Ask the Art Professor: How can an artist overcome their financial issues?

“How can an artist overcome their financial issues?”

Finances are one of the tough realities of being an artist that rarely gets talked about. This is surprising, considering what a major issue finances are for most artists. Being an artist is costly. Every artist inevitably has to deal with three major expenses: 1) a studio space, 2) materials and 3) time to work.

Finding, maintaining and paying for a studio space is of great concern for all artists. One of the prevailing myths about being an artist is that you have to move to New York City right after school to start your career. Unless you’re independently wealthy, I couldn’t think of worse advice to give. The young artists I know who did this had an extremely hard time financially. It’s quite common for artists in New York City to find themselves paying for a studio space that they don’t use because their time is dominated by trying to stay afloat financially. Instead, start elsewhere, in a less expensive city where you can be more financially stable. In a context like that, you can gain a few years of professional experience, and build up a body of work before tackling New York City. Living in a smaller city may not be as glamorous, but you’re much more likely to be able to afford a studio space that you are actually putting to good use.

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If you really can’t afford a studio space, there are alternatives. When I was a recent graduate, I purchased a small, inexpensive printing press and made intaglio prints and oil paintings in my living room for four years. If you work at a school, you can use the facilities there. When I worked at Wellesley College, I had a sculpture studio, a printshop, a drawing studio, a painting studio, and computer labs all at my fingertips. At times, this situation was tricky to navigate, as I had to work around students and class schedules, and I couldn’t leave my work out. However, these minor inconveniences were well worth it for the amount of money that I was able to save during that time.

Purchasing materials never ends. Every artist has their own way of dealing with this, ranging from artists who work with cheap or free materials to artists who are buying the most high end materials out there. In graduate school I had a friend who always seemed to be showing up with terrific objects all the time for her sculpture work. Every time I asked her where she got her materials, she would reply “the garbage”. At the opposite end of the spectrum, I have a colleague who will only paint with Old Holland oil paints, which cost on average $50 for one 40 ml tube of paint.

I’m intensely organized about what materials I use because I know that any misstep could result in hundreds of wasted dollars. I spend months planning my projects before I invest money in expensive materials so that I am absolutely certain when I make purchases. Whenever I use a new material, I always start out by purchasing a small quantity that I can test out before launching into a full scale project.

Time is the most precious thing you can “buy.” The difficulty for many artists is that they are forced to choose one of two options, neither of which is ideal: 1) being financially stable, but having little time to work on their art or 2) scraping by financially, but having time to work on their art. Achieving a balance that allows you to be financially stable with plenty of time to work on your art is the ultimate dream for most artists.

The first four years after I graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design, I experimented with both extremes. For the first two years I worked more than full-time hours, and said yes to every single job opportunity. I was financially stable, but I didn’t make any artwork for two years. I did sketches here and there, but I was so busy patching together paid jobs that I had no time to create anything substantial. When I started getting serious about applying to graduate school, I knew that I had to reserve large blocks of time so that I could work on my portfolio. I went part-time at my teaching job, lived on $850 a month, and nearly depleted my savings account privately hiring artist models. However, I painted on average 20 hours a week, and within two years had completed my first professional body of work.

Today, I’ve achieved a healthier balance. I accept the fact that there will be periods when I have time in the studio, and periods when I have to sacrifice time in order to take a paying job. I try to constantly move back and forth between the two, so that neither approach takes over. There are certainly compromises. It means squeezing in two hours in the studio after a long day of teaching. I wait, longer than I want to, to save enough money to afford the materials I want. I share a studio space with another artist to cut down on costs. Even after working as a professional artist for thirteen years, I still consider this balance to be a work in progress that I will be continually working on.

Ask the Art Professor is a weekly advice column for visual artists. Submit your questions to clara(at)claralieu.com

4 thoughts on “Ask the Art Professor: How can an artist overcome their financial issues?

  1. I so appreciate your honest, practical, down-to-earth but inspiring guidance! I wish I’d had access to your incredibly valuable guidance as a younger artist so I would not have felt so confused and alone. Thank you!

  2. Thank you for this also. I am in the midst of all of that I think! I started my blog as a way of creating again but these works are so quick. I haven’t painted or done a “proper” project in 6 years because of finances and work 😦 I do hope this will improve though and maybe if I work small my own professional portfolio will build.

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