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Expectation vs Reality: Art Freelancing

Updated: Oct 17, 2020

I'm a freelancer who's been pursuing my passion to become a full-time artist for over a year now. It's been an incredible roller-coaster of experiences; from winning art competitions and taking commissions, to wondering how I'm going to tell my parents I'm finally broke. Confronted with several reality checks along the way, there were a few things I wish I'd known going into it. So, whether you're an aspiring artist, or interested to see what freelancing is like on the inside... grab a cuppa and have a read. Let's start re-defining some of the myths!

The better you are as an artist, the better your work will sell

Not at all. You can be the most advanced practitioner in the world and never make a sale, or you can be an amateur and still make a substantial income. A lot of success is down to marketing and your ability to reach potential customers.

In a society where Instagram and Facebook can make or break you, you have the opportunity to get your artwork noticed internationally - and for free. I've seen sales driven more by an artist's personality, page aesthetic, or ability to connect with an audience than the artwork itself. Arguably, this approach may not be sustainable long-term, but it's not a bad marketing ploy.

Art is very personal - so it sells for personal reasons. You never know what will connect with someone.

For that reason, make sure your artwork is FOR YOU more than for anyone else.

Freelancing is just painting; it has nothing to do with business

Remember this: if you’re trying to make money from selling a product, you’re in sales.

Whether you can pitch a stock like the Wolf of Wall Street or you nearly wet yourself when the interviewer asked you to ‘sell me this pen.’ You’ve got to think like a business-owner now, because a business is what you’ve got.

Even if you're only planning on offering a service like commissioned work or murals, you have to be able to sell yourself and your skills.

The business-side of freelancing can be pretty time-consuming – at least, to start with. It could include: building a website, processing payments, networking, purchasing art materials, sampling commercial items, or taking photos for social media. All of these things have to be planned, executed and financed with a business mind-set; it would certainly help to do some research into entrepreneurship and start-up business tutorials before setting out to become a freelancer.

If I paint all the time, I’m going to get absolutely sick of it

Unlike the story, I once heard, of a woman who lived so close to the Cadbury factory that she woke up to the smell of cocoa beans every day and hasn’t been able to stomach a piece of chocolate since, you won't get sick of something you love, purely because it’s always there. (Perhaps married couples can relate.) While chocolate is considered to be a luxury - not something you eat for every meal, every day - paintings, are supposed to take hours and weeks. It’s what’s expected. They are a work of love and the process is usually very much enjoyed by the painter.

Granted, even works of love can get repetitive and tiresome. So, it's important to schedule some breaks. A bit like when you tell your spouse: 'I love you, but I need some space.' (Remember, your paintings can't slap you.) So go grab some lunch, go on holiday, even. And when you return, prepare to feel much better and much fresher, same as you would returning to any other job.

Freelancers work fewer hours because they are their own boss

In theory, this is true. It is entirely up to you how you spend your time… but you're here to make a living, right?

Telling an artist to stop painting is like telling a teenager to turn off the PlayStation and come down for dinner –‘Yep! Just a minute! One last thing…’ It’s like a force-field knocks you down every time you get up, and that force-field is named: ‘Wait, let me fix that.’

It’s soooo hard to stop working. And because many artists' studios are in their home, it’s even more difficult to differentiate between work hours and relaxation. People who have been working remotely this year may have had a taste of that. But because we love the work (occasionally, replace 'love' with 'are-frustrated-by'), we’re happy to do over-time. So, what you'll often find as a freelancer is that a Friday feels exactly like a Monday and a weekend…. well, as Maggie Smith would say, ‘what is a weekend?’

You’re either a starving artist or you’re rich and famous

To be fair, the ‘starving artist’ is certainly more common than the rich and famous, but then, what’s the thrill of being rich and famous if it's not uncommon? Sadly, there's the added pattern that most famous artists died before they ever got to see their riches… but let’s not dwell on that.

Salaries, even for the best of artists, can be a little turbulent; they might have thousands of pounds one month, then nothing the next. The key is budgeting. Be wise with your money. Think like your grandma when she presses a warm gold coin in your hand, before letting you skip off to the corner shop: ‘Don’t spend it all at once!’

