“Day Job” is an excerpt from the forthcoming book Why I Paint by S.K. Bleakhouse.The first thing that happens after youth is something called reality. In reality, you cannot make any money as a painter, at least in the United States of America. Let’s talk about how to live in reality and be a painter. Here are some ways you can go about getting enough money and time to paint:
- Inherit a lot of money. (Recommended, except for it probably didn’t happen for you.)
- Get an MFA and teach. (Recommended, except for the part where there are no teaching jobs.)
- Get a job in a hot ad agency or startup. (Recommended, except for the part where you work and drink until 11 PM every night and weekends.)
- Get a stupid job that doesn’t occupy your mind. (Recommended, except it pays crap, it’s depressing to your self-esteem, and you won’t be able to afford paint.)
- Live with your parents. (Recommended, except for the part where they ask you every day when are you going to get a job.)
- Marry a rich person and be the artsy spouse. (Recommended, unless there is a power imbalance in the relationship, which leads to guilt, which leads to fights, which leads to divorce, which leads to getting a crap job in your forties, which leads to no painting.)
- Get a decent job as some kind of graphic artist in a non-ad-agency setting and ask to only work four days a week. (Recommended! I did this for ten years, in my twenties and thirties.)
When I graduated from college and had to enter the land of reality, I decided to try the type of reality they have in California. I announced to my boyfriend at the time, Frank, and his family that I was going to work three days a week and the other four days I would paint. I remember the moment very clearly, because they all stopped chewing their food and looked at me like I’d said I was going to train monkeys to hula-hoop. Well, everyone paused except Frank, who looked at his parents proudly, like “See what a spirited nutjob girlfriend I have?”
Frank convinced me to move to San Francisco, promising beauty and “artists.” I really wanted to be artistic and special in some way. I didn’t care exactly how—just something expressive. I wanted to be famous and have people want to talk to me at cocktail parties. There were so many events at Yale where I felt like a bumpkin with a capital B. I wanted to be whatever is the opposite of bumpkin. Sophisticated. Genius. Worldly. Moneyed. I didn’t want to spend my life working away at a dull job and climbing the corporate ladder. Some of my friends were going to law school and med school; I thought they were insane. Eighty hours a week writing briefs. A hundred hours a week doing rounds. The suits, the debates, the endless memorization, the glass ceiling. Not for me.
After graduation, Frank left for SF. He was patient while I finished up my work in New Haven and didn’t arrive in SF until November. He was patient while I lived for those seven months in an apartment with my old boyfriend and believed me when I said there was nothing going on.
My sister asked, “How is it that you can have two boyfriends?”
“Well, Frank is going to be my only boyfriend when I move to SF.” At the time, this made perfect sense to me. It also made sense to me that I would work three days a week in an expensive city and somehow be an artist the other four days.
I really wanted to be artistic and special in some way. I didn’t care exactly how—just something expressive. I wanted to be famous and have people want to talk to me at cocktail parties. There were so many events at Yale where I felt like a bumpkin with a capital B.
When I got to San Francisco, Frank drove me from the airport into the city. I looked around wildly for the surfers and the beaches. It was November and pouring rain. The grey sky pressed down on Frank’s not-very-well-oiled orange Corolla as we tooled down the freeway past row after row of bleak, slammed-together houses. At last, we came around a curve and a sweeping city rose from the hills, framed by bridges and bay.
“Where are the palm trees?” I asked.
Frank laughed. “That’s Southern California,” he said simply, as if that would explain everything.
“Is Southern California different? It is always this cold in San Francisco?”
“It’s colder in the summer.” He laughed again.
Frank was anxious for me to come to dinner with his parents. I had already met his sister, who was groovy. She was soft-spoken, goofy, and bashful and somehow was also in law school, which made no sense to me. Frank loved her very much but described her as “spending too much money on her apartment.” She paid $600 a month for a room in a big Victorian on Parnassus. I think my parents’ mortgage in Tennessee was less than $600.
On the way to dinner, Frank told me that I had to be very careful not to touch him while we were at his parents’ apartment.
“They’re Catholic,” he said. “They don’t touch. My parents don’t display affection to each other.”
“Your sister is very warm and kind,” I said. “She hugged me.”
“She’s the black sheep.”
“Where are the palm trees?” I asked.
