Social media and the internet have given us an entirely new and limitless avenue for communication and business. And perhaps nobody benefits from it more than digital artists. Since social media started growing in popularity, artists have been one of the community’s most-followed and valued members, especially in fandom spaces, where fanworks such as fan art and fan fiction are not only welcomed but encouraged.
Digital artists have built themselves more than just a niche in social media. They’ve managed to build entire careers for themselves and started their own independent businesses. Plenty has gone from hobby artists who would post memes and fan art in their downtime with a following of a few hundred followers to micro-influencers with up to five hundred thousand followers who run their own online shops and regularly churn out merchandise as full-time artists and illustrators.
Now, there’s no question that you can definitely make money as an artist — don’t let anyone or your parents tell you otherwise. Here are some tips, tricks, and important lessons you should know when making your art an online business.
1. Building an audience
The one thing all digital artists on social media have in common is their dependence on followers and exposure online. While it might not always be healthy to fixate on statistics and numbers, garnering an audience for yourself online is the first step to getting your name out there and establishing a business. Most artists do this naturally by creating fan or original art, adding appropriate hashtags, and posting it for other like-minded fans to see. Usually, the most well-received art is fan art for popular series and games. If you already create fan art of your favorite game or show, then great! All that’s left is getting more people to notice it.
Building a network between you, potential clients, and other artists is incredibly important, especially for independent artists. You not only get your primary sources of support and income from social media, but it’s also a way to market yourself and get more people to invest in your skills. Just like building brand awareness.
One pitfall that you should avoid, however, is viewing other artists as your competition. While it might be true that they can be earning more than you, treating them like your rival will only ostracize you from the community you’re supposed to be a part of. Other artists are your allies, regardless of skill level, for only they will really understand the kind of unique struggles you go through as an artist.
Other than social media, you can build an audience by attending conventions and artists’ alley events. The good thing about events like cons is that you can count on a lot of people who’ll see your art and potentially want to buy it. If you don’t mind the crowds and the general stress of it all, selling small pieces of your art, like prints and stickers, at cons is a good way to start.
2. Finding out what kind of merchandise sells
The easy answer to the question, “What kind of artwork sells online?” is fan art. In social media, where a prevalent fandom culture has always been present, millions of artists start by sharing fan art they made of their favorite shows, books, or games. If you notice that your fan art of a particular series gets a lot more likes or retweets than others, selling it as merchandise can be a fruitful endeavor. This is, of course, not to say that you should make fan art solely to sell it even if you’re not part of that particular fandom, but it pays to know what’s popular.
For any naysayers out there, yes, fan art can also get you jobs in the animation or game design industry. Many online artists testify to how fan art got them their current and dream jobs. It can happen to you, too!
If you’re wondering about the legality of creating fan art, selling them as limited merchandise is possible, but the law can vary depending on the source material. Some creators love seeing fan art and encourage it among fans, while others, such as author Anne Rice, actively work to shut down any sort of fan-created works and sites of their original works. Whatever the case, it’s always best to do your research and look up the legality of the process relative to the original creator of the material.
3. Finding a reliable supplier
So you’ve got some pieces that you’re proud of, and you’re thinking of turning them into prints, stickers, pins, charms, and other merchandise to sell online or in cons. Great! The next step is finding a supplier. This part can be tricky, as you’ll need to do more than a bit of research to see which suppliers will produce the kind of quality you want that fits within your budget. Getting advice and testimonials from other artists is one of the best ways to find a supplier of your own. Other artists will know what works best for you and can even set you up with their own trusted supplier.
If you’re just starting out, order only a limited quantity of goods. Use this opportunity to see which ones sell more, meaning you should order a bigger quantity next time and which ones don’t. You can also check to see what kind of merchandise sells more — stickers or posters? Acrylic charms or button pins?
If you have some money to spare and think that this might be something you’ll be doing a lot in the future, then investing in your own equipment can be the right move. You can easily print your own posters and stickers at home, but you can also get a button maker for pins and keychains or an automatic heat press for T-shirts and tote bags. It’s the pricier option, for sure, but if you’re planning to do this for a long time, it’ll save you both money and time in the future.
4. Securing funds
Now, here’s one of the more complex parts—finding funds to help you make merchandise. Chances are, you’re able to skate by printing your own merchandise yourself, but you’ll still need to spend money to earn some. Fortunately, there are ways you can get the funds before you even start making any merchandise.
You can set up a donation hub like Patreon or Ko-fi for dedicated followers and fans to pay you for more content. If you offer them something they want to see, such as sketches or additional fan art, then they might be willing to become patrons or donate. If you plan to make expensive merchandise such as apparel, phone cases, and enamel pins, setting it up on a pre-order basis could also help you secure the funds for production before actually giving the go signal. It gauges how many of your followers are actually interested in buying the product, plus you won’t need to worry about extra supply because you’ll only be producing an exact and limited quantity of items.
However, the most popular means for online artists to get income is through commissions or creating custom art for paying clients. Depending on your skill level, you may be able to charge more for complex illustrations, such as ones with detailed backgrounds and more than one character. But there really is no set rubric for how much you should charge for a commission, so long as you charge what you think your art deserves and what your client may be able to afford.
5. Discovering your passion
When you monetize your hobby, especially a creative one like painting or drawing, it comes with the risk of losing its spark and you growing tired of doing something you once loved. Artist burnout is real and can sometimes lead to artists no longer liking the fandoms they used to be in or no longer feeling connected to their work. While it’s certainly essential to think about what skills you have that you can use in business, it’s also not good to create just to earn an income and not because you want to.
Every once in a while, it’s good to take a break and just draw what makes you happy. Even if you’re uncertain it’ll sell, drawing what you want at certain moments can help you get over the burnout and keep illustration not only as a job but as your hobby as well. If that doesn’t work, don’t be ashamed to take regular breaks from drawing or creating merchandise to do whatever you want.
Most importantly, it’s essential that you love what you do and are proud of what you create. Making digital art your business shouldn’t just be about the money — it should also be about the time, effort, and love you put into every piece.