Here’s What’s Wrong With The Myth of the Starving Artist

Say goodbye to the days of the starving artist. Thanks to the creator economy, it’s easier than ever to earn a good living online.

In the early 2000s, I spent a year taking creative writing classes at the Irish Writer’s Centre in Dublin. Every Monday night, we studied literary fiction and non-fiction by successful yet starving artists like Herman Melville and Anais Nin.

One night, our instructor, an intense balding author from Texas, told us,

“Don’t expect to make any money from writing. If that’s what you’re here for, I suggest you leave.”

One student got up and walked out. At the time, I believed our instructor.

Wasn’t the joy of putting one word in front of another was more than enough of a reward? I even tracked my word count and how long I spent in front of the blank page. I’d have tracked my bank balance, but I didn’t have much to account for!

My self-talk was less consolation when I worked twelve-hour shifts in a day job I hated and had no energy left for creative work. I only started earning a living from creative work years later when I treated it like a business.

First, I started a blog that attracted modest traffic. Then, I wrote and self-published a book and created online courses. My new problem was attracting readers for both. So, I studied how professional authors and bloggers earn a living.

My first book royalty cheque from Amazon was for a princely eleven dollars but getting paid to write motivated me to keep going. A year later, I broke four figures a month for my books.

Meanwhile, I invested in a professional book cover, editing, SEO, and email marketing. I took out my credit card and went to work. Later, I employed popular monetization strategies for creators online, like affiliate marketing and display advertising.

It felt weird spending some of the working day on tasks that weren’t directly related to writing. Then, I came across this piece of golden advice from screenwriter David Mamet:

“You’ve got to do one thing for your art every day, and you’ve got to do one thing for your business every day.”

I take that a little further. If you’re a starving artist:

  1. Work on your craft for a few hours every day, like in the morning.
  2. Test out one new business strategy that puts money in your bank account in the afternoon or evening.
  3. Pay yourself what you’re worth.
  4. Invest what’s leftover in your craft.

Tip: It helps if you build a content flywheel.

Starving artist
Work on your art and your business every day

Van Gogh: The Classic Example of the Starving Artist

Van Gogh: The classic example of the starving artist
Vincent van Gogh, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Dutch impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh is a high-profile example of a famous starving artist. As a young man, his brother Theo urged a reluctant Vincent to paint.

Vincent Van Gogh produced some of his most famous paintings and artistic works in three years, in the late 1800s, with his brother’s financial and creative support. He wrote to his brother:

“Does what goes on inside show on the outside? Someone has a great fire in his soul, and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney and then go on their way. So now what are we to do, keep this fire alive inside, have salt in ourselves, wait patiently, but with how much impatience, await the hour, I say, when whoever wants to, will come and sit down there, will stay there, for all I know?”

His contemporaries considered him a madman and a failure. He only sold one painting during his lifetime. Van Gogh died broke in 1890 without achieving commercial success as a painter.

His work gained recognition long after his death. Today, prices for nine of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings reach over $900 billion.

Behold the trope. An artist must suffer for their craft. If it was good enough for Van Gogh to starve, then surely the rest of us shouldn’t expect to get paid for writing, composing, drawing, and designing. Anything else is debasing. Right?

The Myth of the Starving Artist

It was challenging for a creative to earn a living in Van Gogh’s time, much less a good one.

Thanks to the creator economy, arguing an artist or creator must work for free or on the breadline because it’s good for their craft is falsehood.

A doctor gets paid for healing a patient, an architect for designing a building, and a professional athlete for performing at a big event. We’d hardly argue money somehow taints these professionals’ abilities to help patients, compete in a race, or draw up designs.

If anything, money helps them invest in training, coaching, facilities, and tools while earning a good living from their day job.

So, it’s odd when people complain that creators shouldn’t expect to get paid and those who sold out or somehow debased themselves or their art.

