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Ask Stape: Should I Quit My Day Job?

by Stapleton Kearns on 12/31/2009 12:25:38 PM

You are encouraged to submit questions on painting, methods and materials or the marketing of art by simply posting a comment with your question.

This post is by Stapleton Kearns, a professional oil painter living in New England. He is a member of the Guild of Boston Artists and a past president of the Rockport Art Association. He has been painting landscape full time for thirty five years. He has a blog at should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.

Hey Stape:

What do you think about a (young-minded) guy like, 59 years old, who wants to quit work? and paint full time, and  live, like, the artist's life? Is it  too late to make it as an artist?, and will galleries and collectors take me serious, or are they only into young artists ? I have a good paying job as a meter reader, so I would be losing a lot of, you know, job security? Man, I'm so over this! its just getting too weird out there, somebody set a leg hold trap under their meter, down in the container docks last week.  I gotta get me a new line of work! I also hear artist dudes get to meet a lot of girls who think they're hot!

signed; Slick O'Toole

Dear Slick;

No, I don't think the way to go is to just quit your job; particularly in this economy.  I think you should try to gradually replace your job.  I had a friend who, years ago, worked in the printing trade.  One year for his birthday he was given an oil painting set.  It sat unopened for a while, until one night he decided to try to make a copy of a poster of palm trees from some tropical island.  He went to work and at about 2:00 in the morning his wife came downstairs to find out why he hadn't come to bed.  After that, every night he was up late painting and painting, it excited him so much.  That summer he did an outdoor show and sold a couple.  He spent the evenings of the next couple weeks preparing for the next big outdoor show. He sold out at the second show.  All the next winter, every evening found him, painting to be ready for the summer outdoor shows.  When summer came the next year he was doing shows, and painting, and dragging himself into his day job.  One of his buddies, annoyed by his lack of enthusiasm for his job, asked "What's the matter with you? Stayin up all night and painting instead of sleeping?" Our artist friend answered angrily, "Yeah? Well I made more money last week painting than I did in this lousy job!" "Then Whattaya doin here?" his friend asked.  He quit.

Now, our artist had plenty of lean times after that in the art business, but he did succeed.  He left his job when it no longer made sense for him to keep it.  For him, it began to make as much business sense to spend his time painting as it did working his job.  So unless you have a couple of years income stashed, or are married to a thoracic surgeon, don't just jump in; the water is deep and fast moving.  You want to learn to swim a little first.  Most people cannot make it as an artist, that's a cruel fact.  You wouldn't quit your job to be a concert violinist would you?  Do you think being a professional artist is any easier?  You need to prepare and perfect your skills.

As for your age, age can work for you or against you, but if a dealer believes he can make money selling your art, he will handle it.  If the collectors find it compelling, they will buy it; whether you are thirteen or ninety five.

I don't know that artists get lots of girls.  In fact, all of my guy friends ended up with only one.  Pretty much all the artists I know, men and women, are disciplined, hardworking types with homes and families that depend on them.  Wannabes have all the fun!  If you want to party, then party.  If you want to be an artist, make art.

But, girls LOVED me when I was young; they imagined I was sensitive.  ;-)


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Topics: Art Business | Ask Stape 

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Ann Bell
Stape, Your advice is right on target. A financial cushion or alternate income is essential.

Your friend quit his job when it no longer made sense to keep it, because his art was selling so well at the summer shows. But summer is only part of the year. Weather and the economy are always a factor in (outdoor) show sales.

Being self-employed requires discipline and planning, as well as hard work. Being an artist requires skill, dedication, and talent as well.

Many artists begin an art career after they have built a financial cushion for themselves. They are better able to whether financial challenges than those who jump in earlier.

A serious artist will find time to paint even while working full time...and will let everyone know that he or she is an artist.

Build the skill and the collector base while keeping the day job. The foundation gives staying power to your art career.

Learn as much as you can about marketing. The sad truth is that most artists do not find a gallery. They have to learn to sell their own work, or it remains in their studio.

