Issue: 58

Making A Living From Art
...... by Bill Hudson

This past weekend I joined my family to watch the Breitling Air Show from the ocean sands of Huntington Beach, CA. As the U.S. Navy Blue Angels were performing breathtaking maneuvers overhead in their F/A-18 Hornets, I had flashbacks to my 38 years as an aerospace engineer designing, analyzing, fabricating, and testing military aircraft. I had an enjoyable career finding honest solutions to technical challenges and earned a dependable, routine paycheck.
In the mid 90's, my job suddenly demanded full time presence in Palmdale, California where I had an apartment during the week until my retirement in 2000. Being too far from home to commute, I filled the evenings by taking watercolor classes from Glen Knowles at Antelope Valley Junior College. Those classes became my first step in transitioning to a professional artist in my retirement years.
Having discovered an unending appreciation of watercolor, I worked at developing skill and style. As my quality improved, I began to sell my work in galleries, shows, festivals, and online. Painting has become a low-pressure, part-time vocation that pays for itself and provides hours of enjoyment and purpose.
Being retired, I only paint about 10 hours each week completing about 20 paintings per year and selling most of those originals. I often find myself asking, "If I had chosen art rather than engineering, could I have made a living as a watercolor artist?" "Could I have supported a family?" "What would I have to do differently other than work more hours?" Since the answers to those questions involve an exercise in products, sales, profits, time, and expenses .... and because there are readers who are probably asking themselves "Should I quit my day job?," I thought it useful to share some thoughts.

Thought #1 - IF I worked full-time and sold every original painting at my current price, could I make a living selling at art shows and/or galleries?
Short Response #1   -   Very unlikely. Here are two illustrative examples.
     Example #1 - Selling at Shows
  • I require about 25 hours to complete a painting.
  • IF I worked 40 hours per week and 50 weeks per year just painting, I would complete 80 paintings each year.
  • IF I had them framed ($200 each), and sold ALL of them myself (avoiding gallery commissions) at $1,500 per painting (my average price) ...... then my yearly income would be 80 x $1,300 = $104,000.   Not Bad!
  • My pay per hour of painting is $1,500 price - $200 frame = $1,300 / 25 hours = $52/hr
  • BUT there are huge expenses and risks to selling at shows. These take the following forms:
  • Shows require jury fees, booth fees, commissions (0 to 20%), travel, lodging, and time (taken away from painting.)
  • IF I sell an average of 4 paintings per show at a profit of 4 x $1,300 = $5,200, then I must participate in 20 shows per year to sell the 80 paintings per year that I generate.
            Note: $5,000 sales/show is generally regarded as good by show promoters.
  • The average expense of a show such as La Quinta, Indian Wells, San Diego, etc is:
Jury fee =                 $       50
Booth fee =               $     400 (average of single or double booth)
Commission =          $     900 ( 15% of $6,000, price of 4 paintings)
Lodging =                 $     450 ( 3 nights)
Painting time lost =   $ 1,664 ( 4 days x 8 hrs/day x $52/hr )
TOTAL /SHOW         $ 3,464 per show
GRAND TOTAL        $ 69,280 per 20 shows

If I sell every painting made, and sell 4 paintings per show, then my net income for the year would be:
($104,000 income) - ($69,280 expenses) = $34,720 Not Good!
And it is extremely optimistic. It assumes that every painting you complete, you sell! The good news is that painting time lost at shows can be made up by working more than 40 hours per week.
Example #2 - Selling at Brick-N-Mortar Galleries
  • IF I assume: my asking price remains the same ($1,500 per painting), galleries charge a 50% commission, the galleries are close to home, and I will continue to complete and sell 80 paintings per year ..... then my yearly income would be 80 x ($750 - $200/frame) = 80 x $550 = $44,000
  • My pay per hour of painting is:
 $1,500price - $750commission -$200frame = $550income/25hrs = $22/hr

  • Assuming 4 galleries each sell 20 paintings per year and each gallery demands your presence four hours each month for an Art Walk/Reception,
         Painting time lost = $4,224    (4 galleries x 4hrs x 12 mos) x $22/hr

So, if four galleries sell every painting made, then my net income for the year would be:
 $44,000 income - $4,224 time lost = $39,776   About the same as selling at shows.

Not Good! And once again, it optimistically assumes (make that "it fantasizes") every painting is sold. In fact, approximately 25-50% of mid-market galleries in New York and Los Angeles have gone out of business in the last 8 years because of low sales.
Thought #2 - I am a representational, maritime watercolor artist who paints slowly, but produces paintings of relatively high quality at moderate prices. Is there a more optimal career path for producing revenue in fine art?

Short Response #2 - Definitely! But do I want to compromise my style?
  • Oil and acrylic paintings on canvas have greater general appeal than watercolor under glass.
  • Pure realism has less appeal than an image leaving something of intrigue to be imagined. All paintings should have areas requiring interpretation.
  • Maritime paintings interest men more than women.
  1. Selling original art at either art shows or galleries produces about the same income.
  2. Selling only original art does not produce adequate income. Therefore, a painter needs to sell reproductions, or teach, or conduct workshops, or all of the above to supplement their income.
  3. An artist should find avenues to sell originals and reproductions without having to incur the large commissions of galleries and large expense of shows. Here is where we find the huge advantage of online sales from one's own website or social outlets such as: Instagram, Facebook, Etsy, and online galleries.
  4. I thank God I had an engineering job to support my family and the gift of art to support my retirement.
  5. If I had to make a living from art, I would need to make heart-wrenching decisions on what I love to paint, my media (watercolor), and my style which takes considerable time.
I now know hundreds of artists, but I only know a handful who depend on art as their primary source of income. And for those few I have immense admiration. For most of us, it is our primary love, our secondary income source. Why? Because being a successful painter is damn difficult! The artists that make it their living share the following similarities: (1) They work hard and long hours, (2) They produce works of quality, (3) They have enthusiasm, (3) They have knowledge and experience in selecting venues, (4) They are adept at advertising and selling online, (4) They sell multiple products e.g. originals, editions, notecards, etc. (5) Their prices are fair, (5) They share their expertise in revenue producing workshops, demos, lessons, you-tube, DVD's, etc.

Recent Paintings
Devil's Churn
Watercolor & Casein, 14" x 20", by Bill Hudson
With custom frame $1,550
Perhaps my favorite stretch of road in the U.S. is the 50 miles along the Oregon coast of Route 101 that connects the historic downtown district of Florence on the Siuslaw River to the commercial fishing port of Newport further north. The road meanders through the small ports of Yachats and Waldport and passes Heceta Head with the most photographed lighthouse in the U.S. Near the midpoint of this highway is Cape Perpetua and the Devil's Churn which was once a shoreline underground cave that eventually had its roof blown off by hundreds of years of violent wave action. At high tide the waves grow with wild power as they enter this long narrow channel.

Upcoming Events

   Art Instructor,  Laguna Beach Art League, Mondays, Jan 2018

Past Newsletters
Past Newsletters are listed chronologically by title in the Newsletter section of my website

Mahl Bridge and Clamps
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