Can You Do Art Full Time?
Some tools and methods to check before taking the leap.
Here’s an important exercise to check what your financial situation would be if you tried to live off your art alone, or evaluate how it’s going if you already are. To use a coined phrase, the answer may surprise you. It’s far better to have a clear view of the bottom before jumping in, murky waters can hide all kinds of dangers.
Note: This calculator works mainly for commission, contract or client work, charging money for time. You can fiddle around with the Income section to include your estimated earnings per week from product sales or other means if you want to go that route instead.
Doing the Maths
If numbers aren’t your strong suit, don’t worry, it’s all simple addition and subtraction, multiplication and division. There’s a number of steps to go through, but the budget calculator makes things easy.
1. Start with Current Expenses
Use this budget calculator, It’s the most flexible and comprehensive one I’ve found. Put in all your current expenses in all the different categories. Leave Income blank for now, unless you will be earning from other sources while working, like from products you’ve already set up or investments.
2. Cover Risks
Include in the Insurance section what you feel you need to cover risks if things went wrong, like illness, hardware faults, clients paying late or not paying at all, or a dry work season. Overestimate rather than underestimate, better to be safe than sorry. 30% isn’t uncommon.
3. Research the Market
Research the prices of your peers, similar in subject and close in skill to what you can currently do. If you find a wide range of prices with the same skill, take the higher values to account for under-pricing. Try and get as many numbers as you can.
4. Time Yourself
Time how long it takes you to do pieces, working as you would for a client. If you have real work to time, even better. Don’t just guess, humans are notoriously bad at getting time estimates right, so better to get a real number. If you can do it a few times then get an average that would be even better, since it will be more accurate.
5. Find Your Hourly Rate(s)
Work out your hourly rate dividing the average of the prices researched in step 3 by how long it took you in step 4.
$[Price] ÷ [Hours] = $[hourly rate]
If you have multiple things you do, work out the hourly rate for each one then find the average. (This also lets you see what your most profitable types of work are which is important information, even outside this process.)
If a thing varies a lot in how much work it takes, think about setting stricter ground rules for what is included.
6. Find Your Expected Weekly Income
Set how long you want to work per week, and calculate your expected weekly income if you were to get enough work to fill all those hours.
$[Hourly rate] x [work hours per week] = $[weekly income]
7. Don’t forget the tax man
Find the amount of tax you have to pay by multiplying your expected income by your tax rate percentage. If you don’t know your tax rate, find out. You don’t want any nasty surprises.
8. Push the button
Put this income and taxes in the budget calculator and see where you stand.
Are you a viable business?
Are your costs and expenses less than your income? You can duplicate the tab and play with the numbers at this point. What if you decreased your expenses or increased your hours? What if you adjusted your prices? Would you need to work so much to meet bills that you wouldn’t have a life, or put yourself at medical risk?
Your average weekly income goal should be at least California minimum wage. Yes, even in places where the minimum wage and cost of living are significantly lower, since you’re competing in a global market. Even if you can live on much less, it’s better to charge market rates and live like a king, instead of offering $5 commissions and being exploited by people overseas who could pay a lot more if they wanted to.
If you still want to be affordable for people in your own country, it is totally within your right to offer different prices for different countries. Plenty of companies do it. You could make a price sheet in your local language and currency with lower prices and explain they’re a special price for locals.
What to do if you can’t live off your art (yet)
It’s OK to Keep Your Day Job
If you work everything out and it’s not viable at the moment, it’s completely fine to earn money through other means while you work on changing that. Financial pressure is one of the main reasons people give up, and one of the main causes of unhappiness in general, so no need to put yourself in that situation if you don’t need to.
Instead, you should focus on increasing the Value of your art. Improving your technical skill is a solid way to do this, as is getting faster and more efficient with your time, but those are quite slow to acquire. The most time-efficient way to add value is to be creative with things you can currently do. Find something few people are doing, like a unique product or print technique or skill that you’re into but not many people are. Combine things you like in a novel way, like maybe you’re into fishing and Monster Hunter, you could make a comic or a new weapon or creature design. Show things from your unique perspective. Pull from your experiences. Things that are normal or mundane for you are a unique window into another life for others, or relatable if you are similar.
You could also focus on making your art ideas more creative. Creativity can be trained and improved like anything else. A perfectly rendered sphere is impressive, and it’s good to be able to do it, but no-one’s going to buy prints of it to hang on their wall. A compelling concept, idea or story rendered averagely is usually a lot more appealing than something conceptually bland but technically excellent. Just look at the original One Punch Man manga, or the webcomics XKCD or Cyanide and Happiness — basically stick figures with witty writing. A flexible mind that can make connections and leaps of logic is just as valuable as one that can light a scene perfectly in perspective.
Sell Out (the right way)
There is also the option of what I like to call the Selective Sellout — making things that have popular appeal, but that you also are into. This avoids the usual resentment and by-the-numbers grind that leads to burnout when you’re just chasing popular topics at the cost of all else. Fanart of popular shows you enjoy, speculative art for a game you’re excited for, a well-established art style that appeals to you too, things like that. You also can try to keep it fresh and creatively interesting by adding your own voice and spin on things. Remix those popular ideas instead of straight reproducing them.
If you are the kind of person that shies away from things simply because they are popular, this may be very difficult, but even niche things have their own little communities, who are often more appreciative of new content.
Another roadblock would be if you are uncomfortable revealing your tastes for fear of judgement. My only advice is to be brave, the positives of creative expression and participation in something you are passionate about far outweigh the potential negatives. Bad eggs are inevitable anywhere really, but with the support of others it will be a lot easier to accept that and let it pass over you like bad air. And in the possibly paraphrased words of Jenny Nicholson, “everything fun is a little bit cringe”. Embrace it.
I think we covered a lot of things there and may have got a bit off-topic, but if you want some more money talk and some information of where value comes from so you can make your work more valuable, check out this article + video I made on Cost, Price and Value. In the meantime though, best of luck with your work in art, and may your future be bright and shiny.