Why You Have A Bad Time Making A Living As An Artist

how to make a living as an artist

Why You Have A Bad Time Making A Living As An Artist

You want to know how to make a living as an artist. That’s a very very good thing, and there’s a lot of ways to do just that! But you hear horror stories about clients from hell, and people burning out or having a difficult time enjoying their life in general. These mountains are not impossible to climb, but you have to know what problems to look out for in making a living as an artist. These are problems that Sean McCabe talks a lot about in several media forms. I’m just communicating these principles in a compact form specific to the “art community” as distinct from the “design community”.

You don’t have solid rules about your work.

You own a business when you make a living as an artist. You are the CEO, CFO, CTO, Owner, Big Cheese, or what have you. The point is that you manage a business entity now. When you are engaging in the work of being an artist, you are not just John/Jane Q. Artist, you are now also, all at the same time:

John/Jane Q. Management
John/Jane Q. Talent
John/Jane Q. Accounting
John/Jane Q. Marketing

You are a creative firm now, not just a single person. Creative firms have rules about what they will and won’t do, and decent companies do not consistently put people up to work that they hate. You have to treat yourself with the same respect.

Solid rules about your work have to be documented. You can choose to publish as many or as few of these rules as you want, but they are the determining factors both as to what work you are willing to take, as well as what kind of clients you allow to approach you.

Solid rules includes:

  • What work you will do (with examples)
  • What you will not do.
  • Whether feedback is part of the working process.
  • How quickly your client is expected to get back with you if feedback is part of the process.
  • When you are available (days and hours).
  • When you are not available.
  • When and how much payment is due.
  • What happens to the money if someone defaults.
  • What constitutes a default and allows you to terminate a business relationship.
  • How communication is expected to happen, and by what channel.
  • What, if any, documentation or information you require from your client.
  • Further detailed terms and conditions as necessary or desired.

Having a contract and attaching these rules to them gives you and your client protection from a lot of stress and headache. And you can publish your rules on the same page or site where you keep your hiring form.

You do have a hiring form of some kind, right?

You don’t have a good hiring form.

Do you take in your clients using a form, or just your email address?

Making a living as an artist requires you to change the rules about who you are going to accept business from. I do not care what anyone else tells you. You must have a hiring form that is specific and relevant to the kind of work that you intend to do. Even if you just do commissions of anime avatars. Making a living as an artist requires you to be thorough and to only take work from the right people.

If you go to my hire page you’ll see a pretty intense form with a lot of options and a lot of requirements. This isn’t by accident, though I could stand to straighten up the appearance of my form. I like doing great work. But my own way of doing things requires that any clients I take on either have well-thought visions, or at least the ability to communicate what they’re interested in reasonably clearly.

You want to know who is hiring you, what they are about, and what they want from you. This is also a good place to collect reference material and get people familiar with your rules, terms, and conditions. If they do not finish this form, or do not provide satisfactory feedback, you do not accept them as a client. You can make the choice to try to take the work anyway, but do not be surprised if you are returned with only stress and heartache for not drawing your lines clearly.

Your hiring form repels and drives off “Clients From Hell”. You do not have to work for anyone you do not want to. You have to set yourself up to be able to practice this dignified selectivity, but it is possible and it is worth it.

I have worked with, approached others, and been approached for work by people who do not understand what they want or do not understand the professional nature of seeking an artist out to execute a vision. Trying to get through a project like that is like pulling teeth. And someone who is not willing to work with your rules for hiring you is not likely to respect either your pricing structure or your pay schedule.

You don’t have an effective pricing structure.

You need to get paid well for your time and your skill. And your customers need to respect that.

I for my own part abide by the Value-Based Pricing model. Value-Based Pricing is actually an entire masterclass on setting up for and obtaining client work and getting paid really well for it. If you’re already getting client work, please spare the $100 it costs to subscribe to seanwes and take the course. You’ll be grateful for it.

The actual pricing model itself is not horribly difficult to get your head around, though I don’t fully understand every single detail about it. I also can’t break everything down about it out of respect to Sean and the work he’s put into his class.

Though I can for sure line out principles that he lines out already in content he’s released for free. The gist of it that you want to charge your clients a single flat rate for their project that fits two criteria:

It covers the minimum survival cost/hr of your time + cost of your materials + taxes + profit you’d like to make.

It represents only a fraction of the monetary value of the work to your client. Basically you want the $10,000 you’re charging to increase your client’s revenue and/or decrease their stress by $100,000.

You have to have very thorough knowledge of how long your work takes, the material cost, and how much in taxes will be required of you for the sale of services. You also only display a single line item for the total amount, unless your client has a hard requirement of itemized material costs. Your hourly rate is your business only, and you only use that to determine the flat rate that you discuss with your clients.

You are the one who was approached for services. If they do not trust you to deliver a meaningful return on your investment, they either do not respect you as a professional, or you have not sufficiently earned their trust.

The problem in this case is that you can’t really fully use that model if you primarily work with clients who see no financial gain from engaging you for work. If that is the case I would implore you to also explore teaching and products to generate income for you. Your client work may not then be your primary source of income, though you would still be wise to develop as much understanding as possible around how client work could serve you as a creative professional.

Apart from that you may noticed that the only things on my website with marked price tags are personalized classes (currently $25/hr) and merchandise products.

I do not discuss rates about personalized or client work before understanding what a client wants from me. When I understand what they are after, and understand the nature of the expected return on their investment in me (as a result of communications based on the hiring form), I then propose a single price determined by my understanding of the effort involved in producing the work. Money is not an object for people who want your work and trust you to do it right.

You let bad clients hire you.

Do not permit clients from hell to hire you.

A client is not a client until you sign a contract with them.

To make a living as an artist does not require you to work with anyone you do not want to work for.

If you cannot make a living working only with great clients, you are better off taking a day job that pays all your bills, and doing what you love to do for yourself, for no money at all.

You must manage your health well. You get one life that may at times require suffering. Do not suffer for no reason, and do not rob yourself of the joy of your work.

If someone who does not trust you, does not abide by your rules, does not respect your rates or payment schedule, and does not communicate clearly tries to ask you for work do not allow them to employ you.

You would not willingly go to a day job you hate with people who lie to you and disrespect you. Do not do this to yourself in the act of self-employment.

You aren’t taking care of yourself.

How to make a living as an artist, or making a living self-employed at all, requires you to take care of yourself.

Eat decent, sleep right, get exercise, get rest, take a week off every few weeks, take care of your relationships, and do not work so many hours that you cannot do any of these things for yourself.

If you cannot take down your number of hours, you must pay yourself more per hour. That may mean changing who you work with, whether in terms of general employment or turning over your clients. If you cannot achieve this, you may have to take a day job to keep you afloat until you can rebuild your circumstances to better take care of yourself.

There’s a lot to chew on here and a lot to swallow for some people who may look at this information and get uncomfortable. Don’t lose heart, just remember that protecting the things you care deeply and truly about may involve reorganizing your life a little.


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