Frank laughed. “That’s Southern California,” he said simply, as if that would explain everything.
“Is Southern California different?”
I didn’t believe any family could be that way, so I just ignored him. Who doesn’t hug their spouse? I gave his mother and father a big hug when we got there. His father had recently had a stroke and couldn’t speak much. He smiled at me, intrigued. I was truly clueless and didn’t appreciate that this stroke must have been very hard on Frank, his mother, and his sister. Unlike them, I had never seen his father when he was a clever lawyer who made people beg for mercy. I only saw a man who apparently didn’t like hugs.
I didn’t even realize I was touching Frank when he moved my hand away from his leg while we were sitting on the couch.
“Stop it,” he hissed.
“Huh?” I said, not realizing I had put my hand on his knee. I squeezed his hand and smiled.
“Stop,” he said.
I looked around at his family. No one seemed like they were going to throw me out. We sat in the living room and tried to have a conversation with Frank, the black sheep sister who gave hugs, Frank’s brother, and his speechless father, while his mother prepared dinner in the kitchen. We talked about Frank’s job; he was a programmer in a big Silicon Valley firm and everyone was pleased with that. He was working on a bug, he said. This sounded very exciting.
I went to help his mother carry the food to the table. She was cooking a chicken in an oven the size of a breadbox, in a kitchen the size of a broom closet. Being a girl from a small town, who lived in a big ranch house growing up, I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to live in an apartment with such a small kitchen. The chicken was still very pink when it came out of the breadbox, and I asked her to cook my piece some more. She agreed meekly and put the chicken back in.
At dinner they asked me what I thought of the city. I described all the places I had gone, my bus rides through the Haight, Pac Heights, Russian Hill, Chinatown, and the Financial District. I am actually good at maps and they were impressed with the streets I knew. So far, I was doing okay, except for touching my boyfriend too much in the living room.
Then I told them I was going to work three days a week and paint. Frank’s brother, who could do math perfectly well, asked me how much I thought I was going to make per hour.
“I have no idea,” I said.
“Grunt, grunt,” said his father, gesturing at me.
“I think he’s asking what kind of work you do,” said his mother.
“I’m an artist. A graphic artist.”
“Do you have any interviews lined up?”
“No, I’m just looking in the paper under artist,” I said, smiling.
Glances were exchanged.
“Where are you looking for apartments?” asked the black sheep.
“Uh, Noe Valley, the Mission.” I said. “I’m thinking $600 a month.”
“That’s a good price,” she said. “That’s what I pay.”
“Yes, we know,” said Frank’s brother. “You could have gotten something for half that.”
I believed that my three-day-a-week plan was possible for the first twelve days I spent in California. I believed it right up to the point where I tried to get a job as a graphic designer and the major agencies looked at my portfolio with pity. I had some simple two-color brochures I’d done in New Haven. No one would hire me for $15 an hour. I walked into a copy shop downtown and got a job laying out flyers for $10 an hour. The copy shop made me take a personality test, which revealed that I would always put family before work but I was very loyal. As someone who had just flown 3000 miles from family to live in the land of fruits and nuts, I didn’t see how this could be true.
Glances were exchanged.
At this point, I was forced to do the math that Frank’s brother had done at the dinner table. I had gotten an apartment in the Castro for $425 a month. Working three days a week, I could make $600 a month. My rent would therefore be two-thirds of my income. I did need to eat, have a phone, and pay for health insurance, rental insurance, my student loan, and a computer. Also, no one wanted to hire anyone for three days a week.
So it was five days a week and I was going to be poor, just doing that. I told myself it would just be for a little while, until I got something better.
Frank was impressed that I got a job within 10 days of moving to California. I was making as much as his roommate, who was a paralegal. Frank, however, was in a whole different class; he was making $38K a year straight out of college. (This was when about six people knew what email was and there was no Internet). To us $10 an hour people, it was the equivalent of six figures. Frank, however, was an excruciatingly exact person with money, and in fact logical in all ways, which I’m sure made him a fantastic programmer. I knew our relationship wasn’t going to last when he came home from grocery shopping and told me I owed him thirteen dollars and eleven cents. I gave him fourteen dollars and, to my surprise, he went into his change purse and counted out change. I looked at the 89 cents in my hand and thought, “Who does this?” A man whose family does not hug, apparently. When I got a room in an apartment three weeks later, I broke up with Frank.
