Disclaimer- I first wrote this in an interview with Alex Pitt. With the new lockdown looming upon us, I am putting this out to my fellow creatives who are starting their artistic businesses/thinking about it and need some hints/tips. We need to stick together.
Throughout my education, I was always confused about the hesitation of people when I said I wanted to become an artist/author. Why the disbelief? Why the hesitation to take a leap?
You may have others who will wear the same confused and uncomfortable expression when you tell them. One of my main starting points is that when someone tries to dissuade you, remember that they are advising you from their perspective of fear, doubt and risk assessment. They are assuming they know what you will and can achieve. But the only person that knows that is you.
Now, anyone can become an artist. You can even do it full time if you don’t care about bills, responsibilities or eating. But what about turning your creativity into a business that works?
All of this is about making your passion work with what I call, “the Deal with the Devil.”
My first path in combining painting and earning money was becoming an Art Teacher. This was my “safe way”. Friends and family approved, there were clear pathways on how to do it, so why not?
My Art Teacher route evolved into becoming an English Teacher as I changed my Degree last minute to Creative Writing with Visual Studies (my passion being painting and writing books- it’s so hard to choose).
Turns out the “Deal with the Devil” in becoming a teacher was selling my soul and being boiled alive whilst having chairs thrown at me, endless deadlines and a zero hour contract.
And whilst I loved my students, I knew that this deal wasn’t worth it. I didn’t want it.
Ain’t nobody got time fo’ that.
I had always enjoyed painting and had wanted to get into illustration. During working as a receptionist for a health organisation, I illustrated a book for them on Diabetes in children. I realised I really enjoyed it and wanted to develop this newly discovered style. I then moved into doing a family portrait for a family friend’s 60th. After putting up a photograph online, I got more requests for paintings, until I had to start a Facebook Page where people could go to order one.
And there it began.
Currently, I work full time as an artist and author, creating personalised pet and family portraits in a children’s illustration style and also paint watercolour sailing/seascapes. I would say my audience is wide- anyone who wishes for a bespoke piece of someone they love. My niché audience is the sailing community and those who love the ocean/adventure. I’ve recently been stepping into bigger canvas pieces with abstract takes of water movement and it is something I would like to delve into deeper.
Not content with just painting, I also earn a living as a fantasy author with seven self-published books, so learned a lot about marketing when I was promoting them since 2012. In addition, I’ve worked as a social media manager for a couple of adventure YouTube channels, so developed my existing skills on managing various social media networks, what to do, what not to do, what posts worked and what didn’t. I took these skills and transitioned them to promote my products. This is what I’ve learned so far.
There has never been a better time to monetise your creative business. With various platforms such as YouTube, Patreon, Instagram, Facebook and TikTok, the ability to reach an audience has never been so accessible.
Come to terms that social media is your friend. It can be a powerful marketing source. Here is where the term making a ‘Deal with the Devil’ comes into it. To be able to do what I love, I have to learn about social media, be on the computer and embrace its ability to reach maximum people. Some people’s ‘Deal with the Devil’ is going to the office job they hate to earn a living. Your ‘Deal with the Devil’ will be with social media marketing. Embrace it. It’s not going anywhere.
Consider filming short tutorial videos on how you create your work. It can be personal vlogging about your experiences as an artist or simple timelapse instructional videos. Once you get to 100 subscribers you can apply for a personalised URL, and once you are at 1000 subscribers, you can start earning actual cash for your videos. At the end of each video, make sure you put all of your social media and website links in your description and encourage people to sign up, subscribe and visit your shop. Always ignore the trolls. Your happiness should not rely on gaining the approval from people that want to drag you down. Some people are just wired like that. Grow a thick skin and do what you have to do.
Patreon is a subscriber platform where your ‘patrons’ pay on a monthly or per post basis to either get exclusive discounts of your work, view blogs or videos before they are released or even to receive complimentary merchandise. The idea of ‘patrons’ supporting artists has spanned for hundreds of years. Even Shakespeare had them. You will find yourself developing a close relationship with your patrons. They become family. And you will want to reward them with goodness for trusting and supporting you.
This is a harder platform to break into, and unless you go viral, will take a couple of years to build up, but it is so worth it. Once you get to 10,000 subscribers, you can have the “swipe up” option on your stories that take your viewers directly to your shop and products on your website. Whatever you do, DO NOT buy these followers or set up “bot” automatic replies. They’re obvious and it can piss people off that you are not being genuine. People will also guess that you have bought your followers if you have thousands but only have a few likes on your posts. Be genuine.
Instagram is potentially your most powerful visual tool. To maximise your Instagram ability post at least one image a day. Three is the most effective. Don’t know what to post? Share your artistic process. Write engaging posts. You can even film short videos to gain further exposure. Learn your hashtags. Each post is an opportunity to be seen. If you’re unsure on what hashtags to use, find other artists that style resembles your own and find the hashtags they use.
Facebook Business Tools are great for boosting your posts to particular and niche audiences. Since we’ve all probably had Facebook the longest as a platform of social media, creating a Facebook page for your specific artwork is usually the first place to start.
