New career as artist
March 4, 2012 1:39 PM   Subscribe

Advice needed on making a living as an artist.

As I am becoming redundant in a month, I have decided have a go at making a living through paintings. (I'm in Oxford, UK.) I have painted in watercolours and oils on and off as a hobby, but never tried to sell anything.

I am really looking for advice on how best to sell - I am anticipating at this stage setting up on one of the various websites dedicated to allowing artists to sell online - any suggestions as to the best one? (Is eBay even worth considering?) Once I have a few examples of work, is it worth approaching a gallery?

I generally paint from photos; this is a process that has always interested me. This means a realist effect with the photographic source made clear, for example see:


(Not that I'll ever be able to paint like Richter)

I am putting together some source photos, what do people suggest subject-wise that will sell?

It would be great to hear from anyone who's gone down this route and made a success of it, whether in the UK or not.

Thanks in advance.
posted by Kiwi to Work & Money (9 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I'm going to go ahead and guess you're not going to hear from many professional painters, because there aren't many.

Professional artists in commercial fields on the other hand, like graphic designers, illustrators, animators, art teachers, are somewhat more common but do not seem to be the kind of artists you are hoping to hear from. Many of these folks are also painters, but it doesn't pay their bills - their commercial work pays the bills. These are folks who have spent their lives on their art and they can't make a living just painting. Many others, who didn't go into a career in art but have been painting all their lives, also can't make a career out of art much as they'd probably like to.

Many of the aforementioned people - both those who make their living doing art, and those who don't make their living doing art but have been doing art their whole lives anyway - will be competing for the same customers as you.

I really don't want to be harsh, but I'm afraid the reality is harsh, and not just because of the crappy economy either. You may very well make wonderful art, but you can't make an art career out of nothing. It takes a whole lot of time and effort, a whole lot of luck, and in the end you may be lucky to sell one painting a month.

If you really love painting and would like to get your art out into the world, by all means give it a go. I know some people who do use Ebay. I use Etsy. And in fact Etsy, despite its MANY faults, is a user-friendly environment and it's very inexpensive to try out. But there are now dozens of sites, and I'm sure you can google up the pros and cons of each one.

But look for another day job. I wish it were different.
posted by Glinn at 2:17 PM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

There is a lot of good information on selling your art online in the forums at Wet Canvas.
posted by Ariadne at 2:30 PM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: IANAArtist
There appears to be a big difference in style/workflow between being an artist, and being a successful commercial artist.

Commercial success usually involves artists working in a distinct style, in quantity, without much variation in it. That style has to get popular and recognisable enough that people will want one of that style. Consistency is valued over variation (I know, I find that odd too...).

I lived with (as a housemate) a woman who was a fulltime artist.
Anyway, thing is - she really worked it. She prepped and painted at least 5-10 paintings at a time, and finished about 5 a week. She really enjoyed working on variations on a theme, and they all got worked on at once. So, there wasn't one painting of a fish-on-land theme, there was 5-20, with different types of fish, and different landscapes. In a way, it was slightly like factory style-production, where she did each of the painting stages on all of the paintings at once. That was genuinely the style in which she liked to work, but it's my assessment that that is also what allowed her to be commercial.

Her paintings actually vary wildly in style, as she got enthused with new topics, but in each individual style she seemed to do at least 20 paintings, often with several 'crossover' works.

Another person I know only worked on one painting at a time, but his were these super-huge landscapes (at least a metre wide?). He still knocked out about 1-2 a month, which sold for enough that he was pretty comfortable, and I noticed that this was described as 'slow' on an art site, and that collectors bought them before they were finished (giclee prints went for nearly a grand?). And y'know the theme thing? They were all of different views of this one particular small stretch of the coast.

They both additionally sold cards, calendars and prints etc of their work.

So, don't look at it as individual pictures you'd like to do, instead, pick themes, and then work on at least 10 pictures in that theme, preferably at the same time. This is basically how exhibitions work, a gallery wants at least a dozen works in the same theme. If you can provide that, you can get an exhibition in some small gallery, or even cafe. An exhibition is not a big thing, and something you should do soon. Most of the people I know who've had exhibitions are just hobby artists, so this is a very low-hanging goal, that should be achieved within a couple of months.

What theme? Well, I have no idea what you actually paint. Something you won't mind doing 10 of, at least! Something that you *can* do as a theme.

In a word? Concentrate on quantity, and quality will work itself out*.
More practice means quality usually gets better faster, and if you screw one up, you can be more ruthless about culling it from the final selection.

