As you may already know, my first venture into small business was with a clothing label, Borne Too. There were a lot of hard lessons in this business. Anyone who has had a product based business (especially clothing) would know, it can be a capital-heavy business to start. Meaning you need to outlay a lot of money to get going. Not to mention the delays with designing, sampling and production – it did my head in!
I didn’t love clothing production enough to continue and eventually I pivoted into illustration.
How I started my drawing business.
How did I decide on illustration? I’ve always gravitated towards the creative arts. I’m super passionate about music and played instruments when growing up. I loved drama at school and found myself totally at home in art class, too (in fact, it was hands-down my fave subject).
Back when I was a teenager I cut my chops drawing graphite portraits. I learnt the basics and how to compose a portrait in my high school art and design class. The rest, as they say, was history. I’ve drawn many graphite portraits over the years, plenty of them for fun but also commissions ranging from famous celebrities, to babies and beloved relatives. I made a bit of money, but nothing serious. I loved the process of drawing and with each portrait taking hours to complete, it wasn’t ever really about making big bucks at the time. The process of drawing a big portrait had a relaxing, meditative quality that I found intoxicating.
The pivot to digital illustration
Fast forward to having kids and I didn’t find myself reaching for the pencils as often. I didn’t feel like I had the time to sprawl out on the kitchen table, with a cup of tea steeping beside me and tunes cranking in the background. Life was suddenly really, well, busy. I used this fact to justify my many trips into JB Hifi to check out their iPads and drawing tablets. I thought that going digital could potentially be the way to continue my love of drawing alongside the craziness of mum-life.
I didn’t want to take the plunge into buying one out of fear that it would be a ‘gimmicky’ purchase. So, instead I spent hours playing around with the ones in the store until I felt comfortable handing over the cash. I decided on a basic, 6th gen iPad and felt that if I used it as much as I thought I might, then I could always upgrade if I needed to (or wanted to).
After I had played around with the software and figured out what kind of illustrations I wanted to do, I reached out to other women in business that I knew through a networking group, asking if they would like a discounted illustration as a way to get more experience (and also refine my ordering process).
I immediately had around 20 orders and that’s when I knew I was onto something… If I was starting my illustration business from scratch, there are some things I would definitely do differently and I wanted to share this experience with you today.
Top tips for starting your digital illustration business.
1. Set up the business essentials first.
These are the things that you just have to do when you’re going to be selling a product in exchange for money.
In Australia this includes things like: Registering your business name to get your Australian Business Number (ABN) through ASIC and looking into any insurances you might need.
In Western Australia, there’s some amazing (and free) workshops through The Small Business Development Commission that can take you through the fundamentals of getting started in small biz.
Australia-wide the Australian Government website has handy tips to consider when starting your own small business.
2. Choose your drawing tools and programs.
Tablet or iPad
Like I mentioned, I spent ages playing around with tablets and iPads before I purchased one. I settled for the most affordable iPad that I could still use with an Apple Pencil. At the time this was the 6th gen iPad with the 1st gen pencil. They did the job fabulously and they are still going today (although I have since upgraded to an iPad pro and 2nd gen pencil.) Apple has the option online to compare iPad models so if you’re a Mac lover like me, you can do some research before you buy.
Drawing software or programs
Regardless of whether you choose a tablet or apple product, you’ll need the ability to actually draw your pictures somehow. I personally use the Procreate app. It’s Aussie developed (hooray!) and you pay a one-time fee, which is always a bonus. Procreate is a pixel drawing program only though and it doesn’t create vector images. I use Affinity Designer for the functions that Procreate doesn’t have but some people simply use Affinity alone or a similar program like Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop.
There are some blogs that do a detailed breakdown of the best digital illustrator software and programs if you want to explore more options.
3. Practice your drawing style.
You don’t have to be the most talented artist out there to make money from your drawings. It helps to have a distinct ‘style’ though. The only way to really discover your vibe is to practice, practice, practice.
