Relying on sales of original works of art doesn’t always pay the bills. Sales can be seasonal, galleries can shut their doors, or the economy might tank. No doubt you are already aware.
This is why I am all for artists having multiple streams of income—when it makes sense.
An income stream is a source of money.
Your income streams might include employment outside of your art business, but I want to focus on diversifying how you make money from your art.
Selling original works of art is probably the most appealing way for you to make money from your art. Other avenues include, but aren’t limited to, teaching, licensing, writing, and selling reproductions.
Sometimes multiple income streams go together under a broad heading.
For example, if teaching is one of your incomes streams, you might break down that money into income from online classes and in-person classes. Additional funds might come from how-to books and informational products.
They’re all related to instructing and marketed to the same audience.
Likewise, you might make products with your art and have separate smaller streams from note cards, note pads, and calendars.
When It’s Silly to Have Multiple Income Streams
Diversifying income sources from your art is tempting. You might think, More stuff=More money! Watch it.
As I described above, some sources make sense together because they are marketed to the same audience. Other times, they’re completely separate businesses.
One example is licensing. There is an entirely separate audience for licensed art than for original fine art. The people and venues you work with are different.
This means you essentially have separate businesses. Two businesses means you exert twice the effort. Three businesses will cost you 3 times the effort.
The result: multiple business plans, marketing plans, venues, and audiences. Each income stream must be attended to.
It’s silly to go to the trouble of creating a new source of income that you don’t have time or energy to invest in.
It’s also a terrible business practice to sell more “stuff” if you don’t know what you’re getting into. Many artists are spending too much time on things that have too little return.
You have to do the math. Is it making money?
Do you see progress toward that goal?
Or is it costing time and effort without the promise of reward?
Wouldn’t you rather sell a single original artwork for $1000 than 200 note cards for $5 each?
Consider all the work you have to do to sell 200 note cards. You’d have to have retail accounts in numerous places since it’s very unlikely you’d sell 200 of the same note card at a single venue. Each account comes with its own set of tasks: record-keeping, packing, shipping, and bookkeeping. That's a lot of work.
If you’re in the note card business, you really have to be in the note card business.
And if you’re in the art licensing business, you really have to be in the art licensing business.
If you’re in the original art sales business, you really have to be in the original art sales business.
Let me repeat: I’m all for artists having multiple streams of income. Just be aware that you may be juggling separate businesses. Are you up for that?
This post was originally published on August 13, 2015, and has been updated with comments intact.
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41 thoughts on “Juggling Multiple Income Streams as an Artist”
This is a very timely article since I’m going to be starting teaching and a residency at about the same time, just before the busy show season starts. I need to figure out how to make it all work.
I do have to say that sometimes my less expensive items (coffee mugs, soap holders, etc.) are the gateway to more expensive items. A customer will buy a less expensive item then come back a later date and purchase something more expensive, or at least a few more pieces so I also consider them marketing also.
Lori: That’s great to hear!
I am a fine artist painting in acrylic & mixed media. During the economy collapse, I had just started painting full time! A big YIKES. In 2010 I decided to print notecards from some of my fantasy floral paintings & also make prints for sale. I received a grant from the Charlotte, NC Arts & Science Council for the photography costs which was great so I was on my way.
What I found out was the notecard business is labor intensive & very little if any profit. Many of the shops around Charlotte wanted to be on consignment so I had to keep track of what needed to be replaced, deliver the goods, & many other details too many to remember. I eventually pulled out my remaining cards from the stores even though they were selling because it took away too much time from my main focus of painting & marketing the paintings. And very few people purchase prints in this region.
The positive is that it was a great marketing tool to get my name out there because I had that printed on the back. So I look at it as the same thing as PR because people learned about my paintings & I got name recognition while they paid for the marketing so to speak. I still have a small inventory of cards & I will use those for some promotion in the future.
Just recently I was approached by a company that wants to use those images for their card line in a machine where people choose a card & it is printed & falls through a slot. So I said ok & will see how it goes & let you know. Every card sold I get a royalty & it is in many regions of the U.S. Again, my information on the back of the card so PR perks but no work on my part. And I can focus solely on my painting & marketing to galleries & online.
But I still have a desire to print my art on products & surface design so please someone talk me out of that quickly!
Keep us posted, Joyce. So curious to hear.
