What to Do Before You Quit Your Day Job
Most artists with whom we have spoken worked in part-time capacities (selling art on the side or doing freelance work on nights and weekends) before leaving their primary, steady jobs. The perks of this approach include the ability to:
- Experiment with lower risk
- Build up a client base
- Develop a more robust portfolio and track record
- Build up savings to cover initial, unprofitable months as a newly-minted full-time artist
Waiting to jump into the deep end may also help by enabling you to enter the field at an older age. Though young, scrappy enthusiasm has its place, many clients and buyers will feel more comfortable with professionals who are in their late twenties and early thirties than they will with professionals who are fresh out of school.
It would be extremely unwise to quit your day job without an emergency fund that can support you for at least six months. If you live from paycheck to paycheck and cannot afford to build up that fund, do not quit whatever full or part-time job you may have until you are making at least an equivalent income from your work as an artist.
As a general litmus test, ask yourself if there is any other profession you could tolerate. If so, take it. The life of an artist is not easy, and you are only likely to succeed if you love your work so much that you will be willing to do it all hours of the day. The life of an artist is not going to make it easy to pay off your debt. The life of an artist is not going to make it easy to buy a big house, drive a fancy car, and raise a large family. But if you:
- Care more about doing artistic work than making money
- Could not imagine any other life than that of an artist
- Constantly create art after hours
- Would create art nonstop for free
Then perhaps this is the right path for you.
Potential Career Paths for Artists
Throughout our research and interviews with artists, we came across certain career paths over and over. Though we have separated popular alternatives by relevance to applied versus fine artists, it should be noted that many applied artists moonlight as fine artists and vice versa. The approach that is ideal for you will likely be a mixture of two or more of the alternatives discussed below.
Career Paths for Applied Artists
In House Employees
A great starting point for an artist involves full time work with a company or (ideally) an agency. The perks of full-time employment include:
- Health benefits
- Steady paychecks
- Built-in learning opportunities and skill development (especially if you work for an agency that produces work for a wide variety of clients)
Most artists find full time work through their personal networks or freelance work, so even if you wish to work full time for an employer, you may need to start as a freelancer or do contract work for various companies.
It also pays to network extensively. Consider asking artists within your favorite companies and design firms for informational interviews. In addition to giving you a better idea of what desirable companies are looking for and asking from artists, you may be given an inside track with job openings or introduced to other companies with open positions.
Self employment as a freelance artist is ideal if you desire independence and flexibility and wish to focus primarily on your art (rather than art plus the creation and maintenance of a small business). The most common business structure for a freelance artist's business is a sole proprietorship, however some also opt to create S or C-corporations (or LLCs) to reduce liability. Should you be involved in relatively limited, straightforward work, we recommend keeping things as simple as possible.
Do not assume that freelance work entails work for clients and nothing else. You will still need to market yourself (especially when building up a client base) and handle client communications along with a myriad of other administrative tasks that might otherwise be handled by office managers or accountants. That said, once you establish a strong reputation and high quality referrals come in, you may find yourself in the ideal situation of being able to pick and choose only the best clients and most inspiring work, plus spend the vast majority of your time doing work directly related to your craft.
Small Business Owners
Though often very similar (both when it comes to company structure and tasks) to freelance artists, small business owners within the art world are at once artists and entrepreneurs. Creating a small business as an artist may be a good choice if you enjoy management, marketing, and sales in addition to art creation.
Factors that distinguish small business-owning artists from pure freelancers include:
- Working through a "company" instead of offering work to clients under your own name and as an independent individual
- Running the company with one or more co-founders
- Eventually hiring additional employees to work for your company
Most small business owners often incorporate as LLCs, C, or S corporations, though small, two-person firms sometimes opt for a partnership structure instead. For more information on choosing an ideal business structure, visit the overview provided by the Small Business Administration.
Career Paths for Fine Artists
Full Time Dedication to Original Art Sales
Most fine artists would prefer a life in which they are entirely focused on producing new and original work. This requires a self-sustaining income provided by art sales alone, and may not be feasible to fledgling artists who have not yet established a strong reputation.
The most common means by which artists adopt this career path right off the bat involves building up the requisite reputation and sales history during art school. If you are able to sell pieces throughout your time as a student (assuming during that period of time, your expenses are covered and you have the freedom and time to produce work) at increasingly higher prices, if you are able to exhibit your work, and if you are able to establish good ties with art buyers and dealers, you may very well be able to transition into the life of a full time fine artist after graduation.
Fine Art and Product Sales
While some artists would not be able to support themselves entirely from the sale of original work, the income they gain from the sale of prints, canvases, and other replications of their work, plus various products featuring their designs, enables them to avoid non-artistic employment.
