5 Hard Truths About Running an Art Business

Recently I’ve been noticing more artists on social media talking about the hard truths of running their art business. While it’s been a bit disheartening to hear some of these stories, I think it’s also very important that more artists who are in the spotlight are candid and open about the realities of what it’s like. Not everyone enjoys pulling back the curtain, but if you are just starting your art business or are planning to, these are 5 hard truths that you need to know about.

The size of your social media following doesn’t equal money 

There’s a really big misconception out there that the bigger your social media following is, the more successful you must be in terms of your finances. This could not be further from the truth. I know of many successful artists who make a living at what they do with little to no social media presence or following. There are also many artists who have huge followings and still have full-time jobs doing something else.

The issue here is that it’s not about quantity, it’s about quality. If you have a few posts go viral this may attract more followers, but it doesn’t mean they are there to buy your art or products. You may have posted something funny or with trending audio that had nothing to do with your art and that happened to be the thing that got the attention. Artists are burning themselves out trying to churn out content daily or sometimes more than once a day to try and “beat the system” or make themselves more seen. Not only is this a total time suck but there is a very real mental health consequence to doing this that also needs to be considered.

Related: Instagram Is Not Validating You As An Artist

Woman looks at her phone concerned about social media comments

You can have only 800 followers and if even only half of them are there to truly support you and are interested in buying your art, that will get you way more tangible results than thousands of followers. They are most likely not even seeing your posts anyway because #thealgorythm.

While having a large following can work in your favor when it comes to applying for brand ambassadorships and other affiliate programs, there’s also a trend toward brands and companies wanting to work with what they are calling Micro or Nano Influencers or people with smaller followings because their followers tend to be more niche and engagement tends to actually be more authentic. 

Bottom line – stop worrying about needing a huge following and start nurturing the ones you have. According to Kevin Kelly’s 2008 essay in Wired Magazine, you only need 1000 true fans to achieve financial stability. 

Woman nurtures her social media audience

You will likely need multiple income streams to make a living 

Of the artists that you see on social media that do have large followings, they are likely directing those people to somewhere else that will actually pay them. Brand partnerships and affiliate posts aside, many artists have something like Patreon where they share tutorials and tips for a monthly membership fee or a website/shop where they sell their artwork. 

It’s not uncommon for many artists to have multiple streams of income to round out what they make in a year. This is actually a very smart tactic because they are not dependent on one stream of income alone. For example, if most of your income came from doing in-person workshops, the pandemic would have likely almost bankrupted you if you weren’t then able to switch to workshops in an online format or had other ways to create an income for yourself. 

Ideally, you don’t want to be continually trading time for money, so having streams set up with things like digital downloads where you do the work once and continue to profit from it are ideal sources to add to your spectrum of income. This doesn’t mean you have to be doing a million different things either. Look at what types of income streams you are interested in and what actually makes sense for your time and your business. You can start with adding one at a time as you feel comfortable.

By never relying on one main source to provide all of your income you are giving your art business a healthier model to sustain leaner times and unforeseen globally impacting events as we saw in 2020.

You will get haters even if you are giving things away for free 

Sadly the internet is full of awful people who have nothing better to do than leave hurtful and inappropriate comments on your posts. Is it jealousy? Do they just have no filter? Does making others feel bad make them feel better about themselves? Without going into a psychological assessment rabbit hole, it’s probably a lot of those things and more. 

It’s amazing how awful people can be even when you are giving something of value away for FREE. You spent time out of your day creating it for public consumption and yet here they are still being jerks about it. This happens a lot on YouTube where people are spending literally hours and days of their time creating content for people to consume FOR FREE, only to have someone leave a nasty comment about the quality of the art, maybe the pacing of the video, or even the sound of their voice. 

I’ve got news for these people – it’s free… you didn’t have to pay anything for it. You don’t have to read, watch or even acknowledge it. You can just go on your merry little way without expressing your displeasure. Now in all fairness sometimes constructive feedback is a good thing if it helps you improve, but often many of the people complaining are not interested in being helpful, unfortunately.

While you will never please everyone with the content you create – free or not – it’s important to remember that you always have to try to put your best work out there. Try to remember the reason why you are even doing it in the first place. Not everyone will be kind and supportive, but it’s important to not let the noise of that impact you in a considerably negative way. You can always moderate comments on your posts and approve them manually or block people who are clearly just there for nefarious reasons. 

Related: Ways to Combat Online Negativity

You will be a one-person show for a while

When running your own small business it will likely be JUST YOU wearing a lot of hats and running the whole show for a while or until you can afford to pay someone to help you. Sure, you may have a generous volunteer like a friend, family member, or spouse but they will likely have their own obligations and honestly, it’s just unfair at some point to not pay someone who genuinely is helping you run your business. 

Now let’s add to that the fact that most artists don’t have business degrees and have likely never run a small business before. There’s a pretty steep learning curve that happens there. What customers need to understand is that you are not dealing with a corporation like Amazon when you are dealing with an independent artist running a small business. Expecting 2-day free shipping with no-questions-asked return policies for example is not always realistic or fair for every business. 

woman calculates numbers for her art business

Small businesses get pushed all the time into offering prices and policies that are equivalent to multi-million or billion-dollar companies just to remain “competitive.” The reality is an independent artist-run business is NOT the same as Walmart and it shouldn’t be treated that way. Does that mean that as an artist you shouldn’t try to offer the best customer service possible to your clients? No of course not, that’s just a business best practice.

