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How to not be a starving artist

March 19, 2010 by ewik

One of my friends daughters recently asked me some questions for a school project about being an artist. As I was thinking about the questions and my answers I could see how this might be valuable insight to others looking to get into the art world so I am putting the questions and answers up online here.

Q: What is the significance of The Starving Artist to you (meaning/connotation)?

A: The starving artist is a product of over romanticizing “being and artist”. They often think they will be the next Van Gough or Jackson Pollock if they just spend enough time painting, and getting drunk/loaded. The truth of the matter is that time has past. Artist that think they can sit around and paint and some one will eventually discover them are delusional, It just does not work that way.

The other myth is that artist are worth more after they are dead. This myth is primarily driven from Van Gough. the truth about Van Gough is he had a mental illness that had more to do with “Starving” part of the reputation that the artist part did. Van Gough did actually work for much of his life until the mental illness got in the way. The truth about him being discovered is that if Van Gough did not have his brother Cleo who collected all of his paintings after his death and started shopping them around Van Gough would have drifted off in to obscurity as another man with a mental illness.

The successful artist today have an understanding of business and promotion. It is important to focus on being a working artist. Focus on doing what you need to to run your art related business and not starving.

Q:  Did you ever feel like a Starving Artist, when?

A: No, Not really. I did go through the dot com bust and any paying work was hard to come by but I managed to stay above water. I did spend a great deal of time focusing on low cost methods of promotion. when I did make money I used it to pay for supplies and promotion but I always made sure I was not starving. I have always worked a creative day job that complemented the art. there is nothing wrong with working the day job, you do what you need to do.

Q: How have you become a Working-class Artist?

A: For me there was never any other choose.  I started painting when I was 7. I started my own design and printing company when I was 14. When I was in my 20’s I started hacking around with computers, design and the web. I dropped out of collage to pick up my first big freelance gig. I was making $75 per hour designing Kaiser’s first intranet in 1995. When I finished I did some traveling. When I got back I picked up the city of Cupertino where designed a city wide client server based system like AOL. I then went into advertising and spent several years as an art director. I survived the dot com crash and came out the other side promoting my art and learning to combine my fine art sensibility with the commercial side. I took what I had learned in advertising and created a product out of my art and my self. I spent the next several years building up brand recognition.

After several years building up the brand recognition I started to focus my efforts on learning the intellectual property market place. and had several talks with different manufactures including Hot Topics about licensing deals. It was around this time that I met my wife and backed off of the art business for a while. Currently I am on a sabbatical from painting while I work on developing ideas for new software products. I am also looking for ways to teach my daughter the arts from an early age. I will pick the painting back up soon (as soon as we move).

The interesting thing is in my day job right now I am continuing to learn the intellectual property industry. I am lucky enough to be working for a company that values my crazy ideas and even pays me for them. I am continually looking for new ways to change the world around us and learning how patents work. At the same time I am working on a new Art brand, that will fold in all the things I have learned in my journey. I am flushing out a new persona that is much different from the one I have been painting under for the last 10 years. I am working on a book to go along with the paintings and plan to focus on the licensing market heavily.

Q: Do you consider yourself successful as an artist and how so?

A: I almost think of this as a trick question. First off I feel that being an artist is not a job, it is who you are. You don’t have to be painting or creating works of art to be an artist. Being an artist is about being creative. Being creative is not only something that is expressed via the fine arts. If you are an artist in your heart then that is who you are. Asking some one  like that if they are successful as an artist is like asking any one else if they are successful as a human. Aside from that successful is really a subjective term what is successful to me may not be successful to you. My neurosis that drives my art is my social nature, my need to communicate with others on some level, any level really. I just find that my most natural way to communicate to others is visually (painting specifically). My personal success is self regulating, when I do not have an outlet I get some what off kilter so to speak. Right know even though I am not painting I am highly creative in my day job and I am learning to communicate with my daughter through art, music, and other creative avenues that keeps me very satisfied.  When it comes down to it being an artist is a contract between you and yourself, and the only one that can judge your success is you and yourself. Personally I consider my self very successful.

Q: What do you want to achieve with your art ( like; fame/fortune/inner peace etc.)?

A: If fame and fortune are what you seek with your art you will never have inner peace with it. To have all three you must start with yourself. To have inner peace you need to understand yourself. To have fame and fortune you need to understand the people and the world around you. To have all three you need to understand how to communicate your story from with in you to the world around you. Understand who your audience really is and speak to them, if they don’t understand you it is your fault not theirs.

Like I said earlier what drives me is to keep my neurosis in check. I guess that means that what I am actually looking for is inner piece. But then every single person in the world is looking for only one thing and it is the exact thing for every one; To be happy. People look for fame and fortune because they think it will make them happy.

Q: How do artists make money?

A: This is an open ended question. There are so many ways to make money as an artist. It all boils down to you. The biggest thins in making money as an artist is understanding intellectual property, business, promotion and communication. This is the education that most artist never get, but it is the most important part of making a living as an artist. I have a couple that I have done that I can share.

When it comes down to what are the areas that you will be able to actually make money, where are a few of them that are very broad.

1) Productizing your art
If you want to make a living as a visual artist this is the most important revenue stream to understand. Understand the licensing market. Understand how your work translates into products and either license the images to others to manufacture products around your art or create your own products. This is the biggest market for visual artist and will continue to grow.

2) Hired hand
Let me start by saying NEVER! EVER! sign a contract that says “Work for hire” any where in the contract, no matter how good the gig sounds. Being an artist for hire is a hard game but if you understand business it is a satisfying way to make a living. In todays market photographers make a better living than illustrators. Illustrators have to work long and hard for less money than a photographer. While I would highly recommend any one interested in being a painter going to school for illustration, I do not recommend it as a career choose. If you look around at the more successful fine artist out there many of them have a background in illustration where they learned about communicating with an audience, business and promotion. Photographers have more options in this area than painters, infect if you are looking to be a photographer this is the primary area for making money. Freelancing is tough work but it is fun. I don’t recommend doing it straight out of school though. It is best to work for some one else and learn the business for a while before striking out on your own.

3) Design
This is probably the most common way for artist to make money. Most become a designer of some sort. It is a decent living and it is both challenging and rewarding. Just remember here that you are communicating some one else’s message here and not your own, If you try to make it about your voice then you will fail.

Q: How have you chosen to support yourself with your skills?

A: Well most of what I have been telling you about is how I have supported my self with my skills so I will just summarize here. Currently I am doing product design. Over the span of my career I have done Gallery art, merchandising my art, graphic design, freelance illustration, interaction design, and advertising. I think that is about the entire list. they all have been natural evolutions and I often go back and forth between the visual art side and the design side. I find that I need to maintain a balance between the two to keep my sanity.

Q: What are some major challenges have you faced perusing art?

A: This is a hard question for me to answer. I don’t have any memorable challenges, so to speak. I guess the biggest one is perception. I dropped out of college and took the self taught route. It worked for me but it was by no means the easy road. My early years where lean and hard.

Q: What does making art do for you?

A: This is like asking me what breathing does for me. I don’t ever think about what it does for me, I just do it. I guess it allows me to feel like I can say something and have people listen to me.


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