Whether you may be able to support yourself through original art sales plus the sale of merchandise (which will likely take place online for the most part) depends on:
- The extent to which your art appeals to large audience
- The strength of your online brand
- Whether or not you have a dedicated fan base
- The nature of your art and whether your designs lend themselves to products like mugs, shirts, mobile device cases, and throw pillows
- Your comfort with marketing and promotion
Fine Art and Employment
Few artists are able to support themselves from art sales alone when first getting started (or ever), hence it is extremely common to moonlight as an artist while enjoying benefits and steady income from a day job. Fine artists with side jobs may do anything from software development to accounting or even full-time freelance design work for clients to support their artistic pursuits.
Should you moonlight as a fine artist with the hope of focusing on art full time one day, it is essential that you treat your work as an artist as a serious job. In addition to regularly producing work, you must actively build your network, establish useful connections with artists, buyers, galleries, and dealers, and cultivate your online brand. Only by behaving like a dedicated professional can you ever hope to become one.
Fine Art and Teaching
It has been very common for fine artists to spend some of their time working as teachers. Teaching income can serve as a source of steady (if notoriously low) income that balances out the high-margin-but-highly-volatile income that comes from the sale of original art. Several decades ago, fine artists could hope to gain a pretty significant (and low-risk) income as tenured professors at universities, however tenure has become so rarified at this point that it may not be feasible to consider it as a potentiality at all.
Tenure aside, teaching is an imperfect source of alternative income given how much time it takes. After factors such as class prep and travel time are considered, the income teaching yields is surprisingly low. Should there be active demand for your original art, you stand to make far more money (and be paid far more for your time) by devoting art to art production rather than classes.
Work as a teacher may yield more reasonable hourly income should you be willing to provide classes online. Through a platform such as Udemy, you can create a course, leave it there, and earn passively from it over time (though time spent promoting that course can boost that course's earning potential). Should you choose to provide webinars or multi-week classes complete with critiques, you will still have to spend time on student evaluation, but can cut out wasted travel time. The more well known you are as an artist, the more likely you are to be able to earn a respectable income from online classes. With a lackluster online brand and few online fans and followers, you cannot expect many students to express interest in your lessons.
Income Levels to Expect as a Artists
Below are the May 2012 median and mean hourly wages, plus the mean annual earnings, for several major types of art-related jobs as determined by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics.
- Art and Design Workers: $18.70, $24.39, $50,720
- Artists and Related Workers: $18.10, $24.62, $51,210
- Art Directors: $37.15, $50.26, $104,530
- Craft Artists: $14.65, $18.19, $37,840
- Fine Artists, including Painters, Sculptors, and Illustrators: $16.96, $24.18, $50,300
- Multimedia Artists and Animators: $34.28, $35.90, $74,660
- Artists and Related Workers, All Other: $13.61, $16.19, $33,670
- Designers: $21.96, $22.64, $47,090
- Commercial and Industrial Designers: $29.81, $28.27, $58,800
- Graphic Designers: $22.40, $23.90, $49,700
- Set and Exhibit Designers: $19.04, $20.61, $42,880
- Designers, All Other: $20.36, $21.00, $43,680
From these figures, one can generally assume that:
- If one wishes to earn more, it would be favorable to specialize in art direction, multimedia art, and/or animation
- If one has interest in becoming a set and exhibit designer, craft artist, or graphic designer, one might have to prepare for a relatively lower income level
Should you be particularly interested in art direction, consider looking toward the advertising, public relations, newspaper, publishing, specialized design, motion picture, and video industries, as they have the highest levels of employment for art directors. If multimedia art and animation is your thing, look to the motion picture and video, computer systems design, software, advertising, public relations, and specialized design industries.
Primary Sources of Income for Artists
- Employers: JD Hancock works full time as a UI engineer
- Independent Businesses: Veerle Pieters provides design services through her company Duoh!, which she runs with her significant other; originally a freelancer, Matt Mills co-founded an independent website-building tool
- Client Work: A primary source of income for Jean-Sébastien Monzani and Anastasia Korochansckaja, George Krallis, and Oasim Karmieh
- Commissions: Sold by Mario Sánchez Nevado, Anastasia Korochansckaja, Elizabeth McGlasson, and Linda Huber
- Print and Product Sales: Mostly online print and product sales are sources of income for Mario Sánchez Nevado, Richard Young, and Elizabeth McGlasson
- Original Art Sales: The primary source of income for Nellie King Solomon and Richard Young and an additional source of income for Anastasia Korochansckaja and Elizabeth McGlasson
- Lessons: An additional means through which Linda Huber earns income (Nellie King Solomon also taught classes for a while before transitioning full time to the production of original art)
Establishing Financial Security as an Artist
Independent artists must also be savvy businesspeople. A simple emergency fund to cover you during lean times plays but a small role in your financial viability. You will need to develop an acute awareness of cash flows within your life.
