3 Things That the Best Artists Do to Make a Living

3 Things That the Best Artists Do to Make a Living

It’s not easy being a paid artist. Actually, we have a reputation for suffering for our art. Any child (or worse, adult) who says they want to be an artist immediately gets asked whether we are scared of becoming one of those “artists in the streets” who will die a cold wintery death huddling their canvas and bottles of paint to the last.

It makes me sick.

This myth of the ‘suffering artist’ is something that should be burned thoroughly in the biggest bonfire out there. You do not need to suffer to create art (Elizabeth Gilbert has tackled this in Big Magic in a wonderful way, so I won’t delve into the subject here), and if you so choose, you can actually make a living out of making art.

It will take time, but let me repeat that again: you can make a living by making art.

Once you’ve accepted that, we can move on and learn how to become a paid artist, and maybe even a well paid one. You may not be sipping pina coladas at a beach, but you may, with time, become the artist who works in coffee shop on her own schedule.

I should forewarn you that this is not some “5 ways to get fabulously fit” articles that you can read and just “note down in your head” (that is, promptly forget it after you article-hop to the next thing). I’m revealing the system I actually used when I first started out as an artist.

You will need to actually do the things I’m saying to make it work for you.


Identify Your Offer.

When you’re selling your art, or anything for that matter, you have to know what you’re selling. It sounds apparent and simple, doesn’t it?

“Oh, I sell my art skills. I can draw XYZ really well. If only people would give me a chance, heck, or even properly look at my portfolio…”


“I can draw (insert appropriate words) really well! And really fast!”

Okay, if you just said something like that, please stop. Here’s the thing: when you enter into the real world, there’s a break from your previous school approach. Your skills are important, sure, but your ability to convey your value is equally if not even more important. You are never just selling your art. You are always selling something else with it. That is the value of your art.

So what value do you bring to a business or person who is buying your art? What are you actually selling, along with your art?

Here’s a simple exercise: Get a pen and paper and jot down 10 things that Apple ‘sells’ with ONE product. This can be an iPad, MacBook, whatever. When someone buys an Apple product, what else are they getting? (Protip: It doesn’t matter if you don’t owe any Apple devices and don’t understand the hype. You can easily research and see what and how people actually talk about these products online. Apple fans are blessedly open about their reasons on why they’ll insist on buying Apple products.)

Some ideas that comes immediately to mind for me:

  • Convenience,
  • A suite of beautiful products
  • Prestige
  • Social currency (look cool in front of their friends or colleagues)
  • Good customer service

Now think about 10 things that you’re selling with your art. When people come to you to buy your art, besides from the finished product, what are they buying?

Guiding questions for those who are stuck:

  1. Why are they buying it? Is it for an occasion? To tickle their fancy?
  2. Do they have to buy it from you? (If it’s a ‘no’ make the answer a yes. There’s only one you. What do they get by buying it from you?)

Don’t skip or skimp on this exercise. Strain your idea muscle a bit and list out 10 ideas.

A lot of people, especially smart people, conceptually understand something and move on, saying they’ll come back to it (oh I’ll list out the values I provide later). But when is later? Never.

So do it now.


Good, now one more thing: List out 10 potential people (who aren’t your mom or dad) who will buy your art. You know why people will buy your art, now find out who they are.

Some guiding questions:

  1. What are their hobbies?
  2. How and where would they enjoy communicating?
  3. Where do they live? What is their culture?
  4. How old are they?

That makes sense, right? You find out what you offer, and who might buy what you offer. (It doesn’t matter if things are a little far-fetched now.)

Do you get the idea I’m trying to hint at here? Your offer, your services is what you’re selling, not just your art. As artists, we have the advantage where our art is marked with our style. But that is not enough for too many of us. Art is a matter of taste of the person buying it as well.

Your potential customer is out there, the question you have to answer for them is: Why are they buying your art?

Find a community, and join it.

Now that you know what you sell and who might buy your art, it’s time to test your theories.

Do the people you think will buy your art exist? If you sell portraits of fictional characters, for example, would Sam who roleplays a lot online want a portrait of her own original character? How about Craig who likes to send one-of-a-kind cards to his mom, and just likes the good, old handmade thing? Or Marissa who programs all day and wants a particular wallpaper for her computer monitor?

If yes, where do Sam, Craig or Marissa hang out in their free time? Is there a community out there?

Find these people. Hashtags are good for a reason. Use Google. Use Reddit, Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, and Pinterest. Are there forums out there where your potential client base hangs out?

