Yes – It Is About The Money

We could all use money more than exposure – © Michael Warth

Unless you are selling artwork to better mankind and their perception of the universe, you are selling art to make money. There, I said it. If you are making art and giving it away freely, then well, this isn’t a post that concerns you – keep doing your thing. Making money doesn’t make you a sell-out. Compromising your standards for a dollar makes you a sell-out. Making money as an artist affords the artist the ability to sustain a standard of living and make more art. Simple really, but the fact most artists have a difficult time makes me think it really isn’t as simple as one would think.

I have read many articles regarding “what successful artists do” only to finish the article with more unanswered questions and more concerned about how to make money than when I started reading. Sure, we all must first define success before getting too hung up on the details – that’s not what I am arguing here. What I am proposing is that once the definition of success is made, one must define how much is enough. In other words, success is many things, and income (or money) is just one attribute of what each of us define as success.

Just like art, success is subjective. To some, fame is success, to others, financial wealth is success, and the list can go on and on. For the sake of this blog post, we will stick to financial gains to determine the attribute of money for a measure of success. In a nutshell, success in general can be defined via the following attributes…

  • Happiness and fullfilment
  • Fame or adoration for what we do
  • Enough income to live comfortably without too much concern for money
  • Surplus (over the amount of necessity, but what we want to make us feel successful)
  • Freedom (more on this as you read ahead)

Many may disagree with the above, but I believe this is a good baseline for defining success. Again, looking specifically at the money, and understanding that in the end, without money we cannot keep doing “it”, I believe success ultimately comes down to how much money we need to keep doing what we want. When the money is there, we can place more focus on the other attributes of success and build on the small successes until we reach a goal. But then again, when is enough, enough? In fact, chasing success in terms of goals, is a treadmill we will never outrun. Contentment is important for finding success for without it, you are simply reaching goals and defining higher levels of success you plan to attain.

This is where you need to decide how much is enough. For me, I already know how much money each month I want to feel successful. Could I live on less? Will I want more? Probably yes, maybe no, then again, maybe – right? OK, we are on the same page – pick a number and stick to it for a minute.

Now that you have the number, will you be happy and/or fulfilled making said amount? Will you have to work like a slave to earn said amount? Will you burn out and hate it because you need the money? Do you see where I am going with this? Fame can come out of this too, but if you are working too hard to enjoy the money, I doubt you’ll enjoy the fame or the perceived success.

Now that you realize the money dictates the other attributes and has a profound effect on them, wouldn’t it be best if you could make money just being an artist rather than selling art? All I am saying here is that we artists need to change our mindset and stop thinking like employees and indentured servants to our craft. Making art and selling it, should be the fun part but not necessarily the means to an end.

I believe success can be defined as freedom. Freedom to paint and freedom to enjoy life. Make enough money but free to stop working form time to time. Have fame but time to enjoy it. Have surplus money, time, art, etc. but still have time to sit back and plan for more. Yes, my friends, freedom is the goal of success. Success defined as a dollar amount, and level or tier you need to reach is nothing more than what an employee thinks about climbing the corporate ladder. Therefore, stop trying to find the answer to success in articles or by examples of what others are doing. The answer to success is freedom and success is nothing more than the ladder in which to reach your goals.

So, when someone says you are all about the money in a derogatory manor, smile and say, “yes, money allows me the freedoms I am after so that I can find greatness as the artist I hope to someday become”. Stop thinking like a ladder climbing employee, or a starving artist. Think in terms of what you can do to earn enough money to buy yourself time to make art. Think about it…

Making art isn’t the job, it is the main reason you are or became an artist. Allow your income and methods of generating income rise to the level of your definition of success where freedom allows you to make the art you want to make without concern of selling it to eat or pay the rent. 

