10 Things to Know When Learning How to Start an Art Business

how to start an art business

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It’s hard to learn how to start an art business when you’re confused, scared, or both. Since I’ve been in your shoes before, I want to make the process a little easier so you can get selling.

I’ve been working as a commercial illustrator and designer for about a decade now and I have quite a few areas I stumbled through.

I’ll share some important starting points I wish I knew – or did more efficiently – when I started out.

Contents

The Key Elements to a Successful Art Career

  • Remind Yourself Why You Want to Start an Art Business
  • It’s Vital to Narrow Down the Art Business You Want to Start
  • A Business Plan Will Keep You Focused
  • You’ll Need a Business License (Or Equivalent)
  • Start Researching Different Payment Types
  • Become Comfortable With Reading and Crafting Contracts
  • Don’t Be Afraid of Tax Season (Trust Me, I Know)
  • You’ll Need a Simple, Mobile-Friendly Website
  • Most of Your Work Will Come Down to Marketing and Word-Of-Mouth
  • Start Researching Tools to Make Running a Business Easier

1. Remind Yourself Why You Want to Start an Art Business

The why part of your art business is a non-negotiable element of success. When you’re struggling to make money or stand out in a sea of similar artists, the ‘why’ will keep you afloat during the ups and downs.

Around 18% of small businesses fail in their first year, while another 50% will fail after the first five years. One of the most common reasons for these statistics is running low on money or struggling to stand out amid similar businesses.

remind yourself why you want to start an art business

Below are a few common reasons why artists will start their own art business, but keep in mind this is just a starting point. Your reasons could be entirely different and that’s a-okay.

Financial and Social Independence From a Traditional Nine-to-Five

Are you sick of long commutes or creatively stifling traditional employment environments? Unsurprisingly, nearly 30% of people who started a small business did so because they wanted to be their boss.

Other benefits you’ll enjoy once you step out of the corporate world is:

  • Setting your schedule – work when you want, how you want
  • Charge your prices and get more control over your income
  • Better work-life balance such as more sleep and more time off

The flip side to this is how much responsibility is on your shoulders. You have to commit to a regular marketing strategy, study your industry, and commit to your decision despite all odds.

More Creative Fulfillment in Your Career

Another common reason to consider being a professional artist is to enjoy your work. If you have more fun running social media accounts and painting all day long, that’s reason enough to make the switch.

Job dissatisfaction is at an all-time high lately, with one recent study finding 50% of people are unhappy with their jobs on a daily basis. Your artwork could be the launching pad for more peace of mind and financial stability.

more creative fulfilment in your career

However, there’s nothing wrong with choosing an art career for side income instead of main income. When you do art full-time, it can be difficult to take a break from client work to work on creative projects, which can lead to burnout if you’re not careful.

An Additional Source of Income

You’re not a lesser artist if you seek out an art business to make a bit more money. It’s never been easier to supplement your monthly income selling art prints or merchandise.

  • Making crafts on Etsy such as knitted blankets or clay pots
  • Selling original paintings
  • Crafting custom figure sculptures
  • Painting digital art to sell on crewneck sweatshirts and t-shirts
  • Designing banners, icons, and templates for web designers

Now, you’ll likely have irregular income for the first year or two before you start building a reliable target audience. Even experienced artists can struggle to make consistent income from selling art online, so going in with reasonable expectations can soften the sting.

2. It’s Vital to Narrow Down the Art Business You Want to Start

Your own business will have unique demands (though there are commonalities to art businesses, too). Below are a few examples of different types of art businesses and what to expect.

Selling Original Paintings

If you’re a traditional painter who wants to sell paintings, you could work from your own home or be featured in exhibits with other artists.

Your art business would need to take into account:

  1. Studio space – do you have room to store all your paintings and supplies?
  2. Shipping costs – this will shave a percentage off what you make
  3. Potential tax – this percentage changes depending on where you live
art business you want to start
(Image Source)

Starting an Online Shop

Perhaps you’re more interested in selling prints and merchandise in an online shop like Redbubble, Etsy, or Printful.

Your challenges in running a successful art business would look more like the following:

  1. Potential sales tax – print-on-demand sites generally take care of this, but you should still be aware so you know how much you’ll make
  2. Managing an email marketing list – this is a very helpful marketing tool
  3. Using multiple marketing tools – you’ll also need to consider blogging, a social media account, or SEO to reach your audience

Becoming an Active Content Creator

An increasingly popular choice for artists today is becoming a content creator – this can look like active content creation via a Patreon or a social media account like TikTok.

