Artists and Day Jobs: A necessary evil or liberating opportunity?

The vast majority of artists I work with are looking for ways to sell art online and off. They dream of one day becoming a full-time artist and having their artwork pay their bills.

artist jobs

Are you dreaming of a career as an artist too?

While being a full-time artist is a worthy pursuit, a day job is often necessary for the sake of keeping a roof over your head and your bills paid on time.

But being an artist and having a day job doesn’t make you less of an artist. In fact, it provides a liberating opportunity – if you’re willing to reframe the way you view your day job.

In this article, I’ll explore what it means to be an artist and hold down a day job too.

What happens when making art is your full-time job?

Over the course of my career I’ve worked with many successful artists. It’s interesting to observe what happens when your art only exists to support you financially.

I once knew an artist who hit the big time. Her work started selling like crazy and she had to work like crazy to keep up with the demand. Living the dream. Right?

But for this particular artist, it became a nightmare. She was spending all of the money she made. Bigger house. Horses. Cars. In many ways, she felt she deserved these things. But then she became chained to them because now she was working to support them.

She wanted to change her style of painting, but she couldn’t afford to. She wanted to take vacations, but she needed to keep working. I watched this artist paint all day long and in the evenings, she moved her easel in the living room and painted all night too.

Now I’m certainly not suggesting that will happen to you! But it’s worth keeping in mind what success as an artist might look like.

For this artist, the playful aspect of creating art eventually dissipated. Would you be ok with that?

When your art becomes your source for survival (in a monetary sense) it might become less about making art that is meaningful and more about making art that will “pay the bills”. So you need to decide what your true motivation is.

A day job provides a divide between finances and creativity

Having a day job – or finding flexible work as a freelancer – can provide more room for you to be creative in your art. It can restore a sense of freedom in your work. By having a day job you take the pressure off having to sell your art.

Often the best art comes when you’re not trying too hard. When you aren’t worried about your art supporting you financially, it’s easier to step into a state of artistic flow.

As my friend artist Kiki Smith once said, “Your art doesn’t exist to support you, you exist to support your art.”


A day job gives you the freedom to say no

When your financial life is taken care of through other means of work you have more power to say no. Without the safety net of a day job, you might have to take on projects you don’t fully support or believe in simply because you need to make some money. With a day job to take care of the bills, there’s no reason to say yes to what should be a no.


The wrestle between time and energy

There are certain caveats that come along with day jobs though. With a day job, artists need to sacrifice their time. And if you’re working long hours 5 or 6 days a week, you might feel as though you don’t have the energy to be an artist as well.

If you find that your day job is totally draining, you may need to find less intensive work. Pursuing work as an artist and being a full-time heart surgeon may not be realistic.

But on the flip side of that, if you do have a less intensive day job but you find yourself consistently favoring TV over making art; you may need to ask yourself some tough questions about whether you actually want to figure out how to be an artist. What is this artist’s dream really worth to you?

I know many artists who juggle multiple jobs to pay their bills and still find time to create their art. So it might be worth treating the art of creation as you treat exercising – you might not feel like doing it in the beginning, but once you get started you’ll feel so much better.


The day jobs artists had before they got famous

Now let’s take a look at what these famous artists did for work before they made it big. If you find yourself doing something similar, don’t feel discouraged – instead look at it as a stepping stone on your path to finding success as an artist.

Henri Rousseau – Tax Collector
Henri began his career as a tax collector and didn’t even start painting until his early 40s. At the age of 49 he decided to leave the tax office to pursue his art full-time, and even then he still played violin in the streets to pay his bills.

Vivian Maier – Nanny
During her life Vivian never managed to sell any of her photographs, only becoming famous in her posthumous years. Her work was picked up at an auction by two collectors who put her photos online, the photos then going viral. She supported her photography by working as a nanny throughout her life.

Jeff Koons – Wall Street Commodities Broke
Jeff Koons is an artist known around the world for creating the most expensive work of art by a living artist sold at auction. Koons started his career in finance because it allowed him to, in his own words, “make exactly what art I wanted to make – and I would always know that I didn’t need the art market.”

Barbera Kruger – Graphic Designer, Writer, Professor
Barbara has had multiple careers throughout her life; starting out as a graphic designer before writing columns for Artforum and then teaching at U.C.Berkeley.
Throughout all of these careers she was consistently creating her own artwork. Her experience as a graphic designer informing much of her iconic feminist art.


The balance between a day job and being an artist

If you can support yourself fully as an artist and still live a well balanced happy life – more power to you! But if you’re not there just yet, there is absolutely no shame in taking a day job to support yourself.

Often artists are under the impression that in order to be a ‘real’ artist, you can’t do anything else to make money. But there’s nothing romantic about struggling financially and trying to get by on your artwork alone.

Remember, your art doesn’t exist to support you, you exist to support your art.


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Working in the international world of contemporary art, Crista Cloutier has spent her career selling art and marketing art to art galleries, museums and private collections. 

Using her professional experiences, Crista has created The Working Artist Masterclass, where she’s developed a global reputation as an artist’s coach. Crista can teach you how to be an artist; including how to sell your art, how to sell art online, how to sell photographs, how to price your art, how to succeed at art fairs, and even how to find your art style. 

Crista has worked with established, blue-chip artists to raise their profile and attract greater opportunities. And she’s also helped thousands of emerging artists to build a professional art practice. To learn more, visit https://theworkingartist.com

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