starving artist poverty old man brown paintingThe Poor Poet

Why too many Artists Give Up on Professional Careers

Thumbnail: Carl Spitzweg, “The Poor Poet” (A.K.A. Der arme Poet) circa 1839. A classic depiction of the starving artist. 

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 20% of American workers are self-employed artists, musicians, or photographers. And yet these fields are respectively responsible for just 8% and 4% of the nation\’s income. When we compare the number of people who have quit their jobs in these three areas to the number of people who are still working in them, we can see that there is a pretty big gap between those who want to be an artist and those that stick to the program. 

Whether you’re hoping to become a Studio Animator, Indie Comic creator, or a name in the Fine Art world you’ve probably caught on to the fact that artists aren’t exactly known for their stable job markets. Sociological studies from institutions like Artfinder have found that around 50% of all aspiring artists in the U.S. alone can expect to make less than $5,000 per year from their art. With so many starving artists in the world, most people don’t even consider the possibility of ever becoming a professional artist, but it doesn’t have to be that way.


First and foremost, you’re going to have to define what success looks like for your own career in the art world. I’d encourage you to be highly critical of most of the conventional qualities that are attached to success in the first place. So hot take: not everyone is a creative genius, not everyone is an original, and not everyone has a lot of money to invest in their passions. Yet many people seem to think that being an artist is about being able to achieve these things, and frankly, these same people often go crazy trying to pursue such impractical standards.

Distortion Art
Some nice distortion art curtesy of Catherine Wood. Very frustrating vibes indeed…


I’ve been asked more than once by people who want to be artists whether I think they are tapping into their creative genius or just feeding into their own delusions. The answer is usually “Both.” Many people believe that creativity is a skill that you are born with or that can be developed simply by practicing.

However, I’m afraid that in practice this thought process doesn’t really help you when it comes to actually reaching your goals in the real world. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean people will think you’re any good at it. Just because you love something doesn’t mean you’ll make money doing it. Those are some pretty bleak truths, but I’m happy to say that I personally found a way to make peace with them early on in my career, and I’m hoping that anyone that reads this can find a similar kind of resolution.

My definition of success for being a professional artist is simple. It’s not about becoming rich or even making enough to pay rent. It’s about finding a way to do what you love without letting it consume you. I’ve found solace in just enjoying what I create for myself, even if it never reaches a wide audience. Sure, other people might be missing out on whatever great shit I created, but at the end of the day I’ll still put something new into the world.


For those of you who aren’t satisfied with this cheesy Disney Channel philosophy, you want to make a meaningful amount of money as an artist, it helps to be willing to take on jobs that don’t pertain to your deepest passions. Most people don’t want to do all of their own marketing, or to spend time advertising their services to family, neighbors, friends, and other potential clients out in the real world. I’d argue that unknown artists don’t enjoy going to art openings or conferences, and yet many of us find ourselves in these situations as we try to strengthen our networks.


Again, my rule of not letting your work “consume” you still applies. You’ve got to learn to be happy about little victories, and how to make peace with big failures as an artist. I think the main reason many artists don’t pursue a professional career is because they can’t get past these feelings of failure. Of course it’s hard to feel successful when you feel like you’re being judged and ignored every day. Every time you show your art to a potential audience, buyer, or investor, it’s easy feel like you’re being judged for all the wrong things.


But if I may be so bold, to a certain extent, I think it helps to just not give a damn. Don’t get me wrong, it’s basic human decency to let others express their opinions. Yet at the same time, you’re also entitled to your own happiness and sense of well being. Whatever you do, do not quit on your art if you know that it truly makes it happy. Rather, just be critical of any toxic ideas that can get between you and your status as a creator.





Hannah X is one of our main artists and journalists. She hosts the Red Spectacle podcast and is the creator of The Man of Corsica, Little Sister Terrors, and Last Life Crisis

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