Surviving as an artist in a bad economy

Sigh. Money sucks. Well, no, money is fine, just dandy in fact. It’s worrying about money that sucks. When I made the decision to become a self-employed artist, I knew that it would mean a lot of work. I was trading a decent, steady income for something much more fluid and random. And I was ok with that (and yes, my wife was ok with that too). I was trading a dull, grinding job in corporate design for a job that tapped into all of my skills, and allowed me to stretch and grow. My income would go way down, but my satisfaction would go way up. At least that was the theory. And back when the economy was doing fine, this was all ok. But now, when the economy is sinking like a leaky boat, that once confident decision gets a little more… stressful.

I constantly question if I made the right choice. If I had stayed with that corporate job, I’d probably have a large salary and a huge portfolio of work right now. I’d be pretty high up in the ranks in some swanky office. Sure, I might be miserable, or at best bored. But I’d be secure. Right?

Maybe. When I look around, I see so many friends and family with “stable careers” who are now out of work. Cutbacks and layoffs have made their secure jobs not so safe any more. One nice benefit of working for yourself is that you can’t be laid off. You may not be bringing in the money like you should, but at least no one can take away your ability to make money.

My career isn’t stable or predictable, true. It’s a non-stop roller coaster ride. And as I white-knuckle the safety rail before another crazy hill, I may look longingly at those calmly riding the ferris wheel. But would I trade it all in for what they have? (Deep breath.) No, not willingly. This ride may be crazy, but it has also been the most satisfying job I have had. It takes everything I got just to keep going. And as unstable as it is, it is at least in my control.

It’s up to me and whatever skills and ideas I can muster up to keep afloat. Whatever challenges I face, I have to face them alone. But there is no safety net when you work for yourself. As the economy tightens, I have no one to rely on but myself, and I am constantly made aware of the sharp reality of my own limitations. And that freaks me out! But at least I have the chance to try. At least the control over my life is in my own hands, instead of constantly worrying if today’s the day I get laid off.

But that also means embracing the craziness of being a professional artist in a scary economy. That means constantly going over numbers, stressing over every expense, and worrying about bringing in money for our family. That means constantly wondering if I am doing everything I can to find new buyers, new markets, new sales. The answer is usually, no, there is a lot more I can do, a lot more I have to do. And that is scary, because I’m the only one here.

Did I make the right decision, years ago, to give up my design career for this crazy life? From an economic sense, no, not at all. But from an emotional sense, yes. I can only hope that as the economy continues to play chicken with us, that I can hang on, and can keep this career going.


Daniel, hang in there! You create beautiful art that enriches the lives of those who appreciate it. Very few artists ever achieved success without the loving and enthusiastic support of their family and mentors and it sounds like you have that.

Hi Daniel,

I think one of the several hard aspects of being a self-employed artist (or just being self-employed) is uncertainty and accepting that as part of the job. If we can embrace change and uncertainty, then we often open other possibilities into our life/business. I know that doesn’t necessarily help pay the bills or bring in the orders, but if we realize this as part of the job description it sometimes makes these rough spots a little easier to accept.


Interesting and honest. Look forward and never look back. I often find myself wondering “what if” but any guesses of what could have been is probably only speculation.

It could have ended up in a worse situation only looking over from the other side of the fence wishing the same things.

A well thought out post Daniel!

I was talking with my brother the other day.
He said that my current situation is like sailing.
Many enjoy the challenge of sailing, using the winds, hoping that they can navigate those waters without ever having to crank up that engine.
If the winds die down, one needs to find them again.
If they do not find those winds, then they may have to resort to using the engine.
He said that using that engine is like having to go back to work with the other guy, … and just how long will that engine last anyway?
A good sailor will eventually find those winds in the calmest weather.

I think that you know what I am talking about, and I have the same feelings/concerns that you do.
Right now, … I am not trying to reinvent the wheel or anything like that, … but I am making sure that those wheels that I do have are in good order, … to make them last, … to get me to where I need to be in these craziest of times!
The only thing I do have to reinvent or change I should say, … is my path.

I feel like I’m rambling a bit.
My lunch was more like three dinners, … and now I’m sleepy! : )

Hang in there buddy.
I bet that you will be just fine overall!


Wow, everyone seems to be having the same concerns this week. The way I figure….if artists like yourself and Michael (and me) can hang on through these rough times we should be in a strategic position later on down the road. At least that’s what I’m hoping as I struggle to figure out how to pay the bills to keep producing the prints and doing the shows.

Atta girl Roberta!

“Positioning” is a key element right now for future growth, and producing something uniquely different from the norm will stand out in the minds of many buyers, even for those who don’t have a single dime to spend at the moment.
Eventually, ….. they will.
Hopefully I will be ready for it!
In fact, I have created more imagery within the past 4 months than I have created in the past 5 years.
Now is the time for creativity, … all across the board!

Adapt, keep looking ahead, … and survive!

The disposable, discretionary income is out there in the hands of collectors who need what you bring into the world through your unique set of talents and gifts and we are all going to find new and ways to reach them.

