The Professional Artist

The Professional Artist

by Shawn Sullivan

This post is by guest author, Shawn Sullivan. This article has been edited and published with the author’s permission. You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here. We’ve promoted this post to feature status because it provides great value to the FineArtViews community.  If you want your blog posts listed in the FineArtViews newsletter with the possibility of being republished to our 13,000+ subscribers, consider blogging with FASO Artist Websites.  This author’s views are entirely his own and may not always reflect the views of BoldBrush, Inc.

There are a lot of artists out there beating themselves up about the fact that they’re not making a living solely from the sales of their work. They don’t feel that they are ever going to be taken seriously until that happens. They resent their “day” jobs and are usually even reluctant to include it on their resumes or mention it when discussing what they do. They feel pretty certain that being a full time professional artist is the ultimate fantasy and that anything less is a let down and that while they are working at other jobs to pay their bills the “dream” is slowly dying.
Yet, in today’s world where the New York Times declared painting is dead some time ago, the chances are that if you are pursuing a career as a traditional fine artist (painting using an easel) that you probably will have to supplement your income with some other occupation. If you examine the careers of some of the more successful realist painters you will see that in addition to the sales of their paintings many of them also teach or they do workshops or they sell instructional videos. In other words, they are out there hustling for a buck, just like the rest of us.

It’s never been easy to make a living as an artist and if you’re a realist painter or sculptor that’s going to make it even harder. When my students ask me what would be a good career to fall back on in case they can’t make a living as an artist I tell them that to even ask that question means that they have already fallen back and that in that case they should try to pick something that they will love as much as making art and consider themselves a dual career person. If you pick a job to support your art that leaves you feeling bitter how can you expect to turn those feelings off when it’s time to go into your studio. Your world view will filter it’s way into your art whether you want it to or not.
So, if the dream of being a full time professional artist is not working out maybe it’s possible to be a part time artist with a full time artists’s mind set. I put in a couple of hours in the studio each day after work and all day on the weekends and vacation days. I don’t have a lot of time for navel gazing. I’m not staring at a blank canvas waiting for inspiration. I pick up my palette and I get to work.

Does this mean I’m not inspired?

I think about my paintings all day long. I work out compositions and ideas in my head so that when I am in my studio I can maximize my time. When my students ask me if I think they should go to art school, I ask them if their work is the first thing they think about when they wake up in the morning and the last thing they think about before their head hits the pillow.  If not, then they probably shouldn’t bother.

Being a professional artist has nothing to do with the way that society might label you but more to do with your attitude. Your work drives you. It’s the fuel that gets your engine going. So what if it’s not putting food on your table. Every day that you get to make your art is a good day, no matter how much time you get to put in. Eventually these little studio moments will accumulate into something substantial and even though you may be getting to where you want to be a little slower, you will still get there.
One time, I was at a meeting with the guy who was responsible for coordinating the art programs at each school in the district that I was part of. He made a statement to the effect that what my school was really lacking was a professional artist to come in and work with the students. I said to him that the school already has a professional artist working with the students, namely, me. He looked me straight in the eye and said “you’re not a real artist”. I explained to him that I had a studio, sold paintings through a gallery, exhibited my work on a regular basis, by what definition was I not a professional artist? He said, because you’re a teacher.

I had to laugh at that one. It was easy to see that he was bitter about how things had turned out for himself and was projecting those feelings onto me. I explained to him that I discuss my professional artist’s life with my students all the time, show them examples of my work when they ask to see them, and give them real world practical information about how artists make, exhibit, and sell their work. I stated that the money would be better spent in buying better quality supplies for the students than bringing in some wet behind the ears post grad with a conceptual agenda who’s making a living floating from grant to grant.
A few years ago I was awarded a fellowship to spend four weeks working in a studio at a prestigious art college. The studio was available four days a week and the idea was that the high school students that were in the summer program could come in from time to time and ask you about your work.

I was to share a large space with two other artists. One of the artists was a well known conceptual artist. She never came to the studio. Ever. She phoned in her end of session exhibit and came in the last day to arrange it on the wall. The other artist was a sculptor who made pieces out of soccer ball and giant nets and duck tape. He came in for an hour or so each day.

Most of the time that I was there I had the studio to myself. Yet I went there every day, and I put in a full day, because that’s how I work. I don’t have to force myself to put in the hours because it’s something that comes naturally to me. Yet I’m sure that, in the eyes of many, the other two artist’s would be considered the true professionals because they don’t have other “real” jobs to put on their resumes. I was left wondering if their work was the real driving force behind what they do or if they had other agendas, because their work ethic stinks.
When I was trying to get my work into galleries, years ago, I would engage in all kinds of subterfuges. I didn’t think I would be taken seriously if I was anything other than a full time artist. I even went as far as to use a post office box in New York City so that the gallery owners would think I was an up and coming N.Y.C. artist. I would never put down on my resume that I had a full time job as a high school art teacher. Who would want to represent such a loser?

It took me a while to realize that my “other” job is as much a part of who I am as my painting is. That they have a symbiotic relationship that ultimately has shaped who I am as an artist.You could say that that’s a rationalization, but for those two months when I’m off from my day job, and I’m painting full time in my studio I find myself missing that frenetic pace of pushing myself hard to make the most of my time. I will be able to retire in about five years and I know that when I have unlimited time to paint that this is something that I’m going to struggle with.
Now when I send out resumes my teaching job is front and center. I’m proud of the work that I’ve done. Any gallery that would have a problem with that would not be right for me anyway.

Ultimately it’s the work that counts. Stop beating yourself up about your day job and just make the most out of what you’ve been given. If you’re giving it all that you got, what more could anyone ask?
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Donald Kolberg graduated with a Fine Arts Degree from California State University, Los Angeles. He taught at the Los Angeles School of Art and co-founded Art Core, an organization dedicated to the open dialogue and display of the work of emerging artists. He continued his Master studies at Otis Art Institute. While at Otis Art Institute his teacher and main influence was internationally recognized painter Arnold Mesches. In Artcore he worked under the guidance of Lydia Takashita. With their teaching Donald learned the value of depth, texture and form in images and surface. He incorporated this into his concept of Life Forms, the portrayal of the human figure as a landscape of life and a celebration of form through Sculpture and Painting.

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