5 strategies for creative living.

“Starving artist” is a common trope for a reason; we’re often starving. And I think that people get pretty squeamish when talking about money, especially artists because we’re afraid of fitting that stereotype. I’ve certainly had my run-ins with bank overdraft fees, so I get it. My goal with this post is to share a little of my personal story about how I’ve actually made things work as an artist. So let’s keep it real: I have no idea what I’m doing and I’ve managed to do it since 2013.

Maybe I’ll share the ins and outs of my story in a chronological fashion another time. But for the purpose of this post I’m just going to share five specific realizations and strategies I’ve used since then that have helped me make things work.

Think about work/trade living situations.
When I first decided it was time to get serious about art, I couldn’t pay rent. Which, is kind of a problem. But something people don’t talk about very much is that rent isn’t the hard and fast rule that people think it is.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. This isn’t about doing things the easy way or getting out of anything. It’s about allocating your resources and deciding how you want to spend your time. Once you start looking down this road, you’ll find artist residencies, work/trade living situations, jobs that include housing, van life, etc.
You’ll have to put yourself out there and be a little aggressive sometimes. I’ve lived in some wild situations, and since I own virtually nothing, it’s been easy to go from opportunity to opportunity as they’ve presented themselves.
Now I know that we aren’t all that mobile, and we don’t all want to move that much. That’s okay. All I’m saying is if you’re at a crossroads, consider and investigate other ways of living. It can be either a short-term plan, or a long-term strategy.
One of my best friends found an incredible living situation where she feeds horses in exchange for a beautiful apartment. I’ve found multiple jobs now that included housing for part-time work, leaving me free the rest of the time to focus on my art. And I know many, many artists who have lived for months or years in residency programs or fellowships.
Again, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. This isn’t about going out and looking for handouts or favors. It’s about opening yourself up to another way to solve the problem of a living situation. There are alternatives out there if you’re interested, and it might be a life changing, awesome thing to investigate it.
A great place to start if you’re interested in this is: www.artistcommunities.org
It’s a (reasonably) comprehensive list of the residencies and fellowships available to artists around the world. I have found many opportunities through this site, including a job that lasted two years.

Cut way down on expenses. 
This one is obvious. It sucks, but it’s obvious.
It’ll look different for everyone. For me, it’s looked like avoiding lots of debt.
Over the past five years I have identified and paired down all my needs to a specific dollar amount. I know exactly how much I need each month to survive, and how much I need to thrive. And I’ve been real with myself about what my needs are and what I can and can’t do without.
To be clear: not much gets under my skin. I also have no pets, kids, school loans, car loans, or cell-phone contracts. Not everyone is that untethered, nor should they be. My needs are very simple and most of what I like in life is free or very cheap.
Not everyone will be as low maintenance as I am. Some people will be lower. Either is totally fine. Whatever the case, I think if you want to pursue a creative life, you may need to make peace with some budget cuts at some point. And you’ll probably need to get creative with your finances too.
There are billions of resources out there on how to handle your money better, this isn’t one of them. It’s just my personal experience that budgeting well opens up a lot of doors.

Don’t say “no” very often.
I think one of the things that’s propelled my life more than anything is that I just don’t say no very often. If you give me a book, I’ll read it. If you invite me to a seminar, I’ll be there. I open far more doors than I close, and I have always been amazed at what happens to people when they say yes more often.
Don’t get me wrong. Some things are just stupid and you don’t have to invite every moron with a creative idea into your life. “No” is an awesome word and I love to shut the door on dumb ideas. But, if you’re not sure about something, just try it out.
From my experience, our lives are mostly shaped by conversations with other people. So don’t just hole up at your desk. When you see a door that looks interesting, open it. You can always close it later if the room turns out to be full of idiots.

Show up.
Definitely closely related to the last idea, but in my mind it’s different. From what I can tell, the world belongs to people who just show up. I struggle with this one a lot, but I’m definitely getting better.
When you’re having a conversation with someone about your art, be there. Have answers, have prices, have a plan. Make it easy for people to interact with you and get shit done with you. Half the time that you end up employed it will be because people just like dealing with you. The quality of your art matters, but if you’re an incredible artist who sucks to talk to, people won’t hire you.
So show up fully, be clear, and don’t flake out. If you say you’ll do something, even if it’s small, do it. Communicate clearly and ahead of time if you need to change the plan. Be consistent. Be easy to deal with. Just show up and be as tangible as possible when talking art and business. It matters.

Don’t be bothered by doing other work.
This has been a huge one for me. When I set out to be an artist, I envisioned making all my money with my brushes.
But about three years in, I realized that I don’t actually like making art full-time. I have a cap, about 25 hours a week of painting and I’m good. After that, it becomes a grind and I begin to resent the thing I love most. Rather than let that set in and experience burnout, I began experimenting with other jobs that interest me and bring home the bacon.
Maybe you want to paint full-time and make all your cash with art. Hell yeah! You do you boo.
But I think it’s important to recognize that if you start to get burned out, or you’re like me and you realize that you want to diversify your time a bit more, that it’s not a failure or a letdown. Being an artist looks like a lot of different things. Some people make money with it, some people don’t. And some people, like me, make most of their money with it, but not all.
Once I opened that door in my life and began to peek through, I grew a lot as a person. I became a yoga teacher, directed an artist’s residency, started directing community art programs, and found myself pursuing whole new avenues in outdoor education (one of my big interests). Basically for me, when I was trying to make art my only gig, I was stifling myself.
Everyone’s different, but I just wanted to throw this one out there. It’s not a failure to not be a full-time artist. It’s not a failure to make sick art and work a “normal job.”
When I was directing an artist’s residency, I noticed that so many of the artists seemed to be ashamed that they weren’t full-time artists. And I get it, from the outside, it isn’t obvious that an art career can exist in varying degrees. It looks like an all or nothing pursuit, and if you’re not in the “all” camp, then you’re probably nothing. But that’s just not the case.
So for me, a huge part of my journey has been recalibrating my expectations and making peace with what I actually want. If your art starts to feel like a boundary, break that shit up and try adding something new to the mix. You might be the world’s raddest ski instructor, but you’d never know it if you spent all your time drawing. Your life is bigger than your art. Let yourself grow in whatever direction piques your interest and trust yourself to continue creating along the way.

