Q+A: How to create the work you love and make money at the same time.

Q+A illustration by Amy of Pikaland!

I received a question from Kayla, a few months ago, who writes:

Dear Amy,

I am currently working full time as a graphic designer, but I what I really love is illustration. And what’s conflicting is that I am doing graphic design work with one style, while my illustration style is another. The style that I work with on my day job is very safe – a generic, vector style that seems to be able to sell well. But on the other hand, I’m having trouble promoting my personal illustrations, which is dark, graphic and moody. I told myself that I could only transition to full-time freelance if I can find a way to market my personal illustration, which seems doubly hard. I don’t want to be a freelancer and yet create designs that do not speak to me on a personal level because I don’t see myself being happier for it in the long run. How do I create the work I love and make money at the same time?

Hi Kayla!

You’re right – there are styles that are more commercially viable, and because of this fact, there are industries out there who are looking for illustrators who can produce almost the same style as another, because it’s popular. There’s no dearth of talent, that’s for sure!

Don’t listen to people who tell you that there isn’t a market for your work. I always tell my students that an illustrator’s style isn’t the problem.  The market out there is HUGE. There are niches, and sub-niches and sub-sub-niches that it’s wild. The internet and globalization has created an infinite category of niches, and you need to capitalize on it! There is no such thing as wrong work – the main reason why you’re not getting any clients or paid work is because you’re aiming for the wrong market.

So, here’s what you need to do:

Step 1:

Take a long, hard look at your own work and answer these questions.

Describe your work as much as you can. Is it dark, scary, moody and yet uplifting in some way, etc? Where do you see it belong? Books, stationery, clothes, bags, as a children’s book, etc? What age group do you think you’ll attract? What is the message you’re trying to send out?

Step 2:

Find brands/companies/people who would benefit from your style, and an audience that mirrors the information you come up with at Step 1.

Who do you think would love to work with you – so that they can achieve their goal and yours? Let’s be honest here – if your work isn’t what most people are after, then don’t go after these people. Never mind if it’s Target, Anthropologie or Marks & Spencers. You don’t necessarily have to market to the masses to be successful. Carve out your own way. Find these smaller markets that would need your help and your work, and grow with them. And I will say this – this part is the hardest part of your research, because you need to be open to different possibilities and stretch yourself beyond what you know. How do you do this? Ask your friends/families, and yes, consult the search oracle – Google.

Go where you’re needed, instead of forcing your style on others and you’ll find that it won’t be so much as an uphill struggle when it comes to making money doing the work you love.


In the comments below, tell me:

What’s the single most effective strategy you’ve used to make money from work that you love creating? I’d love to know what’s worked and what hasn’t for you — so please share as many specific details as possible!

If you like this article, share it with your friends – tweet about it, share it on Facebook, or just send it around via good ol’ email! Want to ask a question of your own? Send me an email: amy@pikaland.com

** And pssst, I’m going to dig pretty deep into this topic and a few others in my new online class, coming up in September 2013. So click here to sign up for the newsletter to be the first to know the details when we have them!

22 Replies to “Q+A: How to create the work you love and make money at the same time.”

  1. halle cisco says:

    kayla sounds exactly like me! i have struggled with my design style being separate from my illustration style. i think making the leap from being a designer (stability, benefits, etc.) to the unknown world of being an illustrator is scary.

    i agree with amy that there is a market out there for it and finding the right fit is important. i make cards and prints. i have been researching company’s that fit with my illustration style and plan to send out line sheets of my cards/illustrations to see if i can make some connections. this doesn’t solve the bigger problem of being able to create work that i love as a whole, but it does make me feel more balanced.

  2. sabina says:

    fiu dark and moody, that is tough! I just think people like positive and pretty art because our lives are full of problems and dark stuff. I have always considered art to be some source of beauty and inspiration.

    That being said, I remember when my sister, who is an artist, did series of paintings in which she was exploring “the ugly”. These included some brown and red colors and something that looked like butchery on the canvas. I didn’t understand this by the time. Who would like to look at this?

    Now I think that exploring, being bold in art is what can help you shape your style as an artist and just reduce the fear that many of us have to step outside our boundaries. I think many people copy other artists because they feel insecure and unsure what is good art. So they think – this artist is popular, this must be good art, so I am going to copy that. But going out of your boundaries, and letting go the fear can help you be the trendsetter not the follower.

    This is what I believe. I produce pretty commercial stuff but I actually like it. I like pretty things. My designs are never described as edgy, bold, daring. They are just expression of my longing for beauty and positivity. Which also happens to sell well (I guess many people need this).

  3. St.Ainolopa says:

    very helpful, thanks a bunch for that post 🙂

    1. amy says:

      You’re very welcome!

  4. cotey bucket says:

    I don’t have much to add in the way of financial advice but as for the moral dilemma I think it’s something a lot of artists struggle with.

    It’s the “sellout” problem.

