Quick Start Guide: How to Make Money as an Artist

By Anna Ortiz on September 12, 2019

You Don’t Have to Be a Starving Artist

Maybe you’re an aspiring artist hoping to enroll in college. Perhaps you just earned your degree from an art school or have been working in retail for a year now trying to support your real passion – fine art. No matter the circumstance, you may feel the pressure from your parents, your friends, and most importantly from yourself to make a real living from your art. Of course, most of the pressure you receive is born out of concern for your well-being and professional future, rather than any judgment about your artistic choices. Unfortunately, when the pressures of surviving in the real world collide with your professional priorities, many new artists find themselves sacrificing time spent pursuing their true passion – creating art – in favor of meeting expectations or financial obligations. Here, we provide a few important tips and strategies to help you find early success so that you never have to be a self-described “starving artist”.

1. Prepare for Success with a Strategy in Hand

While you could try running headlong into a freelance art career—and you might initially gain some ground—you ultimately putter out, lost and bewildered. Like any major project or job search, you need to plan and set a course for success that you can refer to when things get rocky. Below are just a few things you can do to create a guiding strategy.

Lay Out Your Goals:  Do you want to make large sums of money? Do you want to gain a strong following and earn enough to get by while loving what you do? Or you might want something in the middle ground somewhere. It is best to temper your hopes with reality by setting your goals that focus on approaching your work with passion and sincerity while working toward creating a stable and modest income. Authenticity is important since most people—at least people whose attention you want—are smart and savvy and can ferret out insincerity quickly. By sharing your art honestly and sincerely, you can attract and keep an honest that values who you are and what your artwork conveys to them.

Make Peace with Patience:  The list of possibilities is long, which is incredibly promising and exciting, of course! But the truth is, hugely measurable success isn’t likely to happen overnight. At first, while building your reputation in one, more or several venues, you are likely to make a pittance, at best. But with several wages in the works, you are bringing in some income, and will eventually start to see bigger dividends. On the other hand, you might start earning within days of launching your master plan. Prepare for patience, but don’t hesitate to celebrate quick successes.

Polish Your Portfolio for Prime Presentation:  Your portfolio is a living representation of your work. Each new client, project, assignment and endorsement you gather offers you yet another building block as proof of your accomplishments. The real world, as well as the internet, are rife with opportunities to share your work, so don’t limit your ability to share your achievements. Create an online artist’s website, a hard-copy portfolio, a YouTube portfolio with a discussion about your selections, and an active social media presence to connect with potential clients and art buyers in their preferred communication environment. Update your portfolio regularly—maybe every quarter—or after completion of a large project and loads of accompanying accolades. You might even sell some pieces directly from your website, so make sure to let visitors know pieces that are you are willing to sell. Also, either provide prices you feel or fair, or note that you are open to negotiation.

Perform Mock Client Meetings:  Just like many people get nervous before interviews, you may feel anxious before your first few client meetings. Find a trusted friend, fellow artist or professional who will sit down and go through a mock client meeting with you to iron out any kinks.

Dip Your Toes in Several Creative Ponds:  Stagnation—or just resting on the laurels of one or two successful pathways—is not your best option when trying to gain as much exposure as possible in the art world. By branching out and exploring different opportunities helps you develop as an artist and provides you with more revenue streams. Your energy in the relative short-term will pay off for years to come as you continue to pick up new clients, sponsors, partnerships, commissions, buyers, and admirers. Even if you are only working for your own behalf—meaning you just haven’t found the right person for the piece or series yet—keep working. Instead of completing one painting and waiting for inspiration for the next painting, take on the original from a fresh perspective to dig deeper into the work.

2. Develop Your Skills

Anything you can do to add to your knowledge and skills base will work to your advantage as you start building your freelance art business.

Supplement Your Artistic Talent with Education:  It is so important to keep adding to your concrete set of marketing skills to diversify your portfolio and your future opportunities. While you may consider taking a graphic design program, a Photoshop editing class, or even a content writing seminar an off-course venture, it may be just what gives you the edge when competing for a dream project. The more tasks you can competently and confidently do on your own, the more appealing to a prospective client you will be. And even better, you get all the fees instead of having the client pay someone else to perform that task.

