several years ago, a student asked if I'd teach a workshop on the business of painting.  I declined.  At the time, I felt that I'm no expert.  I still feel this way.  On the other hand, I've been running my art business successfully for 20 years now.  I thought it might be time to write a few posts on how I do things.  But as they say, "Your mileage may vary."  What works for me may not work for you.

In this post, let's talk about making a living from painting.  It's hard.  It's very hard.  Despite all the helpful coaching seminars, videos and newsletters, you'll not be successful unless you have the drive and the creativity.  Drive consists of primal need and persistence.  You were hungry then, are hungry now, and will always be hungry.  The thought foremost in your mind, from sunrise to sundown, is to remedy that.   And that's where creativity helps.  Yes, you'll study the usual methods for hunting and trapping game and farming, but survival depends on your being able to invent a solution when a plague or blight comes along that's not addressed in the manual.

Did I mention talent or skill?  No.  Looking at many of the paintings that sell today, I'm not sure if these are relevant.  Did I mention a deep-set yearning to paint?  No.  Some desire helps, but it's not that important.  When I was a bartender, my goal in life certainly wasn't to make the perfect banana daiquiri, yet despite that, I got tips and a paycheck.

I am a hard worker.  I answer e-mail at 4 in the morning.  I draft a magazine article while the coffee is percolating.  I add a few remedial touches to whatever's on the easel before breakfast.  The rest of the day is more of the same, with longer sessions at the easel or computer, plus frequent breaks that include tea with Trina and walks with Raku.

But I don't just paint for a living.  I also write and teach.  Although my painting sales each year are respectable, they wouldn't feed me all year.  Also, I don't think it is smart to depend on just painting sales.  The Dow goes up, the Dow goes down, recession hits.  I like to have two other means of making a living.  Neither writing nor teaching by themselves would allow me to buy my pricey organic vegetables.  But together, these three things make the legs of a very stable tripod.  They make a living.

In my next business post, I'll share how I keep track of my paintings.

5 comments:

Helen said...

It also helps, or pays to maintain one's health to one can reach age 65 with strength and minimal limitations so one can enjoy some predictable income. Knowing that there is enough for good organic food, and basic shelter costs, but not much else. That bit of predictable income makes a huge difference in my own financial comfort.

nean12350 said...

Very inciteful commentary on the realistic side of being a painter. I think talent is certainly a main factor but as you suggest not the only criteria. You do seem to have an endless supply of energy and are very consistent with the work, which is always excellent. Without this consistent body of work, it would be very hard to promote one's self.

Michael Chesley Johnson, Artist / Writer said...

Staying healthy is very important. Without good health, there can be nothing else.

Michael Chesley Johnson, Artist / Writer said...

From the mailbag:

Thank you so much for your insights. I admire your productivity and ability to describe in words, the process that many of us go through. ... I remember my first serious workshop with you on Campobello... I “winged” it...scared, but ready to explore. Thanks for being so accepting.
[and]
Wonderful share, Michael, very honest, This is why years ago my parents insisted I get a Degree in Art Education. I did but I still yearn for that studio in NYC That I never had, do what makes you happy.
[and]
Thank you, Michael, for all your informative posts. I read nearly all but rarely comment and that's a shame as good work needs to be recognized by all who appreciate it. I am just a hobbyist painter but have come across many tips and ideas from your posts that I have put into practice. Just wanted to let you know I appreciate and value your guidance.

Billy King said...

It starts with community. Your community will make you as succesful as you should be. Think and act locally. The rest will fall in to place accordingly.
And you must have a studio, someplace that only you have the keys too. You can live where you do art but very tough to do art where you live. Pay studio rent. That will give you awareness of the real world, what it takes to sell art to the public.
Mature slowly, its for the best.