The truth is, lots of freelance artists work part-time jobs, or even full-time jobs, so that they don't have to stress about staying alive while pursuing their passion. You may not bathe in riches, but you'll have enough to do what you love nearly every day and survive. Isn’t that the point of it all?

If critics don’t like my work, I’m not an artist

We all know that there are some critics out there who would rather see the food you had for breakfast regurgitated and artistically arranged on a pillow, than the paintings you sacrificed weeks of your life to perfect. (You wouldn't be blamed for thinking that preserving your bed sheets after your first night at university might both win you a prize and save yourself a few quid at the laundry machine – but, please don't...)

Let’s agree. Some art is a little bit bonkers. But that’s fine! Most of us love the diversity of art and how it gets you to THINK. But, despite the growing ambiguities of ‘what makes art, art,’ it doesn’t devalue the simple or traditional forms of art, and it doesn’t mean that a positive critical reception is what qualifies you to be an artist. You’re an artist because you say you're an artist. Believe it. Go smear vomit on your pillow if it makes you happy! Just don’t invite me to the exhibition.

There’s nothing particularly tiring about art

‘OK!’ says your gym instructor. ‘I want you to wave your arm ninety-degrees… yep that's it…palette to canvas, palette to canvas… HOLD IT!!! Tickle the brush, tickle the brush. Alright, and back.’

‘This is easy. How many times?’

‘Keep it up for seven hours. Don’t freak out! You got this.’

‘Can I at least switch hands when I get tired?’

‘Not unless you want half of the painting to be crap. Now let’s goooooo!’

Being an artist isn't like hauling bricks over your shoulder, working 9-5 on a construction site and dusting up your overalls, but let's not underplay the physical exertions of being artistic. Whether you're flinging paint at walls, moulding clay, or hunching over your canvas with a fine brush hardly allowing yourself to breathe, you'll realise that hours of your life have slipped by, meal times have been missed and you've been cramping your muscles and joints so much it's a wonder they haven't started to spasm.

Best advice: go for a run daily and get some fresh air in your lungs. Do some stretches. Then smile sweetly at your other half and ask for a little shoulder massage before bed.

Turning an original painting into a print is a quick and cheap way to make money

Reality check: prints are very expensive! From photographing the painting, to sending it to print, to ordering the packaging. Even if you find low-priced companies or bulk-buy. Putting your credit details into those websites will have you blinking back tears and shredding your grocery lists, unless you're certain that you can sell them all.

The best way to mediate this is by creating demand well before you order prints. Or better yet, use a print-on-demand service or secure some advance payments prior to their release. Again, that's all about marketing.

Everyone who Likes a photo of my painting will buy it in my shop

It's easy to get carried away thinking that positive engagement on social media will equate to positive sales. There’s a big difference between liking or commenting on a photo and parting with money for it. Don't take it personally. More often than not, people just like your posts because they like you, or they like your work and they want to show their appreciation. But equally, don’t start making sales predictions based on your social media response. Use it as a good indicator of popular designs and themes. This will help you invest more wisely. Start small when you buy prints or merchandise, see how you do for profits and moderate your stock accordingly.

And finally...

People who do art professionally are the ones who studied it at university

There's no denying that university opens up a lot of doors… but for many students, studying something they love also shuts a door, an important door… passion. Ever enjoyed something until you’ve been told to do it? I have. And that’s why studying art doesn’t necessarily give you all the answers. So, if you're afraid that it will turn your passion into boredom, don't do it. Having said that, don't be put off launching an artistic career purely because you didn't study it.

As many artists will attest, there are so many routes into freelancing and many people continue to pursue it alongside non-creative careers. So don't criticise your ability to succeed without giving it a try. If you’re entirely self-taught, being humble is a hugely redeeming quality. Accept critical reviews and always be open to trying new things and improving yourself. While schooling isn't necessary, it's certainly helpful to heed advice wherever you can.

Thank you for reading my first blog! I hope you found this helpful or entertaining.

If you would like to find out more from me as an artist, want a specialised blog post on anything mentioned above, or you have an idea about what you want to read about next, let me know in the comments. All feedback is welcome and I'd love to make content that works for you.

Ta, ta for now!



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