Bare minimum skills to work for yourself in a creative field

Jun 2, 2014

By Paul Jarvis

Paul Jarvis is a web designer and author. His latest book, The Good Creative, explores the habits of the world’s most respected and interesting artists.

Wouldn’t it be great if being a brilliant artist was all it took to earn a living?

We could spend our days with words, canvases and music, creating our art until we dropped of beautiful exhaustion. Rent, food, college funds, insurance could be worries for someone else.

Sadly, when art mixes with money, we’ve got to take on (or hire) several responsibilities beyond just creating our art. We’ve got to be lawyers, accountants, sales people, researchers, and marketers too, if there’s any hope that our art will sustain us.

Taste (as Ira Glass famously said) cannot be taught, so most of our artistic abilities come from constant work and our innate talent for creating. The rest of what we need to take care of to make our art work for us needs to be learned, and most of the time, learned very quickly.

To pursue your art as a creative professional, here are a few things you either need to learn quickly or be able to afford hiring out:

1. Understand selling

Not in the sleazy car-sales or travelling vacuum peddler sense, but in a way that actually provides value to the people you want your art to connect with. It’s not enough to price your art at “what it’s worth”. The price has to be “what the market is willing to pay for it”.

2. Understand money

You’ve got to price your work accordingly, revise as necessary and make sure what’s coming in isn’t less than what’s going out. Keep track of expenses and for the love of Van Gogh, live within your means (or under). Hire an accountant and keep meticulous records of everything you sell and buy, beyond keeping receipts in shoeboxes (or Evernote).

3. Understand your audience

You aren’t going to please everyone and not everyone is going to want your art. The good thing is that it’s much easier to please the right people than all of the people.

Share your work with them as often as possible. Connect with them, seek them out and offer help/insight when applicable. It’s interesting how much value there is in taking time to listen to what your audience is saying.

4. Understand how to not get fed over*

Contracts are funny things. Most of us creative professionals can’t afford to actually take someone to court, but we also need to be aware that not everyone is an altruistic, loving, and most importantly, paying, customer.

Contracts are more important to define a mutual understanding than anything legal. What is a client getting, exactly, when, and for how much. Making these things absolutely clear (in writing) goes a very long way towards not getting screwed.

So, there you have it. The 4 bare minimums required if you want to work for yourself in a creative field. If you aren’t good at or haven’t figured out all four of those things, learn. Take courses, read books, ask others questions. Get good at them quickly or earn enough to hire them out. If you aren’t comfortable connecting with your audience or selling to them, find an approach or style that does feel comfortable for you.

I easily spent the first few years working for myself getting screwed over. By clients and by the government (ok, that never stops happening, but at least now it’s done in expected and planned for ways). And I didn’t have a clue about connecting with the right people, in the right way.

Even after many years of working for myself, I still don’t have all the answers and there’s lots I still don’t understand. But I’m slightly closer, I think. And now that I have those 4 bare things under control, I worry about and focus on them less.

If you have a boss (that isn’t you), then someone else will take care of the four above points. Working for yourself as creative means you have to work harder than you would for any employer. It’s more hustling, longer hours, and probably less pay (at least at first).

The good thing is that once you have those four bare minimum things under control, you can focus more on your art and defining what success means for you. Being a gifted artist isn’t enough. If you want your art to support your life (financially), make these 4 bare minimums a priority.