Maria Brophy

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business of art / Public Speaking

How to Thrive as a Professional Artist

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Last week Drew and I gave a lecture at Furman University titled “How to Thrive as a Professional Artist.”

Our goal was to demonstrate to art students that being an artist is a very viable career, and that there’s no better time in history to be an artist than today.

We also wanted them to understand that to be a professional artist, one has to treat their business like a business.

But the most important take away from the lecture, according to the attendees, was that you can design your career to be what you want it to be.  And that, in my opinion, is the most important message we can give to anyone in any profession.

Since most of my readers weren’t able to attend the lecture, I would like to share the content of it with you, as recapped below:

PLAN YOUR PATH

Not everyone knows what they want to be when they grow up.  I didn’t realize until after my twenties that I wanted to do what I do now; work as an artist’s consultant and manager while traveling the globe.

Knowing what you want is important, if you want to live your own life rather than have everyone else decide for you.

Drew is a master at designing his life, so he gave the following tips on how to figure out what you want:

1 – Give yourself a Death Wish.  Ask yourself “If I died today, what would I regret that I haven’t done yet?”  For Drew, it was to surf big waves.  For me, it was to back pack around the world.  For you, it could be anything.  It doesn’t matter what it is, the most important thing is to figure out what that one thing is that makes your heart flutter.

2 – Ask “where do I want to live” and “what am I good at”

If you’re living in a place that you don’t love, but you are aching to be in the mountains or at the beach, then you need to move to a place where you feel good.  You can’t be happy if don’t love where you live.

Figuring out what you’re good at is hard for many people.  We often take it for granted that we are a natural at something, because, well, it comes naturally to us, and so we think it’s too easy to be a career choice.  For example, someone who is great at remodeling homes; that comes easy to them and they may not realize that you can make a great career out of helping others to remodel their homes.

3 – Ask “what do I really want?”  Often we think we want something, because our parents or teachers told us it’s the way to think, but then find out later in life that we don’t want it after all.

Well meaning people tend to beat our crazy, awesome dreams out of us.  Don’t let them do that to you.

Who would have thought that Drew and I would have been able to travel the world, with Drew painting wherever we go, and make a living doing that?  Everyone told Drew he was nuts when he was younger.  Now they’re writing about his lifestyle in magazines.  Everything is possible.

WRITE IT DOWN AND IT WILL HAPPEN

When asking yourself these questions, write it down.  Magical things happen when you put pen to paper and make a list of what you want out of life.

According to Jack Canfield, best-selling author of The Chicken Soup for the Soul book series, only 3% of the population writes down their goals.  And can you believe that’s about the percentage of the people who are wildly successful (wealthy)!

The act of sitting down and thinking about what you want to happen is what gives you clarity.  With clarity, comes the ability to make it happen.

That’s where the power in this exercise comes from; getting clarity on what you really want!

INTEGRITY/SELLING OUT

Most people have no idea what selling out means, but they sure as heck don’t want to do it.

The best way to keep your personal integrity as a professional artist is to make sure you never do anything that goes against your personal values in exchange for money.  For every single one of us, selling out has a different meaning, because we all have different values.  Only you can determine if you are selling out or not; no one else can decide that for you.

HOW TO PRICE YOUR ARTWORKS

Pricing artwork can be so difficult at times; art is not a widget with fixed costs!  But, with a little thought you can create a pricing strategy that works.

A professional artist will have a well-thought-out pricing system that is consistent and makes sense to their clients. 

The pricing method that works well for us is a square inch system.  For details on a square inch pricing strategy, refer to my post titled HOW TO PRICE YOUR ORIGINAL ARTWORKS.

A consistent price structure, laid out on a price sheet, will not only give you confidence when pricing your works, but will also give your clients confidence that you actually know what you’re doing!

OUR BUSINESS MODEL

We have a unique business model that has enabled us to sell Drew’s art while supporting our family and traveling the world.  We have several streams of income, broken down like this:

ART LICENSING – We currently license Drew’s art to over 30 different companies for about 300 different products.  This is our bread and butter.

ORIGINAL ART SALES – We sell the original paintings of all the artwork Drew creates for art licensing, as well as commissioned projects.

CUSTOM ART – The painting of wall murals, motorcycles, surfboards, and any other thing that a client asks Drew to paint.

ILLUSTRATION & DESIGN – T-shirt design, poster art for events and advertising needs.  This includes artwork that is commissioned by companies or advertising firms for events or projects.

INTERNET SALES – We sell art prints, “how to” DVD’s and books, as well as licensed products on www.DrewBrophy.com.