Don’t Rule Out Working for a Company:  Diving headlong into freelancing isn’t necessarily the best approach for everyone. Taking a peek into the inner workings of office life can help you gain plenty of insight as a freelancer-in-the-making. You can learn about the pace of an artist’s studio, advertising agency, marketing firm or department within a larger company, or anywhere else you land a job. With this information, you can better estimate the time a project will take you to complete, as well as a company’s expectations, regarding deadlines and style. Working in an office is also a reliable and consistent paycheck that lets you build a substantial nest egg and pay the bills while you build your private client base.

Work on a Volume Basis:  Being a freelancer does not mean you should give yourself an infinite number of days off. Even if you do not anticipate your job will soon—or even ever—garner any revenue, you need to continue to hone your skills and create healthy daily work habits. You never know if you might make some unexpected brush stroke with the perfect color, which might spark your masterwork or a new series.

3. Build Your Brand

Once you have your business plan, and as you continually develop your skills, you can start to build your brand. Through a combination of various forms of direct marketing and just getting your work out there, you can build your brand for instant recognition of your work and just what you can do for your clients.

This list is huge because, once you get started, you will find endless ways to get your work and your name out there to people who need you.

Determine What Your Brand Is:  Many variables can go into determining your brand. When building your brand, draw tangible aspects of your work—consider your favorite medium, such as oils or watercolor—that can become etched in memory. You can also create a tagline along the lines of “Let my work give voice to your imagination” to help express your brand and what your work can do for your clients.

Step Out of Your Comfort Zone to Market Your Work:  No matter how shy or introverted you are, you need to—and better yet, you can—step out of your comfort zone to reach your prospective audience or market. Believe in your work, and fight any engagement inertia you encounter, reminding yourself of your goals. Focus on positive self-talk that involves how much you love creating art pieces and how much you believe in each one. At the same time, it is important to separate yourself from the art itself; meaning that you cannot take any rejection to the core of your existence. While you love your art, it simply isn’t always what prospective clients need at the time.

Show Your Work Anywhere You Can:  Ask everyone from your local coffee shop owner to everyone in the high-end gallery district if you can display your art. Even if nothing comes if it right away, they might need someone to fill an artist’s spot at some point and may keep you in mind. As long as you ask politely and professionally, you can’t go wrong.

Take Your Business Cars Everywhere You Go:  Always carry business cards—handmade or graphically designed by you, for best memorable effect—that feature your contact information, including your artist’s website, and prepare to dispense them when you come across an opportunity.

Develop an Electric Elevator Pitch:  Sometimes you have a few minutes—and only a few minutes—to talk to an exciting potential client like your favorite gallery’s owner or a well-known local art collector. Prepare a quick script, also known as an elevator pitch, that lets someone know the basics about your art work, the work you have already done for clients, how your work helps others, and any other snapshot details that you feel sum you up, under the circumstances. The point is getting their attention so you can hand them a business card and set up a meeting, so go for high-impact information.

Create and Foster a Strong Social Media Presence:  Whether you focus on Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Tumblr, YouTube, or all of the above, create and foster your social media presence. Even if you have never been particularly active in social media, it is an essential tool for budding freelance artists. Make regular posts—daily, weekly or to make major announcements—on your chosen platforms so you continually engage loyal followers. Remember to follow fellow artists, famous artists and galleries while also joining groups and participating in any forums. Comment positively on other artists’ work when possible, and respond—even if only in the form of a “like”—to announcements from galleries, museums, art collectors, coffee shops, arthouse film theaters, playhouses, local government arts-associated entities, music venues, and anyplace else that matters to you in the arts community where you would like to build professional relationships. Below are a few of the most effective strategies for getting the most out of a few key social websites:

Pinterest:  Pinterest is a highly visual social media platform, making it ideal for freelance artists who want to gain exposure. Set up your profile, giving information about yourself and your artwork, along with a link to your own website. By sharing a combination of your own work and images that inspire you, as well as following other artists’ and art fans’ bulletin boards and simply liking pins, you can build a unique audience happy to share your work within their own boards.