Ann Bell

Gayle Faucette Wisbon
via with facebook
Working a part-time day job is always an option. I've been very fortunate to have worked part-time with a very reputable company for twenty years. It allowed me to be there for my children as they grew up. Now that they are adults, it allows me time to work on my art. However, now as a single person, it is very difficult. I did try the two part-time jobs thing for a couple of years, but was very unhappy. Now that I'm back to one job, I'm happier about that, but I do have to live a very simple life.

Diane Tasselmyer
When I quit my day job as a sculptor clay modeler in the automotive industry (yep..made cars out of clay) I did not have the guidance and information that is now available for todays' artist. But, I knew I had to make had been boiling over in a me long time. And that was the beginning of a serious journey involving all the things Stape mentioned
For me, discipline gets the most rewards. what about you?

Bob Matheson
Hey Stape,No Fair, You promised you wouldn't name names! I felt like you wrote that for me. The thing holding me back is health insurance, I have too much to lose at this stage of my life, I am 54 tomorrow. I would like nothing more than be able to devout what remaining good years I have left on this side of the sod to painting. However much I am tired of working and then painting I have a certain level of comfort that my wife is used to. It is tough doing physical labor at my age but hey I can stand out in the snow painting for hours where allot of guys my age only look at it out the window. I think have a bad case of shoulda woulda and I coulda. But soon enough sir and I will join the ranks of a fulltime painter yepper I will!Thanks Stape for keeping me sane for awhile. longer

Trent Gudmundsen
Stape, I love your posts! Such fun! Your advice is very wise. I admit that I began to hate my job and couldn't wait to quit...even after I did, I still had to beg my old boss for my job back after a year. So, another year later I quit again, but only after I had just sold a large, expensive painting and had enough to live on for ashile. Luckily, I've not had to go back (although I still have nightmares about going back to work for someone else). My advice...stick to improving your art, and that turning-point sale will come, then you can quit your job (again)! :)

Carol Zirkle
I agree with the others. It is a monumental change going from a job to running a small business as an artist. HUGE risk in this economy.

Why not get the (rich) Babe first, then you will have some funding for your art career. LOL

If it is right, you will not be able to escape "running to" being an artist (it has a hold of you). It's never work if you are just "running away from" something else.

- Carol

Donald Smith
LOL! You're one funny dude! Every one of your posts so far has put a smile on my face, and gotten at least one chuckle out of me. Add to that your honest and poignant replies, and you've been added to my top 10 favorite posters on FAV.
I know it doesn't have anything to do with marketing, but do you have any thoughts or opinions on painting fine art verses illustrations? It's amazing how much information is out there for the fine artists about painting landscapes, still lifes, or portraits, and how little there is for how to illustrate.
Have a Happy New Year!

Bob Matheson
Carol, That is where I made my mistake. I did not marry the rich babe,Great looking but not rich.The thing is I feel like I am wasting my time working when I could be painting and if I painted more i would be better faster... My Friends who are full time painters are getting by but that is about it. I feel for them, They have such talent and produce great work but just get by.You would think that a painter who has all this time and experience would be able to really make a good living but it doesn't seem to be.. So I will stick it out.Keep painting and sooner than later be able to pull the plug. Have a great New Year everyone!

Terry Krysak
Slick, don't quit your day job unless your income (after expenses and taxes, and healthcare) from your art equals what your after tax income is from your job. That was the advice my Dad gave me many years ago.

I am now retired with a pension from a great Municipal job which pays the bills and puts food on the table. No big deal if I am not making money from art. That really takes the pressure off believe me, starving is no fun.

Robert Bateman retired at 55 as a teacher, with a pension, and now his paintings sell for over $20,000.00 each. It can take years before you can make a decent income from art.

Keep you job and continue painting, it will all come together.

