Q + A: Should I quit my job to focus on art full-time?

Q+A illustration by Amy of Pikaland!

Dear Amy,

I’m a full-time secretary at an accounting firm, but what I really want to do is to concentrate on my art full time. I hate my job – it’s stressful and I work 50 hours a week, which leaves little time for me to work on my personal project: illustrating a children’s book, which I hope to accomplish before the end of the year. I have a husband who can support me for a few months (I’m so ready to throw in the towel!) but I’m not sure if it’s the wise thing to do since work is hard to come by. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to sustain myself after I’ve completed the book as well – or if there’s going to be anyone snapping it up, which is really frustrating.

Should I continue with my full-time job and work on my project on the side, or should I quit to focus on my book full time?

~ Rachel

Dear Rachel,

I attended a talk recently, where a couple of illustrators and writers were talking about their experiences and process when writing a children’s book. At the end of the talk when it was Q+A time, I raised my hand and asked them this question: “How do you guys earn enough to do this for a living, since you only produce about 2 books a year?” The room turned to me and murmurs could be heard rippling through the crowd – they were curious after all; I just stood up and verbalized what half the room was thinking. Both of the illustrators said that they had part-time jobs in addition to working on the book. The whispers in the room got even louder, and I could see that the young illustrators in the room were a little taken back by their answer.

But I wasn’t. And their answers merely proved a point that I’ve been trying to drive home.

When you’re starting out as an illustrator, or if you’ve recently graduated as one – you’ll need to think of it as a business. And you, as an entrepreneur. The ability to draw is just one of your skill set, among many other skills that you’ll have to pick up along the way. It’s a tough journey, which is why I don’t recommend going at it full time when you’re just beginning – just like any other businesses.

For example, I stayed in my job as a magazine editor for a full year while running Pikaland – writing everyday and collaborating with artists on projects, going to the post office, coding up my blog and shopping cart (there wasn’t an elegant out-of-the-box solution back then!), and to top it off, a daily 2-hour commute. I slept about 5 hours everyday and crammed whatever free time I had into Pikaland, which meant no TV or unnecessary outings. I was also mindfully networking and finding opportunities for freelance writing commissions so that I could pad up my savings for a rainy day. Only when I felt that I had deserved it (and saved up quite a substantial amount to last me at least a year) – and that all my hard work was beginning to bear fruit – that I handed in my resignation letter. It wasn’t easy, but those small steps that I consciously took everyday helped pushed me towards my goal.

So my advice for you, Rachel, would be this: instead of jumping right away into the deep end, I recommend a slow but steady approach: get a less hectic part-time job, so that you can focus on honing your skills and work on your project. What if you can’t get another job? Then I’d recommend negotiating shorter hours with your boss or cutting back on your working days (hey, it’s no harm to ask!) without sacrificing your work performance so that you can find your audience. While this means working a little harder at the beginning, you’ll get less stressed about not being able to make money from your work while you continue to hone your skills. And let’s face it – it’s rare for artists to shoot to the front of the fame train on their first try. Persistence is key.

I’d also recommend setting a goal for yourself – just like what I did. Make a list of things that you hope to accomplish – whether it’s getting freelance clients, getting paying customers, having a book deal in hand, or opting for another less hectic part-time job – before you can give yourself the green light to dive full-time into your art.

Illustration – just like any business, is built on relationships, and the earlier you cultivate the necessary relationships that will help bring in work; whether it’s with your audience or your clients, the easier it will be when the time comes for you to take that leap and dedicate your time to creating.

SHARE YOUR STORY:

Have you ever quit your job to focus on your art full-time? What lessons did you learn from it? How did you manage the transition? I’d love to hear your story, plus any other advice you have for Rachel!

If you think this article is helpful, there’s more coming your way – just subscribe to our weekly newsletter to make sure you don’t miss out on any! And if you have friends who are contemplating doing what Rachel is doing, share this article with them before it’s too late!

  advice, dear students, illustration, popular, Q+A


37 thoughts on “Q + A: Should I quit my job to focus on art full-time?

  1. To anybody thinking of quitting their job to pursue their dream I recommend the book ‘Quitter’ by Jon Acuff.

    Aside from that, it’s mind-boggling to me how little of a plan a lot of artists have. Especially financially. If you have no plan for your finances, how do you expect to run a business / be a freelance artist? Seriously, don’t quite your job without having 6-12 months of living expenses saved up.

