At The Abundant Artist, we are passionate about teaching artists that it is entirely possible to make money from your art, even outside of the traditional gallery system. In fact, many of our artists make a living from their work without ever setting foot in a gallery. A seldom-discussed aspect of the art industry, and somewhat mysterious to many artists, is art licensing. While it’s not for everyone, it is a facet of the industry well worth exploring for artists who are well experienced with managing their budget and are interested in collaborating with corporations.
Several years ago, Cory interviewed an artist who licenses her art with a wide variety of companies and who founded ArtLicensingInfo.com. Tara Reed is a licensing expert with years of experience, so we use transcribed portions from our interview with her throughout this article, lightly edited for readability.
What is art licensing?
Art licensing is a way of making money wherein, as licensing expert Tara Reed puts it, you “rent” your artwork to companies to put on their products. An artist who chooses to license their art may not sell any originals at all, but simply license the images for use on commercial products. There is tremendous potential in the world of art licensing, but it requires a different way of approaching business than more traditional avenues of selling art such as selling originals and prints through galleries or directly to collectors.
Are you willing to collaborate with a third party on every piece of art you license?
Tara Reed gives us a rundown on the basic steps involved in an art licensing transaction:
“In our perfect world… I was just working on this collection this morning of art, and I’ll finish it probably tomorrow and I’ll start sending it out to a couple of clients that I work with all the time. One or two of them might be like “Oh yeah, we like it. Send us the files, we’ll knock something up and see what happens.”
So I’ve done the art, they’re now going to consider it. A lot of what goes on in the industry now, it’s a little different than ten years ago, is they shop your art. So they might show it to some of their key accounts, they might show it to a big account like Bed Bath and Beyond or whatever. They often won’t commit to you until they know they’re going to have decent placement. A little different than in years past. So they have to mock stuff up, they have to show it to people. Then, okay, it’s beautiful, somebody wants it. Then you’re going to do the contract. If I’ve never worked with them before, we have to start from scratch. If it’s a company I’ve worked from we have a basic contract, we’ll do an amendment where we add “Okay, yeah, now you’re licensing this art in addition to what you’ve already done in the past.” So you always have to do the contract thing. Then they have to produce it, they have to sell it if it’s going into mom-and-pop stuff, or they have to ship it, whatever. It can take, I think nine months is the shortest amount of time between when I finish something and when it has shipped. And you don’t get paid until the quarter after it ships.”
How does art licensing work?
Companies that sell housewares, clothing, decor, kitchenwares, etc to retailers need beautiful art to put on their merchandise. Where do they source that art? While some companies have in-house designers and artists, many source their art from freelance artists. What many artists don’t realize about the art licensing process is that it is not normally a simple procession from finished artwork to expensive licensing deal.
So this is the first question to ask yourself if you are interested in licensing your art: are you willing to collaborate with a third party on every piece of art you license? Tara Reed describes a typical instance of receiving feedback from a client:
“Perfect case in point… chalkboard is really popular right now. If you’re on Pinterest at all, you see chalkboard stuff everywhere. So I’ve been playing a little bit with the chalkboard trend with art that I like. So I did this one thing, and I sent it send it to one of my clients who does wall art. And I’m like, “Okay. I think this might be cool. It’s kind of a combination of a chalkboard, and folksy.” And she writes me back, “It’s a cool idea. But it’s too dark. I want a white background, I want brighter yellow, I want a lime green.” Basically, okay, you like the image but nothing else about it. It is so rare to show somebody something and have them say “Perfect, send it over.” There’s almost always a change. 90 to 95 percent of the time there’s a change. In this particular case I pretty much said “Okay, you like the theme. But you don’t like how I did it. But I’m gonna finish doing it this way, see how it goes, and then I’ll let you know when I do a lighter, brighter version of the theme.”
There are some artists who bristle at the thought of receiving creative feedback from a corporate entity, even an art director, who has been removed from the process of creating the piece and may not identify with (or even particularly care about) the heart or message behind it. Other artists, such as professional illustrators, will read about Tara’s experience and say “Yep, that sounds about right.”
