Lessons learnt

My 9 biggest (and hardest) lessons from the first year of my art business

Around this time last year I took the first steps towards making Stories In Paper a business. It was something I had wanted to do for a long, long time. I’ve run a creative business as an artist and creative educator since 2008, but I had a solo show coming up in a local cafe and I wanted to focus it on papercutting. I had been making papercuts and shadow puppets for several years, and I thought it would be nice to make a small series of papercut bird images as part of the exhibition. A year down the line and this has led to my ‘Bird Spotting’ series, of which there are now 14 images, several other projects and lots of opportunities I never imagined! It was also really hard work, so to celebrate both sides of this year I’ve summed up my 9 biggest lessons (and hardest) lessons from the first year of my art business. As you can easily find better guides online to the practicalities of starting a business this is quite of a personal post, because I’ve really tried to focus on the biggest hurdles and successes for me as an individual in the hope they are useful to others too.


1. To make a strong portfolio

Now this goes against some of my deepest beliefs about creativity, which is that artists are constantly changing and your work will always evolve to reflect that. As much as I believe that is true, I decided that as I was trying to start a business creating a strong portfolio of fairly similar work will be useful place to begin. Simply put, if you want to sell your work it makes sense to have a group of images that people can see and instantly identify as yours. That is not to say you shouldn’t change and grow as an artist. I’m also not suggesting that you shouldn’t do different styles, but if you are going to do that it might be best to create a small series in each style, as otherwise your portfolio may look a bit bitty. This whole concept really troubles some artists I know, but I think in a society completely over-saturated with images, styled photos and advertising, people are much less likely to give time to someone’s portfolio or social media account if it doesn’t have a clear identity. I know my work is always changing anyway, I just try to follow through on ideas so I don’t feel the images I’m making are a bit random and unrelated to each other.


2. That starting a business will cost money

I’m not going to lie to anyone here – setting up Stories In Paper cost me a lot more then I initially expected. From buying domain names, to printing business cards, sourcing packaging, paying for framing and services like getting prints and products produced… it all cost money. It was worth it, as I know I’ve now made enough to at least cover those costs. But I was only able to do those things because I put some of my own money in at the beginning to get me started, and then for several months spent most of the money I made from my art feeding it back into the business to create more products. Alongside this I have worked as a freelance workshop leader, a picture framer and a teacher. I think unless you have a lot of savings working while building up your business is the only way to avoid going into debt and putting yourself under huge pressure. I also just took small steps, for example waiting to see how an exhibition went and if it was good using some of the money to get greetings cards printed.

Etsy print test 01

3. That I could do most things myself, but not everything

To save on costs I did everything I could myself including photographing my work for prints, design, website building, framing and accounting. I also used free services whenever possible, read tutorials and blogs on how to do things, and occasionally paid for online courses to help me. Both ‘Work/Art/Play’ by Amy Ng of Pikaland and ‘The Art of Blogging’ by Alicia Burke were invaluable to me and well worth the small cost. Of course, all of this takes time and if I began to earn enough from my art I would seriously consider outsourcing the reprographics and accounting sides to other people because they are time consuming and I don’t really enjoy them, but for now that is not an option and I am definitely getting quicker with experience! However I decided to get products like the cushions and notebooks made for me, because I thought it was the better option at this stage then investing money and time into screen printing and sewing.


4. That promoting my work takes up a lot of time

Once I had invested time and energy into making art and related products, I was obviously keen to sell some so all my money wasn’t just sitting in boxes in my studio. This all takes up quite a lot of my time. I try to post on social media at least once a week, I (try) to update my blog regularly and send out newsletters to people signed up to my mailing list. I also spend time contacting organisations and galleries I might be able to work with, and writing things like press releases for the local papers. Alongside this there are things like planning and publicising workshops and classes, and keeping up with Etsy orders and emails. Promoting your work is so difficult, but I try to just think of it more as putting it out there so people who might be interested can find it, rather then seeing it as constantly pestering people. I also very rarely use my personal Facebook page to talk about my work, and I like to keep them a bit separate. I have struggled throughout the year to find the time to make new work, but I’m comfortable now with the idea that I might have a few weeks where I focus more on making, and a few weeks where I focus more on sharing what I’ve been working on.


5. To see social media as a way of sharing work, not creating it

So I mentioned social media above, and I could write an entire blog post on the positives and negatives of using social media as an artist. One thing I try to remind myself of all the time is that I am using social media to share the work I am making, not to motivate me to create it. Now some artists do a brilliant job of posting everyday and using social media like Facebook and Instagram as a way of keeping a visual diary or making daily posting into a project. I am not one of those people. I like to create intricate art and I enjoy working on several things over a period of time, as I talked about in my post On working slowly. Earlier in the year I did try to post on Instagram everyday for a while and I found that my feed looked really confused and wasn’t representing my work well. Now I post once a week and suddenly people are following me much more often, which I can only put down to posting (what I hope is) quality not quantity. I’m also not bothered if my number of followers drops or I get no comments, as I now know there will be another sporadic period ahead where I get more positive feedback from people, and this is what is really valuable. I now use Facebook to share events and products more as most of the people who follow me on that page are geographically closer, and Instagram to share work in progress or finished images.

For me personally, the exceptions to this (other then I discussed above) would be if you decided to do a picture a day for a specific period of time as a way to get your new social media account a bit more interest. Another idea would be to participate in a limited period social media project like Inktober, because it sounds really fun and you only have to sustain that momentum for one month!


