For John Singer Sargent, painting WAS his day job
Where attention goes, energy flows. I don’t remember where I heard this phrase, or if it came to me after observing life, but it’s the truth.
Wherever your attention goes, that is the part of your life that grows larger, gets bigger, and creates momentum. For almost ten years, I’ve worked as a makeup artist in addition to working on my painting and drawing practice. I remember graduating from art school and wondering how I was going to make enough for rent, groceries, etc. and going through a mental list of possible jobs. While I sold artwork right out of college, it wasn’t enough to sustain a basic comfortable lifestyle. I had several short lived positions: receptionist, waitress, graphic designer, gallery assistant, art teacher– many of these were consuming enough that when you went home for the evening, you had to either prepare for the next day, or continue working on client projects. I needed something I could leave at the door, that left energy for painting. One day, I was walking by a makeup store when the idea came to me. The hundreds of tiny shiny pots, brushes, pretty setups, aesthetic surroundings–was this so different than painting? I had always had an interest in beauty–and mixing paints to put on a client’s face as opposed to a canvas couldn’t be that difficult. I remember walking into the store with no experience, completely inexperienced, and selling the manager on my color mixing skills from art school. I got the job. While it started as “Hey–this is something I can do!” turned into an unexpected career. It came easily to me–and although there could be boring days and frustrating clients, for the most part I loved working with makeup–and most of all making someone feel they were beautiful, by telling them, and showing them a side of them they may not have seen. It really did have the same creative feeling as putting on the finishing touches on a painting, sculpting the shadows and light out of the materials. I noticed that in my paintings, I was drawn towards painting skin. I looked at skin all day at work, and I was drawn towards capturing it on canvas, too. My models started to have the same glow as my clients.
Many well known artists and writers have been influenced by their day jobs. Frida Kahlo was a stenographer for a time.
Frida Kahlo in her studio
T.S. Elliot was a bank teller, Richard Serra owned a moving company (Chuck Close one of his employees) and Phillip Glass, a famed composer, worked many menial jobs during his career including a cab driver and a plumber. Even after his work being premiered at the Met, Glass worked for 3 more years as a cab driver. He describes one of his most serendipitous experiences:
“While working, I suddenly heard a noise and looked up to find Robert Hughes, the art critic of Time Magazine staring at me in disbelief. ‘But you’re Philip Glass! What are you doing here?’ It was obvious that I was installing his dishwasher and I told him I would soon be finished. ‘But you are an artist,’ he protested. I explained that I was an artist but that I was sometimes a plumber as well and that he should go away and let me finish.”
I, too, have had my share of interactions with collectors of my paintings who were surprised to see me working at a makeup counter. I learned to laugh and embrace it, however–people like the ideal of the artiste creating in the garret, with no need for money–but I had other needs besides fulfilling that image for other people. A few years in I realized, however, that the energy that you use during a day is finite. I would try to stay up later, get up earlier, to finish more paintings and create more work. I got sick a few times after pushing a little too hard, and learned that balance is key. But to balance, something had to go–and temporarily, it was painting, because no was makes you do that, but you. Where your attention goes, energy flows. I started getting opportunities at work, and the thought of painting became dreamy, and intimidating. Time is money, but time is also finite, and there comes a point in every artist’s life where they decide if art is going to be a hobby, or a career.
I started formulating a plan to be able to paint more full-time. I knew it would only be then, if I set myself up to create without fear of survival, with the time to create freely, that I could go further.
Today I am on my way to implementing that plan. The key, I believe, for any artist, is giving themselves permission to fail. It every artwork must be a masterpiece, or else you are a failure, then it becomes difficult to pick up a paintbrush. What if you use your energy as an artist, to fail forward, create fearlessly, and see what happens out of that offering? Fail again, and again, and more and more beautifully. Let your true essence of your personality shine through in your work, no matter how strange, wacky, or silly it may seem. The more visceral it is, the more alive you feel as your create, the more powerful a work becomes, because the viewer will feel it as they look at the work. As Lera Auerbach writes in her book Excess of Being, “A coward is a servant of his fears. A hero enslaves his fears.”
All you need is faith, and the belief in yourself that your artwork is worth something. Not just monetarily (although that, too) but as a cultural offering of service to the world. To artists who are working a day job, my only advice would be that it be a job that allows you energy to create outside of work–not a job that is all-encompassing, if you are serious about making art. You are a sliver, a mirror reflecting the world, in your own unique way that no one else has. You are the only person who can create your masterpieces. Don’t waste it. The world is waiting.