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:

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.

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)

The following are selected responses to the above letter. Thank you for writing.


Part-time and amateur
by Sven Jensen, Denmark

In other words, whether you are part or full time, in order to make progress in the game you must be prepared to “live it.” Thus you are able to stew about problems while pedaling your bicycle, and leave idea generation to the night power of your subconscious. (The Goddess of Sleep Repair) This is not a job for dilettantes. The big realization is that there is no correlation between “part time” and “amateur.”


No ambitions
by Annette Lirey, Orleans, France

I’m willing to bet that many artists have no ambitions to be anything but occasional painters, who derive a certain amount of joy (as well as challenge) out of the activity. The idea of selling and becoming “successful” is only a remote dream which in most cases is not to be realized. I prefer that it remain that way.


Part-time tips
by Jack White


“The Clown”
oil on canvas, 20 x 16 inches
by Jack White

Since you first suggested I give a few free copies of my book on marketing art I have been covered up with requests. I’ve emailed over 300 free copies. The book is 120K words long. The wonderful benefit is the letters I am getting back. I think the overwhelming majority of the questions I am receiving are on working a full time job and trying to find time to make art. Not all are painters… many sculpt, make collages, crafts, jewelry or photographs. Regardless of their choice or medium they face the same dilemma of time. Women with children have the added guilt of motherhood, full time employment and the tugging of her heart to do her art. The truth of the matter is most artists begin this way. Few just jump into art and start earning a living. In fact few earn a living period. Of the close to 22 million who label themselves artist in North America less than 10% of those even earn $1,000 a year. So a day job is essential. I look at it as the first rung on a ladder. It is the necessary step to reach the top. Look at the day job (or night in some cases) as a stepping stone to the next level. Have a designated work area where you can leave your supplies out. Plan in your mind during the day what you will be doing to your art project in the evening after all the other chores are complete. If you have your art work station ready to go, then you can walk in and begin to work. Two hours a night can be very productive if you work on the project the entire two hours. Three hours and you have used you highest creative energy period. After three hours it is proven the creative energy begins to wane. I personally find if I’m working on an intense project I need a break after four hours. Lunch and some physical exercise. Then I’m ready for four more strong hours of working. The fact is… if you want to be an artist… you will have to find a way to marry the day job with your art career. They both must travel together or they will each fall short.


Get a gallery and work overtime
Denise Bezanson (art dealer)

You didn’t mention Tania’s age, but I have a few comments. If she is an artist who is just starting out, if she can put together a body of work (10 – 20 paintings), then she can take it to a gallery, and try to get a show going, or just some sales, so her art will start supplementing her income, until she can quit her day job.

Painting and working at the same time is difficult. The way to become a better painter is to paint, and paint, and paint, and paint some more. However, in order to get started in anything one often has to work overtime. I have gone to both day and night school to finish college in half the time, and I have worked 2 jobs to get somewhere. But I do think that that kind of effort is best for the young.

(RG note) I have not in the past, do not currently, and do not intend in the future, to ask a woman’s age.


Perfectly doable
by Anonymous

Not perfect, but perfectly doable, being a part-time artist or author. I know of a number of commercially successful authors and one artist who have busy, full-time law practices. (No names, to protect the not-so-innocent.) Those who really rocket, like John Grisham, can opt for staying in the same work routine, or “quitting the day job”. The distinction is that the resolve required to do this must be grown and fostered, which adds to the time in the beginning, but once one has of necessity done that and learned to “switch headspaces” one finds that the discipline has made easier and faster the release of creativity and energy. The resolve has been honed. It’s analogous to burning the same amount of calories in a one-mile run or a five-mile walk. Higher attrition rate at the beginning for the run, but a fitter, faster, more graceful athlete is the person who stays that course.


Puttering turns into painting
by Bob McMurray, Cloverdale, BC, Canada

I have difficulty at certain times of the year finding any time at all for the physical act of painting but that does not stop me thinking about it. When I have a painting in mind and I’m anxious to execute it but may go weeks or months without starting I find that my subconscious is planning it so that when I put brush to canvas the painting seems to almost paint itself and all of the problem areas have already been worked out. Having realized this, I make a point of going through selected reference material frequently so the images are fresh on my mind. Oddly enough, some of my more successful work has taken upwards of a year to start. I also make a point, when I have only small segments of time, to putter. I prepare ground with underpainting, sketch in subject matter, clean brushes, update my record of paintings, etc. Frequently, my puttering turns into all-out painting, regardless of the time of day or evening.


