I met Angela Staehling earlier this year as she was making a big career transition. She had been with an agent for a good long spell—with loads of successful licensing deals to show for it—and had recently decided to strike out on her own. She’s quickly making an art brand name for herself, while also learning the ropes of self-representation and managing her own business affairs. And she’s doing it all beautifully!
Angela has a real gift for sharing compelling stories about her art practice. She has a warm, approachable voice and always features beautifully styled photos of her work. Check out her Instagram and blog posts to see what I mean! A gifted illustrator and painter, capable of working in a number of different styles, she may end up cultivating at least a couple different standalone brands that can work harmoniously under the Angela Staehling name brand. I’m excited to see where she takes things and I know you’re going to enjoy this interview.
Betsy: You worked with a licensing rep for 15 years and garnered a lot of fantastic licensing deals during that time. Tell us about those years, what you enjoyed about working with a rep, and what led you to close that chapter and go out on your own.
Angela: 15 years ago feels like an eternity! At that time, I was just discovering the world of art licensing. I had young children and was looking for an art opportunity where I could work from home. A lovely friend of mine owned a small retail store and introduced me to the wholesale industry of home decor. In 2000, I exhibited at my first trade show in Atlanta with hand-painted furniture, home decor, stationery, and gift items.
I quickly learned from that experience that licensing would be the way to go for me, not manufacturing wholesale goods. After a few trade shows, I had connected with fine art publisher, a husband-wife team that quickly grew to become one of the leading fine art publishers in the world. It was common in those days for a publisher to also handle all of the licensing for their artists. We designed many collections based on various themes, including floral, kitchen, wine, coastal, juvenile, and holiday, to name a few. Much of the art was directed on style, color, and composition.
While it was great to have a team of art directors research patterns and color trends for you, the freedom of creating your own art simply didn't fit this mold. The tradeoff of working with an agent was that I didn't have to worry about the business aspect of selling my art. They took care of every business need and actually garnered me wonderful licensing deals—opportunities I couldn't have done on my own at that time. As time progressed, I became more savvy about the business and longed to work directly with my licensors. I enjoy the direct feedback from working one-on-one with my clients. In addition, and probably the greater of the deciding factors, was that the company that represented me had changed ownership several times.
My close relationships with the art directors dissolved as new faces were coming and going. Eventually their business model changed and licensing was not their forefront revenue generator anymore. This lead me to search out other options—either to look for another agent or try self-licensing. I chose to self-license because I didn't want to give up control of my art. Over the past two years, I have been able to develop some great relationships with several licensing companies, including those with new product categories. While this next chapter of my career is exciting, I am now looking at transitioning from being a licensing artist to a branded artist.
You're in the midst of a fantastic 365 Day Project which you recently wrote about for the Strathmore Art Blog. Something you said there pointed to the difference between thinking of yourself as a licensing artist, versus thinking of yourself as an art brand. You wrote:
I began painting these daily sketches in March as a way to keep true to my art. As a licensed artist, I spend a lot of time on the computer tweaking and altering my imagery to fit product specifications. I found that many days would go by that I hadn't even picked up a paintbrush. With art as my passion, I decided to create a sketch every day for one year.
I’d love for you to elaborate on that! How did you chose your topic? Your media? What changes are you noticing in your mindset, your art (and maybe even your business) as a result of this daily practice? How is the practice fostering your brand development?
You picked up on my line of thought about being a licensing artist versus an art brand without me even realizing I was saying that! As mentioned above, I developed this 365 Sketchbook Project as a way for me to paint every day. I found that many days would pass and I never had the time to create art (on paper or canvas, as opposed to the computer). Electing to paint 30 minutes (which actually is about an hour by the time I photograph and post my work on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) is a great way to make sure I do what I love every day.
I'm using this Sketchbook Project as a way to freshen up my style and explore different color combinations, even try more stylish hand-lettering. Much of my previous artwork was heavily art-directed, not only by theme, but by color, pattern, and style. Because this Sketchbook Project has no constraints, I chose to paint about what I love the most—the great outdoors! With 365 days to paint, I thought it would be best to break it down into twelve monthly categories. Otherwise, I would go in circles trying to decide what to paint each day. I'm painting in gouache because I haven't used that medium since my college days—many moons ago—and I wanted to try something new. I use Strathmore's 500 Series Mixed Media Art Journals as they hold up real well to my sometimes heavy washes.
