How To Start an Art Business: 9 Simple Steps For Success
Want to monetise your creative hobby or unique artistic talent? Find out how you can get started in this guide by UK artist & entrepreneur Kerwin Blackburn who has done just that
Are you a passionate artist with dreams of turning your creative talent into a thriving business? Embarking on the journey of starting an art business can be an exhilarating and rewarding endeavour. But so often – as with any type of business – budding artistic entrepreneurs can find it difficult to know where to start.
As a UK artist myself, I have been building and growing my own brand since 2019, By Kerwin, through which I sell my original music-inspired acrylic paintings and prints. In this article, I outline 9 simple (but not always easy) steps you can follow to get started on your own creative venture and set yourself up for success.
To start your own art business, define your art niche, create a solid business plan, and learn to market your work effectively. Choose your sales channels wisely and prioritise your customers. Also, consider your business’ legal aspects and finances, and continue learning to stay competitive.
Whether you’re a painter, sculptor, photographer, or any other type of visual artist, this article will guide you through the essential steps to transform your passion into a sustainable and successful venture.
From defining your artistic niche to mastering the art of marketing, I’ll explore key strategies and insights to help you navigate the intricate world of art entrepreneurship. Let’s dive in and unlock the door to your artistic dreams.
My Art Business Background: By Kerwin, Established 2019
First of all, I’d like to give you a quick flavour of my own art venture so you know where I’m coming at this topic from. I launched by brand and art business, By Kerwin, in late 2019. Since then, I have developed and refined my painting style, built my body of work, and grown my brand.
I have also enjoyed selling hundreds of prints, original paintings and pieces of merchandise, as well as organising some exciting exhibitions of my work and exhibiting internationally in New York. This has required learning about all of the components required to promote my artwork to the world, and in turn mastering each of the necessary skillsets to enable my progress.
My Journey To Launching My Art Brand
I also do not have a conventional artist’s background. Rather than attending art school, I opted for business school; graduating in BSc International Business, Finance & Economics from the University of Manchester. I also then obtained a Master’s Degree in International Development from King’s College London, before gaining professional experience in the business and marketing world (including working at an e-commerce startup in Singapore).
I am not, however, here to promote the notion that aspiring art entrepreneurs should shun art school and go down the purely commercial route. My message is that it is perfectly possible for an aspiring creative to commercialise their work and achieve an income from this, even if they do not have creative or art industry connections, any proven track record yet.
By following my 9 simple (but again, not easy) steps outlined below, an aspiring creative will have some blueprint and direction through which they can get started on their own venture. This is not an exhaustive list of things that must be done to get going, but these will certainly provide your budding art business with some structure and guidance.
Uncovering My 9 Steps For Art Business Success
To start your own art business, define your artistic niche, create a solid business plan, and learn to market your work effectively (which may include creating an online presence). Choose your sales channels wisely and prioritise your customer relationships. Also make sure to understand your business’ legal aspects, while also managing your finances, and continue learning to stay competitive.
Let’s dive straight into each of these below. Do get in touch to let me know your thoughts and if you have any further questions about these points. I’ve ordered these points in a loosely chronological order – but as you will discover, this ideation stage will not be a linear process, and you will re-visit each of these topics frequently throughout your art business journey.
At the end of each section I then provide an anecdote from my own ‘By Kerwin’ art journey in italics about how I worked through each point. This will hopefully help illustrate each step and provide a case-study example of my thought process when I first got started.
The 9 steps I explore are as followed:
- Set a Financial Target For Your Art Business
- Identify Your Artistic Medium
- Define Your Artistic Niche and Subject Matter
- Choose A Target Audience
- Develop Your Artistic Style
- Write a Business Plan
- Create a Marketing Plan
- Identify The Right Legal Structure for Your Business
- Develop a Financial Plan
- (Bonus tip!) Get To Work
9 Simple Steps To Get You Started on your Art Business Journey
1. Set a Financial Target For Your Art Business
The first step to taking your art practice from something you do recreationally to something you will be operating as a business is to begin with an end in mind. What do you want to achieve, in financial terms, with your art? Do you want to achieve a full-time income; do you just want some extra side income to supplement your main job?
Having clarity about your art business intentions at this stage is crucial and will make the rest of the process easier. Set yearly, monthly and weekly financial targets for the profit (i.e. take-home pay) that you want to ultimately receive from your art. Be realistic, but also be ambitious at this stage. Don’t overthink this step.
Having clear targets and intentions will be incredibly helpful when it comes to deciding the other components of your business plan and product offering. Your overarching target will help determine the overall revenue and profit margins you will need to work towards; these can then be broken down into the value and volume of products you’ll need to shift to achieve this.
Knowing how many units of your product, and what type of product, you need to sell, it then becomes easier to identify the appropriate marketing channels (more on this later).
How I Set My Targets for By Kerwin
I set my own financial targets for my art business in January 2019 (in fact, after reading Napoleon Hill’s ‘Think and Grow Rich’ book, which he advises this monetary goal-setting practice). I created an annual, monthly and weekly target for what I want my art business to return.
