I heard a speech a writer gave once where he said he would not wish being a writer on anyone, but that there were those who could not help but write, and for them, they would find a way to be writers. I think being an artist might be like that as well, at least for some of us.
I remember in the early days of the internet and chat rooms chatting with a retired artist who had been a successful professional pencil artist starting in their youth. I asked why they didn’t teach and this person said to me, ‘if you cannot succeed as an artist, teach art.‘ I don’t think that I agree with that belief any more.
When I first started painting as an adult at 36, my instructor, Walter Bartman, had a really interesting business model. He was a HS art teacher for 30 or 40 years and founded the Yellow Barn Studio. He told me there were three things you could do as an artist to make a living, and one of those things was teach art, where you could paint whatever you wanted and still get paid. Now Walter has 3 or 4 studios, teaches workshops around the world, teaches 3 or 4 classes a week, and has like 50 instructors working for him. He paints daily and is represented by several galleries. I don’t know if he could make a living in just selling his paintings but he is a wonderful artist and probably does 3 or 4 solo and group shows a year, so between his collectors, the galleries, and the shows, I would guess he sells 20-30 paintings a year, at least. I’m guessing he could survive on his art sales, but that is just a single income stream. His business model is multiple income streams some of which is passive income, like his retirement from the public school system. I got a late start and no art degree, so being a full time school art teacher for the next 20 years is pretty much out of reach for me. Besides, I rather dislike having to be places at 7:30 am.
I’ve taught some private lessons, and I’m teaching my first class this winter semester, although they say it takes a while to build enrollment and no one has registered yet. I’ve registered to teach the same class for spring and run a virtual life drawing open studio. I also joined a website for teaching lessons a couple of years ago and have 2 or 3 students registered for January. I think I sold one painting in 2020 for $75. I did have some unemployment insurance from a full time job, and with the pandemic I took some virtual classes and painted a fair amount. I also bought some marketing webinar material to try and improve my sales. I gave my girlfriend and my son some paintings, and take heart in knowing that Van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime. I did not starve, thankfully, but starving artist, though maybe cliché, is a reality. If wealth were just knowledge.
Untitled 9x12 oil on canvas (2016)
I don’t know how much I spent on art materials this past year, but it was easily in the thousands... canvas, paint, brushes, streaming video gear, marketing materials. I am so grateful and indebted to my girlfriend, Debbie Chamberlain, for creating a website and designing a logo and business cards for my art, plus setting up the e-commerce shop and things. I would never have accomplished any of that without her help.
I would never have learned to paint or have improved at it had it not been for others sharing their knowledge of art and painting with me. I say I’m self taught, but the truth is, it’s been a long learning cycle for me, learning how to see, over 20 years. I often say I learn new art things every day. Had I known then what I know now would I still paint, yes, very much so, but I think I would have shortened the learning curve, considerably.
The point I’m trying to make is that I understand the ‘it’s up to me to figure out what I need to know in order to become a better painter,’ art school notwithstanding. But, part of that journey was learning from teachers who gave me the gift of their knowledge, books, classes, YouTube videos, and other artists. And, now part of my journey is giving that knowledge back to other beginners on their journeys. It is a gift really, the gift of art. I’m not sure what is the most meaningful part anymore... painting, paintings, selling, learning, or teaching. There is a lot of not so glamorous aspects like cleaning brushes and failures, but I chose painting, and I’m happy that I discovered my passion.