Part-time artist


Dear Artist,

Tania Bourne wrote to ask if it’s possible to hold down a day job and build her career in art at the same time. The question keeps turning up. Here’s my take on it:

Untitled watercolour by Henry Darger (1892-1973), a Chicago hospital custodian whose 15,145-page, single-spaced fantasy manuscript called The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, along with several hundred drawings and watercolor paintings illustrating the story were discovered posthumously in his apartment.

Untitled, n.d.
watercolour, pencil, ink
by Henry Darger (1892-1973), a hospital custodian whose 15,145-page, single-spaced fantasy manuscript called The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, along with several hundred drawings and watercolor paintings illustrating his story were discovered posthumously in his Chicago apartment.

There seems to be some argument for the idea that the more you do — the better you do. There’s also the idea that if you want something done soon and well — you ask a busy person. That said, the practice of art requires a sort of tranquil contemplation as well as energetic execution. How do you pull off tranquility and energy after a rough day in the office or the frazzle of traffic?

Some people have done it. Perhaps they were cut out for it. I’d say that in most cases they taught themselves some tricks: Start by taking better charge of yourself by giving power to a new, stricter self-manager. For the span of the project, reassess priorities and sacrifice other time-consuming activities. Don’t look to holiday time; rather allocate a daily, uniform art time — before or after the day job. It was said that Mary Roberts Rinehart, the novelist, a nurse by day, became successful by setting the alarm clock to 3 AM. You may see yourself walking around like a zombie — but that’s only your failure-mechanism excusing you from the adventure. Send your mission statement into the nubs of your soul. When you arrive at your art-station, begin immediately. An unbelievably useful and simple tactic is to start squeezing paint before you know what’s going on. It seems some artists do this automatically — as if they are in a dream. Fill the whole work-period, no matter how brief, with work. Learn to move some of your creative contemplation to your commute, or your bed. Give the brilliant and reliable “Goddess of Sleep Repair” something to work on. Ideas and solutions will materialize and you will have more than enough reasons to continue your progress.

Giant Roverine, n.d. watercolour by Henry Darver

Gigantic Roverine, n.d.
watercolour, pencil
by Henry Darger

Best regards,


PS “If you believe in what you are doing, then let nothing hold you up in your work. Much of the best work of the world has been done against seeming impossibilities. The thing is to get the work done.” (Dale Carnegie)

Esoterica: Another useful tool is “GTS — Get to signature.” Signing permits movement on to the next project. Putting “paid” to a work frees the mind, gives a sense of accomplishment, and triggers growth hormones. Growth means eventual success. “The dictionary is the only place where success comes before work.” (Mark Twain)

Untitled, n.d. watercolour by Henry Darver

Untitled, n.d.
watercolour, pencil, carbon transfer
by Henry Darger

This letter was originally published as “Part-time artist” on July 3, 2001.

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“Work is love made visible.” (Kahlil Gibran




  1. Melinda Hoffman on

    i work part time…but i am single and live alone …so except for occasional grandchildren helping, my time is mine. And I choose to use it that way. Focus is an important part…and difficult for some. But of course, if time management is good for you…you can do it.

  2. I remember this letter from 20 years ago. What is the idiom? The road to hell is paved with good intentions? I am painting more but semi retirement has allowed that. Still I never forgot this letter.

  3. I moved to Connecticut from Montana with two little kids, a husband whose terrific new job put him on the road. My new house had a great studio, and I was close to NYC! Heaven, I thought. But I drew a chart of my ambitions and realized that 24 hours in a day were not enough. I got a part time job teaching at a college,and started booking some workshops, and then spent my time being a mom and working as much as I could. But it came in increments. I put the kids on the bus in the morning, went to the studio and worked. I set an alarm clock for my son’s school bus from kindergarten, fed him lunch and then we goofed off a bit. Many days he came into the studio and we both worked. He’s now a motion graphic designer, having gone to good art schools, and having the discipline to finish stuff.