Some artists do this by…

  • Selling products related to art or what they do
  • Have a successful YouTube channel and be a social media expert
  • Teaching others how to make art
  • Non art related income generation from a job or some other way to pay the bills (I listed this last because having a job limits freedom because your employer expects you to be there)

Listen, making it is not about becoming a slave 18+ hours a day to your craft or making your dealers rich. Making it is simply finding the right path for you, and determining what success means to you and how that success will provide you with freedom. Again, don’t see the production of art as the goal – rather, have a way to reach a level of success that gives you the freedom to make art.

Right now, I work a regular job that in some aspects kills my freedom of time. But it allows me to make art for me and the art I want to make. It [the job] is a compromise I make for the income and freedom to make art. I’m lucky that my job pays well and has great benefits. Therefore, the compromise is a great thing because it creates success and some level of freedom.

From this point on, things get a little hard to read or follow. I get detailed and subjective to a point where some may throw their hands in the air and say, “I quit” – but don’t let anything I say from here on out deter you.

Assume you have 1200 billable hours a year to make art. And assume you will sell 50% of the art you make. This means you have 600 hours a year of sellable art. Due to costs of doing business, a 50% consignment fee rate at most reputable galleries and dealers, and a material cost budget of 20% you will need to sell your art at a high price to make a living on art sales alone. Assume we agree on $300,000 in revenue as a successful amount. If 80% is sold in a gallery at 50% commission, you will need to sell $60,000 worth of art on your own from the studio directly. You will also spend $60,000 in materials (remember that 20% materials budget?) to make all the art and mistakes you can muster.

How much art can you make an hour? If the average piece takes 30 hours from start to finish, you will only sell 20 pieces per year (600 hours divided by 30) but need to make 40 (1200 hours). At $300,000 in revenue, you are looking at about $15,000 per piece average.

  • Is this realistic? Yes, people sell art for $15,000 and up all around the world, but the trouble for most of us is finding the buyers. Which is why a great dealer network is needed.
  • Is this too conservative? Probably, but then again, I am simply saying you only sell half of what you make, and you need $300,000 in revenue to feel successful.

What is the breakdown at $300,000 in revenue and why can’t I work for less? Well, the short answer is, you can always work for less but your financial success depends on enough to keep making art and being able to sustain a standard of living. Do you like nice things? How many bologna sandwiches can you tolerate for dinner?

Basic Breakdown

Information about the chart above:

  • CODB (73%) is the sum of Materials (20%), Commission Fees of 50% for (40%) of the revenue, Capital (8%) to cover all your brushes, gear, equipment, travel, etc, and finally Pre-Tax Retirement (5%) is a basic necessity for the day you decide you can’t keep up anymore.
  • Revenue generated by a gallery is $240,000, meaning consignment fees are $120,000 and the expected studio direct sales are $60,000
  • Income tax on the remaining income is figured at 35% but your tax rates vary based on where you live and I’m not a tax expert. Consult someone if you want specifics. 

Plugging in a few numbers, I came up with a few observations. Using the chart above, notice the revenue is $300,000. Assuming a tax rate of 35% (which I have had mine as high as 42%), 20% for materials, 40% of the sales made at 50% consignment rates, a capital budget of 8%, and a pre-tax retirement savings of 5%, one would make a monthly net income of $4,390. I can’t talk much about health insurance but I know some self employed people are paying $1,500 per month for good coverage making the $4,390 less attractive and one can quickly see why $300,000 is a conservative figure. If you live in Brooklyn and need $2,500 for rent while paying $1,500 in healthcare, the last $390 in net income won’t get you very far.

Back to the numbers, one would have to paint 1200 hours a year minimum and make a $15,000 painting in 30 hours or less 40 times a year and sell 1/2 of them to make it. I would rather not be this enslaved to making art as my single income stream. Yes, one could sell prints or reproductions (however you want to look at it), but they could also teach or find other income streams that don’t require so much overhead. Personally, I’d rather make about $13,000 in monthly revenue without materials costs and commissions by having a successful social media channel such as something like YouTube. Don’t think one can make money like this on YouTube? Lookup Casey Neistat (https://www.youtube.com/user/caseyneistat) and more specifically, Peter McKinnon (https://www.youtube.com/user/petermckinnon24) for prime examples of creative types making enough from YouTube to have fun living a creative life.