It is so rare to show somebody something and have them say “Perfect, send it over.” There’s almost always a change.
Here is how Art Licensing Info puts it in a section titled The Basics of Art Licensing:
“For those individuals who are willing to work hard to create the necessary collections of art needed by manufacturers, to work with the legalities of a contract, who are willing to continually market themselves and their works, and willing to work under a system that does not guarantee immediate income for the work being done, art licensing may be the route to take.”
So what are those “necessary collections of art”?
How do you create art manufacturers will want to license?
Art that sells well on manufactured items is art that both manufacturers and customers can relate to, according to Tara Reed. The point of art that works well for licensing is to sell the product. It needs to be something that a customer would want displayed in their home in some fashion. Take a look around your own home and notice what products you’ve purchased with artwork on them without really thinking about it: kitchen towels, tablecloths, cookie jars, clocks and wall art, placemats, etc. The art on licensed products may vary wildly from home to home, but it will have some factors in common such as being a coherent series as well as attractive and appealing to the eye.
For this purpose, there are likely to be some perfectly valid art series that are not a good fit for licensing: overly political pieces, multimedia or 3-dimensional art, sculpture, etc.
If you’ve gotten this far and have decided that you’re interested in collaborating with corporate clients and you have series of art that may be a good fit for licensing, the next step is to figure out how to get started. First, check out Tara Reed’s article The Art of Creating Art Licensing Collections.
How do you get started licensing your art?
This is one of the most common questions from artists who are overwhelmed by the prospect of art licensing. How does one even begin to dip their toe into the vast and seemingly complicated world of art licensing? Once again Tara Reed has come to the rescue, with a really helpful research tactic she uses in order to find manufacturers who may want to license her work:
“It’s called shopping research, and it doesn’t cost you anything. You go to the store, and you find something. You’re like “Oh, that’s really pretty.” A lot of products have the manufacturer on the bottom. So you take a picture of it or you write it down, and then you go back to the internet and you look up that company, and you try and figure out if they license art. And so that’s how I have found some of my clients.
Some you’ll go to their website and it’ll say “Artist Submissions.” So that’s awesome, because they tell you how they want to talk to you to begin with. Others, they might just show artists that, once you learn more about the industry you get a feel for who’s in it. So if Paul Brent’s art is on their product, they license art. Because he doesn’t sell art, he only licenses art.”
So shopping research is also wonderful.”
Another option is to attend a trade show. Among the most well-known shows is Surtex, an annual trade show for the surface design industry. According to the Surtex website, Surtex “is the global sourcing destination for companies seeking unique art, designs, patterns and prints for commercial use on home textiles, paper products, bed & bath, lifestyle giftware, décor, apparel, beauty, juvenile, trend services and more.” Surtex is attended by manufacturers, retailers, marketers and brand licensing companies. So whether an artist interested in growing their licensing clientele chose to exhibit or simply attend, the networking possibilities for shows like Surtex are enormous and extremely helpful to growing a fledgling “surface design” business. Surtex claims that they are open to any artist with designs or patterns that can be used on finished merchandise, including photographers, textile designers, illustrators, art agents.
The caveat to a show like Surtex is that it’s in New York City. So unless you’re local, you are looking at a significant traveling expense. As your licensing business grows you may find that it’s worth it to work networking opportunities like this into your budget. But what if you can’t afford Surtex? Look into other surface design trade shows. A small list includes:
BluePrint (San Francisco 2020)
Progressive Greetings LIVE (UK)- this is exclusive to greeting cards
Licensing Expo (Las Vegas)
Tara Reed describes the choice to show at expos (or not):
“75 to 80 percent of my business I can track back to either exhibiting at or going to an industry trade show. So it’s not an inexpensive thing, but I go to New York every May. I set up my ten foot ten booth, and that’s where I meet a lot of the people that I work with.
Some people don’t choose to do that, they’re not comfortable doing that. They don’t have the budget to do that. So there’s other ways to go as well, there are a lot of agents in the industry. So if people just really don’t want to do the business side, like they’re super shy and you’re super intimidated by it, or they just truly want to be in their pajamas painting all the time and not deal with all the others.
