Three years I’ve been a full-time freelance artist. The time really has flown, but in relative terms, the first year emphatically did not. What I wouldn’t have given in 2018 for the wisdom I’ve acquired since! I hope this article helps you skip some hurdles if you’re keen to take the same route (10 minute read).
1. Look after your body.
Point #1, as it’s most important. If you’ve taken that leap of faith as I did and turned hobby into career, you’ve thrown away the luxury of fully paid sick days along with regular employment. Unless you have an income protection plan in place, those fortunate enough to live in the UK will turn to Employment Support Allowance (or hopefully your country’s equivalent). Still, this may not hold you up for very long.
You only get one body, so look after it. Invest in office equipment that fully suits your needs ergonomically, take regular breaks, exercise moderately and safely, get enough sleep…and all the other things you read in pamphlets. Seriously.
One doesn’t dwell on carelessness in this case until after the fact, wishing for a do-over. Coming from a fanatical runner forced to hang up the shoes at the age of 31, this is earnest advice.
2. Get to know and love reliable workplace systems.
Your skill might win you business, but the systems you implement are what sustain it. Standardise your working hours, your communication with customers and partners, the products and services you offer, how you package your work, how frequently you deliver content, which exhibitions you enter, your troubleshooting methods, your personal development, and when to revise all of the above.
I might seem a little flippant on social media (and I’m sure even dismissed by one or two as a bit of a prat!), but don’t let that trick you. I take my work deadly seriously, and I owe any success I’ve enjoyed to the systems I’ve implemented (and come to trust) for myself, and for anyone who visits my website, gets in touch with an enquiry or is kind enough to purchase from me.
3. You can “get by” if you’re lacking in a key skill department demanded of your business, but not forever.
There may be glaring gaps in your skill set. While playing around with ideas and make-shift solutions for a period is often helpful, meeting with a professional is ultimately the right choice. This can relate to marketing, web design, physical output and more. Have a strong, candid word with yourself and assess your strengths and weaknesses.
A wise person doesn’t necessarily know everything, rather the limits of their knowledge. You can read more about my little take on this subject here.
4. Your time is as valuable as anyone else’s.
Taking a career that can fall under the ill-considered guise of “just a hobby” invites problems with those around you, unless you declare early a firm position on your available time.
“I can’t make it, I’m working.”
“Of course! I wouldn’t dare press any further now you’ve said that, person who works for someone else.”
But suddenly that’s a ludicrous line for you to continue using, now you’ve had the audacity to follow your dream? It’s an alarming amount of work building a business, and those who’ve tried are the only ones who know it.
The whispers are true; you are in charge of your own working hours as a full-time artist. That means nobody else is.
I like supporting people around me however I can, but “Alex will be free to help” is a bit of a dirty, presumptuous phrase to me now. Just because you have the power to fiddle your working hours to benefit someone else, doesn’t mean you’re obliged to exercise it. Set (and staunchly defend) your boundaries just like everyone else does. You might not make enough money otherwise.
5. Misunderstand the phrases “sole trader”, “solo venture” and “autonomy” at your peril.
Regardless of any semblance of autonomy a line of work may promise, I don’t know many people who can navigate it entirely on their own, be that in a day-to-day or a general community sense. I like to be convinced of my own independence, but I know there’s little working truth to that. I absolutely need a network of trusted peers, groups and authorities, to support me in my good decisions and ideas, and to help adjust other ones.
This network is best built a long time before you dive into the deep end and go full-time, so you have the support and a “compass” from minute one.
If you insist to rely upon yourself and your ideas alone, you should have a strong sense of self-awareness, have plenty life experience, and must be absolutely sure of your own mind.
For all major decisions, I still strongly recommend seeking a second opinion, even if you feel you don’t need it.
6. Social media popularity does not (necessarily) a successful artist make.
Your content is undeniably interesting and attractive, you’ve got a spring in your step and you’re engaging plenty. Thousands of social media followers as a hobbyist is a nice thing; maybe, you could presume, a harbinger for career success.
Some ride the crest of that wave very well indeed. If you’re exposed to 100k+ users, it may well be all you need, and good for you if that applies! A word of warning to the rest of us:
Firstly, this contact list does not belong to you, but to a 3rd party, which means: a) nobody has provided specific consent for you to use their personal information in any way, so don’t, and b) it can be taken away from you in a heartbeat. The platform could disappear (Facebook’s outage yesterday providing a taster for us all), your account could be banned for reasons beyond your control, or new rules might be applied without your go-ahead. So what then? You’d have to find a new way to build your following or jump ship, all from point blank. Audience “recovery” could take years if the worst were to happen, and as artists can often live from one month to the next, that’s a gamble we can ill afford to take.
Secondly, the bulk of your following probably doesn’t accurately describe your ideal customer anyway. What if they all just like looking at nice images? As many social media users are typically quite young, and without the means to enjoy your full service, in the flesh, buying from you, as you intended from the beginning, how effective is it as a selling platform in real terms?
Finally, viewing the art world through the lens of quick-and-easy social platforms is a dangerous game, as this alone won’t avail you of all the information you need to survive, and thrive, in business. Instagram/Facebook are typically designed to celebrate the fruits of the labours, while clouding the reality of the labours themselves. Can you sum the latter up in a completely unhidden and engaging, but short, caption? Almost certainly not.
Are you setting in place all the other unsexy but important stones barely anyone discusses at length there?
Are you guaranteeing your customers a consistent, thorough, trustworthy, devoted and memorable service, from gun to tape? Til long after the finish tape, in fact? How are you following through? Are you doing anything special to increase the chances of repeat business and recommendation?
