Monday, February 27, 2017

Q & A Monday: How to Become a Professional Artist

I have been getting several emails from people asking me various forms of this question: How do you become a professional artist (aka make a living as an artist)?

I don't have all the answers on this question, I have been a "professional" artist for only 5 years now. All I can do is share how I did it.  Compared to some people my journey has been more difficult (those who had spousal or independent financial support) and for some more easy (those who have no resources to pursue it full time). Everyone's situation is different obviously.

This first thing I would say is you have to consider, why do you want to become an artist? Is your desire strong enough? What obstacles stand in your way? How quickly do you want to achieve this? What resources do you have? What are you willing to sacrifice and how much suffering can you endure?

Here is my story:

#1 - Strong Enough Desire

When I was 27 I made the decision that I would go to art school.  I won't go into all of the details, but basically 10 years after high school I was sick of feeling meaningless, working jobs that I hated and  in an unsatisfying marriage. At the crossroads my Mother posed a question to me that changed my life. She asked, "Kelli, if you could do anything, all things being possible, what would you do?".  The answer had been inside of me for so long, but I had no clue that it was a real possibility. I responded in tears, somewhat dumbfounded by my own words, "I would be an artist."   This felt like the only real TRUTH for me.  I had contemplated other careers, other paths, but the falsity of them kept me from pursuing them. Just to name a few that I considered in my search for becoming a mature intelligent adult (lol) : social worker, architect, interior designer, fashion designer, graphic designer, cosmetic business (yuck). Jobs I actually had over those 10 years: cleaning hotel rooms, gas station attendant, telemarketer, sales, JC Penney, waiting tables at Denny' get the picture.

So, I would say that my desire was strong enough that I was willing to sacrifice what I had to in order to achieve it.  This is really important because it can be a tough road especially if you are "flying without a net".  Here's the thing, the desire precedes the confidence.

#2 - Find Out What Kind of Art You Want to Create & Put Your Plan Into Action

So here's how I did it. I still rambled around the country travelling for my then husband's work for another year. I started taking art classes wherever I could on his dime. I knew nothing about being an artist and I quickly realized how bad I was compared to others, but it made me feel better doing it. I loved learning about it and I had hope I could get better.  I finally got enough drawings together to submit to an art school. I had discovered by that point that I wanted to do representational art and that I loved studying figure drawing and anything done from life. For years I had copied photographs and when I started drawing and painting from life I realized this was much more interesting to me. So I picked a school as best as I could based on that.

#3 - Obstacles, Resources, Timeline

I started art school in the Fall of 2007 and all this time I thought at least I had my ex-husbands stable income as a safety net. However, it only took 2 months for me to realize I had to end that relationship if I was ever going to have the life I really wanted. So now, I was broke and attending a $20,000+ a year art school. Everyone was worried for me (rightfully so).  I knew it was right and somehow I'd figure it out.  The other thing I realized is that if I was going to get any better I would have to study full-time for 4 years without working a job. Luckily, I had about $10,000 (not much) in the bank from my split with my ex from a house we had flipped.  I would have to make this stretch as far as possible.  I rented a room for $250 a month from a single mother in town. I sold my car and my parents bought me a used Honda which I would drive back from OK to CT the following summer and they sent me the $250 every month to pay my rent. (Thanks Mom & Dad!)  I had no other bills or utilities besides food, art supplies and museum visits.  I was able to get some funding from the state for school as well as an increased scholarship, but I still ended up having to take out student loans close to $100,000  in order to finish. (Trust me, not the best decision!).  I didn't really know what was possible, all I knew was that I was willing to give it my ALL or I would regret it. On the one hand nothing felt more right and on the other hand I felt like my life was completely out of control.I was faced with all of my psychological baggage from childhood, ending the marriage and every insecurity I had was magnified it seemed 10 x's because of fear. I went to see the school therapist once a week (which was free thanks to my recommendation to the school that they hire one)  to find my way and eventually realized how capable and strong I was.

I lived with that budget for 5 years. It was not pleasant. Technically, I was considered at poverty level income wise. I did not have my own bathroom for 4 years. I didn't have my own studio. I did not have health insurance (until the affordable care act). In the meantime, I had found two loves. One in painting and one in my now boyfriend who I met at art school. He always pushed me and believed in me, although he was in the same boat as me and could not support me financially. He constantly encouraged me to NEVER GET A FULL TIME JOB! He had experienced for years how hard it was to have a full time job and try to get good at making art.