    If you’re doing a children’s book – even if it will be ‘snapped up’ immediately (not very likely), that is when the work begins. You have handed in a book dummy with a few final illustrations (there is no point in finalising the whole book by the way, since the publisher will determine the size, layout and in all likelihood will have plenty of changes you need to address). So more months of working on the book and a long wait until you get paid. And unless you’re already established or you’ve produced a bestseller, books don’t pay particularly well.

    That said – good luck!

  2. I’ve worked part-time for years while working on my illustration work. It’s only been after 6 years of juggling the two that I was able to quit before xmas 2012 and work on the creative stuff full-time. Bear in mind that was after having saved up over a years worth of livable “salary”. I had also had a very good year for book work but partnered with a part-time job too. It’s difficult but eventually it is do-able. I’m lucky to have built up a base of clients who come back to me for repeat work too so finger’s crossed I can keep up with it for a bit longer!

  3. I can completely relate to today’s Q&A. I also want to quit my job and work on my art business full time. I was working full time at my current job and working on my art in my spare time, but then I decided to ask my boss if I could work part time. I was nervous, but he agreed and now I have an extra day and a half to focus on growing my business AND I am still making a decent hourly wage that I don’t think I would be able to find anywhere else unless I wanted to go into another job like I currently have–which I don’t.

    I still really dislike (okay, hate) my day job, but I know that I need to just hang in there a little longer. Also, having the little bit of extra time for my business has helped increase my revenue (which REALLY makes me want to quit, like today!), but deep down I know it’s not quite time yet. Every day that I have to be there, it feels like I am totally wasting my time since I know what I would rather be doing, but I also know that if I quit right now with a car payment and rent and other bills that won’t disappear any time soon…and with no savings to fall back on…I will be much more stressed and it could hurt my business.

    So, long story short: I feel ya! It is HARD working at a job you loathe (and the stress of it seems overwhelming at times). There are so many days that I drive to work and want to just keep driving past my office…or run away at lunch and never come back! But I am also thankful that I have a job that allows me to live comfortably and finance my budding business.

    And I get through the day by fantasizing about quitting one day and telling my boss that the reason is because I have a growing business that will support me. 🙂

    • Hi Casey!
      Good on you for asking (and getting!) what you’ve wanted, and for sharing your story! And I laughed at this bit: “There are so many days that I drive to work and want to just keep driving past my office…or run away at lunch and never come back!” 😀

  4. Oh, this post really spoke to me. I completely agree with you, Amy. I quit my hated full-time job about three months ago to freelance (YAY!), and I absolutely love it. But that only came after many many months / a year of having built up enough freelance clients and streams of income, from both illustration and writing, that I knew I would be okay. Plus a few months’ of living expenses saved up, as Melissa said.

    I’m so happy and fulfilled now, but getting out of that job and into this one was definitely a process. And I need LOOOOTS of different projects going simultaneously in order to pay all my bills.

    Good luck, Rachel!

    • I think having multiple income streams is a healthy thing – for one thing you won’t have to depend solely on one source, in case something unexpected happens!

  5. Oh man, I can so relate to this! Luckily, I can also attest to the fact that it is ABSOLUTELY POSSIBLE.

    I have been a full-time artist for almost 5 years. The most important step I made was to move back home (ugh!) for 8 months at the beginning so that I could save up money. They say when you are starting any small business you must have 6 months living expenses in your pocket, and I agree: this is *essential*. The first year wasn’t so bad, but the second year was REALLY hard, because I had run out of money. I paid my rent with my credit card a few times, rarely went out, didn’t buy new clothes: you know the drill. My lifesaver was a very random job where every few months a boutique clothing store would call me to go in and put all the security and price tags on their new clothes. It was only a few days work here and there but that job saved me quite a a few times!

    And then magically, in the third year, things got better – way better. I finally figured out what sold well at craft fairs, I started getting regular paid illustration work, people started to buy my paintings. Now, I turn away more work than I take on and I am making an ok living.

    The hardest thing for me has been maintaining a work-life balance. I work way too much. But you kind of have to be willing to not go out much and not spend much if you want to live as an artist. Books that have really helped me have been “Making Ideas Happen” by Scott Belsky, “Manage Your Day-to-Day” (also affiliated with him), and “The Artist’s Guide” by Jacqui Battenfield. I read stuff like this all the time. It keeps me motivated.

    One last tip: go out and get to know as many people as possible. Opportunities come from who you know. The more people you know, the more options you’ll have. Find a mentor if you can, or even just a group of people in a similar situation who you can have breakfast with.

