If you are an artist hoping to make a living selling art online, you might be wondering exactly how it is done.
For most artists, selling original artwork online alone will not generate enough income to make a living. As an artist, you can only make so much art.
But . . . we know it happens. We see it all the time. Artists in fact do make a living selling art online. They’re doing it right now.
So. Exactly how do artists make a living selling art online?
Artists make a living selling art online by diversifying the products and services they sell and setting up multiple streams of income. Multiple income streams ensure that the artist is protected from the ups and downs of the art market.
Artists who succeed at earning a living online have developed a combination of one or more of the following sources of income:
- Selling original art on their own website, artist marketplaces, or online galleries;
- Selling art prints;
- Taking commissions;
- Selling digital downloads;
- Creating online courses;
- Coaching online;
- Selling merchandise;
- Selling specialized tools or materials;
- Publishing a book or
- Selling magazine articles;
- Licensing artwork to manufacturers and
- Developing patrons.
Artists that make a living selling art online to set up a combination of one or more of these income streams. The most successful tend to fully develop one revenue stream at a time. However, sometimes one income stream feeds into and supports another. For example, teaching online might also support selling specialized tools and materials to your students.
The following are 12 ways artists set up income streams to make a living selling art online:
Sell Original Art
The most obvious way that artists make a living selling art online is by selling their original artworks. Artists can sell their original pieces on their own website, on artist market places, as well as in online galleries.
Selling art on your own website
Selling original art on your own website is the gold star in art marketing. However, it is not without difficulty. In order to set up your own website, you will need to find a website host, learn to build the website (or pay a developer), set up payment processing, and set up shipping profiles. In addition, you will need to photograph your work and create compelling sales copy that entices your collectors to purchase your artwork.
Although building your own website can be a daunting task, the reward can be great because you are not sharing any of the profits of your sale. In addition, when you have your own website, you are not subject to the rules of marketplaces and online galleries which can change without notice. When you have your own website, you own your own piece of real estate in cyberspace and can create a customized user experience.
Building your own website is recommended for artists who have some technical ability. In order to build your own website, you will need to build the website, photograph your artwork and create sales listings.
This option is also recommended for artists who have the budget to hire a website developer. Website development can cost as low as a few hundred dollars, but the sky is the limit. Large and complicated sites can cost several thousand dollars to develop.
Building your own website is not recommended for anyone who does not care to deal with technical issues or cannot afford to hire a web developer.
Selling art in an artist marketplace
Selling your art in an artist marketplace can be a fast and easy way to get your artwork up and available for sale online. Artist market places such as Etsy, Amazon Handmade, and AC Moore are designed to help artists and makers get their works online quickly and efficiently. The overall look and feel of the user experience has been pre-determined and offer a shortcut to selling your art online.
An artist marketplace can also be a good option to get your work seen. Market places tend to advertise for their customers so that you don’t have to. What this means is that your work is likely to be discovered by new buyers who probably wouldn’t have found you by any other means.
Challenges of Marketplaces
There are a few downsides to using artist market places though. The first and most important problem is that you don’t get to own your connection to your buyer. Once you have completed the sale, you can no longer contact your buyer to promote new artwork.
In addition, in the marketplace, your artwork will be shown next to similar artworks that may be lower quality and/or priced differently. This is not so much a problem for a hobbyist, but if you are trying to make a living selling art online, it is imperative that you are able to make a profit on each sale.
The most troubling downside to using a marketplace is that your storefront can be shut down without notice at any time. This can happen if the marketplace has changed its terms of service or if they have decided you have violated their terms of service.
Shut downs are a well-known problem with Etsy, who has been known to shut down shops with no explanation. Sudden shop closure is very distressing for artists who have invested sweat equity in building up an online presence, especially if they have come to rely on the income to make a living selling art online.
Artist market places are a good option for artists who are not yet ready to develop their own website. A marketplace is also a good option for newer artists who have not yet developed a social media following, email list or other marketing plan.
It is fine to use the marketplace to get up and running quickly, or to expand the reach of your current operation. However, if you choose to use a marketplace, keep in mind that you should be developing a relationship with your buyer so that you can continue to market future works to them.