By year 3 in art school, I felt that my work was good enough to show in the Christmas student art show sale. This was tough, because my work would get rejected a lot from the juried student shows and I was getting a lot of kickback for being too traditional and antiquated. The Christmas show was not juried. It was student run and I volunteered to hang and man the show as much as I could. I framed up as many paintings as I could and priced them cheap! My 8"x10"s were $150 back then. My optimism outweighed my fear of rejection.   So, those were my first sales. I think I made about $1,000 and I was giddy! Meanwhile students were murmuring that I was a sell out, just painting pretty landscapes and still lifes that people wanted to buy.   Well, I had no desire to paint masturbating robots, so I knew I was painting what I wanted to paint not what other people wanted me to paint.


In my 4th year, I began entering lots of local art association shows. Being in Connecticut there was a plethora of art groups and art shows up and down the coast. So, I would say you have to consider what kind of selling opportunities are available to you. If they are not available locally, you may have to rely on selling online to get you started.  You can use Etsy, Ebay, Instagram, Facebook or Daily Paintworks.  I'm sure there are people out there who will tell you don't do that.  It will hurt your long term career.  You have to decide what is best for you.  I think its kind of funny when people act like these choices are so set in stone and they will permanently damage your "career". You can always change course.

So my 4th & 5th year in Connecticut, I sold and showed paintings in local art shows keeping my prices cheap and still living cheap. I painted every day, I dedicated myself to getting better.
One formula I think you must have to succeed in this is :  
Persistence + Patience + Faith + Daily Action + Role Models 

After I graduated in 2011, I contemplated getting a part time job at a local art museum. They called me to say that I had the job in which my gut response was, "I'm sorry. I have changed my mind."  The thought of doing that didn't even seem right to me. Luckily, I started getting some teaching positions at these art associations. Some would approach me after seeing my work in the shows and a lot of them I would approach.  In doing this I was just modelling other artists I had met along the way as a way of making ends meet.  Until last year (my 8th year painting),  teaching was about 50% of my income at least.

After 5 years in Connecticut, I was homesick and I was still unable to afford an apartment to rent there. I didn't want to live out of someone else's bedroom anymore so I decided to move back to Oklahoma.  This posed a new set of problems and I would have to rebuild what I started in Connecticut. Oklahoma did not have near the art resources of New England.  So, I started applying for both national and regional shows like Oil Painters of America and American Women Artists.  I also started submitting my work to galleries nationwide and getting into a few (if you want some help on submitting to galleries go to and I show you how to do it). I had to double my prices since the galleries took 50% commission.  At least, I could afford to rent a 1 bedroom apartment of my own in Oklahoma and it felt good to be back home again.

The financial stress of starting over in Oklahoma was overwhelming for a few months. I had pre-arranged 1 art demo two days after I arrived and 2 art classes to start as soon as I got here, one of which did not take because of low enrollment.  I sought out every art organization in the area and went to meet them to try to arrange classes. I did free demos, I did demos for groups of 4 people. You must be willing to start small without letting it demoralize you.  It wasn't long and I had several repeat students taking lessons and some have been students and patrons ever since.  These people have helped make it possible for me to continue. I went into the local gallery, The Howell Gallery, that I wanted to be in and asked them to represent my work. I had sent them 2 gallery submissions which were never responded to, but when I approached them in person they said yes.  They are still one of my strongest sellers and just all around good people to work with. 
Be sure to not take silence as rejection, keep trying and follow up. 

Since then I have been in and out of galleries over the last 5 years.  I have been accepted and rejected in numerous shows. I have had lots of paintings sell and many that have gone in the trash or given as gifts to family members. I still pay $750 a month for my education. I still drive a used car with no payments. I still don't have a "studio". I work out of a spare bedroom in my home that I share with my boyfriend.  I still have doubts. I still have to hustle.  I still fall prey to comparison and self pity.  I still paint full time.  I still love teaching. I am still trying to get better.  I still see no other option for me besides painting.  I'm still not to six figures or featured as the star of the show in magazines or galleries, but every year my sales and teaching income have increased by 10-20%.   Most importantly, I believe in the non-monetary rewards of doing this work every day. Starting out in a recession in 2008, I count myself very fortunate to be able to make a living as an artist. Competition is stiff.  It seems like more and more I hear people want to become artists. Every day I discover a new artist. I can feel like a needle in a haystack. I keep painting knowing that there may even be a day when I cannot do this, so I love every minute I get and I accept what good fortune comes my way. 
New Available Paintings:
Copper and Pear
oil on panel

Yellow Rose Rhapsody
oil on linen

After the Dance
oil on linen

P.S.  I strongly recommend knowing your personality type as well as you can. It can help you to see what obstacles you will be good at handling and what self-sabotage may come your way. We are all different. Becoming a professional artist has it's own challenges that you may decide you don't want to deal with. If it sucks the joy out of painting for you, I would suggest that you keep doing it as a hobby and find other ways of making a living.