All of five of our income streams work together.  For example, every painting that Drew creates is scanned and the digital file kept for licensing later.  Then we sell the original paintings to collectors.

With the downturn of the economy a few years ago, we were very fortunate to keep our studio doors open while businesses around us were shutting down.  We were able to survive the drop in income in some areas because we had income coming in from a variety of sources.

Having multiple streams of income helps to hedge against economic changes.

COPYRIGHTS

An entrepreneur/artist owns their copyrights from the moment that the artwork is created.

But, to get the most protection from United States copyright laws, in the event someone “steals” your art, you must register your artwork with the U.S. Copyright Office.

Read HOW TO FILE COPYRIGHTS AND KEEP TRACK OF THEM for details on this.

MONEY MATTERS

My accountant once said “Maria, if you aren’t making a profit, then what you have is a hobby.”

To thrive as a professional artist or a professional anything, you have to make a profit and keep your cash flowing.

One way to ensure the cash is flowing is to have solid pricing and payment policies in place.

Our payment policies have always been to first quote a project or commission, get a 50% deposit, then begin and finish the work.  Once the work is completed, final payment is due.  Once paid, the client gets the digital files or the original or whatever it is they paid for.

We strongly recommend this payment policy.  It’s the only way to 100% avoid being unpaid for work done.  In other words, it’s your insurance against being ripped off.  I know too many artists who have put in weeks of work only to have a client disappear and never pay them.

Read HOW TO NEVER GET RIPPED OFF AGAIN for details on this topic.

BEING A PROFESSIONAL ARTIST IS A VIABLE CAREER

Drew talked about how being an artist is having the ability to think differently, more like a child when everything is new and anything is possible.

An artistic mind combined with knowledge in any field is powerful.

For example, Steven Jobs applied his artistic mind to technology, and he changed the world with that.  Frank Gehry applied his artistic mind to create buildings that engineers said could not be built.

Being an artist is absolutely a viable career.  Here’s how to make it happen:

1 – Discover what you want (write it down!)

2 – Educate yourself in that medium or field, and

3 – Apply tried and true business practices.

This is the formula that will allow you to thrive as a professional artist.

Please, share in the comments your challenges and triumphs in becoming a professional artist.  I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Maria

 

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20 Comments How to Thrive as a Professional Artist

  1. Tom Weinkle

    Hi Maria,

    This is a great post. Very informative, and also a reminder that we have to take on multiple responsibilities to make our art careers work well. There’s no shame in doing illustrations, commissions, etc. I like what you said about making sure you are comfortable with what you are asked to do for monies.

    I admire the fact that Drew and you have found a way to follow your passions, and have success. It seems you both love what you do, and love to create.

    Thanks!

    tom

    Reply
    1. Maria

      Thanks, Tom! It’s simple to make a life based on your passions, but not easy. We often have to break through the expectations of society, teachers, parents and critical people who say it can’t be done. Being stubborn helps!

      Reply
  2. kara rane

    Great advice Maria~ thank You*
    Very true that an “artistic mind combined with knowledge in any field is powerful”. One of my favorite quotes on this –>> “Medicine really is an art, not a science, however much doctors try to pretend they are being scientific.”:-Andrew Weil, M.D.

    Reply
    1. Maria

      Kara, I love that quote by Andrew Weil! Thanks for sharing it. And, thanks for your comment and for following my blog. I appreciate the comments you always post 🙂

      Reply
  3. Anna

    Maria thank you for your frankness and transparency of your business model. I just came across your blog when I was searching for “how to price painting a wall mural” and will be sure to keep reading. Very helpful advice in many little areas of the artist’s business. I’ve always said that artists should be making a sustainable living as artists. With all that creativity, all you need is an entrepreneurial mindset and a plan of action.
    Thanks!

    Reply
  4. aileen

    In addition to this, I recommend aspiring artists reach out to other artists. I have received priceless advice and support from my creative friends as well as professional organizations. You are not alone!

    Also, if you are curious about a creative career but am not sure what to do, try things! Not everyone knows exactly what they want to be when they grow up partly because they haven’t tried enough things yet. Research by experimenting, talking with people with interesting careers, and interning/apprenticing will save you tons of college $$ than if you just guess and pick a major that doesn’t fit later on.

    Yes, setting goals and being intentional about your life is great but self-exploration is 100% necessary to get to that point. Put the work into knowing yourself now and laser-like focus will be much more attainable later.

    Reply
    1. Maria

      Aileen, thanks for your thoughtful addition to this post!

