Loneliness is not something we talk about easily but artists can’t ignore the subject. For most artists, solitude is an everyday reality. Is being an artist lonely? You bet, and some people cope better than others.
Most artists work alone and from home. There are no workmates, no laughs, and no stories to tell. Days can pass without socializing. What’s more, there is no guarantee anyone will ever buy your work. Being an artist is lonely and insecure.
Life as an artist is not really so romantic. It sounds good, but in truth, dealing with your own company is the key to success. It’s harder to be alone than it is to make money. Let me explain further.
Why is Being an Artist Lonely?
An artist needs some time and space to create their art and that requires a degree of self-discipline to cut away from people and get on with the task.
That’s all very well in art college, or finding an hour here and there to escape the clamor of everyday life. The sad reality, for those of us who want to take our art to the next stage and make some money, is that space becomes an obstacle.
When you are young, that could mean finding an artist’s community and sharing the space with other students in some semi-derelict dump awaiting redevelopment. What they lack in comfort is offset by having some stimulating company. This situation is always temporary.
Most artists, can’t afford to rent a separate space to make art, they have to make do with what they have and can afford. They work where they live, and not everyone lives in a nice big house.
Forget the artist’s garret cliche. Most artists set up in a quiet corner at home and if you have a small place that can quickly become your prison cell. Think about it:
- You make yourself get up early
- Make breakfast and grab a coffee,
- You turn the radio on and make a start at about 9am,
- You step over to your table or easel and begin,
- You stop for lunch and countless coffees that you don’t even want,
- The day disappears and you stop around 5pm,
- You make dinner,
- Watch some TV,
- Go to bed.
How many days can you live like that without seeing anyone? You can’t do it, so you make excuses and procrastinate and start to avoid sitting down to work.
You try to avoid doing the very thing you love to do because you need the company of other people. And if you cut yourself off from friends and family, and push yourself to get your work done, what happens?
You have nothing to talk about when you do see friends. Nothing happened all day. You didn’t see anyone or do anything. You were only in your own head, and at home, drawing, painting, or writing.
Because you don’t see many people and have little to say, you withdraw even more. You don’t want to be a bore, so a cycle of decline quickly steps in.
That’s why I stopped painting in my twenties. At a time I should’ve been having fun, I became reclusive. It was unhealthy. I was making a living but not coping with the lifestyle.
Forget that Bohemian BS. The struggling artist, working through the night in a creative frenzy, and living for his/her art, is all CRAP. It’s for the movies. The reality is a sad figure sitting alone all day, with no mates.
Do Artists Like Being Alone?
To some extent, artists are usually self-contained. Most artists were happy to be in their own world as children.
That’s not the same a preferring your own company. It simply means you can be alone and stay content.
I don’t know anyone, or should I say, believe anyone, who really wants to be on their own for long periods of time. As a work colleague once confessed:
“I’m a loner who needs people”
What they mean by being alone, is having their own space as a choice. Somewhere to go, or to be, where they can relax and wind down. That’s understandable for people with high pressured and sociable jobs, it’s not the norm for artists locked away and painting all day.
Why do artists seek other like-minded souls if they prefer their own company? What’s the point of Facebook groups or art societies? We need to share our thoughts and feelings with people who understand where we are coming from.
I like being alone when it’s on my terms. I need the choice not to be alone too. That’s why finding the perfect workspace is so hard and so important.
Do Artists Need to Be Alone?
An artist needs to have a place to work and that is not the same as being on their own. Just as a carpenter needs a workshop, an artist needs a studio.
That studio doesn’t have to be a whole room, it can be a desk or an easel, but they need the space to create and be left alone while they are creating.
My most productive times have been when I’m in a communal environment and being left alone to get on with it. I need a space where others work so I can take a break, chat, and switch off regularly. I need people and the sounds of activity around me.
I can write this post in my local cafe because there are voices around me and pleasant staff who allow me to sit here for a few hours. If I had to write this at home it wouldn’t get done.
I live on a boat and people sigh with the romance of it, but after 18 months of covid, I hate it. I can’t work in that cabin. I have to get off that damn thing.
In many ways, I prefer to be around people who are not artists. It stops you from becoming part of the victim club and ironically, too self-important. It puts what you do, in perspective. You end up being a guy who happens to be good at art. No one takes you too seriously and that’s a very good thing.
If I want to get things done, I need to bounce off others. I’m motivated when I have a laugh and a good chat, and that sparks new ideas. Being with folk is the creative process.
Further Reading: How to Motivate Yourself to Draw
The only times I value solitude is when I’m alone by necessity. When I’m driving or traveling on a bus or a train. I get the same sense of freedom when I have a shower. There are times when you cannot do anything else other than what you are doing. Then the pressure to be productive is relieved.
These are my daydream moments when my brain is free to wander where it likes. Who knows what I’ll dream up. I’m on my own, but not lonely.
For the most part, being alone is counterproductive. I’m not a gregarious guy, but I do appreciate others around me.
Speaking personally, I need solitude like I need a nail in the head.
How Do Artists Beat Loneliness?
I failed as a professional artist the first time around because I couldn’t be alone so much. I succeeded the second time around, so what was the difference?
One of the reasons, obvious now looking back, is age. I was very young the first time I tried to make a living with art and needed different things in life. Yes, a love life seems so much more important when you are in your early twenties, and the loneliness is far more intense. Who wants to be single?
That ache diminishes as you age and thank goodness for that. You can dismiss it as the misguided angst of youth, but it wasn’t of course, it was perfectly natural. I certainly had no real control of my emotions.
I was older when I started again. I was 38 when I gave it another go. That was old enough, and mature enough, to focus more on making art for a living than my social life.
And it’s the way I chose to work that made things work.
