Building a Brand as a Self-Taught Artist: Witty Gritty Paper Co.

The first time I picked up a watercolor brush, I was terrified. Naturally, I was afraid of making a mistake in a medium that was brand new to me, but more so of wasting the supplies I had saved up for. That didn't stop me from trying, but I remember it very clearly. I was 14 and had no experience painting with anything artist grade. I had always been creative of course, but never patient enough for painting whole pieces. Then I saw a large watercolor piece being painted live at a local gallery and fell in love with the medium. The way it so clearly had a mind of its own, the way the colors could flood and filter each other and totally surprise you. It called my name.

After I had been painting for about six months, I created my first collection of greeting cards featuring my watercolor illustrations. This was around the time my business partner & I launched our company: The Witty Gritty Paper Co. Fast forward two years and my work is currently featured on over 100 of our paper products & I’ve had the privilege to work with a lot of truly amazing brands such as West Elm, Paper Source, and of course Skillshare, just to name a few. I’ve also grown a loyal YouTube audience of over 60,000 students.

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And as my following grew to what it is currently, I was and am still often asked if I attended art school.

Where did the YouTube channel come in, you may ask? Well, when I was just beginning to grow our social media as a company, I decided that we should have a YouTube channel. Why? Because I had never forgotten that terrified feeling I had when I first started. And it seemed like it would be great if I could help a few people learn to paint with the right information and encouragement and eliminate some of that fear for them. No one was more surprised than me that it became so popular. And as my following grew to what it is currently, I was and am still often asked if I attended art school, how I got so many subscribers and how to build a brand as an artist.

In my humble opinion, all three have the same answer – be as genuine as possible.

My brand is built on authenticity

If you want to learn traditional techniques, practice and apprentice with professors, develop a very specific type of artistic skill, then that’s wonderful and art school may be a great choice for you. Some people don't learn as well when they try to teach themselves and there’s nothing wrong with that. Be genuine to what you want and need if you’re considering art as a career. I did not attend art school, myself, as I am almost stubbornly self-taught in most areas of my career, but that was just me.

If you want to reach out to others, teach them. When it comes to sharing my learnings and even with growing a large audience: be as genuine as possible. Admit when you don't know something, come as you are and don't worry too much about if your filming equipment is professional enough.

I’ve been using a single camera I’ve had since I was 15 for years to film every single one of my videos. Simple is often better. Authenticity is easy to sense and people are naturally attracted to it. Perhaps most importantly of all: interact. Respond to your comments, take requests, think of what your audience really wants when dreaming up content.

The community I have on YouTube never ceases to amaze me. My students tag me when sharing their work on Instagram, they show me their kids using my lessons as their homeschool art class (particularly warms my heart as I’m a former homeschool kid) I get to see the senior homes using my videos to help residents to learn new things. Sure, the partnerships and popularity are attractive to the naked eye, but it’s in these moments that a large audience & fiercely cultivated community really means something.

Cultivating a community online

I hear a lot about the importance of building a strong personal style from other professional artists. That’s definitely high priority as you want to be recognizable in a sea of others trying to do the same thing. But refining a personal style is only half work. The other half should be purer, wilder, more rawly you and what you want to say.

If you can weave the two together, you’ll hit something amazing: originality. And that along with hard work and persistence is what I believe it took for me to make it as an artist and a brand.

“[I] feel so privileged to begin to create and cultivate a community on Skillshare with the lessons I‘ve learned so far as an artist.”

The most important thing is to decide early on what you like. If you don't like being on camera or sharing then teaching is probably not a good way for you to diversify. If you don't like the idea of replacing materials or the possibility you might make mistakes that you can’t fix then you might consider a digital art career instead. You will not be effective if you are not doing what’s best for you.

I’m happy to say that with the help and encouragement I received from both my following and some other wonderful colleagues, I’ve also recently launched my first Skillshare class. I reached out to some of my subscribers and polled for what they most wanted to learn about and we settled on Mastering the 3rd Dimension in Watercolors. I’m sure it’s just the first of many and feel so privileged to begin to create and cultivate a community on Skillshare with the lessons I‘ve learned so far as an artist. I hope this helps someone on their way to artistic independence.

Meredith P.