Friday, May 3, 2013

Painting within my means

"Wing," spray-paint on canvas, 2001
Last June, I hit the half-century mark! It proved to be a fine opportunity to look back over the past 50 years and be thankful for my good fortune.

But one of the things I realized when I examined my life was the far less heart-warming fact that I had amassed more than $9,000 in debt on a charge card. I had nearly maxed out the card about five years prior and had managed to pay my balance down to 0. But like the dieter who hasn’t learned how to revise her eating patterns and regains the lost weight, I had savored the joys of freedom from debt for only a few months before I began repeating my old spending habits and found myself in the red again. Turning 50 woke me up. I realized I had better look carefully at my finances and figure out how to climb out of the hole I was in. PERMANENTLY.

One thing that was soon apparent was that I was spending far more money than I had to spare on my art career, both in the studio and in promoting my work. It wasn’t that I was going insane over art expenses, but I was definitely going beyond my means. I began to examine ways to curb these expenditures using a balanced approach, so that I was continuing to paint and to promote my work, but in a sensible and effective way.

Here are some of the methods I’ve found to do this, which I thought I would share on my blog in the spirit that few of us working artists have trust funds and likely could use some tips on how to keep art-related spending under control, without giving up entirely.

1. MANAGE YOUR WEB PRESENCE YOURSELF. One thing I did was to create my own free website, which I can maintain myself. I never really could afford to have a professionally created and maintained website in the first place, but I didn’t want to admit that to myself. So back in 2006, I hired a wonderful web designer to custom-create a site for me and then kept hiring her to completely revamp every page whenever I had a new series ready (which, because I was so prolific, was every few months). So while my website looked awesome, I was paying out far more money than I had available.

Then about a month ago, I saw that my Facebook friend, artist Alison Wells, had created her own website on I thought it looked fantastic, and I decided to create my own using the same site. Weebly’s tutorial video said that a person, group or company could make their own site in a few hours, but because I’m an artist and had lots of images to upload, mine took about 6 hours to create. But I had such a blast doing it that it seemed more like 6 minutes!

Now I am NO computer expert, by any means. But I’m quite proud of the way the site looks, and I love the fact that I can maintain it myself and make changes easily and immediately, at any time of day, free of charge.

Also, please note that many blog sites are free to create and maintain, such as blogspot and wordpress. Blogs, while seeming to decline in popularity these days, are still a viable way to increase exposure to your artwork.

2. FIND FREE (BUT IMPRESSIVE) VENUES FOR EXHIBITING YOUR ARTWORK. Back when I was in denial about money, I used to apply to exhibits constantly, shelling out $50+ each month for entry fees. This process resulted in some fine opportunities for me – most notably, exhibits at the Marin County Museum of Contemporary Art in Novato, CA, and the beautifully appointed Peninsula Fine Arts Center in Newport News, VA. But again, that didn’t mean that I had the income to cover my habit.

So I began to look for opportunities to show my work that were free to apply to and participate in. I searched and found a number of locations that were soliciting calls for curatorial proposals, and this process revealed a way for me to turn my love of art writing and looking at other people’s art into free opportunities to show my own work as well. Most of these curatorial openings could be applied to on line, thus eliminating not only entry fees but also the exorbitant cost of office supplies such as CDs and covers, mailing materials, printer ink, and postage. My most recent experience with this type of venue was a four-person show I curated at Mount Ida College in Newton, MA. The gallery director and her staff of student interns hung the entire show exactly to my specifications, and the college printed a full-color catalog and provided a lavish opening reception for this exhibit. Some galleries also provide honorariums for public talks or cover other related expenses for artists or curators. So not only do you save money, you can also earn some.

3. INCREASE YOUR TECHNICAL KNOWLEDGE. I used to grab my charge card and shop online heedlessly whenever I ran out of paint. And sad to say, my tastes ran toward Golden Paints, the most expensive brand out there. Their colors are breathtakingly beautiful, but cost more than $50 per bottle. I was spending upwards of $500 per month on art supplies, and my income simply could not support that.

In addition to being an artist, I am a painting instructor and, ironically, one of the things I teach my students is how to start with primary colors and mix the myriad of possible combinations themselves, rather than buying secondary colors (available from mixing primaries) or earth tones (available by mixing complements). When I looked over my budget, I realized that I should be taking my own advice. Now I buy basic paint colors in less expensive brands and mix my own colors. It’s a far less opulent approach than buying whatever I want from Golden’s luxurious range, but it’s far more affordable.

I also used to spend approximately $300 (gasp) every few months on rolls of cotton canvas from the art supply store. Again, too expensive for my budget. But I’ve found a $4.99-per-yard unbleached cotton from the local fabric store. Last time I went there to buy some, the store employee unrolled the bolt of fabric to cut a length for me and I noticed a continuous stain running length-wise down the cloth. She offered me 75% off, so I ended up paying less than $1 a yard. Since I'm just going to gesso over the surface, the stain will never show.

4. EDUCATE YOURSELF ABOUT MONEY. I have read countless money advice books (checked out of the library, of course) in the past year, mostly ones that were published or updated since the recession, since so much has changed since 2008. Most art career books don’t discuss budgeting or finances specifically, and most financial advice books are written for people who know exactly when/where their next paycheck is coming from (something artists often can’t say for sure). I have found these two to be the most helpful, as they include chapters geared specifically for "consultants" with irregular incomes (a.k.a. artists): “Seven Money Rules for Life: How to Take Control of Your Financial Future” by Mary Hunt and “The Debt-Free Spending Plan: An Amazingly Simple Way to Take Control of Your Finances Once and For All” by JoAnneh Nagler.

These are just a few of the many ways for a cash-strapped artist to keep painting while staying in the black.

Although I am still paying off my debt, it is now more than halfway gone, and I plan to continue paying it off while maintaining a serious art practice. Every last penny owed will be paid by December 1, according to my calculations. And when that day dawns, armed with the many new solutions and techniques I have learned, I am confident that I will never find myself in debt again.

EDITED TO ADD: As of November 7, my debt is completely paid off! :-)


Diane McGregor said...

Really good thoughts and suggestions, Catherine. All sound, solid advice. One thing you did not address is the cost of shipping work to those shows. I think for me that's where my largest expense is -- first to have a puncture proof shipping carton made, and then to ship it. I've found Fedex 2 day air to be the most reliable, as far as getting my work there on time and without damage. If I have to ship something back to the studio, I can save a little money and ship it Fedex Ground. And I always insure the work, which is yet another expense....

Catherine Carter said...

Good point, Diane. I've used those art shipping boxes from Uline, and have been fortunate to have enough lead time that I've been able to use ground delivery service. It's all definitely an extra expense. Thank you for reading and commenting!