On making a living from your art without selling out

Image: Khara Woods

You know the struggle... The never ending battle between keeping true to your art and selling out by turning yourself into a commodity.

It’s something I’ve fought with ever since I started writing online many moons ago. Well, after almost a decade of banging my head against the wall and reading posts and posts and books and books about it from others, I think I’m finally getting it (yes, I’m slow). And I’m going to put it in a 3-minute blog post for you.

Let’s start with an example, shall we? So… Let’s say you like drawing. Before the internet, you basically had two options:

Option 1, you could have become an artist while eating TV dinners on a nightly basis and crossing your fingers that a big name/gallery would pick you.

Or, option 2, you could have sold out entirely and got a job in graphic design or something similar for a large organization where you drew what you were told to draw.

What’s funny is, thanks to school and well-intentioned teachers/authority figures, we STILL tend to think these are the only two options we have. But it’s utter and complete bullsh*t.

Now, with the internets, we can actually combine the two in a sweet, sultry, savory mix. Now, we can stay true to our art while (eventually) making a living from it by serving others who resonate with it.

Because now, if you share your art generously (for free, on the interwebs), you can reach other weirdos like yourself who are into your stuff. Do that enough and they’ll go bonkers (and pay you for it).

It’s definitely a dance... In the beginning, not everything feels good. You’re freelancing and you have to say yes to everything (to pay for those TV dinners).

But soon, if you keep showing up in your own online space (far away from the sh*tty clients who have you doing soul-sucking work) people will want more of that. Soon, the more good work that comes in will enable you to start saying ‘no’ to the soul-suckage.

Yes, it’ll be terrifying. But the more you can say no to the things that don’t align with your art/values, the more work you’ll be doing that your soul says yes to. And this is what people will end up seeing more of in your portfolio and what they’ll want to pay you for.

Soon, you’ll be in that sweet spot with a client roster full of people itching to pay you for work that sets you on fire.

Now, sometimes things sneak in the back and surprise you. Always will. You’ll say yes to things you think are incredible opportunities and everything will be going swimmingly, but then, BAM, it’ll start feeling sh*tty half way through. Either the client will change the scope on you or want to ‘go in a different direction’ (ugh, those words are evil) or whatever shenanigans humans pull. But that’s just life. We’ll never fully escape the a$$holes of the world. But if we’re doing work we love and are making enough to fire those people as clients, well, it’s all good.

This is the groovy place of work/art love. And it’s totally doable.

*For more on this, check out this interview with Lisa Congdon. She’s an amazing illustrator who not only does commissioned pieces for book covers, websites, etc., but also her own original work in galleries, etc. So she’s found the perfect balance of making a living off of the work she loves doing (for clients, etc.) while being able to do her own soul work (for herself). Pretty impressive.

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