Why you’re not making a living as an artist.

I’m not a natural writer. In fact I find it hard putting pen to paper (or fingers to keys). Writing anything seems like hard work. It is hard work. When I create a blog post it feels like I really did go to work today. And I have something to feel proud of.

So why don’t I feel the same way after a day of trying very hard to paint, design, draw something? It still feels like hard work, but sometimes it feels like at the end of the day,because I haven’t actually finished what it is I wanted to make it, it feels like I haven’t really made anything at all. I have a few sketches, moved away from ideas, changed my mind. But that’s all.

When I was younger I found making things a very pleasant escape from the drudgery of college work. I began my art education at A level. I took other subjects as well like Biology, Chemistry, English and I was really good at them in fact I was top of my classes. But soon it all began to slip away. Perhaps it was the stress outside of college impacting me or perhaps it was me losing interest. I didn’t know. I was 17, I took up yoga and began to focus on making things.

When I work now, trying to make an idea come into being or to refine my ideas, compared to when I was in college, its incredibly difficult. I would say almost impossible. Procrastination is not my problem. I’m always working, always drawing, always reading, researching. I’m always busy. I absorb myself in the subject I’m interested in. But actually, I think this may be what is hindering me.

All of this research and knowledge is good. It is encouraged when pursuing an academic course at art school especially MA level. But you can have too much of a good thing. A diet rich in high fatty foods and delicious sweets is not going to be so good for your health long term, all that caffeine and you’ll come crashing down later. So I think my creative diet is all wrong. I’m eating a high fat diet of research, I’m stuffing my face with the sweetness of designs and binging on museum trips and exhibitions like chocolate.

And boy do I feel bloated.

I see a difference in the expectations of studying a diploma in art and design and studying at MA level in the fine arts, of course skill wise you’re meant to be refined and well-versed. Naturally this comes with practice. But the thing I see most differently between studying at diploma level and masters has two faces. One, the level of confidence changes and two, the level of enjoyment changes. And I’m sure these things work against or with each other respectively.

When I studied for my foundation diploma, there are few differences in the work ethic I had then and now. I worked equally hard. But my enjoyment was through the roof back then. Why? And why don’t I enjoy the practice of making things as much now. What has changed?

Potentially I think this is circumstantial. I was younger, and with that came more freedom and more inhibition. But as we get older we take on more responsibility. We have to balance our work and life more creatively. We have to pay for more things. We need more things. We need more money and we need to find ways to make money fast just so we can make it to the end of the month. Money as we get older, takes centre stage. Not necessarily because we care about it more than other things, but because money allows us to live. Its the only way we can live. When we get older and more independent the artist looks to his or her art as a means to make money, to survive.

Making money and being an artist is a tender subject. We have only two extremes as examples. One, the starving artist. The one that dies early without selling a thing. And two, the Damien Hirst type. The one who makes unimaginable amounts of money for things that the average Joe just doesn’t like. It’s not fair. But the average creative person usually supplements their art making with a regular job, part or full time. And their creative pursuit gets set aside, taken out when the bills are paid by our regular jobs.

The problem with this is that many artists assume they can’t make money from their work so they look at alternatives. Once the feeling of “I’ll never make money from this” sets in, its hard to look back. So they go on and find an alternative career, an office job, a teacher, whatever. A little seed of resentment sets in, that once hopeful dream of living a free and creative life dies an ugly death. They no longer look to their art to make them happy because their art, which was meant to be sustaining and nurturing can’t do the one thing they really need it to do. It can’t make money!

So with that in mind, I propose that we take back this niggling idea that art will ever completely sustain us, because we see it can’t. Art is too fragile. But art also is too precious.

At the time I took up yoga I also dropped out of Chemistry and Biology. I realised that I couldn’t carry on with these subjects because they caused too much unhappiness, with the pressure on maths in Chemistry and the exams, I just couldn’t manage. What I could manage was stress free feeling I got when I was in Art class. I pursued what was making me happy, not what I thought would make me money further down the road. So I completed A level with the highest marks in Art. Then I did a year long diploma, and excelled once again and was awarded a lovely little trophy for being “Best Overall Student in Art and Design”. That was the best year of my life. Then I went on to university, to one of the most prestigious schools in contemporary art. And then it all kind of went a bit weird.

The relationship I’d had with art was one of love and support and nurturing. But all of a sudden, I was in a situation where I now had to rely on art to make me money once I graduate, It had to sustain me. Art had no choice but to be my caregiver, my parent, my income, my friend, my back up, my future, and my job.

If art were a person and I expected all of those things from that one person, they would crack.

And art did crack, actually she fractured into a million tiny pieces and blew away in the wind.

I graduated with no intention of ever making art again. I got an office job. I paid my bills.

I remembered art like a lost lover. The one that loved me the most but the one that I treated the worst. I didn’t want art to return. I’d treated her too badly. I was a monster.

I’d been working for some years in an office job that was dull and monotonous. Art popped round every now and then just to see how I was doing. We made silly sculptures and pictures with office supplies and the fax machine. We made posters and e-cards. She even helped me once to organise my emails. Gradually we became better friends. She visited more often, and sometimes we’d hang out together for days on end. Then one day she didn’t leave. Together we made a portfolio of great drawings and paintings and she encouraged me to submit it to an art school. I got in.

I relocated and Art came with me to school everyday, encouraging, uplifting. She was the driving force to get me to school on time. I never missed a lesson. But then one day, without realising, she left. I didn’t even notice her go. She left me a note “I don’t think I’m needed here any more”.

Wait what? Where the hell is she going? What makes her think that??

Fine. I got on with things as though she were never around. I could paint and draw and make more things than I ever thought possible. I continued to make. I guess she was right, I didn’t need her any more anyway.

Months passed. I didn’t hear back from Art. She had a tendency to slip away when I least expected it. Why should I care.

Making things wasn’t the same as when she was around. I could still make stuff but Art always made it funny, enjoyable, playful. Making things now was just a means to an end. When Art left I made my focus money. I would make things and I would sell them. And I would make money. I still missed the friendship. But I could carry on.

But then, what’s the point? If I’m not enjoying the things I’m doing, and I’m not having any fun, how is this any different to my office job?

In actual fact, it’s no different at all. I realise now that Art left me because I let her. I’d allowed myself to stop enjoying the things I was doing because my focus was all wrong. Art, like before had had enough.

I tried calling her, but she’s not answering. I imagine she’s off somewhere enjoying the sun set or making little characters from scraps of paper.

Its only been a couple of months but I’m starting to miss the company. I hope she returns, like she did before. Then we can go back to how it was before, with all that fun. Making the things I make now but with her company is much nicer. Being an artist can be kinda lonely.

What I’m saying is that we can’t rely on the art we make to be the bearer of all of our problems. To expect it to be the solution to everything is naive and unproductive. What we can do is enjoy the fact that we are capable of making things. We certainly can make a living from art but  if that is our primary expectation from art we can’t ask her to be our therapist aswell. Sometimes though if we are lucky, art can pay our bills and offer the kind of emotional support a good friend can. But you need to let her know that if the money goes you won’t walk away. We’re in this together, right? For better or for worse.

In the time its taken to write this blog, Art has shuffled into the room with me. Sitting in the corner quietly with a smirk, she knows I know it was her that made this writing possible. She knows I need her. “Hard work?” She mutters. “You should try going to work for you all day, now that really is hard work.”




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