      You are so right when you say “try things!” So often people just think about doing things, but never actually do. You have to try a lot of different things to 1 – Learn and 2 – Get better and 3 – Figure out what works and what doesn’t!

      I always love hearing from you – thanks!

      Reply
  5. Mark Rehburg

    I just read your ebook and it sounds a lot like the “Secret” . Is this your belief? I have been an artist a long time. I go to as many shows I can afford. I am almost 50a and live on disability. You can not say luck has nothing to do with being discovered. I am damn good at what I do but yet I still strugle. What do you suggest?

    Reply
    1. Maria

      Dear Mark,

      Thanks for reading my e-book and for your questions. My answers below:

      My way of living could be compared to the concept behind “The Secret” in that I decide what I want and then by gaining clarity on what I want, it all comes together.

      Of course, there is action required (which isn’t mentioned in “The Secret”), and that is one of making a decision and then acting on impulses, ideas or opportunities.

      There is no luck involved – and no one is going to “Discover” anyone.

      You didn’t discover me here – I put myself out there over and over and over again, and here I am when you came across the internet. And, you saw that I had something that interested you (information) so you read what I had to say and you are now a fan or customer or something like that. That was not luck, it was me working hard over and over again writing and posting and blogging.

      Success in art has very little to do with luck, it’s more about putting yourself out there and then taking on opportunities as they are presented.

      You say you have been an artist for a long time. But, when I do a Google search of your name, very little information comes up.

      Here’s what I suggest:

      Get with the program of how things work NOW (not 20 years ago) and put effort into your online presence.

      I see one area where you are lacking is in having a website that’s easy to find, with information that a buyer would want to know, such as:

      1 – What you do (pictures, descriptions)
      2 – How they can order from you or where they can buy from you

      If you do just this one little thing, you will get a lot luckier!

      Another suggestion is to look at the data of all the shows you have been doing. Have they been successful with sales? If so, which shows do you make the most money at? Keep doing those shows. Which shows do you not make money at? Drop those shows and try new ones.

      Also, find another way besides shows to get your work out there.

      For example: Start painting landscapes or scenes from one geographical area (like your town or a busy town close by) and set up a little area outside a busy coffee shop or restaurant. Offer the owner a % of sales to let you paint live out there and sell your stuff. This can be very effective.

      That’s just one idea, but there are so many others. Start reading what other artists are doing to sell their work and try new things.

      And my last suggestion is this: Take 100% responsibility for your career and everything that happens to you. Don’t believe in luck or being discovered – it’s never going to happen unless you try a lot of different things, over and over again, until one day you hit on something that works for you. (And then people will look at you and say ‘wow he got lucky’!)

      I hope this is helpful to you!

      Reply
      1. robin cole

        Hi, I just ran across your very helpful site here. I’ll give you a little of my background. I have been drawing all my life and through the insight of my wife just started painting 6 years ago and doing a few shows and galleries locally selling my work off and on. I have always had a passion to be an artist as a career but still have to work the regular 5-5 job for now. I did a collage of the local university and also of my hometown and made prints of each. We were pretty successful selling them at local events. I then had the opportunity to meet Ben Jones,who played Cooter on the Dukes of Hazzard series, at a book signing. I thought why not do a drawing of him and give him my card. He was thrilled and we talked for a while with him and his wife. We kept in touch via facebook. Then one day I suggested doing a collage drawing of all the Dukes characters that he could hang up in his Nashville and Gatlingburg stores (called Cooters Place,a Dukes store of memorabilia and merchandise). Once I sent it to them they were so impressed his wife suggested we make prints and sell them in the stores and online. We are within weeks now of finalizing the deal. I came across your site because I was offered my first mural and was curious as to the pricing. Also the client wants it in oil on a sheetrock wall. They will be buying all the supplies as well. I would like to get a lot more knowledge on how to break free from working for someone else and open my own studio where I can teach and sell artwork as well as give the opportunity for other artist to display and sell there work. With two daughters, one a junior in high school and the other a junior in college its hard to find time and resources to accomplish my dream, but I am working on it and will never give up. Thanks for any advice,
        Robin Cole

  6. Lorenzo

    As always, great information! I hope to eventually have a decent portfolio some day and get things rolling. I’m happy in my accounting jobs for now and am enjoying the nectar of any progress I make in creating and eventually promoting my art. Maria, thank you for showing us how it can be done.

    Reply
  7. Lorenzo

    Maria, to answer the inquiry at the end, if I get to that point, the challenges for me will be pricing, having time to produce more, defining and locating the target market and finding the best ways to reach out to that group. I think creating and promoting are the fun parts. If I could figure out how to make good/reliable money promoting what I like and myself it would a lot of fun.

