How To Not Be A Starving Artist
Today’s Brew: I feel like I should just go sit in a tub of coffee.
On occasion, Ramen Noodles are a tasty treat. But they are nothing short of depressing when they become a staple in your diet.
Life is short and you absolutely need to spend it doing things you love. That includes work. But life is also expensive, so you need to make some money doing those things you love.
My real job is being a makeup artist. I work on feature films, commercials, TV shows, and weddings. Making a living doing makeup is almost as much as a long shot as making a living writing, especially when you live in suburban Massachusetts. I notice a lot of parallels in the two careers. I also notice a lot of people in the trenches of both the makeup and writing camps getting frustrated they haven’t “made” it yet. Here is what I have learned in seven years as a working freelance artist. Warning: there’s a healthy dose of reality coming.
You’re going to work for free a lot in the beginning. It’s exhausting and people are going to keep asking you “when are you going to get paid for this” until you’re embarrassed about it. If you think you’re going to start a creative career simply by making a declaration and snapping your fingers, you’re just the cutest little thing I’ve ever seen. And delusional as all get out. You need a portfolio, a body of work that people judge you by. And your early stuff, yeah, it sucks. You need to practice in real life scenarios and work out all the kinks. One of my friends summed it so well: building your portfolio is like an internship. You don’t get paid, but you get a ton of experience and meet a lot of people.
You got paid! Yeah. Don’t quit your day job. It takes a while to get the ball rolling. Longer if you have a full time job, kids, etc. In the beginning, paying gigs are few and far between. You need to know that you can survive at the standard you live already at doing your creative endeavor before you get all starry eyed about giving notice. Art isn’t a 9 to 5 job. There’s no paycheck fairy that delivers without fail every two weeks. And even if you do get a regular paycheck, there’s no way to guarantee how much you’re getting. You need to save up. There will be lean times in the beginning. Learn the meaning of the word budget, and learn to love it. I worked at Supercuts and Piercing Pagoda when I started makeup freelancing. Three jobs. I was exhausted and frustrated, and I didn’t want to do either of those two jobs anymore, but I had to. I held on to the Pagoda because they worked with my freelancing schedule (oh yeah, you never know when the work fairy is going to call, either). I left movie set of major feature films to go close the god damned Piercing Pagoda. Because I could depend on that job, when I couldn’t depend on makeup work. I kept that job for 5 years into my makeup career.
You think you made it? Keep working. You’re only as good as your last job, or more importantly, your worst job. People might buy your books like hotcakes on release day, but will you be raking in that income eight months from now? Eight years from now? How are you going to make that momentum last? When someone told my mom that I was “so lucky” to work as a makeup artist, she said, “She’s not lucky. She works her ass off. She’s up at 3 AM for work, she’s always networking. Luck has nothing to do with it.” Truer words never spoken.
Say yes to everything. You don’t know where it’s going to lead. I got a call 4 hours before a job to please come work on a movie. I almost didn’t go. It was an overnight, 60 miles away, and I was scheduled to close the Pagoda. I went. It was the job that changed my career.
Sick days, vacation….oh, you’re funny. All time off is unpaid time off. And insurance, that’s totally your responsibility now.
You are never less your own boss than when you are your own boss. You rely on people to buy your product, be it your book or your skill. They aren’t going to wait until you feel like doing work, or when it’s convenient. You do it when they want. There is no time clock. You work until you’re done. I often work 14 hours on a makeup job, come home and dive into writing until I can’t see straight. It’s not easy, but I love it. And I never want to have a “real” job again. God bless you, cubicle warriors. God. Bless. You.
If you’re in the trenches, keep working your ass off. It can happen. None of this is meant to discourage anyone. I hope it encourages people to see hard work pays off. This is how I did it.