Again, I knew this post was going to get lengthy and I could beat a dead horse and some of you would still argue I was wrong (maybe I am). However, the way I see it, as an artist, it is about the money or we cannot keep making art. I for one believe our best success model is one where we have the freedom to make the art we want to make and time to have a little fun. Sure, I want my art to be sold for $25-$50,000 per piece but I’m just not meeting the right people and selling in the right places yet. But I also don’t want to be so enslaved to selling and making the art that I lose my freedom to make two or 22 pieces a year. My studio is not a factory making decorations for walls.

Success is having the freedom to do what I want when I want and having the means of support to do so. Your definition will vary but I also think it will be similar. At the very least, I hope this post got you thinking. Is YouTube the answer? I don’t know – maybe. Is selling handbags the way? Possibly but I’d have to enjoy it too and again, if too much time is spent away from making art, I have lost a freedom and probably just created a job for myself.

Therefore, I leave you with this. Being a successful artist means you have the freedom of time to create, but also the income to sustain your standard of living. If being an artist means you show up at the studio and work 40 hours a week, then maybe you are just making a job for yourself. Unless you enjoy it like a job. I say, be an artist 7 days a week and every waking hour but give yourself the freedom to make art on your terms. Make the art but remember it is about the money…because in the long run, we can’t eat or pay our bills on adoration, fame, exposure, accolades, and any other form of flattery the rest of the world expects us to take for our art. Strive to be that carefree kid on summer break from school who made art because it was fun. Let your creative work, and your lifestyle pay you and pay for the life you want so you will never have to work again. It’s not, “find something you love and never work another day of your life” – it’s be yourself and let the rest of the world pay you for it.

Thanks for reading, I hope you got value out of this. Success is a journey, and we all must define it our way. Don’t look for any article or video online to give you the golden ticket or an answer to “how to make it as an artist”- start asking yourself, “how can I get paid to be me?”

Follow Your Own Path

One of my favorite places to decompress – Hocking Hills. © Michael Warth

I often wonder if I am doing the right thing as an artist. I see what others do, and at times it makes me question my methods. It’s easy to look at another artist’s success and look at the path they chose and think to myself – man, that would be awesome, all I have to do is _____________! But we don’t always see the curves and detours their career took to get where they are. The journey is often the last thing anyone discusses when they talk about success. After all, we’ve heard countless “overnight success” stories. Why wouldn’t it be acceptable to think the path to success is simple? [Disclaimer: success must be defined by you and not society – if $25,000 in sales is success to you, don’t let someone else say that a professional needs to make $500,000 in sales]

The world doesn’t need us to follow a recipe and be like everyone else. You wouldn’t be doing yourself any favors if you allowed your artistic career to follow the path of another. Sure, you can desire to paint like Rembrandt or DaVinci, but does the world really want you to copy them? Do you not have your own passion to make your own work?

Follow your own path as an artist. The awesome part is nobody created a rule book. You can do whatever you want. If you want to make paintings of ants walking on the sidewalk, then be that guy. If you want to make photos that look like the laws of physics don’t apply, be that guy. If like me, you want to paint at an easel and/or make pictures with a digital camera – don’t let the “experts” tell you that you really need to pick a hobby. Whatever tool you use, is the right tool to use.

I see myself as an artist – not a fine artist, or a commercial photographer, or any other sub-category of creative one can think of. Stop adding unnecessary adjectives in front of your title just to “sell yourself” to people who don’t understand what category to put you in. Be your own category and make art. Choose your medium (or mediums) and the tools to get that idea out of your head and on a canvas (or whatever). The path you choose doesn’t have to be a well worn path or even a paved road – it just needs to get you to where you want to be.