The copy shop made me take a personality test, which revealed that I would always put family before work but I was very loyal. As someone who had just flown 3000 miles from family to live in the land of fruits and nuts, I didn’t see how this could be true.
San Francisco was hard at first. I took the bus to work. The rain was constant in the winter. My paychecks were small. My room had a window that looked out at the wall of the building next door. My roommate’s boyfriend shaved all over the bathroom and declined to do any dishes. One night my roommate reached into his pants and began scratching vigorously.
“Do you itch?” he said.
“I itch,” he said, flipping the cable to MTV.
“Maybe you should go to the doctor,” I said. “Wait, don’t turn the channel, that’s Madonna.”
Later in the week, he came back with a bottle of something called Quell.
“I got scabies from my boyfriend,” he explained. “He had a fling in Baltimore. I hope you don’t get it too.”
“Thanks for thinking of me.”
During this time I was tormented by many thoughts. The first was that I had done wrong by Frank, who was a perfectly nice, tall, idealistic man, even if he did count out change to the penny. The second was that I didn’t know anybody in San Francisco. The third was that I was not doing a damn thing that was artistic. I was, in fact, mostly just going to work. The people at work were fun, for sure, and they taught me how to use the color copier to make a free monthly bus pass, but the work was hardly inspiring. We made postcards, flyers, resumes, business cards, booklets, and order forms on NCR paper. The pressman was always getting high and the counter guy was hell-bent on having as much unprotected sex as possible so he could die young and beautiful.
“I met up with my Latino lover last night,” he said, smiling.
“Did you use a condom?”
“Not at all,” he said. “Yum.”
He was dead in two years, like many others I knew. Part of the city was beset with plague and part was in no danger at all. The art world was half AIDS-themed rallies for justice and half regular old California plein-air art with barns and vineyards and royal palms. The city was cheap in 1990, and alive with artists of all kinds. All over the Mission and the warehouse district were dance studios, theaters, cultural centers, art studios. I wanted to become an artist.
The first thing that happened that was “artistic” was that I fell for a woman. She was tall and blond, with big 70s-John-Lennon glasses. She worked at the copy shop. We all went out for the holiday party and she set an entire pack of matches on fire and breathed all the smoke up her nose. She was a painting student at San Francisco Art Institute. What could be better!
The second artistic thing I did was sign up for writing classes at UC Berkeley Extension. I was disappointed to discover that Berkeley was not located in San Francisco proper. The first day of class, I rode the train for 40 minutes across the bay, which seemed like going to another state. I had to walk uphill for a mile to the class, which was in some random academic-looking building next to the 70s-style disaster of the student center. Berkeley was gray, depressing, and filled with threadbare hippies hanging around the BART station with their guitars and joints. “This is the famous Cal?” I thought as I looked for room 201.
The first thing I noticed about the class was that I couldn’t make myself write much. I left every class inspired, pumped even, but nothing happened at home. There were several things going on, which every writer or artist with a full-time job and a girlfriend/boyfriend/family can attest to.
- I was tired after working all day. I said, “I’ll do it tomorrow.”
- I wanted to spend time with my girlfriend. I felt guilty saying “I’m going to write tonight so I don’t want to see you.”
- I didn’t know what to write about because everything came out sounding weird when I put it on paper.
- The sound of a computer booting up at home after working all day on a computer… ugh.
- I was trying to make friends in a strange city, so I prioritized social events over writing.
So I’m no Annie Proulx. I remember reading where she blew off her friends during some major holiday and just wrote like hell in a room all weekend. Yep, not me, at least not then. I was like a hundred thousand other young people who set out thinking they could be an artist while working. I got nothing done and beat myself up. “Why didn’t you write more, fool? You’re going to die unknown, working at copy shop.”
Well, a wonderful thing happened to rescue me from this hell. I started painting with my girlfriend, Cecily, who was getting an art degree. She needed to paint for her classes, and I hung out with her. At first, I did nothing, then realized that I could paint with her. I was clumsy, but each painting had some little part that was promising. Cecily could knock out a great painting each time and, being competitive, I wished to rise to her level. We each had a little watercolor kit that we would carry around and paint with everywhere.
The city was cheap in 1990, and alive with artists of all kinds. All over the Mission and the warehouse district were dance studios, theaters, cultural centers, art studios.