Alright, there they are, five strategies that have helped make my life work. None of these are gospel, they’re just what’s worked for me so far. Use or discard as you need. It’s a hard thing to create a life doing what you want, and sometimes it might not go smoothly. Don’t be too afraid to biff it sometimes too.

The greatest art tool known to man.

I’m not going to apologize for this gross exaggeration later, and I think when you use this tool, you’ll see why. Actually, you’ll probably thank me.

If you’re a watercolorist, you know that one of the most challenging things about this medium is that it’s unforgiving. It’s just the nature of a transparent medium. Everything you do will be visible forever, and it’s a hard medium to control in the first place.

There is little you can do to really mitigate that reality, but there is a tool that can help you out:

This is the closest thing I have found that can bring your paper almost back to white after you’ve painted on it. It’s incredible.
To demo, here’s a little color swatch I did on cotton paper:

And here, with half of it magically erased:

As you can see, it’s not 100% back to white, but it’s pretty damn close. And with another layer of paint, you’d never know what was there before.

My method of using it is to cut off a small part of one of the larger erasers (about a 2″x2″ square) dip it in water and wring it out. If it’s sopping wet, you won’t have as much control over the erasing process.
With your damped eraser, cover the area in clean, smooth strokes. If you scrub, you’ll blast right through the paper. Think of it as wiping off the paint, and you’ll have a better time.
Once the paint is gone (or as gone as it’ll get), you’ll see a ton of little pills on it like an old sweater. No biggie, those are just the remnants of the layer of paper you just wiped off. Wait for your painting to dry, and then brush them off.
Voila! A new painting surface.

Now before you go erasing everything you’ve ever painted, there are limitations to this incredible tool.

You have one, maybe two rounds with this before it destroys the paper.
Watercolor paper is delicate. Some papers are more delicate than others (100% cotton handmade paper is pretty hardy), but they all break down after a certain amount of abuse. It isn’t canvas. One pass with this will remove most of the sizing on the paper, and the next layer of paint will not go on as evenly. But it’ll work. Two passes, and you’re done painting on that part of the paper. Three times with this tool, and the paper will likely start to rapidly disintegrate.
So use it wisely. It won’t save your painting too many times.

Nothing can bring paper back to 100% white.
Well, except carefully scraping the paper with a razor, which I do sometimes. But since that destroys the top layer of paper, scraping isn’t a viable option for removing large sections of a painting. The reality is that once you get paint on watercolor paper, it’s just not going back to white. This tool will get it pretty close sometimes, but never all the way. Keep that in mind. You still have to painstakingly plan your whites.

You’re still pretty screwed if it’s a dye color.
Remember the pigments vs. dyes episode? A dye color actually changes the color of the fiber in the paper. You can’t really scrub that out. If you use this tool on a dye color, you’re going to be scrubbing actual bits of paper away to remove the color. Which will work, but it’ll be much harder on the paper and you risk ruining it. So you still have to be careful with dyes.

Other than those caveats though, meet your new best friend. Go buy some and keep them handy. They’re truly the best.

Tilt as a tool.

Because watercolor is water, and water always runs downhill, your paper tilt is another tool for you to get to know. Just like your brushes and paints, the angle at which you’re painting is important.

Some people like to paint flat, others vertical, and the rest of us paint at a tilt. Whatever you do is fine, it just depends on what you want.

For a reference, I made three little examples for you to look at:

And on closer inspection…

This one was painted and dried flat.

You can see how the pigment stayed relatively even, and coalesced around the edges a bit. There’s a very slight bloom in the middle, as the edges dried faster than the center, but in general the pigment is dispersed and moving evenly.

This one was painted and dried at a tilt.

The second was left to dry at a very slight incline (about 15 degrees). You can see how it pooled at the bottom, and some of the pigment was carried back up by the standing water.
Some people consider this effect to be desirable, some people will give you a bad grade for it. Either way, just be aware that if you leave water to dry at a tilt, something like this will happen. You can use this to your advantage, and analyze a puddle on your page and decide where you want it to pool, and rotate your painting accordingly. Neat, huh?

This one was painted and dried (nearly) vertical.

The last one was painted and left to dry at a near vertical slant. Vertical is a hard angle for watercolor, and frankly I rarely paint this way. But, I’ve seen some incredible artists who do. You have to use much less water and build up layers of color patiently. Too much water will drip immediately. But done well, the effects are clean and even. I was a little impatient with this, and water still pooled a tad at the bottom. Oh well, you get the idea.

For me, I tend to paint on a very slight incline. Totally flat is fine too, but I usually end up propping up one end of my painting on a book at some point. I like using gravity to direct the paint, and I personally like the way watercolor looks with some controlled blooming.

But to each their own.
So there you have it, one more tool for your box: painting incline.