I feel similarly about selling note cards! I do offer them (only in my online shop), but at this point, I primarily think of the cards as a method for marketing my art and studio name. I sometimes give packs of note cards as gifts to help spread the marketing reach AND reduce the inventory I keep on hand. Teachers write lots of thank you notes, and I have two school aged kids PLUS an educator spouse, so that’s one area where note cards can easily be gifted! Friends and family are another great opportunity to gift my note cards, because whatever they mail out will be potential marketing to their network of peeps. 🙂
You gotta have note cards! If you can sell them, great. But, as you know, they are much in demand for others to share your art and say “I know the artist!”
Very interesting to hear about your experience, Joyce. I am strongly considering ditching card sales but hadn’t thought about them as purely a PR move — and it’s encouraging that you may have found an outlet for them that doesn’t require a lot of time on your part.
It is difficult to balance and keep all the income sources supplied with pottery. Recently I started teaching classes in my studio and that really put a kink in my pottery production. I sell my pottery at my local farmer’s market among other places. At the market many folks purchase gifts for friends or relative they take back home. I’m planning on offering note cards of my original photos taken in taken here in the mountains as a value added item to increase income with sales. We get a lot of tourists and I think adding these can help. I can see stocking stores with note cards would be much too time consuming and labor intensive.
Linda: What do you think your profit margin would be with the cards?
Just retired from 30 years of teaching art. Loved it, but it does not leave much energy for making art except summers. It did give me a rewarding career and a small retirement. All of my artist friends have multiple incomes. You have to. Even Wayne Thiebaud, my teacher refused to give up his day job at UC Davie when Alan Stone offered to support him in New York. Now I have time to work and can do the large works I wanted to do. Just sold a large painting in Paris. Made me happy in a way that many small sales do not. But it’s always good to sell. I am going to make Giclees of my best work and sell them to the local market. Thanks.
Jerry: Really appreciated this: “Made me happy in a way that many small sales do not.” Congratulations on the big sale.
This was timely and thought-provoking for me. I’ve been trying to work on both my ‘fine art’ as well as my ‘licensable art’ and wondering why I feel overwhelmed. I have two websites, two different styles, and two different markets. I also sell prints and products such as phone cases, etc. (not really very actively). I’d been relooking at just focusing on my fine art and then received a big illustration job, which caused me to second guess that thought process. I do feel like it all makes up pieces of the ‘pie’ but trying to focus is sometimes difficult. I think I need to analyze the time spent in relation to the financial gain and then make a decision to go in one direction or the other. I’ve also tried to look at it from the perspective of what I enjoy doing. The bottom line is that I enjoy the variety, but I also don’t want to spend a lot of time on things that don’t help me be a profitable artist. Your stationery example was perfect…because of course, I’ve done that too.
I’ve also been considering consolidating both styles into one website and branding it all under my studio or my name. For instance Lisa Congdon has both art and illustration on her site, but then…she’s Lisa Congdon. My assumption is that she got really good at one thing first and then expanded to the other.
Pam: Yes! Analyze it!
I was laid off in 2012 and have not been able to find another job as an administrative assistant. I have always sold my caricatures and portraits that I do from photographs but I started teaching art in private schools (I didn’t even know that I could without a college degree) but two hired me and I have thrived! It isn’t full-time at either school, only a few hours so I went to senior homes and asked if I could start painting lessons there. Again, very little money but it is some along with the teaching. Then, I added doing painting parties for adults and since there are so many wine and painting operations out there, I had to find another niche market so I do these for charities to raise money. I give 1/2 the proceeds to the charity and use the other half as my salary. Again, not steady but I’ve done about one of these a month since I started this year. So along with the teaching and tiny checks from the senior homes I’m okay, but still need more. I come no where close to when I was working full-time but have done very well and am doing what I love. I live off of multiple incomes!
I’m so happy this is working out for you, TPA. Not everyone can handle it. Sounds like you’re doing a great job at it.
Thank you for a thought provoking article. I expected the incentive to create multiple income streams, yet you clearly pointed out how this can be detrimental to what is most important. I had considered the note card idea, but you are the second person to point out the net profit is quite small for the amount of time required to manage the business side of it.
Susan: It’s great for some people, but not everyone can do the juggling act.
