If you’re an artist or have a few creative-type friends, you probably know someone who embraces the idea of the “starving artist.”
This type of artist is someone who’s holding themselves back from actually making money and achieving their dreams because of a preconceived notion of what an artist “should” be.
You can spot a self-made starving artist when they say things like:
- “I don’t want to sell out.”
- “If my art is good, it’ll market itself.”
- “I just want to get into a gallery.” (While making no attempts to do so whatsoever.)
You don’t have to “starve” to make money through your art.
Instead you can start a side hustle that leverages your artistic talents and helps you make money from your creative work.
The success mindset (or, why the “Starving Artist” is total BS)
If you want to become a successful (read: profitable) artist, there is one thing you need to understand first: The idea of the “starving artist” is complete and utter BS.
That’s why we called up Antrese Wood for advice. She’s the host of The Savvy Painter and has worked both as an art director for a major video game company and as a professional artist who has sold hundreds of paintings.
“[Starving artist syndrome] is a very ingrained thing in the art world,” Antrese explains. “Some artists think it’s sleazy if someone even considers marketing themselves or trying to sell their art.”
And it’s incredibly hypocritical.
“Artists are very conflicted by it. We’re being told through the artistic community and culture that selling your art is dirty. And yet, at the same time, what artists want most is to be recognized. They want people to see their work and ‘get it.’ The only way that happens though is when people are able to buy it.
It’s frustrating to hear sometimes. You spend all of your time complaining about how nobody wants to buy your work and yet at the same time you’re talking about selling your work as if it’s the most debasing, horrible thing in the world.”
You need to understand you’re building a business. And like any other business, a lot of the work you put into it won’t be sexy and it won’t be romantic.
She continues, “That includes marketing yourself, putting yourself out there, and generally doing all the boring stuff that doesn’t happen magically. It’s not dirty. And it’s not beneath you.”
How do you get started putting yourself out there and making money?
First, you have to choose your path…
How to make money as an artist
If you want to learn how to make money as an artist, there are two paths you can go down:
- Commercial art. This is art used primarily for things like advertisements, media, or entertainment.
“A commercial artist is someone who works for hire,” Antrese explains. “That can mean anybody from people who provide storyboards for the entertainment industry to people who do illustrations for magazines or books, to people who design t-shirts for example.”
- Fine art. Fine art is what comes to mind for many when someone says that they “work as an artist.”
“The fine artists are artists who are more in the luxury business, so to speak,” Antrese explains. “They set out to create paintings, sculptures, and other works of art for patrons, and typically work with galleries and aspire to be in museums.”
This is art for the primary purpose of appreciation and aesthetic rather than commercial utility. Think Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s David, or any of my designers’ photoshopped pictures of me.
Pictured: Fine art
“You need to remember you’re playing the long game, there’s no shortcut to making and selling good art,” she explains.
So no, you don’t need to get your MFA in painting.
And no, you don’t need to be like this guy.
All you need are the right systems.
Though there are differences in how you approach the system depending on which path you take, the framework is the same.
Step #1: Find an idea
First, decide what you want to specialize in.
This could depend on your training and education (perhaps you took a class in graphic design or minored in photography) or simply your passion and hobbies (maybe you love animating in your free time).
For more information on finding a profitable idea, be sure to check out my article on the best online business to start.
But for now, here are some great freelance commercial artist jobs with plenty of gigs out there:
- Illustrator. This entails taking ideas and concepts from managers and turning them into fleshed out illustrated images.
- Graphic designer. This role encompasses a variety of roles including website and logo design, product packaging, and brand production.
- Photographer. Freelance photogs can find work snapping shots for magazines, media organizations, companies, or even weddings.
- Video editor. With platforms such as Vimeo and YouTube, many companies are beginning to embrace video as a means to get across their message. They need someone to shoot, edit, and produce those videos. Could that be you?
If you want to go into fine art, you should already have an idea of what your medium is, whether it’s painting, sculpting, photography, whatever.
No matter what your hustle idea is, you need to remember one important tenet: Do good work.
It might seem obvious but people sometimes forget this when they jump into a creative pursuit.
“It seems so obvious but you have to spend time developing your craft and creating work that you’re proud of,” Antrese says. “You need to be super proud of it. You can’t just put crap out into the world and expect people to like it.”
This is the “If you build it, they will come” idea of creating a side hustle. If you create good, high-quality work, people will come to you. It doesn’t matter what your artistic medium is. You should always be in the pursuit of doing good work.
“It’s great for the mind-set too,” she says. “If you’re doing work you’re excited about, you’re going to be motivated to keep on doing it.”
Step #2: Find clients
If you’re freelancing, there are many different ways you can approach finding your first client.
You can cold email companies.
You can head to places like Craigslist to find awesome clients (seriously).
Or you can check out industry-specific job boards. These are fantastic for finding clients looking for your services.
Here are a few with an arts and media focus that can help you get started:
- MediaBistro.com. Awesome job board for finding media-specific jobs.
- 99designs.com. Good for finding graphic design or illustration work. The site has paid out over $200 million to their community of designers.
- Designs.net. Allows you to place your work on its marketplace where potential clients can find and pay you for your work.
- Behance.com. Another great site with a comprehensive job board for graphic designers and illustrators.
