When I decided to pursue illustration as a career, I did not know how I would make money. But I surrounded myself with other people who have found a way to make it work, so I knew it wasn’t impossible. After investing a lot of time doing research on the subject, I quickly realized that there is not one single formula for how to be a professional illustrator.
Too often I hear talented people telling me that they are unable to sell their work. I’m not trying to trivialize that situation; I know that selling artwork is difficult. That being said, I think a lot of that self-doubt originates from not being aware of available opportunities. I was in the same boat, but eventually, I discovered that there are not only many selling opportunities but there are many selling options. Becoming an illustrator seems less daunting when you know what you can do to put your work in the hands of customers.
Let’s break down selling opportunities for illustrators into 5 main categories: Retail, wholesale, consignment, print-on-demand, and licensing.
Relatively small quantities of goods that are sold directly to a single customer is called a retail sale. This customer is the end user; they are purchasing your product for consumption rather than resale. If they enter your store or booth and buy a coffee mug from you, chances are that they’ll use it for themselves or a friend instead of selling it to someone else.
You can facilitate retail sales either through your own online shop or brick-and-mortar storefront, or you can participate in local festivals and markets. Many people also choose to sell their artwork via Facebook Marketplace or Instagram.
Marketing, branding, and merchandise display will need to be key areas of focus if you decide to open up shop. Booth displays at markets are extremely important for making sales. Customers are more likely to approach your table if the display is inviting. If you decide to go the online route, you might want to open up a shop on Etsy or look into e-commerce solutions.
Selling goods in large quantities to other retailers is called wholesale. If you choose to sell your artwork or craft wholesale, you will charge less per item but you are selling a much larger amount of items. You are the supplier selling products to shop owners so that they can resell the products for a profit. However, when you price your items for wholesale, don’t forget that you also need to make a profit. Yes, you are charging less per item because the retailer is buying from you in bulk, but you still need to make your money back and then some.
Not sure how to price your items? Launch Grow Joy supplied this helpful formula for artists and makers.
(Labor + Materials) x 2 = Wholesale price
If you’re selling retail, use the following formula.
Wholesale Price x 2 = Retail price
Make sure you also consider your overhead costs, such as shipping and handling.
The other benefits of selling wholesale are increased visibility. If five retailers buy your products, then that is five stores that your products are featured in. You’ll want to make sure that your packaging and labels feature your brand and website URL, and you may even want to provide retailers with a branded merchandise display.
Consignment is an agreement to pay the supplier of goods (you) after the goods are sold. Without any initial transaction, you place your products in a shop. They will sell your products on your behalf and they will take a cut of the money after the sale. The amount that they take for themselves should be predetermined before you place your products on their shelves. In fact, you (the consignor) should be presented with a contract before going into business with a shop (the consignee). Some locations may be more casual, but at the very least you need to know the following:
- How much of the sale will go to the consignee? Many places do a 50/50 or 60/40 split for handmade items. Make sure you price your products accordingly.
- How and when can you expect to be paid for your share?
- Is the consignee liable for any damages done to your products while in their possession?
- Are you, the consignor, free to end the consignment agreement at any time?
It’s extremely important that you have these answers before handing over your products. If you’re not happy with the answers you receive, then do not work with the shop. If the consignee can answer all your questions, takes full responsibility for your products while in their possession, and the commission rate is fair, then proceed with confidence! Many artists and craftspeople have a lot of success with consignment and it can act as a nice addition to their other revenue streams.
Maybe you aren’t crazy about the idea of selling original works or making your own prints, stickers, or other products. You might only be interested in creating artwork and making a passive income. If that’s the case, then you should try out a print-on-demand website like RedBubble or Society6. You can upload your artwork and feature it on shirts, art prints, home decor, stationery, and more. These companies take care of the production and customer service, which just leaves you with creating the designs and making money! Sounds easy, right?
Well, there are a few more things to consider before uploading your work. The amount of money you make per sale is often very low. If you sell a $40 shirt, you can expect to only make a few dollars off of that sale. That’s because the company selling the products has to pay for manufacturing, plus they want to make a profit for themselves.
Also, many of these companies will put little to no effort into marketing your products unless they are top sellers, so you will still have to drive traffic to your page on the site. If you have an online following, the print-on-demand route can work really well for you.
I don’t personally have any experience with licensing, but I did want to include it in this blog. Before watching Ronnie Walter’s “How to Make Money with Art Licensing” class on Skillshare, I did not realize that this was even an option. Learning about art licensing opened up a whole new world of possibilities!
When you allow a manufacturer to use your designs on their products on a contract-basis, this is called art licensing. According to www.artlicensinginfo.com, “these artists [who license their work] are paid a royalty based on the sale price of a product and the quantity sold (similar to how a salesperson working on commission is paid)… Art that works well for licensing is art that is relevant and relatable to both the manufacturer and the end use consumer who is willing to pay for products displaying that art. The role of the artwork on that product is to sell the product!”
Making relevant and relatable artwork for licensing may mean that you make illustrations using trending imagery (ie. cats), that are holiday-specific or seasonal, or feature quotes related to lifestyle and family. Many artists often create art in a “set” that has a unifying theme or uses a repeated motif through the designs. For example, an illustrator may make a nautical themed set of illustrations that use an anchor as a motif. This nautical set could be featured on a line of home decor products for your washroom, which may include a hand towel, soap dispenser, bath mat, and shower curtain.
Now that you know the many ways you can make a living off of your illustrations, there’s nothing stopping you from getting out there and making sales. Want to sell retail? Open up an online store. Interested in print-on-demand? It’s free to sign up for Redbubble and other sites. How about wholesale, consignment, or licensing? Just do some research on potential takers and reach out to them! Every accomplishment I’ve made thus far as an illustrator has been the direct result of my own action. No one just stumbled upon my work; I contact dozens of retailers, spend hundreds of hours doing research, and constantly maintain my web presence. Success won’t happen overnight but if you put in the work, you will be guaranteed a return on your investment!