An open letter to an aspiring artist (how to make money doing what you love, and motivate yourself to finish the work).

artist creative

Creativindie is slowly coming into its own and providing exactly the kind of help for artists and authors that it’s intended to. It’s so exciting that people are actually visiting my blog and getting in touch with me!

I got a letter from Jen today, who’s struggling to find a way to get her foot in the door and do something with her art. She wanted to ask for feedback regarding finishing her work, knowing what to do with it, and finding a way to connect with buyers. She’s also got problems finding time to be creative when dealing with real-world responsibilities like work and running the household.

Here is my (rambling, unfocused) response:

The nice thing about art these days is that skill /technique doesn’t have to matter very much, it’s mostly about:
a) doing something fun/cool/interesting that resonates with people and
b) having a good ‘story’ about why you do what you do, what your ‘artist life’ is about.

In short, it’s not really about creating powerful, beautiful, emotional work, it’s about doing something that gets shared. (If you can do both of course… go for it! My point is that you can make something pretty simple, silly and easy and find much more success).

For example, there have been several things on Facebook recently by people who have ‘completed’ their children’s doodles. Technically not super, but a brilliant idea that people love.

Artists using moustaches or skulls also get famous very quickly; montage, photo manipulation or combining strange styles/eras together seems popular, especially if using well-known places, people or art.

You want to find something you can do quickly, make prints or products easily, and /or sell cheaply.
Etsy is a great place for starting to sell art and trying out pricing variables.

But to do well you really need a distinctive style or series… you could play with several things and see what if anything is popular and gets liked/shared,  then focus on a series and make 20 better quality variations of the same thing.

Pure drawing is a very tough sell, as is digital art, but you could use your skills to draw over old photographs, or illustrate something on a novel surface (recycled garbage pieces? cardboard boxes?) You could take requests (trying to be more social/interactive within a community is always a good idea).

With the digital art I’d recommend joining and going through their training videos: to be competitive, you’ll need to really hone your skills. But even then, unless you’re one of the best in the world, it will be hard to make real money (unless you get a job with Disney or put out your own illustrated movies or something).

I think probably along the lines of customizable, personalized small projects for special occasions on Etsy would be the smartest business move. To get a gallery showing, you need a strong, consistent body of work around a theme, that is unique and different enough from anything else, ever to pitch.

Something interesting I think you could do with your skills is to paint children’s bedroom walls with characters or scenes they like (Disney, etc.) You could probably charge a couple hundred $ per mural, set up a site, do a bunch of friend’s houses for free to get samples in your portfolio, then start taking orders. It would be fun, and if you became ‘in demand’ you could make a living with it, or at least some extra income.

As far as finishing work – focus on a bigger picture (not just the object, the scene) and spend more time sketching out the details, proportions, etc. Get the sketch exactly right and filling in the shadows and details will come easily. (I love using a projector for this, it really helps, I can just Photoshop the elements, print the plan and copy the lines).

I’d give the same advice for writing a novel; focus on the big picture, the plan, the plot summary, and make it really tight. Don’t figure out where you want to go halfway in…

1. Difficult with colors – narrow your palette. When I studied art in Italy, they only let us use black and white paint for the first year, then slowly introduced red, yellow, etc. Too many  colors rarely works. Personally I like subdued, natural colors, just a bit of earth green, gray or blue… I’m not great at using colors well either. Pick a harmonious palette of just a handful of colors and stick with those.

2. Managing a job – sucks. I lived in borderline poverty for a few years before figuring out how to building online businesses that make money. See if you can develop a small home business, at least for supplementary income. Even if it’s not specifically what you want, having more control over your schedule will make up for it. Selling art as art (drawings, paintings) probably won’t make a significant amount of money unless you develop a style people really love and want in their house – like flowers or landscapes (I used to refuse to do that stuff because I didn’t think it was “art” … but if I wanted to make money with my art right now, I’d paint things that were cool). Although… what’s cool now are skulls and moustaches… so I’d paint 10 of those, turn them into prints on Society6, sell the originals for $1500 each). The more visibility you get, the higher prices you can charge, so it starts with making something a lot of people think is cool. Nothing else matters.

Technique definitely helps. You want how quality work – especially if drawing people or figures, which is difficult. (If you’re doing an abstract painting, it doesn’t matter much).

Motivation is a problem for everybody. Basically you need to have a plan (know what you want to achieve) and you need to start doing it. For me, I can only do ONE THING at a time, because I’m a little obsessive. I’d planned to write a bunch of novels this year and it’s halfway through January and I haven’t started.

I told my wife I’d do it next month when I’m less busy. She gave me a look that told me she knew I was procrastinating, so I sat down and wrote 2500 words today. 10 more days like that I’ll have a publishable novella. Once you know what you want, you have to give something else up. Pick things that don’t ultimately matter (like cleaning the house or mowing the lawn). Pick things that you can skip for a few weeks without the world ending.

Wake up earlier and spend the first hour of your day ONLY creating. Put in the time, every day, no matter what. Even if the house is on fire or there’s some other emergency, don’t let it distract you. Don’t sleep until you’ve put in the time. You will be tired. It may be difficult. Establishing the habit is the hardest part. After a month, it will be pretty easy to stick to your new routine.

You can’t be successful until you’ve got a strong body of work (whether visual or literary), seriously improved your skills, and also learned quite a lot about the business of sharing your work (something I’ll address in a book this year, I promise, which subscribers will get for free).

My main mistake when I was younger was trying to exhibit and sell my art all the time, and doing what I liked rather than what other people liked. I got to the point where I learned my lesson, shifted gears, and made things people liked (skulls and pop culture icons…), but at that point I also wasn’t as into art – because there are better ways to be creative and make money, and I wanted to focus on learning those for awhile.




About Derek Murphy

I help authors and artists turn their passions into full-time businesses, make a bigger impact, and blaze a luminous trail of creative independence. Right now I'm in Taiwan finishing a PHD in Literature, writing several books, and managing a handful of online businesses. Find me
  • Spend the 10,000 hours (and a LOT more) on learning the basics as well as whatever interests you – you should get somewhere in writing or design or art.

    I like your comment: ‘technique matters.’ Liking something isn’t enough – you have to DO it, over and over, until your quality is as good as the things that formed your taste.

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