Thanks for posting this. I’m a longtime professional calligrapher who would like to be getting more commissions (I do lots of weddings, plus a variety of other things), but since orders are slow right now, I’m primarily paying the bills by teaching calligraphy. I get a lot of suggestions from people along the lines of, “You should do greeting cards!” as an income supplement. Nothing wrong with that, but they really don’t excite me the way a more involved commission does (like a one-of-a-kind hand-lettered proclamation with hand-painted leaves and vines and illuminated capitals). You’ve just given me a bit more ammunition to insist that there is a better solution, as well as a different way of thinking through those possible solutions (are they designed for the same audience?). Thank you!
Cheryl: People are so well meaning. And often clueless. Thank them for caring and then do what you need to.
I was thrilled when people got in touch to offer my art on their products, and so grateful they made and sent a couple of samples for free (value around $3- $4) so I’d go right ahead and order $50; I’d then pay out for booth halls and shows to sell those items, and then pay more for the insurance, travel and losing a day’s work in preparation. Result – lots of compliments but zero sales. All the $50 items ended up being given to charities so I felt good in that sense but never again….flattery helps your confidence but it don’t pay the bills.
Oh no! Sorry this happened to you, Karen.
I’ve seen a huge leap in my business since I started teaching online and it feels GOOD to know that I can make real money by painting. It’s a challenge to find time to teach, paint and market my work but because these different aspects of my art business support each other, it’s been a great career move.
I’m so happy to hear it’s going well, Angela. You understand the pitfalls and you’re working through them.
Your articles and advice are always on the money and I feel like they were written just for me. I also enjoy reading other artists’ comments. Thanks for the gift of your blog each week.
Aw. Thank YOU for being here, Miriam. I did write it just for you. 😉
i started selling prints of my paintings three years ago and it has become very successful. I have noticed; howev, that sales of original work in the same venue as my prints have dropped off. Have you encountered this phenomenon?
I was told 2 decades ago by a gallery owner not to put prints & originals together because people will go for the cheaper thing, but then decide they are unhappy because it is not as good as the original-so it leads to customer dissatisfaction…
It’s great to read everyone’s input here and thanks to Alyson for always being right on with her blog posts. I’m looking at two primary areas, teaching and selling large original art. I get easily distracted and think that I’d like to license my work or that I’d like to sell prints. Now I am going to stay focused and get this going in the right direction. Thanks everyone for sharing your experiences. I really appreciate it!
Oh, Pam, you give me too much credit. I’m not always right. I’d like to think I am, but others are happy to point out the holes in my arguments.
Nice post Alyson.
This definitely rang true with my own experiences. Years ago I was trying to peddle prints of my paintings. I would do this at art fairs, craft-shows, etc. What an exhausting experience. To print/ frame/ organize/ pack up/ and set up a 2 day (weekend) show would require close to 40 hours of work. Then I had to pay for my booth-fee and hope the weather was good and people would keep their kid’s cotton candy hands off my merchandise.
What an exhausting experience. I was probably making about $8/hour when it was all said and done and that would be a good weekend. I would sale an original painting here and there but It was few and far between.
I guess I was looking for exposure and hoping to “get my work out there” but I quickly learned that folks whom make a $20 impulse buy at an outdoor art show don’t generally purchase original works for $$$$.
It’s a hard lesson to learn, John. Did your profits go up?
Yes Alyson, my profits went way up and just as importantly my aggravation went way down. Art is always one of those inconsistent businesses in my own experience but the amount of profit I earn off a single original painting now off about 20 hours of work is equivalent to a profit made of approximately 40-100 prints sold @ 100+ hours of work. It’s been a no-brainer for me at least. My philosophy now is to create an extremely high end work of art and sell only to extremely high end clients. I offer nothing in between and nothing for “average folks”. High end all the way.
YES! So worth it to get rid of those frustrations.
Such a helpful article, thank you – I have the same dilemma, so this article has helped clarify the muddle in my head. I create, market, and try to sell 2 different subjects – realistic animals and spiritual art, under the same name and website, but with no structure as they clearly have different audiences, which require different shows/platforms etc.
I avoided doing any shows as I couldn’t decide which, unable to afford both kinds, so doing nothing is bad too. I paid out for sample products in each and as the guys above said, I ended up giving them to good causes.
Both subjects are close to my heart, and I get the same positive feedback from each audience and they each take the same time to create, but I know I have to decide to choose one, and devote to it, I’ve had this problem for 10 years (!!) and am no further on, just lots of sporadic and lucky bits and bobs in each subject along the way.
