In my “career” as an artist (in quotes because when I was 20 it didn’t seem so much a “career” as simply a need – a drive – a thing I was compelled to do) I’ve found that there’s three main components of my work life:
We can never do any one of them all the time and remain happy and inspired. Instead we constantly cycle through them all. The quantity of time that we spend within each sphere is up to our own personal taste and need – some people find more satisfaction to weigh the scale heavier towards ‘Work for Hire’ while others towards the ‘Work for Me.’ And at times, the ‘Work for Free’ seems to take up TOO much time. However, all of them have their value and it is worth understanding how they support us.
When I was younger and immersed in any one of those facets it often seemed like it would be forever. I hadn’t experienced any pattern yet – seen any flow within them. Like the beginnings of some jazz song, it felt like a disjointed mess. Too much on the drums! Not enough horn! And so on. I felt a longing towards one or the other or, conversely, perhaps that I’d reached some perfection of my work life and I could now relax. But each period always ends and, in that constant cycle, I’ve come to better understand and be patient with my flow.
I’d like to talk about each of these three things and then talk about striking a balance between them – how to listen to the inner drive and creative urges without being overwhelmed.
Work for hire is what it says on the tin: this is the work that someone else pays us to do and, preferably, that work is within the range of our creative pursuits and responds well to our own creative vision. Inevitably, as an artist, someone else sees what you do and thinks to themselves: “how can I apply this to my own needs?” That is perfectly fine and it’s up to you to learn to capitalize on those needs of others and on your own skill sets that can satisfy those needs. All through time, artists have been multi-tasking in this manner. Throughout the Renaissance, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, and others were constantly immersed in commissioned art. In the early 1900s, we can look to Alphonse Mucha – the king of Art Nouveau posters and imagery. William Blake illustrated books. Dali made perfume bottles. And so on. Today’s artist might be part graphic designer, part fashion designer, part sculptor, part installation artist, part musician, part programmer, amongst other things. It behooves you to wear more than one hat and be open to working with and for others.
To me, the joy of work for hire is, at least, two fold. One is simply the fact of getting paid to make art. Even if you are doing graphic design that seems a few steps from your personal vision, it still asks you to apply your creative vision and offers supplemental income which can afford you the space and time for your own work, as that part doesn’t always pay us consistently.
I think a second and even more important aspect of working for others is this: someone comes to you with a vision and asks you to apply your own unique style to it – and, by extension, the world. Along the way, it entreaties you to learn more about yourself and your craft. If it is commissioned painting, it is perhaps an ideas you may not have painted otherwise. If it is a fashion project, maybe it pushes you to you materials you’ve never tried to work with before. If it is web design, perhaps you learn something new to apply to your own site. Whatever it is – whatever your craft – you have been asked to leave your unique brand of inspiration for the patron. From this perspective, the more you understand about what you do – the whys and hows, the techniques and processes – the better you can understand WHY someone would ask for YOU and then what you have to give back.
Yet, work for hire can be wearying. There is always the moment when we look up from whatever project we are toiling away on and we see our own work languishing. Or the client is doubting and that doubt seeps into you, happily mixing in that well of self-doubt all artists work with, and you wonder if you’ve ever been any good at all. All I can say there is: patience. Be patient with yourself and your work and always see what you can learn from the current project. Even if the lesson is ‘I don’t think I want to do this again’ or ‘I need to do this differently next time’ – that’s a great thing to know and understand about yourself.
When it comes to work for hire, some go off and simply get jobs with, say, a design firm or the like. Others, like myself, maintain their freelance status in order to always have time for their own art because that is what drives them. For me, I’ve always seen everything else as ‘supplemental’ while painting is my main focus – even if other things have eaten up the bulk of my time. Many times, I’ve had to take other work in order to create the time and space for the painter in me to do his work.
Like I said in the beginning, we each weigh the various facets differently and I weigh this facet very highly. The work for ourselves is one of the biggest challenges though. For starters, if we don’t do it, no one will. It is up to me to get up in the morning and stand in front of the canvas and diligently caress each little line and curve to it’s fullest potential. It is up to me (because that’s how I prefer it) to update my website, to take care of this project or that project. They are all part of the machine that is my own business and each requires patience, momentum, drive, and a willingness to see it through. It takes self confidence and an unflagging belief in yourself and your vision. We have to see ourselves through the times when no one calls and no one writes and we’re on our own, just making what we believe in your heart to be the most beautiful thing we’ve ever seen.