Social media is just a bit of fun for me now, and any business I garner through it I consider a lovely bonus. One upside: I know if anyone seeks my services through it, they’re not just looking for a pet portrait or wildlife print at a certain price, they also want it from me especially. It’s a very personable and trust-building platform, so I support its use, but only on terms that suit the account holder.
Don’t forget that if you love being an artist, the cake is the hard work, and getting this done well is a direct “lead measure” for success, not your number of followers. That’s a “lag measure”. Don’t let the tail wag the dog.
7. Don’t mistake the promise of “exposure” as your ticket to follow-on business.
“We’d like to commission a piece of your work as an image for our product, and use your name in its promotion. We can’t pay you, but we have a wide audience, so this is a great opportunity for you to get your name out there!”
Whenever I hear this, all that might ring in my ears is the death knell on many hours of someone’s available (and valuable) time, and the up side is rarely what’s promised.
Excepting its use by well-meaning friends and family, “…to help get your name out there” is the tired, clichéd refrain of opportunists who are committed to misunderstanding proper marketing on your behalf. For their own fiscal gain and convenience, they elect not to appreciate, value or respect the career of a freelance artist.
Their business model relies on fair trade, but appears not to offer the same terms for the lowly creative type, perhaps because “you enjoy it”. You’re allowed to love your job, and be compensated fairly for your time – those two things aren’t mutually exclusive.
I notice, with a strong level of cynicism, how many of these chancers have their own marketing budget, to collect necessary, empirical, usable data. They do not live or die by the randomness of “opportunities” akin to the type they’re offering you, so they know exactly the obscurity of promises they’d never dare bank on themselves.
The sad thing is, at least one of us will be uninformed enough to bite, every time. So the problem persists.
If you ever do “pro bono” work, or a favour of any kind, the favour must be your decision entirely and not thrust upon you. Choose a cause you believe in, help one of your best buddies because that’s the sort of good egg you are, or do the work for the sheer love of it. That’s it.
8. Niche vs mainstream
If any part of your offering as an artist is niche, it might be a much, much longer road to sustainable income and a devoted customer base, but once you’ve built those things, they can be more solid than those of your mainstream peers.
Your work, style, brand or character being appreciated, defended and valued by a small but staunch audience could be all you ever need to sustain a living.
Better to be someone’s dram of whiskey than everyone’s cup of tea, right? “Are you sure I can’t make you a tea?” “…oh, go on then.” A smaller number love a whiskey, and will do all the hard work themselves to find a decent one.
I can think of a few entertainment acts still unknown to most, but after having struggled for years, will now sell tickets everywhere they go. They finally broke a glass ceiling and are loved by the initiated for their unique music/art/comedy/other.
Again, it’s one of those things that builds slowly, so if you have dreams of being a professional artist and “niche” is the word, start getting your ducks in a row now, accept the risk and keep the faith.
9. Expect dips in motivation, and accept that discipline is far a more valuable resource in the long run.
While you’re at your day job, perhaps feeling like you’re in control of very little, you can’t wait to squeeze in an hour or two that evening, doing the thing you love best. You think romantically about your future life as a full-time artist, with nobody looking over your shoulder, and steering the ship in all you do. Complete autonomy, freedom of expression, putting your personal stamp on everything, and enjoying peace, every day of your life.
You’re not wrong about those things. They’re fantastic! However, as ungrateful of me as this will sound…be careful what you wish for. It’s a very unstable environment if approached without care. Eight or more hours a day drawing or painting small details can actually cause a headache or two, repetitive strain, withdrawal symptoms from lack of human interaction, and even boredom on some days. Yes, hang me out to dry for saying that!
Ask yourself why you create. Is it a simple reprieve from the rest of your busy life, an oasis of quiet time, scratching a creative itch? These might not be sufficient reasons for making a full-time occupation from your art. When the novelty of abundance of such things fades and the mist clears, the qualities you really need for the job will become apparent.
First of all, can you sell, and do you understand all the vital ingredients to selling? Cast aside most notions of “sell me this pen” that come to mind – it’s an awful lot more nuanced than this, with foundations that may take a while to build.
When you’re not selling, can you sit, day after day, year after year doing the exact same thing, sometimes stifling your creative urges to fit a brief outside of your taste and control? What foundations have you put in place to guarantee that, despite the absence of a ranking authority and their list of demands, you’ll work longer hours than you’d ever expected to?
10. As a freelance artist, the best part of the job is the difference you make.
Many of us, sadly, have our work lives defined by what goes wrong. You’ll only hear from your line manager when there’s a problem, when you screwed up, or when there’s a cog you put in place that needs oiling.
It dawned on me much later than I care to admit that this is the case for the overwhelming majority of people, while I was one of them. It’s normal. If you’re a bank clerk, a football referee, a nurse, a car mechanic, in hospitality, or <insert a job title>…it’ll be a rare day you’re directly appreciated for an excellent day’s work. If you’re reliable, you’re paid, and once your time’s up, you might be decorated posthumously with a simple “ah, he/she did it this way. I miss that.”
Don’t get me wrong. Some form of difficulty, banality, inconvenience, tangle or pressure is part of the justification in being paid at all. I also love being relied upon, as much as it can be a pet peeve to be taken advantage of under the banner of reliability, and I don’t ever expect special treatment for having done my job, any job.
However, after 10 years of this as a worker bee, once I changed career, it became a genuine treat to be sought out by a customer who just wanted to say “thank you”, or send a photo of a finished, framed work in situ, one that will last a lifetime.
You want to make a lasting difference in people’s lives, but maybe wonder if it’s worth trading in all the trappings of “safe” forms of employment to achieve this. The fact that you’re wondering at all, and have read all the way to the end of this blog with any degree of enthusiasm and an open mind, has me at clamouring for your arrival as a full-time artist. You only go round once, kids!