Sell out or starve? How to reconcile your inner artist and inner marketer

Recently my business partner (and husband) and I disagreed on the strategy behind a quote-related content series that we’re producing.

(We’re incorporating inspirational business sayings with accompanying imagery into our content marketing strategy.)

Immediately I had a vision of creating unique images highlighting these quotes, possibly even using some of my own hand-made textured backgrounds so that each quote would be a piece of my art in its own right.

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My partner, on the other hand, was envisioning that I would quickly curate quote pictures into a series that lacked my personal aesthetic.

You see, I studied fine art and graphic design while he earned his degree in business management economics. Our differing yet complimentary backgrounds are what lead us to start a digital marketing agency together.

Because of these differences, we don’t always agree on how to accomplish our goals.

Art versus business

I left our conversation feeling a familiar nagging inside my gut.

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The creative lurking inside me would never dream of regurgitating someone else’s work for the sake of social engagements. But the marketer persuaded me that it would be less time consuming and more resourceful than creating custom images.

Should you sell your creative soul to bring home the bacon and buy a name for yourself, or should you make art solely for the purpose of self-expression?

It can be very disconcerting for today’s creative professionals to come to the realization that to sell effectively, is to sell out. And if that is true, what does it mean for your creative psyche?

In essence, the question becomes, should you sell out…or starve?

(Share your thoughts in the comments!)

Life lessons

I’ve found the answer lies in the fact that every artist needs sustenance. Literally. It is a beautiful and powerful ideology: the concept of the “starving artist.”

But, in the end, even artists need to eat!

The lessons I learned from this experience brought me to these realizations:

1) Sometimes, we need to do things that go against our creative inner morality until we can afford to do otherwise.

Obey, obey, obey, and then do what you want.

Lisa See

Unless you are a prodigy (or an extremely lucky person), it’s highly unlikely that your intrinsic artistic talent is going to get you where you want to be without sacrificing any of your creative morals.

Realistically, life isn’t about doing what you want all the time.

The smart artist who struggles to break through the noise understands there needs to be a compromise.

My take on this circumstance?

  • Rein in your artist and refine your marketer until you have sampled the delights of success. Only then can your artist afford to go crazy.
  • Never forget that having an unlimited creative license is a privilege.
  • You may have to work in ways that you didn’t anticipate when you started your journey of creative entrepreneurship, but when you get there, the sky’s the limit!

2) There are times when clients want things that don’t jive with your aesthetic.

Should you tell them no? Should you ignore them and do what you want instead?

Or should you bite the bullet and create something that you don’t want to because it’s what they want?

In my experience, taking the advice of others and doing things that I don’t necessarily want to do has actually led me to learning important lessons about my profession. It’s also given me valuable insight into the world of the “non-creatives” who are paying me for my talent.

Of course, don’t take jobs that are out of the scope of reason.

Just don’t limit yourself.

Stepping out of your comfort zone to do a project may completely alter your creative individuality for the better!

Trying something new? Check out this post on How to quote a project you’ve never tried before.

3) The key to success is finding the balance between your inner artist and your inner marketer.

We may be experts at our craft, but we are always learning and evolving.

And sometimes it is best for us to look at things like marketing in a different way. Marketing is an art within itself, and even if it sometimes feels superficial, that doesn’t mean it can’t be beautiful.

The trick is to know when a project favors creativity over efficiency or vice versa.

And if you can make it happen both creatively and efficiently, you’ve got it all figured out!

Check out these creative ways to market your business:

4) The inner artist is an uncontrolled, undefined and unfocused energy…

…that creates for the sake of creating.

The marketer is an organized, goal-oriented, hyper-focused entity that works for the sake of moving forward.

They need each other to thrive, but if one over-powers the other, the equation becomes unbalanced and we run into trouble.

However, when the reconciliation is done well, the outcome is magnetic and everyone wins.

Today’s artists

The iconic artist of centuries past has gone extinct, but in his place is today’s artist; a creative entrepreneur.

A hybrid mix of talents and skills, cultivated to uniquely and successfully express emotion while at the same time utilizing strategies that produce functional work.

The field of marketing is colliding with the creative field of design, where the artists of today are required to do more than bring an idea to life. Designers are meant to produce functional products that get someone from point A to point B.

Creative directors are meant to have a vision and execute smartly and proficiently.

Back to the project…

I began to admit to myself that my idea for our quote project was clearly derived from a selfish place, wholly based on personal expression:

  • I wanted to do the project my way so that I could benefit from the satisfaction of producing a work of art.
  • I wanted unlimited creative license without earning it first.
  • I wanted to be the artist, but I forgot about my very important marketer!
  • My idea did not solve any problems and it was not an efficient use of my time.

I realized then that selling out is not really a thing anymore.

It is built into the confines of our ever-changing industry and it no longer means that you have to sacrifice your moral, creative inner artist self. It is a way to measure your success as a creative entrepreneur because truth be told, if you are selling anything, you are winning.

Ultimately, we must embrace our inner marketer and our inner artist in order to avoid starvation. To do so is in fact, essential for our survival as creatives in this ever-shifting digital landscape.

Final thoughts

The next time you feel the nagging sensation of your artist trying to break free from the confines of our industry, take that powerful energy and channel it into something different.

A personal project perhaps.

Harness that passion and use it to experiment with a different artistic medium or in a charity or volunteer setting.