My portfolio was drawn while I working in a youth hostel. I would sit at a table, in my spare time, and draw while the others got on with their day around me. A few hours a day was enough to build up a small body of work.
I wasn’t alone and that suited me fine.
When I decided to sell my prints for a living I had to devise a different way to work. Instead of drawing at home, or in my case, in a campervan, I decided to draw between customers while sitting at a market stall.
It took a lot of getting used to, but eventually, I overcame my reticence about drawing in public. Almost everything I have drawn in the last 20 years has been drawn this way.
It has limited my scope for experimenting and trying out new things, and that’s a shame. On the other hand, I have drawn and printed more work than I ever would have done if I was on my own.
Far from inhibiting my work it has been the reason why I worked. It helps to have praise and encouragement. It’s motivating.
Not everyone can do this. I’m fortunate that my chosen medium is so portable and I found a place to sell my prints.
The answer, for me, was to find a space where I could be amongst others. That’s not easy I know.
There are plenty of co-working spaces for digital workers these days and renting a desk in an office environment is not difficult, but in my town, they don’t come cheap. The cost is always the limiting factor.
Where can you work and not be overwhelmed by the costs?
Look for Alternative Places to Make and Sell Your Art
Speaking personally, I have sat in parks, on the seafront, and in the library to get work done. That’s fine occasionally, but it’s hardly the solution, and it’s still kind of lonely. There are cheaper artists’ studios in my hometown, but they are very hard to get and business units are too costly.
Does your town have an open market? It might be worth your while to get a pitch and use it as a workplace. You can cover your costs with print sales. I’ve done that and it works a treat.
One option I haven’t tried, and could, is the artist in residence angle. As a wildlife artist, I could approach some zoos and pitch the idea. Some cafes have a gallery area. I’m in a cafe now that has a retail/gallery side. There are tea rooms in country parks and at visitor attractions too, try those.
What about approaching retail plant nurseries? I used to work in a tree nursery and they offered me a space to work. They had space, visitors, and friendly staff. If you paint landscapes, wildlife, or florals, it could be the answer.
What about equine centers if you paint horses? Your local vets? Open farms? Any business with space that serves moneyed clientele is potentially a goldmine.
You don’t have to be full-time. You can establish a round. A day or two at each place is fine.
Further Reading: 3 Alternative Places to Sell Art
Most empathetic owners will be willing to try things out and understanding. For most people having a resident artist is fun and an added attraction for their own customers. It can be part of their marketing. Play on the fact that art attracts people. It’s a win-win.
Make Your Art Abroad
One of my solutions was typically extreme. I took my art with me when I traveled abroad and looked for cheap hang-outs. I’ve done this many times.
In my experience, S.E Asia is your best bet, but I’ve done it elsewhere. You need a developing country with a cheap cost of living but developed enough to have all the services you need.
S.E.Asia is perfect. Not only is it safe, but it’s also cheap, and has the infrastructure you need to live well and get supplies.
I look for places that westerners visit and slightly off the radar. My ideal place has been discovered but it’s not quite mainstream. It has to be slightly off the beaten track.
Not only do you meet the best travelers, but you also meet unjaded locals, and pay local prices. It can be tricky if you need fast wifi, but that’s only really important for digital nomads.
Pre-pandemic, I chilled out in Northern Sumatra for several winters. There is a small island right at the northern tip, called Pulau Weh and I stayed in a village called Iboih. I usually arrive at the end of their rainy season and book at least the first month.
I stay in a stilted wooden bungalow, with a balcony, overlooking the water’s edge. Within a few steps there is a coral reef, and a short path leads up to the restaurant. I stay for under $10 per night. Meals cost about $3 each, cheaper if you eat at local stalls.
The key to getting such a fantastic deal is to arrive before the peak season and to NOT to pre-book on a booking site. There is plenty of accommodation and you can take your pick.
I work in the mornings. If I need privacy, I sit on my balcony and work. If I want company I hang out in the cafe and work.
The afternoons are my own. I will go snorkeling, and sometimes diving. Other than that, I will chill and chat with other travelers and with the locals.
I don’t worry about money, and that is such a release. It’s a perfect life. Cheap living, friends, writing, and making art.
And before you dismiss it as a fantasy, it’s not. Plenty of very ordinary people have discovered this way of life. The fear of the unknown puts people off, but once you realize how simple this option is, you won’t be happy with the poor deal you get at home ever again.
Further Reading: What’s it Like to Travel Solo?
Tourist visas expire after a couple of months, so you fly to Malaysia, which has a free visa. There you can get the supplies that you can’t get on the island, stay a day or two, then you can fly back. Think of all the work you could get done and have a great time while you are doing it.
You don’t have to go to Sumatra, of course, you can go anywhere in S.E.Asia. Indonesia or the Philippines are particularly good. Why not Bali? It’s a tourist ghetto these days, but you know what? tourists all go to the same old resorts, so go somewhere different.
You can do that almost everywhere in Asia.
Don’t limit yourself. Get a job, save the money, quit, and do it.
Being an artist can be a very lonely life and in my experience, it’s the factor most likely to defeat you early on. It’s not trivial.
Social isolation will not improve your art or motivate you to work. It will do the exact opposite. Maintaining a healthy work/life balance while being alone all day is almost impossible.
And if you are quite shy already, art gives you the best excuse in the world to avoid people altogether. It’s easy to withdraw into yourself, but it’s never healthy.
It takes some effort and thinking outside the box, but finding a place to both work and have some company, is perfectly possible, in fact, it’s essential.
Now take a look at these articles:
- Do You Suffer From Imposter Syndrome?
- How Do Artists Deal With Rejection?
- How Build Rapport and Sell More art
- Creative Burnout: How to deal With it?
- Start Drawing Wildlife and Make Your Life Happier