Selling art in an online gallery
The difference between an online gallery and an artist marketplace is that the online gallery is owned by a business entity that curates the art collection. Typically, an artist will need to apply to be accepted into the online gallery. Some online galleries are by invitation only.
The benefit of an online art gallery is that your work will be represented and marketed to qualified buyers. Representation in a reputable gallery will add credibility to your work as an artist. A good online gallery may be able to sell enough artwork to make up a substantial portion of your artist income.
The down side of selling in an online gallery is the barrier to entry. It can be difficult to find the opportunity, much less be selected. Another downside is that you will pay a substantial commission on the artwork sold. Most online galleries earn 50% of your sales proceeds. This means that your artwork will need to be priced low enough to remain competitive, yet high enough to be profitable.
It is beneficial to search for and apply to online galleries that can help your artwork reach a larger audience. However, before applying, you will need to adjust your pricing so that you can afford to pay yourself, as well as the gallery.
Sell Art Prints
An artist can only make so much original art. Once an artist is making the maximum they are able to produce, selling art prints becomes a great option to expand sales.
The benefit of selling prints is that it maximizes revenue. You create the artwork once, and then sell it multiple times. It sounds pretty ideal, except there is a danger. You must be careful that you are not undercutting the sales of your own original artwork.
Sometimes, buyers can opt for a lesser expensive print rather than purchasing an original. To avoid this, you should be careful to sell the original artwork first before releasing prints. In addition, you can size your prints differently than the originals to offer another distinguishing factor.
Options for Sculptors
3-D artists might think that prints are not an option because of the nature of their original artworks. This actually isn’t true. Artists that create sculpture and functional work must take detail shots of their pieces when creating their sales listings. These detail shots can make excellent images for prints.
In addition to prints, 3-D artists also have the option of creating molds and making multiple copies of the original. This is regularly done by sculptures who work in bronze or other casting media.
When selling prints, it’s important to decide ahead of time whether you will sell a limited edition, or an open edition.
A limited-edition print run means that you agree in advance that you will only sell a specified number of prints of each original. Choose your limited edition print run based upon how many you think you can reasonably sell in the next five years. This number can be as low as five, or as high as 300.
Creating a limited edition print run adds exclusivity and value to your prints. To indicate a print is a limited edition, you should also number the print when you sign it. Typically, an artist would indicate a print is one of 25 by writing “1/25” after their signature.
If your print run is an open edition, it means that you will sell as many as you can. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, but it tends to be less exclusive and therefore less valuable than a limited-edition print. You will still sign the print, but you will not add a numerical indication after your signature.
You should note that it is an open edition print in the item description so that the buyer has full knowledge of your intention to continue to sell as many prints as you can.
Creating the Print
When you create your print, you will need to make a high-quality digital image of your original artwork. You can use a high-resolution camera, or you can scan your artwork. You can also hire this job out to a photographer or graphics expert.
Once you have a high-resolution digital image of your original artwork, you can send it out for printing.
It is important to test your printer service before offering your prints for sale. Make sure to order a print in a smaller size so that you can see and feel the quality of the print. Once you are satisfied, you can begin listing your prints for sale just as you do your original artwork.
Taking commissions can be a controversial subject among artists. Some artist dislike the idea of making artwork to someone else’s specifications and prefer to only create artworks in their own vision.
However, having the talent and knowledge to help someone create a piece of artwork they could not do on their own is a gift. It’s also a great way to create an additional revenue stream for your art business.
Commissions can be a source for very large projects. Some artists are able to make a living selling art online from commissions alone.
Art consultants and designers commission large scale artworks when companies and public entities complete new building projects or finish large renovations. In some cities, new building projects are required to spend a small percentage of their budget specifically on public artwork. These artworks are often commissioned.
Commissions are best suited to artists who are excellent at communicating with non-artists. If you are interested in taking commissions, you should create a step-by-step process in handling them. Your buyer should know exactly how the artwork will be made, how long it will take, and what approvals they will need to give along the way. They should also know in advance how much the deposit will be, how much the total price will be, and when the piece will be finished.