    Participate in your community whenever possible and yes (I know this is sacrilege), take the occasional unpaid gig if it is something that will connect you in a meaningful way to your peers. It is amazing how far having the respect of your fellow artists will get you. AND – always answer your emails on time and don’t say bad things about other people if you can help it. Your reputation is your new currency – build it and spend it wisely!

    • Kirsten, thank you so much for the valuable advice that you’ve shared here! I think there’s a bit of disconnect when we see artists who climb up to the top, and yet not realize that there were tears, blood and sweat in all that climb. Cheers to you for helping others to see that it can be done!

  6. I love this post.
    I love Amy’s A to the Q.
    I love the recommendations in the comments and all of the shared insight.
    I too can relate, having all of these things bounce around my thoughts daily as I twiddle my thumbs at the 9-5.

    With some determination, a plan, and a good cushion, here’s to quitting day jobs to fulfill artistic endeavors. *cheers*

  7. I think it does depend on what your job is though too, if you are doing a full time job you absolutely hate that is such a waste of life regardless of other ambition.

    I quit my 9-5 over a year ago, I was fitting in freelance and creative ambition around it for a long time first though and continue even now to also do a few ‘bread and butter’ part time hours teaching. However I love the teaching so it’s not a chore, both can feed each other. Your part time work may well give you the time away from the creative to inspire it even more and vice versa.

    To survive on your creative prowess takes soo much work but it doesn’t feel like work. Kirsten is so right about the work life balance, it’s tricky to know where to draw the line!(excuse the pun!)

  8. Great post. I myself am officially making the leap on December 31st. I have held down a part-time job as a blog editor for the last 2 years and now I’m ready to become a full-time artist. It’s been a long time coming but I’m glad I had as many months as I did to organize my thoughts, save up, and get my business foundation solid.

  9. wow, this one is really interesting! it’s great hearing everyone’s responses.

    I tried to take the leap about 4 years ago by default. I had just moved to a new city and was having trouble finding a job. after awhile of fruitless searching, i volunteered at an art center and started finding as many craft shows that i could table at as possible. I also submitted my artwork to different galleries and coffee shops, and found some opportunities selling my art and doing illustration commissions. my visibility through these endeavors led to my teaching part-time at an art center. i spent very little money on myself during this time and my life felt rather unstable, but i also felt thrilled. my boyfriend and parents did help me financially during this time, and i was even on food stamps for a year. i know most people are against getting government assistance, but it was extremely helpful at the time. during that first year, my life was extremely stressful, yet i also was able to develop and practice my art quite a bit. at different times in the past 4 years, i’ve taken on part-time and temporary jobs to help with the bills. my income has grown a bit since then (though i usually live month-to-month), and i’m able to handle more than i used to, which give me more hope for the future.

    i can’t say that it is a totally bad idea to jump headfirst into your art career, because at the very least it is eye-opening and will truly make you think about why you do what you do. it can be very hard for some artists to combine their passion with the business side. it was very uncomfortable for me, but i’m getting used to it more and more. i guess i started out backwards, because my experience struggling so much has actually made me more practical and willing to work a day job. I am better equipped to find that balance that allows me to provide for myself financially, but also follow my dream of illustrating children’s books. after researching more about the publishing industry, i realize it’s usually not realistic to think that i can reap financial benefits from illustration right away (not to say that some people don’t get lucky!) but i am willing to put in the time and effort and continue to work other jobs in the meantime. i think that one of the best things you can do as an artist is learn what your personal balance and limits are. i went to the extremes and realized i couldn’t sustain it for a long time. i continue to work to find that balance, and after a lot of questioning of whether i want to make art and illustration my profession, i have re-affirmed that i do.

    • You’re right Aijung – finding that balance is definitely tricky! But having said that, our experiences definitely helps to shape our future, depending on how we choose to interpret it. The trick is to maintain a positive outlook and to not only work hard, but smart too. It’s a marathon, not a sprint after all! 🙂

  10. I have to admit my thoughts on this range from “do it, quit” right through to “don’t even think about it”, based on my own experience.

    I was a quitter. Around 6 years ago in 2007 I wrote my resignation letter to my boss and nobody could have talked me out of it. I was teaching in a high school and they didn’t allow me to take a year off without pay and going part time wasn’t an option so I quit instead. I was running a small accessories label, had an etsy shop and a handful of shops stocking my work. I wasn’t making enough to live off, but I figured if I had the chance to work on it full time I could and if I didn’t take that chance then, I might not ever do it.