I was then able to break this down into how many units of product I would need to sell each week. This helpful metric then later determined my choice of art style and business model – as I focused on an e-commerce, print-based business model that would also play to my digital and technical skillset.
2. Identify Your Artistic Medium
Central to the success of your art business will, unsurprisingly, be the quality of your artwork itself. You should be exceptional at your craft, and this begins with choosing an appropriate art medium to work with. Will you do photography, sculpture, sewing, painting? If painting – which painting medium; oil, acrylic, watercolour?
Your choice of artistic medium should complement your unique artistic style (next point), as well as resonating with your distinctive talents to give you the best chance of standing out in your field.
There may also be practical points behind your medium to consider too. For instance, if you have limited studio space to work with and your focus will be on moving volumes of original paintings quickly, then slow-drying oil paints may not be the best choice. If you would like your brand to be about brash, bold statements, then delicate watercolours may not be the best medium to achieve this.
What Is Your USP?
Lastly, while it is possible to be a multi-disciplinary artist who combines multiple mediums, I would always advise someone to become the best at one specific style of art. This is particularly important if you are new and seeking to establish yourself – let you audience get to know you for one thing.
My own choice of artistic medium was an easy decision. I have always had a particular flair for painting, going back to my nursery days. I’ve also always regarded painting as the purest form of art, too, and the type of art I’ve always focused on improving at most.
Acrylic seemed the natural painting medium to gravitate towards – its versatility, cost-effectiveness, accessibility and fast-drying times make it super practical. I’ve also naturally been drawn to bold colours rather than more muted compositions (such as watercolours), so acrylic is perfect for this too.
3. Define Your Artistic Niche and Subject Matter
Once you have decided on your medium (and many artists naturally gravitate to one medium they have a particularly flair and enjoyment for), you need to identify a niche that you will focus your work on. This may be a particularly type of subject matter, and even the specific way in which you portray that subject matter.
In identifying your artistic niche, it is helpful to be specific to ensure you can capture your subject matter in greater depth than if you have a wide focus. For instance, rather than choosing flowers as your subject matter, choosing a particular species, such as roses, will, over time, allow you to study and paint this one type of flower in greater detail.
You therefore have a greater chance of mastering the art of painting roses, and becoming known as a lead painter of roses, than if you attempt to specialise in painting every type of flower.
Your artistic niche will naturally evolve over time, but to begin with I would pick a niche that you have a particular passion or flair for.
Choosing My Own Niche
My niche of music and pop culture-themed portraits began with my painting of ‘The Beatles’ in early 2019. At this stage I merely painted this to look cool on my bedroom wall, but after this I then painted Oasis, and from there the music theme just stuck.
Music icons have a particular resonance with people too – our favourite music icons often stay with us for large parts of our existence as their hits become soundtracks for parts of our lives. People have suggested I branch out into movie stars too – but I’m not a big movie watcher so I don’t understand this subject matter enough.
4. Choose A Target Audience
Note: I wrote choose ‘a’ target audience and not ‘your’ target audience; it is probable that the core demographic who actually purchases your product won’t be exactly what you imagined. It’s likely your core audience’s exact geography or demographics will evolve from your initial expectations.
Nevertheless, having some rough idea of your target audience in mind is important to help you start figuring out where, when and how your target customer will purchase your artwork. It will also influence aspects of your unique artistic style.
You should conduct research that can provide you with information about buyer behaviour around your artwork. You may have an intuition about who your art is suited to; you should also seek to get your artwork in front of a public audience frequently so help provide you with feedback about your work.
In the startup world, this is done by producing a Minimum Viable Product – in the art world this might take the form of producing a small series of of new work and showing this to friends and family for their initial impressions, before you produce an expensive and time-intensive full-scale series.
Get Feedback From Your Core Audience
Seek to validate your unique artistic creations at all stages of your art business journey, and constantly consider their product-market fit; tweaking your audience profile and marketing accordingly.
When it came to my own audience segmentation, I recognised that my subject matter and painting style had potentially widespread appeal. I have therefore painted music icons from a variety of eras and musical genres. I recognised that my Pop Art style has a very Western focus, with most of my core audience likely to comprise UK and US citizens.
Also recognising the family-wide appeal of my work, I committed to making my paintings as colourful and fun as possible with nothing offensive about them. My core target audience also turned out to be slightly older than I anticipated – possibly because of greater disposable income and greater interest in spending this on art – so I’ve reflected this in my choice of music icons.
5. Develop Your Artistic Style
Once you have chosen your niche, you will give yourself a greater chance of success if you are able to provide a unique take or perspective on it. The type of audience you have in mind for your art can also help influence the characteristics of your particular style.
The art world, and the internet, is likely already full of artists depicting your chosen subject matter in various forms – so how will your artistic style stand out ahead of the rest?
