What I really think about art licensing (and any business in general)


As you have seen on Smart Creative Women, I have quite a few artists that have licensed their art on products. If you know anything about me, you may know that I have licensed some of my illustrations on products as well. You may have heard me mention in my interviews that I think many people are hungry for information on getting royalties for their art because they feel like other fields have dried up, and because they think that there is potentially quite a bit of money to be made in licensing. You have also heard me say on countless occasions that “it is tricky business.”

So I want to come clean with my thoughts on art licensing, and you may not like what I have to say. Licensing your art on products is not the holy grail, end-all solution to making a living as an artist.

Here is what I have to say after watching, observing and experiencing this industry:

Be Your Own Solution. Take matters in your own hands.

What do I mean by this?

I see creative people jump on board who have no understanding of the concept of royalties.  I see people try to absorb any tidbit of information from any source to try to understand this not-remotely-new avenue to selling their art. They are trying to process information on what it means to have a manufacturer use their art without revamping their portfolios first.

Your art has to appeal to people who are buying something. That something is not just YOUR art. It is an apron, a coffee cup, a skateboard. Your art is helping sell the product. If you don’t grasp this, you will not survive this particular industry.

Then I see artists revamp their portfolios without learning how much hustling and marketing is involved. They make beautiful art and put it online and wait. And wait. And wait. The reality is: art buyers for these companies are hugely overloaded, and they are NOT online searching for you. Nor do they hang out at traditional editorial freelance websites. Ouch, I know. The reality is: they barely have time to answer emails.

Am I am saying that this is a bad avenue to make a profit off your talents? Not at all.

Am I saying that you must market and hustle the heck out of an appropriate portfolio? Absolutely.

I have more to say. This is where the good news and bad news comes into play.

I believe more than ever that creative people have to go out and cultivate their own audience and that their audience is not necessarily an art manufacturer. We have seen retailers dry up, flourish, and dry up again as they try to struggle pay rent keep their stores open and find customers. If they have to put a product that has your art on it on the clearance table, watch out. They may not purchase your products with your designs on them again. It may not be because your art was not good enough, it may simply be because your art was on umbrellas, and it did not rain much that year, so umbrellas went into the saleroom.

If you want to understand art licensing, get to know a shop owner. Ask them how and why they buy certain products.  To them it is about the sale, sale, sale to their customer that you have never met. This does not mean it cannot work; it just means that when you create your art at home, it has passed through many hands and reps and critics before it reaches a point where it is being sold. You are involved in none of those decisions, meetings or sales. Bad decisions are costly to everyone involved, and they are hesitant (as in scared spitless) to repeat them.

The most successful artists getting into licensing today are the artists who have an audience already in place. They have created their own products, attended art fairs, and sold online to friends. They have gotten feedback, changed and morphed their art and their own products to suit a buyer’s need. If the words “selling out” have crossed your mind, then you are not in the right mindset.

Some of these artists have changed and morphed and responded to customers because to survive, they have HAD to. They were able to do this because they met the public, the buyer, directly. They have overheard comments like, “I wish it wasn’t in black” or “can you make this for a boy?” They have spent several years getting a clear and focused vision of their brand, their look and their style, and they got it nailed down. That doesn’t mean that they can’t change it. It also doesn’t mean they are not bringing their unique passion and style to their art. It means they have successfully combined their point of view into something that sells.

Risk-adverse retailers are hesitating to take chances, and manufacturers want to deliver a proven product. An artist with a proven audience is more likely to be taken seriously.

This does not necessarily mean they are making millions already. It can also come in the form of social proof with a large and active online following.

Don’t like hearing that? Look at it this way. Why wouldn’t you want to take that approach? Why wouldn’t you want to do anything you could to find your own buyers, meet your own fans, and sell your art directly to the public? Having your own following ensures more financial security in the long run. You will be more willing to adapt to what people are praising you for and complimenting you on. It also gives you the opportunity to take some risks with your style and subject matter. You have the opportunity to start something new, test the waters.

It gives you the opportunity to be your own solution. Don’t wait for someone else to send you business, get out there and find your customers.

This is much, MUCH better than hearing a manufacturer say that your art (which can also mean the product) didn’t sell. I believe, in this global economy, it is more important than ever to cultivate a personal relationship with your buyers. This is something that ANY business can apply. You have the opportunity for them to get to know you, appreciate your talents and passions. And isn’t that one of the reasons that you started doing art in the beginning?

  • You nailed it, girlfriend!