Well, find an agent. And then it’s their job to make those connections for you, between your art and the manufacturers.”
What does a fair art licensing contract look like?
Contracts vary wildly from company to company, and depending on the type of licensing deal. The appeal of art licensing is that you can actually license the same piece of art for usage by multiple companies on different products, maximizing your earning potential. As Tara describes it, “Here’s the beautiful part. Because you slice and dice it through a contract, I’m still free to take the same Santa Clause that you’re gonna put on wrapping paper and license it to somebody else to put on tissues, and to somebody else to put on paper plates, and to somebody else to put on ceramic plates, and to somebody else to put on wall art, and somebody else to put on stickers. It’s endless.”
A fair contract will provide you with an industry-standard royalty rate. For in-depth information on standard royalty rates, check out the post Royalty Rates- What is the Standard?
Tara recommends working to negotiate the highest possible rate for yourself. (The Abundant Artist Association members have exclusive access to a talk on negotiation tactics for artists in the call archive.)
The appeal of art licensing is that you can actually license the same piece of art for usage by multiple companies on different products, maximizing your earning potential.
But how do you make sure that the contract offered to you is completely on the up-and-up and isn’t going to take advantage of you? Do you absolutely have to hire a lawyer? Here’s what Tara has to say:
“Contracts are part of this business. And you do need to understand them. The beautiful thing is you don’t always have to have an attorney. Another artist and I wrote an e-book called How to Understand Art Licensing Contracts. And so it goes through all of the pieces, like this is what you want in every single contract.”
The important thing to note is that while hiring a lawyer can be really advantageous for clarifying the legalese in large contracts for large accounts, hiring a lawyer may also cost you more than you ever make from the deal.
“Depending on how you’re building your business, how big of a deal it is, some things might or might not be important. I have worked off of contracts that are one page long to twelve pages long… You can’t cry “I’m an artist, I can’t understand it!” Because it’s really important to your business to at least understand it, even if you don’t take control over the whole thing.
When I first started, I had a friend who used to do contract negotiation, and she helped me learn. You basically have to learn to put on this hat that is the doom-and-gloom worst case scenario hat, and you read each paragraph, and you go “Okay, worst case scenario.” So say my art is on a mug. In my contract I indemnify this manufacturer against the art, so if anybody sues me and says I stole this art, they can’t sue them. But they have to indemnify me against any issue with this mug.”
Tara’s last comment is an issue that many artists are unlikely to consider when entering the world of art licensing: should a customer experience a problem with the product, who is at fault? The artist or the manufacturer? Make sure that these details are clarified in your contract.
For more basic contract help, check out Resources for Writing a Solid Artist Contract.
Is art licensing a lucrative business? How much can I expect to get paid for licensing my art?
The answer to this question is a very bold it depends. A helpful resource to have in your library whether or not you pursue licensing is the Graphic Design Artists Guild Handbook: Pricing & Ethical Guidelines. Because of the nature of licensing, there is the potential for it to be extremely lucrative for a savvy and hard working artist who is not afraid to network. However, Tara warns us that artists should not get into licensing with the expectation of a steady income stream to pay next month’s bills:
“You can make five dollars to millions of dollars a year. That’s a really hard question to answer. I mean Mary Engelbreit, Thomas Kinkade, Susan Winget, they’re all making very very big numbers, because they’re very well-known brands, are very established. They have a big consumer base. There are other people who are licensing their art that are making really good money as well, like six figures. And you may never know what their name is, because they may be licensing their designs to Target, and it just has a target label on it. So sometimes you license your art and you don’t get that recognition. Your signature isn’t on it, you’re doing private label.
Some private label will have your name and your brand, and some, well it depends on what you agree to. There’s people that are doing it very part-time, maybe they’re making a couple hundred, a couple thousand. I would say the artists that are making a living like me, that have been in the business, my best guess… because we all don’t sit around and compare our paychecks, and it can really vary from year to year. I mean, I think you’re doing well if you’re making $40- to $100,000, you can make a living at this. It isn’t super easy money. It isn’t like, “Oh, I’m gonna make five things, license it in the next ten years, I’m all set.” It’s not that at all.”
