How to make money with art

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Making money with art is the dream of many artists. How wonderful is it to have your passion appreciated by people and even be paid for? Many artists manage to make a living out of their profession, however, an endeavour like this has to be treated as any other business. And art is probably one of the most competitive markets of all of them, simply because people enjoy making art. So what can you do to set yourself up for success? And where can you go to make a living from your art?

Hi! My name is Tessa, I’m a Dutch artist, specializing in wildlife and creature designs. I love to share my passion for nature, art and fantasy, and do that by creating this archive and community, alongside my company Tez Art & Design.

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How to make money with art

How to make money with art, who doesn’t ask this question when they start drawing? Some will decide that art is more like a hobby. a way to express themselves, rather than a means to make money. But especially in the digital era, it’s very appealing to give it a shot. But for this same reason, many people are doing it, which makes it a very competitive market.

Should I specialize in something or be Jack of all traits?

One may argue that you should be a jack of all trades, another that you should specialize in something. In my opinion ánd experience, there is no one or other. The true answer lies in between, especially when it comes to art.
Art comes from the heart, it’s a passionate profession and therefore it can both drain us and give us a lot, more than most other professions. The best way to deal with this is to make sure that you do something with it you’re passionate about. This can be landscapes, character design, creature design, you name it. It’s important that you discover yourself what that ‘thing’ is.

When you did this, find an audience and explore the market. What does that specific market look like? What do people within this market want to pay for your work? How saturated is the market? What is the demand? You might discover a gem, but you also might discover that the market you want to exploit isn’t that healthy. So it would serve you well to think outside of the box and offer related services (creature design instead of character design, or specialize in sci-fi character design or mechs, etc).

How to diversify your skills

My passion lies with creature design and it’s reflected in my portfolio, combined wit character designs, which are very popular commissions.
Image by: Tessa Geniets

So, should you be specializing then? Yes, pick one or 2 subjects you’re really passionate about and make it your thing, within reason and the requirements and needs of the market. But also make sure that you have a solid understanding of all the other aspects that could be part of your specialization. For example, when you do character designs, you might want to learn things like the following as well:

  • Creature design (mounts, familiars, pets, etc).
  • Prop design (weapons, tools, other things a character can interact with)
  • Environments (This is a real specialization, but if you know the fundamentals it can serve as relatively minimalistic support for your characters)
  • Culture and styles (Like native cultures, futuristic, mech, etc.)

Obviously, none of the above can be done without knowing your fundamentals, and all of them can be learned when you have your fundamentals down, but each and every skill has its own challenges. I would suggest not taking on the next challenge before you master your main specialization first, just so you can maintain your sanity and not be demoralized.
In the meantime, you might want to opt for simpler weapons or gradient or textured backgrounds.

Can I make money with art?

Yes yes and yes, you can, without a doubt. You don’t need to do an expensive education to become a successful artist. There are many out there that are absolute masters but did nothing more than follow online courses or worked under an art director. Many even didn’t do the last. However, it is known that following target courses can be really helpful, and I would really recommend you do that so you can set yourself up for success. But more about that later.

If you really have the will to become a successful artist, treat this endeavor like any other business. You will be a freelancer or an employed artist, so one way or another, there is a business element to it. If you’re not interested in that, treat it like a hobby instead that can sometimes earn you some money through word of mouth or websites that don’t really require you to promote yourself.

Art as a sidehustle

Whether you’re a hobbyist or an artist running, or aiming to run a business, art almost always starts as a side-hustle. Most of the time it takes years to make it a full-time business, and only if you manage to land a full-time job or can also successfully run your business. Most of the time you come across artists that have been drawing for decades. They make the most amazing things, but also earn big bucks. But like anyone else, their business started as a side hustle or only came after years of studying.

Don’t dive into becoming an artist thinking you will make big money right away. The competition is really fierce in this market, you need to know the market very well, know your clients and their needs, have to have a ‘name’, know how to run a business or be part of a label, and like any other successful artist, you have to spend time running uphill to stand out from the rest.