Today, creators don’t need a huge blockbuster to earn a good living from creative work, much less make ends meet. In an oft-cited 2008 essay, Wired editor Kevin Kelly wrote:

“A True Fan is defined as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce. They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res version…they can’t wait till you issue your next work. They are true fans.”

You don’t even need 1,000 true fans. Services like Patreon, Substack, and Etsy enable creators to earn money from just 100 true fans. Li Lin writes on Andreesen Horowitz’s blog:

“I believe that creators need to amass only 100 True Fans — not 1,000 — paying them $1,000 a year, not $100. Today, creators can effectively make more money off fewer fans.

How To Get Paid For Creative Work

How to get paid for creative work?
Selling on Etsy can be one way to get paid for your creative work

Ceramicist Sally Binard started selling pots on Etsy and was surprised by how quickly her hobby turned into a day job and a creative business. She told me:

“I opened my first Etsy shop in 2012 as a means of generating a little bit of income. It took off by accident. It just grew through social media and the platform of Etsy. At one point, this little pottery business turned into 30% of my income. So I started taking it a lot more seriously.”

Perhaps you don’t make pots. Well, start by identifying your niche or specialty, whom you want to serve, and how your talents align with what the market wants. You’d be surprised by what captures people’s attention.

Whether you’re shooting for 1,000 or 100 true fans, remember to create for everyone and create for no one. Avoid perfectionism though.

If video and film are your thing, start a TikTok or YouTube channel about your niche or passion. I recently came across the story of an Irish TikToker who signed a contract after her stream of 37,000 tadpoles went viral.

If you want to design video games, learn how to build levels, mods, and add-ons for the games you enjoy. Video game developers are crying out for talented professionals.

An aspiring writer can easily start their creative career on Medium without quitting a day job, and no technical skills are required. Many new contributors earn over $100 a month. That’s hardly quit your job money, but top contributors break five figures a month. And you can also use Medium as a distribution channel for your creative work.

But don’t stop at Medium. Writing and self-publishing a book is another great way of earning a living from writing. Thriller, science fiction, and romance authors who write and publish often earn five, six, and even seven figures a month in book royalties.

Alternatively, build an audience on social media and use your profile to unlock new professional opportunities. That’s what British scriptwriter Max Marlow did.

Struggling with rejection in an industry that’s difficult to break into, Marlow started photographing life around London. He posted his work on Instagram and wrote powerful short stories in each caption.

Marlow’s creative work attracted attention from people in his industry and indirectly led to a mentorship opportunity with filmmaker Ron Howard. Marlow told me,

“As much as you want to create, you also need to sell yourself and build yourself as a writer.”

Giving tracks away for free can help find an audience or clients if you’re a musician. Composer Daniel Bordovsky built his personal brand by uploading tracks to the Free Music Archive. After a track went viral, serial entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk hired him. Bordovsky told me,

“If you make something and put it out for free and…bring attention to that…that’s the way to start making money.”

Most people working in the creative economy teach online, too, turning their books and insights into courses and coaching. For example, Malcolm Gladwell, James Patterson, and Deadmau5 all teach their fans via the online learning platform Masterclass.

Malcolm Gladwell Masterclass
Most people working in the creative economy teach online turning their books and insights into courses and coaching

It’s hard for a local artist to earn a living from traditional means. But non-fungible tokens or NFTs finally afford young artists a chance to earn a good living online by selling their work directly to fans via marketplaces like OpenSea. For example, LarvaLab’s 24×24 pixel art CryptoPunks now sell for tens of thousands of dollars, while some are worth millions.

A Final Word on The Starving Artist

If you’re a professional working in the creator economy, spend some of the day working on your craft and some on your business. Finding time for both will help you get paid what you’re worth, like any professional doctor, architect, or entrepreneur.

  • Bryan Collins is the owner of Become a Writer Today. He's an author from Ireland who helps writers build authority and earn a living from their creative work. He's also a former Forbes columnist and his work has appeared in publications like Lifehacker and Fast Company.