Whatever you do, remember that while the reconciliation is important for creatives in a work environment to understand, it certainly doesn’t mean you’re limited in your life as a whole.

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  1. I totally agree with you Shana, and it’s been a lesson I’ve tried to teach to many junior/associate level designers at my work (I’m a senior level).

    I know it’s disheartening to a creative when it seems your work becomes more mundane or formulaic while interesting ideas you toss out are rejected from within or by the client…or you get some sense they they might eventually try it, but never do.

    For me, I still see it as “work” and “it’s just a job”. I know some Creative Directors and higher hate anyone who has that attitude, but it’s what keeps my sanity in check. It’s difficult to make someone creative care deeply about deodorant, auto parts, financial services, or pharmaceuticals when their best efforts seem to be killed in favor of the “safe” choices.

    Side projects are what keep me sane and creative. It could be my food blog, making house and trance mixes, or even just getting away from it all and traveling, shooting some photos.

    I try to tell every disgruntled creative that for every one “amazingly awesome innovative” project they might touch, there will be 50-100 bland boring projects that need to be done. This isn’t “paying your dues” as much as it’s “the job”. It’s a service we provide. It doesn’t mean we just shut our brains off and phone it in, but we simply understand the limits of this work/industry, and not take things too personally. Give it your all, but shrug and walk away when it seems your best ideas are ignored…but keep those for your book!

    THEN…you go home…and you do those amazingly awesome cool innovative creative things you love. Maybe they are “side hustles” that make you extra cash, or they bring no monetary benefit, but plenty of personal fulfillment. Only challenge really is to fight for your work-life balance so you can get away and do those amazing personal projects.

    Good luck in your business, and I hope you give the big dinosaurs a good challenge.

  2. Because I have a broad range of projects I am more than happy to use my design skills to quickly remix content from existing design assets. I get plenty of opportunity to be original, I find working in a ‘production line’ approach like Warhol’s Factory hones your skills and when you have a moment to be creative & original you are all fired up, but as for audience, some might admire pure originality, while for the most part I feel the audience is just looking for the gut-reaction of how that content speaks to them at that point in time regardless of the content’s origins.

    I do this all the time, this example is stock photography & a quote found on Google image search “inspirational quotes”.

    It’s best to attribute the author if you can find them;

    And of course if you work for another creative who supplies you with original text & art to remix for social platforms for are in designer nirvana;

    Just have a social channel spare for your ultra creative stuff, the more esoteric and original, the more narrow the audience sometimes;

    1. I totally agree. When I was making art professionally, sometimes I found myself channeling Warhol and focusing on the idea that consumerism and mass production can be art concepts worth exploring.

      I did this series of mini abstracts called Shine Series 2.0. And I remember locking myself in my office and painting for hours on end. I pumped out the whole collection of 40 paintings in less than 2 weeks. I definitely felt a little like an assembly line!

  3. It is possible to be creative while using stock images etc., especially if you use just part of the image or manipulate it in some way. You also choose the image which is a perfect match for the quote, font used, colours etc. That’s what a ‘graphic designer’ does.Good graphic designers do not need to be superb photographers or illustrators … they can use the work of others (provided, of course this is done legally). Their core work is the DESIGN.

    Commercially, the important thing is to get your message across. Who created the original image is not important to the target audience.

    If your inner artist is not satisfied with this, then perhaps you need to have a sideline which allows you to be creative in a fine art sense … or, maybe, change careers!

    Personally, I love combining different elements (images, fonts, colours etc) to create a commercial piece which is both attractive and effective. The time taken to do this is a key ingredient in whether it is COST-effective.

    I also engage in original art and craft works, which I consider separate from my graphic design work. Sometimes, happily, the two can overlap … eg when a photograph I have taken is very suitable for one of my commercial projects.

    1. In regards to your comment about the lack of inner artist satisfaction, I think just based on the fact that I have a fine art background, the pull to create for the sake of creating is just stronger than maybe it would be if I hadn’t been put through the art school wringer for 4 years. I’m not sure that all creatives feel the same knee-jerk reaction that I notice sometimes.

      Not only that, but I went to an extremely liberal school where the focus was very narrowed in on creative ways to look at the artistic process. They never taught us anything business-related, which I find appalling, and would love to write about some other time!

      As for stock photography, I use it in my work all the time. But, I like to change it up by creating my own stock photos to use as well. It doesn’t take much time or money to take a few nice pictures that you can use as the background for quote images, blog post title images or social media post photos.

      Sometimes I’ll even use my old artworks as backdrops quotes or other types of posts. I think that it brings an extra punch of uniqueness because it’s something that can’t just be searched and downloaded by thousands, but it doesn’t take a lot of time for me to create because it’s re-purposed original content.

      Here are some examples:

      1. I agree with all you say Shana. I, too, have a fine art background. For no particular reason, though, I tend to keep my original work for my own projects rather than for clients. Now I come to think of it, however, most of my clients supply their own photos—this is because I specialise in book design and the photos used are very specific to the project.

        I like the idea of recycling old artworks … sometimes I take just fragments of them … or shuffle the pieces.

        1. I guess I only use my own original stuff for marketing my personal company SplashOPM, but not usually for our clients, unless they are requesting original imagery (which they never do).

  4. Absolutely loved this article. So on point! [The inner artist is an uncontrolled, undefined and unfocused energy…that creates for the sake of creating.] <3 #truth

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