How to make a living as an artist or crafter!
I’ve been making stuff for as long as I can remember. In college I had professors who told me I should sell my creations. After a trip to London during my final year of college, where I saw the amazing creations up for sale by artists at Portobello Market, I was inspired to come home and start selling crafts.
A few months after I returned home, I participated in my first craft fair. It was the Alternative Media Expo here in New Orleans, in the fall of 2004, which highlighted work by a wide range of artists, creators, and makers. My creative business has evolved a lot over the years since then, but I’ve been hacking away at it ever since.
I started writing under the name Miss Malaprop in 2006, and since then I often get asked for my advice for new artists and makers.
I’ve experimented with a lot of different ways to make a living as an artist over the last few years, including selling on Etsy and other online venues, as well as selling at local craft fairs, art markets, and festivals. I’ve learned a lot during that time, and hopefully some of what I’ve learned can help you too!
It’s a marathon, not a sprint!
When you’re just getting started trying to sell your artwork, the amount of information out there, things to learn and things to do, can be overwhelming. Just remember, making a living as an artist or creative is a marathon, not a sprint.
Every artist has to find his own way. I know some artists who make a living almost entirely off of their Etsy sales. Some artists, like myself, have been much more successful with in person sales events, like local art markets, craft fairs and festivals.
Some creators have great success licensing their artwork. Other artists make money by adding their designs to tangible items such as coffee mugs or greeting cards, either by paying to have the products manufactured for them or by using print-on-demand services like Redbubble and Zazzle.
Emily Martin, a.k.a. The Black Apple is a great example of this. She has one of the most successful Etsy shops of all time (with over 50,000 sales as of this writing!), but her artwork has appeared on other objects as well, and now she even has a few books featuring her artwork!
Being successful in making a living as an artist is all about diversifying and figuring out which mix of products and sales venues works best for you and your art.
Books to help you learn to make a living as an artist:
Here are some of my favorite great books that cover a lot of the basics for starting your own art or craft related business:
- Craft, Inc. Revised Edition: The Ultimate Guide to Turning Your Creative Hobby into a Successful Business by Meg Mateo Ilasco. This is one of the best books for crafters looking to start selling their work!
- The Handmade Marketplace: How to Sell Your Crafts Locally, Globally, and On-Line by Kari Chapin. This is another good book on the subject, which covers most of the basics you’ll need to know.
- Lightsurfing: Living Life in the Front of My Mouth by Marrus. My friend Marrus makes her living entirely off of her artwork, and has for years. This is her story, written by her, about her experiences as an artist. She sells her artwork and does face-painting at Renaissance fairs and fetish and sci-fi conventions as well as at more traditional art markets.
- The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It by Michael E. Gerber. To succeed as an artist making a living at it, you’ll have to become as much a business person as an artist. This is one of my favorite books on small business.
Online Resources for Artists
There are also a lot of really great blogs & online communities out there that will help you in your crafty business education. Here are some of my favorites:
- Badass Creatives podcast – I created this podcast to share lessons I’ve learned from running my own business, as well as share the lessons learned by other artists and creatives. In episode 007, I share the top 5 marketing mistakes that I see many artists and creatives make that prevent them from selling more of their work online.
- My resources page! – I’ve written a lot of different blog posts over the years with free advice for artists and creatives. More recently, I’ve also started creating Skillshare classes to help you out.
- Aeolidia’s Shipshape Collective – Aeolidia has been working with independent online shops for 15 years, and they offer lots of free tools and paid training for creative shop owners, including an active Facebook Group and lots of great blog posts.
- The Merriweather Council – Danielle from The Merriweather Council offers a great 11 part video training series for Etsy sellers that includes a self-guided shop critique.
- Designing an MBA – Designing an MBA is a great site by Megan Auman, who has a background as a jewelry artist. She now offers up her own advice for makers who want to make a living at it.
- Smaller Box – Smaller Box is another favorite micro-business site of mine. Meredith, who writes it, runs the successful t-shirt company Ex-Boyfriend with her partner Matt. Their products feature their own original illustrations and designs, but they have learned to grow their business by outsourcing some aspects of their work. They also wholesale their line. She speaks frankly and honestly on her site, which I love.
- biz ladies @ Design*Sponge – The biz ladies column at Design*Sponge is packed with great advice on growing a creative business, from Etsy artists, graphic designers, and many other artistic types.
Selling At Art Markets & Craft Fairs
Selling at local events, like art markets, craft fairs, and festivals, is where I’ve found most of my own success as an artist. It’s a tough life, to be sure, and totally exhausting at times. But it can also be really fun, meeting new people all of the time and selling your artwork in person!
Selling your artwork or crafty creations in person can also be a great way to test what works and doesn’t. See which themes or styles people respond to the most. Ask questions of your customers to find out what drew them into your booth.
I’ve written a book on this very topic! It’s called How to Make Money at Craft Shows, and it’s available on Amazon.
Depending on the types of shows you plan to do (indoor, outdoor, a mix of both?) and what types of art you sell (paintings, photography, handmade jewelry?), your setup needs will vary. There’s tons of information online specific to the art market display needs of certain artists, but be sure to check out my 5 Craft Show Must Haves.
Selling to stores & boutiques
I’ve both sold my own handmade work on consignment to other shops and galleries, as well as representing some other artists through my online shop and at fairs and festivals, so I’ve seen both sides of the coin.
For artists who do fine art, like paintings or photography, getting gallery representation is a different ballgame than for craft artists who make functional goods that can be sold in clothing boutiques or gift stores. For the latter, check out a great post written by my friend & former boutique owner on How To Get Your Work Into Stores.
Want to learn more about breaking into the world of selling your artwork wholesale? The blog Designing an MBA has a lot of great information on wholesale, from the perspective of a jewelry artists who wholesales her work.
