As promised, I have spent some time answering the most common questions I hear about working a creative job full time. I asked three of my close friends (also some of the most talented people I know!) to help me answer some of the questions so that you could read several perspectives & opinions. We all have different jobs, but we share a lot of similarities in terms of lifestyle and the "joys and pains" of working as an independent artist. We have been very intentional about keeping our answers completely honest. These are some of the things that I wish I would have known when I started out on this path. I would never want to discourage anyone from pursuing a creative job, but I remember how I used to envision a career in art and it's not quite the same as actually living it every day. I hope you enjoy our perspectives and a small peek into our daily lives as artists.
First, let us introduce ourselves….
My name is Elsie Flannigan and I am 25 years old. I haven't had a normal job in about 5 years. I started out with a local photography business when I was 19 that I owned for three years. I started writing my first book about scrapbooking when I was 22. At that time I focused on writing for a magazine, designing fonts and teaching. I spent about a year and a half traveling and teaching workshops full time. Next, I signed an exclusive contract with my favorite scrapbooking company. I spent two years with them designing a product line called Love, Elsie. I also authored my second book with them. Currently I am focusing on several projects including my personal paintings, a couple new books and a project I have not announced yet. I am happiest when I am working long hours on things that make me feel alive inside. I connect most easily with other people who share a similar penchant for obsessive art making and late nights.
My name is Jeremy Larson and I am 26 years old. I am a songwriter from Springfield, Missouri. I'm in the process of releasing my second album, which will come out at the end of the month. I grew up playing the piano and majored in piano performance in college. This is reflected in most of the songs that I write. I've been writing, recording, and touring full time for the last seven years. I have a recording studio below Elsie's loft; and this has been the most inspired year of my career so far.
I'm Rachel Denbow and I'm 27 years old. I work at home and operate two online businesses while I take care of my son, Sebastian. I own Red Velvet Kit Club, an online scrapbook kit club, as well as PonyParty, which is a vintage goods store. I've been sewing, journaling, and repurposing since I was young and know it will always be a part of my life. I'm currently obsessed with interior design and to-do lists. My home has recently been featured on ApartmentTherapy.com, OhDeedoh.com, DesignSponge, and SFGIRLBYBAY.com. My husband thinks I'm rad and that's all I need.
Hi, I'm Brandon Goodwin. I'm 23 years old. I've lived in Springfield, MO my entire life. I'm an independent film maker and freelance videographer. I run a production company called Goodwin Films. Over the years I have developed a love for storytelling. Whether it's crafting stories for short films or documentary work, I love telling a story and getting a reaction.
1. When did you first know that this was the career you wanted to pursue and how did you get started?
Elsie: Well, as many children do, I dreamed of being an artist when I grew up. I don't think I really knew what that meant, I just imagined having a big studio and lots of paint everywhere. It seemed very glamorous in my mind, of course! Although it's not an entirely accurate description of my current life, I admit that I feel very thankful to be living such a dream.
I started a photography business after I quit college and over the years one artistic job has bled into the next. It's impossible to really separate them in my mind. I allow my obsessions to lead me in terms of what big project I will pursue next.
Jeremy: I guess I didn't decide until my second year of college. I started writing and recording some songs, mainly because I wanted to learn how to be a producer. I needed more material to record, so I just kept writing. I was working at a church and just started recording directly from the sound system into a borrowed computer.
Brandon: My high school had this great media program (HTV Magazine). I always looked up to the older kids in my high school who made these awesome media projects. So when I got in the media class, it turned into the only thing I did. I would literally stay at school until 9pm most nights, working of video stuff. That's how I got started.. but I can't say that there was a single moment where I knew this is what I wanted to do… people just kept offering me freelance jobs until I was able to do it full time.
2. Tell us about some of the most exciting moments in your career, so far.
Elsie: When I was asked to write my first book I felt like I was walking on clouds for months. It was a very magical season and a memory that I keep safe. Starting work on my scrapbook product line was a similar experience. It was a great experience to see ideas become actual products in stores.
Jeremy played a concert a few April's ago, it was the first time i had been to one of his shows and it was a very beautiful collaborative project with a lot of different artists involved. It was the most inspiring moment of my life because I remember feeling so small and like I had so much work to do. The next day I started my first painting and it felt like a new part of my creative self had somehow come to life. I told my sister I wanted to become a painter someday. I look back at that experience as a turning point in my life. Everything changed.
