In the past, I have bared my withered, jaded artistic soul to you all on the subjects of Popularity, Ambition, Commission Work, Spec Work, and Screw Ups. Today, I am going to tackle SELLING OUT. From a PRO SELLOUT STANDPOINT NO LESS! So strap in, sharpen your pitchforks, light those torches …or just scroll to the end for a wealth of tips on how to sell out efficiently so you don’t have to do all the tedious research I did.
Selling Out: An Overview
So first off, what do I mean by “selling out?” For my purposes, I’m not talking about making money from your own art, unless you’re literally making art you hate for money. Actually, I’m talking about completely phoning it in and using all of your painstakingly acquired design skills to quickly make stock art and fonts into designs you can sell. I am talking about the laziest, most money-grubbing (legal!!!!) use of your artist skills imaginable.
WARNING: I’m going to talk about sellout art and sellout artists a LOT until you get over any kneejerk reactions you might have to that phrase. Because I might be a little sick of artists just …never being expected to make any money from their hard-won art and design skills, or only being allowed to make money in a certain way that is sufficiently prestigious or noble.
Generally, when artists decide to “sell out,” it’s a financial decision. Their pleasure from personal expression isn’t enough to offset their monetary needs, so they gloomily resort to selling out in order to survive. I don’t think selling out is automatically a BAD thing, as you might have guessed, but I’m not interested in doing it for survival. I’m interested in doing it for FUN.
E-Excuse me?! Why would selling out ever be FUN?
Well, some of the fun and relaxing things I do are a lot like the physical acts you perform when selling out as an artist. First off, I like playing video games where you manage resources and combine them to build a farm or base camp to your specifications. A lot of people seem to enjoy games like that; Animal Crossing would be a good example. Another thing I like to do is cut up a bunch of pretty paper and decoupage it into turtle shells or animal skulls. Sometimes I also like to color in a coloring book, or play with Lego bricks.
Well, all of those actions of rearranging something pre-existing for the fun of rearranging it are exactly the same things you do when you sell out as a digital artist. A digital artist such as myself can obtain free or cheap base designs which maybe people would enjoy wearing on a shirt or purse, and then manipulate them into something that the sellout artist likes better. In the process, the sellout artist gets to have fun playing with different colors, textures, sizes, and placement, just like in Animal Crossing or Legos.
…except afterwards, if they’ve made sure to obtain the correct licensing, the sellout artist can then upload their throwaway playtime designs to Redbubble to potentially make passive income for the next 50 years.
As an added bonus, the sellout artist gets the fun of designing without the anxiety of failing as an artist. Often, the elements you are using were made by someone else, so any deficiencies in the stock art are not a reflection on your talent. In addition, you’re just making the sellout art for fun and to see if anyone buys it. You care not at all about it being meaningful, about people “getting it,” or about it being representative of your body of work. None of the stressors of personal expression apply to sellout art. There is no emotional investment at all.
If it’s that easy and fun, why in God’s name didn’t you do it before?
Well, in my case, I was worried about diluting my portfolio. I figured that if I publicly released a whole bunch of designs I made using stock elements or cute slogans or typography, clients wouldn’t be able to figure out my artistic focus and wouldn’t be able to find me. The sellout art might stand out a little bit amongst other sellout art, but it would certainly never stand out against other serious art.
What I was forgetting was that I have a portfolio page and a print on demand shop. (I have several of each to be truthful, but let’s keep it simple here.)
My portfolio page is always what I direct clients to go see. I have my strongest work arranged on the very front page, and my menu options all lead to more of my serious art endeavors. My portfolio page is about me as an artist, and what I want to say, and what I want to be hired to do. When I make a piece of serious art, I share it on social media too. That’s all part of my artist image, the story of my artist life. People who go there want an ARTIST.
But my print on demand shop is just that, it is meant to be a way for me to sell my designs. People who go there want a SHIRT. See the difference? …I frankly can’t believe I didn’t understand that until now, but maybe I’m saving you some trouble.
Up until now, I only thought of my designs as the serious, original art that I made for all of my love projects. But legally speaking, my designs can be anything at all that I had the permission to make and sell. If I buy a pretty font and get a license to write words in that font and put it on a shirt, that’s my design I can sell. If I buy clipart of a mermaid and obtain the permission to sell a sufficiently altered version of that mermaid on a shirt, that’s another one of my designs I am legally allowed to sell.
