Confessions of an Artist: Touching Down to Earth

I started this blog 3 years ago in 2009 to document what I hoped to be a successful journey into publication, an art career, and to aid my fellow artist at the same time. After so long, I’ve finally sat down to re-assess where I am, how far I’ve come, and where I’m going as it pertains to my current career goals.

It’s important to stop sometimes and be honest with ourselves about what’s working and what’s not in business, because in the end a smart businessman needs to do this or you have no business at all if it’s not making any money. It is true that passion is key, but if you’ve made your passion your business, you still have to acknowledge these sorts of things or risk wasting a lot of time, money, and willpower by ignoring problems you could solve if you could just touch down to earth every once and a great while. So here goes…touching down with one finger!


What’s Not Working (Because I prefer to end this post with the good stuff)

The Amazon Webstore – A couple of years ago, I jumped headlong into the webstore solution because I really truly believed in Amazon as an effective marketplace for artists. I took a gamble and put up a good deal of my own money to buy UPC codes and pay the store’s monthly fees. It started out great at first. The shop was paying for itself and provided a great way for me to professionally present my products.

But upgrades do not always equal improvements and the system really went downhill for me after the first year. When year two rolled around, I only sold perhaps a total of 10 or less prints in an entire year? I don’t know what happened, but for something I was shelling out $60 a month for when all the fees piled on, I lost a lot of money. I canceled it last week even though the fact I’d put SO much initial cost and effort into the setup made me hesitant to do so. I’m only just now beginning to move my entire store offerings to Etsy and Artfire .

Sometimes we gamble in business and sometimes we roll Snake Eyes. (Expect the full story of how Webstore fails in a future blog entry).

Conventions (Both Attending and Mailing In) – I attended or mailed in to at least 20 conventions in the past couple of years, but honestly?  My average profit margin after expenses was about $20 aka. a complete waste of time.  The only convention I’ve ever done consistently well at has been DragonCon. I won’t be doing cons anymore, minus the few I know have worked for me in the past.  If I do attend, it will probably be as a con-goer/art agent and not a vendor.

I am moving on instead to targeting art fairs where I can sell my crafts or book fairs where I can sell my books.  The only conventions I plan to attend from here on out are ones that line up with my career focus (ie. Illuxcon, Spectrum Fantastic Live Art, etc). I feel they will be more worth my time and help me focus on building my career rather than pandering prints at places that just aren’t working out.

Prints – Speaking of prints, they just don’t sell for me. You would think they’d be the staple of an artist’s income, but they are not (at least not me). People’s walls are full?  Perhaps I just need better art?  Or lower prices?  Perhaps Webstore sucked my print sales into the void along with Jimmy Hoffa?

Whatever the cause, other things (craft items, post cards, etc) are selling far better in recent times.  I’ll probably still have prints for sale up at my Etsy and by request, but they’re not on the top of my list of things to put in my shop anymore.

Illustration as a Career – I have tried and tried to find art reps, have sent out to all the major Fantasy/Scifi publishers who accept art submissions, have sent inquiries to licensing reps…but have met rejection or silence or automated emails each time.  This is not whining, but merely a statement of results. I know full well what I would need to do to improve to meet the demand (ArtOrder is especially helpful for educating artists in this respect), but I find I just don’t have the motivation anymore.

Frankly, I have found myself terribly bored with illustration after these couple of years. I just don’t think I have what it takes to be successful in this route because I find the current trends that are selling terribly boring. The best among us can find a way to add their own unique flair to the trends, but I just can’t seem to get myself motivated.

You have to be willing to combine the passion for the arting with the passion for what sells and I have found that even though I have a list three miles long of ideas I could try to license, I am not excited by them nor am I motivated to resubmit to the selfsame companies I submitted to before with the current work I have. I want to be challenged, I want narrative, I want engagement, and most of all I need to improve as an artist to get where I want to be.

And that is why I’m considering a change of career focus from illustration to concept art.  Funny enough, close friends who have known me for years are confused as to why I haven’t done this the first time round.  Looking back on my most successful works, they are the ones that are character-driven or involve character design in some fashion.  I’ve collected concept art books for years. I’ve always found the most fascinating part of movies and video games to be the art books and concept art development diaries. I have my reasons for having not ventured into concept art from the outset, but that’s a whole other blog entry altogether!

