Making a living from one’s art is a Herculean feat to most. And when it happens, it could serve as a sign of validation, or perhaps offer a sliver of hope of leaving one’s uninspired day job to pursue a more personal, passionate calling.
In the words of Andy Warhol, “Making money is art, and working is art and good business is the best art.”
But to most working artists, it’s not that simple.
While for the majority of professions making money is an unquestionable earmark of success, in the art world it’s oftentimes met with ambiguity. How can one’s artistic vision and aesthetic be tempered with the expectations of the fickle, unpredictable tastes and demands of the commercial world? One might fear selling out or putting the wants of their audience above their own artistic practice and creative mission.
Artbound talked with a handful of our favorite L.A.-based artists to ask them when they made their first “real” money from art. While the amounts may vary and are relative to the context for an artist, these conversations shed further insight into how making money can play into an artist’s practice and has shaped their careers.
Scott Hove’s exploration of dualism and unsettling integration of lightness and darkness is a prevailing theme in his work. The self-taught sculptor and installation artist is best-known for “Cakeland,” an intricate, maze-like faux cake installation series that Hove describes as “navigating the area between euphoria and paranoia.”
While in recent years Hove has had major private commissions — one, in particular, paid $18,000 — it was a commission for the iconic Japanese fashion label Comme des Garçons in 2014 that had great value for Hove both professionally and personally. Hove was flown out to Beijing to cake-decorate a dressing room for the label’s flagship store. The brand had been following Hove’s work and reached out to him directly.
“It was such an honor that a highly respected fashion brand valued my work to feature it in their flagship store,” says Hove, who was preparing for a solo show at KP Projects when we spoke. “And when someone offers you a large sum of money and they love your art, nothing silences your critics in a more meaningful way.”
Despite his successes and major commissions, Hove explains that making a living from art is a constant struggle. In fact, Hove has taken a break from being a professional artist to take on day jobs as a metal fabricator and in the maritime industry. But he always eventually walked away from these day jobs to go back to pursue art full-time.
“I could spend my time working a regular job with a fake sense of stability, or I could struggle and work toward my ambitions and artistic vision,” says Hove. “While it’s way scarier to live week to week, it’s better for me to be an artist than hold a job and be dependent on that.”
And when Hove makes money from art, it’s far more fulfilling than any steady paycheck from, say, driving a forklift. “When you get outside of that trap of living day to day for a couple of months, it's beneficial to the art,” says Hove. “There’s less pressure, and you can just create. Money from art is such a gift, and it’s 100 times the value of making money from other things.”
Hove explains that grit is what paves the way for a successful career as an artist. “Determination is what defines a career more than talent. A lot of people have talent but fewer people have the determination to turn that into a meaningful career.”
Trained in classical animation but an illustrator at heart, 36-year-old Jon Klassen once worked at studios such as DreamWorks Animation on films like “Coraline” designing backgrounds and props. Eventually, he left to write and illustrate children’s picture books full-time. His endearing children’s book, “I Want My Hat Back” was named one of the New York Times Best Illustrated Children's Books of 2011. Besides working on his own books, he’s collaborating with children’s author Mac Barnett on a book series about basic shapes.
While Klassen had written and illustrated several children’s books before getting his big break with “I Want My Hat Back,” which was the first book that ever earned royalties. The publisher contacted Klassen after following his work through the internet, and offered him a three-book deal — along with a sizable advance.
While advances and royalties are the stuff many artists dream about, Klassen explains there’s a lot of anxiety and pressure that comes with making a living that way. “At the time, it feels really nice to get an advance, but then you realize you have to come up with two other ideas for books,” says Klassen.
And while it’s a good feeling to get a hefty amount of money ahead of time, Klassen points out the pressure (sometimes self-imposed) that is put on the work you produce.
“With studio and animation work you get paid for your time, and it’s sort of nice because it takes the pressure off the value of the work,” says Klassen. “You can just fizzy away at what it is you need to be doing, and not have to worry about the work you’re turning in as being good or worth X amount of dollars. But with book work, you’re getting paid for the pieces themselves, so the work better show up and it better be good. It’s a whole different way of thinking about making artwork.”
Klassen also feels he trips up mentally with a high advance because he’s been paid for work he’s yet to produce. “And you’re sitting there, doing the math: If this check is worth X amount of dollars, and I have 40 pages to hand in, and every page is worth this amount of dollars, and every day I work on it is worth this many dollars. So is this tree I’m drawing right now is worth, what, $600?”