How to set yourself up for success

So, how then do you set yourself up for success? How to make money with your art? Well, as we discussed before already: It requires a lot of preparation. It’s not something you can roll into. You need to hone your skills, and know what you want to do and what you’re good at. Understand the market and your clients, and so on. So, what else can you do to reach your goals?

Know what you want to do

First and foremost, what do you love doing the most? Do you have a heart for animals? Evolution? Culture? Landscapes? Science Fiction? History? Whatever it is, explore that market and the potential clients. Find out what they need, and bend your passion to their needs. Make sure you stay close to your heart and your passion because art will drain you otherwise, but don’t do so at the cost of a successful business.

It may be that you like competition and do well in fields like character design, something everyone wants art for and everyone already specialized in. It may be that you don’t like competition that much, but instead, you like to challenge yourself a lot. In that case landscapes, creature design, or a very specific specialization within character design might be your thing.

Maybe you already know well ahead of time what you want to do, but it could also be that your passion doesn’t turn out the way you want it to be. Maybe you find something even better, It’s not uncommon for an artist to spend time exploring their options and land on something specific after months or even years of trying. Treat this skill and your will to create something beautiful with love and respect, because it’s a very personal part of you that will someday earn you a lot of money, but only if you treat it well.

Follow the right courses

Make sure you know which artists to follow. Not everyone is a good as they claim to be.
Find the article here!

Your next step is to follow all free tutorials available on platforms like Youtube or maybe even Skillshare that align with what you want to do. Make sure you pick known artists because many out there are not. Dig into art fundamentals like no other, and rinse and repeat after a few months until you don’t even have to think about them anymore. Then move on to courses you’re interested in, they can be short courses you can pick up for a few bucks, to more expensive ones that are more in-depth where you can even get feedback or one on one tutoring from a leading artist to help you get over specific obstacles or bad habits you weren’t even aware of.

Develop your own style

Next is the development of your own style. Why not before finding the right courses? Well, developing a style takes time and its always changing. Especially the first few years your art is improving so much that your style may change from month to month. Yes, there will be a category you fall in right from the start, like realism or anime for example. But until you’re at least 2 year in systematic drawing and learning fundamentals, you can’t really say that you ‘own’ your own style.

At the moment of writing (September 2022) I’m into it for almost 6 years, of which 1 year in spent in quarantine because my main job used to be working in a restaurant, which was closed because of the Corona pandemic. Time I spent drawing all the time. It was only into my 5 year mark that I really settled down in my style because I finally got a good hang of all the fundamentals. My style will keep developing, but not as much as it used to over the past few years.

Provide a good service

You can make shit art and provide a wonderful service and still make a good living. You can turn your business into something fun where people want to buy your creations even when they’re not commissioned. Pet portraits by Hercule is probably the best example ever. His drawing skills are questionable, but more than entertaining. He also managed to build a really succesful business around it that proves that art skills doesn’t beat being business savvy.

Now, there are many really good artists out there that are not really business savvy or even simply lack people skills, Their art has to talk for them, and it does. But most of the time these people spent their days under an art director and obtained their skills that way. It doesn’t make them easy to work with though, they’re often not handy when it comes to the business side of things or customer service. So imagine what you could do if you’re a people person, are business savvy, and make great art… And the best of this all is: It can be learned.

Some ways to stand out

  • Provide different formats of your artwork. Not only the original, but also low res images for web use, CMYK files for prints, etc.
  • Communicate well through all the steps you take.
  • Understand that your client probably doesn’t know what he or she is getting into. Communicate with them as such.
  • Provide additional services, like making frames, additional information about where you get your inspiration from, or help with worldbuilding. Your thoughts and insights can be really valuable for someone else.
  • When its a long term client, get involved in the project and give input if your client is open to it.
  • Provide promotional files, like banners, avatars, bookmarks, etc.
  • Share what you know about the market you’re in, it’s no secret, but it can be a big hazy world to your client and hard to navigate in. Some insights will be really appreciated.