* I remember a psychological studies that showed when pottery students were told they would be assessed by *weight* of acceptable finished goods, rather than marked on competence/quality, they actually achieved better quality than the group being assessed normally.
So in case I haven't emphasised the point enough, from what I've seen...
Quantity. Quantity. Quantity!
posted by Elysum at 2:53 PM on March 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

My situation is similar to yours and I've been thinking about it for a while. It's not clear from your question if you are able to weather a period of time between that last regular pay packet and when revenue begins to come in from your art. Two reasons: 1) Building a back catalogue of paintings to get in front of gallery owners / on a website and 2) setting up a small business takes time.

There's always the practical approach to making money with your stuff. Fairs and local markets are traditional venues. You could also set up an easel at the booth and do some "on the spot" work either for immediate purchase or just to engage people in your process. It's not the same as the obsessed artist in their studio, but it can bring in some change and build a local audience.

Last point from me for now. There's a pretty significant emotional difference between loving an activity as an avocation versus your primary vocation. You don't want to end up resenting or otherwise dreading something that has brought you extensive pleasure in the past. Just think about that for a while.

Best of luck.
posted by michswiss at 3:19 PM on March 4, 2012

Pretty much the artists I know, and in particular the successful artists I have known, paid the bills with their day jobs. One of the more critically successful, who once had a gallery of his life's work displayed in one of the most important museums in our state, was a university professor. One of the more commercially successful, locally, was my piano teacher. There is a guy who made a very nice living, I gather, from his realistic wildlife paintings, this in an area where outdoor sports are practically a religion.

Almost all of them that did make money had to do it by not just painting or sculpting or whatnot in, presumably, every spare moment, but had to devote some dozen weekends a year to sitting in a chair at an art fair. I'm sure individual weekends could be quite lucrative, but still, many of them were doing this on top of their workaday career.

I may be exaggerating here, but I would have to bet that if you haven't yet gotten to the point of selling your work on a regular basis and thus able to value your work realistically, you probably don't have anything like a ghost's chance at suddenly being able to make a living at this.

If this is your true life goal, then get to that point while working in your first career, and then you'll know when to make the transition.
posted by dhartung at 10:09 PM on March 4, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for the feedback guys, and in spite of the reality check I'm still keen to push for this as far as I can. I have enough savings for a couple of months, at least to see if there is any potential in this at all.

I'm under no illusion that I'll have to produce at a high rate, especially at the beginning. Assembly-line approach it will have to be. (In a way, my previous question "I need a sense of urgency" is relevant here; bills to pay is an urgency.

Do any of you who mentioned artists making making this work have any links to their art/sites that I could look at? Thanks.
posted by Kiwi at 3:19 AM on March 5, 2012

My father is a professional artist - he paints in oils, and is both an awesome painter and an awesome dad.

He raised me and my three siblings, never taking an extra job, and is by no means famous, but sells enough that we never went hungry. My mother has also worked hard over the years to supplement his income, but at times when we were small children, stayed at home to raise us until we were old enough for playschool rather than pay for childcare. They worked it so that they could afford for her to do this.

I'm not going to go on a "you should do this" ramble because my main point is, it can be done. But here are a few things:

- Be prepared to be poor at times. Adjust your lifestyle in advance, as much as possible. My mum got to be an expert at cooking wholesome food very, very cheaply (we were virtually vegetarian for a while as I remember as it was cheaper, it's done me well as I get older!), and we wore jumble sale clothes all the time for a while. Little kids don't mind that stuff, but it could be a major mindset shift for some people.

- Elysum is right, quantity is important. My dad paints enough paintings that he has a LOT of them around the country in various galleries, which get rotated and replaced when they are sold.

- On that note, be prepared for long drives, fruitless meetings, and perpetual self-promotion. It'll be worth it, but you need to be ready.

I hope this helps and memail me if I can offer any further info!
posted by greenish at 10:05 AM on March 5, 2012

Look at some painting-a-day sites, and see what sells. It seems to me that most people like representational work of landscapes, seascapes, buildings, animals and still lifes(lives?). Pictures of individuals, not so much. These are usually small works, presumably not taking your entire day to paint. Potentially a good way to get practice, and make some money to live on.
posted by theora55 at 12:43 PM on March 5, 2012

Response by poster: Well I've got a few paintings for sale. Its going well but slowly!

The 'website' link in my profile links to my facebook page (which is acting as a blog at the moment). I've recently put a newsletter-signup button on the page in case you're interested in seeing how it all goes.

Thanks for the advice everyone.
posted by Kiwi at 7:42 AM on August 9, 2012

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