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Staying Alive: Life as a self-employed artist can be filled with joy as well as cash, if you approach the challenge creatively

Staying Alive: Life as a self-employed artist can be filled with joy as well as cash, if you approach the challenge creatively

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Since 1975, Artist’s Graphic Designer’s Market has been a must-have reference guide for emerging artists who want to establish a successful career in fine art, illustration, cartooning or graphic design. Beyond up-to-date contact and submission information for more than 1,100 art markets, AGDM includes informative articles and interviews with successful artists and art buyers. Read on for a 2011 AGDM article by Ursula Roma, a freelance fine artist, graphic designer and illustrator living in Cincinnati, OH. Also, be sure to check out, the new online version of AGDM—you can try it for free with the 7-day risk-free trial.

Staying Alive
Life as a self-employed artist can be filled with joy, as well as cash, if you approach the challenge creatively
by Ursula Roma

Whenever I’m having a rough time paying the bills, I think back to a conversation my father and I had while researching colleges during my senior year of high school. He insisted that people only need one teapot and a few pieces of kitchenware in their lifetime, so I’d surely become a pauper. Encouraged to study something more lucrative, I took my art teacher’s suggestion to pursue graphic design and leave painting and pottery as sidelines. After I finished school, I promptly started my design business, Little Bear Graphics, creating marketing materials for local and national clients.

Diversify your skills
Learning several disciplines has helped me stay financially afloat because I can provide a range of services to my clients: painting (including murals), sculpture, illustration and computer design. I hone these skills as I work every day; I also take digital art lessons and computer classes that keep me up-to-date with the latest software. This past summer I started a graduate program in illustration, which will open up other opportunities for employment, such as upper-level art and design jobs, as well as teaching positions, once I receive my master’s degree.

Look outside conventional markets
If you’re going to survive on your own as an artist, it’s important to expand outside the obvious markets to bring in extra cash. I’ve created editorial illustrations for a variety of publications and single panel cartoons for humor anthologies; I’ve designed and drawn pictures for wedding, birthday and family reunion invitations, and for a line of greeting cards and T-shirts sold at independent bookstores and art fairs. I’ve also tutored children in art, taught painting classes at retirement homes and even led art workshops in prisons. As for the work I do for myself alone, I’ve shown pictures, wall reliefs and
sculpture at local art galleries and cafés.

Be frugal
In these tough financial times especially, heading into an art store can be dangerous for the pocketbook; I’m a sucker for impulse buying. I can’t afford to be tempted to buy a few new tubes of my favorite colors. Instead, I’ve tried to challenge myself to use materials on hand. I experiment with unfamiliar colors I may have lying around and odd materials I’ve collected. Since I have a deep passion for creating art with found objects, I search dumpsters, flea markets and yard sales to find cheap and free materials to craft sculptures and mixed-media artwork. Not only is it inexpensive to produce, creating three-dimensional found-object sculpture has introduced me to a new type of patron-one who appreciates naive art. Working in three dimensions has also added balance to my two-dimensional painting and drawing work.

Advertise your wares
The easiest and least expensive way to get new patrons is to start close to home where the connections you already have can help you enlarge your network.
Occasionally, I’ll advertise in the Guild (, which bills itself as the resource for finding and commissioning artists, as well as in local newspapers or art publications. Potential clients want to see an ad several times before investing in an artist. I also use high-quality postcards to promote my artwork, and each week I spend a few hours researching Internet venues for promoting my fine art. Two great sites, send out reminders of upcoming art fairs, shows and contests, while helps me connect with other artists and exhibition opportunities. On most of these sites, you upload your résumé and portfolio into the system once; you then forward the link to the shows that appeal to you, thereby simplifying the application process.
In addition, there are blogs and also websites that provide free templates and offer to host your site-especially beneficial if you can’t afford to hire someone to create a professional website, or if you get overwhelmed with complicated site layout, maintenance and updates.

Donate your work
One way to broaden your audience is to trade advertising for artwork. Nonprofit organizations often approach artists to make donations for silent auctions. When contributing a piece, be sure to find a diplomatic way to promote your work. Ask if you can place an ad in the organization’s program. Other options include doing pro bono work or offering your work at a reduced rate. Fourteen years ago, I donated artwork for a large mural in the section of Cincinnati where I live, and this mural, beautifully maintained and at the entrance of the neighborhood, has since brought me a lot of name recognition, as well as several big commissions.

Don’t get discouraged
The life of a self-employed artist isn’t easy. Along with providing a diverse array of skills and services, you must enjoy solitary work, be well-disciplined, and find patrons and customers by keeping a consistent public presence. I often wonder what my life would be like had I become a potter. I might have made the next Rookwood-or I might be working in a restaurant to support my clay and glaze habit. The stress of living paycheck to paycheck isn’t for the faint of heart. I have to remind myself every day that however difficult and challenging it may be to avoid starvation, even the mundane parts of an artist’s life are more interesting than the summer jobs I endured in order to support myself during college. I love being an artist. I see potential in objects and shapes and in an artistic life that allows me the privilege of pursuing my passion-even through tough times!

Helpful Sites
Find interested customers and welcome opportunities:
• The Guild (
• Juried Art Services (
• Art Deadlines (
• My Art Space (

Excerpted from the November 2009 issue of Magazine. Used with the kind permission of Magazine, a publication of F+W Media, Inc.

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