In many industries, there are standard career trajectories. Your boss can likely tell you what you need to do to earn a promotion and what role you should expect to hold eight years from now. You can easily research average salaries for your field in a given city. You know how long it takes to make partner or to move from the graveyard to the daytime shift in a medical profession.
This is not how it works for artists. If you are lucky, you might have a good mentor or a crew of other artists that likes to talk shop. But sharing “trade secrets” and talking about money is sometimes still awkward — even as business people talking about our businesses!
I have decided to be super transparent with you, because this would have been so helpful to me when I was starting out. And for whatever reason, it is perfectly acceptable for other types of businesses to share their numbers. Furthermore, this would have inspired me 10 years ago — just to have one, loud voice saying you CAN make a living as an artist and here’s how. I didn’t even know I wanted to be an artist; I don’t think I let myself consider it.
Equally important: I want you to have a realistic expectation of the hard work and time that is required to make a living as an artist.
I won’t pretend for a minute that I took all the right steps or that what I did will be right for you, I am just sharing my story.
YEAR ONE: 2010
I was working full-time, earning just enough to make ends meet (and go out a little bit) and making art at night and on the weekend for fun. I don’t remember how this happened, but I started making mixed-media collage pieces on scraps of lumber.
- Biggest Game Changer: Opening an Etsy shop; this is how a gallery in New Orleans found me. They asked to show my work and told me I needed to double (or more) my prices. They sold a lot of my work and helped plant the idea that people would buy something I made.
- Events: Two
- Biggest Lesson: Don’t under-price your work – people will think there’s something wrong with it
- Commissions: Two
- Art Sales: I can’t find my records, but probably about $1,000
YEAR TWO: 2011
I had recently moved from New Orleans to Spokane, Washington, and the rural landscape inspired me to paint it. I started creating art in a new style, with new subject matter and using new media, while still making some of my collage pieces.
- Biggest Game Changer: Committing to regularly showing my work, both in person and on Facebook.
- Events/Shows: At least eight – restaurants, coffee shops, bars, a gallery, a Christmas bazaar, a mailing/copy shop, my front yard!
- Events/Shows at Which I didn’t Sell Anything: At least four
- Biggest Lesson: Let your friends and family purchase from you. They want to support you and their money counts just like anyone else’s.
- Art Sales: $2,445
YEARS THREE THROUGH FIVE: 2012-2014
I was still working full-time and painting when I could; art was definitely a small side business. As more people learned that I paint (because I was talking about it and sharing my work on Facebook), I started to get a lot of requests for commissions. I took nearly all of them.
- Biggest Game Changer: Saying “yes” to commissions. Many of them were way outside my wheelhouse, but they helped me develop my painting skills and my business skills and they represented a significant portion of my income in the first years of my business. This is how I “cut my teeth.”
- Show/Events: Multiple per year. You MUST show your work and it doesn’t have to be fancy. I did three yARTd sales.
- Biggest Lesson: Showing your work is always a good idea; even when you don’t sell anything at an event, someone you meet there might turn into your biggest collector a year later (true story, on multiple counts).
- Art Sales: $4,200 to $5,400, increasing each year
YEAR SIX: 2015 - THIS IS WHEN I DECIDED TO TAKE SELLING ART SERIOUSLY
At the end of year five, I said to my husband, "I really want to make my art more of a thing.” Profound, right? My husband — decisive, action-oriented, straightforward — said, "I'm tired of hearing you say that. Why don't you do something about it?" He was right and that was all the motivation I needed. I started 2015 by waking up an hour earlier every weekday to paint or work on my business before I went to my full-time job. Working in fast-paced advertising, I never really knew when I would be done for the day, but I could control the morning.
- Biggest Game Changer(s): I started sending a monthly email to people interested in my work, started taking Instagram seriously, and started listening to a ton of podcasts for artists and creative entrepreneurs.
- Events/Shows: Nine
- Events/Shows at Which I didn’t Sell a Thing: Three
- Biggest Lesson: When posting on Instagram, don’t just think about photos individually; think about how a photo looks with the five or eight photos you posted before it — how will those first two or three rows look to someone visiting for the first time? They need to look fantastic together with a cohesive theme and colors.
- Art Sales: $10,336
By mid-way through this year, I was certain that my ability to make money as an artist was directly limited by the time I had to spend on it AKA time to make plans for quitting my job (even though $10,336 in revenue — not take-home pay — was nothing close to my salary).
YEAR SEVEN: 2016 - THIS IS WHEN I QUIT MY JOB
I left my full-time job at the end of March with the intention of being a half-time artist. My plan was to spend the rest of my time doing consulting and freelance work related to my old job. I liked the work I did and didn’t think I would be able to make enough from my paintings alone.
- Biggest Game Changer(s): The Oklahoma City Festival of the Arts in April. This was the first major art festival that I participated in, less than a month after leaving my job — a real moment of truth. Sales here were phenomenal and the connections/follow-ups sales I made represented the majority of the year’s sales.
- Events/Shows: Six
- People I Invited Who Showed up at an Event I Put On: Zero
- Biggest Flop: A Junior League Christmas bazaar – not the right venue for my work
- Biggest Lesson: Don’t plan events for three weekends in a row and if you didn’t love something the last time you did it, there’s a good chance you won’t love it the next time.
