How to Be an Artist With a Day Job
April 25, 2016 10:17 PM   Subscribe

"More people are incarcerated in America than are making... [an average $30K] ..."living" from art...You don’t have to be cynical and bitter, you can be optimistic and realistic. Yes, realistic optimism is an actual thing that involves recognizing harsh realities while understanding how to make the best of them. This post isn’t about giving up on your dreams, it's about embracing the journey to achieve them. It's also about accepting the reality that you may never be able to work on your number one creative passion full time. Here’s how you can live like that and be happy." (Includes helpful illustrations; note one of the cartoons has a suicide reference.)

Evan Brown, the author, is a musician, cartoonist and writer.
posted by rednikki (31 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
This is all really good advice, but is it just me, or is this kind of article about 15-20 years too late?

Like, most of the youth today don't even really have the option of a "day job" as much as they work variously for Uber, bartering work with friends, and/or doing other odd/contract jobs.

(Not knocking the author specifically, it's just the kind of thing you might think would have popped up sooner.)
posted by deadaluspark at 11:28 PM on April 25, 2016 [7 favorites]

As someone who has worked to support art making for the past quarter century, I found this article to be somewhat facile and cheesy in that Business Kulchure Lite sort of way that's everywhere these days. It's easy, for instance, to say go find a job you like, not so easy to actually achieve that.
I attended and graduated from art school, so, the available work, for the set of skills I possessed, was largely unskilled factory labour, which over time became skilled factory labour from experience.

So yeah, it's hard, to have to work pretty much full time and then try to find the energy to paint and draw. That being said, there are days when I come home to my 1 bedroom apartment, which I use as an art studio, and feel like the luckiest person alive and that's because I did the work over the years while working full time.
posted by Phlegmco(tm) at 11:50 PM on April 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

Yep, full time, job, part time artist. Life can be good.
posted by evilDoug at 12:07 AM on April 26, 2016

Now if only I can get a day job.
posted by divabat at 12:11 AM on April 26, 2016 [6 favorites]

To me, the tone of this reads a bit like: "hey, you know how ever since you were old enough to understand language we've been telling you to follow your dreams, that you can achieve absolutely anything you want? You know - all that stuff about how if you just put your mind to it, you can be prime minister someday!? You remember how all those seductive ads sold you thousands of pounds worth of university education to learn all that stuff you were passionate about learning, on the basis that at the end of it you'd be okay, because you can do whatever you want! Well, actually, no - that was all a steaming pile of bollocks. THIS IS THE HARSH REALITY and you're an idiot for ever believing anything else, and we're going to snark and laugh at your wide-eyed optimism. Oh, by the way, just go find a job you like, because that's not hard at all."

I harbour no dreams whatsoever of being an artist, but I do have dreams, and if I believed for a second that my current life of office work and commuting was all I'd ever have, I'd drop into despair. You have to keep dreaming that things will be better, and you have to keep working to make them better - if everyone accepted that this was the reality of things and that nothing would ever change, we'd still be doing 80 hour weeks in the mills and dying down the pits. We'd still have gay people getting beaten up in the streets instead of same-sex marriage. We'd still be living in some random era where everyone turned around and said "we can't change things." I don't want this to be that era. Nothing good ever came of people saying "this is reality, deal with it, you can change nothing."
posted by winterhill at 12:15 AM on April 26, 2016 [13 favorites]

We'd still be living in some random era where everyone turned around and said "we can't change things."

These few years, I have noticed more and more people, both offline and on, telling me this. I've wondered if I'm going crazy.
posted by polymodus at 12:21 AM on April 26, 2016

This article felt strangely familiar.
posted by smcameron at 12:29 AM on April 26, 2016 [16 favorites]

Teach your creative passion. At least that's the plan I'm trying to wrestle in place, and that's how all the best/most interesting artists & musicians in my extended social circle feed themselves. It's a marginally less brutal and impossible to negotiate path than making a living making art (which as far as I know is a myth where I live).
posted by threecheesetrees at 12:51 AM on April 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

I am a full-time creative. I worked many years in p/t jobs to make this happen. Now I'm in my second year of devoting myself f/t to my own creative business. I feel a lot of these articles never touch upon how a creative job is rarely just you sitting about 'making stuff'. Most of my waking hours revolve around paperwork, emails, invoices, liaising with clients, buying printer ink, following up on reports etc. I have recently farmed out some of the admin work to a virtual assistant, otherwise I'd never have time to 'make stuff'.

