The artist behind the blog
As some of you know already: My name is Tessa. I live in the Netherlands and am now 36 years old. My regular job is working in a local restaurant, owned by my parents. I do this 3 days a week. The rest of the time I’ve been battling an uphill battle to become a full-time artist instead. Something I have been working on since the beginning of 2017 when I got my first digital tablet as a birthday present.
Before that, I used to draw a lot too, but as I wanted to become a full-time artist, digital was a better way to go, because, let’s be honest, most of the time, working digitally helps you reach a way bigger audience than traditional work. I know this was gonna be a tough road to take. Especially when you consider the fact I live in a very expensive area in the Netherlands and had no reserves at the time for when sales were low, or commissions dried up.
Having an idea of what problems I would face, and being very familiar with the ‘hungry artist’ stereotype, I decided to give it a good shot anyway. Little did I know what the future would bring a little less than five years down the road.
The artist of 2017
in 2017 I already had been working in the restaurant for roughly 11 years. As it was, and still is owned by my parents and I also had been working for friends during their startups too, I was already quite business savvy. I was hopeful, but in retrospect, didn’t have any unrealistic expectations. I was (and am) however someone that likes to plan ahead, and oh boy, how that didn’t work out…
So, I’m not typically someone that’s prone to stress. Yes, I can get stressed momentarily, but it’s not part of my personality. That is however in a world where everything is predictable. And trust me, trying to start your own business is not thát predictable. In any business, but especially in art: Starting your own business is not predictable at all, so you may be planning endlessly: It probably won’t work out the way you planned it. It’s much better to find out what you like and don’t like and globally stick with that if it’s something viable.
The planning that didn’t work out
It’s easy talking, nearly 5 years down the road. Planning your future is, however, well… A rough idea at best. There is something you may want to achieve, but if the market isn’t interested, you are nowhere. Also, the artistic world is ever-changing. If you open yourself up to it, it’s actually very interesting to see. Where 5 years ago, becoming an artist that sells prints on Displate for example, was a good thing to aim for, now it’s not so much. Not only because it’s now a saturated concept (mind you, Displate is as it made deals with major brands like Marvel and promotes such deals heavily instead of independent artists) but also because demands and needs change.
A great guideline in any business is: Find the pain and heal it. Displate for example found a niche in which it could sell art on high-quality materials. Metal to be precise. And really, their products are of premium quality. I still offer commissioned prints on metal through Displate, and also offer series of artworks on Displate because I love the quality and services they offer. But they don’t heal my pain: They can’t help me out on receiving a solid income. They’re a great passive income, something you really shouldn’t ignore as an independent artist. But a full-time income? Nothing anywhere near that.
Adjusting to the market
So, imagine being someone with a low income, trying to break free as an artist, hitting a roadblock. What can you do? Well, giving up, like many aspiring artists do, is an option. But really, to earn solid money in art, it only requires 3 things: Art skills, being business savvy, and patience, and all of this is relative too. You don’t need to master every aspect of your art to become a full-time artist. You can also get lucky and won’t need to rely on your patience. Maybe someone is kind enough to guide you through the business side of things and there you are! But not everybody is that lucky. It’s wise not to rely on these things. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.
By all means: I’m not earning solid money yet. I could be, but as we speak, I’m in a situation where I can’t be earning money next to my current job. It’s a complex story, specific to the Netherlands, I won’t bug you with it, but it’s safe to say that I earn a few Euro’s every month with platforms like Skillshare (yea, I have a tutorial out on drawing fur and cats from a couple of years back) and sales on Displate. Both passive income. I sometimes have commissions too, but I keep everything limited so I can play by the rules. Heh, speaking of it, I think it’s really good advice to look up the rules and laws in your country. What can you do and what can’t you do in your given situation.
A little advice
It’s important however for you to be able to decide when you should stop limiting yourself artistically and financially because of local laws. My time is not there yet as I can’t make up yet for the Dutch incomes that are required to live where I live, nor am I able to move to a less expensive area because of a lack of homes in the Netherlands, sadly.
But in your case, that might be different, and I advise you to take that chance whenever you get it given you have enough funds or a solid contract to back your next move up. Within reason. And of course, I’m assuming that you did your research properly. What do YOU need to make a living? And how about your old day? And can you potentially earn that legally with the art you make? Are you business savvy and flexible enough to keep yourself in the running for a long period of time? If you can answer these questions with a confident ‘YES’ you are ready to become the artist you want to be!
