With the new year approaching I thought it was an appropriate time to reflect on my year, 2016 being my first year working as an artist. I also thought that this would be a good opportunity to share my thoughts in the form of tips and advice for anyone considering starting their own creative business in 2017. For those who have followed my blogs, you will know that I have not come from an artistic background, having studied Animal Science and Primatology. The decisions I have made throughout this first year have been governed by instinct, sheer luck, and at times a whimsical sense of “nothing to lose”. Not all of them have paid off. Yet although I didn’t have any money, any financial investment, or any back-up plan, I did have an awful lot of time on my hands…and I think that has been the key to creating my start up art business.
These are my simple tips to anyone who has an idea that they would like to turn into a creative business:
1) Write a business plan
This is often very daunting, and can seem very boring when your head is bursting full of creative ideas and all you want to do is start making and sharing your product. I have put this tip first because it really is the most important thing to do before you even tell anyone what your plans are. A business plan will highlight all the areas you haven’t thought about (like registering as self employed and organising your own taxes!). Therefore saving you time, wasted effort, and money. It is often the case that by the time you complete your business plan, your ideas will be substantially different from when you started. That is a really good thing!
A good business plan will cover everything you need to consider to make a successful business from what you want to physically create (such as paintings, textiles, small gifts), to how you will market your business, where you will sell your product, and who you will be selling to. It will also include a breakdown of what expenses you will need to consider (for your business: material costs, costs of shows or craft fairs, petrol; and for yourself: monthly food and rent budgets). It’s often easy to forget how much money you need to make from your business in order to have the quality of life you are used to and/or the quality of life you aspire towards. And that’s important, because for most artists creating their artwork is a life choice more than an economic career option.
Once you have neared the end of your first year, write a new business plan. Art is progressive and organic, so your business should be too. Things will change year on year, make sure you are prepared for new directions and new ventures.
2) Show the world!
One thing I have found really important this year is to share my vision with strangers. Your family will always support you, and no matter what you come up with your friends will always have your back, but it’s the opinions of strangers that really count. Strangers have no invested interest in you or your well being, and as harsh as that sounds its strangers that you need to reach and inspire to support you. If like me you do not have a budget for advertisements in fancy magazines, you can very easily harness the power of online marketing for next to nothing. Create a free website, use facebook, instagram, twitter, and pinterest.
By building a visual representation of your dream, you inadvertently build your audience. But don’t be shy with it. Post every day on social media, take beautiful photographs, write what you feel as much as what you want people to see. What do I mean by that? I mean be genuine. Some of the most popular posts I have had on instragram are those that are of unfinished works that frustrate me. The ones where I am pulling my hair out “Right now I hate this, I’m struggling to get the perspective right, I don’t know if this is going to be any good but I am not giving up on this just yet!”. You are human! Share your progress including all that you are learning, but always remain positive. No-one wants to follow someone negative and self defeatist. Just be you. Show what inspires you and what you want to achieve one day, it’s always a pleasure to invite people along for the journey. For me, this all happened very organically. I didn’t intend to be so public with my work at the beginning. It all started by showing a few photos of my first pyrography attempts last year and then it just grew from there…probably because I was just being me, sometimes it comes across better than you think. Now I have an income coming in from my artwork I have been able to upgrade from my free wix website to my current website with integrated shop. One day I hope that I will be able to advertise in Country Living, and Mollie Makes and the other well known magazines; but it doesn’t have to happen quickly and that is ok.
3) Be active in your community
What do I mean by this? Well in a nutshell: get out there! Every artist I have ever met, myself included, is pushed out of their comfort zone the minute they are not self contained in their studio or workshop. Artists are like hermits. We like our safe spaces free from judgement and expectations, and the dreaded small talk. Art shows, exhibitions, and craft events, are hellish places for the quiet thoughtful contemplative artist. Or! It can be the chance to network, meet other creatives, start collaborative projects, meet clients, build your following, and inspire others to try their hand at something creative.
