Take the Plunge

Just quitting your job and “going for it” is unlikely to bring you success as a full-time artist. Truth is, your success will more likely depend on things you’ve finished or set in motion long before you leave your day job. Think “transition” instead of “job change” and you’re already heading in the right direction. No matter where you are now in your career, the following three steps can help you make a smoother transition from your current job to a fulfilling life as a full-time artist.

1 Define success
Earning money from their art is a top goal for most artists, so let’s take a look at that first. Whether you decide to support yourself by selling your work, landing a fabulous creative job or doing something in between, you’ll no doubt have some financial goals. My suggestion is to get really specific about them. Have you worked out your full-time artist budget? How much money will you need to scrape by? To feel comfortable? Put a number to it, and start planning now for how and when you’ll be able to get there.

Next, with your financial goals relatively clear, turn your attention toward some other important things that will help spell success. For example, I recently asked a group of artists I coach to write down three benchmarks by which they’ll measure their success. Not surprisingly, all but one artist had “earning money from my work” on the list. Here are just a few of the other thoughts they shared:

  • I’ll have the courage to share my paintings with other people.
  • I’ll find my artistic voice.
  • I’ll be able to paint or draw as often as I like.
  • I’ll be proud of my work (even when it isn’t “perfect”).
  • My work will be exhibited regularly.
  • I’ll leave a legacy of artwork that touches people in some way.
  • My days will be filled with things I love to do.

Do any of these ring true for you? What others can you come up with? Once you’re clear on your definitions of success, use those definitions as guideposts. Here’s how: When an opportunity comes your way, ask yourself whether it will bring you closer to one of your goals. If so, go for it. If it doesn’t support your goals, you should probably take a pass, even if it seems, at the moment, like a viable option.

Prepare for the unexpected
From the time I was a kid, my mom taught me to be prepared. And I listened. I kept up with my schoolwork in case of a pop quiz. I even stuck a dime in my shoe in case I had to make an emergency phone call. Today I still believe in preparing for the unexpected—or, as we grown-ups now call it, “risk reduction.”

If you’re more than a little nervous about leaving that full-time job to become a full-time artist, give yourself a pat on the back. It shows that you’re taking the decision very seriously. As with any career change, there are risks involved. But there are also a lot of things you can do—starting now—to reduce those risks.

Test the waters. Are you currently selling your work? If so, how’s it going? If you haven’t yet started, put your artwork out there and get a feel for sales. How well your work sells now will be a great indicator of the income you can expect from sales when you’re doing art full time. Knowing your earning potential from your artwork will not only reduce your risk, it’ll reduce your worry.

Is there a risk that becoming a full-time artist will give you too much time for your art or too little structure? Now’s a good time to find out. Consider taking a month off and create to your heart’s content. If you’re totally inspired and ready to go for it, great. If it’s not quite what you had expected, take another look at your goals and adjust them accordingly.

Build financial reserves. Would having a well-padded savings account reduce your risk? Probably so. When it comes to savings, it’s often the little things that make a big difference. For example, simply replacing your daily $2 cappuccino with coffee at home could add more than $700 to your savings every year. Three years from now when you’re a full-time artist, that extra $2,000-plus will pay for a whole lot of art supplies!

Get in the habit of finding places where you can easily spend less. Look at subscriptions to magazines you don’t have time to read; framing you could do more inexpensively yourself; a cell phone plan with more minutes than you could ever use. Get the picture? Building that savings account now will make your life as a full-time artist much easier.

Look before you leap. Your current job may lead to some other great ways to reduce risk. For example, you might decide to work part time for a while. This would give you some extra income as you’re making the transition to full-time artist (and might secure your health benefits, as well).

You might consider taking a leave of absence rather than quitting outright. You might ask for freelance work or become a part-time consultant to your current company. Whatever you decide, be sure to keep up your good relationships with your colleagues. Your co-workers aren’t only great resources for business contacts and work opportunities should you need them—they’re also terrific prospects for buying your art.

What if …? Okay, you’ve done all your homework. Built up your reserves. Gotten all your ducks in a row. What if the bottom falls out of the art market? What if one of your “sure things” turns out to be nothing at all? What if you get sick or need to attend to a family emergency?

You certainly don’t want to let the “what-ifs” keep you from pursuing your dreams. But do think about how you’ll handle any unforeseen circumstances. Where could you find extra financial support? Whom can you count on to be there for you, no matter what? What would be next if, for whatever reason, you no longer pursue art full time? You’ll feel a lot more confident with some potential solutions in your back pocket.

Create empowering environments
Isn’t it a great feeling when whatever you’re working on seems just to “happen”? You totally lose track of time. You find yourself working away and smiling for no apparent reason. You’re excited. Energized. Nothing stands in your way.

Wouldn’t it be great if every day could be like that? Well, maybe it can if you make it a habit to create environments that empower you. Check out these environments for starters:

  • Resources: money, studio space, outdoors, information.
  • Relationships: family, partner, colleagues, customers, other artists.
  • Intangibles: energy, ideas, time, health, creativity.

    To create supportive environments, simply strengthen those that are already working for you, while you eliminate or improve environments that are holding you back. What one thing is already working pretty well for you? Now, with that environment in mind, think of two specific things you could do to make it work even better for you. If, for example, you have good relationships with other artists in town (a “relationship” environment), you might set up a regular time to meet with them each week. You could call an artist friend and thank him or her for any emotional support. Or purchase a piece of artwork from an artist you know. Come up with at least a couple of ideas, and follow through with them.

    Then, do the same with the environments that are holding you back. Let’s say you have a messy studio (a “resource” environment), so you waste a lot of time looking for things. You could spend just five minutes—this afternoon—moving things off your worktable and back where they belong. How about donating some of your extra supplies to a local school? Or you could move a large trash container into your studio as a reminder to get rid of things you no longer use. Again, decide what will work, give yourself a deadline, and do it.

    Every few days, tackle an environment that’s helping you and one that’s hindering you. You’ll be surprised how quickly it becomes a habit. And you’ll be amazed at how much of a difference it will make to you and your art.

    Going full time
    Ready to make that transition from full-time job to full-time artist? You have all the tools. Start by figuring out what you really want from your art career. Give yourself all the time you need to be prepared for those inevitable bumps in the road. Create environments that empower and support you. And, finally, wherever your path takes you, be sure to take time to enjoy the journey!

    Kay Carnie received her formal art training at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Florida, and San Jose State University in San Jose, California. She’s a signature member of the California Watercolor Association, Midwest Watercolor Society and the National Watercolor Society. Her paintings have been in exhibits across the country and won many awards.

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