Did Anyone Tell Leonardo To Focus On One Thing?


In the spirit of this blog I’ll make this short and to the point. As an artist I’ve been told to do one thing and do it well. “Mike, you should be a painter and stop spending so much time with that photography thing.” Right, I’ll just turn off the desire to make pictures! It’s hard to find time to make art in any form let alone, find time to write, photograph, and paint when I have other responsibilities to deal with.

I’d love to travel the country in my Jeep, camping, staying in hotels, visiting breweries, distilleries, vineyards, and beautiful places while making pictures and writing about it. I’ve had that dream for years. But the truth of it all is that health insurance and finding people to pay me for my art is sometimes difficult. Yes, I could rant about commercial photography rates, selling my art for what it’s worth, and the whole $250/hr & 100 billable hours per month formula – but seriously! Who earns $25,000 per month making art and traveling the world doing it? Do I need that much? meh…most likely, no. And I really don’t want to explain financials and living a profitable life as a self-employed artist on this post (maybe another time).

Ask any artist, money is a real concern and clients often see the retail price and react with utter shock when they do the math in their head. What they don’t compute are the hours of slaving in the studio doing other “non-billable” mundane and less romantic “artist work” just to keep the bills paid.

Which is why I ask, “why should an artist do only one thing”? After all, Leonardo Da Vinci was a multi-tasking and multi-media artist who made a living not focusing on one thing. Shouldn’t all of this be up to the creative mind of the artist? Who said we should do one thing? I understand it is purely a focus issue and it would be easier to master one thing than to try and master a lot of things but who said anyone ever had to become a master. To the real creatives out there, the pursuit of perfection is more important than achieving the “master” of a medium because we already know we will never be able to truly master anything in the arts. It’s the journey not the destination, if you will.

Therefore, I say to you all…if an artist wants to do a lot of different things to occupy his or her mind, then so be it. And yes, if you want to make a living at this, you need to be in the $100/hr or more range for your 100 billable hours per month or you might as well work minimum wage. I’d recommend over $200/hr if you want to live comfortable and afford your insurance. Do whatever makes your creative soul happy, don’t focus on the money unless you need to live on or use it as a second income. But know this, in a big box store and everything is on sale market, you still deserve to make good money as an artist.

Good For Business or The Artistic Soul?

It’s not always fairy farts, and unicorn utopia when trying to be creative. As artists we often struggle with what we are doing, how to make enough money to cover expenses, and dream of success doing what we love. Like I mentioned in the last post, we often have to do other gigs that pay more often so that we can keep working towards the jobs we really love. As slippery as that last comment sounded – it really is just a matter of financial sustainability. Most artists I know would still rather be doing art for a client (not the dream jobs) rather than work a regular job where they are not making art.

Benjamin Burnley (Breaking Benjamin) © Michael Warth

Benjamin Burnley (Breaking Benjamin) © Michael Warth

I recently did an assignment where I traveled 200 miles one way to photograph a concert just to be told the media pass was only for one band, and I wasn’t getting a ticket to see the show. Keep in mind, we get three songs at most shows – I wanted to see the whole show – not just the first three songs through my camera lens. The venue had it wrong! In fact, I know the drummer of the headlining band and we had plans to hang out before and after the show. We did get to hang out, but it was a trivial ordeal just to get my ticket (they found it after I made a few calls).

To make my 18 hour adventure a little more frustrating, I got a flat tire at 1:30 AM, 2 1/2 hours from home on a major 3-lane highway with a speed limit of 70 MPH. No worries, I can change a flat. Well, as luck would have it, the fucking jack broke! I was getting tired, my hands were filthy, my contacts dry, I was still a little miffed at the venue, and I actually left the tour bus early because I was tired. I should have just stayed at a hotel (more money).

I made it home around 4:30 AM, broke from the $20 parking at the venue, $40 roadside assistance charge (needed a jack), a new tire & jack for the car, and the overpriced food at the venue. Thank goodness for the delicious cookies on the tour bus (thanks Dina).

Shaun Foist (Breaking Benjamin) © Michael Warth

Shaun Foist (Breaking Benjamin) © Michael Warth

Basically, I spent way too much money for a gig I wanted to do versus one that pays well. My artistic intuition told me to do it because I love making photos at concerts. My business sense was arguing that it was bad for the bottom line. If it wasn’t for Shaun, and the fact I haven’t seen him in a few years, I would never had gone that far to shoot a show. In fact, I rarely shoot concert photography anymore since the income potential really isn’t there.

Coldcock Whiskey, a shoot I did for my website, The Thirsty Muse. © Michael Warth

Coldcock Whiskey, a shoot I did for my website, The Thirsty Muse. © Michael Warth

The point of the story – as artists we often do what we want versus what is best for business. I won’t argue the point because the bottom line is that there is a fine line between being an artist, and selling out. To artists this concept is clear, but hard to grasp for a lot of people who don’t identify with the artist’s drive to create. However, artists need to be profitable at what they do. Simply doing it cheap or free is not a viable solution for sustainability.

I have been told many times that my prices are just too high. I’ve even had clients tell me I was the cheapest bid and it made them nervous about hiring me (the old, too much vs. not enough dilemma). When I do a painting, a commission, I start at a pretty steep retail price point for most people in my area. My studio work (painting) is slightly less expensive, but I can make prints and actually make more money from the prints than what I could ever make from the one original. However, even my original paintings done as “studio work” can be a little too expensive for my local market. When doing commercial photography assignments for clients I have to be sure what the photos are being used for, how long, and how difficult it will be to pull off. The pricing can be very complicated. The urge to make the price low enough to get the job often becomes too strong and it becomes easy to lower the rate a little so I get the gig. And just to be clear, this particular practice is not good for business. So, I fight the urge to “discount” any rates – ever.

Stone Brewing Co., Master of Disguise - © Michael Warth

Stone Brewing Co., Master of Disguise – © Michael Warth

And this right here is the main drive of this post. Artists/creatives must determine what they need to make in order to sustain their business. It’s OK to do what you want as long as the paying gigs are paying enough. We must stick to the numbers that keep us profitable if we want to keep the business going. Discounts mean one thing…they mean that you are taking money from your pockets and run the risk of business failure. Just don’t do it. Never apologize for your prices! It’s your business, you need to make money in order to continue.

Pricing will make or break a business. Your profits will determine your future as a business. Simply put, without profits you won’t last long. The struggle for any artist who is going beyond the hobby stage is the simple fact we need to make money. The constant reminder of making that money can actually kill the creative soul – causing many of us to quit making art. I maintain mental clarity and artistic drive by doing work for myself as a painter (studio work), and making photos for my blog, The Thirsty Muse. To some, it’s just a booze blog, but to me it is a marketing channel where I can share the photos I enjoy making the most. Plus, I really enjoy a good drink.

The balance between profitability, and the creative soul can be disheartening, frustrating, and even defeat us. Finding the right mix of doing the work you love and making the right amount of money is the golden ticket. When you find it, keep doing it. Let the haters and jealous types move along, they aren’t worth your time and effort. This part holds true for bad and cheap clients too – move along and find the right clients. Be kind to those who can’t afford you today, they may be able to later. Be kind to the clients you have now and the clients you outgrow later – they got you to the place you are today. Stop being ashamed to make a profit.