Cecily came from a type of family that I had never seen before: educated, worldly California artists. I had seen plenty of conventional Southern and New England families headed by doctors, lawyers, professors, engineers, and pastors, but I had never met a family of painters before. Her parents both taught at universities, and they had a wide circle of painter friends and patrons. Her mother’s idea of an outing was to attend a Thiebaud show at the de Young. They took me to graduation at the San Francisco Art Institute, where everyone was admiring a prizewinning mobile of chicken bones. There was art all over Mrs. Martin’s house in Sacramento, strewn about as casually as other people would have family photos, vases, or samplers.
I mention this because it’s a crucial part of being an artist: being surrounded by artists and art-making places, and the love of looking at and talking about art. Cecily’s family did all these things as easily as they breathed. To me, this was at once inspirational and deeply jarring; I found myself questioning whether I knew anything about anything. For example, I grew up in a dry county in Tennessee. There wasn’t even wine at the restaurants. There were no art galleries. There were certainly not rows upon rows of galleries surrounded by five-star restaurants where you could get a golden-slope Chardonnay and some blood orange/beet salad and then wander from old masters to conceptual art in a matter of minutes. In my hometown, everyone I knew had a 9-5 job. Nobody had part-time assistant professorships. Life was equally structured in New Haven; everyone was falling all over themselves to work 60 or 80 hours a week so they could brag about how tired they were from doing neuropathology. The whole east coast seemed to follow a prescribed pattern: If you were from a certain middle-class type of family, and wanted to climb into the upper classes, you went to a big-name private college and then you got a job doing something respectable. You wore your college sweatshirt proudly. You did a clerkship, you bought a house, you had kids, you wrote to the alumni newsletter about how you’d been promoted to Vice President of Sales for the Eastern Region.
Cecily’s family, and indeed the whole city of San Francisco, weren’t playing this game. They didn’t care what school you went to. They didn’t expect you to have gone to school at all. They didn’t expect you to own a house. They didn’t care if you were not a man and their daughter was dating you. They didn’t care about your father’s job or your religion. They didn’t vote, or worse, they voted Green Party.
What did they care about? They cared about going to a beautiful place to have an exquisite dinner and talk about or look at great art. They cared about driving up the coast to escape the city. They cared about the wonderful smell that eucalyptus oil makes when it hits the fire in a sauna. They cared about being free do to whatever the hell they wanted to do, thank you and please leave them alone, and where did I leave my pot stash, oh yes, in the box under the purple violets. Don’t eat that almond—it’s coated in LSD. Or, eat it if you like.
I mention this because it’s a crucial part of being an artist: being surrounded by artists and art-making places, and the love of looking at and talking about art.
I write this to you, young aspiring artist, who might be coming from a small town in the South or the Midwest, or maybe coming from a working-class background where everyone conforms to a standard. A small town is a wonderful place, filled with many loving families knit together in the path of life. The sweetness of small-town life, with slow Sunday afternoons after church and an uplifting high-school drama production of Our Town, simply cannot be replicated in the city. In the city, the only familiar face is the face of the barista at the coffee shop by your office. However, the stuff that nurtures art—painters, art professors, studios, galleries, and collectors with thousands of dollars—these things do not exist in a small town. You might be forced to make your way to the east coast, the west coast, or at least Chicago, and there you will discover a thing called culture shock. You will find you know absolutely nothing about anything at all. And you will have to get a job and an apartment and, on top of that, try to be an artist in a place where it seems that everyone else already knows how to be successful.
This was my fate. I soldiered on in my new environment, trying to understand Californians and why people voted for Nader. I tried yoga and witchcraft. I tried merlot and pinot grigio. I took writing classes for two years, getting nowhere. I kept trying to take a week off here and there to write “a lot.” Let me tell you: That does not work. You cannot write or paint anything out of the blue and alone. You need a nurturing environment, and you need a defined schedule, where you know you have time to work. After three years of working all kinds of unpredictable freelance jobs in San Francisco, my lucky day came when an agency asked me to take a salaried job. I asked if I could work four days a week. Being that it was California, they said, sure whatever, dude, and bingo, I had one day a week to paint.
