Unless you live in a country where art is subsidised in one form or another, your path to profitability as an artist is going to be relatively steep. It will be easier going if you have a degree, earned very high marks and want to work in one of the industries or areas where you can find a position as an employee.
It will be harder if you want to work as an independent or freelance artist, although it helps if you are promoted by your art school or are “discovered” by an important collector of fine art.
Most of the freelancers out there, however, will need to work on the business side of being an artist as much as on the creation of art itself. Indeed, you’ll need to put a lot of effort into selling your “product” — especially the first few years, but in many cases, throughout your career.
The reason is that most artistic careers are financially unstable, with low earnings — if at all — for extended periods, no or little job security, little chance of putting aside a bit of money every month to enjoy a pension, etc. This is certainly true for artists who create non-digital art, but it’s also true for freelance digital artists of practically every type.
The first challenge is to develop a business strategy. Most strategies are based on a three-step workflow: first identify a market that is not saturated, develop a product to serve that market and make that product available and make the market want that product.
For an illustrator like Kate Rowland, the niche was an easily recognisable design that initially was based on a TV-show, the product custom-designed jewellery, the market placement a self-owned website and an Etsy shop.
Even then, the economic outlook and the law of supply and demand will determine if you will find a job quickly and easily.
The economic law of supply and demand will also determine the price you can ask for your art (up to a point; once you’re famous and most of all in the fine art market, you can pretty much ask as you like). Sometimes the price is not what you expect; many freelance graphic designers complain about companies commissioning work in return for… the honour, or earning a reputation or exposure — in short, these companies use whatever excuse they can find for not paying you money. And in the advertising industry it’s not uncommon to have businesses agree upon a project fee but keep asking any number of “quick edits” without paying more for the extra work.
The standard advice with this sort of exploitation is not to give in and turn away from such businesses rather than go with it. The reasoning behind it is that you are undervaluing your service or product and that it becomes very, very difficult to ever persuade such a business to pay you well in the future.
That advice is worth its weight in gold. From own experience I know that it doesn’t matter whether you give away your service/product for free, they will never hire you when it involves paying a fair price. Such companies are only interested in squeezing you dry.
It’s less obvious when clients keep asking for edits long after you’ve finished the work and way beyond what you think is more than reasonable. That’s why it’s always a good idea to have your Terms & Conditions drafted by a lawyer or work through an agency that you pay a commission for managing just that sort of foolishness. Agencies, of course, don’t come cheap and are only a viable solution when you’re doing well financially.
In the era of social media, though, artists do have an extra source they can tap into for generating at the very least a side-income: the larger online public.
Launching your business
Websites such as Patreon offer a way to invite people you’ve never met in the flesh to sponsor you with a small amount of money on a subscription basis. Platforms like Etsy and Behance support selling your art online directly to interested buyers.
There are lots of online art galleries too — some of which will first critique your work. They will sell your artwork as a real-world gallery. Singulart, Artpal, Displate (this website sells art that is printed on metal plates, which enables you to sell digital artwork on a printed medium as well), Artfinder, Azucar (only curated art), Saatchi, Society6 and Kyte.li (here you can upload artwork and turn it into anything from shower curtains to travel mugs), Shairart (Portuguese site; curated art only) and ArtPlease (here you’ll even find art by Damien Hirst) are among the most important ones.
Promoting your art business through social media
For any social media platform to work for you, you need people who are willing to spread your fame, such as family and friends who blow your horn and arouse further interest into what you’re creating via their connections with other people.
You first need to build credibility with endorsements, which offers an easy way to add third-party validation. Most people trust reviews and recommendations written by strangers online as much as they do a referral from a personal connection. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that collecting endorsements and recommendations will make prospects willing to work with you. From my own experience, I’d say LinkedIn® isn’t going to be very helpful if you’re after anything else but a position in a company as an employee.
If you don’t mind Facebook using your personal data and information for its marketing purposes and you having to surrender your intellectual property rights on any content you post to that company, the platform can help you on your way to becoming successful. Facebook even has its own marketplace these days, so you could even try selling art through that channel.
Do keep in mind, though, that the company is only interested in growing its profit margins and will do whatever it takes to reach its goals — even using unethical means.
Probably all types of digital artists and freelance illustrators will find Twitter, Instagram and other social media good for building a fanbase. Converting your fanbase into a source of income requires yet more “business” work, for example sending a newsletter regularly with MailChimp (any service that allows you to track results, really), continuously updating your mailing list, sending direct messages to your most engaged fans on Twitter, regularly inviting fans to workshops, etc, etc.
For concept and 3D artists, ArtStation offers a marketplace, jobs board and portfolio features.
Often overlooked ways to market your art business
One platform that can put you in the picture is Youtube. Creating a video of you painting and explaining how to achieve certain results — teaching as it were — allows you to shine and show your skills and what you’re capable of producing. You do need to be a bit of a storyteller to be successful at it, though.
Some fine examples:
Other marketing channels include your social media profiles, portfolio, “Hire me” page, About page on your website and your email signature.
Also, it pays to use Quora (answering people’s questions lets you put a spotlight on your skills and knowledge much like giving a Youtube presentation).
And don’t forget to network so you can enjoy word-of-mouth advertising.
How it works out for most people
Some of us dream about becoming as famous as contemporary painter Luc Tuymans (Tate Modern), or as important a graphic designer as Michael Bierut or Kate Moross. While Tuymans is one of the most influential painters working today, Bierut, who has won hundreds of design awards, has been a partner for 28 years at Pentagram, one of the most famous design agencies in the world. Kate Moross is an art director, illustrator and graphic designer whose work spans across artistic direction, moving imagery, typography and illustration (according to her biography). In 2012, Moross founded Studio Moross, a London-based multidisciplinary design company that – at the time of writing – was sharing their recent work for the Spice Girls Spice World Tour 2019.
Moross has won several awards, as has Bierut, who graduated summa cum laude from theUniversity of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning. Tuymans has a trajectory that starts with art schools in Belgium and the Netherlands, a college degree in art history and more.
That, however, is not as it turns out for everyone. People like Bierut, Tuymans and Moross may serve as the standard-bearers for those who start with art school, it’s no good to feel depressed if you find yourself — many years after leaving school — still struggling to pay for the bills. That doesn’t mean your artwork is worthless and it has never been.
While Rubens may have been wealthy, he was not just a painter. Between 1627 and 1630, he had an active diplomatic career, often moving between the courts of Spain and England in an attempt to bring peace between the Spanish Netherlands and the United Provinces.
Rembrandt, living around the same time as Rubens, died as a poor man and was buried in an unmarked grave. And remember that Van Gogh was “…unsuccessful during his lifetime, and was considered a madman and a failure,” according to his Wikipedia page.
So, high marks help a lot, but there’s always a percentage of luck involved when it comes to financial success. Luckily for aspiring artists, there are many more ways even “a madman and a failure” can live off their art if they know how to upload an image to the server of an online marketplace. And even after a lifetime of being a successful artist, some of us decide to do something slightly different. The perhaps most famous concept artist today, Feng Zhu, who started working on PC and PS1 games in the nineties, now runs his own concept art school in Singapore.