In this adapted exceprt of Lisa Congdon's new book Art Inc.: The Essential Guide for Building Your Career as an Artist (Chronicle Books, 2014), the artist talks about how to turn a creative endeavor into a profitable business.
Understanding how to run a small business is essential to making a living as an artist. The good news is that everyone possesses the ability to be a successful entrepreneur. With some basic tools, knowledge, and practice you can run your art business with dexterity.
Exploring Different Income Streams
As you embark on your journey to become a professional artist, you'll need to determine the paths your art business will take. Where do you start? It may sound corny, but the best advice I got when I began my art career was "Follow your heart." There is no one blueprint that will work for everyone, so deciding what is best for you depends on the unique circumstances of your life, your strengths, your goals, your resources, and your experience.
Some artists are able to make a full-time living focusing mainly on one income stream, like illustration or fine art sales. But it's more common now to have multiple income streams. Diversifying your income is a great way to keep your artistic venture interesting and dynamic, and it also means that you won't be relying on one source of revenue. When one income stream becomes temporarily slow, another can pick up the slack. When you grow tired of a particular way of selling your work, you can focus on another for a while. Pursuing a passive income stream like licensing requires little or no additional work after the original image is sold, and yet you can earn royalty income over the course of years while you work to produce more original art.
As you assess each income stream, think about those you might enjoy the most and are the best fit for your work. Do not get caught up in choosing potential income sources because you think they sound the most profitable. If a source of income doesn’t align with your values or sound enjoyable, it will eventually leave you feeling uninspired and inauthentic.
Starting small is the soundest approach, especially if you are still working at another job. Taking on too many income streams at once may cause you to feel overwhelmed. Devote your time to one or two streams and then, when you find your groove and begin earning, consider adding more. Perhaps you'll discover that managing an online shop takes up too much time or that dealing with illustration clients hampers your creative process. It's okay if an income source doesn't work out for you. Like finding your artistic voice, the process of exploring different ways of selling your work or earning from your talent requires a bit of trial and error and takes time. But with patience and an attitude of openness, you will eventually find your sweet spot.
Keep Your Day Job, For Now
It was true for many artists, including me: we held on to our day jobs as long as we could until we were ready to strike out on our own. Day jobs may take up time, but they also provide financial security (which can support your transition into a career making art) and a solid routine. Over time, as your art business begins to grow, slowly try to transition out of your work schedule. It seems obvious to say, but when you work full-time at your day job, you have only evenings and weekends to make art. That can make sense when you're not yet making much money selling artwork or booking freelance jobs. But once you gain some market traction and bring in regular sales or gigs, you may want to consider going part-time at your job or finding part-time work. Eventually, you'll recognize you have enough--or close to enough--money coming in to work full-time on growing your art business. It feels like a leap of faith to leave a steady paycheck you have become accustomed to, but it is a leap that is worth taking!
Branding Your Business
As an artist, you may assume that you don't need to think about the brand, or personality, of your business. Sure, the look and feel of your art helps establish the basis of your brand, but the personality of your business extends to many other aspects, from the design of your website to how you interact with buyers. Here are things to consider to effectively deliver your message:
Integrate your core aesthetic into your brand. Describe the core aesthetic of the work you make. For example, is it understated and minimal, vintage and nostalgic, or something else? Develop a logo, business card design, website, color scheme, and other graphics that communicate your aesthetic and complement your artwork. Some pieces, like your business card, can even include your art! If you maintain a consistent look by using the same typefaces, colors, or symbols, when people see your branding elements, they will know the work, site, or social media page belongs to you. If branding is not your strong suit, consider hiring a graphic designer to help you create a consistent look and feel.
How you communicate and conduct business is a part of your brand. For instance, consider how you share your core values through your website, social media presence, and email etiquette. When both your work and communication resonate with clients and customers, they will respect you and come back again.