Frequently Asked Questions
...AKA Creative Entrepreneur Cheat Sheet
In the spirit of artists helping artists, this page is for all of you creatives out there who are curious about the specifics of how I manage my business as a commercial illustrator and independent designer.
Over the past few years, I have learned so much about the wild and crazy world of monetizing artwork and I'm happy to share what I know.
What art materials, tech and programs do you use?
Watercolor: Winsor & Newton. I bought my first set of Winsor & Newton watercolor pans back in high school and never looked back. I started with Cotman (student grade = cheaper) before graduating to the Artists' brand. The pigments are vibrant and intense, although usually more so with tubes than pans. I use a combination of both, and frequently squeeze tube paint into my palette to mix with pans. This gives me more flexibility to get the exact color I'm looking for.
Gouache: Turner. I did plenty of research before finally deciding to splurge on a 36-pack of Turner Acryl Gouache. The opacity and mixing is exactly what I was looking for. The biggest difference between watercolor and gouache is that watercolor is transparent and gouache is opaque. Watercolor also utilizes the texture of the paper, whereas with gouache, you'll see texture in the paint itself from the brushstrokes. I'll use either depending on what sort of look I'm going for.
Miscellaneous Paint: Winsor & Newton acrylic, Acryla gouache, Utrecht watercolor tubes, Winsor & Newton watercolor tubes, and HWC watercolor tubes
Brushes: Boy, do I have a lot of these. Like my paints, I'm not loyal to just one brand. I use a mix of synthetic and sable, depending on how much I felt like spending at the moment. I pulled some of my favorites to highlight and categorized them by size and purpose. Disclaimer: Some of these get used just about every day, so you can see the wear and tear. I think it adds character. : )
Paper: Strathmore is my go-to for art paper. Their watercolor paper and bristol paper are both high-quality and affordable. Their products are acid free, so your paintings and drawings will remain resilient as the years go on.
Computer: I work on a 15-inch MacBook Pro. I've got 16 gigs of memory, but prefer to store all my files on an external hard drive. Thanks to my tech-savvy brother, my hard drive backs up to my server and the cloud every night, so I don't stress too much about my hard drive crashing. There are backups of backups of backups at my disposal.
Scanner: I use an Epson V550 Photo Scanner. It was around $180, which is a pretty great price considering the quality of the scans. My paintings are usually slightly larger than the flatbed, so I almost always scan in a couple pieces and fuse them together in Photoshop. I usually scan my paintings in a very high resolution– around 1600 or so. The files are huge, but this allows me a lot of flexibility. (You can always scale down, but once you start scaling up, you lose quality.)
Printer: Before I had my own home printer, I would have a local printer make prints of my work, which I would sell on my Etsy shop. Now that I can print from my studio, it saves a lot of time. Epson printers (with Epson paper) are industry-standard and the quality is great. My home printer is an Epson WP-4020. It cost me about $100 on Amazon and the ink is a steal at $25–$40 per cartridge. I use Epson Premium Presentation Paper (matte finish) for my prints.
Apple Magic Mouse, Wacom drawing tablet, Bose headphones, WD My Passport Ultra external hard drive.
Adobe is king for creatives. I use Photoshop to edit the artwork I've scanned into the computer. Illustrator is my go-to when I'm making digital artwork, web graphics, logos, all that jazz. InDesign is best for multi-page documents, like presentations and publication design. Font Book is where my fonts are organized.
How did you get started licensing your work?
When I worked a nine-to-five as a designer at an agency, I got into a habit of coming home from work and diving into a painting. It was the perfect way to relax after a full day of staring at a computer screen. I’ve been painting for as long as I can remember, so this wasn’t anything new. One day, I was scrolling through artwork on Society6 when I realized, “My work could be up there.” It sounds so small, but this was a huge leap for me.
Before this, all my creative output was divided into two categories: client work and personal work. Selling artwork online was a sort of bridge between the two. I was no longer painting just for myself, but for others as well. I started posting my paintings on Instagram and in the matter of a couple years, went from having about 300 followers to over ten thousand.
Society6 was the first platform where I began selling my work. I uploaded my first piece in June of 2014: a venus flytrap watercolor painting. I made some extra spending money through sales, but things didn’t begin to really take off until a few months later, after I'd uploaded more work. When my monthly sales amounted to my rent, I was ecstatic. When things increased, I realized this could be my base for making a living: licensing my artwork.
Opportunities began to bloom from there– companies began reaching out for custom illustration or design work, I began selling through a larger variety of platforms, and I opened up my own online store. Pretty soon, it just made sense to make the leap and pursue this full time. It was terrifying to leave behind a job that I’d loved (especially with all its securities like a steady paycheck and benefits) and take a gamble on myself, but it ended up paying off. I’m now pursuing what I absolutely love, earning a viable income, and am making all my own calls.
