After teaching high school art for a couple years, Patrick Maxcy quit his job to become a full-time artist. He quickly discovered that art is only part of the equation for any professional artist, so he makes sure to focus an equal amount of time and effort on the business aspects of his work too.
Patrick’s animal-focused paintings, murals and illustrations can be found all over the world thanks to numerous projects within the humanitarian, nonprofit, brand (Sanuk, Red Bull, Nike), action sports (skate + surf) and music arenas. Nearly 10 years in, Patrick’s still going strong.
In our chat, he shares:
- how to deal with doubt + comparing yourself
- how to get into galleries
- how to find new jobs + clients
You studied painting and then after graduating and getting your teaching certificate, you taught high school art, is that right?
Yeah, I graduated in painting and studio art, and I got a degree in Graphic Design in ‘06. Then teaching was my backup, which my parents told me not to do because they were both teachers.
But I started doing art shows in galleries when I was still in college and just kept doing it.
How did you transition from teaching art into being a full-time artist?
For a couple years I was teaching beginning drawing, advanced painting and graphic design in my old high school classroom and loved it. At the same time I was also starting to do murals and travel, but I wasn’t able to do it as much because I was teaching. I would tell my school, Hey guys, I’ve got to go someplace for a week. And they were like, Uh…
I loved teaching but I knew my passion was art and wanted to keep pursuing it and keep doing it even when stuff was hard. So I quit and went into art full time. It’s been nine and a half years doing full-time art.
Nice. When you were teaching and doing art, what was your process for getting into galleries and getting mural jobs?
So around 13 or 14 years ago, I was with Jedidiah [a former humanitarian-based fashion brand] and I also had buddies who worked at one of the biggest surf competitions in my hometown, the Tommy Tant Memorial Surf Classic in Flagler Beach, Florida, and they had invited me do live artwork at the event to raise funds for the food bank and for student scholarships.
I ended up doing the event for 10 years. Every year they’d fly me back, I’d do artwork, and every year it was something different. One year I painted on skateboards, another year I had a couple artists come in. And because of that I met a lot of other people — musicians, artists, athletes — and got into that surf-skate world.
So that’s what started me in the mural world. I started painting live all the time at surf events and had to learn to paint really fast. So I paint very fast, all my murals. I also get very bored painting — not bored, I just like to move on to something else, so I try to do it as quickly as I can.
A good friend of mine who is in a band also had a nonprofit and brought me to Nicaragua. So I started working with nonprofits. And once you do one or two, other organizations see you and they’ll say, Hey, we want you to be part of ours.
It sounds like most of your jobs were from word of mouth, then?
Yeah, they were word of mouth, especially back then.
Okay and now — is it the same or has it changed?
I’d say it’s 50/50. A lot of it is social media, online presence. I like to think there’s some sort of formula that works but I don’t think there is. Every time I talk to artists it’s always random.
One of the last murals I got was because I just happened to walk by a building and saw an empty wall. I went inside and was like, Hey, do you guys need a muralist? And they were like, Yeah, we’re looking for one, do you know one? And it worked, I got the job.
Is that the book store Second Star to the Right on Pearl Street?
It’s always random. It could be someone just contacting me out of the blue because they saw something on Instagram, Facebook or a mutual friend knew them. People know people so you just kind of go from there.
I still feel like word of mouth is great and I’m a big proponent of going to events in person and meeting other artists. For so many years, I remember back in the day you’d have to mail stuff to galleries and I never heard anything back. But then I learned if you go there in person, meet them, it’ll open so many more doors. There had been so many galleries I had applied to back in the day and never got in.
I was never on a plane until I was 25 but once I started traveling a bunch and going in person and meeting people it’s helped a ton because they remember you and your work.
When you go into galleries, do you go in cold or do you research first and say, Oh this looks like it might be a good fit?
Usually it’s kind of cold. I feel like that’s the best way.
And usually I know the gallery or know friends or artists I admire who have work there and I’ll be like, Okay, my work fits in there too. Every time I’m on the road I make a point to stop into a gallery, feel it out and just talk to them.