Esther J. Williams
Stape, I swear that sounds like a guy I know who is a meter reader and an artist. He won`t quit his day job though, it is financial security, health benefits and pays the rent. He is an excellent artist, but afraid to market himself I think. Or maybe he works so hard that he is too tired to market himself or join groups to get into shows. It`s a big leap to quit a company paying job to pursue art. There's that tried and true advice for starting a business, work at it for two years to get the wrinkles ironed out. Luckily I work from my home part time selling on collectibles on eBay and dedicate the rest of my energy to painting and promoting my art. I have wanted to completely quit selling my other products on eBay this past year, but the economy whacked those plans good. Now I have fallen back into sitting at the computer all day listing items which is depressing, but it is a job. I schedule my week to have time to paint, it's like letting the race horse out the gate for me, I surge to the outdoors. I keep dreaming that someday I will be able to just paint full time. I think 2010 is going to be a banner year. With determination, hard work and marketing, I will get there. I`m in my mid-50`s and I feel that I`m not getting older but more experienced and better. If one feels the fire burning in them, they can`t give up for anything.

Peggy Guichu
Good advise. I had to laugh about the 'getting girls' comment. I don't know who he's been talking to, but most of us are pretty isolated in our studios painting all the time. Maybe I'm not looking at it from the right prospective since I'm a 58 year old women. Hey, go for it. Maybe you'll find a rich one who will be able to support you so you can paint, because it will take that to survive right now if you aren't already established.

Sharon Weaver
I had an artist friend who was giving away a bunch of old art magazines and I took home a couple from the 90's. It was interesting to see how few of the artists in those magazines are still familiar. Where have all those wonderful artists gone? I wonder how many made a living with their art. It reminded me just how hard it is to make it as an artist.

Lee McVey
Stape is right. Testing the waters by painting, showing, and selling while keeping your day job until it makes sense to leave it is very good advice. I chose teaching art in public schools as my day job because it was art related. I was very fortunate my district thought art was important so there was no risk of having my job cut. But, my last 8 years of teaching were filled with conflict. I so much wanted to be a full time painter, but economically it made too much sense to wait until early retirement so I would have health insurance in my retirement package. So, I stuck it out, and painted weekends and school vacations.

And now "retired", (but retired only from public school teaching) I feel that I am in the prime of my life (maybe not to some people at this age, but it feels that way to me) and I am fortunate I don't have to rely on art sales for my food and shelter.

But one thing I found interesting that may or may not apply to other people leaving their day job to become a full time artist. I thought I could just leave and pour myself into my art because that's what I did every summer during my teaching career. I was in for a shock when I felt immobilized for nearly a year. My art marketing coach and other art teachers who had retired warned me this might happen, but I didn't believe them. Fortunately I got over it,and I created a new routine, but I suggest people who leave a long time full-time career be aware of possible temporary identity change issues.

Sure, quit your day job. It's easy. I've done it many times.
No, just kidding! My own plan is to quit my day job once I've saved 12 months of living. Trouble is, I freelance now (in something more concrete) so getting that 12 months saved is a real bear in this economy!
But once I've got it, watch my dust. After all, I've been learning HOW to paint for the past 9 years.

Stapleton Kearns
via with facebook
Thank you all for commenting. Happy New Year and thanks to those of you who have sent me questions to use. .............Stape

I've got parents asking me (probably because I'm the only "serious" artist that they know) to look at their young child's art and tell them whether he should pursue this field of study and how to go about helping him to do that.
First, I don't feel qualified to give this kind of information...- today he likes art, but tomorrow, he might want to be a thoracic surgeon. I think parents should encourage, support, praise, yes,... but I don't know that it is possible to really tell at a young age whether a child has the talent, and the drive (both very important) to pursue art as a career. I really don't know what to tell them. I might be able to look at the child's work and say whether it is above average, but that's about the extent of my expertise on the subject. Got any resources or
suggestions for them?

Fay Terry
Good Advice, Stape. There also has to be a period of growing into your new identity as an artist. I can remember when it was hard to even say the words "I am an artist" because I didn't feel like it was true.
Now those words slip off my tongue very easily.
Thanks for a good article.

BP Hageman
Quit your day job...or your night job? In this economy, keep them both and use your weekends to be something more than a Sunday painter!

What we artists sometimes forget is that creating art is partly project management. How to get it all done?

