A question I am often asked is: How do you make a living as an artist? I've answered this question several times in person and via email, but for a while now I've been thinking it would be a good subject to discuss on the blog.
I actually think many factors are important; such as being authentic, consistent, professional, and genuine, both in the work you create and as a person; being friendly with an ability to be sociable; being able to promote your work without being too pushy or annoying people, and also having confidence in your work and talent without becoming arrogant. All of these traits are important, and will also potentially influence how much success you have as an artist. But having said that, there are some grouchy, irascible, or even just incredibly introverted and shy artists out there who are able to have very successful careers! I am not going to talk in depth about personality traits today, but instead I will focus on the multiple income streams you can explore as an artist & illustrator to help ensure you're earning money consistently, and are able to support yourself and make a living through your art.
I'm certain there are many more ways to earn money as an artist than I will mention in this list, but as I'm writing from personal experience I will concentrate on the avenues I use and those that have worked for me...
1. Selling through galleries & exhibitions.
This is how I started my career as an artist. I was initially a fine art painter (illustration came later) and to get my work 'out there' into the world, I applied to exhibit in small, local art shows. These are a slightly less scary way to start exhibiting, and I learned a lot, gained in confidence, and made some lovely friends along the way. I then made the decision to enter my work into juried art exhibitions in London, where the work goes before a panel of judges and only a small percentage of the paintings make it through to the final exhibition - often around 10-15% at the time I was taking part in these. I was successful in getting my work selected on several occasions, and I not only sold work but I also won an art award (£500 worth of art materials - which, for a struggling young artist, is a lot!).
I then decided to approach some galleries locally in Suffolk, and to my delight a couple of them agreed to exhibit my work. As my art became more known and I became established as an artist, galleries started to approach me, and this is now the case with almost all of the galleries I currently exhibit with! It takes a while and a lot of hard work, but if you're professional and consistent you will find that the opportunities start to find you, rather than the other way around. Although these days I would still approach a gallery myself if I found somewhere I would love to exhibit - the worst they can say is no, and after a while and a certain level of success, you can cope with occasional rejection! Showing with galleries is wonderful for building your reputation and gaining a wider audience for your work, but you have to be aware of the gallery commission on each piece sold; usually between 30-50% of the selling price, but sometimes more. Another avenue is renting a space, either alone or with other artists, and staging your own exhibition. Usually there's a rental fee for the space, but if you sell any paintings you will get to keep the full amount they've sold for!
2. Selling privately & accepting commissions.
I'm often approached - either online or in person - by people wishing to buy paintings directly from me, rather than through a gallery. This is where a well-designed website and a good social media presence is essential. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have all been wonderful platforms for me, enabling me to gain and grow an audience for my work. Check out the links I've included to these sites to see how I use social media to inform and engage with my followers. I also accept many painting commissions each year, and often have a waiting list/backlog for commissioned pieces. These have become a much larger part of my annual income than I envisaged at the beginning of my career! If you feel you're able to take on commissions, I would recommend you do so. They're sometimes challenging, they will occasionally push you in directions you would otherwise not have explored (which for me is a good thing!), but they can be incredibly rewarding.
3. Selling through an online shop.
I've been selling on Etsy in one way or another since 2006 - my goodness, that's 10 years ago now! My current shop has been up and running since 2008, and I still get a thrill every time I see I've had another order, even 1,300+ sales later! I sell many items including affordable art prints, painted stone collections, unframed watercolour paintings on paper, illustrated greetings cards, and large canvas paintings. Etsy has become a large part of my annual income and my most expensive sale on there was around £900. I've sold several large paintings on Etsy and that was something I really didn't expect! I thought it would be a great place to sell smaller pieces, and only added some larger pieces because I thought it would be a good showcase for my work - again reaching a different, wider audience. It just goes to show that you never know what will sell or where it will sell...and you never know until you try!
Another interesting fact about Etsy is that it's where several galleries, shops, art directors, publishers, and magazines have discovered my work - another thing I wasn't expecting!
4. Commercial illustration commissions.
I didn't set out to be an illustrator. I considered myself a painter, and I imagined that I'd try to make a living by selling my paintings. However, as I became a little more known and after I started sharing my work online, companies, art directors, and publishers started to approach me with a view to using my work to illustrate magazine articles, book covers, product labels, and so on. At first I was very nervous and unsure of myself - commercial illustration isn't easy and requires a totally different mindset to creating fine art. There are tight deadlines, strict briefs, often a lot of stress, and a lot of back and forth between you and the client. You are essentially employed by them for however long it takes to complete the project, and you have to deliver the goods on time. It's not for everyone, but as I have grown in confidence I actually really enjoy these jobs - they can sometimes be very lucrative too!
5. Licensing your work.
One essential thing I've learned is that you should make the work you've already made work hard for you. By that I mean; if you license your images to companies or publishers (this can include book covers, greetings cards, prints and posters, or magazine articles, to name just a few), you will receive a fee for work you've already made. This is why it's important to make sure you have great digital copies of any work you create. This can mean photographing or scanning it - anything that gives you a high resolution digital image for reproduction purposes. When you license your work, you can receive a one-off fee for the use of the image, or a percentage of any future sales. In other words: royalty payments. Believe me, royalty payments are a fantastic bonus to your income!
6. Wholesale orders.
Another avenue I've recently explored is selling my work at wholesale prices to shops and galleries, both in the UK and overseas. At the moment, I just offer the art prints (and sometimes the painted stones) in this way, but wholesale orders have meant that my work is stocked in many more venues than before. The great thing about selling your work wholesale is that you receive payment up-front for the goods, unlike sale or return where you are waiting for the pieces to sell before you receive payment.
* * * * *
I think I've managed to cover all of my different streams of income! One thing I've found is that the more irons you have in the fire, the more you stand a good chance of making a regular income. Also, for example, if gallery sales go through a quiet period, I find that I still have income through my online shop, royalty payments, or commissions etc. I really hope that this article has helped some of you - if you've found it valuable in any way and feel like sharing it via social media or giving it a little bit of love (press the small heart at the bottom!), please do so as it all helps! Thank you.