Instagram:  Similar to Pinterest, Instagram relies on images to create and foster user connections. Instagram does foster more of an environment that bridges any gaps between the relatively silent-yet-visual Pinterest with more verbal platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Create regular posts that feature daily sketches to update followers on your strong work ethic and as a visual work journal to show progress and inspiration.

Facebook and Twitter:  While each of these social media giants has its own unique platform, you can reach a broad audience with them. While they are not as primarily visual as Instagram and Pinterest, the potential reach is massive. With Facebook, you can regularly post new works for friends, family, fellow artists, and other followers. In Twitter, you might occasionally post a flash auction, giving followers the chance to bid on their favorite pieces. Another Twitter option is to host weekly art chats on your favorite topics.

LinkedIn:  Don’t shy away from using LinkedIn just because it has more of a corporate business vibe. The need for artists’ work crosses boundaries. Think about all the artwork hanging in office lobbies, hospital waiting rooms, and just about anyplace else you can imagine, and you will realize it is worthwhile to consider that your talented may be needed in the most unlikely—to you—places.

Build a Mailing List for Email and Snail Mail:  Mailing lists are great ways to reach people who attend your showings or exhibits in-person or online. You have probably attended an art show or concert where the artist asked that you provide your name, email and physical address. Do the same so you can share email and traditional mailing announcements; both of which are particularly helpful for guests who do not participate in social media. Also, make sure to create a email subscription mailing list on your artist’s website. As a bonus for traditional mail subscribers, you can send out personal postcards from time to time for special occasions, such as an anniversary for their business or to congratulate them on an upcoming exhibit of their own.

Offer Tutorials:  Contact your local Parks and Recreation Department to give tutorials to local artists, or create your own YouTube channel to give weekly lessons on different techniques. In each medium, you have the chance to share your art and personality with prospective clients. Share information about in-person classes and new YouTube videos on your social media websites and via your blog.

Start a Blog and Maintain it:  Blogging is an essential way to reach out to your audience through a combination of meaningful content and focused SEO strategy. Provide technique tips, reviews of new art supplies, articles on new gallery showings, interviews with local artists, or musing about working as a freelance artist. Anything that is authentic and informative gives you an opportunity to connect with writers. Adding a comments section at the end of each post is a great way to engage with old and new readers. Prepare to answer questions and exchange pleasant art-related chit-chat. You can also add in video segments, or vlogs, to supplement your written content with visual elements. Don’t forget to add images of your artwork or other relevant images that support your topic.

Design a Newsletter:  A newsletter gives you the chance to share updates on your own artwork or your local art community at regular intervals. Use Microsoft Publisher, or another desktop publisher, to design a basic layout and add images of your artwork. If you aren’t familiar with desktop publishing, this is a good area to seek additional training to continue fleshing out your skills base. Interview local artists on upcoming shows, as well as gallery owners and art patrons. You can distribute hard copies of your newsletter via U.S. mail, by hand to local business owners, as links in your social media posts, or via email to your subscribers.

Create eBooks:  You might share information about your approach to art, give a tutorial on a specific technique, or create an online copyrighted “coffee table eBook” to share your work in a composite format. In any case, the additional exposure an eBook provides can serve as yet another marketing tool. Offer your first few editions for free to email subscribers, visitors to your website, and social media followers.

Participate in Art Forums and Discussion Groups:  If your favorite website features a community discussion group, or forum, join in the discussions that appeal to you. You can also create a profile in most forum environments that link to your artist’s website and social media addresses, so they can follow up to see your online portfolio and blog.

Join Job Boards:  While it may sound like a long shot, you never know when someone needs an freelance art consult for a major art project and feel that Indeed.com or CareerBuilder.com are the best venues to find candidates. Create a profile, submit your resume, and request job posting notifications for relevant positions on some of the top job boards to continue getting your name out there. You never know when a hot project will land in your morning email digest.

