At the moment Rich (my other half) and I are looking for a flat. Unfortunately this involves money, so people are constantly asking me this question ‘are you employed?’
Er, yes and no.
I’m a Neuroscience Masters student, and I finish in August - I’ve got a helluva lot of work to do to finish my thesis, but I’ve also got bills to pay, so, I do pet portrait commissions.
The very fact that people pay me for pictures of their pets is amazing. I would draw anyway, for free. In fact, the only way it could get better is if people paid me to play video games too. But it’s much harder than I anticipated for several reasons - here is a list of 5 things to consider, for those who are interested in starting the ‘commissioning artist’ thing -
1) You have to draw whattheywant, not what you want. I love cats and horses, but people want dogs. I still love dogs, but they might want the ones I’m not so keen on - dogs that are all dribbly gums or bug eyed genetic horrors. There are a lot of dogs like that out there that people love more than anything else in the world, so while you’re drawing something for them, you have to see the adorableness they see.
2) PRESSURE. They are PAYING YOU. The customer is always right, if they don’t like it they won’t pay you, and art is so subjective, how can you know they will like it. I can’t quite describe how motivating and yet crippling the idea of pressure is for me… Everyone I have drawn a pet for has been over the moon with the portrait no matter how much I’ve died inside trying to get it right, and yet there’s still this looming fear that they will tear up my 12+ hours of work (verbally or physically) and I will not be able to pay my rent. Possibly I have drawn Mr Bitey as looking too serene and loving when the owner really does want him looking like a snarling horrormonster. Who knows.
This said, my very best artwork has always been something I have done for someone else.
3) Time - just because you are doing something ‘creative’ while ‘working from home’ does not mean you can swan about the house declaring that your chi is just not aligned enough today to put pencil to paper and you’re so sure you will do a horrible job you just can’t try.
NB I draw the line at being so hungover I can’t draw a straight line though. I also found a page in my sketchbook where I had tried to draw while drunk - I don’t know how it happened but I can imagine - pulling out my pencil and my sketchbook at a pub, declaring loudly into someone’s face that ‘I AM AN ARTIST’ while scribbling wildly. So much shame.
Anyway, you have to draw/paint/sketch. If you want to eat, that is. Even if you don’t feel like it. I have tried every excuse under the sun but fortunately, Rich keeps up the stern faces enough to scare me into working.
4) Self Promotion - Artists are often very self-depreciating, I know I am. And yet, I have to try and get my work out there, and no one’s going to look at your work if you say “weeeeelll, I draw a pretty good dog?” Guaranteed there are artists waxing lyrical about work that is undoubtedly worse quality than mine, and PEOPLE ARE STILL BUYING THEIRS. It’s infuriating.
What you say about your work makes all the difference. Exhibit A? TRACY EFFING EMIN. As a classical aesthetically-based fine artist a crudely drawn sketch of a woman on notebook paper next to an almost incomprehensible essay of complete BS about sexuality does not equal art. It is, at best, illustrated literature. Begin debate.
I am not good at going on about my artwork. My customers talk about about ‘capturing character’ and ‘it’s almost like having my dog back’ which is wonderful, and sad, and ego-inflating, but it’s something that comes naturally to me through my love of animals. It’s not something I intentionally inject into art, it comes with the process, and only the owner will be able to see it for what it is.
My selling points are: ‘realism’, ‘better than a photo’ and ‘won’t look dead’. Wanna buy a portrait?
5) Is ‘being an artist’ a respectable job? Am I actually employed?
I have occasionally stated that I am ‘self employed’, which technically I am - since I have finished my job I’ve been paid only, and specifically, for commissioned artwork and prints. (I’m not going to go into the whole tax nightmare here). I’m not going to get rich doing it either (unless I do that whole BS essay thing and only half-finish everything on scrap paper from now on, and then die) - so is it just a passing pocket money earner? Feels like it so far. But then I don’t have a studio, and art is not 100% of my time?
Tricky middle ground- there are very few artists that do what I do, continually, professionally, and without second jobs. Something suggests that it is very hard to become one of them without having a massed hereditary fortune to fall back on (which I don’t have), and becoming so renowned that originals sell for hundreds as standard (which mine do not). There’s also gallery exhibition, which I haven’t done either - that would be pretty pro*. So, at the moment, being a small time animal portraitist, I’m an artist by profession, but am I a professional artist?
One thing I have learned is, even if I don’t get paid, I will always be an artist. The getting paid thing is a temporary bonus.
But I’m still not sure if they will think me respectable enough to rent me a flat.
* I draw so many pets that have passed on, if I ever have a gallery show, I’m going to call it ‘Helen Lloyd - Animal Necromancer’.