One day, long, long ago, I was pulling a print out of the etching press and one of my professors saw it. He took out a $20 bill and asked me to sell it to him. I was in shock, and kept that $20 in my wallet as a good luck charm for several years.
Back then I was a naive art student who had no idea of how the world of art worked. I really didn’t give much thought to how I would actually finance my art-making. With the help of my mother’s credit card at the beginning of each semester, I neatly avoided the fact that in order to keep creating, every artist needs a way to finance his or her art.
So even though all the art books I read seemed to agree that art supplies are expensive, and my teachers were always reminding us to save materials, I never really thought about the connection between spending money and making art.
How things have changed. . .
A few weeks ago I was at the art and crafts mini fair at Julia de Burgos Cultural Center, here in my neighborhood in NYC. My friend (and fellow artist) Mercedes Molina asked artist Olga Ayala how she began her crafts business.
Olga is the coordinator of the arts and crafts fair, and an artist I greatly admire – for her work, for her entrepreneurship, and for her commitment. She is at every event I go to, and at many more, too. She works constantly and her polymer clay pieces are truly exquisite sculptures.
In answer to our question, Olga told us that when her child was younger she was working full time, but could only just make ends meet, and needed an extra source of income for the extras in life: like seeing a movie, with popcorn. . . the little things we like to do for our kids.
She had gone to an arts-focused high school, which gave her some of the background to spontaneously begin creating hand-made jewelry and selling it. This covered her extra expenses and little by little became a full time business which she expanded to sculptures as well.
For me, Olga has always been an inspiration. She is both an artist and a business woman, and like her, many of us have begun to see art as a way to generate some extra income, not just as a hobby.
If I have learned one thing in the last 10 years, from artists like Olga and from my own experiences, it is that an artist should never lack money. There is no reason for someone who is artistic to be unable to finance their own art supplies and eventually make a living from it.
However, there IS one thing that will keep us from our dreams. It’s an ugly barrier called pride. And hiding behind that prideful barrier is insecurity, or fear. So watch out for preconceived ideas of what art is, or what it should be, and what you are not willing to do.
With that in mind, here are the four “ingredients” that I think you’ll need to make money with your art:
The first “ingredient” is fun!
Put a smile on your face as you work, and keep it when you take your art into the outside world. If you are not having fun, what will you really have to offer your collectors?
People who are attracted to art are highly empathetic, just like artists. They want to talk to you, but they need to feel comfortable, invited. It is important for us artists to be able to translate our art-making feelings beyond the studio and share it with the viewers.
The ecstasy we feel when we create is what we want to give the people who see our work. We can only offer this if we are able to establish a connection, a rapport, with the people who approach us. It takes practice, but if we have fun and truly dive into it, it will come soon, and naturally.
The next ingredient is adaptability.
What do I mean by that? Simply that you need to be able and willing to adapt your art to a size (or format) that is affordable, so anybody can buy it.
I discovered this when I first started making greeting cards. I saw some photo-frame greeting cards in an art store and thought to buy some of them and sell them for $3 at an event I was organizing.
I noticed how happy the people who bought them were about being able to take a small image of my art home with them. They would tell me where they were going to put it, who they would send it to, or why they liked it. This in turn made me feel great love and gratitude for their support.
I had done some t-shirts before, and some silkscreens, but the $3 cards were both easy and pleasurable. This was a very different feeling from the t-shirts, which were hard to make, and more expensive to produce.
Once in a while, someone would see or buy a card, and come back for the original. Even more importantly, by selling little greeting cards for $3 I would make enough to pay for my taxi rides, and invite a friend or family to eat after an event.
Then I tried going larger and bought some mats. These were as popular as the cards and allowed me to cover more expenses. At this time I had already begun attending arts and crafts events in a college near my home, so I decided to reproduce most of my paintings in both greeting cards and larger prints, which I sold for $12. People would buy them as gifts and see my whole portfolio in the process! The professors still hire me to do workshops and commissions.
I have tried printing professionally, but it has not worked for me. I prefer to print very small batches and to have a limited quantity of each item, while at the same time having as many different images as I can carry.
There are many places online where you can go to get things printed, but I prefer to do it myself in order to control the quality, quantity and also the ability to create new reproductions and products.
Here is the printing equipment I use:
• A computer with Photoshop. Some images take some extra work. Learn Photoshop and your life as an artist will be much better. It is my one essential tool.
• A great camera for large pieces and a scanner for smaller ones.
• An Epson printer (Not a multifunction printer; I have one of those and don’t like the printing quality. I just use it for copying and scanning.) Choose a simple, single function printer. Or go for the large format, more expensive kind. Always print in the highest quality (which will save you an immense amount of ink and money) and choose the correct paper in the printer’s application.
• Epson paper of the highest quality (4 star or 5 star). I prefer matte, since it makes the colors look rich and professional.
• Photo frame greeting cards.
• Mats. I use 11″ x 14″ with an 8″ x 10″ opening that allows me to print within the printer’s parameters. I also buy them in bulk and save more than 50% of the retail price.
• Paper cutter. I use a rotary cutter because it allows me to cut matboard as well. Just make sure it is large enough to fit standard paper.
Third (and this is extremely important) you must know your audience.
I often go to the Julia de Burgos Salsa Wednesdays, and although I bring my hand-painted tiles, and have even brought large paintings, I make sure I have art for salseros boricuas, the Puerto Rican salsa dancers and musicians.
I print some images that I created back in my student days (even the one that the professor bought. . . ) and some of the images from the t-shirts I made in 2000, when I was inspired by Afro-Caribbean music. I also bring all my other reproductions. It is wise to have as much as possible.
And for the last ingredient, you will need trust.
You created your art with great love, passion and commitment. There will be people who love it. And there will be people who make the strangest comments. Don’t judge, just try to get to know people, what they respond to, and how they relate to you as a person and creator.
If someone approaches, say “Hi” with a smile and make them feel welcome as if this were your living room. Please don’t talk on the phone if you get bored! It will kill your image and your sales! Trust that by being there, you are doing your job. You are sharing with the world your truth and your essence.
A last, encouraging story: A school principal in my neighborhood, Mr. Soto, hired me to do murals at his school because he saw a reproduction of my painting The Four Daughters of Eve in the office of a friend and customer.
Reproducing our art does not deplete its essence as I have heard some artists say. It spreads it to a wider audience, and it makes it accessible and affordable for your future collectors.
As artists, we need to make art, share it with the world, and get as many people to see it as possible. We also need to keep our bank accounts from dying, and prints and greeting cards are how I do it.
Are you inspired yet? I hope so! Go try some prints, cards, or think up your own ways to make some money with your art. Good luck!