You may laugh at that, but let me tell you, that is one more day a week that 99% of the people out there who would like to be artists have. I read somewhere that only 10% of art school graduates are working artists. Why is that? Well, the other 90% are probably working all the time to pay their rent and are too fucking tired to make art. Or they are broke because they work at the art store, making $12 an hour in a city where a studio costs $2000 a month.
You will find you know absolutely nothing about anything at all. And you will have to get a job and an apartment and, on top of that, try to be an artist in a place where it seems that everyone else already knows how to be successful.
So for ten years, I worked four days a week. On Fridays I went out painting plein air in San Francisco. Did I appreciate the catbird seat I was in: an unmarried woman with low debt and lots of free time to paint living in a beautiful city surrounded by interesting people? No, of course not. I beat myself up constantly, thinking that if I were a good artist I could make a living selling art. I compared myself to everyone I knew: the people in med school, the people in law school, the people with fancier jobs, the people in publishing, the people who were Rhodes Scholars, etc. They all seemed to be doing better than some anonymous untrained artist lost in San Francisco.
This self-doubt and constant comparison is a plague of one’s twenties. If you are in your twenties, you probably don’t have children to anchor you to reality. You don’t have mastery to sustain your confidence. You don’t have a spouse to comfort you in times of self-doubt. You are a tumbleweed blowing with the wind. I do wish I could have told my younger self that working four days a week is a genius thing to do, and that I should hold steady and enjoy what I have. A hundred years earlier, I would be wearing a corset, have three kids already, and have spent my days washing clothes on a washboard. I wouldn’t be drinking sake in We Be Sushi after painting the late-afternoon light hitting a Noe Valley Victorian.
When you are trying to be an artist, one thing that is important is to have established times to do art. Monday nights, Saturday afternoons, whatever. You must put your foot down and tell everyone that at that time you will be doing art. Amazingly, if you repeat this enough, people will respect it and take it seriously.
One thing that used to crack me up was that occasionally, when I had to work a Friday at the agency, everyone would say “What are you doing here?” I expected them to say something like “It’s about time you worked a Friday,” but they always said, “Why aren’t you painting today?” They had come to expect that behavior.
This self-doubt and constant comparison is a plague of one’s twenties. If you are in your twenties, you probably don’t have children to anchor you to reality. You don’t have mastery to sustain your confidence. You don’t have a spouse to comfort you in times of self-doubt.
Although you cannot know it in your twenties, the little bits of time that you set aside to do art will eventually lead to mastery and confidence. You may be filled with anxiety about your talents and your choices, but if you put in the time, there will come a day when you know what you are doing. When I was 20, it took me about six long sessions to do a drawing for a large painting. I burned through a lot of erasers. Today it takes me an hour at most. After you’ve done a LOT of paintings, you begin to know which compositions fail. The only path to mastery is to paint. The only way to paint is to get time to paint. The only way to get time to paint is to demand time to yourself.
Getting time to yourself can take many forms. Here are some tactics I have seen.
A friend of mine who was equally devoted to being an artist tried the four-months-on, four-months-off strategy. He would work like crazy at whatever job he could get for four months, then take four months to travel the world, making art. Now, he is a far more successful artist than I am, so I would admit that this strategy works better than the slow burn of one day a week for 10 years. However, there is one massive problem with it: alas, everyone falls in love eventually. Make no mistake, it sucks to be the partner of a person who is gone four months of the year. Just ask any army wife. My friend was published in famous magazines and had international shows and won prizes. But when your true love is the immortal muse, and you marry a mere human who mistakenly thought he or she was your number one, you may find some soul-wrenching pain in your future. Ultimately, if you would sooner chew off your own arm then stop making art, it is okay to come to terms with that priority. You are who you are. You cannot stuff yourself into a constraining role in an attempt to make someone else happy. To be an artist in a country where you can’t make a living as an artist, you have to be crazy devoted to your craft anyway. If you choose the “I need four months alone” strategy for art making, then choose your partner very carefully. He or she must have his or her own agenda and a large circle of friends for sustenance while you are gone. And don’t have children unless you have a notarized certificate from God that you are married to a bona fide saint.
Truth be told, neither my friend nor I have ever made that much money from art. I have sold many paintings, but compared to the salaries I have made at my day jobs, the art money is like a big jar of pennies. It looks great, but when you cash it in, all you get is money for art supplies. All the people I know who made the most money from art had no day job. They were 100% all-in as painters.