    My own path has been more meandering. I still do a lot of work, and teach a lot of workshops, but I’ve had to find some outside interests as well in my retirement from local teaching. So I now teach swimming! A wonderful contrast to the glorious tedium of my art work,

  4. Ann in Oregon on

    I worked full time for most of my adult life, with a few breaks when my children were young and for graduate school. I launched my full time career as an artist at age 68. I’ve never been happier, but I’m also grateful for the financial security and, even more important, MEDICAL security I have as a result of steady employment. A number of my friends who gave their whole lives to art are dealing with huge financial and medical challenges at the end of life and sadly, some of them are no longer with us. Old age in the United States is expensive. It is unfortunate that we can’t do more to support creative and entrepreneurialpeople, who could give us so much if they did not have to be on someone else’s payroll to survive.

    • I worked full time, maintained a house and relationship AND painted and gardened in my spare time. I worked view the view to support my artwork. In my twenties (I’m 67) I was painting and displaying in competitions and getting recognition. In my 30s, same formula, and into my 40s was sending pieces around to venues in the west, where I lived. While a debilitating disease knocked not for years in my 50s, and I became disabled, the artwork continued. I’ve been on the mend and have displayed internationally, and nationally, and probably still have no name recognition, but that wasn’t the goal. The goal was to succeed, and I defined it. It was painting and displaying. I had earned the money part in my jobs, so “success” was showing, being included in competitions I thought myself worthy. I worked to be able to paint: buy supplies, frame, and ship and thus share. To be honest, I did not have children, however, just pets. But artwise, it is a joyous journey, working to paint.

      • Morgan’s life sounds a lot like mind….Mine: three degrees, professional life, worldwide corporation life…but painting watercolors when I could all the way. I was selling some and made connection with a couple of galleries during all of that. At 40 I told the corporate VP I was going home to paint. Forty then… 88 now. It worked. I worked and it was way more fun!!

  5. I struggled for years trying to balance a full-time job coupled with taking care of my children and parents with my creative passion for painting. Twyla Tharp wrote a book, The Creative Habit, that your dad quoted. This book motivated me to buckle down and set my alarm for 5am. I have been painting or sketching every morning regardless of life’s ups and down for last 3 years. It doesn’t matter if my work makes it into the market. Painting is my sanctuary, my sacred time where I am free. I trained everyone in my family, even the dogs, not to bother me during my sacred time.

  6. I had about 13 years when I worked very part time at the beginning of my art career. I’ve always worked meticulously and it still takes me a long time to finish a work. When I had to get a full- time job I worked more than 40 hours a week and had deadline oriented projects. Although my jobs were creative they had little to do with the fine arts world. Any painting I was able to get done in those years happened when I free lanced or between full-time jobs. Now many years later those jobs made it possible for me to work full- time in my studio. I realize that the biggest lesson I took away is that there is really no end to creativity. My ability to have had to generate ideas at work reassured me that creativity is endless in many situations and that I can do the same now in my studio. I think it’s pretty difficult to work full-time and try to have a serious art career. I’m impressed for those who find a way to be self supporting and still laser focused in the studio.

  7. Well, once again Mark Twain makes the day! Lots of ideas to ponder. I confess I have been checking my IPad when I get into the studio. Not a way to get into a creative mindset.

  8. I am now fortunate to have retired from my previous job, and can spend my days working on my art fulltime. However, there was a long time when I held down a full-time, stressful managerial job, raised two kids, showed dogs…and made paintings. After work, I cam e home, drove the kids to their activities, came home, walked the dogs, made dinner, helped the kids with their homework, and after 9 p.m., painted till about midnight or 1 a.m. (and got up at 6 a.m. for work and chores). The extra money from my fulltime job allowed me to buy art supplies, enter numerous juried competitions (including sending work abroad). My success in those endeavours allowed me to build a cv that I used when applying to commercial galleries. The kids knew that if they approached me after 9 p.m., they might get mummy, or, if I were working on something (I worked at home at that time), they might get monster mummy. At present, my work is in several commercial galleries in the province. I have exhibited my work internationally, and won awards. Sales are decent, and growing. The pension I earned from my job, and my current sales, pays for a lovely high-ceilinged studio in a heritage building downtown Toronto, as well as travel (when that was something one could do). I suspect that if I had committed to a life in art, (as opposed to a job with a pension) i would be much more “successful” than I am at present. But I am fortunate to be able to paint as much as I want, to have a modicum of success, and to continue to enjoy my creative life.

  9. this is very true, don’t wait until inspiration comes. as an Artist , it is our responsibility to create . no matter what if you have the passion, determination , you can make it happen share your art to the world.

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