When can i expect to start making money

Right away probably, when you have the skills and contacts. It doesn’t take much to start making money fairly quickly, however, it will certainly not pay the bills, and probably not even an hourly wage. In the beginning it’s more than likely that you will be commissioned by people you know. This will look really promising to begin with. But don’t forget that this pool will dry out sooner or later. You will have to reach out to people you don’t know, and this is the biggest hurdle. These people don’t want your art because they know you. They don’t want to do you a favor. They know dozens of other people that want to do the same as you, but for less.

You will probably continue landing a commission or two every now and then. come to realize that you can’t keep doing it for the prices you’re asking, which is usually way too low. You will then come to a point where you ask a higher price that reflects a minimum wage, or one equal to the wage you get for your regular job. And if your skills are not up to that level you might run into a standstill. In fact, you’re lucky if you don’t. So make sure that you have a good business practice, and that you don’t stop at ‘nice sellable art’ it’s not enough to make you stand out, unless you’re drawing like Aaron Blaise or Adam Duff, or name any other leading artist.

The 5 year rule

It’s normal for a business to take 5 years to become profitable.
Photo by ANIRUDH on Unsplash

The 5 year rule is a rule for any business. Most businesses, unless they’re owned by a very well known person or someone with good contacts, take 5 years to become profitable. That doesn’t mean that you can’t make a living of it earlier, but it will just barely do so. So it is recommended that, if you can, treat it as a side-hustle until it takes off.

You also have to remember that learning to draw is not part of your business. It’s something you do before you start your business. Of course you can overlap the two a bit, but don’t read this paragraph as ‘Hey, if I start drawing now, I have a viable business within 5 years’. No, first make sure that you know your fundamentals, and then start to build your business while continuing to learn.

Tez Art & Design timeline

To help you get a better grasp of what I mean, I take my own two businesses as an example. First is Tez Art & Design, which I started 5 years ago.
Truth to be told, I had the opportunity to build my own website. So I was probably a bit too early with starting my business. I was only one year into learning and didn’t know squat. I could draw nice animal portraits from good examples, but working on something non-existing was near impossible.

When I started I had a lot of contacts, knew how to start and run a business as I did so several times in the shadows of several new business owners. So I got quite a few commissions throughout the years up until now. Did they earn much? Eh, well, it was a nice extra but not something to write home about. Some even went for free, as did some projects I was part of for some time.

It’s only now after 5 years of praciticing and building my business that I start to see things changing. I have an actual waiting list, but still have to work part time for a local business. I’m expecting to take one, maybe two more years before my skill level and online precense is high enough to continue this business full-time.

A lot of my free time during the Pandemic went into Life to Legend, which I started in 2021. So in Tez Art & Design roughly went 20 hours a week for the past 5 years. Both in developing my skills (learning) and doing projects.

Life to Legend timeline

Life to Legend, the website you’re reading now, is still young. It’s not even 2 years old, and that shows in its traffic. There are a lot of plans for it, like courses, overpaints, collabs, and more. But as with any business: It starts with a small following and slowly but steadily builds.
As I’m still working for a local business and work on Tez Art & Design as well, it grows like any side-hustle would. There are many things I still have to learn, like SEO’s, how to make good courses, how to speed up my website, how to funnel, you name it.

I know that the coming year it won’t be earning me much money, if at all. I’m only expecting a change by the end of 2023 as then I will have had my one on one tutoring by Adam Duff. As this is my second business, and the 4th I was involved in building up, I know that it’s unreasonable to expect people to pay for stuff that’s just decent enough, so I’m not even trying. I want to make a name, and a good one at that. As an artist you don’t need to be the best to make a living, but as a teacher you need to be among the best to do so in my opinion.

