Thursday, 13 March 2014

Painting for a Living – Part One

I’ve pondered a few times about how to write this article. All sorts of different formats, but the one I’ve settled on goes something like:

Part One: What painting for a living is like.
Part Two: Advice for those considering the career.
Part Three: Advice for those considering hiring a painter.

And given that this week’s models are proving impossible to photograph (lots of subtle black tones) I thought I would start part one… now! Most of you know that we are coming in to this story at the end of the process. Pirate Viking Painting the business is closing and the blog will be converted to my own personal stuff and will likely change a bit. A quick disclaimer, I have had no problems with any of my clients and to my knowledge they have had no problems with me. Anything below that sounds like a complaint is at worst a mild niggle and is what makes professional painting a job rather than a hobby.

Getting started:

There I was, end of May 2010, semi-voluntarily out of work and moving to Cardiff with my dear lady wife. What to do to earn a crust? The economy was in an even deeper hole than it is now and we'd just acquired Tories (for readers across the pond, think Republicans without the religious obsession) in charge again so I wasn't expecting any real help from my government. To get a bit of beer money I had agreed to paint a chaos army belonging to one of the chaps who frequented the Swindon Games Workshop (my previous job). It was during the planning phase of this that I thought "Hey, something I can do, have (at the time) 22 years experience at and might actually earn some crusts". So with that amount of planning and a call to HMRC a business was born.

I do not recommend doing it this way and it won't be a central feature of part 2 ;)

But there I was with some models to paint, a blog to promote my existence through and time on my hands, let battle commence! What happened next was a year of relative doldrums where I was trying to get exposure (actual good advice on this in part 2) and a lot of painting a variety of things to have content on the blog. Things didn't really take off until year 2 when I started to get much more regular work and was pretty much busy enough to be working full time hours.

So what is it like to be a full-time painter then?:

Well for the most part it is a lot of fun, you are doing something that you like in exchange for money and on your own terms - to an extent - there is not a lot to complain about! The key things that being a professional painter (and I wish we would go back to using pro painter as meaning paid for it, not "expert", I've seen pro painted stuff that is so basic I used to teach it in an hour back at GW and I've seen "amateurs" - i.e. every hobbyist ever - produce stuff of such quality that it has made me want to bite through my paintbrush in envy) kinda go like this:

1) It will make your painting better, a lot better.

There is a lot to be said for constant practice. My bog standard work these days eclipses some of my best work of only four years ago. I have learned a massive amount and have improved immeasurably. The other advantage is that you are constantly solving problems that you never knew existed as you would not have chosen that look; or colour; or pattern or whathaveyou. I'd had some experience with this army building for GW but it took on a whole new reality with this. In order to gain work you will agree to do stuff that in your mind you are saying "I think I know how to do that" and then you just do it. Sometimes frustrating, mostly rewarding. Having said that:

2) You will paint stuff that you just can't stand.

Sadly, you are doing this for money, what the client wants the client gets. I have been lucky with most of my clients, they've all been very happy to give me vague briefs and let me find the "my way" amongst their requirements. There have been some models though that the brief lead to me painting things that I thought were just "ugly". In reality it just means "not to my taste". The clients were delighted and technically the work was fine but you will never be truly satisfied with the end result as it doesn't look "right" to you. Other times you will be working on models that you just can't stand the sculpts of and would never have bought yourself. But the thing is, the client is paying their hard earned hobby money for you to do this. You have to get over it and just do it! Those days are the ones that drag, the ones that leave you feeling like a hack because you can't make it work. But the next day may have something unexpectedly delightful rock up and it'll all be sunshine and rainbows again.

3) Sharing is fun

One of the most enjoyable aspects for me has been maintaining this blog, we're almost at enough posts to keep you going for a whole year if you read one a day. My hobby had always been a private affair for me - with a slight local exposure in the shops - and opening it up to a large and growing audience was actually slightly thrilling. I long ago gave up on predicting what the internet will find enjoyable and now just throw stuff out there and see what sticks. The unexpected leaps in hits when you stumble on something that tickles the online Zeitgeist is very rewarding.

4) I'm not a natural businessman

Yep, I've admitted it, always had a slightly guilty relationship with money. Preparing invoices always made me feel a bit apologetic: "sorry, I kinda need to charge you for doing this fun stuff as we need to eat/fix the car/move house for the third time". I constantly undercharged for the work I was doing (seriously, I've seen some of the equivalent priced work from others now, I was undercharging) and didn't say "no" often enough when I knew that a project was wildly out of my wheelhouse. The bottom line is that I like people to have groovy things, the fact that this has had me on part time minimum wage for three years of 40+ hour weeks is very much my fault.

5) Freelancing is both awesome and terrifying

Freelancing is awesome! If you need to pop into town or it's just a lovely day then you can shift your work hours into the evening and chill during the day. You play by your rules and so long as you can get over the guilt of sitting still while there is work to be done then you can do so at your own pace too.
Freelancing is terrifying! If you are ill, you watch the productive seconds fly away, you are earning nothing in this time, if you take a holiday or circumstances force you away from the painting table then you are mentally counting the impact that it is having on your schedules. Plus, you never know where the next project/client will come from. Nerve wracking doesn't cover it.

On balance, freelancing is great, if uncertain.

So what changed?

Truthfully, not a lot, the situation - business wise - was actually improving, great exposure, regular work and long term clients. But a few things happened that made keeping PVP as the not-exactly-a-going concern that it was impossible:

1) My health:

Those that are long term readers will know that I damn near destroyed my wrist. Who knew that trying to do 11 hour days of repetitive activity would result in a Repetitive Stress Injury huh? Not this muppet that's who and I have a Biomedical Sciences degree and everything. Knowledge does not equal wisdom. Important learning point that. I got over the RSI and went back to work on shorter days only for it to happen again. Sadly, once you've harmed the tendons they are unwilling to let you just go back to normal. I'm down to about 6 hours a day maximum these days. That just isn't enough productive hours to allow me to clear commissions in order to get the next paying customer on the workbench. Turnover is everything in this business. 

2) Pricing:

If I am honest, I don't think I would have made much more cash by pricing more harshly. People have a limited supply of moolah for hobby purposes and I would have been competing with cheaper painters and with the more premium rate painters. I don't have Golden Demon awards or anything so I won't be seeing £100 a figure any time soon nor should I expect to. So I couldn't grow output and I couldn't realistically grow unit price...

3) Economy

Even with those things I might have seen the business as worth continuing had it not been for the way the economy has been handled. We've seen four straight years of inflation outstripping increases in earnings, we've seen leaps in the cost of energy (not included in most inflation calculations) and a host of other ways in which life has become more expensive. Sadly we have reached the point where my Wife Support is struggling to keep us going. I need to do the predictable paycheck gainful employment dance.

And so we find ourselves at the end of this particular journey. Parts 2 and 3 will possibly be more useful but I thought a general overview first would be useful. Until next time:



  1. Hi. Thoroughly enjoyed viewing/reading your journey on this blog over the year or two since I discovered it. It is a shame you are giving up on the painting as your stuff is great (and working for da man sucks). I wish you well for your future and look forward to where you take this blog with your hobby stuff.

  2. Great article, man - looking forward to reading parts 2 and 3. I hear ya about comissions not being nearly as fulfilling to work on, that's the main reason I gave up painting-for-pay a long time ago. Much rather paint what appeals to me and then see if I can sell it afterwards.

    I love your work, and really look forward to seeing what you do for your own projects in the future!