How to Make a Living as an Artist
Scary idea, huh? Of letting go of the full-time “other” job or side gigs or part-time freelancing you do to pay the bills and put food on the table to living solely off the sales of your art? But we talk with Polish artist Magdalena Morey, who made that leap. Via email Magdalena tells us how she discovered that the secret to learning how to make a living as an artist for her was all about not going it alone. It turns out it success comes when you make it a family affair, which is why we also corresponded with Magdalena’s partner in life and career, Tom.
Magdalena and Tom, give us some background about your work and life partnership–with art at the center of the whole thing.
Magdalena: One of many words I’ve learned whilst living and working with my husband is synergy. By working together, we’ve achieved far more than either of us could have done alone.
There are definitely moments when it feels as though it’s almost too much for us both to handle and there are other moments when I look in wonder at the fact that we’ve managed it. I am finally making a living doing what I have always loved. I’m making a living from my art. What’s more, it’s not just a living, it’s the basis of our entire family’s income.
I’m originally from Poland, but now live in central Spain with my English husband, Tom. Over the past two years we’ve been figuring out how to make enough regular income to support our family of four from sales of my artwork. And between us we’ve done it. Given that there are only so many hours in the day and with English not being my first language, I also want to make it clear from the start that while this is my voice, you are reading my husband’s words. I love the imagery he creates with words and he loves to write so it seems perfectly natural that he ghostwrites for me.
Tom: It was only two and a half years ago that Magdalena first registered as a self employed artist (no small thing here in Spain as it costs just over 300€/month just in fixed social security and accountancy costs!) and only two years since I quit my previous career in IT to support Magdalena full time, so our memories of the nervousness of taking that leap are still very fresh!
We’ve evolved from a relatively traditional family with me as the stressed-out IT consultant and Magdalena as the professionally trained but no time to paint full-time mum, into a far more confident and relaxed family with an increasingly alternative lifestyle stemming from the work of an internationally recognized artist supported by her agent and house-husband, carving a living for ourselves in Spain.
Wow! It sounds so exciting when you describe it that way. But I don’t want to gloss over the fear factor of it all…?
M: One of the hardest parts of our chosen lifestyle are the continual doubts and uncertainties that presumably float around the minds of all freelancers in any industry.
The taxman, rent, energy bills, food, car repairs, the list goes on and on. It’s not just financial stresses that will impact you if you fail, the psychological ones are just as bad. Are the children receiving the attention they need while we struggle to keep a roof over our heads? Is our deliberate refusal to give up going to result in us sleeping in the streets? Will this continual, painful cycle of immense highs as sales come in followed by the deepest lows as they unfathomably dry up again EVER end?
How do you keep the fear at bay…or can you?
M: The only protection Tom or I have ever discovered is to keep going. Don’t just lie there worrying, unless you have a masochistic streak. Get up and do something. Write a plan. Make a list of things that you could possibly do that may help make things better. Do one thing that you didn’t have time or inclination to do the day before. Keep going and don’t look back!
It also helps to have something solid to aim for, not just a vague feeling that it would be nice to sell your art for a living. Why will it make a difference to your life? Create a dream for yourself, create a fantasy of how you’d like your life to be. I’m personally not interested in fast cars and mansions. My dream is to be able to live somewhere secure in a manner and place that is inspiring for myself and my children, before they are grown and off following their own dreams.
I have an idea of how it may look, I know there’s lots of countryside to explore nearby, and I know I will recognize it once we get there. Your dream will be different. Look beyond your day to day existence and imagine your ideal life, where you’d like to be, who you’d like to be with, and dream big.
The bigger and more well constructed your dream is, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to remember it when you have the inevitable bad days. As long as you have a goal in mind you’ll find that you tend to aim in that direction. Tom thinks it’s because our subconscious mind continually watches for openings and opportunities that will lead us closer to our goals, others think it’s a universal force of attraction. I don’t know how it works, but it does work.
But it isn’t just about “playing” in the studio, right?
