Q&A: Taking the leap as a freelance artist
Answers to your questions about launching an art business.
Welcome to my new and improved newsletter. The format will vary from week to week because I like to shake things up. Today I’ll be answering some follower-submitted questions. If you want advice on anything (and I mean anything), just reply to this email with a description of your situation and I’ll do my best to help.
I am 26 years old with no serious commitments to speak of right now. I am starting to realize that the only career path I want is that of a creative.
I perceive that my style is unique but I can’t seem to get much traction with an online following yet. I like the idea of working freelance to design book covers, etc. Do you have any simple recommendations on how to break through the threshold between not committing myself fully to making money this way and making all of my income this way? It feels like a leap of faith. Do I start selling prints on Instagram? I want this so bad but I have walls.
“Leap of faith” is the best way to put it. You’re preparing to leap from familiar territory into the vast unknown. Anything could happen, from complete failure or astronomical success. I took this leap four years ago and managed to land somewhere between the two extremes. I now earn enough money to support myself and relax a bit. Whether or not you get there depends on many factors, some of which are out of your control: illustration trends, social media algorithms, economic downturns, health problems. The worst of these will be manageable if you can keep in mind what you wrote to me, repeating it like a mantra: “The only career path I want is that of a creative.”
If this is really what you want, then you will have to make it happen. What’s the alternative? Spend your whole life—the only life you’ve got—doing something you don’t want to be doing?
Fortunately, there are endless ways to have a career in the arts. You could be an animator, an art director, a web designer, a cartoonist, or a portrait painter, and each day new titles are added to the list: YouTuber, podcaster, live-streamer, influencer, etc. Most likely, your career will include a handful of these. To some artists, that arrangement is stressful—so many revenue sources to juggle!—but I see it as security. When one revenue source tanks, I can rely on the others. It’s also security against boredom: I can switch gears whenever I’m starting to feel burnt out. Over time, you will discover your own ideal balance. Maybe you’d rather sell prints than teach lessons. Maybe you’d rather design logos than draw pets. The beauty of freelancing is that you can tailor your career to your personality.
But when should you take the leap? There’s no one-size-fits-all answer. Some people will want to earn a full-time salary from art before quitting their day jobs. Others will want to dive in headfirst with no life vest. Personally, I’m the latter. I don’t really do things halfway. In 2017, I was working at a grocery store and didn’t have any leftover energy for art. I realized I would need to go full-time to have a shot at success. So I quit my job and started building my business.
If you’re in debt or have a family to support, you might need to hold off until the side-hustle is bringing in real money. But in your letter you said yourself that you have “no serious commitments,” which leads me to believe that you’re perfectly positioned to take the leap. This is your chance to go all out, leaving no stone unturned. So don’t be choosy. Advertise your services as a graphic designer, a food illustrator, an art teacher, a blogger—whatever suits your style. Most of these ventures will fail miserably. Some will succeed. Pursue those with a vengeance. Stay up late making art and wake up early to promote the hell out of it.
You asked me for simple advice, so I’ll condense all of the above into a single sentence: write out a list of ways to earn money as an artist, and don’t give up until you’ve checked off every single item on that list.
The beginning will be rough—there’s really no avoiding that—but if you stop now then you’ll never get to the good part.
I am just getting into selling my art and was wondering about making prints. I don't have quite the budget for the letterpress prints that you sell, so I was wondering if you had any other recommendations for producing high quality prints.
As you pointed out, the prints I sell are letterpress. But it wasn’t always this way! In the beginning, I ordered from a big corporate print service. Their website had handy built-in tools for customizing my order. It was quick and convenient. It didn’t involve any social interaction.
When the final product arrived, I was disappointed. It amounted to a watered-down version of my art. It didn’t feel like an art object in and of itself. It felt like a consolation prize for people who couldn’t afford to buy the real thing.
As an artist, I place a lot of value in aesthetics: I’m not going to sell something I don’t find beautiful. So I stopped selling prints. And then one day, months later, I received an email from a letterpress print shop offering its services.
Working with a small business was a revelation. Suddenly I was talking to a real person with years of experience who genuinely cared about my art. She gave me personalized recommendations on composition, ink color, and paper stock. She let me know when my files needed tweaking to look their best. The order process more like a collaborative project than a financial transaction.
Like you, I assumed that this sort of thing would be prohibitively expensive, but when the invoice came through I was pleasantly surprised. I’ll tell you exactly how much I paid: it was $700 for 500 5”x 7” prints—only $1.40 / print. Let’s compare this figure to the site I used to order from: 500 premium prints for $550. Of course, you could also go with the cheapest option—better suited to flyers than art—which would only be around $200.
The thing is, you’ll be selling your letterpress prints for more than digital prints. They’re simply better quality. Anyone can see that from a mile away. Plus you’ll be able to mention in the product description that they’re made by a small business, which is a selling point for many people.
Where to find a printer? I personally like to look through the #letterpress hashtag and reach out to a few places. Then I compare their quotes and place an order. Currently I’m working with Feast Letterpress. I’ve used other printers in the past and have never had a bad experience.
All of the above assumes that your art translates well to letterpress. But does it? You’ll need to deliver single-color, full-opacity layers with transparent backgrounds. This is definitely not a fit for, say, watercolor or graphite. In that case, I’d recommend working with a giclee printer.
If you truly can’t afford high quality prints, go ahead and order the cheap ones. I won’t judge. You have to start somewhere!
Artist: Jillian Tamaki creates delightfully weird drawings that play with proportion and hint at stories from another world.
Book: I’m currently reading a classic novel by one of my favorite authors D.H. Lawrence. If you ever meet me in person, I suggest not bringing him up: I know everything about his life and will talk your ear off.
Newsletter: Mason Currey’s creativity-themed newsletter covers a relevant topic this week: “Advice on jumping off the deep end.”
Poem: “Anniversary” by Diannely Antigua.
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Hi!! I'm Sabrina and I'm 22 yo, actually I'm in University, it's my last year doing Physiotherapy and .... I'm a mess. I can say that I spend my days thinking about art I like a lot of kinds of art like painting, drawing, playing instruments and writing mostly writing and drawing and I really want to make this creativity as a full job.
But I always received comments from my family that makes me feel like "I do many things and I don't do nothing at all ". Always feeling so tired every singles day. Do you have any tips to a beginner artist that wants to make it happen but have a lot of creating areas of interest and that makes her feel a little lost in life as she wasn't good in nothing but wanting to be good enough to do what she loves until the end of life?
How interesting regarding printing. I never knew of this other type you mentioned for watercolour!