How to Approach an Art Gallery for Representation
Excuse the sometimes shaky camera work and sound quality of this video, because this artist lays out some really great advice, from the heart, on how to approach an art gallery for representation. This is something I personally have never had to do, since I don’t specialize in fine art, but for painters and other fine artists, getting your work in galleries can be a big part of making your living!
Alternately – screw galleries! In this day and age, it’s entirely possible to represent yourself as an artist if you are able to build a strong personal brand. Just take New Orleans based artist Ashley Longshore. This interview with her is totally worth a read.
For fine artists, I also recommend checking this article by my friend Marrus: Online Marketing & Promotion for Artists.
Where to sell your art online
This is a huge topic, so I can’t cover all aspects of it in detail here, but I do talk more about this on episode 009 of the Badass Creatives podcast.
A lot of craft artists start out selling online on Etsy. But it is not the only online venue that can be good for selling your art or craft. I’ve used a variety of different e-commerce platforms over the years. In addition to Etsy, I have also used Storenvy, and when I ran an online boutique selling work by a variety of artists I used the CoreCommerce platform.
For an artist brand-new to selling their work, I would say that Etsy is probably your best bet to start out with. Give it a go, but feel free to explore other options along your way.
As you grow and start selling more, I recommend creating your own website. If you only sell on Etsy, you’re subject to whatever changes Etsy might make. And if you only rely on traffic from Etsy to drive your sales, that can be a problem if something changes.
There is no one right e-commerce platform for everyone. Every business is different. If you need some one-on-one advice to figure out what’s best for your biz, check out my consulting packages.
Photographing your products
Use natural lighting and a neutral background to make your product photos pop!
One essential key to successfully selling your artwork or handmade goods online is great product photography. If you don’t already have a knack for photography, you will either need to learn how to take better photographs of your products, or be willing to pay a good photographer to do so.
Crochet designer Kristina Turner offers a great 20-minute video course which is specifically designed to help you learn to take better photographs of your handmade products. There are also plenty of great blog articles as well as books on this topic to help you learn.
You’ll need to make sure you show your products in the best light possible (literally). Good, natural lighting is key to a great product shot. You can build an easy DIY lightbox, or find a spot outdoors or near a window to take your photos. You don’t want direct sunlight which will create harsh shadows, but you don’t want your products to look dark or blurry either.
Writing about your products
Another key part of selling your handmade products online is writing great descriptions, and giving your products good titles and keyword tags. A good product description will not only help a potential buyer understand everything they need to know about your product before they can make the decision to buy, but it will also help search engines like Google to find your product listing.
Telling stories about your arwork and describing your products online as if you are talking to a friend about them will help give your product listings a personal touch. Shoppers who love handmade art want to know the stories behind the artwork. Talk about the materials you used, what inspired this piece or how you made it.
Be sure to also include basic descriptive details like the size of the object, what the color is (colors on computer monitors may vary from screen to screen, but writing out the color in your description will also help Google to find you), and who the object is meant for.
If it is a functional piece of art, like jewelry, clothing, or an object to be used in your home, talk about how it could be worn or used, or what you might pair it with. Popular fashion site ModCloth does a great job of giving descriptive titles to their products and making a potential shopper envision how they might incorporate it into their lives.
Check out their product description page featured above for a pair of Swedish Hasbeens shoes. Notice how they gave the shoe a name that tells a story, instantly. Their product description also tells a story, but includes details about the shoe, including the color, and what it’s made out of. Then they also give styling suggestions about what to wear the shoe with.
Marketing your products
How you package and display your products is part of marketing. I consistently use these cobalt blue organza jewelry bags, stuffed with a business card, to package my jewelry when I sell it at a local event or online.
Marketing is a huge, HUGE topic with so much to cover, I couldn’t possibly mention it all here. It includes everything from creating a brand for your art business, to social media marketing, networking at in person events, to advertising and search engine optimization (SEO).
Personally, learning the basics of SEO and understanding how Pinterest can drive a lot of traffic to websites have been the biggest game-changers for my business. Most of my website traffic comes from Google search and Pinterest.
- DIY SEO for E-commerce: A Search Engine Optimization Intro for Artists, Makers and Online Shops
- The Power of Pinterest: Learn How This Visual Search Engine Can Generate Massive Traffic
- Marketing for Artists: Learn the Top 5 Marketing Mistakes Artists & Creatives Make
Plus, in episode 24 of the Badass Creatives podcast, I share all of my Instagram tips and tricks.
Get all your ducks in a row
At the end of the day, if you want to make a living as an artist or crafter, you need to remember that you are also a business person. Unless you are lucky enough to be hired to create art full-time for another company, you will have to learn some business basics and treat your art or craft like a company.
Business regulations vary wildly depending on where you’re located, so it’s best to seek out a local lawyer and an accountant who are familiar with the local rules. It’s also important to note that many areas require you to carry a certificate of insurance if you’re running a business out of your home, and some craft shows may even request to see your proof of insurance.
If you’re based in the United States, the U.S. Small Business Administration can be an amazing resource. They offer Small Business Development Centers throughout the country. I turned to my local organization many years ago when I was just starting out and they offered guidance as well as grants to help get my business to the next level. These days I’m even partnering with my local chapter to teach classes on occasion! I definitely recommend reaching out to contact your local SBDC.
My friend Melissa of Able Endeavors is a bookkeeper and advisor to creative business owners. She’s run her own Etsy shop and handmade business for years, and she has more than 14 years of experience in restaurant accounting and management industry. When I was ready to switch to Xero for my own bookkeeping needs, she walked me through the basics in a few one-on-one Skype sessions. If you’re looking for some advice about the financial side of your creative biz, she’s someone I have used and would recommend.