It is however important to make sure that you clearly state your terms and conditions or return policies on your website or wherever you are selling your works. This way your customer can refer to it should an issue arise. Create policies that are fair to both you and your customer. It’s also important to remember that the person who buys generic artwork from Walmart isn’t always the same person who invests in custom original art. Doing some research on what your target customer is and finding those people to get your work in front of is just as important.

Related: 5 Ways You Can Fail At Customer Service

Your adoring fans often silently adore you 

Recently a popular YouTuber in the colored pencil community decided to step away from his channel and website. I won’t get into the reasons why because they aren’t valid to the point I’m going to make. He’s managed to amass a decent-sized following over the years and the news of him stepping away was understandably upsetting to a lot of people who loved his videos and found them super helpful.

What I found interesting and in some ways more upsetting, is that his post on Facebook announcing his departure in 24 hours had hundreds of comments. A scroll back to some of his others posts revealed that he received maybe a fraction of that on his other posts. It was wonderful in some ways to see how many people appreciated his work and were expressing in sometimes long messages how much his videos meant to them. It made me sad also though to think…he’s likely hearing some of this for the first time.

Now I’m not in his personal email inbox, so maybe he does get a lot of personal emails from people thanking him or maybe most of the comments are over on Youtube. I gather by his response to it though that he wasn’t quite aware of the impact he was having on everyone. 

Neon sign of a heart with a zero beside it

The truth of the matter is, your content could be the thing that lights up someone’s day. There’s always a chance though that you never really hear about it, until like him, maybe you decide to step away indefinitely. I understand that it can be a full-time job sending a kind message to everyone whose content you enjoy. But it’s also relatively easy to let them know it matters to you. I mean, can they make it any easier than tapping a little heart or thumbs-up button? Even leaving a comment to let the person know on occasion what their work means to you really means a lot to a creator.

Being a content creator can be a very thankless task at times so don’t go into it expecting to be showered with accolades. It doesn’t mean what you’re doing isn’t great or impacting someone positively. Many people silently observe social media without ever contributing themselves. At the end of the day, create because you are passionate about it and you want to reach the handful of people who are there to say thank you and maybe even the ones that don’t but do still care. 

Truthfully, running your own art business is a lot of work and sometimes feels like you’re shouting into a void where no one hears you. It’s not all doom and gloom though. The times when you are able to genuinely connect with others and see the results of how you have positively impacted someone’s life is an amazing feeling.

It’s important to stay realistic about the hardships you may face when entering into a new venture but don’t let it deter you from chasing your dream if it’s what you truly want. Empower yourself with knowledge, best practices, and even a mentorship group to get you through the tough times. Many things that are worth having don’t come easily so hang in there, keep your head up, and keep creating work and content that is authentic to you.

What’s a hard truth you had to learn in your art business? Share with me in the comments!

Barb Sotiropoulos

Barb Sotiropoulos

I’m a Canadian artist and designer specializing in coloured pencil and mixed media. When I’m not creating art, I love helping other artists by sharing tips and tricks that have helped me. You can find me on all of my social channels @barbsotiart or check out my past Q&A articles for COLORED PENCIL Magazine or my co-hosting appearances on the Sharpened Artist Colored Pencil Podcast.

7 Responses

  1. Such a great post! I really resonate with everything you said here. The hardest part for me can be when there isn’t as much engagement, as connecting with people is the so fulfilling and meaningful. Whenever that happens I’m starting to ask myself, “well, did I enjoy making that? Do I feel good about what I shared, etc”. And then if I can say yes, I am learning to let myself enjoy that feeling and then let it go. It’s just necessary to know why I’m creating and feel secure in that rather than wait for others to affirm me.

    1. Hi Teresa! Yes, that’s such a great point. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of waiting for others to affirm you especially on social media. We give away our power when we do that. It turns into “was what I just made good enough? Am I allowed to be here?” Instead of “hey look at this awesome thing I made! I’m so happy to be here.”

  2. Good article, the only observation I can make is that the abrasive comments that you identify as haters, not always are haters, we do have to recognize that there is good emerging art out there, but there is a plethora of real unskilled creations out there and you have to grow a thick skin if you want your work out there.

    1. Hi Fidel, Thanks for taking the time to comment. I agree that you have to grow a bit of a thicker skin in general when you’re putting yourself out there. There are a lot of trolls out there though who are not there giving constructive criticism. Even if someone is unskilled I don’t believe that’s a reason to be rude to them. Can we avoid all negativity and criticism in life? Absolutely not. My point was to let those seeking advice on the realities of running their own art business know that this is part they will encounter.

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Hey, I'm Barb!

I’m a Canadian artist and designer specializing in coloured pencil and mixed media. When I’m not creating art, I love helping other artists by sharing tips and tricks that have helped me. You can find me on all of my social channels @barbsotiart or check out my past Q&A articles for COLORED PENCIL Magazine or my co-hosting appearances on the Sharpened Artist Colored Pencil Podcast.

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