I have no problem just talking to people and it’s so easy nowadays. You can just reach out to any artist online or whatever and be like, Hey I’m going to be in your neck of the woods, do you have murals nearby or do you want to meet up for coffee? I do it constantly and a good amount of time they’re like, Yeah, come by the studio and hang out, or, Yeah, come by the gallery space and check it out.
“Chasing Echoes” acrylic on canvas. I love rhinos and would love to see one in the wild. I watched several documentaries on the illegal ivory trade around the world. I had just finished a mural of orcas while in Alaska and had an idea of them swimming around, speaking to each other via echolocation while protecting rhinos from poachers. They would never be together but the visual concept and world in which they would be together was something I had to create. Hummingbirds are also close to my heart. So I loved the idea of one feeling majestic while keeping watch atop the rhinos horn. —Patrick Maxcy
How many galleries are you in right now?
A big one that I was in closed last year. The gallery space has changed a lot so I go back and forth on, like, are galleries good or not?
I’m in four right now that I can think of. There’s one local here in downtown Denver, Abend Gallery, that I’ve been showing with this past year and that’s been really great because I can just go and pick up and drop off stuff rather than shipping it.
There’s Archimedes Gallery in Cannon Beach, Oregon, that’s mainly Oregon artists. It’s beautiful and I love all the other artists who show there, like Blaine Fontana, Josh Keyes, David Rice. We’re all animal-type people.
And you got in those by doing what you said before, just kind of stopping in?
Yeah, just going to shows and doing a little research online, finding out who the curator is and then when you see them being like, Hey so-and-so, I’m Patrick. And just kind of meet and talk with them and keep showing your face at events and giving them your business card, shooting out a quick email a week later to touch base again and say something like, Hey, remember we met last week?
That’s all it is. I definitely think the face-to-face thing is still the best connection because you can remember people, feel them out.
From the first point of contact to when you actually got accepted into the galleries, how long did that take? Because some artists think, I contacted them and I never heard back so there’s no hope of getting in.
Oh no, you keep it up. I learned from another artist back in the day that you just have to bug people. My wife hates it, she’s like, You’re going to drive them crazy! And I’m like, No just give it time. Sometimes it’ll be a year.
There’re still people I’m trying to contact for product sponsors and stuff like that. I’ll email to touch base every two to three months. I’m very visual and don’t like having it on my phone so I have a calendar on the wall and I need to keep at least four or five months up. I’ll put, Hey, remember to contact so-and-so, so I’ll remember.
What about marketing and Instagram — do you have any kind of strategy for what you post and when?
I do, yeah. I had a friend who is a PR person who was in charge of my Facebook account when I first moved out to Denver. But then I felt bad because I felt like I should be paying her and I wasn’t so I just took it over.
Social media is a whole different world because you can have it planned out and know how to space it out. I know Facebook is booming Sunday night so it’s always great to post then. Instagram is a different setting. Usually people aren’t on it in the evening, they’re on midday, randomly.
But I also have to be aware of time zones and keep in mind at what time I post. I have a lot of followers on the East Coast since I grew up there, but I also have a lot of followers in Alaska since I did an art residency there and last year the majority of my work was bought and sold in Alaska.
You read different statistics but then they change the algorithms and it messes everything up. There’s definitely people who are way better at it, who know the marketing world more.
Marketing is a huge part of the art world. There’s a lot of artists who are like, I don’t know how to do [art as a business], I don’t know how to make a living. And I usually say, Just be prepared — it’s not just making art, 50% of the time you’re sitting for two to three hours every day on the computer constantly catching up, talking to people.
I also think with an art degree they should totally have a marketing or business class but usually they don’t. I know some artists like Detour go to business school and that helps so much more than just, We’re going to paint. Business and art definitely have to go together.
You’ve mentioned before that art school didn’t really teach you about the business side, so how did you learn it?
I think it’s just constantly being up-to-date online and constantly reading magazines like High Fructose, Juxtapoz, and looking on their websites.
It’s also keeping up with the galleries and with what artists are doing as best as I can. And just meeting and talking with people, asking questions. When I was younger there were a couple of artists that I used to go to all their shows and ask questions and learn from.