- DesignerNews.com. A massive community of designers with plenty of opportunities to find freelance gigs.
No matter if you choose to sell you fine art or if you want to start freelancing for clients, though, you should also begin to take networking seriously.
Networking, itself, is an art form.
And like most art forms, it can be learned, honed, and mastered. When artists master it, they can make connections with art galleries, collectors, potential mentors, and a world of other people who can help them grow in their career.
To connect with anyone, you need to keep one thing in mind when you meet them: How can I help this person?
“Go to the shows,” Antrese says. “Show your face. Be memorable. Leverage the social skills you need in any business to help you network. Find ways to stand out and be helpful.”
Because nothing will turn someone off from you faster than dripping with nervous desperation as you try to get something from them.
“[Something] you don’t do is that you never EVER go to an art opening and try to approach the gallery with your own work,” she says. “You’ll just look like the biggest jerk on the face of the planet.”
Afraid of introducing yourself or not knowing what to say? Here are a few great resources on IWT to help you get started building amazing social skills so you can dominate any opportunity to network.
- How to be popular. Use these proven steps to become more charming, make more friends, and learn how to be a social butterfly.
- 5 thought-provoking questions. 5 of the most intriguing questions for networking events, dates, and small talk.
- How to master conversational skills. Master these 3 fundamentals of conversation and you’ll be able to talk with anybody.
When you find someone you want to work with, you’re going to have to reach out to them. Luckily, I have the perfect email script for you to use.
Step #3: Reach out to potential clients with the perfect email
“But Ramit. The perfect email script doesn’t exis—”
I saw your post on X and visited your website. I noticed that you’ve been looking for a video editor.
I’ve been doing video editing for three years and I’d like to offer to help you edit your videos and get them optimized for the web.
That would make them look more professional and load faster, which is important for your readers. And you’d free up time that you could use to create new content.
We can discuss the details, of course, but first I wanted to see if this is something you might be interested in.
If so, would it be okay if I sent you a few ideas on how to help?
This is a GREAT introductory email script because it’s simple, direct, and sells the clients on the benefits of working with you.
Of course, you’re going to want to mold it for your specific hustle.
And for a more comprehensive summary of how you can start a successful freelance hustle, be sure to check out these two articles on the topic:
Step #4: Use brutal honesty to price yourself
I don’t care if you’re a freelance programmer or if you’re selling your paintings on the side: everyone gets confused at pricing their products when they start out.
“I think artists who are just starting out and aren’t familiar with the market yet tend to either price their pieces too low or too high,” Antrese says.
And while you can arbitrarily price your work until you hit on something that sticks, Antrese has a good framework that can help any beginner out: Brutal honesty.
“The simplest way to do it is to be brutally honest with yourself and evaluate your own work,” she says. “For me, I know who paints like I do, who has a similar skill set, where they’re showing, what kind of galleries they’re in, and then you go and look where they’re showing their work and how much they’re selling it for.”
This way of pricing is also known as the “Do what the other guy does” technique. By looking at yourself and others in a similar situation as you, and seeing how they price their products, you can come up with an educated guess as to how you should be pricing your work.
HOWEVER, it’s not just your talent level. You need to keep in mind the other person’s experience and how much attention they have gotten in terms of patronage and shows.
“If your skill set is close to that person but they’re in the top gallery in New York and they’ve had six solo shows and you haven’t, you can’t price your work the same as theirs,” Antrese explains.
Step #5: Don’t quit your day job (yet)
While it might be tempting to march into your boss’s office and put in your two weeks’ notice the day after you sell your first painting or get into a gallery, you should be judicious at first.
“When they start selling their work, it is tempting to quit. They think ‘If I can sell X with a full time job, I could 10X that if I just had more time to paint. I need to quit my job.’ Sounds logical enough.
What they don’t understand is what happens in their heads when they no longer have a steady paycheck. Even if they were smart and put cushion money aside, the mindset inevitably shifts from ‘I’ll create the best painting I can, if it doesn’t sell right away, it doesn’t really matter’ to ‘I worked hard for that savings and every day I don’t sell, I’m a day closer to losing it all. This painting HAS to sell.’
That’s a lot of pressure and the perfect environment for creative paralysis.
Instead, Antrese suggests you resist temptation and keep your job — at least, until you can feasibly sustain yourself on your craft.
“Keep your job,” she says. “Take a ‘pay cut’ and live only off the profits from your art. Can you pay all your bills? Are you comfortable? In the meantime, set your regular paycheck to automatic deposit into a savings account. 100% of it. When you can live off the sales of your art for three months without dipping into that savings account, you can quit your job. And congratulations, you have an extra three months of savings!”
Earn more money (even if you’re “starving”)
Both fine art and commercial art are great ways to earn money. It just depends on how you want to make money from your art.
And if you’re ready to put in the work into becoming a successful artist and earning more money, I have something for you:
The Ultimate Guide to Earning Money
In it, I’ve included my best strategies to:
- Create multiple income streams so you always have a consistent source of revenue.
- Start your own business and escape the 9-to-5 for good.
- Increase your income by thousands of dollars a year through side hustles.
Download a FREE copy of the Ultimate Guide today by entering your name and email below — and start blowing up your net worth today.