Sunday, July 3, 2011

Art Careers - Once and Future Street Artist

This month's posts may be interrupted by my being as busy as a cat at a dog show. Because my daughter Kitten got her dream house with 20 acres of land here in Russellville, Arkansas, we all need to move out on August 1st. I can't live alone in Arkansas. I don't have all of my prescriptions since the state limits me to three and I have five, also one of them was hung up in paperwork for the past six months. That limits my body energy and ability to function.

I'm isolated in a rural area because I don't own a car and I'm that bloke who can walk, but not too far. Just like the one in the Scooter Store commercial.

Since I'd have to move out of state, I'm going home to the city I've loved ever since I first set foot there. Got some amazing good news about it too.

I've got nearly affordable housing in a Single Room Occupancy residence hotel very similar to the one I lived in when I left San Francisco. Shared group bath similar to what you'd get at the YMCA means I don't have to clean it myself. This way of life cuts the amount of housework I need to do to an absolute minimum - allowing me to spend as much time and body energy possible on painting, drawing, writing and teaching!

Best of all, San Francisco Arts Commission has a street art program that's absolutely splendid, even better than the one in New Orleans. Instead of "A" license spots that cost over $500 a year for licensing and have high traffic with a five year waiting list to get one and "B" license spots for $29 a year (1990s prices) with much lower traffic, San Francisco handles the setup spots differently. All new street artists and crafters pay a high license fee over $600 a year.

We all also get a random daily lottery for who gets the "A" spots. That's like getting an "A" license to start out with. Tourism isn't seasonal but year round. The city's micro climate has weather comparable to a Midwestern autumn... the best time of year for me when I lived in the Midwest. San Francisco is the one place I've ever lived that I didn't have a bad season.

So why not go back to work as soon as I get set up with MediCal, Food Stamps and In Home Supportive Services? Every one of the health reasons I had for retiring from street art in the 1990s is solved.

Seasonal? Nope, I don't need to earn enough to pay double rent (pay for a summer month) in the winter, just earn enough to live modestly for that month and build a bit of savings. If I'm $50 or $100 ahead at the end of the month it's enough to keep growing my savings. Mobility? MediCal will get me a power chair because I need it, whether or not I ever earned a living again in my life. Don't have the body energy to both work and take care of my apartment living alone? That's what In Home Supportive Services is - a personal assistant who helps disabled people with the tasks they can't do on their own.

It's easier for me to do a pastel painting than it is to take a shower without help. It's possible to draw, but not to vacuum my own floor or dust my books. I live with multiple disabilities. The things I do well, I do very, very well. The everyday tasks of living that anyone else does without thinking about it are impossible or so difficult that they're not cost effective. Think about what life would be like if it took you all day to do the dishes, not because you let them stack up for a month but because you have to sit down and rest after doing two or three of them each time, then still take a day off afterward to rest up.

I'll sit at the easel. I'll set up in ways that work around my limits instead of driving myself into the ground the way I did in New Orleans. At first, I'll have help from an In House Supportive Services assistant for setup and breakdown and bringing me to my assigned booth space. Later on, once I'm settled in, I'll take an apprentice from a homeless shelter and trade teaching for labor, then get a new one every time I graduate one with the skills to become a street artist.

This lesson isn't about creating art, it's about art careers.

You don't have to be a fine artist in an upscale gallery to earn a living on art. Whoever said to you "no one makes a living at art" never looked at a cereal box in their life and thought about who drew the cartoons on it. How you make a living on art depends on what kind of life you want to live.

If you want the security of a middle class job with benefits and a regular paycheck, consider all the commercial art careers available. It's a competitive field, but commercial art schools are very practical. You'll be able to render anything you want in a wide variety of media and paint what you like on your off time.

Children's book illustrator and magazine/website illustrator is a freelance career that takes the same skills. Commercial art school or its equivalent is a good thing, so that you can develop a strong personal style and a preferred genre or type of work you shine in.

Graphic design and digital art pay well too. Animation pays well if you work within a studio like Disney or Pixar, a friend of mine from New Orleans practiced cartooning long enough that he was offered a job at Disney that included training. If you want to be more independent but like cartooning, consider an independent web comic for side money. Write it, draw it, get the whole story done first and then post it online weekly or daily with affiliate ads supporting it. Free to readers is a good idea till it takes off big, put the proceeds into advertising and set up the books by volume as each story finishes.