It also helps that my dad [Stewart Maxcy] is a full-time artist now because he retired. He was also an artist when I was younger, when he was doing education. So seeing how he does things helps out a lot.
Any key things you’ve done or learned that have helped you keep going as a full-time artist?
I just kept doing it. Thirty, forty people graduated with me from art school and years later I found out only like two people are really doing art still.
You just have to have that drive and passion and not give up even when you’re like, I’m not making money this year. You just gotta be like, No, this is my goal, this is my job and what I want to do. You just keep doing it, keep doing it. And if you have to have a little side job to make it work, you have a side job.
But don’t kill yourself doing it. Breathe, make time to watch a movie with your wife or go for a hike. I tend to overwork and say yes and cram in too many jobs which is not always great. I’m currently in that state right now.
And don’t stop drawing. I draw almost every day. It’s definitely not always for a project or work but it could turn into something. I have probably 30 sketchbooks and always have one with me when I travel or bigger ones that I do at home.
Sometimes they’re just doodles. I’ll look out the window and draw a squirrel or I’ll go to the coffee shop and draw a cup of coffee. It’s just keeping your brain going and I think the drawing aspect works for graphic design and for painting, it’s the core of everything.
Is there a certain time a day you tend to work or just whenever?
Anytime, but for my main hours I’ll work till sometimes three, four in the morning, really late at night because it’s quiet. In the middle of the night you’re not bombarded with any phone calls, any emails, you’re not distracted.
I’d say 90% of the night there’s music playing in here, that’s a big component, even in the middle of the night and my wife is sleeping. I always have music going and I just work.
I work better with deadlines. If someone’s like, Hey, when you have time, just draw this. I’m like, No, you’ve got to give me a deadline because I’ll just randomly throw it to the side and kind of forget about it or it’ll get pushed back.
But yeah, it’s kind of whenever I get inspired. When I feel a block and not inspired, the biggest thing that helps me is getting out of the house. There’re so many hiking trails around here so I get out, take a little hike or a little drive in the mountains. That’s one of the reasons I live in Colorado is for nature — taking a hike fuels me so much. And the sun and breathing all of this makes me feel so much more alive.
What type of music are you listening to when you work?
Oh I jump all over. [Laughs]
When I’m painting a mural and I have to paint fast, I’ll listen to pretty heavy stuff, post-hardcore stuff or really fast punk. Then if I’m painting in the house there’s several Spotify playlists that are kind of like jam-out tunes.
It’s a wide variety and just depends on my mood. Sometimes it’s the new lo-fi beat stuff that’s just kind of instrumental things in the background. Sometimes I listen to old-school punk and ska.
What are some of the bands you’ve listened to most recently?
Several of my old students that I taught in high school are in well-known bands so I’ll listen to that sometimes.
This past mural I had Copeland playing for the whole day, which is very chill. And then one day I’m like, I’ve got to play the new Being as an Ocean, which is kind of a spoken word hardcore band.
What does your creative process look like?
That varies as well but it always starts with a sketch or a doodle in one of my sketchbooks or a lot of times on sticky notes. I have tons of sticky notes and I’ll put them around places, sometimes on the bathroom mirror so I remember things or I put them on the calendar. I feel like I’m an old person, I don’t use my phone a lot for notes and things because I’ll forget that they’re in there.
And on the side of my table I also keep a stack of folders for certain jobs that I know I have the next couple of months and kind of organize them on the calendar that way.
If it’s a graphic design project and I’m doing T-shirt designs for a band, I do a sketch in pen and ink and that’s it. If it’s a mural, it’s a sketch on a little notepad that most times you can’t tell what it is and I’ll just go from there and freestyle it. When it’s a mural it’s more organic and flowing where I kind of paint it as I go or add stuff. When it’s on a canvas I really prep and prepare for that.
I also research. All my pieces are animal related and I study a ton about the animals, like I watch every nature program and learn about their habitats and what they eat. That’s how I get inspired. And I find it very important to know the specific birds that are around certain animals. There’re reasons why I chose to put them in my piece. I think that’s a lot more true with my fine art work though, I love to figure out and have an exact storyline to my work. But I also like people to tell their own story.