When you're tired from that day job, prep canvases or panels as a warm-up to your glorious weekend of painting!

Use your lunch hour and breaks (if you get either) to study the work of other artists, sketch the black and white studies for your next work, and subscribe to sites that will send you updates on new art!

In other words, weave your art in and around your day job and leave the office politics and gossip to others!

Use your day job to do mental snap shots of figurative works, your commute to gather visuals for landscapes or if you ride the subways, more figurative inspiration.

Art visions surround you from supermarket to housework, just open your eyes to them all! They can be allies not adversaries in your path to insightful creation if you let them!

Ellen Hurley
Thanks, Stape, for the reality check.

Would I ever love to give up my full-time paid employment to paint. I just finished my art work plan for the year (which, by the way, does not include quitting my day job), and one of my goals is to get a solid portfolio together to present -- possibly in 2011 -- to galleries. I'm also an "older" artist, and while I regret not starting my art earlier, that's the way it is. At least I'm aggressively striving to improve my work and cultivate my own style with the years I have left. But I still have to pay the mortgage and feed myself.

Stapleton Kearns
via with facebook
I think it would be cool to have 21 comments rather than 20.

Bob Matheson
I agree Stape, Happy New Years Day!I will be thinking about this post for quite some time! Lots of good comments,Lots to digest.Thanks again for your interesting posts.

Roderik Mayne
Excellent advice again. As I mentioned in a previous comment I too am an older artist. I also work in the film business, but it too can have its ups and downs.

I think perhaps the hardest part is to keep going and try to work harder when they are no sales and when people are asking when you are going to be responsible or do what they think you should to sell stuff and so on and so on.

So Stape...when do you find time to paint with all the writing that you do?

Here's some data that may be of use to everyone yearning for a full-time art career. The Massachusetts Cultural Council published their "Stand Up and Be Counted" report in the Fall of 2009 at this link:
The study was funded by an anonymous donor and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts as well as the Cultural Council. Over 3,400 artists responded and over 1,500 artists actually checked their IRS returns from 2008 to give accurate answers on the financial data questions. The survey was developed by the Artists Healthcare Working Group which was formed to monitor the impact of Massachusetts' state healthcare reform initiated in 2006, but questions also surveyed on employment and quality of life as well as healthcare. The intent of the survey was to collect artist socioeconomic status info in "good" times(2006) rather than in the subsequent economic recession(2007).

Over 70 percent of the responding artists considered themselves "part-time" artists not being able to make their living solely from art and needing to earn income from other sources. Most of these respondents were also practicing artists for more than 10 years. It's worth going to the link and downloading the PDF report because it identifies such nuggets as 44.8 percent of the respondents who answered the question had attended graduate school and 37 percent had attained undergraduate degrees, yet more than 1/3 of the respondents who answered the question regarding retirement savings indicated that they did not have a formal retirement plan. Of those who do, 16.2 percent have their plan through a spouse or partner's benefits. The rate of uninsurance related to healthcare coverage for artists is sobering.

Other challenges cited by the study included: (1) Access to affordable business and/or career assistance
(2) Decreased availability of funding
(3) Access to affordable space
(4) Insufficient venues/markets
(5) Insufficient time to create due to having to earn income in other ways
(6) Cost of affordable healthcare
(7) Lack of community space where artist groups can convene
(8) Affordable housing/work space
(9) Growing older and the difficulty of saving for retirement

So if you are employed in a steady job that may not be about art at all, and if you pine for the "artist's life" then read this report at least once, and keep it on your hard drive to read and reference when you waiver. Artists who are sustaning themselves with their art are working incredibly hard every day and often have taken years to build the base on which they've accomplished this. Nevertheless, keep painting, sculpting, printing, etc. and find ways to nurture yourself and your creative side while, as John Stobart is prone to saying, "keeping bread on the table."

Karen Norris
Great advice in any economy. Nothing can sap your creativity more than worrying about how you will cover your basic expenses.

