What does “freelance professional artist” mean, and how comfortably does this title sit with you?
What colour belt must you have earned to gain entry to this particular dojo? Do we talk in terms of qualifications, awards, exhibitions pedigree, a healthy tribe of raving fans, or simply how you feel about it?
Any story you tell yourself must strengthen the identity with which you wish to relate, because otherwise, you may end up becoming something else altogether. I used to recoil at such apparently airy-fairy ideas designed to affirm character, values and identity.
But these notions prove themselves to be more true the more I pay them attention – sooner or later, that inner narrative will spill over into your conversations or actions with others, and the world is likely to see you as you’ve chosen to be seen, which may feed back into and consolidate the narrative.
Two years ago, there was a heavy lag period in tuning into my new life as a professional artist, after the hasty-ish decision to go full-time. The first few months didn’t quite feel right. When anyone I hadn’t seen in a while asked “what are you up to these days?”, I felt sharp pangs of guilt at the kind of routine I was now enjoying.
I had spent several years as a delivery driver, furrowing a curious medley of persistent aches, withstanding all types of weather, and whining now and then about whichever obligation/poor unsuspecting sod I believed was the bane of my existence at the time.
I had told myself (and most likely others) the ridiculous story that my efforts were thankless, The Place Would Fall Apart Without Me ™️, and all the other tiresome croaks you hear from that friend we all have (sorry if that’s ever been me!), as you roll your eyes and wish they’d change the subject. It felt like I’d more than earned my weekly compensation by the end of it.
Then, suddenly and by stark comparison, I was sitting at a desk and doing something I properly enjoy for money, generous thanks and esteem.
The corollary was that I didn’t feel like I was earning my keep at all. There has to be a struggle or tedium to it, doesn’t there? As long as my working day had now become, I still felt like I was getting away with my new routine, to the point where I almost wanted to hide it!
The problem bits (if there are any to speak of) are a little more insidious, emerging over a longer period of time as a chronic lack of human interaction, irregular cash flow, and the need for an opposing voice, to balance and guide decision-making that’s entirely by your hand. The autonomy is great, but also something for which I’m still frequently ill-equipped. Certain choices come with a Mike Powell-sized leap of faith.
Then there’s the plate-spinning; a mostly enjoyable keeping abreast of things, a never-ending task list, working well over 40 hours a week with none of the health- and security-related trappings of regular employment.
Mistakenly, “What do you do for a living?” has elicited some one-dimensional responses from me; a litany of day-to-day work, some pros and cons, whatever I can summarise in job satisfaction terms.
It’s helpful to be process-driven, no question, but a big-picture narrative is far simpler and more interesting without it. If you ask a friend what they do for a living, and their answer excludes why their work exists at all, it’s frustratingly insufficient.
There’s no need to lock your identity to any of the dull details, or to either side of the red line of job satisfaction. Describe your title of “professional artist” by such a circuitous route, and your audience gets a little lost in the details.
The jump-off point can (and in many contexts should) be your customer. They are the “why”.
If you can summarise your title in one short sentence, and then follow up by describing your identity as someone who fills a need, or helps, or brings strong, lasting sentimental value, then BINGO – you’ve just done a bit of marketing you hadn’t planned on!
This can be your standard answer. As any marketing book will tell you, it’s important to play the long game, and to start gently. The conversation rolls on happily in whichever direction you both choose, and if anyone’s interested in the gory details, they’ll ask.
Of course, you shouldn’t see everyone as a sales target.
But if you treat yourself to the possibility that anyone MAY be interested in your services SOME DAY, this type of initial response takes care of introductions, sustains people’s interest, and gently warms one or two people up to your services, all at once.
A future aim of mine is to avoid describing my career in a guilt-riddled fashion, over-correcting the privilege I enjoy in working from home, listening to podcasts and taking lunch when I like by throwing in dull details, otherwise it may even feed into my inner monologue. I’ll also bore my company come what may!
Instead, I’m trying (really hard) to let the pride in what I do show more, without any concessions, as people usually respond positively to positivity.
“I’m a wildlife and pet portrait artist. I work from photos in a realistic way, and I can control, enhance or exclude some bits – whatever helps people best celebrate their favourite little buddy. I direct a small amount of profit from my wildlife portfolio work towards animal charities.”
If you don’t have a set idea about part of your identity (career wise or other), think about it, write it down and see how it sounds when you say it aloud. If you’re not feeling too daft about doing so, when you say it aloud to friends or family, do they respond positively? If it all lines up nicely with the story you’re telling yourself, keep saying it!
I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments 🙂