  1. Live streaming tools – lighting, camera, a mic
  2. Familiarity with social media platforms – posting schedules, culture, and terms of service

3. A Business Plan Will Keep You Focused

The function of a business plan is the guiding star to your business’s metaphorical ship. Just like your ‘why’ helps you keep going on an emotional level, a business plan will guide you to tried-and-true methods to financial success.

Here’s one example of using a business plan to cement your target audience and how you’ll maintain a competitive advantage.

a business plan that will keep you focused

4. You’ll Need a Business License (Or Equivalent)

A successful art business needs to stay legally viable and that often takes the form of a license. I renew my license every year with my state’s licensing department after filling out brief online paperwork.

However, this step varies from country to country, so I’ll use a few examples:

Register With Your Local Licensing Department in the United States

Since I live in the United States, each state usually requires a license through the state’s licensing department. The fee will vary and you usually only have to renew your license once per year.

register with your local licensing department in the united states
(Image Source)

Register Permits and/or Licenses in Canada

Depending on where you live and what kind of business you’re starting, you may need a mixture of permits and licenses in Canada. Similar to the States, the price and frequency of renewal will depend on the business you’re running.

It’s easy to get intimidated when it comes to paperwork and legal documents, but just ask a representative for help. You can chat with someone over the phone, do a video call, or sit down in person with a professional who will answer all your questions.

5. Start Researching Different Payment Types

Once you’ve started applying for licenses and permits, you can start looking into payment types. There’s more flexibility than ever in getting paid these days, but below are a few more common methods.

PayPal is One of the Most Common Payment Methods

PayPal is one of the most widely used online payment processors, particularly for artists. I depend on it for the majority of my income since it’s used by nearly everyone these days.

paypal

However, PayPal is a little brutal when it comes to fees – they do fixed fees ranging from 2.59% to 3.09% for merchant and personal accounts. While they don’t charge anything to transfer money from one PayPal account to the next, transferring from other bank accounts or payment processors will cost you.

Wise is a Reliable International Transfer System

Another useful transfer system is Wise, most commonly used by people who have clients in other countries. They also charge much lower fees than PayPal.

Wise requires you to submit the details of a separate bank account, including a checking account where they can instantly deposit cash. These details won’t be seen by clients, so there’s no worry about your private information being leaked.

wise

Stripe is a Well-Known Online Payment Portal

Last but not least, Stripe is a flexible online payment portal that’s becoming more commonly used. They not only accept many currencies, but you can transfer money between many payment portals, too.

One of their biggest barriers is their limited in-person payment options. They’re more useful as an online tool for artists who do most – or all – of their business digitally.

stripe

6. Become Comfortable With Reading and Crafting Contracts

Contracts aren’t a fun part of your art career, but they’re an essential part of building client relationships and staying legally protected. Even a simple contract or NDA is a good starting point to make sure all parties know what’s being made, why, and with what usage rights.

Start By Understanding Common Contract Clauses

Put simply, a clause is any section of a contract that outlines a duty, deadline or need. Some of the most common clauses you’ll see in artist contracts are:

  • Deadline – when is the project due?
  • Communication – how will the artist and client stay in touch?
  • Materials – what does the client need to give the artist to do the job?
  • Usage Rights – what is the client allowed to do with the art? What about the artist?

Try Out a Boilerplate Contract or Hire a Contract Lawyer

hire a contract lawyer

Hiring a contract lawyer is a stress-free way of getting all your legal ducks in a row. If you can’t afford one – they can cost between $20 to $200 an hour – you can start off with a boilerplate.

Boilerplate contract templates list several of the legal basics in one generic document. You can then customize it to suit the needs of your state license and personal demands.

Need a starting point? Try Law Depot for free legal documents, forms, and contracts for artists.

Get a Contract Signing Program or Software

There are many ways to sign a contract, though digital means are easily the most convenient. You can use signing programs like eSign or sign .pdfs with Adobe Acrobat.

7. Don’t Be Afraid of Tax Season (Trust Me, I Know)

One of the biggest reasons why artists are hesitant to go the self-employed route is self-employed taxes. Below are a few details you should know about to start off right.