I get a bit fed up when people say they'd love to have my job where I can just sit about making beautiful things. Guys, that's what I do in the evenings when office hours are over.
posted by kariebookish at 2:19 AM on April 26, 2016 [11 favorites]

Hey Evan? Maybe *you* don't have any more important work to do than write about vegetables raised by fruit, or hand-knit yourself some beer koozies, but some people actually have meaningful artistic work to do, and your trivializing, glib tone does not help those people.

And yeah, telling people to just take a moment to find a good job? In this economic environment? Is going to likely get one of those koozies shoved down your throat one of these days.
posted by mysterious_stranger at 2:34 AM on April 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Is there any way to put a warning on this for the out-of-left-field suicide mention in the first cartoon?
posted by Acheman at 2:54 AM on April 26, 2016

Here's the John Scalzi blog post about "sticking it to the man". Every now and then (usually when I'm up writing at 5:30am, when I'd much rather be sleeping) I come back to this.
posted by newdaddy at 2:56 AM on April 26, 2016 [10 favorites]

I should have said above - the second item in Scalzi's list is "Don't quit your day job".
posted by newdaddy at 2:57 AM on April 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've been dancing around the idea of adding the word 'artist' to my self-descriptors (husband, dad, librarian..) as my hobby starts to demand more time than a few hours in the evening here and there. I spent last weekend carving and pressing prints, mailing off orders, and refreshing supplies at the art store. I have more weekends like that coming up as I prep for an outdoor marketplace next month and cafe residency the following.

I turned down a new job so I could keep doing this stuff. The new position was more work, less pay, and the loss of my go-to creative work day. It would have been a bump up, career-wise, but in the end it would have meant not being able to afford my creative work fiscally or temporally. My wife pointed out that once you make a sacrifice for your art, you can can yourself an artist, so I guess here I am.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 5:26 AM on April 26, 2016 [7 favorites]

you can can yourself an artist, so I guess here I am.

Folks can call themselves whatever they want, but if you make art, you're an artist. Which is sounds like you do, and are.

Back in the proverbial day when I taught creative writing for a couple years, some of the kids would go on at length about wanting to "be a poet," as if that were different from writing poems. They always seemed disappointed and annoyed that the main thing involved in being a poet was actually writing a bunch of poems. (Beret, black clothing, clove cigarettes, bitter coffee, sex with strangers, and absinthe benders -- all optional.)
posted by aught at 5:41 AM on April 26, 2016 [6 favorites]

I'm a bigger fan of Austin Kleon on this topic than the OP. I'm not sure if their advice is much different, but Kleon is more efficient with what he says, and I think covers more ground as a result.

Something I haven't quite cracked is finding a job that is fulfilling and not totally entirely draining. I'd work a bullshit job that would leave me mentally fresh if it didn't mean feeling absolutely worthless to the world. Its a shame that the fulfilling work I'm drawn to is also overwhelmingly draining on a regular basis.
posted by lownote at 6:00 AM on April 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

If you are an artist and you can do so, I HIGHLY recommend taking Creative Capital's Professional Development Program. It's basically a weekend long session on how to get to a place where you can make a living from your art -- taught by artists who have made the transition. And it's that last part that makes a difference. It's the benefits of shared experience and the sharing of dreams without condescension. Miami-Dade County Cultural Affairs regularly brings the program to town (and so do many other local arts councils) and it's been life-changing for a lot of the artists I know and work with.

I'm not one of the their major success stories. I'm still floundering a lot a few years later, but even so -- I just got my first major grant funding for my theatre company last week. But some of the people who were in my group have gone on to create thriving arts business practices. I've been amazed to see them soar. And if you're in Miami-Dade County and interested -- applications are currently open. And if you're not -- check in with your local arts council to see if they ever bring down the program.

Because this article is a start, but it's only a start. More help is always better. And like many others... I was underwhelmed by it.
posted by JustKeepSwimming at 6:23 AM on April 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

I think he touches on that people confusing making art with doing awesome creative stuff 24/7, often forgetting that there's the shitty nuts & bolts of your dream too. (Admin, promotion, web stuff if you don't have anyone looking after that for you, more admin, taxes, bills, etc.) He may not go into it in the depth we'd all like, but he at least acknowledges it which more than I've seen most articles about being artist and making a living from your art do.

