How to be an artist in a world of commerce

Published by Nela Dunato on in Art, Mindset, Thoughts, Tips for creatives

How to be an artist in a world of commerce

I imagine that a lot of people reading this blog (though probably not everyone) fall into the following category: an artist (of any medium) that either has a job in a creative field, or has a business that relies mostly on creative services.

On the surface, it sounds like the best possible way to live as an artist, right? Here you are, doing the stuff other people would die for.

But there are days when you realize it’s not as shiny as it seems on the outside. As I already wrote in my post Should you turn your hobby into a job? that there are downsides to doing creative work for a living.

One of them is that you need to compromise.

Business is about other people

In order to be successful in your business (or a job), you need to empathize with your clients (or with your client’s clients).

Empathy is what makes you awesome at what you do. It’s as if you can read minds, and anticipate people’s needs before they’re even aware they have them. It’s brilliant.

Art is about your unique vision and wellbeing

People rarely decide to “become” artists for this reason or another (money, fame, chicks). The only choice I see in this matter is whether you’ll give in to your urge to create, or try to push it away.

While not all people possess the skills required to be a professional designer, illustrator, copywriter or musician, I believe everyone has the ability to create art, because art in itself has only a few prerequisites:

  • you need to be able to be completely honest with yourself
  • you need to actively listen and trust your inner urge to create
  • you need to be willing to take chances

Drawing or writing skill, or a trained singer’s voice are entirely optional.

Does this mean anyone can earn money doing art? No. Most people won’t.

But you’re not doing this for money, anyway. You’re doing this because you feel the good it does to you (and consequently, to all the people around you).

Art makes you happier and more grounded in your True Self (as opposed to the facade you fake to fit in with the rest of the society).

Making art improves your brain function by creating new neural pathways and helps you cope with trauma and everyday emotional challenges.

Art heals.

“True” art, that is. The honest art. The kind of art you do because your inspiration guides you, not the art you do to impress other people.

I’m not saying that personal art is better or more valuable than commercial arts (that would be quite hypocritical of me).

I’m using the words “true” as a signifier of one’s personal Truth, to differentiate it from art done for others.

Thing is, you still have to eat

I don’t “create art” for a living. I solve problems for other business owners.

Majority of my income comes from my design services, much less from commercial illustration, and a tiny fraction from prints and originals featuring my personal art.

Rare are the artists that create whatever they want and sell it well. Sure, they exist — we may follow them on Instagram and envy them a bit, but a lot of them didn’t get to that point straight from school. A lot of them had careers in publishing, theatre, the movie industry, or tattoo art, that covered the bills before their personal art took off.

There are two points I want to make here.

1. There is no shame in being a commercial artist

Some people might prefer keeping their art “clean” and wait tables instead of finding a way to monetize their creative skills. That’s your choice to make — if someone calls you a sellout because you made the choice to use your gift to earn money, it says more about their perception of the world than about you.

Using your creativity to help other people is great, and it feels great. It makes me really proud when clients e-mail me with stories of how someone complimented their branding or when I see a local celebrity wearing a shirt with a logo I helped create.

But that sort of work happens only when you put other’ needs in front of your own need for self-expression.

(To learn how to maintain your passion as you’re creating work “on demand” for your clients, I recommend reading my post How to bring back the passion – 5 key conditions for fulfilling creative work.)

2. Your own art must have a special place in your life

Some people go through their entire lives not feeling that urge to make things with their own hands just for the pleasure of it. They can do client work day after day, year after year, and not burn out.

But those of us who felt this force, and still get to feel it regularly, are aware of the magnetic pull of our own creative core so strongly, that being separated from it for too long starts hurting you.

Your tolerance for “pain” caused by this separation is much lower than for other folks. You’re a finely tuned instrument, and you get to feel every fluctuation clearly. You sense very deeply when you’re being pulled away from your “true North”.

Fatigue detail - mixed media art by Nela Dunato
Fatigue” by Nela Dunato, detail. Mixed media on cardboard, 2009.

It’s not selfish to indulge this urge

Your need to have some time off and focus on your own art is as legitimate as your need for air, water, food and sleep.

Your mental and emotional health is just as important as your physical health. (That’s something our culture is only beginning to realize as we’re getting increasingly sick with stress related diseases).

