Thoughts about Licensing & Art Careers

A few weeks ago I went on vacation for a week to Las Vegas with my husband. While there we also attended The International Licensing Show. Wow what an experience that was! Our attendance was a little backwards - in that the companies and talents with booths at the show were seeking licensing opportunities - just like us. But that's okay since we had gone to spend our time learning and observing.

It was well worth it. What I learned only served to confirm a viewpoint I've had for some time now. That the real action - the real opportunities - are much more readily available when you are meeting people in person (such as at trade shows and events). If you want to be a serious working artist you need to really "put yourself out there" in the flesh - and no the internet isn't enough.

Let me explain. (And just by way of reference I used to be a small business and marketing consultant for a number of years so hopefully I have some small measure of credibility in this area. Let's hope!)

The internet is a powerful tool - and I'm grateful to have it. But it doesn't take the place of real live in the flesh connections. What's more with powerful website building tools and 8 year olds familiar with Photoshop the line between amateur and professional is terribly blurry. Our whole society is far more media and marketing savvy then in generations past. These days you find teenagers with business cards and individuals with a sophisticated advertising concepts and personal brand awareness. This is fantastic - but also really confusing for companies looking to license art - and frustrating for the artists looking to license.

These days companies are so inundated with licensing requests via email or internet sources that they rarely give them much attention. They rely on the old standards more then ever to tell them who the real players are in the current art market. And those players are attending shows, mailing portfolios and setting up face to face meetings. Meanwhile hopeful artists are sitting at home with lovely web sites wondering why their art won't sell or why they fail to obtain any licensing.  Well the answer to that is generally one of two options.

1. Quality - Is your art any GOOD?

Before the internet if someone wanted to start a career as a licensed artist they generally started with education. If they chose the formal route they would have received feedback and criticism from their professors. If they did not receive a formal education then the process of starting off on their professional art licensing career would be a critical one - which would serve to inform them of their suitability for the field. (The smart ones would seek out objective feedback and criticism of their work before trotting off into the professional world.) If they chose to work with an agent the agent would serve as this filter - giving valuable feedback about the quality of the artists work and what the market was "looking for". If they chose to find their own opportunities this meant hoofing it - going out with (or mailing) resumes, cover letters, promotional materials and portfolios.

All this work served as an excellent weeding out process to separate the amateur from the professional. This difference is important and the truth is that one is not a professional simply but putting that on a business card. What separates an amateur from a professional is their work and their presentation. Now I'm not talking about the STYLE of art - but rather the QUALITY. THE main component at the licensing show we attended was the QUALITY. Sure there was plenty of art I didn't care for - absolutely. And there was a vast range of very different styles. But every last booth at this show had an incredible level of professionalism. And even the art I didn't care for was of excellent QUALITY.

I understand it can be hard to objectively look at your own work. It can also be hard to find objective criticisms if you are looking to only family, friends and co-workers for critique. Even persons with an educated eye for art aren't always helpful. Many art teachers are frustrated artists themselves and gallery owners and newspaper critics come with their own sets of prejudices and biases.

So what do you do? VOLUME. Get as many opinions from as many educated sources as you can. Solicit detailed feedback and critiques. Learn from them and grow. If the only people who've ever told you that your art was beautiful were related to you then you're not doing it right. Toughen up - submit to some local juried art shows - see if you get in - and if you don't ask why. And I don't want to hear any excuses such as "none of the art shows in my area cater to my genre". Then cater to theirs. If they only want landscapes then do some landscapes. If you can paint then you can paint. Consider it good practice and remember if you are looking to get into licensing you'll need to be good at being flexible and giving the clients what they want. Very very few artists make a career licensing only what they want to paint. Most have to work with their clients to accommodate a specific concept or trend.

2. Visibility - Get out there!

Simply popping a website up on the internet is not enough. You must research opportunities and go after them. Attend trade shows. Set up appointments with licensing companies and talk to them in person. Nothing can replace that personal relationship.

Be smart and observe the type of art, trends, and quality of work you see at shows. Be professional, and be prepared. Attend shows with a portfolio under your arm that you can whip out at a moments notice.

Look for new opportunities! Think outside the box! What would you like to see your art on? What unique product would one of your images be perfect for? Go to stores and write down the names of manufacturers that appear on products. Then use the internet to look up the contact info for these companies.

DON'T BE LAZY! So many artists these days simply model their career after another artist they admire. They even hound the licensing companies of other artists to find opportunities for themselves there. That is the silliest thing! Generally the last place you want to be is with a company that already has several other artists with work similar to your own signed. Can you say over saturation? Do you want to stand out in a crowd or get lost in it?

Be PROFESSIONAL - I can't say it enough. I own a company that licenses a handful of artist for digital stickers. I regularly get licensing requests. I cannot believe the lack of professionalism on the part of most of the people that email me. An over casual tone is never appropriate. Even if you think you "know" the person you are emailing - still be professional. And always always respond. Even if you get a rejection - respond with a "thank you for your time". You never know what situation might lead to another. Even if an artist isn't a good fit for our company I keep everyone in my mind when I network with other business owners and persons in the industry. If someone impressed me with their professionalism I will never hesitate to recommend them - even if they weren't signed with my company.

So if you are going to burn a bridge make sure it's worth it. ;)


So in a nutshell if you are having trouble obtaining licensing - work these two points. If it's not one - its the other.

I hope you've found this helpful! Feel free to post comments or questions.



UPDATE: Fellow artist and friend Jessica Galbreth has just released her highly anticipated Artist Manual Book.  Great info for budding artists who want to learn more about making it as a professional.