Therefore, for someone who enjoys DESIGNING, sellout art would be a pretty perfect hobby or cottage industry. You would, indeed, be paid to do something you like doing.
Furthermore: There’s no reason you have to plague everyone with constant social media posts of your clipart opossum in 34 color combinations. Your profitable schlock and kitsch doesn’t have to be part of your “art story” AT ALL. Sellout art just has to be tagged and searchable in your print on demand shop, shoved behind your more serious art if you prefer. That’s important enough that I’ll say it again: You don’t have to share your sellout designs on social media. You just have to put them in your store(s). If you don’t believe me, check out this explanation of online selling by Douglas James Butner.
For someone who has a fraught relationship with social media in the first place, that’s a huuuuuuge relief. I feel awkward enough sharing my top tier art. The reason you don’t have to do all the sharing and promotion BS with your sellout art is simple: typical consumers simply search online stores for a subject, not an artist. So title and tag your piece as “lime green mermaid” and people who want a mermaid or perhaps a lime will find it. They don’t care who MADE the mermaid as long as it matches what they had in mind for their gift idea.
If you DO want to share your print on demand store(s) on social media that’s fine or course, but it might make more sense to keep those posts very infrequent (say for big sitewide sales) and to display previews that are in line with your art story. It’s not anyone’s business if you were literally just giggling and placing an opossum in a teapot, adding a jaunty plum overlay and then finishing it off with a “cottagecore shabby chic boho” tag.
(You know who you are.)
Maybe it can be legal, but aren’t you worried it’s immoral to manipulate stock art into products?
I used to worry about stuff like that for sure. Then I got an actual art job.
You see, in my Actual Art Job, I take photos of people, stock photos, and premade backgrounds, and I manipulate them in order to create a product. In my particular case (funeral portraits), these products are very important and even dear to the families I create them for. These portraits help people grieve. I certainly have to do a ton of artistic retouching, but for every single portrait I also must use my skills as a designer. And I have never once felt like I was doing anything bad by helping them with my talents. How could it be bad? I made something that helped another person.
Well? Let’s try this same principle on something less hallowed than funeral portraits. If Nana has been anxiously browsing Teepublic for the perfect mermaid shirt but there are no lime green ones to be found, and you made 800 color variations of a mermaid and one was lime green, and you absolutely made Nana’s day because this will be the Perfect present for little Bobbie… You get the idea, right? Who the hell are you to decide that giving Nana her lime green mermaid shirt is a job for “lesser” artists? Mamaw deserves her damn mermaid shirt.
(…I am also very opinionated about artists and art collectors pretending to be god-emperors in charge of culture and sentiment. If you didn’t already know.)
Wow you’re a jerk Heather. Lots of people still hate selling out though.
It’s true! So when is selling out NOT fun?
To start, selling out would not be fun if you don’t like to manipulate pre-existing things. Rearranging and tinkering with a design is quite different from the joy you get creating something from scratch, from the obscure reaches of your soul or the burning passion in your heart. For one, commercial designs usually use pre-existing elements, generally made by another artist, to save time. Moreover, the design you are selling must be familiar to the buyer (so they feel safe), and yet slightly novel (so they are excited and want YOUR version). Both of those commercial requirements are artificial constraints on whatever it was you wanted to say with an original and deeply personal art piece.
I suspect it also wouldn’t be fun if you pick subjects and stock that you don’t actually think are neat, or that you morally disagree with. For example, you likely wouldn’t have any fun making pro-steak t-shirts if you were vegan. And if you’re not into cutesy gnomes, you probably wouldn’t enjoy making 20 color variations on some cute Christmas gnomes for Redbubble. Even if gnomes are currently the shirt design du jour.
If you only take on sellout projects you enjoy, will you make less money?
I don’t know the answer to this one. Logically you would make the most money if you just did designs of anything and everything. The big problem I can see with this is that you would not exist as a “designer” at that point because you would not be making any decisions about what to make or how it looked. You would therefore completely miss out on any opportunity to inhabit a niche, or for you to be anyone’s favorite designer (because you’re not consistent and therefore not recognizable).
Without either of those two possibilities, I don’t know how long most people could really stand to make sellout art if they primarily thought of themselves as an artist or designer rather than a merchant or salesman.
As a friend of mine put it when we were observing a fellow sellout who was taking this kitchen sink approach, “I feel like that artist has quit the office grind only to make the art they loved into their next grind.” There’s one obvious problem with this and one not-so-obvious one.