Carole Rodrigue
What an ironically timely article! Just minutes before reading this, my significant other was reading me an article about a local artist who quit it all to paint and is apparently doing well. As he was reading this, he kept telling me what I could/should perhaps do as I rebuked his suggestions. Upon opening my inbox, I giggled and began to read out loud. Saved me a lot of explaining. Thanks Stape! Besides, I'm aware I've got a lot of work to do before leaving my dayjob, and while encouragement from others is great, they don't pay my bills!

Barbara P Hageman
via with facebook
Here's some data that may be of use to everyone yearning for a full-time art career. The Massachusetts Cultural Council published their "Stand Up and Be Counted" report in the Fall of 2009 at this link:

The study was funded by an anonymous donor and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts as well as the Cultural Council. Over 3,400 artists responded and over 1,500 artists actually checked their IRS returns from 2008 to give accurate answers on the financial data questions.

Ann Bell
I am surprised that someone actually cared enough to compile this data. I am not surprised at the small percentage of artists who are actually full fact I am surprised that the average earnings are as "high" as they are, although they are indeed very low.

Most of the local art groups around Houston require any artist who has more than $2000. in LIFETIME art sales to enter professional division of any competition.

Gayle Faucette Wisbon
via with facebook
One of my favorite artists, Mikki Senkarik, and her artist/author husband, Jack White, have been very good role models for me. I met them several years ago and they are the nicest couple! They have been very successful and share their expertise with other artists. Jack has some excellent books out about self-marketing that I believe you can only purchase through their websites. I bought the first one, "The Mystery of Making It" several years ago and still like to re-read parts of it from time to time. It's very encouraging to me to read about other's success stories and these two have had quite a bit of success! So it is possible!

Judith Monroe
Great advise, Stape - some of the hardest working artists I know hold down a full time job and then spend another full time job's worth building their art business. I got lucky and have a husband's income (and health insurance!) to fall back on, but I'm working part time teaching photography as well.

As for partying - all of the successful artists I know don't have time for too much, but we do know how to make work feel like a party sometimes!

Esther J. Williams
I am thankful once again for reading more of these comments about having to keep a day job while trying to also be an artist. After reading Barbara`s report, I feel aligned and not alone, also not needing to whine anymore. Her comments about fitting art all around your daily routine is exactly what I've been doing for years. Opening up one`s eyes to peer closely at what is in your hands or the visuals you get from reading words in a book or even looking out the car window on a drive all adds creative moments to record and utilize later when you are at the easel. Life is an art itself and our individual journey is what make each of us so unique in our own style of art.

Carole Rodrigue
Gayle, I've also read the whole series written by Jack White and found them to be very valuable even though he'd sent them to me for free due to international taxation issues. I thought he was extremely generous for doing this for me and saw how much of a genuine person he also is. It was obvious he'd written the books with the intent to help artists and not to make money. Those books are priceless to me for all of the info they contain and I should re-read them again.

Barbara P Hageman
via with facebook
Esther, glad the report helped you feel more aligned with fellow artists! It had the same effect on me.

Now that I am "semi-retired" from my day job as a consultant, I have more time for my art, but I am guilty of not always applying the same scheduling and project management to the art that it deserves. So a pitfall that I've found in having more time for my art, is not always using the time fully for that art! Now that's my fault! New year, new committment!

Ellen Hurley
Affordable health care coverage is another reason why I'm still working in a non-art related job. As we "older" artists mature, havng health care is a must. So, keeping life in perspective is important. Yes, I want to have more time for my art; but, fortunately, I have a good job that helps me support my avocation.

Linda Wilder
These last few years, I've been fortunate enough to have a husband who supported me and my art while I tried to establish myself. Unfortuneatly he lost his job a year ago. I certainly wasn't ready to tackle the 'art world' and try to make a living but I had no choice. It was sell my art or go get a minimum wage job. Marketing is not my forte but I did get a website, blog,joined art groups, entered juried shows and competitions and found a small gallery to carry my work. I managed to sell 75 paintings last year. It helped. My husband is now working again and although this past year was difficult, I have no doubt that 2010 will be much better. With my husbands support (again)...I may be ready in five years to support him.


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