Commissions are recommended for artists who enjoy the collaborative process. Commissions require flexibility and problem-solving skills. Artists who prefer to create only their own artistic vision should avoid commission work.
Also check out this article about deciding whether to take commissions, this detailed guide on assessing commission offers, and this seven-step process on handling commissions if you decide to take one on.
Sell Digital Downloads
Digital downloads are electronic files that are sold and downloaded online. No physical product is involved in the sale of a digital download. There is no shipping. When a buyer purchases a digital download, the electronic file is immediately available to download onto the buyer’s computer or device.
Digital downloads are an often overlooked revenue stream that is ripe for artists. A few examples of digital downloads include:
- Digitized artwork that your buyer can print;
- Greeting cards;
- Graphic and design assets;
- Audio Files;
- Coloring pages;
- Creative puzzles and games; and
- Apps and software solutions
Digital downloads are only limited by your imagination. A quick search of “digital download” on Etsy and Creative Market will turn up loads of ideas as to the types of files that buyers are searching for. Often times, artists already have these types of work on hand from previous projects. You can use the same markets, or your own website, to sell digital downloads.
Create Online Courses
Online courses are a type of digital download, but they deserve a category of their own. Why? Because it’s quite possible to earn your entire income from online courses alone, taking the pressure off of selling any original artwork at all.
Artists who are willing to teach how they make art are in demand. There are two ways to think about course creation: project-based or skill-based.
Project Based Courses
Project-based courses are very popular among hobbyists. For example, how to paint a specific scene. In a project-based course, the instructor teaches step-by-step how to complete the specific project. The goal of the student is to copy and create exactly what the instructor is demonstrating.
Project-based courses are ideal for art instructors who are interested in building up a group of classes that followers can binge-watch. These classes tend to be less expensive, and are watched by the consumer many times. Because of this, project-based courses can lead to a following of students that will be interested in purchasing the next courses you create. Not only that, they will also crossover to purchase your artwork.
Courses that are project-based sell well on platforms like Skillshare. But, depending on how you create your course, you can also sell it on your own website and even marketplaces like Etsy.
Skill-based courses are very popular among hobbyist as well as professionals. In a skill-based course, the instructor focuses on teaching a specific skill, for example, how to paint with watercolor. Skill-based courses tend to be more in-depth, and more expensive.
The instructor may use several projects to demonstrate and teach the skill, but the end goal is that the student will be able to use their own creativity to design their own projects after they have acquired the skill.
Courses that are skill-based do well on platforms like Udemy and Teachable. But again, just like the project-based courses, you can also sell skill-based courses on your own website or even marketplaces like Etsy.
Online coaching is a good alternative for artists who do not want to create a formalized course, but still want to teach. There are a couple ways to structure online coaching:
In a subscription-based coaching program, a student would pay the artist a pre-set fee to meet online. During the coaching call, the artist would be available to answer technical questions, review artwork and provide feedback and suggestions for improvement, as well as set goals or assignments to be completed before the next online meeting.
Subscription-based coaching can easily be accomplished through an online chat like FaceTime (an apple-based application), Zoom, or Google Meet. Meetings, could be scheduled weekly, monthly, or quarterly depending upon your student’s needs.
Group coaching is similar to the subscription-based coaching, but a little more structured. In group coaching, 3 to 5 students will meet online with the instructor to accomplish a specific goal. It is similar to a skill-based course, except that the exact path has not been laid out ahead of time.
In a group coaching situation, the group is encouraged to bring questions and solutions to the group. Goals are set before the next meeting. The instructor is there to help answer more technical and advanced questions, as well as keep the group on track.
The instructor can set the fees based upon time spent, or goal accomplished. As above, meetings can occur on Zoom or Google Meet.
Online parties are a wonderful way for artists to develop a new offering during the pandemic, or any time getting together is just inconvenient.
Artists can offer an online party in which a group of children or adults meet with the artist to create a fun project. The idea here is to keep it light and easy. The participants should be able to socialize online while the instruction is going on.
The participants pay a fee to the instructor in advance. The instructor gives each participant a supply list to have ready on hand on the date of the party.