Earlier this spring Jeremy and I spent some time in Nashville while he was recording his new album and I consider that very important experience as well because it was the first time I had shared the creative process with another person and it was during those few months that a lot of new dreams were born.
Jeremy: My first show was one of the best so far. I had stayed up all night cutting out CD jackets and glueing them together so I could sell my demos at the show. I remember thinking that I would always look back on that as one of the most rewarding things that I did musically. Another wonderful memory was when I was living in Nashville for a few months. I was working on the new album, and Elsie was there visiting for a few weeks. While I was writing music in the living room, she was working on a series of paintings. I couldn't imagine a better working relationship. We were constantly feeding off of each other's ideas; it was perfect.
Brandon: This past September I went to Vietnam with a group of artists. We were working in orphanages, teaching art workshops. I got to teach film making. So, I went over all the basics with them and then told them they were going to make a movie. They came up with the idea, the plot and the sequences. I just ran the camera. We then played the movie back for them in front of the whole orphanage. The kids were laughing and cheering. They had probably never seen themselves on a television before. I know it sounds funny but I started crying half way through it and said to myself, "yeah, this is what I want to do with my life." You can watch the video here.
3. What do you love most about what you do?
Elsie: I love making new projects. I love that ideas and inspiration and love for the work to seem to grow and never end. I love that there isn't a goal that can be reached on a personal level because it's always evolving. It's something that I can keep reaching for and never fully have. I feel like every day of my life is full of beautiful and inspiring things. It's a wonderful way to live.
Rachel: I love spending my days at home where I can create my own schedule and enjoy both the early years of my son's development and be a part of the artistic/creative world online. I love being able to contribute to my family's income doing what I love. It makes me happy to know that my jobs are bringing beauty into the lives of others as well.
Brandon: Traveling… and sleeping in on days I don't want to work.
4. What are the most challenging or difficult things about your job?
Elsie: I never get to "leave" my work. It's always with me, even in my mind while I am falling asleep. I don't mind this most of the time, but it can be very difficult when trying to make time for other important things in life.
Jeremy: Most jobs are not dependent on inspiration. You are able to clock in and clock out without any serious consequence if you don't feel like working. Being a songwriter requires you to force inspiration into your life on a daily basis.
Rachel: As others have stated, its hard to keep a balance between work time and family time. So many days the two are carefully juggled to fit the schedule of a toddler. Often I have to schedule in some down time to avoid burn out. It is always a challenge to turn off the work brain when my focus needs to be elsewhere. Prioritizing and making to-do lists has helped keep things under control. At least for now!
Brandon: Making myself work.
5. What are some common misconceptions about your career?
Elsie: Oh man, there are so many! People say to me all the time, "must be nice to just stay home and paint all day" or "I wish I didn't have to go to work and I could just make crafts all of the time". Those kind of statements are funny to me because they are super untrue. I have lots of friends who have normal jobs and can spend part of their working day playing on the internet and still get paid for it. Working as an artist isn't like that. Yes, you can leave and get coffee anytime you want, but you don't get paid for hanging out. I love it because I survive on deadlines and late nights, but it is a lot of work. Working as an artist & designer is the job I have chosen and I wouldn't trade it for literally any job the world. I don't think very many people can say that, but it is also a career that is full of personal sacrifice and hard work. It's a very fulfilling job for me and I love it, but it makes me sad when people think that it must be really easy.
Jeremy: A lot of people think that the goal is to get signed to a label. I've gone that route before; though it has it benefits, in the end it means nothing. It always comes back to you having to work daily to promote yourself and try to move people's emotions with your music.
Rachel: There is a lot of research time involved in having a scrapbook kit club as well as a vintage goods store. I have to stay on top of the latest trends in both markets and search out the unique pieces that will appeal to customers that are familiar with normal products. I have to spend a lot of time online for both. It may seem like starting either business takes little time but there are so many elements that are time sensitive, involve large amounts of work all at once, take up a lot of space at home, and include tedious, uncreative tasks. Its a fabulous way for me to live right now but I agree that there are personal sacrifices that are made. Free time and plenty of sleep to name a few…
Brandon: I shoot about 10 to 12 weddings a year. So, there are some people who assume that all I do is weddings… there's nothing wrong with being a wedding videographer… I just
hate it when people introduce me as one… I always end up explaining… "well, I do other stuff too."
