As a part-time freelance artist, I’ve raised money for day trips and dates, medical help for family members and friends, art supplies, booth rentals, and presents. I even managed to raise some money for charity. I’ve had a pretty good run! I’ve been able to do many things I could not have otherwise done.

It is with these things in mind that I will now proceed to destroy my artistic reputation forever.

Lol destroy your what?

I’ve been a jerk more times than I can count, although I will attempt to count them for this article. But one common thread has united virtually all of my artistic knavery.

I speak of AMBITION.

Almost every (art related) act I’m ashamed of stemmed from my artistic ambitions. It’s not pretty! But if you’ve seen my gallery, you already know that “pretty” is not the goal here, so let’s get started.

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Are You Ready to Build a Fanbase? Yeah, Me Too.

A terrified girl sprawled on the snow looking up at a menacing shadow covering her.

Let me start out by saying WE ARE IN AN EXPERIMENT TOGETHER.

I’m a prolific and modestly successful obscure artist. At the time of this writing, 251 people have a passing awareness of me on Twitter, 252 on Facebook, and 5 on Patreon. I think most of them overlap, so let’s call that 252 fans total. Weed out the bots and people who have abandoned the platforms and let’s call it 200.

I have been active as an artist online since 1995. This should tell you that I am not an authority on building a fanbase. You’re not here to listen to my expert advice, you’re here to observe me succeed or fail, and try some of the same things if you’re interested.

What could go wrong?

Ready to start experimenting? Let’s go!

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The Two Kinds of Art

For me, there exist only two kinds of art. Medium has nothing to do with it, nor does whether the piece is one-of-a-kind or reproduced, technically perfect or relatively unskilled, famous or obscure.

No, for me the only two kinds of art are Art you make for yourself and Art you make for others.

There is a lot of discussion and judgement on both sides from artists who believe that commercial art is not “true art,” or successful artists criticizing their peers for not considering the “business aspect” of art. All of them have valid ideas to consider. As for me, I only have one big assertion to make about the two kinds of art as I have defined them:

It doesn’t matter which kind you do.

If you’re capable of creating things and practice your ability, you are an artist. If you fashion an image from nothingness, then that is art. Asking every artist to make only “art for art’s sake” and to all have some grand life’s work is like asking every doctor to discover the cure for a deadly disease. Most doctors simply go into work, heal the sick, save a life or two, and go home. And they are an essential part of our world.

If you are an artist, you have a skill set that most people don’t have. This means that the entire world needs your help with an endless array of tasks. They need someone who can design apparel and effective advertising and packaging, create papers, home furnishings and textiles, design layouts, cars, and buildings, make distinctive lettering, help to create movies and illustrate books and video games, make individualized portraits and mementos and restore treasured photographs…the list goes on forever.

Even people who don’t “care” about art are constantly using it to understand the world. All these things fall into Art you make for others, as do commissions and yes, even art you made because you knew it was likely to sell well.

Art that you make for yourself, often thought of as “art for art’s sake,” is really just you sharing your personal obsessions with everyone. To share your dreams and work on your passion is an incredibly hard thing to do and it’s also deeply emotionally satisfying. These are the people who end up being recognized by name if they touch millions, unlike, say, the artists who have slaved to create and refine the Coca-Cola logo.

If you’re incredibly lucky or clever, you may end up being revered for making art for yourself. If you’re reasonably skilled, you are much more likely to be compensated well (or adequately) if you make art for others.

It is much, MUCH easier to make a living from the art you make for others. That’s because people like things that are about them!

Even collectors who are supposedly into fine art are specifically looking for art they believe will appreciate in value, and this means it must be popular or culturally significant in some way. Visionary artists achieve this when their ideas and convictions end up resonating with the world…canny artists purposefully choose themes to please people or create a sensation.

A lot of people feel like this is what makes some artists unrealistic for not painting art for others, whereas a lot of other artists bemoan the fact that they cannot seem to make money because they will not “sell out.”

This is where a hefty dose of realism and self-examination comes into play.

What do you want out of life?

If you won’t be happy unless you’re following your dream and screaming your vision to the heavens, you should immediately stop expecting to make any money at it.

The most successful artists who were making art for themselves became successful because their passion overlapped with something other people wanted. Since you may or may not want the same things as other people, this is not a sure-fire way to earn money.

That doesn’t mean this is a waste of your life or an immature thing to do. It’s simply not the safest way to make money doing art.

