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How To Make Money From Your Art (With Chanel Illustrator, Megan Hess)

I’m going to start out with a bold & obvious statement.

We live in a visual culture.

EXHIBIT A? Instagram. EXHIBIT B? Pinterest.

We love being inspired.

A picture shoots right to the middle of our brains and does the job. Fast!

Faster than a podcast, a book, or even an inspirational quote. You see it, and it’s energizing, boom – like Pixie Sticks for your brain.

: You want fresh, vibrant flowers in the dead of winter?

: Visit Capri while stuck in a stale, urban landscape?

: Plan your all white dream kitchen?

All you need are images, and voila! You’re invigorated without spending money; waiting in an airport; or having your house torn apart for weeks while workers try to figure out how to install your farmhouse sink.

We need images. We’re fed and sustained by images. Our brains crave images.

Which means we need artists. Painters, illustrators, crafters, designers, photographers – all the mediums. All the time.

But you know what? Artists seem to have the hardest time making money. It’s almost like they feel doomed to fail, before they even begin.

All those ideas of starving in attics.

: Of digging change out of the sofa cushions so you can buy an Egg McMuffin to gnaw on all day.

: Of trudging from gallery to gallery to try and show your work, and being shown the door after one portfolio page.

: Of having to draw caricatures at the boardwalk so you can buy oil paints for your great work.

And if you’re a caricaturist – having to be a clown at a kid’s party so you have enough money to spend the day drawing at the boardwalk.

All that wishful longing for a patron so the artist can ‘just create’.

Someone dropping off a bag of money at your studio door once a month, no questions asked. Ever.

A gallery owner dropping by to sweep up all your latest works and showcasing them, in the front window right across the street from Saks 5th!

You know what? These mindsets are OUTDATED. Like OUT! Like so 1990’s cut-off jeans paired with long underwear and Doc Martens.

(Which I’m proud to say, I never wore. Although I did don hot-pants with black opaque tights & knee-high stiletto boots.)

And because I loathe outdated fashion as much as I loathe outdated mindsets, let’s catch you up to speed.

OUTDATED MINDSET #1

I get it! A patron showering gold on you while you swan around your perfect studio ‘just creating’ sounds great. I’ve fantasized about having one too!

But here’s the real deal.

When you have a patron, you have a boss. You’re always dancing to someone else’s tune, and you’re always dependant on them to provide.

Yuck. This is the same reason I never had a sugar daddy when I was a stripper. I enjoy my freedom. Thank you very much.

Even Michelangelo had to deal with the Pope dropping into his studio and making ‘suggestions’. And Michelangelo’s letters are filled with bitching about the Pope and money, and worrying that he’s going to cut him off without a cent.

So don’t fool yourself.

Wanting a patron is code for thinking you can’t do it.

OUTDATED MINDSET #2

If you can create art, you can create money – IF it’s a priority.

Don’t believe me? Let’s take a deeper look at the starving artist mentality that’s so firmly ingrained in our culture.

Check out this quote from Megan Hess. A very popular, very rich, very fancy lady illustrator.

“Drawing is the only thing I’ve been good at … and my art teacher, really encouraged me. She told me there were lots of jobs I could do with drawing. But I didn’t believe it, and got a degree in Graphic Design.

“Graphic design was never really what I wanted to do but I thought I should do something where I would actually get paid.

“I always had these fears [about art] that I would be in a dark studio painting all day, starving, with 100 cats. Graphic design sounded like something I could make a living from.”

So how does someone go from fear of starvation to being a highly sought after illustrator? Let’s take a look.

Megan is an Australian artist who graduated with a Graphic Design degree in 1990. For the next few years, she worked in advertising and art departments, job hopping between Brisbane and London, while gradually working her way up to becoming an assistant art director for Liberty Department store.

It was in London that she realized that, while she enjoyed art direction, and particularly the fashion shoots, she really had a burning desire to be an illustrator.

Did she quit her job, and dash out to conquer the world?

Not exactly. Remember – we’re talking practically pre-internet here, so conquering the art world had a slightly different flavor.

As an illustrator, you still had to cart your portfolio around to agencies, and be judged on the spot by someone in power. That is, if you went the traditional route.  

What Megan did instead was to look for opportunities closer to home.

She was already in the art department at a high visibility store in London. So, when Megan was asked to hire an illustrator for a large catalog project, she offered to do it herself.

If they didn’t like it, Megan would hire a replacement. Talk about a solid money-back guarantee!

One job led to another, until Megan felt more secure about stepping out on her own.

Was she a smash success right away?

Nope.

She had a string of minor jobs (including drawing pepperoni on top of pizzas!) and was paying the bills, but wasn’t scoring dream jobs.

Then, she realized that, during her time working in advertising, she had made connections all over the place that could lead to great illustration jobs. But they weren’t contacting her.

They didn’t even know that they could contact her. So she started contacting them.

Jump forward a few years of persistently following her dream – and she gets the call: a New York publisher saying her ‘up and coming’ author wants Megan to do the cover for her book.