Alternatively, the instructor can sell the needed supplies and earn additional revenue. When the day of the party arrives, each participant logs on, and the instructor assists in creating a small but fun project.
Selling merchandise is a lot like selling prints …. except, it can make a lot more sense. A collector may absolutely love love love your artwork, but doesn’t purchase it because they have run out of room in their home to display it, or it simply doesn’t go with their decor. Merchandise solves this problem, and not only that, can turn your art into a product that is very giftable.
The options for creating merchandise are limitless. From a small coffee cup to an upholstered chair donning your artwork, the sky is the limit. Not only are there print-on-demand companies that will create and drop ship the merchandise for you, but you can also create your own merchandise by purchasing and artfully altering products already available to you.
These products can be sold through your website, and also directly through the print on demand companies that create them for you. For example, check out our test store on Teespring called “A Snarky Artist“ that has funny artist T-shirt sayings.
If you want to learn more about drop shipping your art via print-on-demand companies, check out this article. You find a full explanation of print-on-demand as well as links to popular services.
Consider Your Buyer’s Needs and Wants
There are a few things to think about before creating merchandise:
Think about who is currently buying your artwork. What is their reason for purchasing your art? Although a greeting card may seem like a natural add on to your artwork, have you ever hung a picture on a wall and then thought you need to send a card right away? It doesn’t really make sense, does it?
However, you may have hung a picture on a wall and thought you might like to have a throw pillow that matches it.
You must target your buyer with the type of merchandise they would associate with your artwork. So, if you typically sell your artwork to a person who has just re-designed their living room, perhaps a throw pillow or side chair makes more sense than a greeting card.
Then again, if you are creating graphic-based designs that are trendy, sweatshirts or maybe even skateboard decks are the way to go. Just make sure you know who your audience is and select merchandise they want to buy with your art.
Consider Your Profit Margin
Another thing to think about when selling merchandise is your profit margins. Merchandise is not created equally. For example, when it comes to clothing, you might make five dollars on a print-on-demand T-shirt. However, you may be able to make $35 on print-on-demand leggings.
The same is true in all categories so try to choose merchandise that will bring you the best profits for your efforts. After all, the whole point of setting up a merchandise revenue stream is to help you make a living selling art online.
Sell a Specialized Tool Or Material
Part of being an artist is coming up with solutions that help you create your art. This being the case, you have likely invented a specialized tool or maybe even the material to create your artwork. It’s part of what makes your work so unique, right?
These unique tools and materials are saleable. You may not have thought of it as an asset, but it surely is. And now, you can produce more of these tools or materials you’ve invented … or… create and sell tutorials so that other people can make it themselves.
But what if you haven’t invented a new tool or material? No problem, you can apply for a wholesale account and sell the materials that you use right on your own website.
If you don’t want to go to the hassle of buying an inventory to sell, you can also recommend products that you regularly and earn a small affiliate fee. This is particularly useful for artists who teach or coach.
Publish a Book
Publishing a book isn’t limited to writers, but many artists overlook this option. Publishing companies are accepting book proposals for art-related books.
Although the earnings on a published book are not high, the credibility and attention a published book can bring are truly amazing. Even if you’re not publishing a book full of your own art, there’s no reason why you can’t curate a collection of art.
If publishing a book seems daunting, consider teaming up and becoming a co-author.
Some ideas for book topics are:
- Coloringbook with your art;
- Curated survey of contemporary art in your field;
- How-to book;
- Illustrate a children’s book; and
- Art History.
Links to Publishers Looking for Art Books
Links to guidelines from publishing companies interested in topics related to art include:
Self Publishing is a Good Option
If you cannot get a publishing deal with a publishing company, not to worry. Amazon has a program for self-publishing called Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP).
With KDP, you write and edit your own book, upload it with your cover, and click “publish.” Once KDP has approved your book, it will be added to the Amazon store in your selected categories. You can also request that KDP include your book in it’s expanded distribution, which means that bookstores around the world will have the opportunity to purchase it in bulk.
