So You Want to Quit Your Day Job, Part II: Becoming a Professional

So you want to quit your day job. Let me guess… At the end of every day, you drag yourself home, almost too tired to survive the commute. You might work out, rustle up some grub and then you drag yourself into your studio (or to your kitchen table, couch, or desk) to work on what you really live for, be it painting, writing, or designing. Your head is clouded with the stress of the day. You wonder if there is any way to break free so you can devote all of your energy to what you really love.

Well, the good news is that you are a person who has already made it in the real world. You have already proven that you can build a career, work hard, and see the results of your labors. Sometimes you surprise yourself by just how good you are at many different things. You are the kind of person who can succeed at anything you put your mind to, so what are you waiting for?

If you want to be a full-time artist or crafter, you must shed your “hobbyist” status and learn to think and act like a professional. Sit tight, because there is a great deal to say about this. I believe now is an age when artists can take full responsibility for representing and selling their work, but you must be willing to work very hard and, above all, you must be committed to your art.  So, without any further ado, here are my tips for becoming a professional.

 Strive for Excellence

Hone your craft. Aspire to the highest level and keep working to achieve that. Don’t look around at the people on your level and feel assured in some “I’m okay, you’re okay,” kind of way. Sorry if that sounds harsh, but it is important that someone tells you this.

Before you go any further, recognize that you may be on a lower level than you need to be. This was hard for me at first because of pride and insecurity. Now, after watching my work evolve, year after year, I’ve realized it is all a process and there are no shortcuts. And I’m okay with that. Check out these wise words from Ira Glass:

In addition to just creating a volume of work:

  1. Find a mentor/take classes. If you love to draw, take drawing classes. If you make jewelry, learn how to make your own glass beads. Learn how to weld and solder. Look for an apprenticeship. You can teach yourself a lot, but some of it has to come from someone else. In addition to two years in an art college, I have taken more than a dozen continuing education classes in painting, drawing, and printmaking. (Other than that, I can sort of call myself “self-taught.”)
  2. Study and learn your heritage. Learn about all the artists who were at the forefront of their fields and find your lineage. Get to know who inspires you most. Making art is about more than expressing yourself. It’s about taking part in a larger conversation.
  3. Invest in the tools you need. If you really want this, forego that vacation you’re saving for and buy a good kiln or professional-grade oil paints instead. Do it gradually if you have to, but don’t work with substandard materials.

The Nitty-Gritty: Learn to Think Like a Small Business-Owner.

No matter what kind of artist you are, art is a business. Even if you focus solely on the traditional gallery route, you are engaging in business transactions, so learning about business is essential.

  1. Buy a book. Small Business Kit for Dummies is a good place to start. If you create an Etsy shop, there is an ocean of resources on their site alone. I also highly recommend following Chris Guillabeau’s Art of Nonconformity blog and/or reading his new book: The $100 Startup.
  2. Track your spending, study your profit margins, and FILE YOUR TAXES. I know, I know. If you are anything like me, you’d rather have a root-canal while someone sets your feet on fire than do math. Fortunately, there are a number of good programs and assists to help you in this department. I was lucky enough to find a “Taxes for Artists” workshop in my area a couple of years ago and found it enormously useful.

Get Your Work Out There

Unfortunately, it’s very easy to spend all your time in the studio creating and not sharing your work with the outside world. At first it can feel unnerving to take your work into the public sphere. The good news is, it gets easier over time and you will be amazed at how it can actually boost your confidence as an artist.

  1. Do arts and crafts fairs. Start small for the practice and then look for bigger ones. Fairs are great networking opportunities, too.
  2. Exhibit your work at free venues. I once attended a talk by an artist who had taken every opportunity she could to show her work. She showed her work anywhere she was allowed to hang it, from coffee shops to banks. She admitted to not making many sales this way, but that didn’t seem important to her. It was important that people were seeing the work.
  3. Show (and sell) your work online. Personally, I believe the internet provides an even greater opportunity for showing your work. Create an artist website, a blog, a shop, a fan page, and twitter about your work and process. Don’t spam. Just be yourself and talk about your life, your process, and your interests. An hour or two a day at most.

A Note About the Traditional Gallery Route

You might have noticed I haven’t said a word about submitting work to galleries. In my experience, it does not pay off to spend a few days a month submitting my work this way. Most galleries are deluged with unsolicited submissions. The only way to ensure your work is actually considered is to pay a fee, which can become expensive if you submit to several galleries at once. Furthermore, while I always hoped to at least break even, exhibiting my work has most often left me in the red. My advice is to not chase after exhibition opportunities just because you are seduced by having your work hanging in a gallery.

I have made the personal choice to take full responsibility for representing myself, at least for now. Many resources for artists focus on the gallery route as the primary path for “making it in the Art World.” I actually think the above routes can be just as fruitful, especially if independence is important to you and connecting directly to collectors is appealing.

Don’t Give Up

Finally, don’t get discouraged if it takes awhile. Sometimes it can feel as if you are invisible. Just as I was beginning to wonder if I had made a huge mistake, things slowly began to happen and I was surprised and pleased that I was actually making sales and commissions. You’ll find the first steps are the hardest, but when you finally convince yourself you are in this for life, the ups and downs will get easier and easier… until it’s smooth sailing!

Thanks for reading! This is one of a series of posts for those wanting to take the plunge into full-time creating. Obviously, there are a lot of guides out there written by people with more experience. Think of this instead as a series of guideposts left by a fellow traveler some ways up the trail.

Wishing you all the luck in the world,

~ Heather 

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