If you can find joy in that, then you have found the thread that will drive you onwards. Sometimes, we pull ourselves up, tugging on it. And sometimes we are pulled along by it – happily or begudgingly – but it is your personal thread. Take joy in that. Many of the more famous creators – even those in the sciences, in engineering, and elsewhere – have workshops at home. They tinker and putter and make things and do things on their own following those personal creative inquiries. Maybe they just make a wind chime. Maybe they make a hobbyist particle accelerator in their basement (it could happen!). It is in this murky pool of self-driven creativity where your vision flourishes independently.
If your other work pays well, perhaps your ‘work for you’ doesn’t need to pay – but it DOES need to happen. Every creative person requires self-involved creative time to explore their own personal creative process.
There’s a reason we tell children they have a ‘gift’ when we see those that seem to shine a little brighter in some pursuit or another. Perhaps there is no life other than this one. You are just one star amongst the millions flaming bright for a moment – you arrived and you will again depart. Somehow though, you – out of all the millions and billions – ended up with a particularly gifted creativity, sense of purpose, and personal vision. You didn’t ask for it. It just happened. This is why it’s a gift.
As with all gifts, it’s important to give back. With both working for hire and working for ourselves, we are doing those things to simply support US. We are working to be paid, for self satisfaction, to further our own vision, etc. Working for free is giving away your skills for some cause or thing that you support for the sheer joy of it.
(Side note: I understand that perfect altruism is hard to come by but we all clearly know the difference between doing something for a paycheck or for simply ‘ourselves’ and doing something that is for others. It can be found, I think, in the sensation of how open our heart feels. It’s healthy to do things without the carrot of renumeration.)
It is important to note though: we can’t work for free all the time and so it’s important to strategize. Do things that uplift you. Do things that bring joy to others. Do things that really are good exposure. If you have never done the thing before, maybe it is a good portfolio piece – you have to start somewhere.
Violet and I painted a huge mural on the side of a building in Venice, CA for free. We even bought the paint. But it was incredibly satisfying and it brings so much light and joy and life to that corner of the world. I’ve made a number of posters for Conscious Alliance – an organization that raises money for food banks – completely for free because I appreciate what they do. Then there’s Burning Man where I just dig making art – and often spend way too much money doing so – but it’s fun and brings people joy.
Incidentally, there is a handy flow chart that can be found here – Should I Work For Free? and it is well worth the read.
It is easy however to give too much of ourselves away – to cut deals because we want to be loved, needed, accepted. The longer you work for cheap or free, the harder it will be to maintain your own basic needs. Those basic needs are important. They are how you survive in this world and how you maintain your space to create. The better you take care of yourself, the easier it is to give yourself away. It is a beautiful thing to want to make the world a happier and healthier place, but that happier and healthier place starts with ourselves.
There’s no middle spot of this venn diagram where your work is for hire, for yourself, and for free all at the same time. The middle spot – the hub around which it all spins is this: the vision. That point of light: THAT is the thing to build and nurture and grow. EVERYTHING stems from that. That is YOU.
From there, we move outwards in a constant dance between all of these facets. The overlap is intended as well. All free work satisfies our work for ourselves in some way – and perhaps leads to work for hire. Work for hire always supports our personal work and maybe we give a little bit extra. Working for ourselves… well that is work for hire and for free!
I’ll also point out that the arrows in the image – they’re just to give an idea of the flow. There’s no linear direction to this sort of thing and, myself, I’m often doing a little of all of them at once. In that way, I’m moving in and out of each of those spaces – the work for myself, for others, for free. It’s simply a dance.
There’s no real borders and boundaries in life – just like any idea of a venn diagram is necessarily limited by the definitions of its elements. We just happen to be concentrated more highly in one area than another at any given moment. If you are in one quadrant, that doesn’t mean you’ll be there forever. Everything changes – you, your work, your inspiration, your life. To be happy as an artist – which, I think, is as good a benchmark of success as any – is to find balance within that creative dance.
In the future, I’ll talk more about these individual elements but I hope for now that this helps offer some perspective to your work and your work life and how to find a balance amongst your various creative endeavors.
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