Where I’m at now
You may be thinking: Nice advice, but where are you at, Tess? Fair question! Especially considering the fact I’m not a full-time artist yet. I still have a low-paying part-time job to support me. But this is almost completely related to the Dutch system, and just slightly to my personal situation. The Dutch financial system and support you get as a Dutch citizen with a low income are very well set up. The downside is though that breaking free of it will set you back several hundreds of euros right away. You will also be unable to buy a house in at least the first 2 years while being a freelancer. Considering the fact that renting a house is almost twice as expensive as paying for a mortgage, it’s a really crippling system when you try to break free while renting a house.
My personal tactic
So, how do I actually make sure I will be able to make my living from art in the near future?
As I mentioned before: Planning ahead is not always the right answer. You need to be flexible, ready to shift gears when the market demands you to. But there are things that are timeless, and those are exactly the things i’m focussing on now, so I can make a solid break for it when the time is right. So, technically I’m having a consistent dry practice. I cannot make money yet, but I do frequently test to see if there is any demand for my art and in which price brackets I should linger at any given time. This means that I frequently advertise on free platforms and in free groups to see if people bite, why they do so, and when they do so,
Sometimes I don’t get any response because the prices are too high for my skill level or target group. Sometimes I do get a response. The goal is to get a feel for the market. If you don’t have a solid follower base yet, it’s perfectly fine to actively test with your prices and see what works and whatnot. It helps you to get a lay of the lend, and consequently questions will follow, either from your side or that of people interested in your art. And even if you already have a follower base, play with your pieces when sales are low. Make sure you know your market and understand what they will pay for.
A little timeline
So, what else do and did I do? Let me lay out a little timeline for you.
Do your research!
- Before you do anything, make sure you know the market! You will notice that your vision changes overtime, but that’s fine. You can’t know everything beforehand, nobody can see into the future. The best you can do is understand your market and know what you want and don’t want yourself. Changing your opinion and tactics only proves you’re flexible, a skill that’s key in the artistic and business world.
- Increase your skill level, practice makes progress, always. Even when it’s a payed job! You will always improve. Don’t be fooled by thinking you need to become a better artist first. If the job pays decently, and your personal situation is suitable enough, take it! You can do way more than your commissioner can anytime soon! If ever.
- Never stop learning! When you believe in a teacher, or an artist that has some tutorials out: Make use of them! If you know a specific subject very well already, someone else can still give you new insights, even when they’re fairly new in the artworld. Yes, there are fundamentels you need to understand, some general rules you need to be able to follow when needed, but there is more than one road that leads to Rome, and Rome is not always the final destination.
- Remember that your commissioner fell for your art for a reason.
- And come on, you are better than you think you are, and you know it!
- Backlog your art! Most artists can’t make a painting a day. Kudo’s for you if you can, you are more rare than you think you are! But for those that can’t: Don’t allow social media to dictate the quality of your work! Most informal platforms like Instagram and Tiktok do well too if you only post a sketch, and other in-betweens every day.
Don’t apply this however on professional channels like Artstation or Linkedin. You’re better off posting every now and then with a final illustration or a series in which you show your progress. Keep the audience in mind and act accordingly.
- Backloging is even more useful if you plan to go fulltime at a specific time. Social media is built in such a way that frequent posting is rewarded. When your art takes time to be made, it’s extremely rewarding for you to backlog your art and spend a couple of months beforehand making yourself known on your chosen platforms.
- Make sure you don’t pick more than 3 platforms at a time to display your art, otherwise promoting yourself will become a dayjob, and remember that not every platform will work for you, and that all of them will take time to grow to fruitition. Take some time to discover the platforms that suit you!
- What do you need to earn to make a living? Make sure you know that answer first bij knowing how long it takes to make your art.
- Offer commissions on different platforms and for different prices. Make sure it’s within the range that can make you a living. If the right prices don’t trigger your audience but the wrong prices do: Consider increasing your drawing speed or erase that particular group of audience from your attention.
- Consider holding onto your dayjob until your skill level meets the income you want or need to generate. (This is what I’m doing right now). There are always people that want to pay fair money for your skills, but if you don’t really have the connections yet, it may be hard to fill all your working hours with payed commissions. And when you don’t do commissions, it’s harder to network as well.
- Have a talk with your boss and see if it’s possible to work less hours overtime so you can ensure a solid income while also building your own business.
Where I’m at now, and what I plan to do
Honestly, if your road is a bit easier than mine, without the described roadblocks, I’m really happy for you! I know there are many more that are in a more complex situation than I am, but if your situation is somewhat like mine, or you manipulated (or are to manipulate) yours in such a way that it’s roughly similar to mine, my approach may be useful to you.