Here are the basics of what you need to survive with no job:
- Cell phone with camera.
- Car (no, a bike won’t cut it).
- Painting supplies on sale for half off.
- A couch, studio, or garage to sleep in. The car may serve.
The people I knew who threw themselves off a cliff for art were lifers in their late 30s and early 40s. Their tombstones should read: “Here lies a person who could not stop making art, even when it hurt.” One guy at our studio slept in his tricked-out van. He bought raw meat from the super-discount grocery and cooked it in the studio microwave until it came out in tough gray strips. He ate this every night, along with whatever fruit was on sale. The smell of unseasoned, expired steak coming from the studio kitchenette was nauseating, but I understood where he was coming from.
When I had to work a Friday at the agency, everyone would say “What are you doing here?” I expected them to say something like “It’s about time you worked a Friday,” but they always said, “Why aren’t you painting today?”
Another woman who gave everything she had to art was incredibly prolific. Let me tell you, if you want to make it as a painter, you have to produce a LOT of paintings. You cannot spend time worrying if each one is “special.” Fuck it; knock them out. My friend would put together three large tables and top them with twelve canvases. Then she’d methodically prepare each one, applying gesso and acrylic molding paste in different patterns. Then she would walk around, painting each a little in turn. She could produce thirty paintings a week with this method.
Gallery owners like to have a range of art to offer their customers. Different sizes, different price points, and a solid supply helps convince the buyer that the artist is legit and won’t disappear in a few years. My friend made three times as much money as anyone else at the studio, and she painted three times as many paintings.
Another friend made only large paintings. As it turns out, this is a good strategy. If you sell one $3000 painting a month, you can kind of survive. The only way to sell large paintings is to make large paintings. If you are handy, you can make your own stretchers from raw wood, and prepare your own canvases. My friend used egg-tempera gesso. He always had a half dozen eggs in the fridge where the other guy kept his raw meat. Wood, canvas, and eggs don’t cost much. If you are completely insane and want to die young, you can also use raw pigment and mix your own paint very cheaply. I will admit that there is no manufactured paint as beautiful as the result, but you don’t really want to breathe around it, so it’s up to you. Death or beauty? It’s a hard choice.
Several other people who were all in taught themselves to make websites and spent a good deal of time building very fine marketing sites where they could display their art in different scenarios. They took their own photographs and coded everything from scratch. If you have any talent for programming or web design, you will have a leg up, because the percentage of artists who love their hired web programmers is 1%. That Photoshop class: Take it. This is another way to cheaply market your art well when you are trying to survive.
“Here lies a person who could not stop making art, even when it hurt.”
Each of these people made much more money and sold many more paintings than I did. And they were all extreme budgeters, watching all the sales at Blick, noting the cost of credit card processing, postcard printing, frames, shipping, Top Ramen. If you think of all of us day-jobbers as an agricultural culture, they were hunter-gatherers, living on the edge. Can you live a life in which if you don’t sell a painting next week you can’t pay your rent and you have to live in your car? If so, I recommend not getting a day job. You will be more successful as an artist.
There is another path: getting an MFA and teaching. This is sometimes possible and, if you can swing a good tenure-track job (which are increasingly rare, like nonexistent), like living in the 50s. A painter I know taught at a local college and painted like crazy and even had kids and a spouse at a young age. I went to one of his shows and was dumb enough to criticize the paintings as being too quickly painted and too similar. Later it sunk in that he had painted twelve six-by-four-foot paintings for just one of the three shows he was in that month. That is incredibly prolific. I paint about one six-by-four foot painting a year, so who am I to judge someone who can crank out 432 times as many paintings? This artist was in the sweet spot that others dream of: surrounded by cheerful students, exhibiting in university museums, and supported by loving family and friends who adore his art. That is as good as it gets.
One secret about teaching is that it makes you a better painter. If you are lucky enough to have enough experience to teach, I recommend going for it, for both the money and the learning potential. For example, one thing you will notice as a painter is that you tend to do the same thing all the time. If you paint trees, you have a hundred trees on the same paper in the same color. To you they are different, but to everyone else they are exactly the same. Maybe five years go by and you are buying the same medium and the same canvas that you’ve always bought. Then a student you are teaching comes along with some weird-ass support like plastic and some newfangled paint like oil sticks and some unexpected source material like hashtags printed on potato paper, and the next thing you know you’ve incorporated these into your routine.
