The Artist Pay Project is a series exploring how artists in the U.S. survive and thrive amid a cost of living crisis.
This Artist $napshot tells the story of a 31-year-old mural painter who makes $13,000 a year.
Art Practice: Mural painter
Location: Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania
Pronouns: She/ Her
$13,000 a year
How much of your income is from your art practice?
$10,000 a year
Where does the rest of your income come from?
Various part time jobs (Sherwin Williams, Susquehanna Glass Co.) where I make $12 to $15.50 an hour.
How much are you paid for your recent freelance or contract work?
8’x8’ rug mural: $1,600
15’x5’ wall mural: $800
10’x3’ window mural: $450
How do you price your art?
Mural clients pay a flat rate. It mostly depends on size, complexity of design, and wall texture. The rug mural is the most complex because it requires bending down to paint. I try to make at least $200 per day.
My fiance and I had to move in with my parents and fortunately we do not pay rent at this time. We originally lived in Maryland but it got too expensive to live there.
What are your major monthly expenses?
Student Loans: I have two loans, one of which I can’t pay at this time. I have $800 left on the other loan. I pay around $150 a month.
Groceries and utilities: This averages $300 to $400 a month, more in the winter.
Credit Card Payments: I’m personally in $2,500 worth of debt. I pay around $250 to $300 per month.
Do you have any expenses related to your art practice?
Insurance: $80 a month
Software: $60 a month
Credit card: My business is in $5,000 worth of debt. I pay around $300 per month.
Supplies: $200 per month. This is always in flux depending on project flow.
Larger financial picture
Do you have any financial support from outside sources?
My mom has covered a personal credit card payment for me on at least two occasions because I just couldn’t make it that month.
Have you received any grants to support your art?
Do you have health insurance?
Do you have any debt?
Student loan debt: $20,800
Business credit card: $5,000
Personal credit card: $2,500
Do you have any savings?
Did you pursue higher education?
Yes, I have a BA in Graphic Design. I graduated in 2013.
Anything else you’d like to share?
My income has been a roller coaster ride. I had little to no work from December 2022 to March 2023. Then as of right now I am swamped with work.
Responses edited lightly for length and clarity.
How do you feel about your financial security right now?
There are some days where I feel really good about it. And then there are other days where quite frankly, it leaves me in this depressive state. It's a balance of keeping an eye on it enough that I know what's going on, but I also can't focus on that because it stresses me out. I know that I'm going to be okay for the next couple of weeks, but not knowing how I'm possibly going to survive next month, that is very worrisome. It keeps me up at night all the time.
There's some periods where you have a lot of work and then some where you don’t have much work at all. Is there a reason why certain periods are busy and others aren't, or is it just kind of random?
A little bit of both. With mural painting, where I live in Pennsylvania, we have a winter season. You can't really paint outside during that season. Now that being said, a lot of my murals are inside so that's almost like the reason that I use for it. But that's also sometimes an excuse. The weather plays a part in it, but at the same time I also have other ways of making money that could ramp up during that time.
What led you to make the decision to be a freelance artist? Even though there's a lot of financial insecurity, what are the benefits you've experienced?
One of the big reasons I left my full time agency job was because of the deadlines. I just felt like they were life and death. That was literally an excuse I gave my boss when I went to start my own business, because I just wanted to be able to make those decisions myself. The types of clients that I was willing to work with, and then how I was going to get the work done in a way that didn't make those deadlines feel life and death.
One good thing about mural painting is that it's not a decision that people make quickly or rashly. And so that allows me to be a little bit more flexible with my deadlines. Nobody is going to throw a conniption or nobody's gonna die over the fact that this mural isn't done tomorrow. It's a time intensive process and so luckily, I found clients that appreciate the time it takes to do that work.
Can you talk about how you find clients and price your work?
Right now, all of the clients that I get are through cold outreach. So I'm literally just emailing businesses with my portfolio and saying — hey, I'd love to work with you. Check out the link to my portfolio. The very first mural client I got, I just emailed a pizza shop and said — hey, I love your food. I want to work with you. And that person, she was my very first client and it was $3,000 worth of work.
It allowed me to get a really good head start. And she was very free as far as the design goes. I really was able to put my mark on this place and it became my portfolio piece that led me to take it to other clients and say — I have actual, real work in my portfolio now.
As far as pricing goes, I am just now getting to a point where I feel confident telling people what I want. Telling people the actual amount, the full amount of money that I should be charging. I know a little bit of that is all myself, just because of this relationship that I have with money. But it's been really hard to ask people for the actual full amount that it takes. One thing about mural painting is that these aren't $200, $300 projects. These are oftentimes $1,000 projects, because of the time that it takes. It's done by hand and the cost of paint and everything. It's taken me three, three and a half years to finally feel confident charging what this is actually worth.
And that took me a really long time to get there and you know, I'm still not 100% confident.
Why do you think that was a struggle for you — asking for an equitable rate?
I don't know. I think it's not recognizing my own talent or feeling bad for charging people. I feel in a way like my stuff isn't worth it, and that is not true at all. If anything, it's the opposite. And it's almost learning to love myself and learning to love my work enough to say to people, no, this really is worth the money that you are going to pay for it.
What are some of the biggest challenges that you've experienced when it comes to making a living as an artist?
Right now, I don't have health insurance. I've been having to make these pretty significant life decisions to keep the business going. I'm down to my last several hundred dollars in my own personal account because I'm funding this myself. I don't have a bank, rolling this. I don't have an angel investor. I've been having to make decisions like — okay, well do you get health insurance or keep your business going?
So what did I decide to do? I decided not to get health insurance. Because I believe in this business enough that I'm willing to take that risk. I've noticed that with other things. I've chosen to not go on vacation for the last three years, like a personal vacation. Those little sacrifices, those little risks I'm taking to do this. The biggest challenge is those risks present themselves to me and then I literally have to have a conversation with myself and weigh out — what do I do? What's the best decision for me? What's the best decision for my business?
What kind of resources would help you when it comes to this issue of making a living and being able to make your art?
I want there to be more local resources for people like me. Just in the past month, I've joined my local Chamber of Commerce, and I found out about a resource called SCORE and it's retired professionals that give free advice to business owners. To be able to access something like that is literally priceless. I wish I had known about those resources sooner because they've already turned a financial leaf around literally just in this past month alone.
Is there a certain salary that you hope to make that would make your life more comfortable or something that you're aiming toward in the next few years?
One of the numbers that I'm going to try to stay around is $75 an hour. That was the number that I figured out a couple of years ago. If I was going to do this, how much do I need to survive? And that quickly dwindled, just because once I actually do the math, nobody can pay. Nobody can pay that much. Now, some of the projects I'm working on, I'm making about $200 a day. So I try to stay around those amounts when I'm bidding out these projects because I know that is what it takes to live comfortably.
Do you know any other mural artists who are making a comfortable, livable wage from their art?
There are some girls on Instagram that post their financials. They're pretty transparent about what they're making each month. And they have a minimum setup for their murals where they literally don't do a mural project unless they start at $5,000. I know there are people that are doing this and making a living wage off of it. And then there are people locally that I found that from what I can see from the outside looking in, making murals is one part of their income stream. They're also selling products with their artwork on it. They're also doing gallery shows.
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