Well said, I’d only add that you may actually have an advantage…You’ve been “managing your employment” for a while now. There are many others who are losing jobs that have no idea what to do next. They don’t have the self-employment skills you have. So you are ahead of the pack in more than emotional ways.

Thank you everyone for contributing to this conversation. It’s good to hear from so many people also attempting to do this “impossible” thing.

Michael, I love your friends metaphor or sailing vs using a motor! It perfectly captures what it is all about to work for yourself. In my corporate job, I got tired of swabbing the deck as the motor chugged us forward, towards who knows what. But sailing my own ship, ah, that is much better! Even when the seas all around are crazy and turbulent, there is just such a satisfying feeling from having your hands on the ropes, feeling the wind catch the sails, and knowing it’s up to me.

Stephen: I am constantly wondering “what if”. In my last job, I had the chance to give this very talented woman her big break. And since then, I’ve been watching her grow and take on all the jobs I might’ve had if I had stayed on that course. It’s like seeing a version of myself in a parallel universe! Some days I see what’s she’s accomplish, and I am so jealous. But other days, I am happy for her, and also so thankful for where I am.

Thought provoking post. It seems that just about every profession, artist included, has been hit by the state of the economy. What is so wonderful is that you are able to recognize that in an emotional sense, you made the right decision and are right where you ought to be!

I enjoyed reading your article and it does touch home for me. I left an engineering career after 27 years, partially by choice and downsizing of the company. I now work as a flight attendant to help cover expenses and pursue my love of photography. I have not gone full time into the business but am currently writing my business plan. Exciting, intimidating. I just found you blog and will try to read on a regular basis.

Monte: that sounds like a great approach. Please share with us your plan once you get it together!

Having a business plan is key — so many ideas sound cool, but just don’t make business sense when you run the numbers. For example, I see so many people on Etsy selling their photographs for $10-20. But when I calculate how many they’d have to sell to make a decent income, and determine how much time it’d take to produce and ship that many orders, it is staggering.

Nice article! I agree. Freelance is maybe tough, but you can unleash your creativity in a lot of other ways, which otherwise are ‘forbidden’ for you, while you work in a corporate environment.

Sometimes money is a problem, yes. But apart from that, you may feel much better, when you work for yourself, when you do what want when you want… 🙂


You could have written a blog post for me and it would have mirrored my own situation. Thanks for expressing it so well. It’s reinforcing for me to hear it. Even if everything were to go wrong for us economically, I wouldn’t regret my decision. Time spent with my daughter (a son in your case), and the opportunity to drive your own future……all worth it.

Greetings Everyone!

Dan, I loved your blog! It brought a tear to my eye because I understand everything fully!
I just started a graphic design business and been holding on my own now for 5 going on 6 months now and barely able to hold head above water, but I’m doing it! Most of these posts were recorded back in 2009 and now it’s fast forward into 2012 and the economy isn’t any better, so it seems, its worse.

It seemed to me that back then (2009) when I was just freelancing and working as a pizza delivery driver, I was making “ok” money with website design and such – but now, it’s very hard to even sell anything! I have started to barter/trade for certain services because there seems to be more and more people out of work and/or can’t or won’t spend the money but are more willing to trade. So far, I have gotten some pretty neat things but – this doesn’t pay bills too well.

Like most of us here, worry about money almost every moment and it’s scary and how am I going to make it all the time!

I do count my blessings though, I started up with very little money, $500 investment and now have an office with computers and everything I need. My output is low compared to most but again, I live in California where everything is 3x more than anywhere else and luckly, my partner works but now, it’s for less money for a much harder job or position but hey, keeps us going each moment – I should say! She was however, unemployed for a short period of time last year but was able to find a new job but with of course less pay. We can’t complain too much!

But with the economy right now, I’m not able to help out very much with household bills but to only re-invest back into business to “keep” my job and to keep myself “open” to future and random paychecks. My partner is wonderful though and she’s co-owner of the business and if fully supportive of me, and I’m so greatful for that!

I chose to go into business because I have some medical issues that I can’t be too physical anymore – due to a bad car wreck (20 years ago), my lower back became very damaged. I have a bad fusion (two bones in lower back (lumbar) -fused together) so I’m limited on how long I can stand, walk, sit and lift. I was on short-term disability for awhile because I blew it out pretty good while delivering pizzas. I over did it! I ignored my pain and worked anyways until I couldn’t walk anymore. Doctors worried that I would be eventually stuck in a wheelchair! Surgery was too risky because of my small bones and size however I refused that thought of a wheelchair!

So, I had no choice but to leave the pizza job because I couldn’t walk for 8 months. Luckly, by the power of will to walk again and my refusal of a wheelchair, I’m recovered but with limitiations. I am so greatful that I am able to walk and still function – somewhat normally! I do fine, but have to take it easy and I have help when I can’t lift something or anything labor physically, but I’m a strong trooper!

I’m a great artist (I can always improve) and I love what I do and wish I can meet others like me and share stories because it does help to know that I’m not alone in this. I just want to create, share and be happy. God Bless All of you and Thanks!