Best thing to do is to stay several months ahead of your posting schedule. Do the art and writing ahead of time, then post at the same time on your update days with no interruptions. People will subscribe and eventually buy the print on demand book. That's something you can do on the side with a day job and eventually turn into a career if you promote it well.

Etsy is a good market for slow sales with low listing fees for fixed price listings. You get six months on a listing for twenty cents. No one will notice it unless you advertise it and make it public on your blog, link to your Etsy shop in your signature, otherwise get the news out online. Zazzle, RedBubble, DeviantArt and many other hosts will allow you to sell prints of your best work online. Best thing you can do to boost print sales is to advertise them, especially anywhere the ads are topical to the theme of your work.

If you want to just paint what you like and sell fine art, daily painting can be a good option. Carol Marine makes a good living with eBay listings that start at $100 minimum bid for 6" square daily art paintings posted on her daily art blog. Develop a strong style as she has, and you don't even have to specialize in one particular subject. She alternates still lifes, landscapes and figures more or less in those proportions, the still lifes most often but she's done series with cars or travel scenes or people that appealed to her.

If you have a favorite subject, consider turning that into a niche market. Paleo Art is a very competitive niche market with some incredibly skilled artists who are also paleontology researchers, doing reconstructions for scientific publication as well as movie posters and so on. If you love something, paint it so often that you're good at it and start marketing to everyone else who loves it. Millions of people online and you don't need all of them as your customers to make a living. Advertising in niche websites and magazines is a good idea for that approach.

I first considered doing "Cat Portraits" as a specialty when I saw ads for cat portraitists in the back of Cat Fancy magazine as a teenager. They looked prosperous from the ads, their prices were high and their work was original. I got the impression they showed up at cat shows too, where someone who has a winner is so thrilled they want a good portrait of their champion done in oils or pastels.

Finally, there's my own little-known personal art career, the one I stumbled into when I was broke in New Orleans and the art markets at Midwestern media conventions slumped to where I wasn't making my expenses plus my rent. I decided that if I was good enough to sell portraits of movie and TV stars at conventions, I could do portraits of less famous people on the street.

I had just one commercial subject - portraits of people. Most of the other art I did wasn't selling, I wasn't that good at it yet. My landscapes stank. My dragons were off topic for New Orleans tourists and my fondness for tropical fish wasn't exactly city related either even though I liked the colors.

It was enough. I went down to Jackson Square and talked to the artists there to find out what I needed to do to start. They steered me to the licensing office in City Hall, where I paid $29 for a "B" license that was a little photo ID to clip on my collar or pocket. That was it. I went out that Saturday with a $10 display easel, a folding table to hold my pastels and a couple of lawn chairs. I had a box of 30 assorted Grumbacher pastels and some quarter sheets of Canson Mi-Tientes paper.

I lucked. That was at the start of tourist season. I'd sold 23 portraits by the end of that weekend, $15 for black and white on your choice of mid-tone paper, $25 for color. This was in 1993 or so. I ended the weekend with over $500 in hand, the color sketches sold better than the black and white by a lot.

I went back to Dixie Art Supply and bought the 30 Skin Tones box to go with 30 Assorted that very first day, after I got my rent paid. I was only paying $200 for a month's rent in the French Quarter at the time. I was living high on the hog!

I wasn't very good when I started. My first few looked awful to me compared to the meticulously overdetailed graphite drawings I was selling at the conventions, copied from photos. I kept my mouth shut about them because I did get the likeness and just wasn't that used to pastel - to working looser with less detail and more feeling.

By the end of Saturday I was beginning to hit my stride and get used to the lack of detail. My freehand proportions were getting better. By the end of the weekend I wasn't embarrassed about them any more - they were as good as any of the other "B" license artists and selling like mad at the average "B" license prices.

Over in Jackson Square the pastelists charged several hundred dollars for a full sheet portrait and took all day at it, or sketches around $50 or so. It varied with skill and experience. Those heavyweights, all of them, owned wood box Sennelier sets ranging from 200 to 525 colors. Dixie Art Supply stocked the wood box big range Sennelier sets and the full range in replacements. They sold other pastels too, but Sennelier was the big seller.

