If you are an artist or creative who dreams about leaving your grueling day job and making it on your own, I wrote this for you. I have been self-employed for the past two years and wanted to take a moment to share my experiences, the good, bad, and the ugly to hopefully help you take the leap when you are ready.
This article is not meant to sound discouraging or like a typical ad from a "laptop lifestyle" guru telling you to instantly quit your job and make millions while traveling the world. The path is challenging, exciting, and I welcome anyone who feels that they are meant to follow it to join me, but I also want to be completely transparent and helpful in preparing you for what may be ahead.
So should you simply hope for the best, be positive, and put in your two weeks in order to pursue your dreams? Not at all, at least not yet. Hear me out. I’ve been there and I know what it takes. You have to be strong mentally, financially, and emotionally to do this, and while I love to encourage everyone I meet to chase after their dreams, I want to empower you and help you make an informed decision by sharing my journey first.
If you already have a job or career, aside from making art, that allows you the time and freedom to create, while giving you security and an income and you enjoy it, good for you! This was my original plan and it did not work for me, which is why I am here. I think any way you can support your lifestyle while making art is honorable and you should be proud of it, even if it's not related to your passion. If you happen to enjoy what you do at your day job, I applaud you! This article is for those who dream of being their own boss or are deeply dissatisfied with their current employment.
I promised myself that once I started making headway in my own career as an artist, I would "send the elevator back down to someone who needs a lift". I do not have all the answers or solutions to your unique situation, but I'm hoping my experiences, both good and bad, can give you some ideas and perspective on what life is like and how I got here. These are the things I wish I knew when preparing to leave my job, graduating college, and trying to learn about who I wanted to become.
I was worried about all the wrong things, such as experience, level of education and other nonsense that played essentially zero role in my career. I had a lot of insecurities, which held me back. I had a negative mindset that was probably a plug on many great opportunities I missed. I was resistant to change; I was expecting someone or some job to come save me. I now look back and find comfort in these mistakes and try not to slip back into negative patterns of thinking when hard times arise.
Now that you read through that little disclosure, here are some helpful tips that will prepare you, empower you, and build you up to the person you want to be when you are crazy enough to take your art/venture out into the world. As always, you are capable, strong, and talented, and I am rooting for your success.
Visiting Create! Magazine at McNally Jackson Books in NYC:
Cheesin’ so hard because today is literally the epitome of why I work so hard every day of my life. I spent the afternoon taking in new art with @create_mag at @artmiamifairs Art New York 😍💫🌈, catching up with @katkoncept 🌸🥂and visiting my babies at @mcnallyjackson. It was so exciting to meet @myfriendjessica in person, to get fresh ideas from all the art and feel the incredible energy from other people doing what they love. Keep living your dreams, anything is possible my friends! I believe in you more than I sometimes believe in myself. Let’s get it. This is not a rehearsal 🥂💫😘🙌💪
A post shared by Ekaterina Popova (@katerinaspopova) on May 3, 2018 at 6:41pm PDT
1. Be Your Own Investor
When you start working for yourself as an artist or creative, you will have to think of yourself as a business. I was resistant to this for a long time, but once it all clicked, my life changed. You are the CEO of your art career. You have to take full responsibility for your success. This means making wise choices about your money, your time, and how you present yourself to the world.
If you are still working your day job, USE it as your "angel investor". I know a lot of times day jobs don't pay nearly enough even to cover the bills or student loan payments, but do your absolute best to save as much as you possibly can, and you will thank yourself later. Nickname your bank account "dream art career" or "studio fund" and put away any extra dollars after your bills and living expenses are covered. Save up for the time when you will leave, envision your life as a self employed person, and also use any extra money for building a website, photographing your work with a quality camera or hiring a photographer, covering application fees, and buying the materials you need to create your next body of work.
Even when I was suffering through my waitressing days, I would use the extra $100-$200 I had for canvases, visiting exhibitions in bigger cities, and applying to dream opportunities. I also always had a budget for art books and magazines so on my breaks my mind would constantly be filled with things that I aspired to be around.
2. Use Your Free Time to Build Your Career.
Right after I graduated, I was so discouraged that I couldn't find an art related career that I would sulk, binge on Netflix, and cry about how miserable I was and how unfair it was that I had a college education and had to work minimum wage jobs. I dreamed of being hired by a gallery or museum and basically waited for someone to come save me. No one came, and I had to figure it out on my own.
One day, after a year of rejections from every single art job I applied to, I said, "Fine. I will figure this out on my own." I remember I got a job at Macys in the makeup department (the most creative gig, as of yet) and decided to just make the best of my situation. I aggressively painted in the mornings before my shift and on weekends. I even snuck my phone under the counter to research calls for art and get ideas for future paintings. On my lunch break, I sprinted to Barnes and Noble and hungrily consumed every new magazine while sipping on a cappuccino. I started to enjoy my life, even though my employment wasn't ideal. I started to be happier and even more motivated.
Not surprisingly, the good energy that was radiating from the new determined me eventually landed me more opportunities than I ever had before. I got an exhibition in Philadelphia and sold my first large painting to a stranger. The small exhibitions and opportunities gave me the encouragement I needed and field my positivity.
Around this time I also got the idea to start my first magazine, FreshPaintMagazine. I remember having a "lightbulb" moment and I excitedly began researching how to make it happen. The first publication was scrappy to say the least, but I'm so glad I was inspired and bold enough to do it. At this point, I was building an online community, getting deeper into my own work, while balancing the world of retail and the often catty cosmetic department (a bunch of bored women standing around all day :)). I don't remember how this happened, but I started meditating and practicing affirmations to protect my passion and positive attitude, especially in an often-depressing work environment that could easily bring me down. I was getting somewhere and I kept pushing through as much as possible.