But if you have something inside you torturing you to be let out, the only waste of your time will be not going for it. You could never earn enough money to buy the feeling you will get from working on something you love and completing it (or parts of it), or the way someone’s eyes light up when your work touches them.

By the same token, if you’re not experiencing as much happiness and fulfillment from working on your own art as you do when you earn good money doing something else, you should follow your path of greatest happiness and focus on using your skills in a way that pays better.

Your personal enrichment might come from being able to afford trips that change your viewpoint, or having money to donate to a cause you believe in. This is no less noble than being a “starving artist.” It’s up to you to make an impact with your skill, and you can do this in so many ways. Don’t ever let someone tell you what you’re doing isn’t worthy.

I like to combine the approaches.

I have a lot of stories I want to tell, and I do this whether I make money or not. (I’ve been pretty lucky in that I’ve made some money but you’d better believe I didn’t expect to.) I also have a real gem of a friend, an amazing comic writer that I want to work with on many projects regardless of whether our comics “take off.”

I’ve also always wanted to have children and a house, and for either one it’s far preferable to have a stable way of making money. To help maintain my family and my house, I worked very hard to find an art industry job I liked. I also get a lot of mileage out of the art I make for myself by offering all of it as unlimited prints and merchandise (like shirts or journals) that might be more useful to some people than wall art. Finally, I take commissions any time I believe they will teach me something.

I treat my 9-5 job like 8 hours of drawing practice, and my commissions as art challenges. I definitely do a fair amount of art for others, yet I don’t ever feel bad about using my special skills to solve someone’s problem or fill a need.

Art you make for yourself is not intrinsically noble, and art you make for others is not intrinsically cheap.

If you think about it, why should screaming “HERE’S WHAT I THINK!” be any more noble than saying “Sure I can make a nice picture of the pet you lost.” I did that once, and the client genuinely cried in front of me. Then (with shaking hands) she took the picture of her departed doggy, hung it in the place of honor in her house, and it helped her remember the good times.

Now, you can probably tell that I prefer making art for myself. In fact, it’s almost always my personal art that leads my clients to me. In the case of the image above, I made the art on the left for myself and it led to the commission on the right. Drawn + Drafted tells us that you should pitch potential art directors and clients with the kind of art you want to make,  and I guess they must be right! That’s been my experience anyway.

But I really do feel proud that I drew a pet portrait that brought tears to someone’s eyes, and I guess I always will.

Art for yourself, since it carries your unique convictions and ideas, can break the mold and influence millions of people. Depending on who you are and what you care about, your art could also end up only ever being special to you and a small circle of friends and family. If that’s enough to deter you from working on your dream, you can probably do without it. You shouldn’t spend the next 50 years beating yourself up about it, either.

In the same way, you may or may not earn a big name for yourself doing art for others. In most commission and portrait scenarios you might only be helping one person or family, whereas the logo you helped design might be burned into everyone’s collective consciousness for centuries. It’s also worth remembering that the Old Masters are known almost exclusively for religious and portrait commissions. Most of what we see in the art history books was hired work.

And in both cases, I might add, you might become rich seemingly overnight or you might be completely screwed out of your rightful compensation and recognition.

That’s why I say it doesn’t matter.

If you make art for others, you’re making other people happy. Also, consider that every store, site, office or other commercial setting that features a piece of hired work by you is now your gallery. Even if it’s the new design for a cat litter package, you’ve still conveyed an idea using art and gotten it seen on a wide scale. Children are walking by your drawing in the store and pointing to say, “Kitty!” You are part of everyone’s daily lives, their memories and ambient thoughts.

This is just an example, but you should always be proud of the impact you’ve had with every one of your creations, not to mention the positive impact you can make with the money you’ve earned.

If you make art for yourself, you’re taking advantage of the unbelievable opportunity so many of us have nowadays to tell your story, in the way of your choosing, to everyone with an internet connection. Now, more than ever before in history, creators have a chance to influence thoughts all over the world. Even a meme or a comment can do this; what could you do by showing a work of art that has everything of you in it?

Do either one or do both, but most importantly DO WHAT FULFILLS YOU.

You have one life, so stop fighting about who’s a sell-out and what constitutes real art and just use your talent.

Some way. Any way.




How NOT to have a successful comic

Spread of inked pages in progress from The Stone Squirrel

One of my biggest assets that I’ve built over the years is my pile of mistakes. That may sound strange, but to me if a mistake teaches me a lesson, that mistake is very valuable. For me, some of my most valuable mistakes have been BUSINESS MISTAKES.