Research. There is no shortcut. I never said this would be easy. But preferably you already know a little bit about where your potential clients might hangout. You can check out my guide to social media and their general demographics + pros and cons here.

This will take you a while. Let’s say at least a week of intensive research, even if you have some idea of where your potential clients hang out.

The goal is to come to a list of 1 to 3 communities, more would be better. Lurk around a bit if you can and see which one you like.

As you lurk, keep these questions in mind:

  • Which one has people that seems more like people you can talk to?
  • Which is more active?

You can probably guess what’s coming next. But the secret is then to actually join the community.

This means you’re going to do MORE than just lurk and ninja around a site with a new account.

Yes, this is going to take time. But this is the difference between appearing like a salesperson and being an artist people have connected with, and want to buy from. People want to buy from people they consider genuine artists.

Protip: When joining a community, be a human being. (You can check out this podcast here with Ben Ee, Art Director of Wymac Gaming Solution since we talk a lot about social media and being part of the community.)

In this case, I’m going to assume there is a community of your target audience on some form of social media. If there isn’t any Meetup groups or social media groups for your imagined clientele, you might want to reconsider your offer and target audience. There are groups for board gamers and horror story addicts out there, for goodness sakes.

I have a whole other post on social media here. But the general rule of thumb is: don’t be a robot. Don’t be a corporate. Don’t post things without letting some of you show through. If you want to join a community, join as a human being. No one connects to robots or to a ‘brand’ like they do to a human.

Some communities will also have events. In such cases, join them. For artists especially, there is nothing like an event asking for artists to pair up (with another artist, a writer, musician, etc.) which will force you to commit to drawing more, and you’ll also have more potential to be seen by that artist’s audience as well.

Joining a community may take you a while. Depending on how active it is, it may be anywhere from a few weeks to a few months.

The goal is to gain recognition and fans for your work. Artists attract strong emotions from people. Be aware you might get a few haters along the way, but if you do, wear it as a badge of honour. People love to hate who and what they are envious of.

Make the sale.

There are a lot of people in the world turned off by that word. “Sale.” We remember the ‘sleazy’ salesperson who tried to sell us shit we didn’t need. Or that infomercial. Or that annoying ad from whatever website.

Honestly, as if we didn’t have enough to contend with already with the word “art” and the image of the starving artist.

But we’re going to defy those 2 tropes. You are not a trope.

The difference between you and the sleazy salesperson (or unwanted ad) is that you will have been part of the community. You will have gained fans and friends and people who love your work.

Now when you open commissions, or say you’re available for a job, people are listening. You have a layer of fans, of people who want to pay you to draw for them.

You still have to let them know you’re opening commissions. Don’t just post on your social media of choice that you’re opening up commissions. Let your fans know first.

This part should be the simplest part. Just go with something like this:

“Hi [Their Name],

Just wanted to let you know I’m opening up commissions soon. Let me know if you still want that [thing they said they wanted when you were talking to them, or thing they seem to really love] done.

If not, it’s cool, but I’d really appreciate it if you would spread the word when I officially open up my commissions :D.


[Your Name]”

You can edit it in a way that sounds more like you. But the important thing is to reach out to your most loyal fans first. Let them have early access, and if they aren’t interested let them know there’s no hard feelings, but you would really appreciate them spreading the word for you.

That’s it. Not that hard, is it?

Now let’s review what we just went through.

  1. It’s not easy, and it will take time, but you can make a living as a freelancing artist.
  2. You’re going to follow the steps that sounds dead obvious when you think about it. They are:
  3. Knowing what’s valuable about what you sell. Then brainstorming who will buy it.
  4. Finding if your potential customers exist. There’s a community out there for almost everything. Join the community. Be active, be human.
  5. For your most loyal fans (and you will get them as an artist), show your friendship and preference. Reward them in your own way. Sell to them, make them your advocates.

Now, there are probably some of you who scrolled all the way to the bottom to the summary. I SEE YOU. And I highly recommend you to take the time to read the whole article (because it’s packed with information that’s useful to you). A lot of people, especially smart people, skim and dismiss things. They think they understand the ‘gist’ of things and promise themselves they’ll do it. And then they don’t.

Try the whole process. Inevitably, you’ll meet some troubles or hiccups. In this case, you can check out my troubleshooting PDF here. But I highly recommend you to try it out yourself first.

As a final piece of advice, I would recommend you writing down your process and thoughts as you start your journey as a paid artist. Self-diagnosing your problems is one of the most vital skills that will make your career. Good luck.

Questions? Check out this free FAQ that answers the biggest questions artists have about becoming a paid artist.

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