In 2017 I thought I would become an artist selling prints on a freelance basis. After my first commission of a dog portrait for my colleague I swore to myself I would never take on commissions again. Way too stressful. Well, these Displate prints never took off. Partially because of my skill level, partially because of my marketing strategy (or the lack thereof actually). Instead, I noticed a big interest in personalized art. Pets and character designs work out really well. The occasional landscape too. Creature designs less so, but when you’re skilled at drawing them, the sky is the limit. So I overcame my fear of commissions and started doing them anyway. It only takes a few to become comfortable with it, trust me.
I also discovered a passion for drawing art packs. So far I only have one out, but it’s relatively easy to draw by nature and its endless potential is very appealing in the long run. Just like the blog you’re reading, it’s not something I envisioned doing when I started out in 2017, but combined with a regular day job and commissions where possible, it’s very much doable if you’re a somewhat level-headed and hardworking person that’s not too social (hehe, yea, introvert here). If you are an extroverted person that likes to hang around people, you might want to make some compromises or take into account that you may take a little longer to reach your goal.
Facing stress and spreading yourself too thin
I said before that I’m quite level-headed. Helping out on several startups and understanding in-depth what it takes to run a company gave me a headstart. But it didn’t keep me from having my own little breakdown.
Especially when you’re just starting off and you’re trying to find your niche, and even more so when you’re in the running for a while and things start to get traction, you will likely get to a point where you spread yourself too thin. It’s not uncommon for people to notice too late that things are turning for the worse, as was the case for me and many with me.
When you’re starting out you try 1001 things to get traction. You probably will hear crickets for some time. Your skill level may be the reason, but it’s more likely that social media is holding you back, simply because of the algorithms. It’s demoralizing, and when you finally get your traction, they likely come all at once, it’s so rewarding that you keep going and keep going until your body and mind say ‘Here and no further’.
My little haywire
This happened to me at the beginning of 2021. It manifests in different ways in different people, but for me, it meant consistent and random panic attacks about irrelevant stuff, and when it was relevant I would overreact enormously. And this happened only when I was alone.
It wasn’t the art triggering this, it was my life. The Life to Legend group started to get traction a year after it was started. I decided to make this website and start blogging. The lockdown was still going on and I didn’t know if I would have a job left at all, and how my parents would end up, owning a restaurant. I took care of somebody else’s horses which required me to travel over an hour several times a week for minimal payment while my reserves were drying up and I was realizing really well how my commission rates at the time couldn’t pay the bills.
This is when I hit the breaks. I stopped taking on commissions because my skill level and speed didn’t provide a solid income – at all. I stopped taking care of the horses, and let go of a few ideas that didn’t seem to be viable, at least at the time given the time I had left after working on the viable things. Taking a little break was the next step.
And this is where we loop back to the beginning of this article and where I’m at now: Life to Legend group, blogging, learning, backlogging, and ready to start taking on new commissions coming next year! And see where my path leads from there. Only now do I know I will make it because I know my market a lot better, increase my speed and skill, and have everything under control to a degree.
Is this relevant? I think it is! I’m not a very social person so it’s hard for me to find like-minded people. But in the art community, I did find my way at some point. And so should you! Have people around you that are willing to critique you and make you think about your art and your career. These people are incredibly valuable and should never be taken for granted!
I took the advice from many people over time. And many helped me out in a myriad of ways. Jade Zivanovic from Steampower studio’s with all her knowledge, wonderful talks, and hours of power to push our speed and become more productive. Sarah Rainbow with her unrelenting positive energy and remarkable speed and color mastery. Leao Roque, who overcame things I can’t imagine and surpasses everybody’s expectations. Dan Peck, who made a donation in more than one way to help out Life to Legend. Ryan Holt who took the time to build our creature generator, Anna Mudge, helped us out on Discord, the entire community that has been so supportive. Linking articles, letting their voice be heard, donating art and their time, consistently joining in on drawing prompts… I’m humbled by the people I’m surrounded with, and look to the future with a light heart!
Long story short: Don’t expect to know beforehand how your career will go! Being a freelancer, or even a hired artist, comes with many surprises and will constantly challenge you. Art comes from the heart and mind. That in itself is already way more challenging than most other jobs. Let the road you take lead you, but don’t hesitate to take a sideroad and see if that is of interest to you too. Don’t ever put all your eggs in one basket, especially when you’re freelancing.
Follow your heart, provided it will be sustainable. You can make good money from your art given the right practices, like being business savvy, valuing yourself, and honing your skills. And if you’re persistent enough, you WILL make it!