Grinding Is The Opposite of Fun
Firstly, it’s obviously a very sad thing to destroy a beloved activity for yourself. If you loved art or design and then made art or design a grueling slog, you have taken a very beautiful thing out of your life. That would impoverish your spirit. So you definitely don’t want to do that. That should be the worst case scenario, sellout art for survival.
But even if you weren’t worried about making yourself unhappy, here’s the second problem with making art or design into your new grind: freelance does not pay the same as working for someone.
What I mean by this is, if you make $40k a year as a freelancer, you take home far less money than if you make $40k as someone’s employee. In the USA at any rate, employers pay a sizeable chunk of your social security taxes and other things of that nature. In addition, most of them offer insurance. As a freelancer, however, you must pay all of those taxes yourself with no matching contribution from an employer. If you want a 401k, you must purchase one yourself, with no matching contribution from an employer. You must purchase all the supplies, subscriptions, licenses and software for your business yourself. And finally, if you want health insurance, you must purchase it yourself, and it will often cost you more than it would through an employer.
This is why a freelancer making $40k a year doesn’t take home nearly as much as an employee making $40k a year. (To top it off, it is quite hard for a freelance artist to make that much money in the first place.) Therefore if freelancing is a grind to you and working for The Man is a grind, you should grind in the manner that will earn you the most money for your hard work, for the least time spent. Money is your only reward in either of these cases since you are not having fun. So don’t grind for less money and don’t spend more time grinding than you have to!
What if I don’t have enough time to be a sellout AND make my preferred art?
In that case, I don’t think you should sell out. The passive income you make from making silly designs likely would not compare to whatever it is you’re doing now to pay the bills. If all you have time for apart from your day job is one pursuit and you have art you want to make, you should spend your free time working on your serious art.
What if I try selling out and I really like it…a lot. Like. Better than being a serious artist.
Well personally, if you’re having more fun, I think you should just be the best little sellout you can be. Wallow in it. (LEGALLY.) I wouldn’t burn any art bridges, because if you loved making personal art before you may love doing it again someday. But you really do deserve to do the things that make you the happiest.
Put it another way, say you studied for decades to be a GP, just as I have spent the last 38 years training myself to be a better artist and designer. Are you going to be super angry that all you had today were easy yearly checkups of well patients and you didn’t have to deal with someone’s snazzy, complicated septic toe? Both types of doctor visits (the easy yearly checkup and the super challenging zombie toe) are the precise things you trained all your life to DO. That’s what it means to have a skill set.
But now that you have slaved to be a skilled person, you get to choose what you do with that.
I will even go so far as to suggest that this distinction between “deathless, worthy” art and “sellout” art has contributed to artists being too scared and ashamed to ask for payment for using their skills, and the corresponding attitude of the world at large that we should not be paid because we are already so blessed to be doing something so noble and sacred. If you don’t believe me, read Maria Brophy‘s blogpost on the subject. An artist unironically told her that artists should not be paid because it “ruins their art.” (Plot twist: he was and expected to be paid for his art.)
Most of our artistic masterpieces over the millennia were sellout art and not a reflection of the personal sentiments of the artists of old. They were craftspeople hired to do a job. And at the end of the day, I doubt that airing our own personal opinions is any more or less noble than making someone’s Nana happy with a mermaid t-shirt.
While art has elevated our souls and cried out for us across time and space when our voices could not, I suspect that, 80% of the time, it’s just not that deep. If you are going to add up all of the personal art ever made in the world, I expect that most of it is about our longing for a crush or cool drawings of our favorite Sonic character. Or women’s chests and midsections. Or doggies and kitties and bunnies. That’s all great, but most of the serious personal art in this world is not going to be The Raft of the Medusa every time even if it’s every bit as special and meaningful to the artist who made it.
So…you do you, Boo. Me, I’m going to experiment with manipulating some cool flowers and moths and then if I get bored I’ll just stop and do something else. Just as I do with my videogames and Legos. But whatever “art” or “design” or “selling out” means to you, I hope that above all you do what makes you happy.
Resources for the Enterprising Sellout Artist!!!
Places to Sell Out:
Redbubble (check out their fanart program too. Also, on Stickers alone, bump up the profit margin higher than the standard 20%. This is a few cents to the buyer, but potentially hundreds of dollars to you over time. Another tip from Mr. Butner.)
Zazzle (people can personalize your designs with their name on here, which seems very Nana friendly indeed!)
