I recently had the pleasure of talking to artist Lisa Congdon about her new book, Art Inc. It’s an essential guide for creative types who dream of making a living as an artist. Lisa debunks the starving artist myth and offers practical steps to create, build, and sustain a profitable business. She details a variety of ways to make a living from their art: illustrations, licensing, fine art sales, print sales, teaching, and more.
Lisa also shares experience from her own career as well as advice from successful art world pros, including Nikki McClure, Mark Hearld, Paula Scher, among others. Art Inc. will change the way you look at art + business, in a good way. It’s a must-read-then-apply for all creative types! Be sure to check out the book trailer for Art Inc., it’s so good.
Onto my conversation with Lisa. Enjoy!
You first started making art as a hobby in 2001, five years later you began showing and selling your work. Today, you make a full-time living as an illustrator and fine artist. Looking back on your art career, what key steps did you take in order to turn your art practice into a business?
I did so many things, and all of them I cover in Art Inc, but the most important step I took was putting my work into the world, both sharing it on the internet and also sharing it publicly through participating in art shows. It often feels incredibly vulnerable to share your work publicly. We wonder, “Will people like it?” But it’s an emotional risk we all have to take at some point if we want to find our audience – the people who appreciate and pay money for our work. Another thing I did was spend a lot of time thinking about what I really wanted to do as an artist. I brainstormed all of my dream projects and then worked slowly and methodically to try to make them happen. In some cases this meant learning new skills and in other cases it meant reaching out to people I wanted to work with. I still do that on a regular basis, because as we meet some goals, we have to make new ones that feel exciting to us in the present.
What made you decide to write a business book for artists?
I was actually approached by Chronicle Books to write the book! I’ve worked with Chronicle as an illustrator for many years and have a great relationship with them. I had never thought about writing a business book before that point! But the more I thought about it, the more I decided that sharing what I’d learned as a working artist and interviewing other people who had things to share could be a great service for people who were starting out. I didn’t have a book to help me when I was beginning, and I had to figure a lot of stuff out on my own. There were books out there, but none of them felt current or relevant. I hope this book helps fill in that gap for some people.
As an artist, what was the experience of writing Art Inc. like for you?
It was really challenging, actually! I have never written a book before (I’ve illustrated many) and so I had to learn about not only how to write seven separate but connected chapters, but also to write a business book – which is a very different kind of writing that what I do on my blog, for example. I am used to writing personal essays, but business writing has to be much more straightforward and super clear and precise. This was tough for me at first, but my editor Meg Ilasco was a tremendous help at that. The more I got into writing the book, the easier it all became. And I really loved interviewing people for the book and learning from them too. When I turned the manuscript in, it was almost 50,000 words and we had to edit it down to 30,000. Editing sometimes feels more difficult than writing. Figuring out how to pare the book down to the essential elements was a really interesting – and ultimately satisfying – process!
How much time do you spend promoting your work verses making new work?
I would say the things I do that fall into the “promotion” category make up about 30% of what I do, but that includes interviews, blog posts, preparing for speaking engagements, book events, social media time, newsletters, and more. But really the main focus for me always has to be studio and art making time. It is my life’s goal to always keep that stuff at the forefront.
What role has keeping a blog played in both your artistic process and sales?
Blogging is a very natural and easy place for me. I love keeping a blog, almost as much as I love making art. I think because it feels so natural to me and I love doing it, I have generated a large blog following. I think when your enthusiasm shows, others enjoy it too. I use my blog as the “home base” or “landing place” for most of my content – new work, event announcements, personal essays, features on other artists, etc. And then I share that blog content on social media platforms like my Facebook Fan Page and Twitter. This has helped exposure and sales of my work tremendously. I think having a “place” on the internet where people can find you is key – for some it’s a blog, for others it’s Instagram (I love Instagram too), for others it’s Tumblr or Pinterest.
Can you offer a few ideas for artists on how to grow an audience online?
The first thing to remember is that your following will not come overnight! So patience is key. I have over 50,000 fans on my Facebook fan page, but at one time I had 2. You have to start somewhere, and over time if you keep at promoting what you do, people will follow and your audience will grow exponentially. I recommend finding the visual places on the internet that feel like a good fit for you – whether it’s Instagram or a blog or a Tumblr page (or all three) – and use them every day to share what you are doing, share your creative process, and give people an inkling of an idea about who you are as a human being beyond your art. Always be genuine. And be consistent in your posting – make sure you are posting at least once a day Monday through Friday. But also, don’t over post. Remember not to bombard people with too much. Find your sweet spot and slowly, day by day, your audience will grow.
How do you handle rejection?
Oh, rejection is tough. For me, it has gotten easier over time. One of the gifts of getting older (I am 46 this year) is the ability to separate the personal from the professional. In other words, over time I have learned that if someone doesn’t like my work or doesn’t think it’s appropriate for a particular project or award or whatever, it doesn’t mean my work doesn’t have value OR that they don’t like ME. It’s not personal. Of course, rejection still always stings! I just try really hard to go quickly back to focusing on what I have accomplished or thinking about how much I love what I do. And that helps.
You have an incredibly strong and beautiful artistic voice. Do you recall a moment when you realized this is the work I want to make?
First, thank you! Second, it’s important to remember that always in the early years of your art-making process there will be a lot of experimentation and you may feel very lost. That was certainly true for me. Up until about 2011 (and I started making art in 2001) I felt fairly vague about where I wanted to focus my art and illustration practice. And then in about May of 2011 – after 10 years of painting, collage, drawing and sewing – a light bulb went off in my head. That rare light bulb moment (I don’t actually have many of them) came after a period of intense struggle. And I did realize, yes, this is the work I want to make. And my career took off in a really significant way after that. And I don’t think that is a coincidence! Of course, since then I have discovered other kinds of work I want to make (I am always exploring and experimenting). And I have always refined my art practice even more. But I hope that never changes. I always want to be shifting my voice slightly.
Who or what inspires you and why?
I am inspired by my own desire to create, mostly. Of course there are people – writers, artists, athletes – who inspire me (too many to name). And I am clearly inspired by nature, design, color, shape, typography, and all of that. But what gets me out of bed every day is my desire to create and also to share what I create. I spent the first part of my life till not knowing what would make me happy, and feeling frustrated. So once I discovered what it felt like to create – the sense of total satisfaction after a day or night of hard work on a piece of art – there was no going back. It is the feeling I get inside that inspires me. I am very internally motivated.
Any advice for aspiring artists?
Making a living as an artist is not something that happens by sitting back and dreaming about it. There are specific and strategic things need to do to get your art into the world, build an audience and start selling your work so it can become your livelihood. Those are the things I talk about in Art Inc. Of course, everyone’s path will be different – you have to find the path that works for you and that you are willing to put time and energy into. But the good news is it’s possible if you stay true to yourself, are strategic and do the work.
What’s next for you?
Oh, gosh, so many things! The big projects I’m working on right now are two more books with Chronicle. They are illustrated books (no more business books in my near future!). One is due out in 2015 and the other in 2016. I am also excitedly preparing to teach a business class based on Art Inc at the end of September through CreativeLive, which you can learn more about and register for here.