If someone had told me that becoming an artist would make me organized, I would not have believed them.
I knew I wanted to go all-in as a painter shortly after settling into my first job out of college. Now, at 29, I’m grateful for the role that this work has had in allowing me to bootstrap my career as a painter. But being your own patron comes at a premium: time.
Since beginning this journey, I’ve stumbled into many of the pitfalls that amateur artists experience as they hope to advance their careers: painting too infrequently, suffering from long stretches where I did not create, wondering if maybe I would be better off devoting myself to something that didn’t require me to be quite so brave. But each of those experiences had a unique lesson to teach that ultimately helped me to master my time and build a thriving art career while working a 9 to 5.
The progress was not linear, and I don’t think it ever really is, but I’m proud to be able to share with you the practices that have transformed not only my painting but my business.
Art Comes First
I am, by nature, a night owl. As a result, it was natural for me to slog my way through normal work, and right as my energy kicked in, be able to paint. But after so many dinners out or evening classes at the gym, I realized I just wasn’t in the studio consistently enough.
I want to preface this next clause by saying that if I can manage this, anyone can: I became a morning person. No, it is not when I am most energized, and yes I relapse often. But the reality came down to this: painting needed to come first, and if it was the last thing I did in my day, or even the second, it would suffer. Perhaps a work task would carry over, or after work I was just too tired. In either event I needed to manufacture a safeguard, and it came down to waking up early so I could get in a full workday of painting before my normal work began.
To be clear, this didn’t mean an extra eight hours before working eight hours in an office, but if I needed three hours of studio time, I could easily fit that in before I had to report in to my 9 to 5. Then, after hours, I can return to work on marketing or administrative tasks, which aren’t as vulnerable to distraction.
Productivity when you’re your own patron isn’t about putting blinders on and powering through 14-hour days. To balance the demands of this schedule, planned breaks are essential.
What I’ve found works best is a variation on the Pomodoro technique: after 45 minutes of painting, I take a 15 minute break to reset and refocus. It also helps me see errors in my painting. During this time, I give myself permission to do anything, so long as I don’t get so distracted that I forget to finish painting.
But scheduling breaks isn’t a magic bullet: if I have stopped making good decisions on a painting, I don’t waste time trying to force it. My business has enough tasks that it’s easy enough to switch gears and work on marketing efforts, or even just run a non-art-related errand I have to take care of. I’ve realized that getting out of the studio and interacting with strangers helps brighten my day, even if I’d happily stay a studio hermit, and are absolutely worth the ‘lost productivity.’
Re-evaluating my Schedule
Finally the most challenging part of this shift: coming to grips with the non-art activities that weren’t serving me, and prioritizing the ones that do.
This took the most time, effort, and frankly, therapy. I took a hard look at activities we easily become addicted to, whether it’s scrolling through social media, bingeing a Netflix show, or getting caught up in drama that could distract me from painting for weeks on end.
On the flip side, I make sure that I am a regular at the gym and put aside time for friendships that truly enrich myself and my work.
Gradually, I have found that if I dedicate time to my passion while making my leisure hours truly count, I have not only set up a solid career, but I am much more fulfilled for it.
Chelsea Lang is an alla prima painter specializing in portraiture. Her work, as well as a full productivity guide for artists with day jobs can be found at chelsealang.com/blog.