Like many creative types from a middle-class background, I was raised to believe becoming a professional artist was strictly off-limits. I don’t know if this is just a United States Midwest thing, or if this attitude is prevalent everywhere in the world.
Both of my parents had/have artistic talent, but my father decided to become a businessman and my mother created a home staging business. Which is kinda like interior design on steroids. Both of these professions require immense amounts of creativity, so to this day I’m baffled that they discouraged me about becoming an artist and continued to peddle that “Starving Artist” myth.
So, I went through life assembling a skillset I thought employers would want. Web design, web development, software engineering, product design, game design. It had enough overlap with creativity that it kept me satisfied.
I still woke up at 3am every morning with these abstract shapes and vivid colors swimming through my mind. I felt compelled to get it down on paper. It wasn’t just the visuals, either—every one of my pieces that I’ve “seen” on the tail-end of these dreams comes with deeply complex feelings that are tough to put into words.
At the time, I was 23 and working as a web designer for the University of Michigan Hospital. I’d spend all day tinkering with medical research websites and looking at SEM images of microbes, using Blender 3D to render them into colorful, compelling imagery for websites, publications, and grant proposals. After spending 8+ hours a day doing this, I would dream about those shapes and my mind would “abstractify” them and inject them with vivid colors.
It got to a point where I could no longer tolerate not painting them. So one day after work I stopped by Michaels’ and splurged on some big canvases and professional-quality paint. I didn’t even have an easel. I had nothing like the fancy setups you see with professional artists on social media. No—it was a cheap drop cloth spread over my dismal rental’s kitchen floor, a blank canvas, a few paint tubes, brushes, and a jar of water.
That’s all you really need.
When I see a blank canvas, I don’t have a plan or anything. I just relax and allow, trying to pull back on my conscious mind’s temptation to make the painting make technical sense. I’d been to art school, so I knew about artistic structure and color theory, but I like to consciously practice forgetting all of that.
I can’t remember if this was my first, second, or third painting, but I had been working on a medical 3D render of the back of an eyeball the day before at work. I went to sleep, and my mind combined that golden, veiny look with some trabecular bone I’d worked on earlier that week:
It’s hard to tell from this photo, but this piece is pretty big. It’s about 36” x 48”.
This is not the first piece I sold as a professional artist. However, I posted a picture of this on Facebook, and a friend of a friend reached out to me for a commission.
I was still struggling with my identity as an artist, and couldn’t believe that someone would actually want to pay me to make something for them. I still had my parents’ voices in my head telling me that artists never make any money.
Despite all of my psychological blocks, I accepted a down payment via PayPal and got to work.
The client said she loved the layering of that trabecular bone pattern, so I made sure to incorporate it in the piece for her. She also requested rainbow colors.
At work, I’d been playing with my 3D program to illustrate spongeybone. In my brain, I imagined how it would look in a 3D space with rainbow lighting. This helped me rotate the shapes in my mind and imagine how light would pass through different materials as I created the painting.
It took me a few weeks, but I ended up painting this piece!
The client loved it. She sent me the final payment via PayPal, and then I wrapped the piece in thick brown paper and delivered it.
I acted awkward during the whole process. I still couldn’t believe that someone would pay me for my artistic work, though suddenly I had proof to the contrary: hundreds of dollars, right there in my PayPal account.
Well, that was just a one-time occurance, I thought. I can’t make a living doing this.
But then, every time I posted my art on social media, I got commission requests. It was always a friend of a friend. Over time, that circle expanded out to people I barely knew.
Then, people I didn’t know at all.
I still felt awkward about it, and I still continued to shoot myself in the foot when it came to putting my work out there.
I posted less.
I didn’t make a website.
I made it difficult for people to pay me.
I didn’t talk about prices or post them anywhere.
Like a typical artist, I didn’t make my pieces to sell. It felt wrong; like I was trying to commercialize part of my soul. I purposely tried to make it difficult to buy fom me.
Though, every time I showed my pieces to the world, customers came out of the woodwork wanting to buy anyway. They DM’d me, asking about how to get a commission. It stressed me out a lot—especially when they started asking if my work came with frames and if I had a website with dozens of pieces ready to go. Did I have prints? Did I sell merch? What about shipping?
These questions—normal small business questions—felt like requirements. I felt like I’d never be able to meet all of these demands, so I kept my paining as a hobby. I couldn’t stomach saying no to a customer or potentially disappointing them.
Then I learned more about business. I gained experience designing and building stuff for the corporate world. I also learned that if you have customers DM-ing you for commissions despite deliberately trying to make it hard for them to buy from you, that’s more proof of concept than 99% of startups out there run by these 20-year-old tech bros with nothing but an idea.
And they get millions of dollars in seed funding.
Investors bet on them.
Selling art comes down to belief. If you believe a piece is good enough to show others, some of them will believe it’s good enough to buy. Even if you don’t believe in yourself all the way like I didn’t (at first), someone will see your stuff and believe it’s good enough to buy.
Once you sell your first piece, those neurons will start to connect in your brain. It’ll get easier to sell the next one, and the next. When your inner critic starts chirping, you can show it the money you earned from previous sales in your bank account.
And to sell that first piece, you don’t necessarily have to put it online or list it on a website.
The real trick is getting people to associate your name with art stuff.
If you can nail that, you’ll never be a starving artist.