Volunteer:  Carve out some time to contribute to your community. While it would be great to volunteer as a tour guide at your local museum, or to help set up a new museum exhibit, don’t limit yourself. You never know who you will meet working at your local food pantry or teaching an art class to seniors at a local retirement facility. If nothing else, it is an excellent opportunity to step away from your studio to refresh your mind, engage with the world, and offer a part of yourself to your community.

Write a Press Release:  If you land a slot or two in your local gallery to hang your artwork, or if you score your own exhibit, let everybody know. Write a straightforward press release that gives all the details to reach out to a broader audience in the newspaper’s overall readership, extending beyond your existing network.

Apply to Submit Your Work for County and State Fairs and Local Festivals:  Most local fairs and festivals feature exposition centers or small galleries that feature local and regional artists.

Network:  With any of the tips mentioned, or anytime you have the opportunity, take the temperature of the situation to see if some tasteful networking is in order.

Build a Strong Community with Fellow Artists:  Similar to networking, building an active community with fellow artists can help you find new opportunities for creative projects. More importantly, though; freelancing can become lonely and cause you to feel isolated. Talking to other creatives who have been through, or are going through, can help you feel better about your efforts.

Start a Podcast:  Sure, it’s an aural medium, but you can still connect with your visually oriented audience. You can give helpful hints about specific techniques or offer insights into preparing for an exhibit.

Attend Artists’ Workshops:  Learn a new technique, and meet fellow artists for these workshops.

Submit Your Work for Community Projects:  Sometimes local sites need a new piece of artwork to launch an initiative or fill a space in a public building. Follow your local news to scan for requests for submissions for these particular projects.

Develop Community Art Events and Other Projects with Fellow Artists:  Join forces with fellow local artists—or those from other communities if you can work out the logistics to create something special—to apply for large-scale murals or other projects.

Apply for Grants:  Many communities and non-profit organizations offer grants for artists who address a particular problem, unique to the organization or the community.

Enter Contests:  A simple online search for “contests for artists” will yield plenty of regularly scheduled, or one-time only, contests that you are welcome to enter. Prizes can be cash, art supplies, eGift cards, or a chance to show your work.

Offer Your Artistic Services Pro Bono:  You might occasionally take on a project purely for the joy of it, or as a way to help out someone from your community. It doesn’t hurt to ask for credit for your work when anyone asks about it.

Seek Commissions:  If you have a really great idea that you believe might appeal to a local business owner, write a proposal for a commission. There are also websites that can help you connected to clients looking for art in a range of styles.

Crowdfund Your Brand and Specific Projects:  Patreon is a premier crowdfunding website for artists. Reach out to your audience and all the connections you have made and let them know that you are striving to become a working freelance artist and any donation they can make helps. Additional crowdfunding websites include Kickstarter, Indiegogo, GoFundMe and Crowdfunding. Create a page that shows potential patrons or donors what you do by creating an explainer video and providing links to your online portfolio and social network websites. You can seek sponsorship for your overall brand, encompassing all of your work, or you might create special crowdfunding campaigns for specific projects that require additional funding.

Photograph Your Artwork:  Whether you want to create a compact portable portfolio, or you want to create prints of your work to share, work with a professional photographer or take your own professional-caliber images of your critical works.

Sell Your Prints on Demand:  Once you have taken high-quality photographs of some of your favorite works, you might consider selling them at one of the many Print on Demand (POD) websites.

Never Stop Exploring:  As an artist, you probably have the heart and soul of an explorer. Use those traits to keep searching for new ways to reach clients, peers and a loyal audience, and you are likely to stay busy. You might even stay more occupied than you can keep up with, but as you broaden your scope and audience, along with increasing your fees, you can become more selective.

Keep Searching for Ways to Sell Your Work as an Independent Freelance Artist

While you will work hard on your freelance art business, it is crucial that you understand and own the value of your vision and your work and believe in it. Do not sell yourself short out there. There are times to sacrifice payment for exposure, and there are times when it makes more sense to hold back and protect your reputation, your vision, and your work.

Your freelance art career is your adventure and a chance to make a life uniquely your own. Have pride in your entrepreneurial spirit and all the essential characteristics it takes to become a success.