M: Absolutely not. Treat it for what it is, treat it like a job. It’s no good only painting when you feel inspired. As a professional you don’t have the luxury of painting only when the mood takes you.
Where does your partner and husband, Tom, come in?
M: In this journey, I’ve had my companion, my guide and greatest fan beside me at every moment. That’s why I think it’s important that Tom’s voice is heard. He has a unique perspective on life in the art world. He comes from a highly technical background, something to do with computers and engineering (I never really figured out what exactly) and he sees things in a far more logical and rational light than I normally do.
We both have the same goal in sight, the same hopes and dreams but have two differing perspectives on how to get there. Sometimes we follow my path, sometimes his and sometimes it’s necessary to go our separate ways for a while, lost in our own inner worlds as we explore who we are and what we are becoming. I’m sure that for some couples this continual proximity would be unbearable. We live, laugh and work together 100% of the time and we both understand that sometimes we need a break from each other, even if all that really means is keeping quiet when you may otherwise speak out.
Tom, how would you describe your situation?
T: Magdalena and I have been together for fourteen years and between us we’ve lived in five countries, had two children and our entire family income is now derived from Magdalena’s art.
The dream of becoming location independent had been brewing for a few years. I was done with the IT industry and continually chasing the latest trends in programming on the job market. I was done with the daily commute to work. I’d proved to myself that I could do it and had reached as far as I cared to go in terms of salary vs responsibility. The children were both at school and we were ready for a new adventure.
So you stopped working and…?
T: I stopped and put all of my effort, all of my thought and time into learning and practicing how to build Magdalena’s career as an artist. The amount of time needed to do everything was shocking to me! How on earth could an artist on their own manage to do all of this?
T: At the beginning, I was working 12-14 hours every day, seven days a week photographing Magdalena’s work, processing the images and uploading them with descriptions based on what she’d been thinking about as she painted them, wiring, stretching canvases, tax-returns, ordering supplies, creating and maintaining the website and possibly most importantly, studying online marketing.
There’s a wealth of information available on the internet about how to sell pretty much everything and as we needed to be selling paintings as soon as possible, I enrolled in various online courses to study content marketing. I love doing online courses but realized a long time ago that whilst participating in a course is all well and intellectually good, it’s a waste of time and money if you don’t put what you’re learning into practice so that’s what we did. We started using the techniques that I’d been reading about and testing out the various options for exposing Magdalena’s work on social media, eventually settling on Facebook and Instagram as the two dominant networks.
That’s right! You saw big successes in social media — and now Magdalena’s Instagram followers are numbered at around 33K.
T: We built Magdalena’s Instagram audience from under 100 followers to over 10K genuine, engaged fans during 2017 and are on track to reaching around 40K by the end of 2018. We still get caught out every once in a while by the realisation that every single photo that goes on her Instagram feed now gets seen by more people than it would take to fill a medium sized sports arena and there’s no question that it has dramatically helped us get closer to achieving our goal of making a modest living from art.
I can write for hours about how we’ve learnt to use Instagram, but for anyone just getting started on it, three essential points are to make your account public, post regularly and to use the hashtags. It takes time to build a following but it’s well worth it, not just in terms of sales, but also in terms of community. It’s hard enough to expose an aspect of your soul through the medium of art in the first place, but it’s even harder to then share that with tens of thousands of people every single day. The community of artists on Instagram is a wonderful thing and Magdalena’s received a huge amount of support from other artists when she’s needed it, as well as offering advice to many more artists that are also finding their way in the art world.
Whilst we do get direct sales of paintings shown in her Instagram feed, another particularly important result of the social media exposure has been the number of galleries that have asked to represent Magdalena. We are both very aware of the fact that neither of us are natural sales-people. We’re both quite shy and generally dislike being in or in front of large crowds, so having galleries doing some of the sales has been a huge benefit to us. That said, we also promote her galleries on her social media and know that this has led to quite a few sales for them, so in the end everyone’s happy.
Before the galleries began to come to her, however, I spent a good bit of time researching and engaging galleries using social media.
