So, here's the deal: For the past ten years or so, I've been a "professional artist," in as much as the bulk of my income comes from illustration, design, or licensing of said illustrations and designs. If you know me, you know that this has been a mixed bag. It's still pretty standard for people to be all impressed and say things like "how lucky you are to do what you love!" and I've certainly had occasion to say "NO, I HATE IT!!!" but, ultimately, it seems to be what's worked for me. As such, the youth of America sometimes asks: How can I do it, too?
First, I have a confession: I sometimes feel guilty about being a professional artist. Why? Because I know that there are lots of people who are better artists than me and who probably want it more badly than me and there are people who got college degrees in it, for god's sake... but I'm the one getting the checks in the mail. I'll admit up front, I'm not a terribly amazing artist. It's not that I don't have any skillz (I am good at what I'm good at), it's just that I constantly see tons of artists who can draw and paint circles around me. In fact, my hand-drawing skills actually seem to get WORSE with time. So why do I deserve what I've gotten? Isn't it just evidence of cosmic injustice?
I'll also admit: when I see people who are good artists who just do it as hobby, it throws me off a little. I'm like the prostitute standing there saying "You do this for FUN? REALLY? Don't you know you can get paid?" But, truthfully, I'm not that jaded. I remember what it's like to make art just because you want to see a picture from your mind take shape in front of you. Honestly, it's a more satisfying process, but I've crossed the Rubicon and now, for better or worse, I can never do art without thinking about how to make money off of it.
But, I am fortunate in that I'm good at making art that is "commercially viable." I make art in a way that seems to appeal to people on kind of a shallow level and, frankly, I'm okay with that. I was one of those shy kids who had trouble relating to my peers and found that drawing them pictures was one of the only things I could do to curry favor (After reading Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography, I think this psychological profile might be kind of standard for cartoonists.) Basically, I learned to do art that would please other people. That is one facet of why I've been able to do this.
The other facet? I know I've said this before, but I'll say it again: In order to do art as a business, you have to know how to do business as well as you know how to do art. You've got to be a hustler, and by that I mean you have to be the sort of person who's always looking for the angle to make a buck. When I started, I wasn't as savvy as I am now, but I was organized and I knew how to make a plan and figure out what I needed to learn to pull it off and I was willing to learn those things.
I was also willing (or naive enough) to take whatever risks I had to. I invested in some costly promotional activities on credit and I haven't had health insurance in ten years. For me, this is not really a sacrifice and I don't consider it particularly courageous. I'd rather face an unknown future with a lot of freedom than face a known future that's limiting and unsatisfying. I suppose it's a personality thing. It's also because I don't have kids or assets or the proverbial "anything to lose." I guess you also have to be a bit of an optimist. You have to believe that the unknown future has a jackpot waiting in order to keep gambling.
I also had the benefit of good timing. If you underestimate the importance of that, I recommend you read Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. I launched my career in a time and place that was creatively booming, so success was easier for a scrappy young hustler like myself to stumble back-asswards into. Also, my "success" has been very roller-coasteriffic. I have never had the same income from one year to the next and my jobs and projects are very random and inconsistent.
Rather than ramble on, allow me to clarify what my points are:
Things that (I think) you need to become a professional artist:
1. An organized approach to planning and execution.
2. A part of you that likes to hustle for money and constantly look for fresh opportunities.
3. A willingness to learn a lot of things on the fly (how to build a website... how to use graphics software... how to read and write contracts... etc.)
4. Low risk-aversion.
5. An ability to give people what they want.
So, sadly, it's not about being the best artist or having a degree. It's really about all of the above combined with the decision that you really want to do it. So, long story short, that's how I'm a professional artist. Results may vary.