In today’s episode of Nela’s Art Chat, I’ll show you my process of drawing the sketch “Skin deep”, while talking about a subject I feel is quite important: what if you don’t want to be a professional artist? What if you want to remain an amateur forever, or at least at the moment?
There’s a lot of pressure on creatives to earn money with their skills, and I can tell you from personal experience that sometimes it’s not a wise thing to do. I’m much happier keeping my drawing and painting practice personal, and I’ll tell you why I made this choice.
(Video stopped recording around 2:10 so a short part of the process is skipped.)
Listen to audio only:
Tools used in this drawing
- Faber-Castell 0.35mm Mechanical Pencil
- Kneaded eraser + regular eraser
- Van Gogh 12 Pan Watercolor Pocket Box
- Pentel Pocket brush pen
- Pentel Arts Color Brush (gray)
- Sakura Pigma Micron ink pen 0.2mm
- Watercolor pencils (multiple brands)
- Caran d'Ache Neocolor II Ruby Red crayon
- Hahnemühle Art & Report book (discontinued)
(Amazon affiliate links, I'll get paid a few cents if you buy using my link, and there's no extra charge to you.)
Click to see the larger image in my sketchbook gallery:
A couple of seconds ago I introduced myself as an artist and designer. “Artist” is a part of my identity, it’s who I always was, and it’s how I perceive the world. “Designer” is my professional title, and design is my career. I love and enjoy my work so much, and I’m designing things all the time, whether I get paid for it or not. Being a designer is not “settling” for less because I can’t be an artist. These are two different aspects of my creativity, and I love both.
The difference is that I enjoy designing for money, more than I ever enjoyed doing art for money.
I’ve had some success earning from my art in the past: I’ve sold (and still sell) prints, I’ve sold my originals, and I did commissions as well. At one point in my career I was working toward becoming a professional illustrator. I illustrated a couple of book covers, licensed some of my work, did a few personal commissions, had a couple of exhibitions, and even received some awards and magazine features.
While I was working on my paid commissions I battled with procrastination, which resulted in working in a hurry, and that resulted in artwork that I wasn’t so happy with, and I didn’t feel was really my style.
I was sabotaging myself, and I had no idea why. How come I was so productive when I was making art for myself, but as soon as someone paid me to do it my enthusiasm completely vanished? It was puzzling me.
After a while, I figured out that for me, money and art just don’t go well together.
I was much happier keeping my art practice personal and not attached to any deadlines or client expectations. If someone wants to buy my art after the fact, that’s great, but I don’t want my income to depend on it.
Choosing to keep art just a hobby is harder than it seems. There’s great cultural pressure to capitalize on all your skills, and personal practice is not seen as valuable. If you make art to sell on Etsy or craft fairs, people are supportive. If you’re just doing it because you enjoy it, and never sell a thing, your loved ones may question why you spend so much time on something that isn’t “profitable”. Even if no one is saying it out loud, you may still feel that way because we’re trained to think of “useful” work only being done for money, and skills that can’t be monetized are seen as useless.
I’ve gotten so much advice from family, friends, and strangers on what I should be doing with my art skills. At first you may feel like you need to listen to everyone’s advice (because they’re older and wiser), and it can take time to develop enough self-trust to silence those outside voices and decide what’s best for yourself.
The truth is that money can ruin your relationship with art, and it had done so for me. It won’t happen to everyone, and you may avoid it if you’re smart about it, but I need to put this warning out there. Sometimes turning a hobby into a career makes you start hating the work.
Here’s a couple of reasons why money can be bad for art:
1. Losing connection with your own voice
If your aim is to make full-time income from art and you depend on art to survive, this can push you to adapt your style to what’s popular in the marketplace in hopes of making more sales. Instead of being authentic and developing your own unique style, you try to do what other successful artists do. If your audience ends up liking this new direction and you get many fans, as your fame and success increases you’ll be afraid to go back to your own style because you fear you might lose fans. This is the definition of “selling out”: you end up doing art you don’t even like that much because it’s what sells. You treat art more like a regular job, and your passion goes down the drain.
2. Not doing art outside of work
The second way money can taint your relationship with art is that pursuing personal experiments can feel like wasting time. You develop this internal pressure to monetize everything you do. Every doodle needs to lead to something greater, otherwise what’s the point?
Artists need personal practice. We need to be able to do our own thing just to blow off some steam and to have fun. (I've talked more about this in episode 6 of Nela's Art Cat: How to balance personal & commercial creative work.)
3. Driving artists into creative burnout.
We’ve set the expectation that if you love your work, you don’t need any time off, which is bullshit. Everyone needs rest, whether you love your work or not.
Drawing for 16 hours a day 7 days a week is not healthy. It sucks for your body and it sucks for your mental health. Sometimes artists feel like we don’t have a choice. We do have a choice, and we deserve time off to just goof off and tend to personal matters just like everyone else. No matter how fun our work may be, we’re not goofing off, we’re working hard—and we deserve to play hard too.
Being a professional artist looks glamorous on the outside, but on the inside... it’s still work.
Many of us love the idea of being professional artists, but we hate the reality of it: the deadlines, the briefs, the revisions, the not-so-great-pay...
I’m all for people giving it a try and experiencing what it’s really like before committing to it fully. You might love it. You might not. Both options are fine. There are many other jobs you can do that don’t depend on your ability to produce art regularly. It’s not a shame or a waste of your diploma if you realize you’d rather keep your art practice personal.
Choosing to stay an amateur artist is freeing.
After I ditched the dream of being an illustrator, I was relieved. I stopped working towards making my art look a certain way so it has commercial appeal. I stopped putting pressure on myself to practice figure drawing, or environments, or composition... I just draw and paint whatever I want whenever I want to the best of my ability, and let that be enough because I’m not trying to impress anyone. I’m doing this for my own fun and pleasure, and if it sucks, so be it.
Making art is my gift to myself first and foremost, and if I end up publishing it, then it becomes my gift to the world. But the world has no say in how often I make art, by when I’ll complete a certain painting, and whether it’s “good enough”. People can love it, hate it, or be totally indifferent to it, and it doesn’t affect my desire to create in any way, because this desire comes from within. Audience reactions have nothing to do with it.
Is this selfish? Is it unreasonable to not use my artistic skills “to do good in the world” or to feed my family?
I see it as the same as people who train a sport regularly but never compete professionally, or people who tend to a flower garden and never sell their flowers at the market. They do it because it brings them health and pleasure. You and I do art because it brings us health and pleasure. We’re all allowed to keep it that way—to have a part of life we don’t need to share with anyone else unless we want to.
Art is valuable, whether it’s done for personal pleasure or for other people’s enjoyment. Your worth as an artist does not depend on your willingness or your ability to turn art into a source of income.
Whether you choose to do it for money or for yourself, just keep making art.