Once published on KDP, your new book will be print-on-demand, which means a copy will be printed and shipped out when it’s purchased on the Amazon platform. In addition, you can sell the book as an ebook as well. Each time a copy of your book is sold, you earn a royalty.
If you’re thinking self-publishing isn’t a credible way to publish, think again. You’d be surprised how many best sellers on Amazon are self-published through KDP.
Write Articles for Magazines
If you can write and/or curate art for a book, you can certainly do the same for a magazine article. Although the process is much shorter, it is essentially the same.
When it comes to magazine article writing, it is best to reverse-engineer the process. In other words, locate a magazine you are interested in, check out their call for articles/submissions guidelines and then write your submission. If you reverse engineer, you’re much more likely to be accepted.
Compensation vs Advertising Costs
Magazine articles are not the most lucrative endeavor, payments for articles run $50 – 500. However, when you compare it to what it would cost for a full-size ad in the same magazine, it’s a great deal.
Your byline (author name, short biography, and contact info) are published with your article, which will bring new buyers (or students) right to you. You really can’t pay for that kind of advertising. It’s like getting paid to advertise.
Magazine Publishers Submissions Guidelines
These two Publishers looking for article submissions for multiple art magazines are:
License Your Artwork
Manufacturers license artwork to print on their products. Almost all the products you find in stores involve some sort of art licensing. Images on paper products like napkins, or home decor items like tableware, are licensed by manufacturers.
Almost everything you purchase at retail has some sort of art or design. If you have a developed style and body of work, your artwork may be a good candidate for licensing.
The benefit of licensing is you receive a royalty every time your artwork is printed on a product. The downside is creating and managing relationships with manufacturers. Licensing involves copyrights, contracts and relationship building.
Surtex Trade Show
If you are new to licensing, consider attending a Surtex conference. The Surtex show is held in New York every year and is the premier place to be for art licensing if you are an artist or designer. Surtex connects artists with agents and manufacturers.
Art Licensing Agents
If you cannot attend a Surtex show, there are agents that will help you pitch your artwork to companies that will license your artwork. These agents will handle the licensing, so all you really have to do is keep creating.
Before applying to an art licensing agent, make sure to read through their submission guidelines. Agents have specialties and work with a portfolio of manufacturers and products. Review their sites carefully to determine whether your art fits into their specialty.
Licensing Agents Currently Accepting Submissions
Here is a list of art licensing agents that are currently accepting applications. It’s not an exhaustive list, but it’s a great place to begin your research.
Penny Lane Fine Art and Licensing
Developing patrons is an age-old art business plan. The idea is that your patron(s) will pay you a stipend to support your artistic endeavors. Historically, artists such as Michelangelo were supported by patrons which is what allowed them to work for years on a single piece of art.
Develop a Following of Fans
The modern version of this income stream for artists involves developing a following of fans that will contribute a small monthly payment. Artists that are able to develop a sizable supportive following are able to create artwork without the limitations of its marketability.
The most simple form of patronage is to place a link on your website that allows fans to send a financial contribution via PayPal or Venmo. You can set up a small monthly contribution just like public television.
Alternatively, you can use a platform like Patreon or Liberapay. These platforms are designed to help artists crowdfund projects that would not otherwise be monetized.
It would be neglectful to not mention YouTube in this category. Artists who are able to develop a strong following on YouTube can create an income stream if their viewing time meets YouTube’s minimum standards.
The downside of developing patrons is the substantial amount of effort and time it takes to create a following that can be monetized.
Artists must create a following through a long-term commitment to creating ongoing content through mediums like blogging podcasting or you tubing. However, once you have created a sizable audience, all of your marketing efforts become much easier. This long-term investment is extremely valuable for those artists who are willing to put in the time and effort.
Artists are able to make a living selling art online diversifying their income streams.
Diversifying income streams insulates artists from the ups and downs of art business. For example, an artist may do well selling their original art during certain seasons of the year, but experience a dip at other times of the year. To make up for this, an artist will rely on other sources of income.
Income streams can be difficult to establish. Trying to build multiple income streams at the same time can lead to frustration and failure. Because of this, it is important that you choose wisely and then focus all of your energy and attention on building one income stream at a time.