This should be your main home. This is where you want everyone to come when they first hear your name. Make it clean and easy to navigate. I’ve always used WordPress, but Squarespace, I’ve heard is very easy too. Finding it difficult? If you have the cash, then paying for a website designer is a great investment to reflect your brand.
But what do I put on there?
Consider writing a weekly blog on your website and keeping your gallery of work up to date. Each time you publish a blog, an alert will go out to your subscribers and you will have traffic to your website. They will see your latest work and hopefully click on your shop.
Mistakes to avoid-
Don’t complain online. One mistake I have noticed about artists or illustrators selling their work is complaining about lack of sales. It would be like going to a restaurant and hearing the chef bemoaning that no one wants to taste their food or actors complaining that no one will see their play. As a buyer, you would think, “why is that? Is there something wrong with it? What are the reasons other people don’t want to buy?” Do not make people feel guilty. They will associate that guilt with your work. Working as an artist and illustrator is hard. Complain to other artists, friends and family if you must, just not to your clients.
Don’t expect everything to be perfect within six months. I come across artists still protesting that they are struggling within a year of trying to sell their work. It takes most artists a few years at least to be able to make the jump full time (it took me three) and that’s probably because they exhausted every single avenue they could go down.
Don’t expect to sign up with RedBubble and start raking in the money. Creating is not enough. When I first started out, I did just that and was annoyed and felt defeated that my paintings weren’t flying off the shelves. And do you know why? The market is brimming full of amazing artists. It doesn’t mean that your work isn’t as good as theirs. You just have to make it seen.
- Don’t price your work too low. If you don’t know what to charge, give yourself an hourly rate on your work that you’re happy with. If you want to lower your prices for whatever reason, consider doing it as an offer or a discount to gauge what people are happy with spending. Take into account how much it will cost you in materials as well. This is a business.
- Be realistic with your time and effort. If you’ve spent twenty hours on a necklace that you are going to sell for twenty dollars/pounds, then rethink your approach. And be realistic. If you are selling hand-painted greeting cards, it is pointless (in terms of business survival) spending five hours on an item that people will usually spend maximum £5 on.
Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. It takes a while to build a follower base, but you can do it. You need to keep on going and finding a tactic that works for you. This is where social media comes in. There’s no point in making a delicious cake and just expecting someone to walk in and buy it. You need to take it to the masses. If your craft means enough to you that you want to do it as a full-time business, then you will try. You will have those late nights. You will have those stressful hours in front of a computer and feel like you have achieved nothing. You will have friends and family questioning you. You will doubt yourself and your ability all the time. You will be sick of reading WordPress tutorials and learning about print and demand, trying to find an affordable scanner for your work, and praying to any heathen God to help you sell a print so you can afford the postage for the others you sold the week before. You will wish you have four sets of hands to achieve all of your tasks and you will have to juggle. Your work is worth it. You are worth it. Because one day, one week will be better than the last. That promo you spent hours researching will pay off. You will get a return client. And then another. And your viewer base will grow. Because you stuck at it. Because you didn’t give up.
Don’t stop learning. Listen to podcasts on marketing. Social media. Eat it all up. Test it out. Find what works for you. If you are strapped for cash, use paid promotions on your posts for higher ticket items that will give you a bigger profit margin, making it worthwhile.
Is it true that it’s unlikely you’ll make a comfortable living as an artist or illustrator?
With any profession in the creative industry or any independent business, it all relies on what you put into it. Be prepared to work long hours. To experience setbacks. Disappointments. And hangovers when you’ve attempted to drown your sorrows to celebrating your successes. When you make it and can make the jump full time, all of that will be worth it.
Some people won’t take a risk because they want the guarantee that everything will be comfortable and predictable. This isn’t the case for the creative industry. We have to fight. We have to hustle. We have to constantly be developing, working on our craft and thinking of new ways to capture the audience.
Because with a lot of people in this industry, we are simply wired differently.
So be different.
Don’t give up.
Artists and Illustrators I admire.
Polly is an illustrator ceramic artist. I admire her because she’s created an instantly recognisable brand that spreads across different mediums. Fabrics, wallpapers, ceramics, prints- you name it. Her visual storytelling is beautiful and it’s always a joy to view her Instagram page. She makes me want to work harder.
Phoebe Moonyean Gander
Phoebe is a mixed media artist. What I most love about her is her ability to connect with the viewer with her art. She is frank about her process to other artists, creates beautiful visuals when presenting her work and varies her feed with timelapses, videos and images. She also is very personable and shows us the person behind the artwork.
Charlie is an illustrator that specialises in digital processes. She mostly creates promotional material for books and creates art depicting the characters. Charlie is one of these very rare artists that people will follow (including myself) because her work is so incredibly beautiful. She has the mass of artists that follow her because they want to learn how to develop their own technique, and then she has the reader audience who know that she will at some point create the characters that they love from their favourite fantasy read. Charlie also has a successful avenue on Patreon for artists to watch instructional videos on how to improve their digital drawing skills.
I hope this has helped! Remember, it’s natural to want to give up. It’s normal for you to get irate, pull out the pinot grigio and swear you’re going back to your old job. As long as you wake up the next morning and decide to give your artistic business it another shot. Another go. Don’t. Give. Up.
You’ve got this.