My first magazine, which I founded in 2013 while working at Macys:
A post shared by Ekaterina Popova (@katerinaspopova) on Sep 23, 2013 at 4:45pm PDT
Painting during a day off on our kitchen table while living in a studio apartment:
A post shared by Ekaterina Popova (@katerinaspopova) on May 6, 2013 at 4:43pm PDT
3. Always Learning
As I mentioned earlier, I spent a lot of time at the bookstore, but I also started getting into business literature and self-development books. I was so motivated to make my dream a reality (though I really didn't know what it would look like). I started consuming as much knowledge and education as possible. I remember first dabbling in art career books, but later stumbling across Girl Boss by Sophia Amoruso.
A new world began to open itself up to me. I realized I could learn how others did it and apply any relevant aspects to my life. I started to see patterns and how others from similar backgrounds made it happen. It gave me hope; it made me feel closer to my dream. I slowly began diving into the world of social media and using it to market my art and new magazine. It was a steep learning curve and I had no idea how to write captions or what to even post, but it all came with time and experience. I remember the first time I sold something through Facebook and Instagram and how amazing it was to me. At first, I thought it wasn't legitimate and that I was a fraudulent artist because I didn’t have a fancy gallery representing me (but boy, I am glad I kept doing it, because that is how I mostly make my living now). As my social platforms began to grow, my community started to emerge as well.
I recommend for you to take time each week, or even each day, to learn something new that you know you need help with. It can be business, art techniques, social media or anything else. Libraries are still a thing, and there are millions of free articles and YouTube videos. We live in an incredible time where anything we need for success is at our fingertips. I never thought of myself as a business-person, but I am thankful to the past me for keeping an open mind and taking the time to educate myself so that I could later support myself as an artist.
Download podcasts, get books on audible, read an old-fashioned paperback, or search YouTube and online courses to get you to the next level.
4. Get Involved.
Around this time I was volunteering at art openings and writing free articles for an online art magazine in exchange for free admission to museums. This forced me to upgrade the caliber of people I interacted with, to be around other artists and creatives, build new friendships, and even improve my own art. I got new ideas and was around high level exhibitions and impressive work that challenged and excited me. Though I am naturally an introvert, and sitting at home was my favorite, I knew it wasn't the person I dreamed of becoming. I hated it at first, even got massive social anxiety before any art opening, but pushed through it until it became second nature.
I also like to remind myself that even though I did not take a traditional career path (whatever that even means) all my experiences, which I thought were negative at the time, shaped who I am today. A lot of exhibitions and opportunities came from meeting people at events that I attended or volunteered at.
5. Celebrate and take notes.
So when do you know when to go out on your own? When you start consistently selling your artwork or creative product, start taking down your sales and numbers to see how much you need in order to make a healthy income that supports your lifestyle. Mine has always been a combination of art sales, magazine sales, commissions, and curation. The mix of all of these things helped me make a decision over time. I would take notes and be familiar with your numbers and check them for overall consistency so you can confidently leave your job.
Each time I had a breakthrough or figured out something new that worked financially, I would take notes, feel the excitement, and feel one step closer to my goal.
Before I quit my job, I had only 6 months of living expenses, which I frankly regret because it wasn’t enough and I had some massive setbacks in the first few months and ended up having to use most of the money unexpectedly. Always have a little more than you think you need. Trust me, it's worth staying at your job for an extra few months if it means you can be comfortably focusing on your work instead of having a meltdown like me. Give yourself a nice cushion, because it's really hard to be inspired when you are having a panic attack over not being able to pay your bills. Test your side income for at least a year before taking the leap.
I had an unfortunate business partnership breakup with my first magazine, which slowed down my growth, and while this is unlikely to happen to you, life gets in the way sometimes, so just be prepared as much as you can. Don't think of it as a rainy day fund, but think of it as an investment you can use to grow your career if everything goes great (which it will!).
6. You Are Your Personal Brand.
The last job I had at the Capital One call center taught me about the importance of being your own brand. This means that you are representing yourself everywhere you go and it's your job to show up, work hard, and have the best attitude possible (even if you eventually want to move in to another job). I am happy I had the sense to take this advice to heart. By being the best I can be, even at a job I wasn't excited about, I was able to build amazing relationships with my team members and managers. I did my best and pushed myself as a salesperson and customer service representative, no matter how frustrating it was. My managers rewarded my efforts with extra days off to paint, eventually let me transition to part time, and then finally let me to leave on good terms with the ability to come back "in case things don't work out".
I know life can get aggravating, but by being the best you can, no matter where you are, you will create a support system that may end up helping you land your dream position or help you smoothly transition to self-employment. There is something empowering about having a group of people rooting for your success and knowing that you will always have the option of going back to a day job. Not that you will have to do that, but it will help give you peace and certainty when taking the plunge.
I hope this brief summary of my experiences will help you make a plan, if it is your dream to make it on your own one day. As I mentioned earlier, if you enjoy multiple streams of income, and they don't all have to be creative, more power to you! I struggled to figure out in the beginning and had to go the roundabout way. I have so much respect for educators, art therapists, designers, consultants, and multitudes of other professions that are creative and demanding. I also love hearing about how artists support themselves while working in finance, engineering, and love their second career outside of the arts. Don't feel pressured to make your entire income from art sales alone. It's rarely the case for self-employed artists and usually we all have to hustle, teach, and offer services to make ends meet in between those big painting sales. I wish you all the best on your journey.
If this was helpful or you have questions, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.