I have lived off my art for a year, this is what I’ve learned
This was originally written in 2016. I have since moved on to study since my health has improved, but I continue to operate my business part time.
Hello! My name is Rose. I am 27 years old, non-binary, heavily neurodivergent, physically disabled and queer. I am also a full time business owner.
I was thrown into the career choice due to my illnesses and the lack of support for them. It has been the most difficult year of my life, but also the most rewarding.
I work mainly in the furry fandom, indie game development, and for clients who buy illustrations as gifts for friends and family. Your mileage and desired audience may vary, but I hope you find something useful here.
Treat your online presence as a business, even if you never intend for it to be
I have been posting my art with the same alias, characters and worldbuilding for 8 years. I have come and gone a lot and my art has inevitably changed, but I was very aware of how I branded myself and my work from the beginning.
I established a following who became familiar with my characters and style. Because I had already spent a prolonged time doing so, I was able to make the jump to full time artist immediately- despite not being ready to and only having $2,000 in savings. Thank you very much for catching me!
Learn about small business management
It is as important as improving at your craft.
Business admin is essential to every career- even the creative ones. The idea that art is dirty if it is made to make money will poison you and hold you from success. Throw it out the window before you even begin your ventures.
Social media management tools are helpful in freeing up time and spoons so you can spend more creating. I use buffer.
Recordkeeping is as much your job as creative work is. Learn about it and tax in gruesome detail. Make friends with them both. It is a lot of information to take in, but it will save you problems later.
Make friends with marketing. Know who you want to serve, and find ways of connecting with them. It is not sleazy or manipulative if you are ethical about it. Most people love finding things relevant to their interests!
It takes time and practice, and you are going to mess it up. It is a learning process. But it will help you centre your priorities and arrange your finances accordingly.
If you impulse spend, use it as a tool for futureproofing. It lets you plan ahead. Even if that plan is, for example, to overspend during a manic episode.
Plan for both success and failure, and let yourself give up sometimes
Business is messy and full of risks. Failure is not necessarily a reflection of you or your work. Set up plans in case things go awry and plans in case they don’t. Keep an open mind and heart, and know that it is okay to feel rubbish about your work sometimes. Self-care is essential.
Early in my career I would spend entire days bedridden and crying from anxiety and stress so I could face obstacles with a clear head the next day. It helped me regain my bearings.
Ask for help, if you can
I have hit many rough spots, and I am blessed to have the following and friends that I do; I have had two youcaring campaigns that helped lift me out of my darkest times. I had already established a following, and the success of these campaigns was proof of that- people love what I do, and they want to keep it alive.
It is not wrong of you to ask for help to continue on with what you love doing. Chances are, people do (or will!) love it too.
When work is slow…personal projects!
It was a risk, but an informed one, thanks to my solid knowledge of marketing. We have nothing playable yet so I structured the website and promo art to feel like the game will. It would be unwise of me to make mechanics promises so early in development; instead I have handed the world the game’s core.
If you undervalue yourself, it will show in how your clients treat you
…and you’ll be making it more difficult for other artists to survive.
Learn your locations industry standard pricing, how long on average it takes you to complete certain work, and be sure to offer a high range of things- from sketchy to polished, ‘cheap’ to ‘expensive’. It helps make up for income gaps.
It is bad practice to take extremely underpaid work from the start because you think you “aren’t good enough yet.” You will become stuck in that mindset, and you will become stuck with clients hellbent on abusing your labour. That will perpetuate the self-worth spiral downwards. Do art for friends or for your own projects to begin with instead for portfolio building.
Sometimes you need to take underpaid work to survive. That is okay. Please take care of yourself first, though, and risk assess always. Burnout can last a long time and be more detrimental in the long run.
Set up a passive income
A store, for example, and make sure you have a fair few ‘passive’ rewards for patreon as well if you choose to go that route. I post Hyaline concept art exclusive to patreon because I am going to be doing it anyway, and it gives my patrons an intimacy with the game the public does not have access to.
You don’t have to be too personal, or give too much away about your life- but, for example, my twitter is at its most successful when I talk about my day and when I am my most silly.
Art is intertwined deeply with the creator, and knowing you- even a little- gives unique context to your work. It also helps build trust between you and your fans, and in doing so, you create a community.
Lastly: luck won’t happen if you don’t show up for it
Most success is a combination of luck, timing, privilege, hard work & persistence. But you can do things to make luck more likely to be there for you.
I keep an art posting schedule and try to keep consistent. It is tailored to when I get the most traffic across my accounts (buffer, linked earlier, helps you determine this). I break the consistent rule sometimes due to health relapses, but having a plan assists in letting me regain order in my life quicker than the alternative.