I do not like my job. It's boring, pays okay for admin ($14/hr), makes me sad half the time (despite having perfectly pleasant office mates with whom I have nothing in common but this job), and depletes me mentally so that by the time I get home all my gumption to get started on my creative stuff by golly is gone and then I feel worse all over again. I like his suggestion of fiercely carving out that time, if only 20 minutes, to at least get something done and set small goals. I like setting big goals but big goals lead me to panicking, not doing anything, then hating myself for even setting big goals or thinking I could reach them in the first place. I have to start small. I have to get organized. I have to force work into chunks. I get that from this link and frankly, I've read worse or shittier advice about being an artist on the Blue. I prefer his slightly more realistic approach to getting your art done than the 95% of articles that are people who already had money to start with telling me Making A Living By Art is Super Easy and Everyone Should.
posted by Kitteh at 6:47 AM on April 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

Better take on the same concept: The Artist in the Office.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:51 AM on April 26, 2016

Carving out time is difficult when what you're doing requires a gearing up process--sometimes you really just can't do much in 20 minutes a day. I'm that way with writing. It takes me about 20 minutes just to get into the right headspace, so I really need to carve out larger chunks of time. I'm lucky enough that I can rearrange my day-to-day responsibilities so that I do that sometimes, but it still means I'm probably not going to get much personal writing done until I'm out of grad school.

But the discussion reminds me of this post on BoredPanda, about a woman who couldn't find time to paint full-sized works and decided to do really small (doable) paintings.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 7:06 AM on April 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Being an artist is hard. It means that any free time you have is necessarily at odds with your art. I had a full time job and made music on the side, then quit my job and started touring professionally, then stopped touring because it was going to destroy my relationship and started writing music for TV - which takes between 9-12 months to pay out from the time of broadcast - and then started working full time again because I couldn't afford to subsist on potential royalties. I'm lucky that my connections and industry allowed me to do that. But working full time - even if I don't hate my job - definitely nukes my creative output, particularly if it is intellectually engaging work. When I temped in the records department of a law firm doing mind-numbing data entry I invented cartoon characters and wrote songs with abandon, but writing software demands my attention and as a result I'm tired at the end of the day and just want to eat dinner and watch Orphan Black, leaving my studio to collect dust.

There really is no easy answer. I'm very impressed with the people I know who have made a career out of their art - mostly in music - but can also see the toll it takes on them in terms of their personal lives and their fiscal stability. On the flip side, not making and performing music regularly has a palpable effect on my mood and world-view, which is to say it makes me feel like a failure and a sell-out. So there is no winning, just levels of compromise.
posted by grumpybear69 at 7:27 AM on April 26, 2016 [5 favorites]

I remember a few years ago I had one of my drawings out on my desk at work. The morning janitor walked by and took a look.

"Did you do that?"


He looked at the drawing.
He looked at me.
He looked at the drawing again.

"What are you doing here?"

Here's the thing, though. I have tried to live exclusively off my art, and it's CONSTANT hustle, for inconsistent payoff. I have a "day job" (night job) that pays well enough to keep me going, has enough down time I can work on other things, and doesn't drain me mentally or emotionally. I have health insurance, I know I can pay my rent, I have the small measure of security that comes from worrying that much less. Through that structure, I have ended up making more from my art than I ever have before, and I am able to be more creative, experiment and explore and teach myself new things without having to constrain myself to only usuing my time to make things I know I can sell - I can take risks that I would not be able to otherwise.

I am really, REALLY lucky. I may not be creating full time for my primary income, but I am maybe in a better position because of that.
posted by louche mustachio at 8:02 AM on April 26, 2016 [10 favorites]

I am so lucky. I have a day job that I like a lot—administrative work that I'd only do for the paycheck, not my passion or anything, but I enjoy my coworkers and I work for doctors whose work makes a difference in people's lives, so my admin support for them isn't meaningless make-work (mostly). The great thing about being an admin is that nobody wants to pay you overtime, so I really do go home at the end of my 40 hours.

I run a small press evenings and weekends, and although I (frustratingly) haven't found time for my own writing too, I really enjoy the creativity of editing/curating science fiction anthologies and putting new books out into the world. I'm able to publish two or three titles a year. I'm not making any money, but I'm not losing it (anymore) either and every year is a bit better. I hope to transition to this being a full-time gig in 5 or 10 years.

I'm only able to do as much as I do because I never had kids, and I have a supportive spouse and family.
posted by joannemerriam at 9:17 AM on April 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

Teach your creative passion.