6. What is an average day like in your life? How many days per week do you work? (tell us about your schedule and what (if anything) that you do to keep in organized ect…) Do you have a set schedule?
-I wake up each morning between 8 and 10 (I usually don't set my alarm)
-I check my personal e-mail from my phone while I am still in bed (there is usually one or two from Rachel :D).
-I say hi to Brittany, who is usually already packing etsy orders by this time.
-Coffee or tea…
-Spend about an hour online answering messages, reading blog comments, etsy stuff ect…
-I work on things that are time sensitive, my deadlines. Sometimes write a blog entry during this time…
-At about 3 or 4 I get coffee and eat a meal with Jeremy. It's probably my favorite part of the day. He is very encouraging and we share our goals for the evening each day. It's a habit that really keeps me on track and makes me excited to work a little bit harder each evening.
-Next I work for 5 or 6 hours. I work on different projects each day, but this is the time of day that I do the "messy" projects.
-Around 10 or 11 I make some food & chai for Mr. Larson and I.
-Then I keep working until I get super tired. Lately I've been working until 4 or 5 am. The good news is I can fall asleep pretty much instantly after days like these and sleep feels more like a luxury and less like a habit. I like that.
I, personally, do not have any type of "set" schedule. I have lists, of course. But I don't ever really have to be intentional about making the work day begin. It's actually more work, sometimes, to make it end!
So, yes, my life is extremely unbalanced on purpose. I don't watch any T.V. shows and I only go out in the evenings about once a week. These are just little sacrifices that I am completely adjusted to. Jeremy and I have an almost identical schedule, which makes it work for us. Dating someone who works the same hours as I do has been a huge encouragement to me.
Rachel: My days fluctuate depending on deadlines but the general flow looks the same. Mornings start around 7:30 with coffee/tea, checking e-mail and blogs while Sebastian watches an Elmo DVD next to me on the computer. Split screens are great! We walk 2 miles most mornings with him in the jogger and spend some time at the park before lunch and nap time. I spend his nap time finishing projects I can't get done when he's awake. This includes packing, sewing, photographing new PonyParty items, posting blogs, making projects for tutorials, etc. Its a sweet time to spend by myself even when it feels more like work than fun. Once he's up we have a snack and play until Brett gets home. I spend time off and on throughout the evening answering e-mails and finishing tasks while Brett cooks and entertains Sebastian. We get S to bed around 9pm and spend some time together before I pick up where I left off and head to bed around 12am. I don't ever stay up later than midnight unless I have to. I can't function the next day if I don't get at least 7 hours.
Some days are specifically designated for packing and shipping and other days for ordering or making. Brett is a fabulous husband and father and appreciates helping with domestic chores for all of this to work. Things that often get neglected are laundry and a clean bathtub. I can live with that. I've mounted a dry erase board in my studio space to keep a weekly to do list so I stay on track when I want to just veg. It has helped my forgetfulness and keeps me motivated. Erasing something is a little reward in itself.
10:00 am – Wake up, eat off brand frosted flakes, read whatever book it is that I'm reading.
10:30 am – Work out at the YMCA, 20 min cardio, 20 min weights
11:30 am – Shower, get dressed.
12:00 am – Go into the studio
1:00 pm - Eat lunch at Planet Sub
1:30 pm - Work Work Work Work
7:00 pm - Go home, make dinner, watch Arrested Development
12:00am - Sleep
7. How to you keep your work vs. personal life balanced?
Elsie: I don't really skip family stuff. Even if I am in the middle of a big update or deadline I still go to my parent's for pancakes or whatever. Jeremy and I both like to work a lot, so that helps a *lot* because we are both really content with this lifestyle. I have learned (and am learning….) to say no to less important obligations in order to leave some space in my schedule for close friends and family. As long as I always find time for the people I love, I don't mind sacrificing most of my "me time" to work.