Such has been my approach to comics. About 12 years ago, my husband suggested that I begin uploading my comics to a site like Keenspace or Drunk Duck. (Now Comic Genesis and The Duck Webcomics, as I said this was long ago.) I shook my head. My goal was to get my comics published by a big publisher, like Dark Horse or Image. I might post sketches and storyboards on a livejournal community, but as for my final pages I couldn’t show everything online in case anyone wanted exclusive rights to the paper comic. And so on and so on.

Through the years, I drew and redrew my comics until I had a comic I was proud of. Several years in the middle got sidetracked into a couple of fan-comics. Finally in Summer 2012, The killing of Dreams was done to my satisfaction. I was ready to “abandon” it and find a publisher.

But wait, you say. This comic didn’t go up for sale until Spring 2014, did it…?

Noticed that, did you? That is because, for almost two years, I was talking to paper publishers. I went to the big ones first. I still haven’t heard back from three of these after 2 years, but I did receive a kind and encouraging rejection letter back from Fantagraphics several months after sending them a copy of the completed comic. Two other publishers folded while I was in the process of talking with them.

I then approached the indy publishers. The ubiquitous response was, “We can’t use color submissions.” One of them suggested I form my own comics publishing company (like he did) to publish my comics.

Onto the zines! The comic was too long for zines.

At the end of nearly two years, I had waded through more submissions and rejections than I can remember. Even among editors who professed to like or love the comic, it had no place. Some advice I’d read long ago (from an “Industry” comic artist who has since formed his own imprint too) about wowing potential publishers with a finished product had just been completely turned on its head: my finished comic lacked the flexibility it needed to be tailored to any of the publications I approached.

My next step was to find out about self-publishing. You can see how great that was here. Comixology was somewhat easier to format, but the acceptance process took months and I screwed up the files once.

Now, you may be asking, do I consider all this work I put in, on this comic I am so proud of, that virtually no one will ever see, to be a total loss?

Nope! There are many reasons why, but here are a few:

  • I have a completed comic to show (and occasionally sell!) at events.
  • I have gotten a lot of work based upon my work on this comic.
  • I have gotten valuable experience talking to publishers and editors.
  • I have developed a skin that a rhinoceros would envy.
  • I have learned that I can carry through a large and complicated project to its completion.
  • I have learned that I can learn as many esoteric rules, programs and guidelines as I must if I care about the project.
  • I have learned exactly how much I believe in my work.
  • I actually got the thing onto Comixology.
  • Lastly, I have learned HOW NOT TO RELEASE A COMIC!

“Well that’s somewhat encouraging,” you might say, “But what on Earth does that tell me about how to release a comic the RIGHT WAY??”

What, you want to learn that too? Oh fine.

After experiencing all of this, I went back to my husband’s long-ago advice: release new comics on a free webcomic site. In other words: Instead of focusing on a prospective publisher, build a fanbase along the way. I looked around at successful comic artists once I got on Patreon. Was this advice sound as far as their approaches went? The answer is yes! In cases where an artist wanted to sell paper copies, they merely made exclusive content for those books. In cases where they wanted pledge money, they simply offered exclusive sketches and illustrations as incentives. The comics were in almost every case free to read in their entirety.

Comics that have their own fanbase going in are the ones who are successful in crowdfunding endeavors. They’re the ones that are the most successful in sales. Those are the artists who get the most commissions. In fact, building their own crowd along the way has made these artists far more money than I suspect trying to find a “paper” publisher would. Even though their comics are free online for all to read!

And all of this is in addition to having a completed comic to show a publisher who might not be able to use that comic, but might hire you based upon your skill. In other words if you take this approach, you would have what I had (a finished comic to show publishers) BUT YOU WOULD ALSO HAVE a following that is currently rewarding you for your comic as it is being produced! This is true for whether you are using crowdfunding or not.

So that is my advice, after my long road up to this point. Get your pages online. Build a fanbase along the way. These are the people who will love you, these are the people who will pay you…not some overworked publisher who may never even see your art.

You can take this all with a grain of salt, since I’ve failed to distribute my comics effectively so far! I’ll come back to this post and edit it if I was wrong. But I’ll bet you anything that the new smackjeeves page I just made will bring my comics far more attention than any of the limited things I did with The killing of Dreams in an effort to keep it pristine for prospective publishing houses.

And ultimately…aren’t comics there to be read?

Further Reading: How to be Successful on Patreon