the sigh of relief

Last week I talked about the difference between thinking of yourself as a licensing artist and thinking of yourself as an art brand. This shift in emphasis is particularly inspiring for artists who’ve been working diligently to build marketable art collections but are having a tough go at licensing their work.

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They show me their portfolio and I often see plenty of market potential in what they’ve created. It seems to me that they could be well-served by simply “staying the course.” If they seem firmly committed to the goal of licensing their art, first and foremost, I can tell them, Look. You’re doing everything right. You just need to ramp up your promotion, be a little bolder in your outreach to potential licensees or clients, build out more themed collections, get better with Photoshop or Illustrator, study the trends more... Keep doing what you’re doing, and give it time. But here’s the thing: I often pick up on a hint of sadness or resignation. They’re not having as much fun with their work as they’d like. There’s a lot of commitment, but less passion.

Inevitably though, after these artists have gotten a little more comfortable with me, they pull out something that’s more “personal,” or “experimental,” or “just for fun,” or “just doodles.” I probe a bit, showing my interest. At this point in our conversation, the energy shift is palpable. There’s a childlike joy that comes out with just the tiniest bit of encouragement from me. They can’t stop talking about this work—how much they love making it, what it means to them, the secret dreams they have for it.

The funny “coincidence” is that this work is always the stuff that I’ve already seen a glimpse of before our meeting (hidden in their portfolio, or sprinkled on Instagram, or shared sparingly on their blog) and it’s always the stuff that’s most exciting to me—as a viewer, as a potential customer—before I even talk with the artist.

So when I say to them, What would happen if you let yourself explore this some more? there’s this funny reaction that’s a mix of glee and fear. And I get it. The delight part is easy. Who doesn’t want to simply make the art they love to make? The fear part is more individual. Sometimes it’s about money: Sure, this stuff is loads of fun, but it doesn’t pay the bills. Sometimes it’s about self-doubt: What if you and I are the only ones in the world who like this stuff, Betsy?! What if I make a fool of myself? Sometimes it’s about the overwhelm they feel when they imagine reorienting their business around this more personal art: I’ve already invested so much time, energy and money in building my business to attract licensing work. This feels like starting over!

These are all totally legitimate concerns. If what I’ve portrayed above resonates with you, I’m not advising you to ignore your fears. What I am asking you to do is stay open. Allow yourself to explore.

Explore the art by making more of it, explore the feelings that come up as you make it, explore why it fills and propels you and how it relates to all the other things in your life that make you you. Take note of all of that and keep making time for it. When you’re ready, share it. But not necessarily for feedback or potential sales. Share it because you want to share more of yourself. Share it along with your story and glimpses into your world. See what happens.

It’s often at this point in our conversation that I hear a sigh of relief. I think that’s because sometimes even artists need permission to follow their hearts!

Next week I’ll explore what can happen when you make the “art brand shift.” There can be many rewards, and there are inherent challenges. We’ll examine both, to prepare you for the adventure ahead.