    I think a healthy way to look at it is if it’s not something you’re morally opposed to then there isn’t a problem doing it to pay your rent and buy food and what not. It’s only after you’ve forsaken all of your ideals for profit that you truly become a sell out.

    If you have the ability to create work in some watered down style for a little bit to make some money while your hustling to find your own audience then more power to you, you know you’ve got talent and hustle, keep up the good work.

    p.s.great post.

    1. amy says:

      Thanks Cotey!

      That’s an interesting thought about being a sell-out. Personally I don’t like the word, because it’s a word that other people throw about for other people, and it comes from a place of judgement (and jealousy) at times. It’s a dangerous term as well, when artists feel bad for making money, even when it’s due to them. It’s a complex issue that I’m sure I can explore in depth and hear what others have to say as well!

      But you’re right in that we all need to find a balance, and to not feel bad for making the choices we need to make!

  5. Tara says:

    “Go where you’re needed, instead of forcing your style on others and you’ll find that it won’t be so much as an uphill struggle when it comes to making money doing the work you love.”

    This line really resonated with me this morning. I am about to quit my day job due to stress and because it is completely different than what I want to do, which is textile crafts. But I keep holding back. Why? Because I’m scared of earning significantly less money or no money at all! I’m scared of thinking about how I maintain the benefits I need (health, dental, vision, etc.) during the transition. I’m scared that no one will want to purchase the goods I make for money (I’ve never sold my handcrafted goods before).

    I know that what you say is true – I just need to find my niche and let go of all my fears. It is very helpful to have this reminder today and to acknowledge the difference of experiences in listening to logic and reason vs. listening to your own fears and insecurities.

    1. amy says:

      Hi Tara,

      I think you might find this post helpful (as well as the comments!) http://pikaland.com/2011/11/28/why-artists-illustrators-should-get-a-job. Having fear of not knowing where the money comes from is indeed scary, so perhaps you’d like to see how you can start selling your goods before you jump ship from your day job completely? I know how some people say that being thrust fully into freelancing will create a panic and that in turn will fuel your do-or-die spirit, but I beg to differ. Most of the time there’s just too much pressure, that artists will find themselves burnt out before they are able to truly begin.

  6. margie says:

    I agree with Cotey. At this time I am doing some commercial characters in my own style so I can generate interest to my site/art work.
    I prefer to just paint the subject matter and style I want but somtimes we have to do what we might not want to – to get to where we want to go.

  7. Laura says:

    It’s so true that the market is out there. I know people who like dark and moody. The difficult part is finding them. I wonder if Kayla has explored DeviantArt? There seem to be more dark and moody artists on there than other places. Though I’m not sure if it would be the best place for actually selling or maybe just for finding people or finding leads on websites and blogs those people like.

  8. Santiago says:

    I think design supply the demand, art supply the (intellectual) need.
    You want to transition from design to art, so in that way you decide your style, your message. You want your own voice.
    In my opinion you just need to do exactly what you fear: do a lot of work without been paid. Because you’re doing that work for the people you think can understand and like your work, you’re not doing it for the money. Be generous to them.
    In this manner, you may find them and they may find you. May be is the fastest way to ‘create’ your niche: to be generous.
    And yet after that, you can start monetizing your work in ways you may or not know: you can have clients that want your niche, you may sell t-shirts, originals, or even work in the design of a videogame studio…who knows! People love your style = clients want your people. And with your own stlye!

    I’m a designer who works as a freelance programmer (I don’t want to change my design to sell it neither!!), and in the meanwhile I spent 5/6 month making a videogame for free. Just because I want to do ‘my art’. Last week I won a prize for it (I’m very happy) and may be my next videogame I can release it for 1 dolar and see if I can make a living out of it (I don’t want to be a millionaire and I want that a lot of people can play it).
    This is my game reviewed here by Amy! http://www.pikaland.com/2013/04/25/a-rabbit-fable/

    There’s something for sure, I think: to make a living doing your art takes a lot of time, effort, and you have to do the things that frighten you.

    1. amy says:

      Thanks for commenting Santiago! And you are absolutely right – I advocate generosity above all else when it comes to art. Giving it freely, and experiencing it freely will allow you to grow quickest. Ditto on doing things that frighten you too. Great advice!

  9. Jessalin says:

    I think you just have to dive in and commit. If you want to pursue your own style, do it. If different styles (more commercial and not commercial) are both a part of what you want to create, then exaggerate the fact that you can do a wide variety of styles. Do it consistently, and be vocal about it. People get confused easily, don’t really pay attention or remember who you are unless you are doing something unique and memorable. Or you work at making your website a destination year after year.

    I started out painting on canvases, then moved to t-shirts, and now am returning to canvases, but also doing t-shirts and now textile design. I struggle a lot with keeping my style consistent, and when it is appropriate to do certain designs. Something that has really helped me is to work with a photographer and photograph your work in a similar way, giving all or some of your work a certain feel. For illustration, maybe include props along side prints or images, create a story, include things that aren’t a part of your work, but are memorable for the viewer. This way each piece can be very different, but there is also a continuity to it, and the viewer can understand how it all fits together – even if it is for only one season.