6. To not panic when I found people who were making similar work

Talking of social media, undoubtably one of the biggest challenges for me was overcoming the absolute panic I felt when I discovered an artist whose work was similar to mine or, woe betide me, better and they were more successful. I have never copied another artist, but I understand why people can be sensitive about that. But I do have influences, for example I love natural history illustration and I also love Chinese and Eastern European traditional papercutting. And of course in the age of Pinterest we all see hundreds of images all the time, and some of these beautiful works of at will inspire us (surely that is the point of Pinterest). I am inspired by pattern, intricacy and natural forms. So to put these together and create animals images with circular patterns in them was a fairly natural step for me to take in my work. But when I discovered other papercutting artists had done similar things I was crushed, and scared to carry on with my own journey in that line. But you know what? When I read about their work it turned out they had similar influences! And I think that is the key word, similar. Of course your work is similar to others, because if you make fairly accessible visual art this is a likely result. But if you came to that place independently, and you haven’t directly copied them, why stop making your work?  So I decided not to be stopped by fear, but instead to widen my influences and to incorporate things I was really interested in, because that is truly my own work.



7. To learn how to best motivate myself

When I went to see Oliver Jeffers talk at the Edinburgh Book Fair last year he said something along the lines of ‘The great thing about being self-employed is no one tells you what to do. And the terrible thing about being self-employed is no one tells you what to do.’ Motivating yourself is hard. Really really really hard. I am a very enthusiastic person in general, so my major weakness is burnout. I start things at full pace, and over time I get tired or fed up with working all the time, and it’s a real challenge to me not to lose enthusiasm for a while. Over the course of the year I had to take a two pronged approach to managing this. Firstly to avoid burning out I write a list of the things I want to achieve each month, and I try to make this realistic and add a list of bonus extras. That way I won’t be putting silly pressure on myself to accomplish completely unrealistic things. However I also have a big piece of paper on the wall where I write what I hope to achieve in the next few months with big fat Sharpie, and I cross these off as I do them. This helps me to focus on my bigger goals and remember when important deadlines are coming up. Sometimes this works. However some weeks I feel completely unmotivated and others I’m up working far too late. I’m just trying to learn from these mistakes and try to find ways to keep myself going, and accepting this will never be a perfect system! Also in the past I have motivated myself using fear of failure, which I think is ultimately a stressful and unhealthy way to run a business!



8. That sometimes I will want to give up

But of course, sometimes things have not gone at all well, and I have felt disappointed. Sometimes I have felt like I’ve worked SO hard and achieved very little. Sometimes I think my work is just rubbish and I feel embarrassed about it. Sometimes I think I should stop being such an idealist and get a ‘proper’ full-time job, and others I want to stop making art and dedicate myself to something less indulgent like becoming a humanitarian worker. I think these are all quite normal things to feel.

One way I’ve found to combat feeling awful when things go wrong is to keep a gratitude diary of all the genuinely touching responses I’ve got from people. I don’t mean every insincere thumbs up emoji or ‘Nice work’ comment on Instagram. I mean when someone tells you they have saved to buy a print, or commissioned a picture for a family member, or when someone you really respect gives you good feedback. It might seem a bit arrogant but it can help me out when the self-doubt about my work is crushing. I also find my Instagram feed is a good way of reminding myself how hard I have worked and how far I have come (obviously this needs to be used within reason, perhaps saved only for times of true art crisis!).

To combat my artist guilt I’ve looked for ways to raise money for charity with my work, or donated pieces to charity auctions. I find that teaching and sharing online tutorials are wonderful ways to share my passion for art with people, and I also try to use my skills and volunteer for local art events. I am also trying to make work that has meaning, and for me this is building up to using my art to educate about ecological concerns. Is this as good as being an aid worker? No. But as an artist with a small child it helps me to feel like I’m contributing to a wider cause and navigate the difficult ethical path this presents.

Finally I have tried to remember why I make art. For me this is so many things, but ultimately making art feeds me. It is so important to me that without it I feel a huge loss. So although the business side of it all – with its inevitable dance of successes and failures – may get me down sometimes it’s something I have to do to enable me to keep on making art as a major part of my life.


9. That I don’t need to prove anything to anyone but myself

So this concludes my post, and I’m going to leave you with my biggest lesson. That I do not have to prove anything to anyone but myself. No one really cares if you don’t post on social media for ages. I don’t think I have to ‘win’ at being an artist and manage to make my living out of it completely. Actually, I know the likelihood is that will never happen. One day I might just feel like I am done with Stories In Paper and I really want to do something else (marine biology is a big contender for my attention these days). And that is ok. Because I’ve realised as an artist, as a person, you have every right to grow, change and move on. All I want is to know that I tried, that I enjoyed it and that I didn’t hurt others along the way. So that is what motivates me into the second year of Stories In Paper, because it will definitely have it’s challenges but it might also be really good too.



3 thoughts on “My 9 biggest (and hardest) lessons from the first year of my art business

  1. Kudos to you for these thoughtful lessons learned. Regarding posting on social media daily vs. weekly: I enjoy reading your blogs but I don’t have time to read daily blogs.

    BTW I’m a fan of your sea creatures series. We live near Mystic (Connecticut) Aquarium and I’ll bet you could market these images to their gift shop. Check it out. Keep it up. 😃


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