Studio as safe haven
by Christine Parson, Dashington, DC, USA

The trick to holding a job and working as an artist is to regard the studio as a haven. Whether you make art or just rest, meditate, read, the studio becomes your place of safety and repose. By making it your safe harbor you are then able to work at your art. It is a place of renewal. By making your art in the safe harbor, you can focus on the art and leave the world behind. You needn’t make art immediately when you enter the studio, although sometimes you will; but sometimes you will need to collect your thoughts, try a new color, feel a paper, read a book, meditate, enter into the peace of the place so that you can move toward your art. If you have an ongoing project, i.e. preparing for a show, it is easier to move directly into painting. But sometimes, you must just rest in the harbor after the storm of the outside world.


Juggling for art
by Gwen Pentecost, Los Angeles, California, USA

Tania Bourne has a problem familiar to many of us. Here’s my secrets:

1. I work for a city where we have an accelerated work week – we work 80 hours in 9 days and get every other Friday off. So every other weekend I have a 3 day weekend instead of two. I do the business side of paintings in the evening if I have any energy left… and I prep canvases, everything that doesn’t require “creative” time.

2. I got a maid/cleaning service every other week, would do every week if I could. Took me 33 years to do this step.

3. I dropped my standards of what level of housecleaning was acceptable. Now weekends aren’t spent cleaning house unless it is something dreadful, because I know that every two weeks Jeff will come and bail us out.

4. I insisted my husband participate in the chores.
5. I set aside one day of each weekend as sacrosanct and devoted to painting, whether outside or inside.

6. I’m in and out of my studio all week long, looking at what I’ve been doing, and keeping the “spirit” of the work alive so I don’t have trouble connecting to it when I get a chance to actually paint.

I no longer have children at home any more, which also helps.

This may seem a bit ruthless, but is better than my turning into a screaming banshee.


Elusive time
by Deborah Russell, Lutherville, Maryland, USA

I enjoy my easel time very much. For me time slips casually out the door when I am not looking then wandering for a while, to return unexpectedly while I am standing in front of the mirror washing my face. Time seems to have an odd sense of humor and I laugh sometimes. I never seem to be “on time” or “have the time” and of course I never wear a watch so I can not “keep time” nor do I usually “know what time it is” and that is okay by me. My days and nights are filled with writing poetry and creating art. Still time intervenes and rudely interrupts my thoughts and dreams with notions of being important. The Goddess of Sleep Repair? Lets just say she and I are very close friends.


Can be done
by Barbara Mason, Aloha, Oregon, USA

Can an artist build a career with a day job? Sure, most have done so. If you don’t do this you can’t have freedom to make the work you want and will find someone else is managing your creative direction. You are doing what the gallery wants, or what sells, or what customers want. You forget about what you want yourself if you aren’t careful. If you set hours like it is a second job you will be more successful than if you do it arbitrarily.


Busy mother
by Kim Wyatt, El Cajon, California, USA

Work full time and have a career as an artist. Is it possible? It must be. Otherwise what other hope do I have of fulfilling my dreams? If there is no other hope of fulfilling my dreams, what use is there for me to carry on with my life as an artist? And since I’ve always been an artist, I believe I was born an artist, what other choice has my path in life left me?

I work 40 hours a week and have a husband and 2 kids. I work on my art everyday. I draw paint research and market. I do this all the time. It is my relaxation activity. It may be work, in one sense. But it is more than that. It is my interest in art that keeps me going. I love to read. I can read “Plastics as an Art Form” by Thelma R. Newman with just as much excitement as a paperback novel by one of my favorite authors Tammy Hoag. When my husband and kids play video games I draw & paint. When I take my kids to the park, zoo, amusement park or beach I always bring my sketchbook and camera.


Two careers
by Lorna Dockstader, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

I have had two careers for the past fifteen years of my life, one as a professional artist who shows in four galleries and one as a geophysical technologist who works on a Unix Sparc workstation creating seismic base maps and interpretive projects three days a week. Working part-time three days instead of five as I did for twenty years before has made all of the difference to me. When I know ahead of time that I will be painting from Thursday until Sunday (sometimes I rest on Sundays) I find that while I’m at work I am constantly in anticipation of my painting time. By Thursday morning I can’t wait to get into my studio and being used to awakening at 5:30 A.M. for my other job has helped immensely. I can sleep in until 6:30 and start painting by 7:00 A.M I am considering switching to painting five days a week and don’t know if I’ll accomplish as much as I do now; however, having more time to read, to exercise and to travel is becoming more appealing as I get older. Not an easy decision.


You may be interested to know that artists from 87 countries, as well as every state in the USA and all provinces in Canada have visited these sites since January 1, 2001.

That includes Johan Tiedemann of Hamburg, Germany who writes, “These worldwide responses are the ultimate in democracy. What a great thing. What a classic!”

And Randel Rogers who is in the process of tendering her resignation as an adult.

And Matthew Wood of Arundel, UK, who says, “The letters apply as well to my job as a technologist and musician.”

Useful information and opinion can be found in the responses to the previous letter “Time travel,” which deals with similar challenges.



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