How to Be a Professional Artist in 12 Steps

When I was pregnant with our fifth child, Andy told me that he wanted to be a full-time artist. I objected, saying there's a good reason the term "starving artist" exists. I couldn't fathom how he was going to support our family of seven as a full time artist, but he was determined. Slowly but surely, his dream also became my dream, and I have done my best to help him along the way. Within 2.5 years of declaring his career intentions, Andy's part-time hobby became a full-time profession. And guess what? We aren't starving! I'm not necessarily an expert, but if you want to know how to be a professional artist, I'm happy to share what's worked for us.


How to Be a Professional Artist in 12 Steps

#1 - Follow Your Heart Make what you like. Don't just make what you think people will buy. Stick with your vision and your creativity. When your heart is in your work, it will always turn out better.

#2 - Look for Good Deals on Materials Try to keep your expenses low. You can find "oops" paint at Home Depot and Lowe's for a fraction of what paint usually costs. Also, every time we make a purchase at Michaels, a 40% off coupon is printed with our receipt. Use those coupons to buy canvas or expensive paint brushes. Andy prefers wood over canvas, and he can usually find what he needs at Home Depot or Lowe's in the scrap bin. He's also been known to drive by construction sites and ask if they have any wood they're going to throw away. Don't be embarrassed - it's smart to save money.

#3 - Document Your Work I take a digital photo of every piece of art Andy creates. The file names include both the name of the art and the dimensions. There are many ways to document your work, but this has worked best for us.

#4 - Price Your Art Pricing your art is one of the most difficult tasks. I would suggest visiting multiple galleries or searching for original artwork online. How do you feel your art compares to the competition? My thought is that comparable art quality should have comparable pricing. Also, take into consideration how long the piece took to make and how much you spent on materials, then do the math. Let's say a piece took 10 hours from start to finish and your materials cost $100. If you slap on a $500 price tag, would you be satisfied making $40/hour? It's really up to you to find your sweet spot. Once you feel comfortable with that pricing method, you can find various “art pricing formulas” online.

#5 - Get Online Do not depend on only social media. You want customers all over the world to find you. You need an internet presence. Get a web site. Buying a domain name is cheap, and sites like Squarespace make building a site fairly easy. Don't depend on social media, but don't ignore it, either. Social media is a great way for people to discover you, share your stuff, and communicate with you. Pick a few platforms and start building your presence. So far, our experience has been best with Facebook and Instagram because they're the most photo-heavy. Play around and see what you like.

#6 - Keep Track of Sales You can get fancy with QuickBooks or stay simple with Excel, but do something! You need to find a way to keep your income and expenses organized. I'd suggest calling an accountant to find out what all you can write off for tax purposes. Save your receipts!

#7 - Don't Forget to Collect Sales Tax Don't forget to collect sales tax and report it at the end of each month. It's the law. Do you like jail? No? Then don't break laws. If the government finds out you've been making sales and not reporting them, you will have to pay the sales tax regardless if you collected it or not. You know what's worse than paying sales tax? Paying another person's sales tax. So, be smart and make sure you know what the tax rate is where the transaction occurs, collect that money, and then give it to the government in a timely manner. Your state’s Department of Revenue should be able to answer all your questions.

#8 - Accept Credit Cards Do you want to sell art for a lot of money? Well, guess what? Most people don't carry two grand in their wallet, nor do they carry a checkbook. Make sure you have the ability to accept payment with plastic. A good place to get started is Square.

#9 - Donate and Participate If you want to get your name and your work out there, there are two great ways. First, donate your art to charities. Consider who your target market is, then think about which charities those people might support. Donate a piece of art to those charities' silent auctions. Second, participate in art festivals. Not only will you get good exposure, you will get to meet a lot of new people who may become good customers. Plus, you'll probably sell a lot of art! A warning, though: People like to haggle at festivals. Put a little wiggle room in your prices and prepare yourself mentally that some people are downright rude. Try to not take it personally, and stand firm on your pricing when you don't feel like negotiating. Remember, this is your career, not a yard sale. Respect your work, even when others don't.

#10 - Get Your Work in Galleries Visit galleries. Meet the gallery owners. Pursue gallery representation. Most galleries take a big percentage (like 50%), so you'll need to adjust your pricing accordingly. When you're selling enough to pay your bills and then some, consider opening your own gallery. This is risky, but the payoff is huge. Were we scared to open a gallery? Of course. Do we regret opening a gallery? No way. But we learned how to swim before we surfed. Which leads me to #11...

#11 - Don't Quit Your Day Job Before You're Ready When Andy decided to be a full-time working artist, he didn't do it overnight. He kept his day job and made art at night and on the weekends. He participated in some festivals. He donated art to charities. He got in a gallery. He learned how to swim. As art sales went up, his "day job" hours went down. It went from 10/90, to 50/50, to 90/10, and so on. This process took 2.5 years until his old job was completely phased out in March 2013. He was officially surfing! Now he's living his dream of being a professional artist, but it didn't happen overnight. Dreams take a lot of time and a lot of work.

#12 - Keep Making New Art Keep making new art. Andy is always growing as an artist. When we compare his current work to stuff that he did a year or two ago, he's noticeably improved (and sales have also improved). I know that will continue to happen as time goes on. As with anything in life, if you keep working on it and keep moving forward, you are bound to improve. While you're working and improving, you will face rejection and disappointment, but don't give up. If the transition from hobby to career takes awhile, don't be discouraged. Let it motivate you to continually improve. If your dream is to be a professional artist, you CAN do it.