Money – In the end, it all boils down to the fact I am not making near enough money to support even a small apartment. The job hunting has begun and so has a push to focus on freelance means of income in the meantime (commissions, crafting, and content editing, anyone?).

What IS Working (Just when you thought the ‘not working’ section would never end)
Being PublishedAngelic Visions has been a great source of pride for me, even though I never would have thought an art book would be the first thing I was to write (I had planned to pen my own fantasy novel in the wee hours of the night first).  My royalties from this book have been sobering, as it’s only just made back my author advance, but more sobering is the statistic that an author needs an average of at least 20 books to survive off royalty checks alone. This book is not going to make me rich and famous, but it’s an accomplishment that makes me feel I am capable of so much more if I set my mind to it!
Etsy – Thanks to Etsy’s Shop Stats dashboard, I’ve been monitoring marked improvement in sales from a meager 5 orders in 2009 to 30 so far this year. And that has been without promoting Etsy that much. Now that it’s my only shop front after Webstore’s recent demise, I expect orders to go up exponentially. I’m focusing on revamping my shop now and plan to build a wholesale orders website to match it soon, as that could be a nice consistent chunk of income, if I play my cards right. Go figure that Etsy also gets 4 times as many pageviews as my website or Webstore ever did.
Networking – The one good residual of conventions has been that I have been able to meet and connect with so many wonderful and inspiring artists! Mack and Linsner probably think I’m a stalker by now, but it’s been great to meet them and find them a familiar face in this or that event. Meeting other artists keeps me sober to the fact I’m not alone in this ‘fool’s errand’ people call art and drives me to improve and succeed. I’ve learned so much from meeting others, both about technique, running an art business, and keeping motivated.
Crafting – I turned to leather and jewelry crafting as a means to de-stress from the burnout I was feeling.  While my art and prints sat there gathering dust not selling, these craft items began to sell consistently. (A good thing, too, or I’d be buried in butterfly keychains and masks!).  I’ve had multiple boutiques come to me asking to consign or for wholesale rates and, best of all, it is something I can do without being sickeningly bored! The slice of the swivel blade and the tedious painting of insect markings is a meditative exercise for me.
Funny how we stumble unexpectedly on passions.  My dad was a leathercrafter in his younger days and I suspect I absorbed some of that passion somehow.  I don’t plan on making crafting my long term career, but as long as it’s bringing in some income, it’ll help me out while I’m seeking out that paycheck work to make ends meet.
In Summary – Skimming out what’s not working, focusing on what is. Hoping my experiences help anyone else out there who might be considering a similar path.  Good luck to us both in this roller coaster called being a ‘creative professional’!

10 comments

  1. Indigene says:

    Wow! Angela, thanks for being so forthcoming! I adore your work, as a fellow artist and I know how challenging our lifestyle is! I also know, what happens to our spirit, if we don’t do this. You’re an amazing artist, I cherish your book and find it quite inspiring. Please continue doing your amazing work.

  2. It means a lot to me to hear that, Indigene! Thanks for sharing. I have no intentions of ever giving up on art entirely. It will always be in my life in some form or fashion.

    I intend to stick to that precept even if it doesn’t end up being my career (but I sincerely hope that it will!)

  3. Farelle says:

    Thanks for your words 😉 I guess artists have alot of similarities and i guess also it’s not only the art, but that way of how we see the world, how we interact with it, how we want our life to be and such….there are different opinions and crafting as it’s whole, making ideas alive. Honestly, it’s something that drives me insane…I’m also not sure what kind of “art” I wanna do…I love to draw and I’m a bit talented…but i also like to create stuff like figures (or as little child an aquarium out of cartonage and paper XD) anyway…I just know, that it has to be something creative, where I can put my ideas into and where I can use my hands to craft things 😮 and it’s good to know I’m not the only one who feels that way…that there is a passion somewhere, but not sure where it really lies, as art is a really huge amount of stuff that can be done :O
    actually I’m hoping I found something in game design…., but I’m not even sure if I have enough passion for it….but I hope I can get that passion and hopefully also the money with it^^”

  4. Guruubii says:

    I’ve come to a lot of the same conclusions myself 🙂
    For the conventions we’re trying to skim down the ones we go to because what we’re finding is that by attending them all, people just come to recognize us (which is good) but they’ve already bought everything at the table! HA! so unless we change what we bring each time we are kinda shooting ourselves in the foot Convention wise (Which is why we’re so GungHo on going to Calgary expo, it will be an entirely new audience!)