Jeremy: I am very lucky to have friends that understand me. They know that I work non-stop for a few months at a time without ever going out. Then I become extremely social for an entire month; catching up with everyone and going out every night. A lot of people wouldn't have the patience to keep me in their "circle" with such inconsistencies. As far as my relationship with Elsie goes, the work/personal balance is always easy to keep. I am in love with what she does, and she is constantly encouraging me in what I do. There is never a fight over whether either of us is working too much. If I'm working on recording some piano tracks, a lot of times she'll come down and write in her journal on the floor beside me. This to me, is the perfection of the balance.
Brandon: I used to work out of my home. I got so stir crazy and couldn't do it anymore. So I started renting space from my good friend Sesha at her photography studio. Frank, a graphic designer works here in the building too. There's a really great creative energy that flows through this space… it really helps to inspire us… and distracts us. Having an office helps me keep it separate.
8. Describe your working atmosphere & show photos if possible.
Elsie: I work from home and my loft is sort of centered around my work space. There are papers, paints and supplies everywhere! I usually have 3 or 4 unfinished projects laying around. I love it because I feel like I have everything I need to create art all day and all night.
I have a separate room for shipping now, so that helps me to keep my creative space inspired (and sometimes very messy) and my administrative space organized.
Here are a few photos of my home studio….
Jeremy: There is a large room with a Steinway grand piano in the middle of it. The walls are lined with stacks of vintage guitar amps and keyboards. I'm kind of a vintage gear nerd.
Rachel: My dining room and studio are in the same space. The studio space takes up about 1/4 of our house but making it pretty as well as organized has helped keep the space livable. I love that its a major part of our house because it is a major part of our lives. Here are a few pics.
9. Is it difficult to make a full time income as an artist? What kind of work and planning goes into that?
Elsie: The simple answer is yes, it is very difficult. I've been through both extremes over the years, being literally broke and then having much more than I needed. I think that it's extremely important for anyone interested in a career in art to be comfortable with being very poor. If you can't deal with that, at least at times, then it is probably not a good path for you. I have a lot of friends who have been very successful with their work, but I've never met anyone who was able to accomplish these things without a great deal of personal sacrifice.
That said, it's certainly not impossible to make a full time income in a creative field. Here are some specific things that have helped me along the way….
-I am a self starter (which, to me, means that even if I have a "day off" I work on projects for fun, because I want to).
-I enjoy moving from project to project very quickly and having a lot of different projects going on at once.
-I don't mind making sacrifices with my personal time and money for my art. There are some things about an average life that I miss out on, but it's worth it to me because I really believe in this and can't imagine doing anything else.
-I am not afraid of failure. In my opinion, you can't be. I try new things constantly and work very hard at refining the projects I am working on.
-I am not easily discouraged.
As far as planning and stuff… I live a pretty modest lifestyle. I don't have any plans or goals in my life to own expensive cars or houses. I am very content with the lifestyle that I have and anytime I have extra money, I almost always spend it on something business related for myself or for other artists who I support.
Brandon: It's impossible for me to make a living as an artist…. at least right now it is. I rely on freelance projects to fund the "'passion" projects.
10. How do you compensate for the perks of traditional jobs (ie. health insurance, paid vacation ect…)?
Elsie: I pay for my own health insurance (it is about $70 each month), I also have to pay all of my own taxes which are *very* expensive each quarter. These things aren't so bad as long as they are planned for in advance. I also have do my own retirement investments. Basically, there is a lot more planning involved.
Rachel: My husband and I pay for our own health insurance and have a few small investments. We're not exactly able to take paid vacations but we don't mind. We have to set aside taxes on our own and try to keep things going between the two of us when someone is sick. Its all we've ever known so it doesn't feel unusual to us.
Brandon: Paid vacation is out the window… but I do get to do a lot of traveling. I would much rather be working on something when I travel anyway, so that works out great. I pay for my own health ins. and have a Roth IRA through fidelity… so yeah, I'm a grown up.
11. What do you consider the "perks" of your job?
Elsie: The greatest perk of my job is that I am living my own dream and I can honestly say that I wouldn't trade my job for any other job in the world. I also enjoy making my own schedule. I probably work a lot more hours than someone who works a normal full time job but I never notice.
Jeremy: My job lends itself to a lot of networking with other musicians. Whether it be seeing a lot of concerts or working in the studio with other bands and producers, I'm always surrounded by people that are into a lot of the same things as I am.