Sometimes I’ll use Photoshop to plan out a mural and add in colors. Sometimes I’ll do it with my paintings but mainly it’s just sketching it out and figuring out where things should go and getting photo references. Most of my photos are photos I’ve taken or friends have taken, I don’t like to snag things online unless it’s a very difficult animal like an orca or something I can’t get my own photo of.
“Welcome Home” acrylic painting on canvas. I use various animals to tell a specific narrative. I love seeing different animals working together with a common goal. For this piece I wanted it to relate to the phrase “home is where you make it.” If you travel and move you always take parts of your past and home with you. There’s a lot personal references and hidden meaning for me within this piece. —Patrick Maxcy
Process-wise a big thing is I have to be in a really good environment to work. I have to have trees, mountains, nature nearby. And it sounds cheesy but a good vibe type of area.
I’ve had studios before and I’ve worked within my personal space. But since I work randomly when I get inspired I kind of like to have my work in the same space.
But yeah, coffee, good music and I try my best to turn off social media, my phone, computer. The next time I have a studio I don’t want it to have internet in there because it’s very distracting.
Where in here do you usually do your drawing or painting?
At my desk and I have a full easel and a roll sheet that I put out for paint. So I’ll paint right here on my easel.
I’m super clean, honestly. A lot of artists I’ve met — I’m not saying all artists — are very disorganized and kind of messy. And if I have a lot of projects going on, yes, it does get messy. But I’m a little OCD with things. Things are organized and color-coordinated or placed a certain way.
So yeah, it’s mainly working at home but sometimes I sketch at the coffee shop just to get out of this space. Because sometimes if I’m working on something I’ll not leave the house for four days and I’m like, I’m going to lose my mind. [Laughter]
You sell originals, prints, commissions, murals, do a lot of humanitarian projects and work with big companies and brands like Red Bull and Nike. Do you have any other income streams and what do you earn from each, roughly?
It all varies. Big companies are great because they pay well. I have friends who work for those various companies and they’ve said, Hey, this is the budget, so we’ll go from there.
Jobs in the nonprofit humanitarian and animal worlds don’t usually pay, they just cover my travel, lodging, food — which is a must because I don’t want to spend money.
There’s several organizations that I’ve worked with for years because I love what they’re doing. But there are also others that I’ve stopped working with when I’ve learned what’s going on behind the scenes, so you have to be careful with that.
But I love doing nonprofit work because it’s something I believe in. And it’s honestly almost like an ego check. Being an artist you get a very big ego and it’s easy to be like, Oh I got this show, this show, this show. But then when you travel and you see poverty you’re like, Damn. So it just keeps your life in balance.
So big companies, they’ll pay more but I keep it balanced by doing the nonprofit work because I know there’s a certain message within my work and a goal to get out there to try to help others as best as I can.
So is most of your income from big brands?
I’d say the majority of my income is from murals. Murals pay really well, whether they’re through a company or a city, because it’s a large chunk of money that only takes me four days to do.
A fine art painting is also great money but sometimes a piece can sit for over a year and you’re not getting that income right away. Luckily I have galleries that have sold my stuff pretty regularly. Abend Gallery in the last year sold five of my pieces during the opening, which is great.
Cash flow tends to fluctuate a lot for artists, so how do you go about managing it?
I’m very frugal, I save a lot. That’s one of the reasons my studio is in the house and one of the reasons we live in a smaller place. I’m not great with numbers but I know when we shouldn’t go out to eat one week, you know?
I don’t purchase a lot of things. I like to barter. Especially with artists there’s a lot of trade. I love art and if another artist likes my work, I’m like, Let’s trade. So there’s no money spent there.
Most of my money is spent on art supplies and travel. Travel is the biggest thing, but even when it comes to travel I’m super frugal. It helps that my wife and I are both frugal for figuring out things money-wise.
I’ll keep an eye on my bank account every month and know what I have. Then when times are getting busy, I know I should keep adding more work and not slow down. It’s also one of the reasons I have a hard time sometimes saying no. Because I know that while these murals are great and they’re like, boom, boom, boom, they could be something that’s just on-trend for a couple of years and then in five years there aren’t going to be big festivals and things like that going on. So you just have to jump in, hustle and do it.