If you want to grow as a painter, I recommend either teaching or joining a large studio space where you can interact with other artists. Painting at home in a lovely studio is very soothing to the soul, but if you want to avoid stagnation, you need to get out and see what others are doing. If you’re going to paint in a home studio, you need to go to shows constantly. Actually, going to shows is part of the artist’s career, regardless of where you paint. Some artists I know without kids go to two, three, or four shows a week, in a revolving door of friends’ and great masters’ exhibitions. If you have kids, you probably can’t do this, but you can go to the major shows.
What is the difference between you and a famous artist? Well, famous artists go to shows all the time, market all the time, paint all the time, are supremely organized, burn with confidence, and are willing to make insane sacrifices, like leaving home and family, to achieve what they want. A friend of mine chucked her life in San Francisco and moved to Paducah, Kentucky to pursue a bigger studio and more customers. Along the way she lost her children and husband, but she moved on to Chicago when Paducah didn’t pan out. She has a giant studio and a successful career as an innovative painter. Like Abraham, she was willing to build an altar and make the ultimate sacrifice for her god, and her god smiled on her. Is that you?
Well, that is not me. I took the safer path, the one more traveled. I know myself, and I cannot live in a garage and eat expired meat from a microwave. I worked my four-day-a-week job for many years, and then finally went to five days when we bought a house. I found a nice job, with reasonable hours and some flexibility, and I stayed there. I paint at most two days a week, but when I do paint, I have enough money to buy supplies and pay for a studio. I exhibit in group shows with painter friends and at cafés and local art centers.
You may think I am not a “real” painter, but let me tell you that most people who work five days a week do not paint at all. For the same reasons that most people do not write Remembrance of Things Past while working for Jones, Harrington, and Broadwick, Lawyers, the majority of the populace does not paint “Guernica” while designing BigCorp’s ad campaign for feminine products. This does not mean these businesses are not filled with people who would like to paint or write. It just means that people get tired and want to watch Game of Thrones rather than slog out to the studio.
Like Abraham, she was willing to build an altar and make the ultimate sacrifice for her god, and her god smiled on her. Is that you? Well, that is not me. I took the safer path, the one more traveled. I know myself, and I cannot live in a garage and eat expired meat from a microwave.
The best thing you can do for yourself as a painter is surround yourself with people who accept your painting as a habit. This will help you have the strength to make painting a habit. When I say people, I mean, primarily, your spouse. When I was with Cecily, we painted every weekend. Although ultimately our relationship failed, she set the bar for complete acceptance of my painting. Both she and her mother saw painting as a worthy habit that could be done at any time and any place, to sustain the love of life. That is what you need, young painter, from your community.
I met my husband, Steve, through a newspaper personal ad. I had to pay $11 to call the ad listing and listen to his voice. He said he liked “cultural events like movies.” I left my number and a few days later he called back. He asked me about myself and I said I was a painter. He said “Wow!” like I’d said I was president of the world. He then told me that he published a zine and was writing a novel. On our first date, we walked around the city and talked for four hours about how we’d found our way to the city. The talk was so easy and pleasant that I at first failed to notice that he was the love of my life.
When we started dating seriously and I said I was going out on Saturday and Sunday afternoons to paint, he didn’t complain; he did his own thing. He ran, he worked on his novel, he laid out his zine, he shopped, he did whatever. In other words, he was the perfect painter’s spouse. Even when we added three kids to the picture, he still didn’t complain when I went out to paint, although I went out a lot less.
So there you have it, painters: many examples of how to live in reality and be a painter. Perhaps you are the dive-off-the-cliff kind of painter who can go all in and reap the Big Reward of a real career. Perhaps you have what it takes to land a university teaching position. Perhaps you have good habits and a good spouse. Those are the paths. If you find at the end that you are just watching Breaking Bad and working in an ad agency until 1 AM every Wednesday, don’t beat yourself up too much. We are not living in the age of Rembrandt or the Italian Renaissance. We are living in the age of Chipotle and sexting. No one expected you to succeed as a painter anyway, so the only person who feels the loss will be you. Perhaps some Sunday you will get out your paints again, even if years have gone by. You might put down your iPad and indulge yourself in your own vision, rather than the vision of the masses.