I feel like Fine Art America is more of a site to sell your “portfolio” work, especially with the 25 artwork limit for free accounts. For less definable reasons society6 sorta gives me that vibe too. So you may prefer to take a more traditional approach with those guys and just upload your serious art.
Where to Get Things to Manipulate into Stuff to Sell:
Creative Fabrica (their single-sales license explanation is GREAT and even has pictures. Licenses are all commercial and unlimited printings and time period. You may need to make alterations to the stock art to legally sell print on demand merchandise of it depending on what license you buy.)
Colourbox (there are no printing limits on their lowest tier license. You must use your downloads in some way within 3 years of buying them, and then you may continue using them in that exact context forever. If you never do anything with an image in 3 years, you must download it again to use it after that period.)
Shutterstock (you have printing and merchandise limits on the lowest tier license, but you DO NOT have a time period in which you must use your download in some way.) A CAVEAT: I have read recently that some people are having great difficulty when they go to cancel their subscription. (warnings for language in the link)
Myfonts (frequently has deals and free fonts. They are run by Monotype. For most uses where you are designing using a font and then flattening it into a picture, like shirts and book covers, the Desktop License is sufficient.)
Easy Sellout Suggestions
I am a big fan of “passive income,” which for our purposes means you upload a design, and then you can sell it an infinite number of times without ever having to physically make or ship anything. These passive sales are almost always going to be for less profit than when you physically make an item and ship it to someone. However, if you have a $1 download you can sell an infinite number of times at no cost to you and no effort (after initially making the design and uploading it)…that can end up adding up over time. Here are several such options for selling your designs.
Print on Demand Designs: Most basic stock image licenses you purchase will definitely let you make reasonable alterations to a design and then sell it somewhere like Redbubble. This is well within the wheelhouse of a seasoned digital artist and even minor changes (to us artists) can make stock art into a very special item for some buyer somewhere. You should also make sure to upload all of your serious art too, provided you retained the rights to each piece and don’t intend to make it exclusive or limited in some way. Your art can be just about anything (shirts, mugs, shower curtains, stickers, clocks, iPhone skins) and you should format it onto every single product option it will look nice on.
Unaltered Print on Demand: Yes. Depending on your license, you don’t even have to alter some of the assets you buy off of the above sites to sell them on a shirt. I am not personally going to go that far because it is not any fun, I wouldn’t be using my design skills. And you SURE as heck would not stand out as a shop because probably 10,000 guys are already doing that. But…go for it if it’s legal I suppose?
KDP Low Content Books: So, there are books where the inside of the book is not the unique part. I’m talking about calendars, notebooks, and diaries. Well…you can literally buy the internals of books like that off places like Creative Fabrica, and put your slammin’ personal art covers on there (or cute LEGAL sellout design, I don’t judge) …and then legally sell it as a diary or calendar etc on Kindle Direct Publish because people buy those based on the cover. You’re welcome.
Shadow Box Templates: You can make cool templates for people to build their own shadowboxes and simply sell the file as a direct download on Etsy. I’d recommend buying such a template yourself on sale, seeing what they are like, and then making your own cool shadowbox files for people to craft.
Stationery Templates and Custom Stationery: The sky is the limit here. Design cool cards, bookmarks, stickers, what have you and leave people a space to write their name, or offer to send them the file with their name in a pretty font. They buy your file and print it out at home. You can search Etsy for examples.
A side note: DO NOT EMBED FONTS INTO YOUR TEMPLATES. Most fonts are only licensed to you for use in your designs, you have to flatten the font into an image before you can sell it on shirts or stationery. It helps to think of a font as software. Other people don’t get to use the software when you buy a font, just you.
Seamless Pattern Files: I enjoy making seamless patterns. If you do too (and I mean REALLY seamless, please watch some videos on making art into a true repeating pattern if you don’t know what I’m talking about), then you should share your talents with the world. There are some poor unfortunate souls out there who want to print and/or sew clothing but need new patterns and are trying to just buy the art they like and tile it into a “pattern” and the result is…it’s bad. I personally like how Brittany Frost is running her pattern shop, she has a limited commercial license for small sellers and then accommodates big/fabric sellers with a beefed up license.
Well, I hope I have either showed you a fun new hobby, made you a billion million dollars, or inspired you with enough shuddering revulsion that you went forth and made all the deeply personal Sonic art ever.
And if I’ve missed any cool sellout tips, let me know! I’ll update this post with them if they’re not…you know…gross, or nuthin.