    I figured I could work as an emergency teacher a few days a week if things got tough, although I never bothered to do this, despite being very poor all year. I had also supported my partner financially when he was starting a business (and also didn’t have a working VISA), so I figured he could support me for a period of time while I got things going.

    2008 was one of the hardest years of my life. I really struggled with everything. I wasn’t making much money, I found motivating myself really difficult, especially when things were not going that well. I ended up having to go out and look for a job but had no luck. With the financial crisis arriving that year it really was bad timing. I lost a lot of confidence and build a bit of a façade that I hid behind because I was so disappointed in my own failings.
    In 2009 I started our card business and 4 years later I am still self-employed and our business is going well. I know this wouldn’t have been possible without my horrid year as this is when I came up with the idea for our card business. However if this had not happened then I have no idea where I would be, probably teaching again.

    My advice is to see if you can go to part time in a job before quitting as the dream of working for yourself isn’t the reality you have in your mind when you are working for someone else. It isn’t as much fun as you think it is going to be and it can be quite confronting having to deal face to face with your own inadequacies when it comes to running a business.

    • Hi Anna! Your cards are definitely very unique and I’ve been a fan of them for such a long time – it’s so humbling to hear of your experience, and I’m so glad that you shared your story! True success takes time and momentum to build up, and I think it’s important to remind people about that, especially when they’re just starting up.

  11. I completely agree with Amy’s answer! A couple years ago I was in-between jobs and I decided to try out devoting myself to illustration full-time. I had a little money coming in from my work but it certainly wasn’t enough to live off of, and the financial stress of never knowing if even that tiny amount money could stop at any moment meant that I was pretty miserable most of the time and made it hard to enjoy what I was doing. I was lucky enough to have parents who were willing to help me out financially (I know that not everyone is in that position!) but eventually I started temping and then landed a full-time job. If I were to do it again, I’d certainly do it much more thoughtfully (but I’m not sure if I would do it again, to be honest.)

    Also, ditto to what previous commenters have noted–children’s illustration is not terribly lucrative (unless you’re a big name) and it is a long, slow process–it can take years from submission to the finished, published book! Having said that, you should still finish that book. 🙂

  12. A really important thing to note here, as others have, a book (of any sort, illustrated or otherwise) is not a business plan. It won’t bring in enough money. So start by getting yourself out there if you aren’t already and then decide how you will structure your business. What will make you money? So maybe part of that is illustrating books. That’s great! But you’ll need more. So you might look into other ways your illustration can make money like taking on corporate clients who need regular illustration work or drawing really neat logos for small businesses or technical illustration gigs if you can draw like that.

  13. One thing that worked out for me was planning a month off from working to devote entirely to my art. Planning my time and finances well ahead of schedule relieved me of the stress of worrying about both when my art “vacation” time arrived. Focusing only on my art for that month allowed me to be productive beyond my wildest imagination… I finished an exhibit of collages, secured 2 exhibition spaces for them, created and sent a collection of artwork to a magazine in hopes of publishing. It’s been difficult for me to do, but compartmentalizing my job time separate from my art time helps me to be better at both.

  14. It’s funny, I am quitting my job tomorrow and I didn’t even know about this fascinating thread. Truth is, I don’t make a lot of money from my job. But I set a goal in my mind and saved for nearly two years. I lived extremely simply and, I hate to admit this, mooched as much as I could in order to keep my money. My financial goal was met and now I am able to spend all my time in a thriving art community down south, where I’m subletting. It’s a very exciting time in my life. Patience and thrift is everything. You need to get your priorities straight and save as much as possible. Originally the past two years I worked full-time and painted furiously on the weekends. Then about two months ago I transitioned to part-time. That made a huge difference on my emotional life, though I couldn’t save money anymore. But that’s how I did it. Wish me luck on my adventure!

  15. After reading Anna’s entry, I want to add that I too had a difficult year of much financial turmoil in 2008. I lost everything, all my investments, my home foreclosed. I lost my job. I had no savings. It sucked. That trauma set me straight in understanding the concept of preparing for the worst at every angle, and getting grounded with understanding what you actually can afford. At the end of the day it comes back to money. You deserve a “cushion” at all times. The safety of knowing you have something there to fall back on will keep you from the impending distractions of not having safety. When you want to commit full time to your art, you need to be able to focus as you make your dreams materialize.