I wanted that giant set and an "A" license so bad I could taste it. I used to spend my off days hanging around with the good artists, studying what they did.

I made some big mistakes. I started carrying too much stuff to my setup because I had a wheeled cart, gradually damaging my back. I needed to rest too often for days before going out again. I moved to a larger apartment that was farther away - big mistake. I kept dreaming of getting something like an electric golf cart to drive from my apartment to the setup instead of walking - but the farther away I moved, teh harder it was to get out and do it.

I made it through one summer the hard way, working too many days. The second summer, I couldn't afford air conditioning and got very sick.

I didn't understand that I had physical disabilities reducing my mobility far more than just a bad back. I thought that was depression. I didn't understand that I was living with chronic fatigue. I thought I was just lazy. I didn't understand that I had chronic pain. I had no idea how other people felt! I ached a lot. So did everyone I knew, at least judging from their complaints, so I didn't want to be a whiner.

If I had normal physical abilities, legs the same length and a strong back, able to stand at an easel all day - I'd never have retired or wound up on SSI. Nowhere I've lived since then have I met any street artist or crafter who retired. They stay active and within five years of startup, usually become homeowners or get very good apartments right on top of their setup space. The historic Pontchartrain Apartments were very popular for many of the street artists - no commute, just roll the art cart from your front door to your spot on the fence and set up.

Some of the "A" license artists had been doing it since the 1940s. Some of the other old timers drove in from houses they owned in less expensive neighborhoods, offloaded their carts and setup, then drove to park or got a spouse to park the car. They had families. It was a lifestyle choice more than anything else.

After that I went on a downward spiral. I did some other things for a living, spent one year reading tarot cards out in Jackson Square because the readers weren't licensed - we just had to move on if an artist wanted the spot. That worked until I got sick. By then I wasn't even living in the French Quarter and the walk to transit was too much for me.

Now, I've got a San Francisco address in a residence hotel where I will have minimal housekeeping chores at home. I'll have in home supportive services to help with the ones I can't do living in a single room, plus the IHSS assistant is supposed to have a car and drive me on personal errands including just going places for fun, not just grocery and barber shop. Until I get my power chair and a routine going with the short bus, my assistant can help me set up and break down at first.

Later on, I'll get an apprentice who wants to learn to draw and teach the street art trade, labor for labor. When they're good enough to do portraits or scenery in a quick, salable medium like watercolor or pastels, I'll graduate that year's apprentice and get a new one.

What this career takes is two things. You need to learn to draw or paint at least one popular subject well enough that non-artists will give you cash for it. Something like a journeyman level of art skill. Master decorative painting like Donna Dewberry and put it on canvases if you live somewhere the style is popular. You also need to be an extrovert, enjoy performing in public and painting in front of other people.

I always did, so I was a perfect match for it other than my disabilities. It's not for the shy. But if you like getting attention and can still paint while getting attention, it's great. I fell into a "teaching" mode with my patter, answering questions about the medium and then explaining just enough more that the mini-lesson enriched the experience - and kept my sitter still and listening rather than fidgeting and bored.

The environment you need if you're right for street art is to live in a popular tourist destination. Get around and learn to paint local landmarks, all the usual sites. Best is if the city or the city's arts commission licenses it - that way you won't be asked to move on by the police for selling in public. Licensing protects you and your interests.

San Francisco doesn't jury street artists for quality. That's you meet the market and find out if they like it, learn or change your style till they do. Quality is your responsibility. What the screening does is establish to the committee's satisfaction that you are the artist or crafter who did these works by hand, yourself, and all prints or derived products are done from your designs.

They shut out the importers who can get factory-made paintings in countries with a low cost of living and just do the "Selling" end of it, marketing works done sub minimum wage for pennies on the dollar. You don't have to compete with their low, low prices, you can set a reasonable price for your crafts or art and sell whatever sells most, adapting till you know your market.

It's good to have a couple of spectacular, big-ticket pieces out that most tourists can't afford. They attract attention and then they'll buy a print or a smaller original. Once in a while these display pieces sell because someone with a lot of vacation money hit your booth first and can't resist it.

Crafters do as well as artists in this trade. I knew many jewelry makers, including one of the first innovators doing chain maille headdresses and hand flowers. She's booked solid for her large works by commission but still sells the small items fast. She's middle class like most successes.