    Funny thing we found too is the things we have the highest profit margin on are the things that sell the best! We’re liking this! HA! I have also noticed the prints don’t really sell well (except the last con would make that seem like I’m a liar, we sold only prints) what sells well are functional things. Notebooks, and things people USE. (I’d imagine you could get into some book binding mixed with your leather and make some pretty hard core books/sketchbooks) I wonder if that’s the shift in our economies of US and Canada. We’re both having people think “do I NEED this” instead of buying because of want. That’s why I think Comics and functional Trinkets do so well.

    You mentioned earlier in comments that you had some backburner comics. Is that something you’re going to experiment with in your new direction?

    Also something that worked extremely well for me is teaching classes! I’m going to be doing more cuz, my god did I rake in some good cash when I did that online one before. even with the community that hosted it taking a cut, I paid my rent that month! I was so dazzled.

    I’ve always appreciated how you share your experiences with people. I often get that feeling of being totally alone in having to deal with these art as career challenges and (not that I want to hear that things don’t work) it’s nice to see that I’m not alone in areas of struggle (and success!)

    Do you find the etsy fees to be at all frustrating? I do. We really like having our shop. We’re with WestHost and as part of our package we get some softwares like ZenCart, oscommerce and Magento that we can install for free, and it’s great. we have no fees or limits. Have you ever thought of just hosting your own on your domain? I know theres licensing fees on some of them, but on some there aren’t. Zen Cart even lets you set up taxes and rules for your area.
    The traffic on Etsy must be a bonus, and worth the fees?

    One thing I’m finding annoying is keeping up with all the different social networks and trying to keep them all updated equally. its exhausting! HAHA!
    Do you do anything special to keep track?

    Anyway, rambling on (apparently I need more people to talk to HAAHAH!)

    <3Good luck with the Concept art! I hope this is the turning point you need!

    (I love your book!)

  5. Farelle, sometimes it takes a good amount of searching and trying things out before we discover what we want to do via a process of elimination. It’s especially difficult when your interests are so varied!

    I do hope you find your place and I encourage you to try different things and be fearless! I think the worst mistakes of my life were made because I listened to people who told me *not* to even try.

  6. Guruu,

    I think a lot of difficulty I’m having lately is because market expectations are changing, people are being frugal, and there’s way more competition now than has been in the past. But like everyone else, we just have to diversify and evolve! It can be frustrating but at least it can also be exciting! I really do hope you guys can get out to the Expo. I wonder if you could start a Kickstarter for that as well in addition to what you have going already?

    I am planning to push the leather crafts as my featured products now, which means expect a TON more offering out soon! I am exploring binding my own books and tooling leather covers, which would just be so cool! (Always wanted one like that for myself). Bookmarks, earrings, keychains, and small gift things have really been my bread and butter so I’m probably going that route.

    I’m not fussed by Etsy’s fees at all really. They’re not too significant and the spans of the listing are 3 months. I understand also I’m paying for the page views, which are about 4 times as much as the traffic going through my standalone Angelic Shades website (and therefore any standalone shop I may run on there).

    I’ve looked into Zencart and have tried several Cart solutions and, even with its flaws, Amazon was the best looking and easiest to manage. But again, just not enough traffic coming in to my website to justify paying a high fee. I have been looking at BigCartel, a cart that purports that it’s geared for artists, but probably won’t go for it until I’m getting some more consistent income from Etsy/Artfire and traffic at Angelic Shades, I think!

    I am planning to get back to the fairy tale comics as an e-publishing endeavor, but it’s going to be significantly slowed down by the fact it’s relegated to ‘personal work’, which I barely have time for anymore. But it will come! Slowly but surely, it will come! The rest of Rapunzel is already thumbnailed and awaiting rendering.