So depending on what you’re trying to achieve, you might want to ask yourself what is reasonable and what not. Art is a business, like any other, as soon as you decide to make a living with it.

Places to go to make money with your art

Okay, now we have all that discussed, where can you start making money and how does it work? I will share with you the options I explored and/or tried as to give you a good idea of what would fit you the best. Just remember that the art world is a competitive one, so think out your plan and deliver quality.

Deviantart

Deviantart is probably the first stepping stone for any artist. It works a bit like social media, it’s a really social platform and it helps you to get your art out there. Many starting artists get their first commissions done right here.

It is a broad market with many opportunities, it is easy to get lost in all the possibilities, so make sure that you know beforehand what you want to specialize in. This market however usually holds low budget clients. So you might either want to bend your business to such clients, or sit on the blisters for a while until you’re ready to move to another, better paying platform.

Fiverr

This platform can be great for anyone starting off, but also for establish artists. It helps to to be seen, even when you don’t have a following yet and you usually get better prices than on a marketplace like Deviantart. There is also a security system in place that will guarantee that you get paid for your work. A client can’t just run off with your money.

Another pro is that the platform is fully set up for you to communicate effectively. It sets deadlines for you and makes everyting really transparent for you and your client. There is also a nice tier system which will open up new benefits for you as soon as you meet the requirements. Fiverr takes a cut of your income, so that is something that has to be taken into account.

Fiverr Cons

However, in my own experience, there are many people out there that want to sit on the first row for as little money as possible. You will find those people everywhere, but as Fiverr originally started out as a 5 dollar platform (Fiverr) it still attracts this kind of people eventhough you can ask way more these days.

Another issue is that its hard to research people. You might be approached by some guy that wants his girlfriend to be drawn naked in some kind of fetish setting and not know if this girl is even an adult to begin with, or gave permission to have her pictures shared with you. (More on that topic in these two articles: How to deal with NSFW requests for artists) and Drawing NSFW art, pro’s and con’s).

Their penalty system is also completely unforgiving. The word Paypal can take you out of business for months on end as it indicates that you might want to do business outside of Fiverr and your art might be marked as plagiarism if someone else stole your art and used it on Fiverr before you got the chance to do so yourself. This will get you banned right away. And in both cases it’s impossible to contact customer service about it.

Either way, it might be a good place to get started, but in my humble opinion it’s not the best long-term solution to get commissions. You might want to consider doing some small really low paying jobs to get your ratings up for your profile and services.

Upwork

Upwork is in some ways similar to Fiverr. However, this website feels more like a place to apply to jobs. Clients can approach you, but you also them. Like Fiverr, upwork takes a cut a well. By many it’s considered to be a logical levelup from Fiverr. You will find more established businessed there as well as people that want to pay more for your work.

In my personal opinion it’s a bit less user friendly, it feels a bit less like a fun place to be at and more like a business approach, which, lets be honest, is what you’re working on. So this is a good place to be.

To apply to a job you need to use credits which you will build up monthly. There is a limit to it, so they will go to waste after some time, so make sure to spent them! You can buy the credits too if you like, but I recommend that you just subscribe to the website now so you can build up the credits passively.

Etsy

Etsy is a really fancy marketplace where you can promote your creations. This marketplace is known for unique things, so it’s not a place to jush offer simple artworks. You really, and mean really need to stand out with something unique. There are better places to just sell your art. However, if your style is exceptionally unique, or you combine it with a product, this might be your place to be.

Etsy does take a reatively small cut compared to the earlier two options and it has a really solid system behind it to help you make your business bloom. From what I gathered is that Etsy is a solid option when you can bring in something unique. Like other markets is very competitive. But you can certainly make a good living through this platform.

Things that work selling on etsy

  • All kinds of stickers for different purposes.
  • Mugs, keychains, bookmarks, etc.
  • Framed prints.
  • Art collections in a specific style, printed and frames.
  • Anything personalized.
  • Greeting cards in specific styles.
  • Prints in unusual shapes or on unusual materials.
  • Nail decals and other applications on clothing or body.
  • And much more.

