Making a Living as an Artist: 3 Pathways to a Successful Creative Career

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In May of 2019, Skillshare hosted an intimate and honest panel discussion at our headquarters about what it truly takes to make a living as an artist.

Creative business owners and Skillshare Top Teachers Brooke Glaser, Ohn Mar Win, and Shannon McNab each shared the unique path they took to build a successful creative career. Check out some of the highlights from our conversation below.

Setting Her Sights on Surtex

Illustrator and surface designer Shannon McNab started her career in corporate design at Pottery Barn, but wasn’t creatively fulfilled by her work. To find her joy again, she set aside time to explore pattern design when she got home from her day job. “From there, I really started to realize that’s where my heart was. I opened an Etsy shop at first and that snowballed over the course of a couple years ”

After leaving her corporate job, she focused on digital scrapbook design full-time for several years, but realized that it still wasn’t exactly what she wanted to do. “I felt like there was more I could do with my art. I researched my options and came across Surtex.” Trade shows like Surtex give artists an opportunity to showcase and license their artwork to companies, and Shannon set her sights on exhibiting at Surtex’s 2017 show. For many artists Surtex can be cost prohibitive, but because Shannon had stashed away income from her previous work, she could cover the cost. “I tried to look at it like this was an investment. This is investing in my business, and that’s okay.” Her investment paid off; roughly 70% of her income as an artist now comes from clients she met through Surtex. She continues to exhibit at trade shows and license her artwork to companies.

Image Source:  Shannon McNab

Image Source: Shannon McNab

Research Unlocked Her Niche

Designer and illustrator Brooke Glaser took a different path to establish herself in the field. Early in her career, she worked a number of odd jobs to pay the bills, focusing on her illustration on the side. When she wanted to get serious about her art and start making a living from it, she turned to research. “At first my strategy was to find anyone that would pay me for my art, so I did research and started to reach out to anybody and everybody.” Taking a wide approach to developing clients led her to licensing her artwork and earning some income.  Although she was able to pay her bills, Brooke realized over time that she would be far more marketable (and financially successful) if she limited herself to a specific creative nice. 

“As time went on, I started to get a little bit more specific. I thought about the kind of art I like making and for me, that was children’s [illustrations]. I wanted to work in children’s markets and find those people.” Brooke then turned to shopping to find new clients. She spent time exploring products in stores to determine which companies licensed artwork and then reached out as many as she could. Honing in on her niche and catering her artwork to the types of companies she wanted to work with unlocked further success. “I make work that fits really well for those potential clients and then I send it to them. And I don’t do it just once.” Brooke continuously follows up with potential clients to ensure she stays on their radar. This persistence landed her one of her most sought-after clients. “I had a client that I wanted to work with and I wrote them for six months and nothing happened. Now they are one of my biggest clients and make up about a third of my income.”

Image Source:  Brooke Glaser

Image Source: Brooke Glaser

Diversifying Her Income Streams Created Stability 

For illustrator and surface designer Ohn Mar Win, the newest chapter of her career began after taking several years off to be with her young children. As she reentered the world of illustration, she wanted to do it on her own terms and make work that mattered to her. In order to support her family while she worked on her portfolio and built her client base, Ohn Mar focused on setting up smaller streams to earn income. Websites like Shutterstock and Spoonflower allowed her to upload work she had already created and earn income month over month. These smaller streams created stability for her during that transition period and still drive income for her, even today. “One year I set a goal to pay for my summer holidays just from Spoonflower and I achieved it. Now i’m working towards my next goal. Even now, as I am working on branding and packaging stuff, I am still investing in these streams to pad my income.” 

Image Source:  Ohn Mar Win

Image Source: Ohn Mar Win

As we wrapped up the panel discussion, we asked them to share their advice for creatives just starting their journey. Their advice? That no matter what kind of path you are on, the very best way to find success is to create art and share it with others, because you never know where it will lead. 


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