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Reader Questions: How can an artist make a living doing art?

North Korean Dragon by Mazarine Treyz

North Korean Dragon by Mazarine Treyz

Art by Mazarine Treyz

Art by Mazarine Treyz

Today we are answering more reader questions: One person writes,

Topic: fundraising for non non-profits…guidance for artists trying to create an income doing what they love?

Good question.

Here are all of the ways I’ve tried to solve this problem.


A few years ago I bought an ebook by Chris Guillebeau called “Art and Money” and it promised to teach me how to make money as an artist.

There were a couple of interviews with artists who had broken the mold and who were selling their stuff.

The vast majority of the book was places you could post your art online, where you might be able to sell it.

It was disappointing, to say the least.

It read like someone had just interviewed a couple of people, googled “Where to sell your art” and then made an ebook about it. To the tune of $67. Yeah, I returned it.

Because it didn’t get into the MEAT of how to sell your art, you know? If I’m going to pay that much for an ebook, it had better give me worksheets, concrete tips and tools to sell my art. It should be how to run a business, and how to do marketing. And this book honestly did not deliver the goods.

Every time I have sold art it’s because of a personal connection to the buyer.

Should you do Art walks?

I exhibited at EAST, a popular artwalk in Austin in 2010. It was a total wash. A few windy, 90 degree days and even though I was demoing, and engaging passerby, nobody bought. I paid $250 to be there, and it didn’t work.

Mazarine treyz

african turtle, by Mazarine treyz

Can you get Grants to make art?

I went to a conference last June where I was supposed to learn how to get grants to do your artwork. It wasn’t particularly helpful for those of us who need money NOW, not in 2-3 years. That’s how grantmaking goes in general, you know. Getting grants happens after a very long period of output, of getting known.



Should you pay to subscribe to e-newsletters?

I used to pay to bmazarine treyz burial patining encaustice on a couple of mailing lists.

Art Deadlines List

I used to pay to be on this list, but then I got a new perspective on “art deadlines” and “contests”.

You can go on a lot of artist retreats and that’s pretty fun too, but most of them charge an “application fee” if you want to try to get in, and if you enter art contests, they also have “application fees”

And here’s the thing about those.

The galleries and retreats and events that run those contests, they realized long ago that the real market is US, the artists. We’re willing to gamble $25-$50 if that means we can go to an artists retreat or possibly win a contest.

So they end up making thousands of dollars on their contest, and you enter contest after contest, and you never win and you lose YOUR money and effort.

The real product… is you.

What about Corporate art sales?

There’s this guy called Brainard Carey, who charges $20/month for access to his email newsletter. He says he’ll teach you about selling art.

He suggested becoming a corporate art consultant, or trying to sell your art to corporations.

how to make a living as an artist

Grotesque, by Mazarine Treyz

So far, so good, you’d think, right? I mean, big corporations must need a lot of art, they have so many walls, and so much money, it makes sense!

I decided to focus on law firms. It was 2009. They basically laughed in my face. I called LOTS of law firms, and they all said, “LOL it’s a downturn, we’re laying off people, we are NOT buying or renting art.”

So I unsubscribed from their newsletters, and decided to try something else.

Real photographers that I’ve talked with say…

I’ve chatted with some photographers who sell quite a few of their photographs, they can have a $20,000 month. Top tips? What people generally want are artsy photos of naked ladies. And you can sell them on eBay.

But nobody wants to hear that.

Some of my photographer friends who tried to go the gallery route didn’t have much success with that, even if they were accepted by the galleries, but they COULD sell their stuff online. And they still have to teach classes and workshops on the side to make ends meet. Or have a dayjob.

If naked ladies are not particularly your thing, you can make money selling art classes much better than selling your own art.

Teaching art as a way to make money from your art = A+++

Mazarine Teaching art

Mazarine Treyz teaching art

This is how I’ve made the most money as an artist. I’ve taught people how to do art. And I love teaching, so this is immensely satisfying. This is why you’ll see your local art colleges doing summer classes and kid’s classes and continuing education classes. They’ve realized that they can make a lot of money teaching art too. A lot of their giftshops have items that gather dust, but their classes sell like hotcakes.

I really enjoyed teaching art when I lived in Austin. I taught encaustic art, including encaustic monotype, encaustic art 101, advanced encaustic, encaustic crackle glaze, and some other techniques. I am a total encaustic art nerd, so I made a series of online encaustic art classes as well. Since I moved to Portland, I don’t have the studio space to do encaustic on a regular basis, though I do it on occasion.

I’ve exhibited at various places but never had much luck with that. And once I found out how easy it was to make money selling art classes instead of art, I didn’t really try as hard to get into galleries.

It’s not easy to even sell art classes. Even selling your teaching has a method to it. You have to build a mailing list. And you have to learn how to write about your classes in an engaging way. And it helps if a lot of people want to learn the art medium you’re teaching, and nobody else in town is teaching it.

Books and resources

You can go to the foundation center cooperating collection in your town, should be at the central library, and look for artist grants there.

There’s a book full of interviews with artists who have “made it” called In the Making, by Linda Weintraub,. I like the Skip Schuckmann interview, especially, though they also have Mathew Barney and Thomas Kincaid.

In the making

In the Making by Linda Weintraub

I read a memoir by Robert Daley recently, talking about his life as a writer, and even though he wrote 19 books and one even got turned into a Hollywood movie (Year of the Dragon) one of the things that he says in his memoir is that you never really make it, your existence is always tenuous. If that’s the case, then…

I’m borrowing from Lynda Barry here, but a lot of “making it” seems to be low overhead and no debt and living where you can make whatever kind of art you want without having to worry about making rent.

So, living in a smaller city is a real asset when you’re an artist. Check out the Chicken Farm in west Texas.


Felted coaster

Felted coaster by Mazarine Treyz

These days I’m more interested in functional art rather than art for art’s sake. So I’ve gotten into felting. Which is fun!

I think it’s possible to become a successful artist, selling your art.  Just don’t expect to make it right away, or at all. Learn about business. Learn about marketing.

Look for innovative ways to make money with your art. Keep trying new things, and see what will stick.

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4 responses on “Reader Questions: How can an artist make a living doing art?

  1. Mazarine Mazarine says:

    Andrew you should totally teach. You would be good at it.

    I agree, art is not an impulse buy, not really. unless you just happen to need a piece of functional art, like a coaster or a wallet or something.

    I wish more people cared about art and bought it and took the time to befriend artists.


  2. My experience very much mirrors yours, with the exception that I don’t put it in a lot of time into teaching. I should considering how much people ask me for advice.

    The challenge is the fact that art is rarely an impulse buy, and venues like art walks and retail really bank on people buying things through impulse. This is why they simply do not work for the vast majority of us.

  3. you are not giving a fish to the reader but the fishing rod. thank you very much.