Ever wonder how to make creative work a full-time job? Find out in this interview with full-time painter and illustrator Sabina Fenn.

Financial Impulse’s “Freelance to Full-Time” interview series explores a variety of freelance work and side hustles pursued for extra income, including the gigs that eventually become full-time.

How to Make Painting & Illustration a Career

How do you make a career out of creative work?

As an art hobbyist, I’ve always wondered about this—so when presented with the opportunity to connect with a full-time painter and illustrator, I was beyond excited.

The fine arts are often frowned upon as a career choice, and labeled unrealistic and impractical. But according to Glassdoor, the average illustrator earns $62,659 a year—not bad for an “unrealistic” job.

Of course, it takes more than talent and skill to thrive in this field. As such, art as a career isn’t for everyone.

To find out more about how to pursue this kind of work, I interviewed 20-something-year-old Sabina Fenn, a painter and illustrator based in Toronto. She works with a mix of watercolors and gouache to create peaceful and feminine illustrations. In addition to working with clients on custom projects, Sabina sells her own line of products online and wholesale.

How long have you been illustrating and painting? 

Illustrator and painter Sabina Fenn

I’ve been painting for a very long time—since my early years in high school but I definitely dabbled with paint in elementary school as well. 

We used to create lots of crafts in elementary school, and I remember that my piece would always be used as the example for other kids to follow. That’s when I realized I was good at making art!

I knew I loved art for as long as I can remember, though. The illustration component didn’t come until university, when we started learning about fashion illustration and I was obsessed! I bought so many books about it and studied as much about the history of fashion illustration as I could find. Today, I don’t focus as much of my work on fashion but my work still has a bit of a fashion flair to it!

What sparked my interest in illustration is when our professor started showing us some of the illustrations by the great fashion illustrations throughout history like Erté, René Gruau, and Paul Iribé. I loved their styles, and I wanted to make similar art. 

How did you first get into illustration as a paid gig? 

Throughout my phase of obsession with fashion illustration, I started posting my work online and going to fashion networking events in Toronto. I got my first gig with Saks, which had just opened on Queen Street in Toronto at the time, and from there, I started getting more projects through word of mouth or meeting people and telling them about my work. 

Is this your full-time work or part-time?

This is my full-time job—and I worked hard in order to make it my full-time job! 

Sabina Fenn artwork

When I graduated from university, I had two part-time jobs and did whatever illustration jobs I got on the side. The part-time jobs paid my bills while I could save the money I was earning from making illustrations. 

Today, I set up multiple income sources, which continue to grow and expand every day; doing that has helped me stay afloat even when I don’t have many projects going on. That being said, I haven’t really had a slow period since a couple of years ago—it has been very steady and sometimes very busy.

What inspires you when creating?

I’m inspired by warm weather; I love summer and I love to paint warm elements. I’m also very inspired by travel and foreign cultures. I get inspired by photography, interior design, modern art and still by vintage fashion illustration as well—it’s so timeless!

What’s the best part of this work? 

Getting to paint all the time! 

OK, realistically I don’t get to paint all the time, but my favorite days are those full of painting. It still challenges me, frustrates me at times, and pushes my limits, but it’s still relaxing and peaceful at the same time.

I think it’s important not to get too comfortable and I’m constantly inspired to expand and move onto the next thing, which really keeps me on my toes.

a selection of Sabina Fenn's artwork

What about the hardest part of this work?

The hardest part is doing all the little things I’m not very good at… For example, managing finances, and getting organized for tax season. Basically any part of running a business that requires more analytical thinking is not my strong suit, but I know it’s important and I get help when I need it.

What advice would you give to anyone interested in pursuing this work, either full-time or as a side hustle?

Sabina Fenn painting "Moroccan Tiles"

Just start—whatever comes to your mind first, do that. And besides starting…

  • Post your work everywhere.
  • Don’t be shy about making bad art.
  • Try out all the mediums. 
  • Research, research, research. 
  • Ask for help when you need it. 

Finally, I think it’s important to be super passionate about drawing, and illustration in general. If you’re just in it for the money, you’re gonna get burnt out and it’s not gonna last. 

The illustration world is quite saturated at the moment so companies can be very picky about who they choose to work with, so you need to make sure you’re committed to developing your own style that stands out and is recognizable. It takes years to develop a recognizable style so again, it has to be something you’re super passionate about. 

You can find Sabina’s work on her website and Instagram. Prints and merchandise featuring her artwork are also available for sale on her Etsy.