    Reply
  8. Keep the fire burning

    In 2000 I dumped a career that made me feel like I was selling out everyday(producing tv programmes). I returned to Thailand for six months to shoot a documentary, just me and a camera, then I went back to my home town to help care for my mum who at 55 was ill and not going to get better. It’s 13 years on, and somehow the slimmest threads of hope kept me connected to the universal background hum, no matter how hard things got, my light never fully went out. Mum has passed on, I now have a six yr old son and a lovely partner who believes in me. Then I come across the Brophy family, couple years back on some YouTube session which is where I look for sunshine and sea to put a shine on the grim industrial weather we get up here. A year ago I advance my hobby and pick up an airbrush, it comes along steadily, people start to like my paintings and I sell a few, then the Brophys keep popping up again and again, it’s like I know them, then Maria’s business advice page and wham! I think it is possible. I have started to edit a film I began 13 years ago, get a website name or two and am now on the brink of putting all these things together because you have made me believe its possible to do.
    I once made a film portrait of Humphrey Ocean (which no one has ever seen!) and he said something I never forgot ” you know sometimes small things can change the big things in your life, someone may write you a letter or hand you a magazine with some article or other that can turn your life in a completely new direction that changes everything” he was right, I picked up on your life message line and say thank you,’ keep on keeping on’ cos the world sure is a better place with you three in it.
    Phil

    Reply
  9. Dennis

    Good article.
    It isn’t easy and with this economy now it’s even more difficult to make a living but with those points in mind, it gives hope that more success is still attainable.

    As for the mind the of a child; I think it was Vincent Van Gogh who said that, “everyone is an artist as a child. It’s remaining one as you grow up!”

    Later in college I worked in the tv studio and we ran educational shows that ran on cable. One show talked about how as children the entire base of the cerebellum (brain), was lit up and firing away. As people get older, it begins to dim and eventually goes dormant all together pretty much.
    Except that is for artist. Artist brains continue to remain lit up. Apparently it is an essential part of the brain that makes an artist, along with the right brain as well but, I also think the left is perhaps not given enough credit.
    Interesting enough I was determined to be very whole brain when tested. Left hemisphere and right were about equal.
    But anyways, its well known that we develop brain use by practicing. Many people start doing art later in life or other things, and submerging one self will create new neuron pathways. Anything therefore becomes possible.

    ~Dennis Panzik

    Reply
  10. robert p. britton jr

    I made the mistake of listening to my father when I was 18 and gave up my talents in art for a “real job”.

    I resigned my job in 01/2012 to help him through his life end journey and battle with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. During that time, I realized that I made the mistake of giving up my dreams and that I, too, do not know how limited the time is we have on this planet.

    So since that time, I’m trying as hard as I can to try to resuscitate my talents, to practice, and to try to become a professional before my life ending journey is upon me.

    I also agree with what you say about living where you want to live. So many people dream of the beaches of Maine, or Southern CA coast, and yet never think that it is POSSIBLE to uproot yourself to a place you want to be.

    CHOOSE to pursue your dreams.

    CHOOSE to move to locales that inspire you.

    CHOOSE to believe in yourself and fight through diligence and practice and passion to make your dreams come true.

    We all have a 100% chance to NEVER hit our goals if we quit.

    This was one of the most practical and encouraging articles I’ve read in a while.

    thank you so much for sharing it!

    Reply
  11. Donia

    Yes – I think as a visual artist a variety of revenue streams is definitely key. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and observations on what has worked for you and Drew in his art career.

    Reply
  12. Daniel Toste

    My sister has been a independent artist my whole life and she paid 8.00 to facebook to advertise her art photo. Within 1hr she had 689 shares and she would have to pay facebook more money once it reach 900likes or shares. We are currently in the process of creating her own personal website. She always creates one of a kind paintings whether it be inspired by movies, professional artists, or post cards. How can we get her famous. Schooling is not needed for her she is plenty talented. She did schooling when she was young but the schools even said she was too advanced. Any ideas how to make her dreams come true legally?

    Reply
  13. Jermaine Hill

    Hi,
    My name is Jermaine Hill I’m in the United States Army, my sister Wanda Hill is an amazing coming-up artist who recently retired from the Army I wanted to introduce her website that she created and if you have time can you and others take a look and tell others about it.
    http://Www..Devineartwork.com her name is Wanda Donaldson Hill.
    …………..Thank you so much and God bless America!!!

    Reply

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