The best thing to do with Etsy is to think in products and branding. Just head down to Etsy and get inspired by what other people offer!

Dropshipping

Dropshipping is an ideal option when you’re running an Etsy shop or a website that sells products. Dropshippers usually have a basic set of products you can order printed in batches or as single items. When an order comes in they either pick up the needed item or have it printed and send it to your client for you. It will cost you some money, but also save you a lot of storage and headaces.

Many dropshippers also offer storage space for items they don’t sell. This will allow you to fully focus on your business and earning money. And not so much on storage and sending packages.

Some dropshippers you might want to consider for your own business.

Displate

Displate is a platform fully dedicated to art. It sells prints on metal plates of a really high quality including certificates. They offer prints in 3 different sizes, of which the 3rd consists out of 4 metal plates. Their mounts are magnetic and stick to the wall. Another nice feature is that you can set your own price.

However, like with any business, there are also some cons. The profits are very low and they apply discounts when they see fit during sales which will affect you income as well. They also have deals with big companies like Marvel, so the competition is TAUGH. Personally I wouldn’t make art for the sake of selling it on Displate, but rather put up artworks on Displate that started out as personal studies or things you enjoy drawing. With a bit of luck you can make some money from it.

Another con is that they have fixed sizes and are really not flexible at all with that. so keep that in mind if you intend to put your art up on Displate.

Gaming assets

Drawing assets can be a really good way to learn more about art fundamentals. So if you need to practice anyway, why not do so through gaming assets?
Art by: Tessa Geniets

Gaming assets are great fun to make. You can draw whatever you like, and sooner or later it will be sold. Making gaming assets is a specialization however. It is a different sport and you need to fully commit to it to make a living from it. It is a nice passive income, but you’re not the onlyone doing it. This means that, more than with other kinds of art, you need to be constantly visible to potential buyers and constantly push out new products.

Gaming assets takes a lot of time. You may be able to draw whatever you like, but your style needs to be consistent throughout and you need to draw so many things that have to be sold for so many times that it’s a quite risky business to focus on solely. Formatting images in the right sizes is repetitive and timeconsuming. I would recommend to treat gaming assets as a nice side-hustle you nurture. After some time it may earn you a nice extra income. It could even help you to some money on your ‘old day’.

Groups

There are many websites out there that have groups. Think of Facebook and Reddit. There are many groups and channels out there about specific subjects. You could promote yourself in those channels and see if you can hook a client or two. Just make sure that you are in groups with potential buyers, not in a group made for artists.

Keep in mind that this approach can be risky. Not everyone is honest and I urge you to always research people that approach you to see if they’re legit. Make sure that you get a 50% payment upfront, and have a clear agreement with your client. Because there is nothing else in their way to screw you over. Something that sadly happens more often than I like to admit.

Owning a website

If you’re even just slightly serious about creating a business you should own a website. It’s easy to start one these days with platforms like Wix or Weebly. Or if you’re a bit more handy, or like to take the time to set up a solid business website, WordPress might be the right one for you.

Even if you can barely get any organic traffic (traffic through search machines or word of mouth) it will show to your potential clients who find you elsewhere that you mean business. Just like you can be scammed by a client, they can be scammed by an ‘artist’. Having a website available for them to look around will create a sense of security and it’s more likely that they will pick you for their next project. Another pro is that you can put all information about your workflow and agreements on that website so you don’t have to repeat yourself time and again.

Conclusion

Earning money with art is not easy. It’s like any other business, only this one is very competitive on a world-wide basis. Now you know what to do and still want to move on with making art your own income: Good for you, you have the right mindset! And it’s very likely that you will actually make it if you keep all the obstacles in mind. I hope that this article taught you about how to make money with art.

To help you a bit further with your endaevours, here are some useful links:

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