Create Art, Don’t Starve: Ways to Make Money as an Artist

A portrait of illustrator Alli Arnold at her workspace at home. Around her is custom-made pet portraits as well as her dog sitting on a green poof. Arnold has been able to make money with her pet portraits by using Etsy.
Alli Arnold is an accomplished artist based in St. Petersburg, Fla., who sells custom-made pet and people portraits on Etsy. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder


The word “struggling” is so often tied to “artist.” But you don’t have to win The Voice or sell a painting for millions to translate your art into a supplemental paycheck, part-time or full-time job.

Sites like Etsy, to go-to for handmade products, can help you launch your small business. But don’t forget the importance of social media, a polished website and old-fashioned networking.

Here’s how three creators forged ways to make money as an artist.

Be Bold, Push Your Portfolio and Have a Side Hustle

Alli Arnold took her first bold step to promote her illustrations at age 8.

“I sent a Valentine’s Day illustration to Newsday on Long Island, N.Y., and they published it! My elementary school’s principal hung it in the school’s lobby. I knew I was on my way,” said the professional illustrator who lives in St. Petersburg, Fla.

A combination of talent and the guts to keep submitting her work has kept her working as an artist for more than 20 years.

After graduating from New York’s Parsons School of Design with a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts, Arnold got a job at Seattle Weekly. 

“My growing pile of published work empowered me to call other publications that I wanted to work with. I moved back to New York City after three years in Seattle and hit the ground running,” she said. Her illustrations have appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Glamour, Real Simple and other national publications

They’ve also appeared on gift cards and other content for Target, Barney’s New York, Tiffany & Co. and Neiman Marcus.

“In the old days, before social media and the Internet, if you illustrated for one magazine, another magazine would see your work, and if they liked it, they called you,” Arnold said. “That was how my whole career worked for 15 years: inch by inch. There was a time when I had monthly illustrations in five different magazines. Those five illustrations a month paid the bills, and everything on top of that was gravy.”

But a move to St. Petersburg in 2011 hampered her career. At that time, face-to-face connections such as seeing clients in the office or meeting for coffee kept the assignments flowing.

“I quickly learned — to my surprise — that there really is something to being in New York. Even in this modern world, people really want to work with someone they have met,” she said.

So, Arnold had to get her name out again in Florida. She staged a show at a popular store and submitted her work to local publications. The work started up again and one job begat another. She also worked social media to the max.

“I have four different Instagram accounts that I update regularly,” she Arnold.

A woman creates a mural inside a business with green walls. This woman uses Etsy to sell some of her illustrations.
Arnold works on a mural for a new business that is opening up. She has also illustrated books and created custom pet portraits for customers. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

Just this year, she started selling on Etsy, offering custom pet and people portraits. The platform made it easier to transact business, since people are more comfortable with a proven and well-known marketplace than an independent website, she said.

The October issue of HGTV Magazine featured Arnold as a favorite pet artist and it was great to be able to direct that traffic to Etsy, she added.

But, of course, a career in art hasn’t been easy.

“I know very few artists who don’t have a side hustle,” Arnold said.

Her side jobs have included work as a personal shopper, costume jewelry scout, pet sitter, proofreader, stints at The Gap and even modeling hats for the Kentucky Derby.

Have a Flexible Product Line and Mindset 

Just because you go out on your own doesn’t mean you’re locked into that business model forever.

In 2015, at age 49, Malacia Anderson, known as LiLi, left her day job in customer service once the income from her art surpassed her day job earnings.

She designs and sews custom clothes from her home in Roosevelt, N.Y. Her dresses, tops, skirts and head wraps are made from distinctive fabrics with African prints from places such as Nigeria, Ghana and India.

She sells most of her clothing on Etsy.

“It’s the easiest platform for my business because  it provides clear information in regards to delivery and descriptions. It’s simple to set up a shop,” Anderson said. “Their payment as well as refund process is simple. Overall they provide back office support that takes the fear out of starting a business.”

But three years after making her art her full-time career, Anderson missed the regular paychecks (and healthcare benefits) that come with an office job. So she now works part-time as an administrative assistant but significantly supplements that income as a dressmaker.

A woman in a customer-made dress sits on stairs. Malacia Anderson's dresses, skirts and head wraps are sold on Etsy.
Malacia Anderson sells custom clothes and designs on Etsy. In 2015, Anderson left her customer service job when the income she made from her art exceeded her day job income. Photo courtesy of Aderon Mothersill

Not too long after taking the part-time job, COVID-19 changed the world.

“I had a (social media) follower who worked in a hospital and she posted that she couldn’t find any cloth masks,” Anderson said. “I made her a few as a gift and posted a picture of them. People started asking me to make one for them.”

Friends sent her photos of masks selling for $25 or more.

“I couldn’t believe it. I started making them for $10 and then it just went out of control,” she said. “In one month, I had over 800 orders in my Etsy shop.” Before the mask mania, a typical month saw 25 orders for clothing.

Meanwhile, Anderson still had custom clothes orders coming in.

She completed those orders then reduced her offerings to more standard options.

“I brought back all of the simple things that I used to do in the beginning. The price points were lower, and that was better for me and the changes in the economy,” Anderson said. “It proved to be the perfect midpoint between that and the masks.”

Now, about 75 percent of her income comes from her sewing.

Along with the Etsy shop she’s had since 2006, Anderson started selling off of her own website, LiLi-girl.com, in 2018 and sells on Instagram.

FROM THE MAKE MONEY FORUM

Decide, Save and Invest in Marketing

Setting money aside two years in advance and investing in marketing are two ways Lynn Veronneau, of Washington, D.C., transitioned from her day job to supporting herself as a professional jazz singer.

She sang professionally part time years ago while studying music in France and learned it was a hard way to make a living.

So Veronneau used her fluency in French and English to build a career as a bilingual communications specialist. For more than two decades, her work included stints at the United Nations, the European Center for Nuclear Research and the World Bank in Washington, D.C.

“In the process I raised a family,” said Veronneau, who married Ken Avis, a guitarist and singer she met backstage in Switzerland.

Then there came a point where life was getting a little shorter, and my husband and I started planning for something else,” she said.

That “something else” was finding a way to perform professionally and leave their day jobs. Avis was working in human resources.

Lynn Veronneau sits on a red couch with an elegant dress on. She's part of a jazz group that used a publicist, website and a professional writer and photographer to help the group get their music out there.
Lynn Veronneau, her husband and two other musicians joined together to create a jazz group called Veronneau. The group invested in a publicist, a website, a professional writer and photographer. This helped the group get into the charts, and reviewers started writing about them. They released more music and earned grants to produce festivals. Photo courtesy of Lynn Veronneau

This was 12 years ago. At the time two of their three children had graduated from college in Canada, where Lynn Veronneau is from, and higher education costs much less than in the United States. They continued to work in their salaried jobs two more years and set aside money for their third child’s education.

The couple performed together, but wanted a bigger, fuller sound with more people. They found two more musicians to join their group and named it “Veronneau.”

“After just a year or so we decided we were going to record and release and promote,” Veronneau said.

The group invested in a publicist and a good website, with a professional writer and photographer. The website includes easy ways to listen to their Sound Cloud and Spotify page.

“You’ve got to look the part before you can really approach clubs. You’ve really got to look like you are already the real thing,” she said. “We put all our eggs in one basket, and we got some traction and generated some interest.”

Before too long the group got into the charts, and reviewers started writing about them. The group kept the momentum going, releasing more music and earning grants to produce festivals.

“We kind of came out of nowhere,” Veronneau said, “and then we had all of this going on.”