How does that work?
T: It’s really just a matter of doing research. It’s important to find the ones where your work will stand out so by using the various maps available online and then searching for them on social media it’s easy enough to only engage with the galleries in particular areas that already show a predilection for your style of art.
Is diversifying your efforts key to learning how to make a living as an artist?
It certainly helps, even if sometimes it’s only to learn what does and doesn’t work for us.
As well as working with various galleries around the world, we promote Magdalena’s work on various online sites like RiseArt, SaatchiArt and Artfinder. Due to the galleries, she’s also on sites like Artsy and 1stdibs which all help with the exposure. A couple of the galleries regularly take her work to various art fairs around the world, including the Affordable Art Fairs and this has really helped gain exposure in locations that we simply wouldn’t have otherwise considered yet, like Singapore and Hong Kong.
We also started considering how to generate residual income streams. We have open-edition prints available for many of her paintings both on her own website and on SaatchiArt which generate a small but very welcome trickle of sales.
At the start of 2018 I’d realized that a large percentage of her followers on Instagram are also artists and she was receiving more and more emails asking questions about how to get started, so I decided to start writing a series of eBooks (available through Magdalena’s website) about how we make our living from art, starting with one about growing a following on Instagram and another about the approach we used to find galleries in the early days. These proved pleasingly popular and have hopefully helped hundreds of artists get going.
Magdalena receives a continual stream of requests to teach workshops both in real life and online so in May 2018 she taught her first ever workshop. Hosted and organised by the gallery that represents her in Rome, she left Aranjuez very nervously and came back elated 4 days later.
Rather than let the experience fade, we thought we’d try our hands at organizing something ourselves and in August we both went to England to hold an intensive and very successful 3 day workshop in the depths of the Dorset countryside. We’re very aware that there is a huge demand for her to provide online courses, however, whilst she enjoys the teaching and will continue to offer one or two workshops each year, she really prefers to concentrate on creating her own art and developing her style, so that’s what we’re focusing on for the time being. The whole point of running our own business is that we’re doing what we want to be doing (most of the time!)
And it is all working?
T: It seems to be. By the last quarter of 2017, we were finally earning enough to be able to support ourselves with a little left over to put aside for the hard times like summer, when we know that the sales dry up. It’s still very variable and we have a way to go until we achieve what could be called a stable income, but we’re getting there. We made it through summer 2018 without any problems and Magdalena has a long list of painting requests from galleries and private collectors, so it’s all looking good still.
It can be done. But it all takes time. As the routine surrounding Magdalena’s artwork becomes easier and quicker with practice, I slowly get more time to write up what we’ve learned. That’s the way it should be. As Magdalena says, take it step by step.
What would you say to artists who want to take their artwork to the next level but are not sure or confident enough about how to do it?
We all have a tendency toward inertia, by which I mean that once things get moving in a certain direction or we fall into a particular pattern of behavior, it’s often easier for one reason or another to stay like that than it is to change, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t change.
All it takes is a decision. If you want change to happen, don’t simply wish for it, research what you want to do, make a plan and make it happen!
And you aren’t alone. Magdalena and I have a particular interest in helping other artists to overcome the fear and uncertainty that goes with being completely self-supporting off art. Over the next few months I hope to be able to offer my support to other artists that are hoping to make the transition from art as hobby to full time career.
And you are thinking about setting up workshops for artists on how to survive on art?
Yes, to essentially share how we’ve come to realize how to make a living as an artist…as partners, and as a family, and hopefully giving some useful advice about what to expect and how we overcame some of the hurdles.
How can artists find out more information?
Head over to Magdalena’s website, Instagram feed (@magdalena.morey.artist) or Facebook page and if you can’t find what you’re looking for, write us a message. We’re normally busy trying to make a living from art ourselves and are still at the start of the process of teaching other people how to do it so please feel free to ask questions! What do you particularly want to know about? We try to answer everything as soon as possible, but it may take a day or two to reply during particularly busy times.
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