    I find it hard to keep up with all the social media sites these days so I’ve simplified my life by only keeping up with the main few, DeviantART, Twitter, and FB (in order of relevance). As soon as I find a way to RSS feed posts from Google+ into FB, I’ll probably move over there instead.

    As for concept art? I’m still studying up on it now, whether it’s something I really want to do and I’m lucky enough to have several friends already in the industry giving me some guidance. It’s something that’s going to take me a matter of *years* though, as far as brushing up my portfolio, familiarizing myself with the tools, and becoming a viable artist for that industry.

    But hey, I’m prepared for that, if it’s something that I’ll fit more snugly into.

    I responded to your comment with a book! Thanks for stopping by and sharing your experiences as well! It means a lot to me to know I’m not alone in this.:)

  7. Fantasio says:

    This is a very good thing to do, I mean the contemplation from time to time. I´m currently at the same point, making a list of goals in the shape of commitments what is possible, what I´ve reached in the past years and what is absolutely out of reach. I think it helps a lot to leave the useless bags where they belong.
    As for conventions, I have to say I´m glad if participating covers costs, but at the same time its totally clear that if you are attending or having a booth only one time it will not pay-off. It will usually take at least 3 or more years until people recognize your style, face and brand before they buy something. The best going conventions for me were the ones I was participating every year for 5-7 years.

    What you say about prints is true, but always when I find silence in deviantArt or zazzle´s dashboard its time to set the prizes even higher or submit new work – or both, this has worked for me throughout the years.

    Illustration as a career isn´t really depending on a rep, I sent out 2 or 3 letters to illustration agencies before I found that I´m better without. I know its not a big number and that others write to at least 20 agencies a month, but I actually spend my time better marketing myself and now I am too busy to but more important, I have more fun negotiating and marketing my work to have a rep.

    But its good that you see a chance in making more into the direction of concept art, I wish you much luck that you´ll find the right direction, but I´m sure you´ll make it. There is one thing I was told once and its more important than talent or luck: “The effort of never-ceasing is what leads to success in the end”

  8. Fantasio, it’s fascinating hearing the perspective of other illustrators and what path has led them to success (or not). Thank you for sharing!

    Conventions are odd for me. I’ve been slowly making the switch to dealer’s rooms if I do happen to attend and that seems to be making a more effective bump in sales. Artist alleys can be wonderful places to socialize with other artists, but other times, people come there looking for the cheaper version of what’s in the dealer’s room. It all varies per experience and is so unpredictable! I have a feeling I just need to find my con/audience and I’ll be just fine!

    I have a feeling reps are becoming a thing of the past with artists being able to more effectively market themselves online and directly to companies. I still like the idea of having someone to help you hunt down jobs or to talk to companies that don’t allow direct solicitation, but it’s proven difficult to find anyone who doesn’t already have their hands full of artists already. But such is the way! Just have to push on with what I can find on my own for now. Even more important right now I think is to push my fundamentals and really get my artwork looking stellar!

    Thanks for your encouragement and for posting here. I’m not out of this running quite yet! Not as long as I have hands to create with.:) (And coffee!)

  9. Meredith says:

    I would love to do more dealer’s room spaces, but it’s really only cost effective at the smaller cons that haven’t bumped the prices to gouge the dealers as much as they can yet. Sometimes the shoppers will still be more interested in the mass produced stuff next to you.

    Guuruu makes a good point about not doing too many conventions close to each other. Everyone probably has seen all my stuff by now 🙁 I have to think about that. I’d like to do less if they were profitable. It’s less stressful that way. I might go back to a show a 2nd year if I at least made comparable to my best shows when started out. If I don’t make a profit, and the attendance is low, it’s probably not worth it again. I could stay home and mail stuff off to a show rather than sit there for 3 days.

  10. Meredith says:

    I like the idea of a rep as well, but I from what I’ve seen the chunk taken is either really high, or you’re expected to pay out for the advertising if it’s lower. It can also really tie your hands as far as being able to do anything with clients who you find or who find your themselves.

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