    • Monica Lee

      Yeah! Nice of you to think so 🙂 Thank you, Ronnie!

  • Willingness to be adaptive is definitely key in the licensing business. Well said!

    • Monica Lee

      Thank you Denise…cute monsters on your site BTW! I love scary cute stuff!

  • Great info and tips!! Thank you so much, Monica and CUTE art, btw!! 🙂

    • Monica Lee

      Thank you!!!

  • So true! This isn’t easy money, royalties from one license don’t last for years and you have to have the following in spades: Patience, Persistence, Tenacity and a flexible attitude.

    • Monica Lee

      You need a lot of P+P+T! haha!

  • Bravo!! Well said Monica. Now I’ll pass this on to my ‘fine’ artist friends that balked at me when my paintings showed up at Target. Very grateful that I can earn a living with my art and if they consider that selling out-then I’ve sold out 🙂

    • Monica Lee

      I am so glad you liked it, Rita! Everybody had their own path. There is no right or wrong way to make a living at creating! Let’s all stop judging each other, right?

  • You DID nail it! Well, well written Monica!

  • to what extent do they want the ‘proof’ ? I don’t have a super large following online, but I do have an online presence, I sell at shows and in a local boutique. I don’t sell in the 1000s but I have gotten back a lot of feed back from consumers on what they like or don’t like about my offerings.

    • Monica Lee

      Laurie, that phrase “social proof” is weird, right? Somehow manufacturers feel less worried if they know people already like and buy your art. So what you would emphasize in your marketing is that fact that you HAVE an online presence and that you already sell to boutiques and at shows. That is terrific!

  • Very helpful straight talk. Licensing has been so different from freelance illustration, but in a good way. Your points confirm what I still need to do. Thank you!

  • Monica’s Message! ; )
    Absolutely true! True of licensing, true of illustrating, true of exhibiting. Art is a business of RELATIONSHIPS!
    I also think that sometimes artists are so concerned with their own work and their own promotion that they can turn people off.
    Building relationships isn’t all about just promoting yourself it is also about being part of a community. And caring about the community: manufacturers, buyers, art directors, artists, writers, editors, agents. Supporting other people’s work is good karma and good business.

    (Ahem, where did I get this soap box? *steps off and gets some tea* : )

  • Ina

    This helped me loads! It’s great to hear some straight up advice and to be honest, those “negative” sides don’t even seem so probmlematic in the first place. And many things that you mentioned were things that I had kind of figured out like that too, so I’m not that surprised. You described it in a very logical way anyways, I can totally understand why retailers think how they think. However, I rather still have to learn much much more about building an online presence and “finding” my customers, at the moment that feels the hardest to me. So if you ever post some tips for that, I would be hightly interested in that as well!
    Awesome job on this post though! Keep telling it straight! 🙂

    • Monica Lee

      I am glad you liked it Ina! You know, that is exactly what I thought…take it a step further and share what it takes to build an online presence and find customers! Ok, I am on it!

      • Ina

        Oh that’s just awesome! Thanks for doing that! Love to see what you come up with

  • Fantastic article, back to the bare bones of marketing

  • In terms of usefulness, I’ll take reality over wishful thinking any day. Thanks for the article.

    • Monica Lee

      Thanks Dianne! I think people deal better when someones gives it to them straight…although it is just my opinion!

  • I recently decided to slowly get back into my passion of painting/illustration…and have my art inspired by the jewelry I currently make. Hopefully, I can create art customers from my current jewelry customers (which are 99% brides)…well, that’s the plan anyway 🙂

    Thanks, Monica…just what I needed!

    • Monica Lee

      I like that you have a plan!! That is half the battle!

  • Can you hear me applauding….? :-)).

  • I am so blown away by your ability to articulate this information, which could not ever possibly come from anything but personal experience and wisdom. I feel like I’ve lived everything you are describing, first hand, and wow did you describe it! Totally, totally get it. This is for sure one of the mose accurate descriptions of licensing I’ve read, PLUS, it comes with a giant cupcake of really great advice!!

  • Trish @theOldPostRoad

    Very interesting article! I am just starting on this whole marketing thing. Had to conquer my own insecurities, first! Thanks for writing this!

  • Excellant information Monica. I guess we all are climbing that same “staircase” with our artwork. Each step builds on another, but that same question keeps following me around lke a knat, what and who now. Hope that makes sense!

    I am also like Ina, I want to know who my customers are…the ones that aren’t in my receipt book. I adore the ones that are already there ofcourse!