I now license through a large range of companies. I diversify and sell my artwork through a variety of print-on-demand websites as well as my Etsy shop. I also have active licensing agreements ongoing with a number of companies at any given time. Because of this, my income derives from a wealth of channels. This income diversity means that one bad month on a particular site isn't going to kill me– as long as the others are still strong.
How do you manage to spend so much time traveling?
I get this question a LOT. While my social media life makes it look like I spend 90% of my time exploring the globe, I'm actually hunkered down behind my laptop most of the time getting sh*t done. I'm usually working from coffee shops and coworking spaces around the world. I prefer locations that are "digital nomad" friendly– cheap cost of living, killer WiFi, and a thriving community of fellow nomadic entrepreneurs.
Short answer: passive income. This is the money I make through licensing my work. Passive income is money being earned regularly that requires little effort to maintain. For artists, this can mean generating regular income from the artwork you’ve created. One of the greatest perks of passive income is the time it frees up, allowing you to focus on other avenues of life. For me, that means working as an illustrator + freelance designer and traveling the world for creative inspiration. I recently put together a guide for artists who want to boost their passive income, too. You can check it out here.
Because I primarily focus on licensing my work, I don't need to worry about manufacturing products, inventory, shipping, or customer support. Not only does this mean I never need to deal with storing inventory (which would be difficult since I'm always on the move), it also frees up a lot of time to do the things I love: travel the world and create art.
Bonuses that make my life especially travel-friendly: No kids and no pets. While I love animals, I cannot fathom that kind of responsibility in my life right now. I also have an incredible support system: My parents are kind enough to let me use their house as the address for my LLC and my dad deposits any checks that come in. My brother and his wife generously allow me to store most of my belongings in their basement. This gives me the freedom to take off anywhere in the world at a whim with just a backpack and passport.
Even if you're not quite ready to leave everything behind and become a nomad, there's still a bright future for corporate wanderlusters. Workplace flexibility is becoming more and more of a demand. Many companies are following the startup model and beginning to offer flexible work hours, opportunities to work remotely, and incentives like unlimited vacation days (Netflix, LinkedIn, GE are already there), wellness programs, casual dress codes, and supporting entrepreneurial efforts and personal projects. A huge shift is upon us!
How do you manage to paint and upload new art while traveling?
I travel with a small set of watercolor paint, brushes, and paper. I buy more as needed– every city has an art supply store somewhere. I don't need too much space to paint– just a small desk will do. After scanning in my paintings, I ship them back to the US for safekeeping.
Painting isn't usually the obstacle– it's finding a place to scan in my work. I don't travel with a portable scanner, although that's something I'm considering for the future. While there are many print shops that offer scanners, most don't exceed 600 DPI. Since I scan at a much higher resolution than that, it's a trial to find a place that has that kind of equipment. I visited about fifteen places in Chiang Mai, Thailand before I found a shop that has a high-res art scanner. When I discovered that Hubud, my coworking space in Bali, has an Epson scanner available, I nearly cried tears of joy. : )
Internet speeds vary from place to place. Coworking spaces usually have the fastest speeds, although some coffee shops I've found have surprised me. Certain cities are known for their great internet (Chiang Mai, Seoul, Tokyo, etc.) while others are still lagging. It helps to know what you're in for, especially when you're uploading large files to Dropbox and print-on-demand sites. I use Speedtest when I login to someone's WiFi so I check upload/download speeds.
Where did you learn to paint and design?
I’ve always gravitated towards the arts, so I began pursuing a BFA in illustration at The University of Kansas. I packed my electives with graphic design courses, and after a few classes, I was smitten. I couldn’t choose between the two, so I decided to double-major. That was the best decision I could have made. I knew I wanted to start my own firm at some point, so I also enrolled in business minor courses.
Our professors expected a LOT from us, so my courses were very demanding. I pretty much lived in the Art & Design building on campus during my junior and senior years. Our assignments gave us a well-rounded foundation in design; we learned web, interactive, motion graphics, packaging, animation, branding, illustration, typography, campaigns, publication design, etc. The essence of design is problem solving, so every project ensured that we were focused on custom design solutions.
I studied in Germany for a semester during my junior year as well. It was there that I got hooked with infographics. I wound up designing a booklet comparing renewable energy practices between Germany and the US, which was one of my best pieces in my senior portfolio. In addition to discovering my love for infographics, I also realized how creatively charged I became through travel; exploring new and novel places around the world made my mind spark with ideas for new projects.
My professors had great industry connections in Kansas City. I hounded one of them to help me get connected with Willoughby, an award-winning branding firm in KC. I snagged an internship during my senior year, followed by a job offer. I was ecstatic. I worked as a designer at Willoughby for four years and loved every minute of it. The founder, Ann Willoughby, is an incredible mentor to me. She started the business from the ground up back in the 70s, when women in design were few and far between. She continued to grow and cultivate the firm into the success it is today. I had so many opportunities while working there and learned from the best of the best.
Eventually, it was time for me to take the leap to entrepreneurship. I’ve been building the CatCoq brand ever since.
