The more different things you try to do with your art business, the more complexity you introduce and the harder it will be to make a profit.
There are five essential ways that artists make money from their art. For most artists in the early stages of their careers, I recommend they pick one way and do that until they’re making enough money to live on.
The five art business models are:
- Direct to collector original works
- Gallery sales
- Prints & reproductions
I’ll explain real quick each model, and why doing two or more of these at a time makes everything harder.
Direct-to-collector is the most common way art is sold. It’s a broad category that includes selling from your website, an indoor or outdoor art fair, farmer’s market or studio visit. Most artists start out with direct sales and hope to move to gallery sales. Some artists choose to skip galleries because they can retain a higher percentage of their sales by doing it themselves, or because they don’t want to deal with galleries having exclusive rights to sell certain works.
Gallery sales are pretty straightforward. Most artists understand how this works. It’s a standard retail model on consignment, where the product is sold and the maker of the product gets 50% of the sale price (usually after the sale, rarely in advance). Many galleries require exclusivity, don’t want artists building relationships with the gallery’s collectors, and often they refuse to do things like offer reproductions or work with art that has been licensed.
Prints & reproductions can become the most complex way of selling art. When you sell an original it’s one item. With how easy it is to print things now, artists will often introduce infinite complexity into their business by offering 3-5 substrates and 3-5 different sizes of prints. Suddenly your collectors went from one choice for that painting to 25 choices. That also means your shipping became 25 times as complex, and your website inventory management also became 25 times as complex. Managing that complexity alongside selling original works is enough to stress out a lot of artists.
Commissions are seemingly straightforward, but artists get caught up in never-ending revisions, client hand-holding, and managing timelines. The truth is that when you start offering commissions, you’ve moved towards creating a service-based business and you have to decide in advance how much service you’re willing to offer, what you’re willing to compromise on, and how many revisions you’re willing to do. Switching back and forth between commissions and original art sales will often highlight the difference between making what feeds your soul and dealing with demanding and needy collectors. That dissonance is too much to bear for some artists and that’s ok.
Licensing is another world entirely. Giving companies the right to use your images on their mugs, cups, and calendars sounds like an easy way to make money, but licensing contracts are full of dense, complex legalese. You’ll also be asked to change a pattern or create something custom for the licensee. If you’re not experienced working in the corporate world, licensing can be a steep learning curve, and individual deals rarely bring much money. Licensing is a volume play that means you’ll need to focus a big chunk of your time to make a significant income.
In a social media post a few years ago, I wrote:
One artist is doing a TON of different things. She’s selling original pieces, and prints of those pieces. She’s also selling another line of art in a slightly different style. She has sold art to celebrities.
On top of that, she has two print licensing deals. She’s been featured in Target and on a famous TV show. She won a juried art show that brought her a lot of prestige.
Her business is complex, and busy.
And she’s not making enough money to get by.
This artist is essentially doing all five business models at the same time. Every day she’s switching contexts, remembering the details of complex deals, and dealing with collectors who have demanding expectations.
Even if that kind of switching sounds fun, struggling to get by financially definitely squeezes the fun out of it.