The author?

Candace Bushnell, hot off Sex and the City, and moving on to One Fifth Avenue.

Holy moly!

What happened next? Here’s Megan again:

‘This was when things took off at rapid speed for me. Her book became a New York Times best-seller and I met with Candace and she asked me to illustrate all her previous books including the cover of ‘Sex and The City’.

Once ‘Sex and the City’ was released I was contacted by TIME magazine in New York to create portraits for them. This was a dream come true and I still can’t believe I work for them.

Following this, I began illustrating for Tiffany & Co, Chanel, Dior, Cartier, Vanity Fair, Italian Vogue, Bergdorf Goodman, Laduree….. Ironically, at the same time as my work finally took off I had my first baby!! Its funny, I always tell people that I haven’t really slept since 2006!!’

I love a good success story, don’t you? And I want to make some points clear from this one:

: Megan was scared that she would be a starving artist with 100 cats.

Fear can be overwhelming, and people deal with it different ways. For Megan, it was looking – and using – every opportunity she could find while working in a parallel industry.

: Megan was ultimately ‘discovered’, but she wasn’t sitting around waiting for someone to knock on her door.

She was contacting her connections, and making sure her work had visibility. In short? She was an Elegant Hustler.

: Megan, while being incredibly talented was not an overnight success.

From graduating college in 1990 to that call from Candace’s publisher was a 16 year stretch. SIXTEEN YEARS! And she was working on gaining momentum the entire time.

: Megan almost gave up. Numerous times.

Taking calls from an employer demanding that you make changes to the pepperoni on pizza that you drew is not a shining career highlight. But she loved drawing, and managed to suck it up every time.

: Megan maintains control.

Even though she has as many commissions as she can handle, she’s not relying on outside sources to pay her to do what she loves.

She has an online shop on her website where she sells her own work, and plays with fun ideas like printing on scarves & swanky, silky kaftans.

So even if all her commissions dried up tomorrow, she’d still have an outlet for her work.

All smart. And all stuff you can do too – because it boils down to these 4 Money-Making Habits For Artists.

(And yes, they are habits. So they might take you some time to fully incorporate them into your life. But once they’re grooved in deep? It’s like magic. Money-making magic!)

  1. Grab ALL your opportunities.
  1. DON’T be shy.
  1. BE visible so people know you exist.
  1. Don’t give up.

Okay, I know some of you fine artists out there are saying – “But Erika, illustration is different from what I do. There’s an actual market for it. It sells fashion, and cars, and books you never read, but buy because the covers are so cool. What about meeeeee?”

I’m not going to disagree with you – things like illustration, graphic design, jewelry, and fashion have a slightly clearer roadmap in place.

But I’m going to say that even if you’re a fine artist working in a medium so obscure that I can’t even think of it for an example – the 4 Money-Making Habits For Artists remain the same.

  1. Grab ALL your opportunities.
  1. DON’T be shy.
  1. BE visible so people know you exist.
  1. Don’t give up.

With the emphasis on one in particular. Be VISIBLE.

No one will know who you are or what you do if you don’t show it off.

And the internet?

Think of it as your personal portfolio and megaphone to amplify your work.

Get onto Instagram and CURATE your work. Hustle the heck out of your website and every social channel that displays your work. This is your time.

EXHIBIT C

Chris Burkard used his Instagram account to create not just a career in photography, but a sideline as an inspirational speaker with a TED Talk to his credit.

Oh, and as an instructor on how to use social media to boost your artistic career. One million followers can’t be wrong. Yup – one million on Instagram alone.

EXHIBIT D

Do you remember my post about Kirsty Mitchell, the artist who created a whole fairy tale world as a way to deal with the loss of her mother to cancer?

Starting with a point and shoot camera in 2009, Kirsty built elaborate sets, designed and sewed costumes, and scouted locations to create an opus of 76 large scale photographs of incredible, opulent, and deeply personal magic.

She recorded everything in an online journal, posting the photos, a diary, and ‘making of videos’. And when I talked about her last year, she had just completed the project, and gone from a design showroom assistant to Nikon’s UK Ambassador of Fine Photography.

Just this month, Kirsty designed a deluxe edition book, and put it up on Kickstarter to try and cover an estimated $107,000 printing cost.

It was funded in less than 10 hours. And 18 days later became the most funded photography project in the history of Kickstarter.

This isn’t simply because Kirsty’s work is amazing. It’s not simply because she’s passionate about what she does.

It’s because she was VISIBLE over the course of her 7 year project. She reached out to her community when she wanted to publish her work. And she never gave up.

Kirsty Mitchell & Chris Burkard both incorporated the 4 Money-Making Habits For Artists. Religiously!

Your work is amazing! I’m sure of it.

And you’re passionate! I’m sure of that too.

The internet is your portfolio, so let the world know how incredible you are.

Don’t be shy.

Show me what you’ve got.

XXXO

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