Rachel: I can skip a shower and no one complains! I love being my own boss and not being on a rigid schedule. I love working in an environment that I created with company that I choose. I love including my son in the work process. He helps me stamp boxes and load them into the car. It is tough sometimes to not have co-workers to have adult conversations with but I wouldn't trade this for an office job at this point in life. I love it.
Brandon: Not selling out to "the man"… except when I have to for money.
12. Has working in your creative field changed the way that you feel about your job as a "hobby"?
Elsie: This is a very important question. I think that before jumping into anything you love as a career it is important to try it out first. Photography is one of my favorite hobbies, but I do not enjoy working as a photographer *at all*. I learned that lesson early and have worked very hard ever since to keep photography strictly a hobby. I still get lots of offers to shoot weddings and other things, but I only do photos of my friends and I only do it for free because I've learned that that is the only way that I can really enjoy it. There is nothing wrong with enjoying something more as a hobby than as a job. I think it's really healthy and some of the most talented people I know have chosen to create their art as a side project rather than as a career. Those people can work on their own time line without as much pressure to produce income, which for some people is an important part of the creative process.
Jeremy: Yes. I realize immediately after I finished my first album that things were changing. The first album was very much a personal musical "meditation" on my thoughts and feeling. It was very personal, and I had the attitude of "this is just for me to enjoy, and if other people don't enjoy it, that's fine". But then the insecurities start to set in, and you start considering, "what's going to work in a live setting, what would work for movie or TV placements" etc.
Rachel: I've noticed that I don't scrapbook any more. I have less time for personal projects than I did before I started PonyParty this year and I've become satisfied with recording our memories through photos. I always enjoy flea market shopping for PonyParty. I don't think that will ever get old. My hobbies have shifted from season to season. Its been a great way to learn something new and keep things fresh.
Brandon: Yes. Work is work. Anytime I get paid to do something it's not as fun, but it's better than getting paid to do something you hate.
13. Are you able to make whatever art you want to or do you sometimes have to make things that you aren't proud of just to make income?
Elsie: I usually make things that I want to make, especially now that I am working independently. I've definitely done things in the past because it was part of an assignment or project that I was asked to do (maybe something that I wouldn't have chosen to do on my own). Every once in a while that can be a good challenge as well, to make something my own that I wouldn't have tried otherwise. I think that's a part of it.
Rachel: I never ever make something I'm not proud of to sell. There are times when I have to tweak an old idea to make it new again and times when I just make something because I need to. Thankfully, my income is not directly dependent on my creativity but the creativity of others.
14. Are there things that are off limits to you? Anything you would not be willing to do for any price?
Elsie: Yes, lots of them. I feel like I have really learned what things I can and can't be happy doing and I try to stick to that. It's definitely a learning process though, so I'll try anything once if it sounds interesting.
Jeremy: I won't change my physical appearance to make myself more marketable. I gave into that once, and ended up with highlights in my hair. You will be happy to know, that I said no to the "soul patch" they were trying to give me.
Rachel: I've learned to set limits when I know the work won't be fulfilling to me or something I'd be proud of. I once made a quilt for a young girl in a style I detested. I didn't enjoy the project but I knew it was important to her so I did my best. I've learned to set boundaries when I know my schedule will be too busy to take on something new. However, I've taken on commissioned projects that I never would've thought I'd enjoy and later did.
Brandon: porn and infomercials.
15. How do you handle the administrative side of things (taxes ect….)?
Elsie: I have an accountant for all of my tax stuff. I don't enjoy that part of my work so I keep it as simple as possible. Basically, I save the documents that she asks me to save. 🙂 Easy.
Brandon: I do it myself with the help of Tax Act Pro.
16. How do you market your work? Do you do this by yourself or do you have people helping you? What have you found to be the most effective ways to market yourself?
Elsie: I post on my blog and flickr regularly. I also do interviews with blogs & magazines. I've found that promoting my art in a personal way works well for me. I like to share my art and a little bit of my life as well (i always love watching the "behind the scenes" features on films and enjoy seeing artist's work spaces). I work pretty hard to maintain a balance of personal vs. professional content online by sharing peeks of my daily life along with my current projects.
Jeremy: I have the greatest manager/friend that anyone could ever ask for. He handles a lot of this.
