Portrait of a Self-Employed Millennial Artist

Breaking the Comparison Habit

As artists, none of us are strangers to clichés that non-artists expect of us: from romantic dreamers to tortured creatives. But what about the stereotypes that we fit ourselves into? Perhaps we think that our artistic skills are governed by inborn talent, or that our work isn’t ready to be shown to the world.

As a young artist who recently took my career full time, I caught myself buying into the belief that there are two paths for a creative person my age: the trek of the struggling, undiscovered artist, or the perceived skyrocket to fame we see in people our own age.

These beliefs about our options are given voice from the places we least expect; we hear them from concerned family members worried about our financial stability, or the instructor who praises our talent rather than our hard work. At the same time, we witness artists who make a splash in the art world relatively early in their careers. It paints a seductively simple picture of whether or not we should be brave enough to share our art with the world.

But neither trope had what I was looking for.

This January, at 29 years old, I took my painting business full time. I did it without falling into either stereotype that we tend to associate with artists, yet I doubled my income after leaving my corporate job.

I had been working toward making the leap to paint full time for over seven years, but the truth is that my journey did not need to take that long. I knew from the moment I entered the workforce that I was supposed to be giving something different to the world but had waited for permission for so long before I understood that it was not coming.

Asking for Forgiveness (Not Permission)

Here is what I have learned over seven years about being given permission to pursue art as a career: It is not about education, not about winning awards, not about how many people like your work, and most certainly not about someone telling you that you are ready to quit your day job. It sounds almost absurd, but it’s not surprising when you consider that our entire education system and professional lives as employees are built on permission. You are told what level of class to take, what grade you’re in, how you compare against others, what job you qualify for, who you get to supervise, and even what salary you deserve to earn.

It took me seven years to realize that permission was not coming.

Instead, I realized that the decision to go full time is as simple as asking whether or not there are enough people who love your work to keep your business healthy. Do you have a list of collectors waiting to buy pieces? A commission wait-list? Students who want to work with you every month? When you have these things, it’s time to stop waiting for someone to give permission and give it to yourself instead.

Actualizing Worth

My experience with a corporate job taught me that I was not willing to buy into the starving artist trope, but nothing in my own experience trained me to be able to answer the question of what my work was worth. No one tells you what your salary as an artist should be or what your paintings are “supposed” to cost. No one will run up to you offering to pay you more for your painting than you were asking.

Unlike permission, worth is an ongoing practice. I confront it every time I send a quote for a commission or a price for an available original. Just like permission, finding and cultivating worth requires inner work we are not often accustomed to. It means being open to seeing the value you are providing for your collectors and students.

The dividends of this work, however, go far beyond paying your bills. Today I own a business that supports me financially and allows me the room to continue to grow as an artist. Especially now, I’m tremendously grateful that I have found the work that allows me to bring the most value, beauty and hope into the world.

Chelsea Lang is an alla prima painter specializing in portraiture. Her work, as her full story of leaving her 9-to-5 to become a full-time painter can be found at https://youtu.be/uKo9VejKpg8.

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