You do not need to feel guilty in front of your partner, children and friends that not all your emotional needs get filled through them.

There are some needs only you can fulfill for yourself, and this often requires dedication to your wellbeing and solitude.

How the hell do you cram your personal art into an already busy life?

Back when I was employed full-time and ran my freelancing business on the side, it was quite challenging. I would get burned out repeatedly every few months, not because I was working a crazy amount of hours, but because I was working a crazy amount of hours for other people, and none for myself.

I would take “mini vacations” when I’d just work on my own stuff with wild abandon for a while, and when I was fueled up and ready, I’d begin freelancing again.

Since I’ve started my own business and was able to set up my day in any way I wanted to, I made a point of starting my work day with my own creative projects — whether that’s sketching, painting or writing. I decided to give my own art a priority, before I get tangled up in other people’s needs and expectations. (I also don’t read e-mail, social networks or blogs in the morning, to insure my mind is clear and centered.) When I skip this and go straight to client work and e-mail, I feel the difference.

If you don’t want to take my word for it, here’s a post by Ash Ambirge saying something roughly similar, in her own charming way.

Another artist who said something about this topic was Lisa Sonora, whose wise words from one telesummit have remained with me:

And that’s why people who do commercial illustration and design work, well anyone who creates on demand, whether they’re writers, you know maybe you earn your living copywriting, and you write poetry, you’re working on getting a book made or you’re teaching… That work that you’re doing for clients — don’t think of that as your art.

Have a place where you’re doing your art, and that’s your sacred practice, and that’s your art… And maybe you’re also selling your art.

But any work you’re producing for a client, whether it’s a commission or some work product — illustration, copywriting… I used to hire photographers, all these people that you hire in an ad agency to produce the creative. My guidance for them as an art director was: Disconnect yourself — this is not your art, this is solving a problem for a client. So don’t feel bad if we’re going to make changes! This has nothing to do with you. This is just what the client needs.

This woman has a wealth of experience in both personal and commercial art, so there’s certainly something to be learned from her.

Make the time. It’s important and valuable, and you deserve to have it. Make it a priority.

Cut down things that aren’t making you feel better. Cut down your commitments. Ditch housework if you have to! (I’m not kidding. My house it a mess right now, and I feel zero guilt. I also don’t invite any guests over.)

Maybe you don’t see a way to do it right this moment, but keep looking — there is a way. People have been working hard and making time to express themselves since the dawn of humanity. There has to be a way.

More on this topic: How to balance personal & commercial creative work

In episode 6 of Nela’s Art Chat, I talked about this topic in more detail and offered some more tips on how to incorporate more spontaneous creativity into your life. You can also see me paint a mixed media acrylic painting of a tabby cat!

Watch the video or read the transcript

How do you approach your personal and commercial art?

What amount of your work is personal and what is commercial?

Have you intentionally chosen a career in a completely unrelated field to keep your creative work pure?

Are you trying to create a balance of personal and commercial work and how are you doing that? Share your experiences and tips in the comments!

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

Nela Dunato

About Nela Dunato

Artist, brand designer, teacher, and writer. Author of the book “The Human Centered Brand”. Owner of a boutique branding & design consultancy that helps experienced service-based businesses impress their dream clients.

On this blog I write about art, design, creativity, business, productivity and marketing, and share my creative process and tips. Read more about me...

Some blog articles contain affiliate links to products on Amazon. I’ll get paid a few cents if you buy something using my link, and there’s no extra charge to you.

2 responses to “How to be an artist in a world of commerce”

  1. Previously I worked as a commercial artist intending to keep my my art going on the side but I didn’t. Eventually – admittedly only after being forced to change due go RSI – I switched my life around and put my own art at the centre, teaching yoga to put bread on the table.

    I loved being a graphic designer and I loved being a designer-maker (and I learned heaps) but the life I have now is the best of all :)

  2. Thanks for sharing your story, Cherry!
    I didn’t know you were a designer before :) We have a lot more in common it seems!

    I totally see how this new path is much more enjoyable for you.

    I am aware that I will need to make a change toward a life of less staring at a computer screen too, because my eyesight is getting worse every year. Our health is most important, after all.

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