Not if you're in the creative writing fields. The number of MFA graduates far outstrips the teaching jobs, and the job count remains static while count of the those with the degree is skyrocketing.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 9:38 AM on April 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

[With OP permission, added a note to the post about the suicide mention.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 11:38 AM on April 26, 2016

It bothers me that artists are still assumed to be perfectly happy making their little projects happen and the lucky ones get an audience and the even luckier ones a paycheck. Like even Beyonce has to fight tooth and nail just to get anyone to allow her work to meaningfully confront its cultural context. "Don't push any buttons, stay on stage, be simple, don't tell me what to do" it's patronizing all the way down.

Why must artists be producers? Why can't artists also be negotiators? Liasons? Cultural spies? Critics? Caregivers? Leaders?

Why do we still talk about art like it's a product? We know Columbus was an asshole, why don't we know art is more than this yet, in both concept and practice?

My role as an artist as I intend it is almost entirely to concern myself with the frame; ideological, empathetic, political, technical. As a choreographer, the process itself is my medium. I like "things" too but I care a lot more about how and why than I do about what. And that makes me feel alienated, even among other artists, because it's not part of the vernacular to think this way.

I like this medium here well enough, but it's very staid in an ironically futuristic sense; there's no way for me to express myself more physically or visually here, which I try not to resent but it bothers me often.
posted by an animate objects at 12:13 PM on April 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

It's funny, the author's advice sort of mirrors my current situation, which has worked pretty OK for me, but I still feel like I need to take issue with it. The thing he touches on but doesn't really address is that if you want to practice any art at a professional level, you often have to sacrifice the kind of credentials that will land you that gratifying, stable day job.

I'm in the place he describes now, but I've taken a pretty long-way around after art school, and while I've had a lot of part-time gigs that were interesting, that I found rewarding in their own ways, and that I've learned a lot from in ways that inform art and my life, I'll never stop wondering where I'd be at if I spent the last 10 years developing my craft instead of just trying to keep in practice while I balanced 2 or 3 jobs to get by.
posted by Phobos the Space Potato at 1:21 PM on April 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

I know a lot of people in their 40s and older working crappy jobs and only making minute progress in their artistic pursuits. The could be making the same progress while having decent jobs instead, but they never believed they'd need them, or that developing some kind of skill was nothing short of selling out. They can never go out to dinner anywhere more expensive than In 'n' Out. They can never go to a show unless they have comp tickets. The only time I get to see them out is when I go to one of their events. They can only pay for babysitting in emergencies. They're still completely committed to their art, but they don't seem happy or satisfied in any recognizable way.

I'd never tell them to read the linked article. It would serve them no purpose other than to make them feel they were being condescended to or scolded, with no practical guidance for their situations. And I'm not sure they would have been receptive to the points in the article when they were younger and trying to organize a future.

However, for people just starting out I think the advice is sound and is something that young creatives should definitely consider.

People whose personalities and approaches to their art and income are already completely baked? Of course it seems facile to them. They're not the intended audience. That doesn't mean it doesn't have potential value for others.

Also, it's not a blog post about how to find a job you like, I'm not sure why one would project that expectation onto it. It's encouragement to consider it. How many AskMe posts come from people in crappy toxic jobs, who need to be convinced by the commentariat to find a different one? And many of those are from people who make no mention of balancing work and art, they're just people who don't think they deserve a better job or don't believe one exists even though the situations they describe enduring are obviously wrong and inappropriate. How much more difficult is it for someone to consider that when they also believe having a job is selling out, or that making better money is a trap?

I spent my 20s among people working absolute shit jobs because they were focused on their creative endeavors, and they never considered finding a better job because they were afraid a better job would require more commitment and take away from their art. Sure, some jobs would have, but when I think about the kinds of things people were doing for meager amounts of money it occurs to me that there are a shit-ton of ways they could have easily had more income in fewer hours, leaving more time for creating. Many of them never even considered it, and went from one shit job to another for years, with no improvement in income or time. Decades later, one of these people (just as an example, he's definitely not the only one) feels trapped in his job because he thinks he's too old to get anything else, and he doesn't have a whole lot of skills that fit into a standard package that an employer would want. If he had conceived the idea when he was younger that he could have had jobs that were both more satisfying and better paid, I feel certain he would have still been able to accomplish everything he has creatively (or more), and be in a much better place right now with regard to supporting his family and feeling less trapped.

