Painting after retirement

What’s the good of self-discipline if you can’t even figure out a plan? And the plan itself requires time, attention and work.

Morning at Spruce Head, 8×10 oil on canvas, $522 unframed. This was a class demo on color management, and I wish you could see all the color swirling through it, but my camera insists on flattening it out.

“I just cannot seem to create structure in my life now that it really is up to me and not something imposed by work or child-rearing,” wrote a student. “A—is doing great on her own. She’s launched into adulthood and all that entails. Bittersweet. And now for me to create my next chapter. Yikes.”

I’ve floundered several times in my life. When I transitioned to painting full time, I had no idea how to create artwork that wasn’t paired with words. I illustrated two books before realizing that children’s literature wasn’t my métier.

Many people grapple with issues of organization after retirement. Some fail. My father had passionate avocations, including painting. All his life, he managed to squeeze them into his free time. But upon retirement, he simple wasn’t able to organize himself. He found himself rooted to the spot, getting progressively more depressed and less productive.

Rosy sky at Owls Head, 8×16, oil on linenboard, $722 unframed.

I plan—like Wayne Thiebaud and Lois Dodd—to work into my dotage. That makes me singularly unqualified to give advice about retirement to anyone.

But making a good retirement seems—to me—to be much like self-employment. Obviously, you don’t need to work 80 hours a week, but you do need to create order, process and clarity in your day-to-day existence.

I’ve been self-employed since I was thirty. I vividly remember that feeling of shock when I sat down to my spiffy, brand-new computer (that I’d borrowed to buy) and realized that I had to go get customers, estimate the jobs and do the work, all on my own. I was terrified at the prospect of making sales calls. Knowing how to do the work is the first prerequisite to self-employment, but hardly the most important thing. The entrepreneurial spirit is more important and more elusive.

Skylarking II, oil on linen,18 x 24 inches, $1,855 unframed. 

I’m the grandchild of the Great Depression. I came of age during double-digit unemployment in my hometown of Buffalo, NY. I have all the traits of a successful wage slave—keep your head down, show up on time, do your work responsibly, don’t call in sick, don’t quit one job until you have another. None of them prepared me for self-employment.

A strong work ethic is a start, but deep passion is more important. Art is as much a calling as it is a job. That’s the only thing that takes you through the lean years.

As a one-man shop, I constantly struggle with questions of organization. I find a to-do list helps, but at this point in the summer, I’m hopelessly muddled and behind. I cannot work without structure, so I make structure a priority. But what’s the good of self-discipline if you can’t even figure out a plan? My mistake when I started out was not realizing that the plan itself required time, attention and work. I got it in the end, but more thought at the beginning would have saved me a lot of flailing around.

A certain amount of cheerful competitiveness helps. It keeps your eyes focused on what the people around you are doing, which helps you see the path to excellence for yourself. That requires the courage to assess yourself squarely against others. You can either be envious and bitter that they’re ‘better’ than you, or you can learn from them. The choice is yours, but to me it’s a no-brainer.

Time management for artists

The temptation to say yes to every opportunity that comes your way is strong, but it will wreck your focus.

Skylarking 2, 18X24, oil on linen, $1855 unframed.

This week, I cancelled my Cody, WY, workshop. There was nothing wrong with it in concept; it generated a lot of interest. The trouble started when students looked for rental cars. There weren’t any available, and in the nearby larger markets, rental rates were extortionate.

This is nobody’s ‘fault’; it’s an unforeseen result of COVID. However, that doesn’t give me a free pass to ignore the consequences. I still had a lot of clerical work to do to make the cancellation. That—along with the lost work and expense of setting up the workshop up in the first place—is part of the cost of doing business.

This is the time of year when I suddenly notice that I’m making lots of mistakes. That’s because I’m working myself too hard. That’s partly because of summer visitors, but it’s also because of my business model. I live and work in a tourist town, where we make hay while the sun shines.

Skylarking, 24X36, oil on canvas, $3985.

Every year at this time I reach a point where I can’t manage the clerical stuff on my own. There are only two solutions:

  • Scale back, or
  • Hire some of it out.

There are good arguments against either. Scaling back would reduce my income. Hiring is difficult in this market, and it would require raising prices.

To be self-employed without a secretary has only possible because of the remarkable improvement in business efficiency in the last few decades. Take paying bills, for example. It used to be a half-day affair that involved writing checks, addressing and mailing envelopes, and a quaint bookkeeping activity called “balancing the checkbook.” Now I can do it—including checking all accounts for fraudulent activity—in an hour every other week.

Belfast harbor, oil on canvasboard, $1594, framed.

Unfortunately, that has been replaced by other activities that are equally time-consuming. The biggest of these is social media, but it’s the best advertising at our disposal. When artists tell me, “I don’t have time for that,” they’re ignoring the first requirement of business, which is marketing.

Still, the reality for all self-employed people is that there are only 2000 working hours in the year. You have to be able to do all your tasks in that allotted time, or you’ll fail. Years ago, my friend and fellow painter Bobbi Heath taught me a simple time-managementsystem. The take-away lesson is that not everything will get done. Your job as a manager is to figure out which needs to be done most urgently, and to let the chaff fall.

Owls Head, 8X10, $652 framed.

Like most of us, I have a hard time saying no, but saying no doesn’t make me a failure or a bad person. It means I’ve prioritized other activities.

The temptation to say yes to every opportunity that comes your way is strong, especially when you’re just setting out. People will ask you to paint all kinds of things, in all kinds of places. “Your dog, at your wedding reception? What time should I be there?”