If you haven’t used the drawing programs before, they can be overwhelming and it can take a while to learn how to use all the different functions.
My advice is to follow accounts on social media for inspiration – the Procreate Tricks Instagram account is great if you’re a Procreate enthusiast) and take some online classes and tutorials to really hone your craft. You can find many tutorials for free on YouTube or you can sign up to something like SkillShare – which has an abundance of digital illustration classes. There are some pretty unique niches out there to tap into with your drawing, things like fineline tattoo design, social media template creation and wall art installations.
4. Decide how you are going to sell your work.
In saying that, we are so lucky these days because there are so many other ways to sell your digital art that don’t involve having your own ecommerce store.
Most 3rd party platforms still have some cost involved, whether it’s a listing fee or commission-based fee structure (or both) but means you don’t have upfront costs like you would with a website. It also means you often fall under their T&C’s and privacy policies so you don’t have to worry about setting those up, too.
You can even sell directly through your social media accounts, which is a super affordable way (i.e. free) to connect with your customers directly. It can get messy though, keeping track of orders through DM’s and comments. My advice would be to have a system for orders – like ‘flagging’ sales messages, or archiving DM’s after selling etc. So that you can maintain some sort of order.
5. Prints vs digital files.
In order to keep things as simple as possible in the beginning, I recommend sticking to digital files. Keep in mind when you send your customer their digital file, if you’re marketing it as a printable product, then you need to consider your file format.
For printing, you’ll need to make sure it’s CYMK formatted – which means the colours will print true to the colour displayed. If your file is in RGB format, the colours won’t print as they are seen on your digital screen which will potentially cause some unhappy customers.
This is where programs like Affinity Designer come in handy. Affinity allows you to format the files not only to set the colours but also the file size. Even though I love Canva, in my experience the colours would always skew.
My advice is to try testing your digital files if you aren’t sure. I would print files in a range of sizes at my local Officeworks to ensure they were clear and the colours were formatted correctly.
As a starting point for your illustrations your could send the digital file as a PNG with transparent background, as well as a PDF for printing in a standard size like A4.
There are also 3rd party businesses that will print and ship prints for you for a fee which is a great option for a higher price point – however; you will still need to ensure the digital files are correctly formatted.
Marketing your digital illustration business
If you’ve gone through your business basics, you may have created a business plan. Your business plan is where you identify your goals for your business. For some people this may look like building a following or community as a number one goal, for others it may be making sales and generating income. Maybe yours are a bit of both (or none of the above!)
Being clear about your business goals is important because your goals will help inform how you market yourself as a digital artist and what platforms you use.
Social media as a marketing tool.
There’s no arguing the importance of social media for small businesses. I mean, it’s free for starters. Never before has marketing been more accessible or easier for entrepreneurs so you would be crazy not to double down on socials for your small biz.
Social media is a visual platform and art tends to perform so well in the online space where aesthetic and storytelling fuse on the daily.
This is a bit of a no-brainer IMO (although, I am a millennial so I could just be super uncool). Instagram collates your posts into a grid and so this is where your style and aesthetic can make a lasting first impression. As with pretty much all the social media platforms at the moment, Instagram is moving towards short-form video content (a la TikTok) but there are still heaps of creative ways to display your art using video. There are also some art community pages that specifically showcase different accounts when you tag them or use their unique hashtags. Instagram is great for building brand awareness, creating a like minded following, driving traffic to opt-ins and your website.
The thing I love about TikTok is that you can show up in a more authentic, unpolished way. There isn’t as much focus on how your feed ‘looks’ like it does on Instagram. This is the opportunity to show your creative process, behind the scenes, stories about your life in a fun and engaging way. You can also link to your online store or other social media on TikTok, which is a great way to make the most of any notoriety gained on the platform.
