Friday, April 18, 2014

How I Make Money as a Freelance Artist

I've long thought about writing this post, and after a good many years and as thoughts of wrapping up the blog as a whole have entered my mind more and more lately, I've finally decided to do so. Also, my scanner isn't working properly at the moment, and I have one of those far too rare as of late days off from everything, so I might as well.

"How do you make money as an artist?", in a broad sense, was a question covered many times in previous posts on this blog. But what about me, personally? Do I actually make any money or am I just blowing steam? Read on as I share a more intimate look at the ways by which I bring home the bacon as a freelancer...

Fine Art Sales
In 2013, I started to make a move back into fine art, which started out on a slow burn, but turned out to be a good maneuver over all. I'm trained in the commercial arts and have enjoyed fantastic success within the field, but the title I put on my taxes each year has always been the same: Artist. It says nothing of my formal training or the titles I've attained high on the corporate ladder. It's general, purposefully broad, and is therefore as close as I can get to calling myself what I truly am. And what I've found in removing myself from credentials and degrees is room for nothing but my most fantastic and fascinating work.

How I did it: I found my way in fine art by contacting galleries with portfolios of my work. I got more exposure by showing at libraries, colleges, hospitals and other public places. I boosted this by producing one or two pieces for local art auctions and charity art auctions. Where before I would have to call gallery curators to have my work shown, they now call me.

What I needed: 10 pieces of finished fine art work and a portfolio to show them in. I have a 9x12 portfolio - the same type you can get here, containing photographs of my work. To get the ball rolling, I designed postcards and got them printed relatively cheap at Vistaprint, which I sent with introduction letters to local galleries. This got some interest, but visiting the galleries in person with my portfolio in hand got much more. People still like to meet people, even in this age of the internet and minimal interaction.

How I price: The pieces sell between $300 - $1,000 on average, mostly depending on size/materials used. Again, while my name carries some weight as an illustrator and comic artist, I'm a relative unknown in the fine art field, so I can't demand tens of thousands of dollars for my work at this point. If you want to do pricing yourself, there are plenty of formulas on websites out there, but I find the approach listed on this website to be more realistic.

Private Lessons
This is probably my favorite way to make money right now, and I'm lucky that we live in the age that we do where the internet makes teleconferencing with students so easy. I wouldn't have been able to enjoy have the success I have when it comes to private lessons had I been doing it 10 years earlier. That said, this type of "consulting" isn't for everyone. Many artists are private and don't enjoy giving lessons. Others are purists who just like to work on their own things, which is also fine. Still, if you've ever considered teaching art, there's no better time than now to get in the game.

How I did it: My regular students are almost always people I know - who I've met at conventions, art shows, or social functions. All it takes is someone interested in learning how to draw, paint or sculpt, and you have a potential student. I have also taken to giving free seminars at colleges and libraries, offering a free art lesson or discussion of a similar topic (how to know if art school is right for you has been a popular one, of late) to anyone who shows up. Afterwards, I am almost always approached about private lessons or counseling.

What I needed: A love of the subject matter to be covered and a student willing to learn it. I always bring a questionnaire to the first session to gauge my student's interests and abilities. Questions like "what do you like to draw?" and the more obscure, "do you find it easier to navigate a drawing of something with lines and sharp angles than something with a lot of curves?" are great for figuring out a student's strengths and weaknesses. A vehicle to get to the site helps, too - or Skype and an internet connection for teleconferences.

How I price: Depending on the student and what is to be covered, my prices generally fall between $30 and $60 per hour. I price my illustration classes higher as my knowledge of drawing is more in-depth than what I could impart for a basic sculpting technique class, for example. I give discounts to students who want to book a month's worth of weekly sessions in advance, of course.

I don't know of a single artist who hasn't done commissions in one form or another. Some days I will be doing a series of illustrations for a book that an aspiring author hopes to sell to a publisher, and some days I will be doing a simple sketch of a single character for someone's birthday. It's wide open!