But many of these ‘opportunities’ are really just cul de sacs that will spread you too thin, and cost you your focus. If they can’t be done well, don’t do them at all.

A tax break for artists?

Working artists are among the winners in this year’s tax season.
Don’t mind me; I’m just using details from old paintings to talk about how I feel about preparing taxes.

The 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act may have been intended to simplify the tax code, but simple it is not. Still, it has a provision that affects you, if you declare income as an artist.

Self-employed artists fork over a payroll tax of 15.3 percent, which cover both sides of our Social Security and Medicare obligation. Corporate employees pay half that, with their employers covering the remaining half. The change was designed, on paper, to redress that.
More importantly, it preserved the historic tax advantage that sole proprietors had over C corporations. Prior to the passage of the bill, the top effective tax rates for C corporations was 50.47%; for sole proprietors, it was 40.8%. When the rate on C corporations dropped, it had to drop for sole proprietors too.

Starting with the taxes you’re doing for 2018, pass-through taxpayers (those who aren’t a corporation) are entitled to a deduction equal to 20% of the taxpayer’s qualified business income, pr profit. For some people, its calculation is going to be very complicated. Once the broad plan was in place, more and more widgets had to be added to make it fair.
Most of the limitations on the deductions won’t apply to the working artists who read this blog. Singles making less than $157,500 or joint filers making less than $315,000 in total taxable income can stop reading here; they get to take the full 20% deduction. (If you’re between those levels and the ones in the next paragraph, you get the deduction in a trimmed form.)
Singles making more than $207,500 or couples making more than $415,000 are subject to different rules. They get no deduction if their business is a personal service firm.
A personal service firm (SSTB) is “any trade or business involving the performance of services in the fields of health, law, accounting, actuarial science, performing arts, consulting, athletics, financial services, brokerage services, or any trade or business where the principal asset of such trade or business is the reputation or skill of one or more of its employees or owners.
To me, that sounded like the very definition of a working artist, whose livelihood relies on his skill. And apparently, others were concerned that this was unduly broad, since it would apply equally to the machinist, riverboat captain, software designer and many other self-employed people. Fortunately, the IRS decided to define that catch-all phrase at the end very narrowly. You’re out of luck if you:
  • Endorse products or services;
  • Allow your name, likeness, etc. to be licensed to sell products like brushes, paints, or a teaching set of pastels;
  • Get paid to appear at events.

But even then, the only part of your income that’s excluded is the part you earned doing those endorsements.

    As Forbes wrote, “If you ain’t famous, as long as you don’t provide services in one of the specific disqualified fields, you are not in an SSTB, even if your skill or reputation is the only thing you have to sell.”
    Of course, it’s just a law, and it’s up to the courts to determine what it actually means. But until then, I’m going to feel fairly confident taking the deduction. A caveat—I’m an artist, not an accountant, so this advice is worth exactly what you’re paying for it.

    Baloney or Malarkey, what’s your pleasure?

    English is the lingua franca of the modern world, but I’m not sure how well that’s working.

    Still life by Carol L. Douglas

    If you manage your time right, it’s possible to be a professional artist without ever lifting a brush. It’s very easy for the administrative work of a small shop to swamp the creative time.

    In some ways, the time we spend on hold is the price we pay for the convenience of living in the computer age. Our ancestors would probably happily trade sitting by the phone for a take-out dinner.
    At work it’s a different story. Of all the rabbit holes the self-employed person can go down, a ‘customer-service’ call is the worst. Especially since so many modern corporations no longer talk to you in person, but require that you ‘chat’ online. At least with a phone hold you can reline the kitchen cabinets or straighten your pencil drawer while you’re waiting.
    Still life by Carol L. Douglas
    Yesterday I did a chat help that lasted two hours, 32 minutes and 47 seconds. You might think that’s not so bad (if you’re insane), but it was the third one in eight days. The first one lasted two hours, nine minutes and 25 seconds. The second one I forgot to record.
    I used to believe these were happening with a living person whose English wasn’t good, but now I’m not so sure. Certain phrases repeat through the conversation, like “I am checking it for you Carol,” or “Please may I get to know…” or “I would like to suggest you that please…”
    Eventually I told the other party that I’d been holding so long I needed a bathroom. “What I can see is that you can again come up with the same case number after you had a bath,” it replied.
    Still life by Carol L. Douglas
    We duly got through the reinstall and it didn’t work, as it hadn’t worked on the previous three tries. 
    “I would like to suggest you that please follow the steps again I have share with you,” wrote the bot.
    “You mean you want me to uninstall and reinstall the software again?” I asked. It takes about an hour.
    “In above chat I have share with you,” came the cryptic reply.
    My case has been bounced to another “team” of specialists. They promise to respond within 48 or 72 or 96 hours. Meanwhile, my ads for my workshops aren’t done.
    Hah! The joke’s on you! Painting by Carol L. Douglas
    I was very philosophical until my bot signed off with, “I understand how inconvenient this is,” an automated comment if there ever was one. No, I don’t think you do, bot. Human beings have a finite life span. Time matters to us.
    This morning I got up to a comment on my post about the scientists of color. It was in Hindi, and I expected it would be an ad for sunglasses (which is why comments on this blog are now moderated). Google translated it for me. It read in part, “Crops used to use the crop in Madhya Pradesh in the central area of ​​the overthrow of the crop fields or other birds, they eat your armor. Hummingbird think that was a real man tight figures in old clothes, and go in fear, well, firstly remove Bkshyon the Scarpon, but they will stay away from any kind, understand, even when happy Landry, a few days…”
    I can’t believe my bot is now sending me personal messages.