The more you can do the following things, the more secure you will become:
- Develop multiple streams of income
- Develop passive sources of income (e.g. print sales through a website that manages everything from production to shipping)
- Reduce business expenses (overhead, travel, supply costs)
- Reduce personal expenses (e.g. by moving to an area with a lower cost of living, cutting out unnecessary subscriptions, eating in more, choosing to have a smaller family, etc.)
- Contribute a significant portion of your income toward savings (both long-term and for retirement)
Administrative Tips for Artists
Keeping Track of Your Network
The success of an artist rides on his or her ability to maintain a good network of clients and buyers. The following methods can help you keep those relationships alive and well:
- Maintain an active presence on social media and actively engage with fans, clients and buyers (showing genuine interest in their lives, providing insightful comments on their posts, etc.)
- Maintain a spreadsheet of important contacts complete with their contact information and the last date at which you communicated with them; periodically make a call, strike up an email conversation, or schedule a meeting with each person on that list once ever month (or every other month) to make sure you remain on their radar
- Schedule in-person meetings whenever possible
- Focus on frequency over depth* (e.g. regular communication rather than just one four-hour-long call a year)
Though we have yet to find studies confirming the efficacy of this method, it has been recommended to us by several successful freelance professionals and has served us well.
Contending with Taxes as an Artist
Starving or not, artists must contend with taxes. To reduce one's annual tax burden, it helps to be aware of the deductions that are common amongst applied and fine artists, as well as common methods that enable one to prepare for tax season without nasty surprises.
Income to Track
Because you may receive money as an artist from a myriad of sources, it is important that you keep track of the following things:
- 1099 forms
- Deposit slips
- Invoices sent to clients
Reimbursements should be differentiated from income. In addition to collecting physical documents in an organized fashion, keep track of your income in a dedicated spreadsheet (if you have opted to use accounting software, much of this work will be done for you, but you still have to enter in relevant information).
Setting Income Aside Immediately
Estimate the amount of taxes you are likely to owe at the end of the year. If you expect to pay 25% of your income in taxes, immediately squirrel away 25% of all income you earn in a separate account (preferably one that gets decent interest). So far as you should be concerned, that money does not exist.
Should you not end up owing the total amount of tax funds you have accumulated over 12 months, great! This means you get a nice little bonus. The important thing is that you not find yourself in dire straights when tax season comes along because you did not properly allocate funds over time.
Common Tax Deductions for Artists
You will probably save more money by opting for an itemized deduction (in which you specifically list out deductions) than from a standard deduction when filing your tax forms, hence it is very important to know which of your expenses can be deducted.
Generally speaking, non-lavish activities related to your work as an artist can be written off. These expenses include:
- Art supplies
- Art production fees (e.g. printing art, developing film, etc.)
- Art shipping fees
- Entry, hanging, and framing fees
- Rent for studio or office space
- Utilities for studio or office space
- Bills for business-specific internet and telephone services
- Interest on any business loans you may have
- Transportation (flights, trains, taxis, busses, gas) related to work activities
- Labor costs of someone helping you with your work (e.g. an assistant helping you with a photo shoot)
- Reference and educational materials (magazines, books, papers, etc.)
- Entrance fees to trade shows, conferences, events, and museums related to work
- Membership with art museums and industry groups
- Continued education (e.g. classes, webinars, seminars, etc.)
- Marketing expenses (e.g. online ad fees, the cost of promotional materials, etc.)
- Business meals and entertainment
- Agent fees
- Business insurance
- Tax preparation
- Depreciation of property or equipment related to your business (unless you have already opted to write off the total cost up front)
Be sure to keep receipts of all expenses you wish to deduct in an organized space. Additionally keep track of the date and amount of each expense- plus the location of the receipt- in a spreadsheet). You cannot make a deduction for which there is no receipt, and you should hold on to your receipts for at least six years. You can only write off a portion of your home/apartment rent as office space if that space is only used for business purposes. Note that you may make additional deductions related to your private life (e.g. mortgages, charitable donations, etc.) that are not mentioned above.
Forms to File
If you work in some capacity as a self-employed artist, you will need to file Schedule C (or Schedule C EZ, if your expenses in a year were under $5,000) and Schedule SE. While the forms are fairly straightforward, it helps to look at them well before it is time to file. Should you be filing your taxes independently and want additional guidance, visit the IRS' Self-Employed Individuals Tax Center.
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