Once upon a time, Pinterest was the BOMB for driving traffic to your website and it would play a front seat role in the sales process of some small businesses. These days, word on the street is that Pinterest just isn’t performing the same as it used to (stupid algorithms). It’s still a highly visual platform (again though, starting to show a lot more video content) and perfect for showcasing your art. Often people are heading to Pinterest to ‘pin’ your content for future reference. So, even though they may not be buying straight away, they will come back to you when they are in the mood to splash some cash. Pinterest can be a place where many artists work is reposted/reproduced without their consent and I would advise, as with any social media, having a visible watermark on your work.
Keep in mind that as impactful and important as social media is, it isn’t the only strategy for marketing yourself as a digital artist, or any other business for that matter. There are lots of other ways to get word out about your biz.
Other ways to market your illustration business.
1. Word of mouth (WOM) marketing.
Word of mouth is one of my favourite ways to generate engagement and sales for small businesses. I think it’s not as glorified as other marketing channels because it can be harder to measure ROI. In a data-driven world with likes, follows and shares – we have such an obsession with instant gratification that WOM can feel a bit unsexy compared to the glitz and glamour of things like social media.
Never underestimate the power of a good word of mouth referral. Start by actually telling people about what it is you’re doing. When you’re dropping the kids off at school and one of the other mums asks what it is you ‘do’ for work – tell them!
This plays into word of mouth marketing in that the right networking group can become your very own bunch of biz cheerleaders. You’ll have people working on your behalf to put your name forward for jobs, share your posts and sing your praises when you aren’t there.
My only tip is to find a networking group that aligns with you and your values. I love Fusion Biz Co which is about forging genuine, authentic connections with other women in business over simply making sales partnerships or collaborations.
3. Print media.
Consider reaching out to your local paper or other local business print company and pitch your story or your point of difference. Local papers love to champion people doing great things in their community. It’s always good to provide value to the readers, not just expect free advertising through an article- so keep this in mind when you’re exploring what angle to pitch.
4. Facebook groups.
I know this is technically still social media but I feel like Facebook groups hit different to traditional social media posts.
Facebook groups can essentially become a networking community in the way that when you provide regular value to the group, you’ll become known for that amongst the members. Not a lot of FB groups allow straight-up promotional posts but if you interact regularly, answer questions and share promotional material where you can, they can be a great way to gain visibility and generate leads.
There are also some art-specific community groups too where you can upskill, share inspo and your work. My tip here is that you can use the search tool in the Facebook groups tab and see what comes up when you type in keywords that appeal to your niche or local community.
5. Email marketing.
I’m a huge fan of email marketing. Set yourself up an epic lead-magnet and start to make use of your email list. Some things that could work really well here for artists include:
- Discounts + special offers.
- A weekly/fornightly/monthly free downloadable/product.
- Access to an exclusive community.
- VIP content + tutorials.
Don’t be afraid to play around with your opt-in and see what works. Better still, ask your audience and see what content they want more of from you.
Email marketing has one of the highest returns on investment and gives you the security of having direct access to your customers at all times. You aren’t dependent on algorithm changes or app glitches. You don’t have to worry about showing up in a certain way, all the time. There’s so much more freedom in email marketing so even if you aren’t going full ham on it, it definitely worth starting your own list.
Stay true to your vision.
I can’t stress this point enough. Hold onto your own unique vision for your business and your life. If you don’t, you will start to compare yourself to all the other businesses you see in the online space. You’ll begin to wonder whether you should be launching that product, or changing your illustration style to this or feeling the need to burn the place down and start again. I say this from experience. Like I said earlier on, you don’t have to be the BEST illustrator to build an impactful brand. Take time to regularly reflect on your business and look at areas you’re enjoying, that are going well and areas that aren’t feeling aligned. You can then recalibrate and move forward in a proactive and balanced way. Trust in your vision and stay true to yourself.
Book your 1:1 content intensive and let’s nail your content plan for your small business.
Download your free guide: 5 Lead Generation Ideas (that aren’t social media)