  16. Alright, I’ll admit to reading through most of the comments but not all.

    So here’s some insight from the other side of the tracks.

    I left my job & ended up pursuing my art. Up to then I’d been piddling at it here & there. My previous, regular full time work sucked me dry, took all my energy, and actually started to give me health problems. But I hung onto it because it was all I’d ever known and my ability as an artist had been discounted early on.

    1. Having a savings, setting yourself up financially for at least 6 months. *Absolutely essential!* You never know what you will need to invest in, fix, or come up with sometimes. Even the best plans can go awry.

    *I didn’t do this and it has caused me more grief than you can imagine on so many levels. But at the health point I was at, staying at my job was no longer an option.* The lesson: cut your hours as soon as you can, switch to something that meets your personal bottom line that you don’t utterly & completely hate, and keep your goal in mind. WHY are you willing to do this – what’s the big pay off?

    2. Relationship building is SO very important. As has been mentioned above. With any business you’re going to have people to work with – not just your clients or colleagues, but all those behind the scenes things too. The information is out there, but it is infinitely easier when you have some trusted people to go through to shortcut your search a little.

    *This has utterly saved me from drowning financially. But for me it wasn’t easy. I was and am rather shy about my work – so reaching out to tell anyone about it makes me blanche a little bit. But now I have many working relationships with people, from my fabulous business coach (Laura C. George), to my “unofficial mentors” (awesome peeps I follow), to fellow creatives that I collaborate with to get work done, do work for, and to create with (I won’t divulge everything, but I’m planning a big media step with a fellow creative & we have some collaborative products in the making!)

    3. BE HONEST with yourself. If it’s not working, or you’re not happy, or you get that queasy feeling about something, anything. Own up to it and be truthful. Ignoring that gut instinct can be mighty inconvenient to downright awful. You need to learn to discern what is & isn’t working – even if it means you have to invest & get help!

    *Doing this also has saved me! It’s been a bit of a slow learn as I’ve educated myself in the lingo and tried to keep up technologically, but knowing what does & doesn’t work – and HOW to fix that (eg redirect your energies more to what does, systematize or let go of what doesn’t) is priceless and literally saves you money (& heartache)!

    My story – all the deets – is a little painful, so to everyone learn from it and don’t go down that road! Even if you have the strength of character & stubbornness to survive it I wouldn’t recommend it! As for me, it’s gotten my head in the game, and taught me some hard lessons REALLY fast – but also showed me my resolve (if I wasn’t committed to my creative work I’d have given up a LONG time ago!)

    Best wishes to all of you! <3

  17. I did this- nearly a year ago. It was unquestionably one of the best life decisions I’ve ever made.

    For me, it boils down to this: you know what you can manage. Of course you can’t quit your job without having any savings and expect to survive. But if you have money saved up to last you six months or so, and plan on finding less stressful part time work to keep you afloat- then go for it. Fiscally, plan for the uncertainty of it all- but beyond that, there’s no reason not to do this.

    Follow your gut! If you’re in a job that feels WRONG- you know. Not sure? If it’s coming up for you on the regular, that’s a good sign you need to look deeper. There’s no reason to do something stressful and miserable if you can find a way to swing it with just a part time side job and freelance. Just give it a try, especially if you’re young. You owe it to yourself, right?!

    Ten months after quitting my stressful day job (40 hours a week, but with a bad commute and really no creativity at all), I am working part time at a local boutique to pay the rent and making as much art as I can. It’s been a huge motivator and my head is so clear now compared to a year ago. I used to spend my days planning what I’d work on when I got home- but I was always too exhausted and miserable to actually do the things I’d promised to myself.

    Now, I DO the things I plan on. I complete projects! I take time to be loose and creative and maker-y!

    I feel lucky to be in the place that I am.

    But really, I do feel it all boils down to: can you afford it? Can you make any lifestyle changes so you can afford it? If the answer’s yes, nothing else should hold you back.

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  22. I tried doing the part time job and starting my illustration career but it hasn’t worked either. By the time I came home from work ( I was a part time teacher) I had very little energy or focus to put into my art. The truth is you have to know your limitations. So now I’ve taken the plunge and quit my part time job to concentrate full time on illustration. I have over a year’s worth of salary saved up and it wasn’t working the other way. Worst case scenario: I fail miserable and go back to part time instructor in a year. Those part time gigs are always there. Always! I worked nine years in the part time teaching gig and people come and go all the time! I know what my limitations are now and it wasn’t working the other way

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