People doing street art or crafts don't wind up homeless. You do as much work as you want to and then save up a bit for hard times, you can take off or keep going to build your reserves and stock. Jewelers sink a lot of money into stock once they've matured, have lots of stones and precious metals to play with - but could start over again with silver wire and beads if they had to, as one fellow who got robbed of $10,000 in stock had to do. He wasn't homeless. He borrowed a little money and sold some cheap pieces and built up again.

I am the only street artist I know of who ever became homeless, and that was because I was disabled and didn't know it. If I had known, I'd have gotten the mobility aids I needed and moved closer to my setup rather than farther away. I'd have gotten air conditioning and spent my summers on gallery art, selling on the street during tourist season.

It's not too late to mend those mistakes. I'm going home to the city I've always loved most to do the job I always loved most. As I reach every step in the process of getting out there, I'll blog updates on this process in detail. I'm getting ready to quit my day job as cripple.

There's more than one way to make a living as an artist - and more than one path to your ultimate career. Most of the "A" license painters were also represented in several galleries. That's what they did all summer, serious large works. They went back to the street because they loved it and that's where they got inspiration. That's where I do too.

So if you want to bring your art up to a level where you can do it full time, look at all the possibilities. Look at how you want to live, where you want to live, what working conditions you want, what type of art you most want to do. Then plan accordingly, go to school or self teach, map a path that fits you as you really are. They are all good ways to make a living - and every one of them you can answer "Artist" when someone asks what you do.


  1. Wonderful post. I've saved this one to the hard drive. All the best.

  2. A lot of people can learn alot from this BLOG Robert. Thank you so much for sharing your bittersweet story. i am inspired by your positivity and way of dealing with obstacles as they arise. i wish you all the best.

  3. Thank you both! So glad you enjoyed it. This is so great. I want to keep this blog and Rob's Art Supply Reviews updated weekly, missed a week on the reviews but that's not as bad as the gaps it had before. Please pass the link on to your friends!


  4. Robert - You are an inspiration to us all! I do worry about you and your move to SF, but I cheer you on to your goal and your dream! Your enthusiam and dedication to your endeavors are unrivaled - oh, if we all were that dedicated to our dreams!

  5. Thank you, Susan! I can understand why you're worried. I've got a few worries too, none of them are about moving to San Francisco or doing Street Art again for a living. That's the hope.

    San Francisco has the best climate for me, the best opportunities for me to become self employed again and the most comprehensive social services of anywhere I've ever lived. Gaps that I fell through in other states are closed by either social services or local nonprofits. I found help at every step of the way.

    The director of a subsidized housing program that got me out of the homeless shelter in Westchester, NY answered some reasonable questions about future rent if I became self supporting again on self published fiction with "We're not here to talk about your aspirations. This is about reality."

    The book paid out six times over. A nonfiction art book would pay a hundred times more than that did, more mainstream topic and nonfiction pays better.

    San Francisco's social services people were great. All of them literally welcomed me back to the city. Their tone changed immediately when I said "Disabled street artist." I heard relief in their joy.

    They know they're giving me a hand up and unless I get run over by a truck, I won't be on social services indefinitely. I'm in a stable occupation that'll turn middle class in about five years. Bills that are scary now, like insurance and paying $408 out of pocket for in home supportive services type help from a private agency, will become routine.

    Street art to me is the ultimate in economic security. If I'm short, I go out again and work a few more hours. If I want something extra, I don't hurt my budget, I do a few extra paintings to pay for it and I'm good.

    I have a few one-off expenses to get started, but I'm also planning to apply for a Modest Needs grant to pay for my first license. If they can give me a full year license, then my first earnings can go toward immediate independence rather than saving up for renewal first thing.

    I'd love it if I don't have to move because I just got into the system, got all my needs lined up and then replaced SSI with living on my art again because I'm finally in the best conditions to do the job I always loved most in the one place in the country I always loved most. I think I stand a good chance of doing it too!

  6. Robert, like always, I love your post. Inspirational, real and full of feelings.

  7. Very inspiring Robert!!! Thanks for Sharing.

  8. Thank you! Glad all three of you enjoyed it. Might be a little slow on updates because the move itself is exhausting, but I'll be back to writing more very soon after I get settled in San Francisco.