I got lucky, and some of the skills I developed in pursuit of my art along with these folks turned out to have some earning potential, but I could be way more advanced in my money-earning career if I had only realized it was possible and spent some time considering possible pathways.

I don't get the hate for the article that some commenters are feeling.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 1:57 PM on April 26, 2016 [4 favorites]

Like, most of the youth today don't even really have the option of a "day job" as much as they work variously for Uber, bartering work with friends, and/or doing other odd/contract jobs.

Cite please?

I know this concept is ubiquitous but I don't think it's true. I see young people working literally every place I go where people can be seen working.

If you had said "Young people are facing a decrease in the number and quality of jobs available" then I'd have no qualms, but you made a claim about "most" youth and I don't think there's any evidence that what you've claimed is true.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 2:09 PM on April 26, 2016

So I've told my story, or parts thereof, a few times on Metafilter but here's the relevant nutshell. Hit my 40s, realized that my entire life as an assistant manager/IT guy/restaurateur was 100% entirely meaningless. That the entirety of my life had been a colossal waste of time. That the only way to justify going on for another day was to get the fuck out of all this and devote my life, again, to my art (composition).

Yes, I'm incredibly poor (homeless). Yes I only rarely get to go out to eat and many/most of my meals come from soup kitchens. Yes I only get two showers a week (from this one church in town which also provides laundry once a week). Yes I'm always afraid that a neighbor will see me sneak into my campsite and alert the police. Yes I'm always afraid that another homeless person will see me entering my campsite and later steal my stuff. Yes there's dealing with that general sense that most of the general public despises the homeless and treats us as less than human.


I've never been happier. I work more than full time on my music. I am a human being again. My life has meaning. I am taking full advantage of the abilities I have, of all that I have studied and learned.

I'm positive that some day the work will pay off and I'll start making $500/month which will get me out of my current homeless state ($30,000/year? What crazy 1%er madness is that!?!).

I'm equally positive that what I think of as a five-year-plan right now would become a fifteen-year-plan if I took on a part time job. Ie, my project will never reach the point it needs to such that it will support me if I were to work part time somewhere. Further ie, it would be impossible to find any kind of satisfaction from a job knowing that it's delaying my career by about two days for every day I work.

These are the realities. There is no "keeping my day job". There is this and nothing else. It ain't for everyone. In fact it's hard. Very hard. But I can not go back.

Maybe the advice in this article can work for some people. Maybe one can become a successful artist only giving it half-effort. Maybe.

Probably not.
posted by bfootdav at 3:51 PM on April 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

I worked many years in p/t jobs to make this happen. Now I'm in my second year of devoting myself f/t to my own creative business. I feel a lot of these articles never touch upon how a creative job is rarely just you sitting about 'making stuff'. Most of my waking hours revolve around paperwork, emails, invoices, liaising with clients, buying printer ink, following up on reports etc. I have recently farmed out some of the admin work to a virtual assistant, otherwise I'd never have time to 'make stuff'.

I get a bit fed up when people say they'd love to have my job where I can just sit about making beautiful things. Guys, that's what I do in the evenings when office hours are over.

Yup. Careful what you wish for.

I make a living as a creative as well, I've been freelancing full time for almost 10 years. I do consider myself an artist, but that's not how I would describe my job. I own a business and my product happens to be a creative service - photography. 90% of what I do every day is the same stuff every other business owner does. I should be doing invoicing right now instead of writing this, and I spent 10 hours today on set with a client doing fairly uncreative work. But if you met me at a party and asked what kind of clients I worked for, you would be totally impressed (my mother certainly is!) and think I spent my days jumping out of helicopters with models living the dream or whatever. The reality is I do my personal creative projects after I get home from work just like the rest of the commenters here.

I think this is opaque to a lot of people, even people who are actively pursuing a career as an artist. It's straight up business. I'm practically married to my studio but mostly what I do there is send emails and try to keep up with my accounting and paperwork. There is something to be said for being able to practice your craft every day, after 10 years (plus 4 of art school) I think I am pretty good at this whole thing. But my big opportunities to put that into practice are for clients, not myself.

Not that I don't love what I do, I'm not complaining, and it's not like I never get to shoot my own work. I deliberately chose my little niche of the creative world so I knew what I was getting into. Despite the bullshit and constant precarity, it is pretty great. It is just not the romantic thing people think it is. It's a job and it requires constant, endless hustle with no support from anyone or anywhere.
posted by bradbane at 8:11 PM on April 26, 2016 [5 favorites]

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