If you’ve ever wondered how artists make money online, you’re not alone. Most people know the old phrase “starving artist,” and there’s a reason that exists.
Before the internet became a prominent fixture in our lives, the road to becoming a famous (and well paid) artist was quite different than it is now. You either needed to know the right people, or, to work for decades (maybe even a lifetime) and enter countless exhibitions until your name was recognized worldwide.
While that is still an option, I’m assuming you’re here because you’d prefer to learn all the ways that artists make money TODAY.
What’s it like being a full time artist?
It’s not as easy as just getting really good at painting. As much as I would love to spend all day every day creating art, and have a lovely deposit in my bank account each month – that’s a fantasy.
The reality of being a full time artist is that I paint far less than I do all the other things.
The “other things” include:
- Admin (emails, inventory, event planning, organizing, invoicing, bookkeeping, taxes)
- Marketing (branding design, website design & upkeep, documenting artwork, creating and scheduling social media posts, responding to comments)
- Content Creation (videos, writing blog posts, newsletter, commissions, podcast, tutorials)
Each of those can be broken down into dozens of more detailed tasks, but you get the idea.
And then, a few hours a week I get to pick up the brush and paint.
The point of this is to demonstrate that it takes far more effort than anyone imagines – but once you have a system in place, you find a way to balance it all. And the cool thing is that passive income is an option for artists.
Let’s talk about a few easy ways to make money online as an artist.
1. Sell Prints of your Art
Step one would be – of course – to make good art. It doesn’t have to be world-class, it doesn’t even have to be “great.” Plenty of artists sell mediocre art. I’m saying this from experience! I started selling prints of my art well before I was good (by my own standards). It comes down to getting your art in front of the right eyes. There are over 7 billion people on earth. Someone out there is bound to want to hang one of your paintings on their wall.
Step two is to have a high-resolution scan or photo of your art. This is where digital artists excel because their art is already digitalised and easy to reproduce. As a mainly traditional artist using watercolor, gouache and oil paint, it’s not quite that easy for me! If you create small works of art, I recommend a scanner, as it allows for a very high resolution image and very little blur or distortion. As I tend to paint larger, I most often have to take photos of my art. I use a Canon 6D Mark 2 (DSLR) and photograph at them 300 dpi then adjust/crop/edit in Photoshop. I’m able to create prints as large as I need (my printer can handle 13×19 inch prints) with extremely high quality.
Now let’s look at the three main ways to sell prints online:
1. Personal Website Shop
This is ideal for those who like the have full control over their prints. You will need to make them yourself, or order prints from your favorite printer. You have to restock inventory, package and ship everything yourself.
And for your efforts, you get 100% of the profits.
Key Strategies for your personal website shop:
- Make it clean and simple. At first glance it should be easy to read and understand exactly what’s for sale and how much it costs. If you prefer to keep your prices hidden until someone messages you, be aware that this could reduce your sales. People like immediate satisfaction and the more complicated you make it, the less successful it is.
- Don’t use Ads on your shop. It will turn a buyer off immediately. Keep ads elsewhere!
- Use proper SEO tactics to draw in organic traffic.
- Use metadata (tags, keywords) – you can bulk-edit photos in Adobe Bridge to add this information to your photos.
- Name the images with a descriptive name like “Watercolor Coastal Art.”
- Add a lot of detail in the listing of the product, including the same words used in the title of the image. This helps in search engines.
- Post the image on social media, Pinterest, and a blog with a direct link to the product. This is called a “backlink” and Google loves them.
2. Sell work through art sites with built-in search engines (like Etsy)
This is another self-fulfilling option, but you get the added bonus of Etsy’s (or similar) built-in search engine. Etsy promotes their site and attracts millions of people worldwide, and allows them to search for specific items.
You pay a small fee to use their websites.
Key Strategies for selling artwork through sites like Etsy:
In addition to everything above:
- Etsy offers a lot of drop down menus to categorise your products. Experts say you should always fill out every option and choose from the menus if there is one.
- If using ads, I recommend running short ads (a couple weeks or less) until you find which products/keywords are working the best.
- Etsy promotes products that offer free shipping more than those that don’t. If you do this, don’t sell yourself short! Add the shipping costs into your product to make sure you’re covered. You might be tempted to keep your prices low, but if you have a product people want, it will sell (the free shipping is an added bonus!).