As they say “Find something you love and give it your heart”.
No wonder I have been so frustrated. Not only having health issues but the time I can muster is wasted like a hamster on a wheel. Ive got to focus more and just do my painting and marketing, which is plenty right now. Marketing isn’t easy for me either. It’s too left brained. LOL
Ive done the prints, the cards, on and on. Yes it is a headache and time consuming. But I will do it if a client requests it. Like cards of their dog that I painted for them. I don’t make much if any at all but I agree it is good PR and I love to make my collectors happy! I also send my cards out to one’s that are ailing, or at Christmas time. I have done paintings and cards just for the season. Has my website and name so finger’s crossed. Focus Focus Focus! And getting stronger health wise. Thanks Alyson! Cheral
I am focusing on originals for sale on my soon-to-launch website. I am definitely not interested in producing and inventorying prints..(ahh…clarity!) however, I can see the value of offering prints with a POD service online.
After researching, the leading contender is fotomoto. – It seems to be the only service that keeps people on your site rather than directing them away. It seems popular with photographers, so the quality must be on the higher end.
I haven’t tested them yet, has anyone here gone this route? I still imagine even with good marketing that print sales will be minimal, but it does provide an entry point for the casual buyer who could grow into a collector.
I loved your quote Claire…and it is so hard to choose but just pick one! It’s only for now, for a while, say for a season or a year.. You don’t have to leave the other aside forever 🙂
Marli: Most of my clients who do online prints use FineArtAmerica. Others use Art Storefronts.
I wish I had even ONE stream of income! seems to be all expenses
I agree that multiple income streams are necessary to be a full-time artist and I have three major ones with subsets under each:
Fine Art/Commissions – I generate the most income by far with my custom pet portrait business. Clients contact me via my website at http://www.johnkeelingpaintings.com. When I launched my site five years ago, I did with the understanding that it was the “price of admission” for being a freelance artist these days. I rarely sell my work on the site, but it is a great tool for connecting me with clients. I have work in local galleries as part of group shows, and have recently started participating in Plein Air events.
Licensing – I was approached by an artist agent last year and signed with her agency. I’ve been working A LOT to build my licensing portfolio and I believe that this will potentially become my most lucrative income stream OVER TIME. To put in perspective, to date I have only received a very small amount of income (several hundred dollars), as it is all royalty-based. I’m eager to see what the 3Q and 4Q this year bring in from my first licensed product in the marketplace.
Teaching – For years I was asked if I taught lessons, thinking it was something I SHOULD do, but hadn’t made the effort. I’ve been exploring this for two years now. It actually can be the easiest money with the lowest investment. I’ve sought out a range of opportunities, from private lessons to a nine-year-old to a group of seniors I teach once a month at a local Senior Living Community. I’ve given watercolor workshops with a fellow artist at neighborhood Community Centers and Galleries. This summer I started offering one-day workshops here in my home studio and garden.
Another thought… for me, the outdoor art show venue hasn’t been a profitable option. Sure, I can sell a lot of prints, but the sale of an original work is much less frequent. And by the time you add up the expenses (display materials, travel, lodging, etc.) it was often a wash.
Speaking of prints, one of my best business decisions was to invest in a professional quality scanner and printer. I started with supplying prints to my local west elm store for their “KC Local” program, after doing several pop-up events there.
This leads me to something I’m passionate about and believe is a key to success… relationships! I work hard at building and maintaining good relationships with people and places that can help my business grow.
I agree and disagree at the same time and here is why. On the one hand I want to sell my “serious” fine art. This is where I want to excel and be known. On the other hand, it’s expensive and I don’t yet have the audience or venues that I need. What shall I do?
Besides “keep creating” of course, it means I have to find other income producers at lower price points. The options I have chosen for this are three Print on Demand services. 1) Greeting Card Universe, which is limited totally to greeting cards and they are VERY fussy – which I consider to be excellent training. 2) Society6, who, while they do offer a plethora of product types interests me solely because they have such things as “framed art prints” and “framed mini art prints” and a few other similar decorative options. And that is what I am concentrating on with them. 3)Zazzle, who have their own plethora of products and they make designing easy (although their navigation is frustrating as all get out!) and more importantly, product divisions (i.e., collections) easy to build and easy for buyers to use.
Will I do shows? Maybe some local ones. Will I seek physical venues? Absolutely. Will I teach? Not at the moment.