I personally found my first Artists Open Houses event very frightening. I had convinced myself that I would stick out like a sore thumb because I wasn’t from the art scene, I didn’t know what to wear, what to say about my work, or how to start a conversation about what I do. Until I got there. Then I quickly realised that if someone showed the slightest bit of interest in pyrography, I really couldn’t keep quiet. Pyrography, timber, and animal portraits, are my passion…why I was convinced I would have nothing to say is somewhat of a joke now I think about it. It is also highly important to offer your followers (whether clients or people who follow your work on social media) the opportunity to see your work in person and to meet you to discuss your art. This year has been full of artistic highlights, and 99% of them are social highlights- meeting new people, learning about other artists and their works, and being part of a creative community. I have found the latter particularly important for artists who work alone.
4) Photography photography photography
Take excellent photographs! Your work could be staggeringly beautiful but if the photography does not do it justice then you are failing your work. All of my big pieces that sold this year sold to people via the internet who had not seen the work in person. Product photography is an artform in itself, and it is something that I have been consistently working on throughout this year. As a case in point, these are two photos that show the difference in my product photography:
I would also suggest investing in professional photographs where you can. I use professional photographs for my artworks and my own photographs for my other ranges (homeware, kitchen decor, gifts). I do this because I find that my largest works are hard to capture as I need a lot of space and light. It is counter productive for me to skimp out on the photography. I spend far more time trying to capture the perfect image of my large works than I spend in money having a professional photographer get the shots I need. It is only fair that we as artists cannot be good at every creative thing. Help out another artist by investing in a photographer who, like you, is running their own self employed creative business. You get amazing photographs whilst allowing you to concentrate on creating the artwork and you support someone else too. Win win.
Don’t just take photographs of your completed artwork, share photographs of your works in progress, where you work, and the events that you attend. Not only does this engage your audience, but it’s a really lovely way of documenting your artistic journey for you personally.
I was real lucky with the amount of time I have been able to dedicate to my art and to build my creative business. Although it was really tough being unemployed, it did mean that I could dedicate every waking hour to setting up my business and learning my trade. It may be for you that you have savings or investment but not a lot of time to dedicate to get the ball rolling. Time is an absolute necessity. Do not underestimate just how much of it you’re going to need.
You will need time to learn and experiment with your art, to research your target market and how you can reach them, as well as seeking opportunities to sell your work and network with potential clients. Starting your creative business will only work if you give it the attention it needs, and the dedication your dream really deserves. You owe it to yourself to give your dream time to flourish! By all means start out gently, I’m not suggesting you quit your day job to become an artist over night. But all the while you are working on your business, kiss goodbye to that all elusive “spare time”!
6) Go on Instinct
I’ll keep this one short because it’s something I have covered in my blog about exhibiting at The Handmade Fair this year; but essentially don’t get sucked into exhibiting or advertising based upon nice compliments. I say this because as a new artist it is super exciting to open up an email from someone (particularly if it’s someone associated to or working for a well recognised brand name) but more often than not it’s actually them selling you something you weren’t looking for.
I’ve been contacted by many magazines including Vogue (!!) to ask if I want to advertise with them. At first the emails are very flattering, and read as if I’ve been hand selected for an invitation. Yes I am proud and pleased that I have been contacted at all, but that does not mean I will or can commit to the fees they want- usually in the ball park of £1000 upwards for a tiny space beit a 1m² stall pitch (table not included) or a 1″² advert. You’ll only learn this the hard way once, so please take it from me that this is how it goes so you don’t have to learn the hard way at all. Go on instinct, if it sounds too good to be true then it usually is. Make sure you do your research, and don’t be afraid to say no. If they truly love your work, they will be in touch again and you can always add this to your list of dream investments in the future. Make sure you are ready and well prepared for risky investments.
7) Work space
When you’re thinking about starting your creative business, you must must must think about your work space. This is the place you will be spending all your time, and creating your works of art. It should inspire you to create beautiful art and be a place of enjoyment and peace.
Just ten months ago, when I first started pyrography, I was creating all my work perched on the side of my bed using one small corner of my bedside table wedged beside the fish tank. I had piles and piles of timber stacked under my bed, on shelves, and taking over the floor. I had nowhere to store finished pieces, and I was forever tripping over things and loosing stuff. I then moved into my parents conservatory, which although a brilliant respite from working and living in my bedroom, was not ideal for pyrography. It became so hot in the day and so cold at night that my artwork warped and cracked as the temperature fluctuation caused the timber to bow and bend from expansion. I lost several pieces which was a hard blow when I had spent so much time making them. I now work at my art studio, a purpose built creative space that I was lucky enough to be invited into by a friend and my partner who have been dreaming of a carpentry workshop for many years.