- During the pandemic I stopped offering free shipping because packages were getting lost. I started to require upgraded tracked shipping to ensure they reached the clients. My sales have not dropped.
- You have to prioritise customer service because buyers can leave shop ratings.
3. Sell artwork through print on demand sites (society6, redbubble, inprint)
This is for people who don’t want to go through the trouble of printing and shipping their own art. These sites do all the work and get most of the profit of your sales. You also don’t have any way to quality control your products and shipments. But they take care of all the customer service!
Key Strategies for selling artwork through Print on demand sites:
- Requires a lot of upfront time and energy to create the listings, but then becomes passive income once it’s uploaded. Pay attention to details and do it right!
- Upload new designs each week, or if possible, one or two each day. Some of the sites reward this behaviour with better search placement.
- Delete old designs that don’t sell or get very few views. That can drag your stats down.
- Each site has it’s own image size requirements and SEO strategies. Lots of youtube videos available with tips for each specific site, but in general follow the advice from above.
2. Sell Commissioned Art
Imagine opening a package to find a custom portrait of your husky or a painting of the mountaintop you got married on! This is the excitement that lies in commissioned art.
Commissions – or custom art – are a big part of my income. Most of my sales are custom requests, and it’s not only a great way to make money but it’s really awesome to know that the paintings are extremely sentimental to the clients.
How you price your commissions is completely personal but don’t sell yourself short. Custom art is the most special of all requests – your client can’t go to Walmart to buy it. They can’t get it on Etsy. So the value is higher.
Key Strategies for selling commissioned art:
- Share your art everywhere you can and as often as you can. The more eyes that see your art, the more chances someone will request a custom piece. It takes a while to build a following online, but be consistent and don’t give up!
- Have a paper trail. Ideally you would have a contract, but if not you should use email to communicate all the details so they are in writing.
- Handle expectations. Get as much detail about their idea as you can. If they have reference photos or if they don’t know what the want – it all starts with fact finding. Give them an estimate of how long it will take to complete – I’d recommend adding at least a week to your estimate. Give them all the details about how the process works upfront.
- Take a deposit. I charge a 50% deposit before I do any work at all. The final payment (including shipping) is due before I mail the package. I use Paypal – and yes they charge a fee but it is minimal and the convenience to the client makes it worth it.
- Stick to your timeline. This can be tricky when you’re balancing a lot of projects, but you want to make sure you aren’t late on delivering. Some people are counting down the days and if you are late – and worse of all don’t communicate – this reflects very poorly on you.
- I share progress photos when I’m about 50% complete to make sure I’m on the right track, and give the client a chance to ask for adjustments (within reason). Usually they don’t ask for adjustments, they are just excited!
- Take high-quality images or scans of your art for your records before you mail it. You can use these later to make prints, postcards or
- Ship with tracking & insurance – ALWAYS!
- Always give the buyer instructions for proper care. This includes framing advice and reminding them to avoid hanging artwork in full sun. (Prolonged exposure to sunlight can fade certain pigments over time)
3. Monetize Your Content
Selling art is only one small piece of my income. Making content is an important piece of the puzzle and over time you can monetise all your hard work. “Content” can consist of Youtube videos, blog posts, skillshare classes, digital and physical Patreon rewards, and more.
It’s…a lot of work, and each week there’s more to do.
My strategy consists of painting as often as possible, and recording as much of that journey as I can. I also take lots of photos along the way. This leaves me with hundreds of gigabytes of video and photos to utilise throughout the year.
It’s exhausting, but in order to have enough content to share, I typically need to produce twice as much content as I share – half of it is not up to my standards and ends up in the recycle bin.
There’s not enough hours in the week to make individual content for each platform, so here’s how I handle it.
For one painting, I record as much of it as I can (if not the entire thing). I also take progress photos along the way and high quality photos at the end. I can use them in the following ways:
- Instagram Post / Stories
- Patreon Tutorial
- As part of a future sketchbook tour
- Social media
In order to monetize these, there are different rules for each platform. But here is an abridged list:
- Affiliate links
- Links to Skillshare classes
- Affiliate links
- Recurring monthly membership
- Recurring monthly membership
- Twitch / Youtube live stream
- Recurring monthly membership (subscribers)
- Tips from viewers (through Streamlabs/paypal)
- Affiliate links
- Affiliate links
Ideally you want to have as much passive income as possible so you have more time for doing what you love.
So what are some other ways you make a living as an artist online? Let me know and start a dialogue in the comments!