Balance 9-to-5 Work With Your Art Career

Stock image.

I can close my eyes and hear Dolly Parton singing, “Tumble outta bed and stumble to the kitchen. Pour myself a cup of ambition. Jump into the shower and my blood starts pumpin’. Out on the street the traffic is a jumpin’, with folks like me on the job 9 to 5. Workin’ 9 to 5, what a way to make a livin’.” I remember when I was a kid it was a privilege to have a 9-to-5 job. I was raised in the country. We didn’t work by the hour, but by the acre. To us, the lucky ones were those who got weekends off. My, how things have changed! Artists complain when they have a 9-to-5 job. What was once coveted is now an albatross.

Those of you who read my column and books know I tend to preach making art full-time. I try to set a high bar so you will have a target to shoot for. But let me be very clear: There is nothing wrong with you having a 9-to-5 job and making your artwork on weekends and at night. You are not a failure because art is not your only income.

I constantly hear from artists concerned they are working for a paycheck and not as a full-time artist. Trust me, those of us who do work fulltime as artists are no better than those of you who are still pulling down a paycheck. The dishonorable thing would be for you not to work and depend on welfare or someone support you. In other words, don’t be a freeloader. Never apologize for working a day job.

Appreciate What You Have

A 30-year-old artist was upset that he was still doing graphic artwork instead of spending all of his time making paintings. He came to me extremely frustrated because he had not yet found a way to sell enough art to pay his bills. He couldn’t see that doing graphic designs was making art, and this great young man had worried himself into near depression. Why is there such a magical difference? He is making art for a living.

Having a job is admirable, and it doesn’t need to be artrelated. I believe it’s a positive thing to work for what we get. If you have to wait tables, mow grass, haul hay or teach school in order to survive, consider yourself lucky. You are the fiber that makes America great. If you have to work during the day and make your art in the deep night, don’t be discouraged. You are a great example of the free market system we, in the United States, enjoy. And sometimes having a non-art job means your saving your creativity for those precious hours you’re making your art.

I’ve been helping an artist from the West Coast. He is a mechanic working on large trucks. Bless his heart, he wants to paint full-time so badly he can taste it. I have been coaching him to help him see how lucky he is to have a high-paying job. He has weekends off, gets three weeks paid vacation and has plenty of time to make art. Since he has finally resolved that he will need to keep working 9 to 5 for another 10 years, he added a studio and is trucking right along with his oil portraits.

If you have been getting a paycheck and then begin to depend on living off of what you sell, that can be a big adjustment. You may go months without a sale. Count the cost before you plunge into art as a full-time career.

Be a Part-time Professional

Full-time artist does sound glamorous. You have visions of getting up early and going to the studio each morning to create masterpieces. You don’t have to stop on Monday and haul your rear to a 9-to-5 job. The reality is that if you really do want to make a full-time living as an artist, you can expect to work 12- to 16-hour days for the rest of your life. Be careful what you wish for. I have gone weeks with no sales, and I have felt rejection and been told I would starve if I continued the crazy notion to be a full-time artist. I can talk the talk because I have walked the walk for 38 years.

What are you going to do when the economy turns slow, like it has these days? Doing nothing but art is a fragile existence. I can promise you, that high-paying job you have now will not sit vacant while you dabble in art.

One of the artists I’ve been coaching was earning $60,000 a year at a regular job and getting nice health insurance for his family. He wanted to paint full-time. He was very talented, so I showed him how he could earn that much and more with his art. For five years, he was earning more than $100,000 a year. Then the economy slowed, and his sales went into the tank. In a desperate moment, he decided to see if he could get his old job back. He was met with a stone wall. They said he was too far behind the new technology and only worth $25,000. Again, he’s very talented, so he will still make it as a full-time artist. But he’ll have to work very hard and manage his money well.

I do have a suggestion. You may not be able to afford to build a studio or devote a spare bedroom to your work, but find you a spot where you can leave your easel and pallet, or whatever supplies you use, set up. One artist I know moved his painting setup into the den so he could be with his family in the evening. His supportive wife cleaned a spot where he can leave his paints out, even when they have company. Designate a time each day, even if it’s just an hour, where all you do is make your art. Move where you can sell art all year long. If you are living in the frozen tundra, your season is brief. Warm weather states provide an opportunity for marketing art 12 months a year.

The bottom line: Stop worrying about what you don’t have. Cram all of your effort into what you do have. Maybe it’s time you appreciated your 9 to 5 paycheck. Kiss the next one you receive.

To celebrate Professional Artist’s 30th anniversary, we are gifting our readers with 30 complimentary articles from our archive. This is a complimentary copy of an article from the February 2008 issue.

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Jack White is a full-time artist and writer with several artists’ self-help books to his credit, including The Mystery of Making It, The Magic of Selling Art and many others. He works with his wife, Mikki Senkarik, who is also a full-time artist. Visit their Web sites, and as well as Mikki’s blog