Quick! When you hear the word “entrepreneur”, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? I’d be willing to bet that it isn’t an artist. Often, when we think of an entrepreneur, we conjure up an image of some dude in a suit. Maybe with a briefcase. Or a tie. Or both. Or we think of entrepreneur celebrities like billionaire Richard Branson. But that’s such a narrow view of what entrepreneurship is.
There’s a ton of information out there for anyone looking to create a traditional scalable business. And there’s no shortage of incubators for tech startups in search of money and mentorship. But what about artists who are going solo and getting paid for their art? They’re entrepreneurs, too. How does one go from creating art to getting paid for it?
Marc Johns is an artist. I’ve been following his work for over a year now. His drawings have been described as “badass whimsy”. They’re funny and deep, which is a unique combination. He articulates the things that people think, but don’t say. For example, one of his pieces is a giant starburst shape with the words “I don’t really know what I’m doing” written inside. Quirky and simple, but knowing.
I asked Johns about his career as an artist, including how he did it, and what advice he’d offer to aspiring artists. Based on our discussion, here are five tips for anyone looking to make a go of it as an artist entrepreneur:
1. Make art. Share it.
John’s says there were times that he doubted his ability to make money with his drawings. He overcame his self-doubt simply by repeatedly drawing and sharing his work.
“I just did it quietly, slowly, posting my work online, until it grew to the point where the obvious thing to do (obvious to me, and obvious to many people around me) was to quit my job and jump in full time.”
He says the key for any aspiring artist is to create things and then share them with someone. “Give it a try. Get your feet wet. Share your secret with someone who gets it. Make something and show it to someone.” In short, make art and share it.
2. Steal like a nine-to-fiver.
Johns was a graphic designer for 15 years, working freelance and as an in-house designer. He says he loved parts of his former work and hated other parts of it, but he continues to use what he learned on the job for his art.
“Being a designer gave me technical skills that are essential to my illustration work”, he says. “Plus, many of my commercial clients are designers and art directors, so I understand their language”.
3. Create a system and use it.
Johns’ system is a series of homemade notebooks. He carries one with him at all times so he can capture his ideas on paper whenever inspiration strikes. He says, “I might be in a lineup at a coffee shop, on the bus, watching TV, or putting the kids to sleep. I’ll overhear a conversation, see some quirky gig poster, spot an interesting pattern, or think of an odd combination of objects, and I’ll pull out a sketchbook and get the idea down on paper.”
When he’s not sure what to draw, he’ll rummage through his notebooks and something will spark an idea that he can work into a finished piece. His notebook system is his key to staying productive.
“There’s plenty of advice that suggests that in order to be a writer, you need to write 1000 words a day, even if most of it is garbage”, he says. “My notebooks are like my 1000 words a day. Filled with all kinds of nonsense that can eventually be pieced together into some drawings.”
4. You can start slow.
Johns says the illustrators who are doing well are the ones who began by creating small amounts of income by selling prints and self-published work on the internet, leading to more opportunities. That’s how he started.
For years, Johns did his art on the side. He worked full-time and commuted to work for more than an hour every day, but he found pockets of time for his art.
“I would scribble ideas for drawings in my notebooks on lunch breaks, and at night after the kids were asleep I’d draw and paint what I’d come up with earlier. Eventually I accumulated a decent body of work,” he says. “You don’t have to quit your job and head for the hills all in one go.”
5. Be creative in business, too.
Johns is just as creative with his business as he is with his art. He urges artists to use their creativity not just in how they make art, but also in how they make money.
For example, he is strategic with his time, and decided early on to make simple art that could be done in two hours or less. “It couldn’t be something like oil painting that needed set up time and weeks of time to complete one piece”, he says. “I wanted to feel a sense of accomplishment on a regular basis, even if I was only chipping away at it for 30 minutes a day.” And so he tailored his art accordingly – small accomplishments that could be produced quickly.
“I think there is this notion that working in the arts is flaky and guarantees a life of poverty”, says Johns. “But you can make a decent living doing something you care about if you are open to exploring lots of different approaches.”