  10. Dana says:

    I really like the comments I am reading. Two thoughts: (1) I am always looking at other people’s artwork and trying new things that I learn from books, videos, trial and error…. I send my images to my contacts and whenever someone likes something I’ve created, I get some exposure – it helps to continuously try new things. Don’t get locked into a “style.” (2) I read the book, Creating a Life Worth Living and I agree with what it says: Find a job that financially supports your lifestyle and allows you the time to create the art that you want to make. I have shifted to this (realistic) way of thinking and relieved myself of a lot of pressure to somehow be a full-time, self-supporting artist. Yes, it’s possible to get there, but it takes time. Stay positive and be persistent and the universe will meet you half way eventually.

    1. amy says:

      Thanks for the tip about the book Dana – I’m going to check it out! And yes, being realistic about things doesn’t make one a pessimist; instead it focuses your optimism into something that’s actionable, instead of blind faith.

  11. Candace says:

    I love this! I’ve thought about similar things and agree that no one should ever give up their personal style. In my opinion, Kayla is lucky. She’s able to work in a creative position that provides financial stability, and all the while having her *own* work at home. Her personal, “secret”, makes-her-most-happy artwork. She can use her “day job” to support herself while she can be protective over and grow her personal “night job” illustration into something bigger. And–sight unseen– I’m sure there is a market for it as Amy mentioned. It’ll just take some hunting.

    I am sure it’s hard to generate work “for the masses” that doesn’t speak to your inner creative spirit, but that’s what the “at home art” can be saved for. And I certainly am not saying Kayla is complaining; she wasn’t. I think it’s great that she’s successful at her day time vector art. I hope she’ll be able to accept that– while it’s not what she loves– it’s working, and it’s just a means to an end until her niche hunt is over. 🙂 Good luck!

  12. Kim says:

    As a Creative Director and Illustrator with 20+ years of experience in both traditional and digital agencies, I am always tasked to partner with artists and designers on projects that can do a wide variety of styles. For instance, if a Creative Director finds a good illustrator with the ability to work in different styles, they will use that freelancer even if they may not be the 100% exact fit. We are a busy lot, so we are often told to avoid the time consuming “search process” and all the red tape that goes with finding the perfect illustrator. It’s all about how fast a project can be pushed through and the folks who are flexible are the first ones who are called. It not a great scenario, but it is the hard reality of how agencies work these days.

    That said, having a personal style shouldn’t ever get in the way of an interesting project that comes along. Every designer and illustrator that I’ve ever worked with has a personal style, but the most successful ones are chameleons when they need to be.

    Doing something out of your comfort zone not only helps you grow, but shows your flexibility and willingness to work with new ideas and styles to solve the client’s problem. Those CDs and ADs have been my best friends and will pass your name along to others in the industry as a reference. Honestly, I never do any promotion myself anymore because they all do it for me by word of mouth.

    As Amy said, If you keep at it, and get connected to the right folks, eventually you will cross paths with a company, agency, Creative Director or a project that fits your style perfectly and will tell everyone about it.

  13. betty turbo says:

    I think you have to approach finding your target market the same way you approach looking for good friends: you can try to be agreeable and go along with generic things that make everyone happy, or you can speak up in your true, authentic voice and find those amazing, quality relationships that resonate with what you’re really feeling. It’s scary! But you gotta be brave. It might have to be “on the side” till you can build up momentum & get enough attention for it, but you won’t get commissions for The Work You WANT To Do unless people know you’re there! Put up sketches or personal work on tumblr or some other place they can be shared. Look for physical venues to show your work. Send a promo postcard (or check illustrator submission requirements) to magazine art directors. Search out other artists (not just visual) with the same flavor and see where they share their work.

    Also: to create your Ideal Freelance Life – don’t get too narrowly focused that Successful Artist only equals making drawings (or paintings or whatever) + selling them to commercial clients. Think of different revenue streams you could establish that express your personal style across different activities or approaches. Selling prints or cards? (Wholesale or retail) Showing in galleries? Teaching a workshop? Writing a book? Creating an e-course for artists who want to explore their dark and moody side? Selling work at a comic convention? Having your illustrations printed on products through a third party (zazzle, society6, etc)?

    You don’t have to start out perfect either! You can refine your style as you go and aim to have X percent of your income coming from your Desired Work by a certain date, or reward yourself with time to develop new personal projects once you reach X amount of income from whatever you’re doing…

  14. nita darsono says:

    i think almost all of us have to deal with the choices of either finacially happy or heartly happy . thank you Amy and Kayla for sharing this article.

    for me, the best way to figure out what to do is by sacrificing more time try do both, at first. so that we could taste the hint, weighing the benefit and the minor aspect of each.

    i have to say, i myself still have to figure out what works best. and for some whom might not find the way easily also, don’t give up!!^^

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