Also important for artists to note is the fact that the pay period for art licensing is normally quarterly. That means four paychecks a year, which is why artists who are serious about pursuing licensing need to be very proficient at managing their money. Tara calls it the cash flow cycle of licensing, and it requires a solid handle of managing your cash flow for your business. Learn more about the cash flow cycle and much, much more on Tara’s free Interview Replays page: http://www.artlicensinginfo.com/interview-replays/
Companies & Agents:
These are by no means exhaustive lists. Take Tara’s advice and do some shopping therapy research of your own! Also see this blog post from artist Joan Beiriger for a very specific breakdown by product type.
A few companies that license art:
All of these companies license art onto their own products, then sell those products in larger retail chains nationwide.
Art licensing agents:
Copyright & Protecting Your Work
An essential question to answer when considering selling the right to put your images on merchandise is: how can you protect your work from theft? The first thing to know is that if you create an original piece of art, you automatically own the copyright to that work without filing any paperwork, and you may pursue legal recourse for copyright infringement. However, if you hope to sue the offending party for any kind of punitive award, you will need to take your copyright a step further by registering it with the US Copyright Office.
Among the very best ways to protect your work is to be well-known. Consider an all-too-common scenario: you’ve been licensing your work for a while as well as selling prints and originals from your own website. A collector of yours mentions that they didn’t know you were selling your work so cheap now. “What in the world are you talking about?” you ask, and they direct you to a slick looking boutique website selling cheap apparel… and there’s your art, unlicensed. Stolen.
A case of copyright infringement (and being alerted by a third party) went viral several years ago and rocked the art world was that of Lisa Congdon vs. art wholesaler Cody Foster & Co. Enough has been written on the case already, but to make a long story short, Lisa was alerted by a friend to the fact that Cody Foster & Co was selling ornaments with a design very similar to pieces that she had produced a few years before. Congdon filed a lawsuit against Cody Foster & Co, and the art world exploded with op-eds. Most sided with Congdon. Many high-profile companies ended their partnerships with Cody Foster & Co as a result.
Why would it make a difference whether you’re well known or not when it comes to protecting your art from theft? Every pair of eyes perusing the internet that belongs to someone who would recognize your work if they saw it is a valuable ally. This is exactly how Lisa Congdon was alerted to copyright infringement of her art, and this happens much more often than you would think. In fact a search on Twitter for “my art was stolen” reveals that art theft happens daily, to all kinds of artists, at every skill level and across every genre, style, and medium. The more people who know your art, the more people who can let you know if they see it somewhere it shouldn’t be.
The solutions to protecting any work you post publicly online usually entail diminishing the quality of the image including posting only cropped sections, low-resolution or small images, and using large watermarks. Understandably, this is troubling for many artists who sell primarily through the internet and rely on collectors being able to see their work clearly online. This is why having a large network of fans, collectors, and fellow artists who recognize your art and have your back is so important.
For regular discussions about copyright and protecting your work, Lisa Congdon and Kelly Rae Roberts are helpful artists to follow on social media. (Also be sure to check out our interview with Kelly Rae Roberts!)
Art licensing is not for everyone. In addition to being willing to create art along popular trends, fashions, and color schemes that are most likely to sell merchandise, you have to be willing to work with third parties, taking feedback and making changes that you may not feel are necessary. Additionally, while licensing can be lucrative, it isn’t going to be the solution for any cash flow problems your business is experiencing. That being said, art licensing can be a great fit for some artists. If you have other streams of income and can manage your money well and the idea of working with businesses to create art that will sell merchandise doesn’t make you break out in hives, art licensing is well worth looking into. You don’t even have to make it your full-time gig: as Tara Reed mentioned, many artists license their art only part time as a supplemental income.
In the Information Age it is easier than ever to begin learning something new. Throughout this article we have shared multiple resources, both here on The Abundant Artist and on the site Tara founded, that will help you get started. Why not give art licensing a try? Let us know how it goes!