How To Make It Through The Hard Times as an Artist

How To Make It Through The Hard Times as an Artist

The life of an artist is often romanticized as living a dream. But what often gets lost in that framing is that the road to happiness more often resembles a roller coaster than a straight line.

The other day, a friend of mine posted a series of memes on her Instagram stories. I have no idea where she got them. It was just a series of different cards presenting motivational messages for artists of all stripes. The first one, the one that jumped out to me, was a reminder of how hard the journey is for an artist. Unlike other professions where some guiderules are generally set and the path from novice to professional are relatively straightforward, choosing to be a professional artist more often than not means choosing to enter the Wild West. A place where hard work and merit don’t always pay off. Where rapid changes in the marketplace can leave even your most amazing accomplishments to be fleeting. And where even those who love you the most will often question the career choices you have made.

The point of the post wasn’t to drone on about the pitfalls. Rather, the post was pointing out the burden we carry with us every day as professional artists. There is no mid-level manager holding us to account every day. In fact, that mid-level manager might be the reason many of us chucked our day jobs in the first place. Rather, as an artist, you are tasked with getting yourself out of bed in the morning, forcing yourself to make the cold calls, and put in hours of practice even when you legitimately have a laundry list of other life tasks needing to be done instead. The reward for all that hard work is often then to be greeted by a client who doesn’t value what you do.  Meaning that every opportunity also comes with it a responsibility to continually fight for your worth.

Not that we mind. Art is our calling. We are aware that there are far easier ways we could have chosen to make our living. Nobody forced us into this.  We went in with our eyes open. Yet, the never ending nature of pushing ourselves over obstacles can be exhausting, both mentally and physically. And, because succeeding in such an environment requires us to be able to shrug off a certain level of pressure, we very often don’t take the time to simply acknowledge the weight of the burden we are carrying.

It’s not easy to support yourself financially with your passion. This only gets harder when living in times of famine rather than feast. It’s easy when the jobs and creativity are flowing to keep one’s head high in the air.  But what about the times when success, whatever that means to you, seems further away than ever? How do you deal with it? How do you keep moving forward when it feels as if you are standing in place?

This past year, like any year, has had its ups and downs. Living in Los Angeles, I and my colleagues were greatly affected by the combined SAG and WGA strikes that ground business to a halt for several months. Both strikes were over important issues and have thankfully been resolved, but the effect on those of us who work in this town was significant. Add to that we are barely over a year past the greater global work disruption that was the pandemic, and it’s clear we are all living in a challenging time.

As I’m writing this just a few days prior to New Years, I am in that annual frame of mind where I take serious stock in the 12 months that have come before, make my resolutions for what needs to change in the twelve to come, and broaden out to a more macro view to make sure my life is still aligned with my intentions.

Of course, it would be great if all of these year-end self examinations would always reflect nothing but sunshine and rainbows. But, as with any life, artistic or not, it is impossible to progress through any year without having as many defeats as you’ve had successes. Well, not if you’re doing life right at least. Constantly pushing to improve comes with setbacks. That’s just the name of the game. And it is these setbacks that make our eventual successes all the sweeter in the end. But, until those successes materialize, how do you keep your head above water?

Nothing Lasts Forever

“Nothing lasts forever” is one of those terms that has changed meaning for me as I’ve gotten older. The simple three word pairing says a lot. It cuts both ways. And it cuts deep. Often it is used when we are on top. We are riding high, in one way or another, and that little skeptical voice inside of our head keeps reminding us that all of this, all of these many blessings, could come crashing down at any moment. As great as things may be right now, an unforeseen incident beyond our control is always just over the horizon waiting to change our life forever.  This is, of course, the half glass empty reading of the line.

But, when times do get tough, I’ve learned that the phrase has an equal utility. Hard times were never put here to stay. Just like our high points, our low points are merely temporary. So, when things aren’t going the way you want, it’s important to recognize that it is not a permanent state of your life. Just as the roller coaster drops down from the peak, it is also just as capable of reassending the next climb ahead.

So, if you find yourself stuck in a rut and the thought enters your mind that this might very well be your permanent lot in life, do yourself a favor. Step back, look at the reality of your situation, and understand that nothing lasts forever.

Express Gratitude

Thinking that life has got you down? Thinking that things couldn’t possibly get any worse than they are now? Well, think again. If you are feeling that way, it is only because you are still alive to be able to feel that way. And, any time you have the ability to wake up in the morning, it is a good day.

This holiday season was the first in the last 25 years that I’ve had to celebrate without one of my best friends, Deland. Originally, we met a quarter-century ago when he was one of my cinematography professors. In the following years, we went on to shoot a couple projects together with me directing and he as DP. Our professional relationship became a genuine friendship that went well beyond our shared interest in filmmaking.  

A few weeks ago, I received word that Deland had passed away unexpectedly. As I write this, I still don’t know the exact cause. All I know is that we were on the phone the week prior doing our usual griping about society and hope for the future, laughing about nothing in particular, and going way too deep into the meanings of the movies we had just seen. Then, just like that, he was gone.