Month one in my bedroom:
Month Three in the temporary home studio:
Month Nine in The Workshop:
Although very much a work in progress (we create the space in all that spare time we all don’t have), it has been a true place of inspiration. We have been converting it from a disused 300 year old barn, to what will be a fully functional carpentry machine shop with an office and art studio above in the hayloft. It has beautiful old oak beams, original brick work and huge round topped barn doors. We have big plans for the space and will be building a bespoke desk, material storage units, finishing and wrapping area, and display area. I am very lucky to partake in this creative project and I am forever grateful for how much it is allowing me to expand my own creative journey. Having worked from home to now building a workshop, here are some of the things you would benefit from thinking about before starting your creative business: Whether you will be working from home or from a studio, think about the functionality of it’s design. What size does it need to be? What temperature? Will it be a shared space with other artists or do you work better alone? Will you be there just for creating or will you have it open for clients to visit? Is there scope to expand the space? Does the space fit well with your home life- will you have to commute there and if so will you be able to budget for travel and can you afford that travel time or do you have other commitments such as collecting children from school? Overall, have fun with the space and make it an enjoyable place to be. Essentially, your art space should be your muse whilst making it easier to run and organise your business.
8) Be prepared for the unknown
I say this because I was massively unprepared for the Christmas season. I thought I was being really smart and organised when I contacted Christmas Fairs in September before I had even thought about Christmas stock. I was baffled when all the fairs told me that they had been fully booked in July! I was even more shocked when I was inundated with Christmas orders from the end of October, to the point where I was still hand making spoons at 11pm at night for four consecutive weeks. In 35 days I had a grand total of one day off, and that was to move house. I was very lucky to be invited to attend the Christmas Artists Open Houses event in Brighton which was a massive boost to my publicity but if it wasn’t for that then I would have attended zero Christmas arts events this year. A big mistake for any creative.
I also say this because at the beginning of my first year I was very worried when I had down time. Down time is what I call the periods of few sales. This can be very worrying when you rely on sales of artwork to pay your rent and feed yourself, but it is the perfect time to produce stock and work on large art pieces. It is really important to use down time to your advantage, make make make and make some more!
That way, when the busy times hit you are more than prepared to cope with it! You just never know what is around the corner, so enjoy your creativity at all available opportunities whether that’s attending events, running your online business, or busying yourself in your studio.
9) Keep Track
So you have your business plan, you’re active on social media and in your community, and you’re growing your creative business each day. Document it. Write a blog or a personal diary to track your progress. This is a great way to keep perspective of all you have achieved so far and will give you an idea as to the direction you are heading. I love writing my weekly blog because now at the end of my first year I can look back and see my highs and lows and learn from them.
It’s important to stay grounded and focussed without losing sight of the bigger picture. When I work on one piece for weeks or months at a time it’s easy to forget all the other small achievements I’ve made along the way. It is also a key thing for an artist to see their artistic development, particularly if you are learning a new technique or experimenting with new mediums.
10) Grow yourself with your business
When you take the leap of faith and make your dream a reality it takes a lot of guts and a lot of hard work. Being self employed has taught me a lot, most importantly it has taught me that I can depend on myself. I can motivate myself and push myself and represent myself to the world. That’s huge! I have learned many things the hard way, I’ve learned that there is no such thing as a sick day and holidays are rare if at all. I think I have developed myself as a person through my art and through growing my own business. I am more confident and comfortable in myself than I have been in many years. I love that I have found my creative expression having spent so much time crunching numbers at university and in the field. I have a newfound respect for creative entrepreneurs and self employed artists, it’s not always easy but it can be very rewarding. Keep at it. Don’t give up. Remain positive. We have all had moments of frustration, self-doubt, and sheer exhaustion, but the highs massively outweigh the lows. Keep working at it, find your niche, find your passion, don’t give up. Enjoy it. It’s your creative journey.