Tax Withholding is Part of a Successful Business

Every dollar you make in the art world isn’t yours. In the United States, you have to slice out a small chunk of your income to pay self-employed taxes – quarterly or through a customized interval.

how to price your art

Depending on where you live and the business you run, you may need to hold between 20% to 30% of your income for self-employed taxes. This is one of many reasons to learn how to price your art so you can make a tidy profit.

Consistent Recordkeeping Will Be Your Savior

Don’t ‘wing it’ or keep sticky notes when it comes to personal finances. I keep a spreadsheet of every single dollar I make – before and after fees – and sum up the total every month so I stay accurate.

Many artists use recordkeeping software such as QuickBooks, which can automatically download bank information or print financial statements for loans.

8. You’ll Need a Simple, Mobile-Friendly Website

Did you know at least 52% of all web traffic comes from a mobile device like a phone or tablet? If your website doesn’t function or look good on mobile, you could be missing out on half of your potential customers.

Wix

Free and easy to use, Wix is one of the go-to choices for artists who need a polished art website. Their drag-and-drop technology makes it easy to organize fonts, images, and templates into the site you’ve always wanted.

wix

Their free plan has some limits, such as having no Google Analytics to study your web traffic and Wix-sponsored ads. You can upgrade to a Premium plan with more freedom and customization.

Squarespace

Squarespace is one of the web builders I use for my own website (albeit in a different industry). Their slew of templates, easy-to-use interface, and simple analytics dashboard make them an effective beginner option.

squaresapce

While they have no free versions, they have a flexible trial you can add an extra week onto if you need more time to decide. Check out their pricing and features here.

Hire a Web Designer

There are several benefits to hiring a web designer that are not possible with free or pre-made templates. You’ll get a unique site layout and plenty of control over the little details, such as animations or layout.

However, web designers cost far more than a free web builder or monthly subscription.

hire a web designer

9. Most of Your Work Will Come Down to Marketing and Word-Of-Mouth

People can’t hire you if they don’t even know about you. Even the most skilled professional artists will struggle to get work without the following marketing efforts.

Inbound Marketing

Inbound marketing is a term that refers to people finding you, rather than you reaching out to people. If you’ve ever punched a question into Google to find a product, you already know how this works.

  • SEO
  • Social media sites
  • Blog posts
  • Online store

marketing and word of the mouth

Outbound Marketing – How to Start an Art Business

The opposite of inbound marketing is the more traditional outbound, where you reach out to your target customer to see if they’re interested.

  • Sharing business cards
  • Calling over the phone
  • Sending out emails

Word-Of-Mouth and Networking

These two words may be the bane of introverts, but they’re a must-have in the art industry. Whether you like to visit art fairs or want to sell products online, word-of-mouth and networking increase your chances of regular income.

Generating positive word-of-mouth can be done by simply being reliable and friendly. Networking can involve visiting art fairs or just talking to people on social media.

10. Start Researching Tools to Make Running a Business Easier

Don’t feel like you have to do it all. A few tools can be an absolute lifesaver with the stresses of starting a business.

Inventory Management Software

If you’re thinking of starting an online business that involves packaging and sending out goods, inventory management software will save you a headache. This useful tool will improve accuracy, track packages, and create a better customer service experience overall.

inventory management system

SquareUp is one tool you can try, especially if you want to sell clothes, furniture, or tattoo designs.

Customer Relationship Management

When you need help keeping track of potential customers or reaching out to repeat customers, a contact management system will shoulder the work for you. Also known as a CRM, these programs keep track of emails and different types of customers such as prospects and leads.

A prospect is a person in your target market that may benefit from your business. A lead is a person who’s already shown interest in your work, such as contacting you or following you on social media.

content management system

HubSpot has a free CRM I use regularly (alongside very helpful online digital marketing courses).

Accounting Software – How to Start an Art Business

As touched on above in the tax section, accounting software is useful for tracking taxes as well as budgeting. For example, FreshBooks has a freelancer variation you might find useful.

accounting software

Starting an Art Business is Hard, But Far From Impossible 

From narrowing down your target audience to learning how to start selling products, starting an art business is hard. I’m living proof that it’s far from impossible!

Want to continue expanding your education on your way to a successful career? Check out our top three alternatives to an art school education here.

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