The Not-So-Starving Artist




The Not-So-Starving Artist

Who wouldn’t want their artwork to sell for millions of dollars? Especially before they have died.

We have all seen “The Scream” by Edvard Munch. It sold at auction in 2012 for $119,900,000. Unfortunately for Edvard, he died in 1944.

There are all kinds of definitions of a successful artist. Starving Artist should not be one of them; unless you think self-imposed poverty and sacrificing material well-being will make you a better artist.

Here are some justifications for being a starving artist:

  • It is romantic to be a starving artist
  • Living in my parent’s basement is really not all that bad
  • Real art is created by poor people
  • I like to be hungry
  • Poverty and suffering will make you a better artist
  • I have a great job at a call center for $10 an hour
  • Selling your art is selling out
  • I really have no idea how to sell my art or what I should charge

By the way, there are a lot of successful artists that are not starving. Just search the internet for “artists who are not starving.”

There are ways to make a living at being an artist and not starve:

  1. Have a partner that supports you and your artistic endeavors
  2. Teach
  3. Be an entrepreneur

Artists and entrepreneurs actually have three important traits in common. First is the passion each have for doing what they do.  Second is that they both create and build their vision. Third is the shared desire and need to make a difference in people’s lives.

Probably the biggest difference between the artist and entrepreneur is defining success. Artists think success is being able to work in their own studio and sell art in a gallery. Entrepreneurs describe success in terms of:

  • Being a market leader
  • Capturing market share
  • Developing new and innovative products
  • Distribution chain
  • Market capitalization
  • Financial rewards.

It is not easy for an artist to think in these terms, but it can be learned. Think for a moment about the artist you know who sells their work for cheap just so people will buy it. Now think of an artist who is thriving because they sell their work to corporations and collectors for $30,000 and up. What do you think the differences are between the two and where do you want to be on that spectrum?

This is not the forum to debate the merits of either artist. The point is that success is a matter of beliefs. In the past it may have been trendy to be a poor artist. Now, not so much. Do you want to be successful or starving? Here is something to think about: Art is really all about mastery of the craft and putting all of your emotions and vision into the process of creating. Unnecessary poverty is distracting and can prevent you from reaching your full potential.

Combining a little bit of business acumen into your day will go a long way in helping you ensure you are able to accomplish your goals and not be a starving artist. Who knows, you may be able to quit your day job. It does takes a little planning, a little understanding of your finances, some easily acquired business habits, and of course, time. It also takes a mindset that says, “I don’t want to starve.”

For starters, keep track of your income and expenses. Set up a budget and live by it.  Watch the money grow in your account and the financial struggles slide away. Not having to worry about enough money to buy your materials means you will have more time to be creative.

If you’re just starting out and haven’t sold much, try pricing your work based on labor and cost of materials.  Set yourself a sensible hourly wage, add the cost of materials, and make that your asking price. For example, you make a piece of art and it takes you 5 hours to complete. Assume you decide to work at $20 an hour and you have $45 in materials. Your sale price would be $145.

Don’t forget there are other artists out there trying to sell their art just like you are. Make sure your asking price is in line with what other artists of your caliber are charging for their work.

Offer pieces in a variety of price ranges. People who like your work but can’t afford the expensive stuff should at least have a chance to come away with something. Maybe someday they will be able to afford one of your bigger and more expensive pieces.

Lastly, you may not be in competition with other artists, but remember that every time a collector buys a piece of your art, that’s one less piece they’re going to buy from someone else.

Of course you have to find your market as well as where and how to sell your art, but that is for another blog.

Tom Steiner

Tom Steiner joined the East Central ISBDC in May of 2009. Tom was the owner of the Blue Bottle Coffee Shop for 7 years. Prior to the coffee shop, he worked at a Fortune 500 company developing proprietary software. Tom was responsible for training, technical support, writing technical manuals and product development and testing. After college, Tom started a freelance photography business specializing in architectural, medical and scientific photography. Tom holds a bachelor’s degree in Communications from Columbia College.
Tom Steiner can be reached at
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