How do you protect the rights to your work?
As soon as you create a piece of art, it's copyrighted and you own it. That's it, right? Nope.
There are basically two types of copyright:
1) Informal copyright: As soon as you create artwork and "publish" it in any form that has a time-stamp (emailing it, posting a pic to social media, etc.), you own the copyright to that piece. If you have an informal copyright and you take legal action against an infringer, you're entitled to actual damages, AKA the exact amount of money they profited off your artwork.
2) Formal copyright: Registering your work with the US Copyright Office. When you formally copyright a design, you're entitled to statutory damages if it's infringed upon. Statutory damages are meant to punish someone for stealing your work and can hit $150,000 per infringement.
You have the right to send out a cease and desist or sue anyone who infringes upon your copyright in either case. I've done that for work that wasn't "officially" copyrighted and been successful, but you'll have an easier time and usually come away with a better settlement if it's been formally registered. In short: You don't HAVE to officially copyright your work before you upload, but if something winds up making you a ton of money, it's a good idea to make it official down the road.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but I take offense to it when it affects my bottom line. So what can you do if someone steals your stuff?
Steps to take if someone is selling your work without your permission:
1. Take a deep breath and refrain from doing anything impulsive. If you're going to accuse an individual or company of intellectual property theft, get your cards in order and consider your options before you start any confrontations. It's tempting to blast them on social media (and I've totally gone that route), but ultimately it's a disadvantage to you if you tip them off before you're ready to play ball.
2. Gather proof. If your art is online, screenshot every relevant page. If it's in-store, purchase it and keep your receipts. Once the infringers get wind of your inquiry, they'll pull the work off their site/shelves before you can gather evidence. (At least, the smart ones will.)
3. Consult with an expert. Ask other creatives for recommendations on intellectual property lawyers. Chances are someone in your professional network has dealt with this before and can offer advice. I have Hovey-Williams handle all my IP infringements. They're a a boutique firm that specializes in Intellectual Property Law and they totally kick ass.
4. Get infringers to stop. If you're handling this on your own without an attorney, you can send a polite email, issue a cease and desist, or file a DMCA take-down request. I've done all of these options, depending on the situation at hand.
If you're dealing with infringers on your own without legal aid and simply want the stolen artwork to be removed from a website, I can help, too. Feel free to copy and paste my email template:
I was notified that <Infringing Company's Name> is selling a design of mine without my permission. Please see attached screenshot. You can find my original artwork here: <link to your website> You can find the infringing work here: <link to their website>
<Artwork Title Here> is subject to US Copyright No. <Copyright Number>
I ask that you please remove this item from your shop immediately as it is infringing on my intellectual property as well as US copyright.
I invest a substantial amount of time and money in creating, promoting, distributing and licensing my work and I own valuable intellectual property rights in my work under U.S. copyright and trade dress law. As the sole author and creator of the work, I own the exclusive rights to <Artwork Title Here>, which is subject and entitled to both U.S. copyright and trade dress protection.
Consequently, I am very concerned with protecting my intellectual property rights and so I closely monitor the market for infringement. In this case, I am particularly concerned about having my work confused or mistakenly associated with <Infringing Company's Name> products because I license this piece through a variety of both domestic and international companies.
<First and Last Name>
Any advice regarding LLCs and taxes?
Note: This info is USA-specific.
If you're just starting to make money with your side-hustle, you'll need to start thinking about how you are going to deal with taxes. It's your responsibility to pay taxes on all income you earn, regardless if it's your full-time job or simply a painting you sold to a friend. You'll also want to start considering if you want to register your business as an LLC or otherwise. My best advice here is to hire a CPA who can help you maneuver through most of that.
I decided to register my business as an LLC. Why an LLC? Short answer: Protecting my assets against potential liabilities. Someone with an actual law degree can explain the pros/cons better than I can, so I advise checking out Why Start an LLC? Limited Liability Company Advantages and Disadvantages by Rocket Lawyer. Everyone's situation is different, so the path that made the most sense for me might not be the best for everyone. I encourage you to do some research (cough get a CPA cough) on to make an educated decision for how you want to proceed.
When you receive a paycheck from an employer, chances are that payroll taxes have already been deducted. However, when you start generating "side income" and getting paid through those channels, it's your responsibility to claim that income and pay taxes on it come April. You'll want to set aside about 30% of your side hustle income for your annual federal + state taxes that are due every April. I recommend checking out How Much Do I Budget for Taxes as a Freelancer? by The Bustle.
Last plug for hiring a CPA to help sort out your taxes: Unlike online tax services, a personal CPA will be able to offer you personalized advice regarding your exact situation. Good CPAs are worth their salt– they can help you make sure you're maximizing your deductions, find creative solutions for specific tax filings, and potentially save you thousands. In addition to that, mine helps me keep my business on track and organized. Check out Why Smart Businesses Need a CPA by The Bustle for more info.