- Art Sales: $37,624
YEAR EIGHT: 2017
This was my first full year of self-employment. Painting sales were better in 2016 than I projected, and I felt momentum in my business, so I shifted my time even more toward art and away from freelance work.
- Biggest Game Changer(s): The biggest game changer, of course, was having way more time to paint. Additionally, I received two really large corporate commissions – one from the Oklahoma City Thunder for their arena and one for a new hospital – both through connections I made at the OKC Festival of the Arts. Not only were these a big piece of my income for their year, I feel like they elevated people’s opinion of my work and my business.
- Events/Shows: Nine
- Biggest Flop: Being a featured artist at a financial education non-profit’s annual meeting. If something doesn’t really seem to make sense, it probably doesn’t make sense.
- Commissioned Paintings: 27
- Biggest Lesson: While I personally prefer to have a variety of art in my home, many people like to collect multiple pieces by the same artist. Nurture these relationships.
- Art Sales: $64,651
YEAR NINE: 2018
We moved again and I kind of floundered for a bit. My business had grown significantly since our last move, and we were moving from a small town to a mid-size city, and I didn’t really know how to approach it.
- Biggest Game Changer(s): This was the first time I planned a really cohesive collection of work, promoted it extensively on Instagram while I was painting it, and tried to create hype around the online launch of the paintings as if it was a real event. AND, hiring a studio assistant. No reason I need to be putting calendars in plastic sleeves.
- Events/Shows: Nine
- Portion of Sales From Events: 40%
- Silly miss-step: I let the Christmas spirit get hold of me and I painted some glittery Christmas tree paintings. I still like the paintings and I sold a couple, but they were way off-brand and probably confusing to most of my followers.
- Biggest Lesson: While moving to a city with an established art scene has its benefits, it also means you will have to work harder and more deliberately to break in.
- Art Sales: $78,950
YEAR 10: 2019
Let’s take a moment to emphasize that this was year TEN. I have been at this for a long time, but it’s really only in the last couple years that I decided I wanted to do this full-time. In 2019 I kept my breakneck pace of painting 100 paintings a year, participated in the OKC Festival of the Arts for the fourth year in a row and introduced more prints in an effort to shift some of my income away from originals.
- Biggest Game Changer(s): I made a concerted effort to introduce myself to Wichita, including speaking at the art museum, putting on two solo, gallery shows, joining a business organization, selling cards and prints at local stores, and going on the local ABC affiliate’s morning show to talk about my work.
- Events/Shows: Seven
- Biggest Flop: Plaza Art Fair in Kansas City; while I sold some paintings and should not complain, this is known as one of the 10 best shows in the country and I let my hopes get the best of me. We basically got rained out and the whole weekend was a comedy of errors for my husband and me.
- Biggest Lesson: I need to control the things I can control. If I am double booked for two shows, the week after releasing a collection of new paintings, that is no one’s fault but mine.
- Art Sales: $114,265
Year 11: 2020
Stay tuned, I have a lot of thoughts on why 2020 was just as great for me as 2019 despite it's challenges. Sharing soon.
CURRENTLY WORKING ON
- Meaningfully growing the passive income portion of my business; painting 100 paintings a year is physically demanding and I need sales of originals to not be 85+% of my revenue.
- The main thing I miss about my advertising job is collaborating with other creative, smart people. I want to find a way to work with brands, designers, etc. on larger-scale projects.
- Continuing to explore new types of painting.
- Dedicating time to organizing some administrative aspects of my business and putting processes in place to work smarter, not harder.
- Introducing myself and my work to Portland, Oregon.
WANT THE STEP-BY-STEP DETAILS OF HOW I MADE THIS HAPPEN?
My three business guides for artists give you the actionable steps, practical ideas, and nitty-gritty social media details that I have spent the last decade learning and using.
- “Launch Your Business: Five Steps to Start Selling Your Art”
- “Grow Your Business: Five Marketing Tactics that Actually Work”
- “Leave Your Day Job: How to Transition From Hobby Business to Career”
“‘Grow Your Business’ was just perfect and everything was explained so well and with enough detail to get the point across but also without overwhelming the reader. I felt like everything was perfectly mapped out step-by-step and very clear. The formatting was great as well. This guide is absolutely amazing and gold for anyone who is starting out in the biz. Honestly, I wish I could have read this two years ago and saved me all the trial and error and countless hours of watching YouTube videos.” - Sarah Roethle
“‘Grow Your Business: Five Marketing Tactics that Actually Work’ is liquid gold. Catherine's background in advertising shines through with concrete tips and tricks that have led to her success. She is truly "passing the baton" to artists and entrepreneurs just starting their journey!” - Brianna Joy Seipel
“These guides are full of such valuable information! I love your straightforward and concise writing style! Growing an art business and sharing my work is intimidating, but you’ve broken it down into actionable steps. The charts and lists are really helpful. Reading them has given me a road map for taking my art side hustle to a more profitable business. My mind is buzzing with ideas!” - Chelsi Wallingford