How I did it: As I alluded to in the above paragraph, my commissioned work sources are many and varied, so the ways by which people get ahold of me for such work is as well. I might be at a comic convention, offering sketches for $30 one day and I might be contacted on LinkedIn to spruce up the design of a 20 page proposal the next. This is one area where you will eventually find saying "no" is more important than saying "yes". The imperative thing here is to choose what you're interested in being commissioned for wisely, and pick outlets catering to those specific areas only. I don't like doing the graphic design work on annual reports, for example, so I try to avoid handing out my business cards to design firms these days. On the other hand, I love making custom leather pieces, so I'm sure to hit up cowboy meetups, pow wows and renaissance faires. Also, since I work in so many mediums, I'm sure to carry many different types of business cards.

What I needed: Here again, the situation varies depending on what you're going for. Many people would be surprised to know that I have multiple deviantArt accounts (or, let's be honest, maybe they wouldn't), and each showcases artwork different from the others and therefore caters to different clientele. Some people know me as Dawn Best the illustrator, while another group entirely knows me as Dawn Best the mask and doll maker.

How I price: Having worked on some popular comic and magazine titles that have also enjoyed significant commercial success means that I am always being asked for illustrations which in turn means I can set my prices higher than some others in my field. A typical illustration commission from me will run you about $100. However, this is the price for a Dawn Best piece - you're paying for my style, my name, and the recognition that comes with it. I have several other pseudonyms out there and other "specialty" online galleries to show some very different artwork, with no recognizable name attached and style(s) not recognizable as my own. I have done this type of "clip art" stuff for significantly lower prices and the benefit lies in the speed at which I can complete these projects, and therefore the amount of them I tend to get in any given week. Sites like Fiverr and others are great for such things.

Etsy and Artisan Craft Sales
Along with my fine art endeavors, I wanted to showcase some of my smaller leathercraft and art doll pieces and offer them for sale in 2013. This too was a smart move, as both types of pieces have been increasingly popular at shows (again, think ren faires and other outlets for artisans) as well as among a growing number of online collectors. Art dolls are especially growing in popularity and I'm lucky to have gained an interest in creating them quite some time ago so I could hone the skills necessary to make high quality pieces.

How I did it: I started making art dolls in 2011 after my love of sculpting and sewing led me to several other brilliant artists creating these wonderful critters. After making and selling a few of them online, I started making bigger dolls and expanded my reach to setting up shop at artisan shows and festivals - for the online crowd this mean resurrecting my Etsy shop! The dolls seemed to attract a lot of attention but due to their higher prices didn't always sell extremely well. Adjusting to this, I started to create smaller dolls and miniature dolls, each hand crafted and unique as the bigger ones, but significantly more affordable. Things started taking off for dolls of all sizes by that point.

What I needed: Having a separate deviantArt account really paid off for this one, as I was able to get exposure via the many art doll groups established there. From that point it was just a link to my Etsy shop that brought people to purchase them. Building a name in a different medium, as previously stated, takes patience, so that was one necessary component I can't stress enough. As with fine art, you can't just jump right into making thousands of dollars each week with no sales behind your name.

How I price: The mini dolls sell for $35, medium dolls are around $150 and the larger troll dolls I have are $300 and up. As with the fine art I do, much of pricing is based on material costs and not the name behind the piece. The dolls take up to 2 weeks to complete, and I am careful to take my time into account as I set their prices as well. Here, pricing similar pieces on Etsy was imperative - not just to stay offer competitive pricing, but also to keep the price of art dolls as a whole, reasonable. Fellow artists who have long created beautiful dolls are undermined when newcomers to the fold show up with prices that are far too low, and this becomes a major concern for all involved in the craft. As was previously said, staying competitive is important, but if we all lowballed one another, nobody would make a dime.

Patreon Funding
Patreon is a relatively new way to make money online, and since having a great success with Kickstarter, I decided to try my hand at this similar but different endeavor earlier this year. My Patreon account is really a joint account between myself and a few other specialty artists all acting under one handle (sneaky, eh?) but sharing the load works well for me, and the profits (we bring in a couple hundred per month, split 3 ways) are pretty outstanding.