In terms of my mindset in regards to this project, my goal is to not be too hard on myself and not overthink anything. I've found a rhythm with this project and I'm simply trying to let the process flow. My hopes are at the end of the year, I can look back and see that I've developed a new style, or at least the beginnings of one. I definitely see myself moving in the direction of becoming a branded artist, but I’m realistic it won't happen overnight.
You're a super versatile artist and illustrator, able to work masterfully in many different styles and media. I'm sure that's been a huge advantage for you as a licensing artist, making you a strong candidate for many different opportunities. Now you’re working to define your brand as a self-represented artist and I’m inspired to see that you're developing at least a couple of different signature looks. You have the potential to create many distinctly different brands and I imagine it might be challenging to define the overarching Angela Staehling brand. Can you talk a bit about how you’re approaching this? What criteria do you have for your own work (as opposed to for a client work) to help keep it feeling true to you, your personal values and lifestyle?
Yes, that is absolutely true. Branding myself is probably my biggest challenge at the moment. I have worked primarily in a realistic style over the course of 15 years and my core group of customers have gotten to know me for that style. Introducing any new style can be tricky or confusing to your customers, especially if it's completely different than what they know you for. Recently, I've added much looser styles of art. These are styles I wanted to introduce, something new and unexpected that would be a fresh take on the themes I normally paint.
In addition, I am working on the Sketchbook Project which is yet another uniquely stylized collection. I definitely have many styles of art, and if you ever google my name, you will see the variances in my imagery throughout the years. Again, I find this very challenging because I may not want a prospective client who is interested in my more urban collections to associate my brand with my traditional work, or vice versa. I believe this is where brand management will be key to my success moving forward.
As far as what criteria I have for producing my own work as opposed to a client's, I basically paint per my customers request—whether it's traditional, loose watercolor, or more urban like the Sketchbook Project. I find this to be a happy balance, but I wouldn't be surprised if I someday gravitate towards selecting more projects that are based on the looser, more urban styles in my portfolio.
I also enjoy keeping a personal art journal about my backyard gardening experience (I blog about the experience on my website—My Garden). It's a place where I paint flowers, herbs, and vegetables in my garden and document any growing tips. The journal is a work in progress, as is my first year of planting a garden.
Now that you’re able to focus your energies on developing your own signature brand (or brands!) and being the “front woman” for your business, what new skills are you cultivating? What fears or insecurities are you facing? How do you help yourself rise to these challenges?
I am learning to wear many different hats. Back in the days of working with an agent, I only had to focus on my art and nothing else. Now that I am self-licensing, I not only need to research and meet new clients, nurture my current client relationships, but also manage my imagery for licensing availability. While this seems like a lot, I thoroughly enjoy it. I think the key to moving forward is to collaborate with great partners who can guide me and help take my business to the next level.
Especially because I want to move more in the direction of being a branded artist, I will need to develop a marketing strategy that best reflects all of my different styles of art. My greatest fear is not knowing when to hire help. I work independently now, although I've recently hired someone to help with my image management. But as far as bringing on a brand manager, I'm not sure exactly when and what the tipping point will be. The creative part of me would have acquired a team yesterday, including a designer to help create my marketing materials. However, I realize my revenue stream needs to be at a place where these additions make sense.
I know I am moving in the right direction. I am much further ahead now, than where I was a year ago. I have to pause, look at my small successes, and know that I am moving towards my goal. I think it's just a matter of time before I build my team. And I believe someday I will. I just need to keep the mindset that my next phase of becoming a branded artist will present itself when the time is right.
Big thanks, Angela, for sharing your story with our readers!
Treat yourself by following Angela on Instagram (@angelastaehling)! Her 365 Day Project is always a highlight for me. I think you’ll also really enjoy the blog post she wrote for Strathmore about the project, and on her website she shares loads more of her beautiful and inspiring work.
If you Pin or otherwise share these images, please attribute Angela Staehling and link back to this post or Angela’s own website. Thank you!