I’m sure I’m hardly the only one reading this column right now who has had the misfortune to lose someone close to them this year, this month, or even this week. Grief is a required payment for the cost of being human. But when such events occur in our own life, we have little choice but to have it change our perspective. Sure, I may not have been crazy about some of the briefs I was offered this year. Sure, my revenue number could have been higher. But, you know what? I’m still here. That means that I’m still in the fight.

And, if you are reading this, it means that you are still here. So you are still in the fight. Whether your goal is to be an amazing professional photographer, an amazing dentist, or just a better father or mother, if you are reading this, it means that you are still in the game.

When I first set out to be a full-time photographer and director, I started one of the most important routines in my life. Every morning, every single morning, I begin my day by writing down three things that I am grateful for. Those things could be as amazing as having a good friend like Deland or as (seemingly) routine as having a roof over my head. Neither of those things are guaranteed. Every day I write three different things that I’m grateful for. And, most importantly, I stop to consider just how lucky I am to have been blessed with them.

Now, aside from simply fulfilling the needs of my OCD, this practice has been absolutely key to my ability to sustain mentally when times get tough. And times have gotten tough. Really tough. In those times, whatever the shape of the obstacle, taking note of things in your life that you can be grateful for is just a simple reminder that things are never all bad. And that’s the kind of habit worth having.  

Maybe you didn’t get that gig you were aiming for. But, if you think about it, the fact that you were included in the client’s triple bid is a blessing in itself. Maybe you haven’t gotten to where you want to be financially yet. But, what about that amazing personal shoot you did this year? You know the one I’m talking about. The one that went straight into your portfolio. The one that you could have never pulled off the year before. The one that is proof that your hard work is paying off.

Maybe your gratitude is completely unrelated to your work. My family, my dog, my friends. Simply the fact that I made it through this year with the good fortune of always having enough food to eat. Regardless of what didn’t go right this year, you do have things to be thankful for. When times get tough, taking a moment to focus on those positive things can often be enough to pull you through a difficult moment.

Remember How You Got Here

All sorts of things lead to our discontent and those things can be different for everybody. Personally, I’m a very driven person. Due to a number of personal things which I won’t go into here, I have this built-in personality tick that doesn’t allow me to be satisfied with anything but the best. Now, before you think me conceited for thinking I’m the best, allow me to correct you. I don’t think I’m the best.  I’m simply programmed, thanks Mom and Dad, to think that any accomplishment short of a Nobel Prize is a complete failure. Therefore, I find it very difficult to be happy with my accomplishments, even if I have money in the bank and trophies on my mantle. Unless it’s “the best,” it can all feel like a failure.  

This belief is even more ridiculous because, as any sane person will tell you, it’s impossible to be the best in the arts. No matter how good you get, there will always be someone somewhere that is better than you. Why? Because art is subjective and there is no such thing as an objective metric that measures how good you are. Sure, you could try and judge your personal worth by the number of awards you’ve won or your net earnings the previous year. But awards are almost always disputable.  And, as we mentioned earlier, your success in a given market is often affected by events beyond your control. If your business, for instance, took a hit during the pandemic, does that mean you got worse as a photographer? Probably not.

So trying to gauge your happiness by external results is very rarely going to lead down a positive road. Rather, it’s important to take a moment to step back and try to remember why it is that you started down this path in the first place. If you are an artist, it’s a pretty safe bet that the reason you got into this in the first place is because you love the art form. Maybe you love lighting. Maybe you love fashion and photography is your way of documenting it. Maybe you just like the interactions with the cast and crew on set. We all have our reasons.

Understanding your own reasons and focusing on those things, rather than obsessing about results, can help you better contextualize those things that feel like disappointments. Learn to love the process, not just the end result.

I’ll give you an example. This past year, I finished my latest film, Runway. It was a massive undertaking and I couldn’t be more thrilled with the result. At the time of this writing, the film is in the submission phase of its festival run, so it’s far too early to say whether or not it will be “successful.”

But here’s the thing. It’s already successful. It’s successful because I took an original idea from concept to completion and added more art in the world. It’s successful because I forged new relationships with the cast and crew that could last far longer than the run of any individual film. It’s successful because, over the course of the process, I got significantly better as an artist and am better prepared for my next film. Presumably that next film will leave me better prepared for the one that follows that.

In other words, success isn’t just a matter of the plaudits that may or may not come at the end of the project. Success is continuing to get up in the morning and fight for your art. Success is maintaining your positivity even when things don’t seem to be going your way. Success is placing as high, if not higher, value on the little things in life we are grateful for as we do our major more public wins and losses. Success, in short, is still being here. It’s the strength to keep going. And, even when times get tough, remember that this too shall pass and that there is still happiness yet to come.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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I love reading your work every week.

Thank you so much, Alex

so it has been, so it is, so it ever will be I think