Brandon: With a few exceptions all of my marketing is word of mouth.
17. Describe your creative process, workflow….
Elsie: I like to start and finish most projects in the same day, especially a new project! I like to work in large blocks of time rather than small ones. I am very unorganized and messy with my personal projects, but with my work that is mass produced (in my own little home "factory") like kits and etsy products, I like to keep them extremely organized.
Brandon: It's different every time. I do like to stay organized, even though I'm awful at it.
18. Did you go to school? What type of schooling would you recommend for someone interested in a similar career?
Elsie: I have no training in art at all. It's not a regret of mine or something that I really think about. I sometimes wonder if art school would have been fun but it hasn't held me back in any way to not have that sort of background. If I could choose a college major based on what I know now about my career I think I would definitely have gone with a degree in business. It's practical and for anyone working independently it could really help with daily tasks.
Jeremy: I studied at SMSU for a few years as a piano performance major. I know that my theory classes did amazing things for my understanding of music. Plus, I was exposed to an extremely diverse library of music that I hadn't known about before.
Rachel: I went to school but not for anything related to art. I wish that I'd been able to get into a few photography or painting classes when I was in college but I don't think everyone benefits in the same way from art school. I know some very talented self-taught artists that have a very strong style and some schooled artists that are still working on that. I agree with Elsie that some business classes would have been helpful.
Brandon: Never went to film school. I got my start at Hillcrest High School. I would recommend practicing and practicing and practicing. I've never met anyone who was
good a film making at first. Also, video production has become extremely affordable. Don't get caught up with having "the best equipment". Get caught up in
how to tell a good story. I'll take a good story and a crappy camera over a bad story and the best camera ever made.
19. How do you manage your time?
Elsie: Like most people, I struggle with time management. I am so busy that I literally never ever get bored. I keep things pretty simple. I try not to be online all day and I make sure to reserve lots of large blocks of time to work on creative projects. I also give myself rewards for finishing projects in certain amounts of time (elementary, yes… but it helps!)
Brandon: Bento and iCal
20. Do you prefer to work independently or for a company? Can you tell us about your experiences with both?
Elsie: I've enjoyed both. Right now I am preferring to work independently. I just have so many ideas and projects that I am pursuing that the limitations that come with working for a large company don't really work for me. The thing that is cool about working for a company is that it's more like a normal job and you may not have to do as many of the administrative tasks yourself (such as marketing, accounting ect…). The thing that's awesome about working independently is that there is so much freedom. I can dream up a new idea in my sleep and two days later it could be a real product. I can try crazy ideas that don't necessarily have "mass appeal", which is fun. To me that kind of freedom is irreplaceable.
Jeremy: Independently. This is much more suited for my personality.
Brandon: I would rather work independently, but in my line of work you can't avoid working with companies…. which can also be fun.
21. Do you think that anyone can be successful & happy with a career in art?
Elsie: Nope. It's not an easy life. I know lots of people who love it, but I also have tons of friends who end up going back to a "regular" job for comfort reasons and continuing their art as a side project.
It's the sort of job that you really have to be "made for" and if you are you probably know it.
Rachel: I think anyone that imagines they can jump into it and be successful right away might be in for a surprise. I suggest keeping your day job and expecting to work hard and long and fail a few times before you can see the fruits of your labor. I don't think every hobby can be turned into a successful, money making job but I do encourage anyone who wants to make a little money with their hobby to try an Etsy store and set some goals. Learn from other artists through their blogs and pay attention to trends. Develop your own style without outright copying someone else. Make it your own and try to make it better.
Jeremy: It depends on how you define success. I feel successful in a different way that most people would think of it. I get to do what I love everyday. That's always been my dream. But the girls say no, so I'll go with that.
Brandon: I don't know.
22. Are you happy with your present life ?
Elsie: Honestly, I've never been happier. This has been the best year of my life, so far. It's a wonderful way to live.
Jeremy: It's really strange how things have worked out. I'm a full time songwriter with a studio below my girlfriend's loft right across the street from my favorite coffee shop. Seven years ago I really wouldn't have ever believed things would be this wonderful.
Brandon: Yes. But not only because of my job. I love being able to do what I love, but I really love having awesome people in my life. They make it happy.