How I did it: Along with the two others artists involved in the funding, I've posed under the pseudonym for a good 3 years now and enjoyed some popularity in the "specialty" webcomics field. I'll leave it at that, but the premise is simple - we develop a web series drawn in a singular style which we are all comfortable mimicking, release content every few months or so, and sell tickets to the site for those interested. With Patreon, we were able to free ourselves from the website ticketing system entirely, offering new artwork each month exclusively for Patreon supporters. And it's all in what people want to contribute! So you want to see the newest comic and the archives of old stuff? Support us for $10 a month and you're in. Want to give us more than $10? We'll give you a special commission and you still get to see the new comics. Want us to draw more than one comic a month? If everyone pulls together and we get $1000 a month, it'll happen... and the promoting just goes on like that, based solely on what people are interested in giving! So much better than ticketing once and forgetting about other ways to offer customers even cooler stuff.

What I needed: Patreon, mostly. We'd long wanted to offer more than just a website with some artwork for a couple of bucks a month, and Patreon allows us to set goals and specific rewards for people who are donating more than the average supporter. It's really a win-win. A knowledge of how to properly utilize a tool such as this and a little basic knowledge of good marketing practices goes a long way, here. Incentivizing with Patreon means anyone should be able to make a couple bucks if they know what they're doing and have a product the public is interested in.

How I price: We agreed to the $10 ticketing long ago when the first site opened, and it seemed to be working so nothing changed. Again, knowledge of your product and what people are willing to pay is essential. Since backers can pull out of Patreon any time, it's not unreasonable to offer what would otherwise be a $25 commission to a $30 Patreon backer while simultaneously giving them access to that month's content as well.

Amazon and DriveThruComics Sales
It may surprise most of you to know that the comics I create are less a means for me to make money as they are a credential building asset and advertising platform. What I mean by that is, yes, I do make money selling comics each month, but more to the point, these outlets serve me as a means for people to find me online and seek me out for things that make a little more money (consulting, teaching, and private commissions to name a few). Still, it's nice to get a royalty check in the mail each month, and if you do it long enough, they eventually become quite substantial as your name gets passed around.

How I did it: You might also be surprised to know that the majority of my royalty sales do not come from my comics, books, or other things to which I claim 100% of the creative rights - nor did I put in the majority of the work for these. On Amazon right now, as an example, I have about two dozen books. Five of these I have written myself, and the rest are all public domain works. Things like fairy tales, classic literature, and even more contemporary works for which the copyright limitations have simply run out are all up for grabs on the public domain, currently. Anyone can republish these, for free or profit if they like. So how do I make money on them when, essentially, they can be gotten by anyone without paying a dime? I format them so they are more appealing, add illustrations, and lump them together in collections. Yes, people will pay for stuff that looks good and is more convenient to access than searching for, piece by piece, themselves.

What I needed: Microsoft Word, an Amazon Account, and a little patience to go around gathering the stories up, collecting them, and formatting them to be readable on a Kindle. Amazon offers a lot of tools to help with this, so with a bare minimum of knowledge on good formatting practices, it's not exactly hard. Too, I have the Adobe Creative suite for creating other formats - especially PDFs, which are needed for sites such as DriveThruComics.

How I price: You can get one of the books I've written from anywhere from $5 to $20 in Kindle format. Amazon will give me 70% of the profit. They only give 30% on the public domain works, which I sell for a mere 99 cents. Like I said, however, the royalties on these trump those I make on my own books (well, they did until this past month, which was a nice surprise) so the trick is to offer that low price, and many different books as impulse buys.

And one more thing...

None of this was done overnight. For the most part, I held some rather demanding full-time work as I built up these little businesses and it took me a good two years before I was comfortable enough to continue on with part-time work outside of these endeavors, only. Too, each month the numbers are different, and one endeavor may make more than another, so it's important to be ready to compensate and not throw all your eggs into one area of profit. For these reasons, I do not recommend trying any of these without having some form of income already (that's just stupid, I mean, come on..!) and I highly recommend diversifying the ways by which you make money in freelance to only the things that are interesting to you (lest you be put off by lack of your own interest).

Best wishes for all your successes!