As books Klassen makes on his own tend to be very simple, he doesn’t feel comfortable giving publishers something very simple because he doesn’t want them to think that he’s not putting enough effort. But he’s learned to approach the book writing process differently. “They just want a good book,” says Klassen. “I’ve come to learn that they are paying for your creative process and that your personality is going to make it viable, interesting and creatively valid.”
Kozyndan is the collaborative husband-and-wife artist duo Kozue and Dan Kitchens. The couple, who are both in their late 30s and reside in Highland Park, is known primarily for their intricate, digitally colored, oftentimes comical panoramic scenes of cityscapes, cute animal paintings, and Japanese- and manga-inspired drawings.
The pair has most recently been seen in a solo exhibition this fall at the now permanently closed Gregorio Escalante Gallery in L.A.’s Chinatown, which featured paintings and drawings made with traditional Japanese materials and techniques and depicting the California spirit.
From the beginning, the pair’s career together was focused on making multiples — prints and posters — more than original artworks. And while they’ve always sold originals as well, the works they’ve netted the most from were limited or open edition prints.
About a year after Kozyndan started making art together, they did a quick illustration for the cover of Giant Robot magazine. The magazine needed a replacement image for the cover at the last minute, and asked them if they could come up with something in three days. That illustration really resonated with fans. The illustration was titled "Uprisings,” which was the theme of the issue, and was an homage to Hokusai's "The Great Wave Off Kanagawa." In Kozyndan’s rendition, rabbits replacing the foam of the wave.
It generated real money for the couple, and still does. Over the years, the couple probably has earned hundreds of thousands of dollars for the illustration. As sole distributors of print editions of their work, Kozyndan gets paid every time they sell a print. They’ve also licensed the image to third parties for the creation of other products or licensed it commercially to brands.
“I think we were too young to appreciate how lucky we were to be earning such a good living from one of our images,” says Kitchens. “It happened only a year into our career, and the artwork was not something that meant a lot to us at the time. We didn't know it would pay the bills for years, so I don't think we felt anything about that piece.”
Kitchens finds it strange that the work of art they’ve earned the most money was kind of a quick job. “It isn't one of the artworks that we really think of as something that defines us or our artwork,” says Kitchens. “I think it’s really up to the whims of the audience to pick which works define an artist. And the audience's idea might not match the artist's.”
About a decade ago, 40-year-old Ugo Nonis and his roommate at the time decided to get canvases and started painting. As the artist, who now lives in Venice, explains, the moment he put the brush to the paint and canvas he hasn’t stopped. With his abstract paintings, which range from muted black and white monotones to bold, explosive compositions, Nonis was eventually able to leave his day job as a graphic designer at MTV to pursue art full-time.
Nonis has two major moments in relation to money and art. The first was very early on when he started painting. He initially painted to forget about a woman, as an act of catharsis. And one evening he threw a dinner party for friends and colleagues. A few guests saw some of Nonis’ work around his place and asked him who was the artist collecting the art. Nonis told them that he wasn’t collecting art, and that he was the artist. They bought three pieces right away.
Nonis received around $1,000 total, and priced them according to the size and personal value he put on each one. He admits that if he were a starving college student, his early works probably wouldn’t have been seen by buyers. But since he was in his late 20s, and his friends were people who were visually oriented, had an appreciation for and value art, and had a certain income level, it was easier for them to spend $1,000 on art.
“The money wasn’t much, but it helped me envision the possibilities,” says Nonis.” I wasn’t putting any value to what I was doing. And that changed when people were willing to spend money they earned to buy one of my paintings.”
The second major moment Nonis experienced was about five or six years ago. He was part of an international group art show called POP Austin, and had four pieces in the show that were selling for a range of $5,000 to $10,000.
Nonis was talking to this guy in his 30s who was a tech developer and had just sold an app to Yahoo! The two engaged in great conversation. Twenty minutes later they’re in the salesroom, and the man buys two of Nonis’ paintings for $15,000. And later that night Nonis sells a third painting for $6,000. “At the time I was very happy about it,” says Nonis. “Although there were a lot of great artists at the show — successful ones, some of them I loved — I was still able to find a couple of collectors and people who connected to my work.”
Nonis thinks that to make money from your art, you have to be consistent in your production and having a strong support network. “It’s about getting up and going to the studio to work every day, and finding people who believe in you and who will give you chances.”
Top Image: Ugo Nonis. Ebony, 2014 | Courtesy of the artist