Do you have a separate bank account for the business?
I do, yeah, it helps me keep track of expenses.
Do you do your own accounting?
Yeah. It’s changed a lot since I got married and it’s going to change even more because my wife [Shanna Fortier Maxcy] just went freelance a few months ago.
I know there’s tons of apps but I’m old school. I have all of my receipts over there [points to his desk] with all my taxes. And I have a good friend in the film industry that I’ve asked questions about how he does certain things like write-offs and things like that and he’s helped me a ton with taxes.
What’s the best part of what you do?
Being able to set my own schedule is super nice. Right now I have several projects but if I want to go outside and take a hike, I can take a hike. If I want to go and have a cup of coffee with a friend, I can do that too.
That’s my biggest thing. Because there’s so many people I’ll see, you know, friends who are just drained every day working 9 to 5.
Being able to create is huge. It’s like therapy being able to draw and create things that are in your mind or things you’re going through.
In art school I used to do artwork that was super dark and depressing. It would be creepy stuff like a dog fetus in a jar. I was trying to relay a message but I learned through time that business-wise that stuff doesn’t sell.
I still relay the same messages in my work but I do it through animals or with a more positive message through colors or subject matter, even though sometimes there’s a darker story line within the piece.
How do you deal with doubt?
Oh that’s a big one. Comparison online and doubt are the biggest killers for art. And they’re very hard. I’ve talked to so many different artists who I think are top of the scale and no matter how big you think they are, we all deal with the same exact thing.
The comparison thing to me is the biggest issue online. I know I deal with it, I know several artists who deal with it. And when you’re in the midst of it sometimes you have no clue that you’re killing it, doing this and this and this. Instead you’re just like, I need to do more, I need to do bigger.
Connecting with friends as best you can makes you feel so much better and more positive. I have a handful of probably five friends that I’ll reach out to. One of them I talk to almost every day. He’s a creative designer and he makes me feel so much better even if we’re just catching up on life. They’re not close by so we talk on the phone, but talking to them and keeping up to date on things in their life makes me feel better.
Doubt is a big thing and for me, going outside, taking hikes is a huge positive influence. Because if I’m doubting myself or comparing myself, if I stay in my apartment I will continually do it and get more upset. I have to go outside. Sometimes it will be two in the morning and I’ll tell my wife, I need to go for a drive. So I’ll do that to clear my head and not have my phone.
Those are huge things that we constantly deal with and that’s why a lot of times artists have depression and commit suicide. Because they’re isolated or they’re doubting or they’re comparing.
You can’t compare yourself to others. The best way to compare is to look at yourself two or three years before and just be like, I was there, now I’m here, wow. You compare yourself to yourself, not other people.
What are your hopes and plans for the future?
Continuing to do art full time. It’s a huge thing. I don’t have to be crazy famous or successful. As long as I can keep doing it and make income from doing it, I’ll be happy. You may be killing it but you never know what next year will bring.
I also want to continually do artwork that makes people smile, especially with my murals, because they’re more public and positive and people see them.
I was a summer camp counselor for 12 years so working with kids and making them laugh or smile, or making adults feel inspired and bring out their imagination, is a big part of it.
Just trying to do the best I can to help others and making sure I’m doing artwork that’s not just about me. It’s also about bringing awareness to a cause or painting for a benefit. As long as I’m still doing that, I’ll be okay.
Do you have any final thoughts or advice?
There’s a lot of artists who are really great artists but they keep to themselves and keep their artwork hidden or don’t like to be people persons.
But in the art world you have to be super people oriented and business savvy to continually make it. You can’t just be a great artist. A lot of times you don’t even have to be a good artist, you can just be a nice person and know how to market really well.
I think trying to figure out the marketing world and how to be friendly and do things more in-person rather than just from your phone are big aspects that a lot of artists should work on.
Interview edited for length, content and clarity. Artist’s work (images, audio and/or video) courtesy of the artist unless otherwise noted. All other photographs by Kim Olson.