You should be able to identify a USP (Unique Selling Point) within your artistic style; one particular trait that people can remember you buy and that makes your work memorable. Make sure your artistic style is consistent with your choice of medium, niche, subject matter and audience that you have initially identified above.
Again, your style will develop and evolve over time as you gain feedback about the different features of your art style – and as your artistic abilities improve.
My Own Unique Painting Style: “Pop culture in a chaotic Jackson Pollock style”
My own style of painting began with Jackson Pollock’s ‘action painting’ technique as a starting point, which I then combined with iconic Pop Art-style portrait faces. While my style soon evolved to incorporate a colourful and heavily music-inspired narrative, the Jackson Pollock-style action painting technique remains my USP as the singular trait that makes my work distinct in the world.
Over time, I recognised that my music icon paintings with a retro or nostalgic element to them particularly appealed to my core target demographic. I therefore have painted more icons from 1970s and 1980s eras.
I’ve also placed greater emphasis on the Pop Art elements of my paintings as I’ve learnt more about this art movement – such as through the writing of my Pop Art history blog posts – as well as attempting more intricate, ambitious designs.
6. Write a Business Plan
Now you have some formalised idea of the type of art you will bring to the world and commercialise with your business, you should return to the financial target you set at Step 1. This target will help bring clarity to your choice of business plan by informing the volume – and price – of products you will need to sell to achieve this figure.
Again, your business plan (and product choices) needs to be consistent and aligned with your artistic medium and style, subject matter and the tastes of your target audience. It should also specify key details as to how and when you will proceed through the different stages of your business launch, as well as the financing required at each stage and where this will come from.
Writing a business plan is not a quick process. I’d recommend searching for a business plan template online, or seeking advice from a professional. The area where you live may have a business or enterprise hub who can provide free advisors and advice on this (search for this online too, or contact your local council).
Capitalising on My Own Business Background
Having graduated from Manchester Business School, I had some understanding of the components required in a business plan. I was also fortunate that my mum, who has been running her own international business for two decades, was able to assist me with this.
Nevertheless, creating my business was still a somewhat daunting process, as it revealed the extent of work to be done, as well as uncovering many of my weak areas in which I would need to become more skilled.
7. Create a Marketing Plan
I’ve separated this stage out from the previous step, firstly because the marketing plan has brings a slightly more practical focus as to how and where you will meet and introduce your products to potential customers. While a business plan often involves details and pragmatism, developing your marketing plan also allows you to engage the more creative part of your brain and allow ideas to flow.
Once you have an idea of the type of products through which you will commercialise your art practice, the volume of these you need to shift to achieve your targets, and some of your core buyer behaviours, you can then begin to identify the appropriate channels through which to promote and sell your art.
For instance, will you sell your art physically, in-person at exhibitions, art fairs and craft markets? Will you even sell your art yourself, or seek intermediaries such as galleries or established retailers, to do so? Or will you sell your art over the internet?
If going down the online route, will this be through your own website or through a third party marketplace such as Amazon or Etsy? Which social media platforms and which types of content will you incorporate to help do this? (TIP: fewer social media platforms, executed well, can be more effective than trying to spread content across ten.)
Play The Long Game
Please note: as with all of the previous steps, this is not a quick or linear process. The different components discussed above will each influence the others interdependently as you go back and forth to refine your ideas and best approach to selling your art. Your optimal type of marketing channels may change over time as your art style and business evolves.
It may also take a lot of experimentation to identify which marketing channels and platforms are most appropriate for you and your art business. You will likely also incorporate a blend of complementary marketing approaches rather than just one.
My own art brand, By Kerwin, uses a blend of physical and digital marketing approaches. My core marketing hub is my website, bykerwin.com, which itself attracts traffic through both my blog (organic search) and Facebook Advertising (paid ads). I also exhibit my artwork at many in-person events, such as exhibitions and art fairs.
Social media-wise, at the time of writing, I use Instagram and Facebook. I have also launched on TikTok with a few videos, but I’m not frequently active on there. These channels are all complementary to one another and all feed into one another.
8. Identify The Right Legal Structure for Your Business
Shifting away from the creativity of your market plan, a fundamental step once you have a loose idea of how your business will operate is to choose the right business structure. You may choose to begin as a sole trader (as I did with By Kerwin) or you may want to incorporate a Limited Company (or Limited Liability Company in the US) at the outset. There are different pros and cons of each business type, so seek advice from a professional.
If you have goals for your art business beyond purely financial (for instance, you may have a social enterprise or charitable purpose to your art) you can also register under an alternative structure. Examples include a Community Interest Company (CIC) or B Corporation, which each have different benefits to the running of your business.
Again, I’d recommend getting professional business advice at this stage to help you identify the appropriate legal structure for you and your venture.
My brand ‘By Kerwin’ began with me as a sole trader. My first business, Kerwin Art Collections, created in 2012, actually started as a Limited Company.
9. Develop a Financial Plan
A final, important practical step before getting started is to know where your business’s initial funding will come from. Even if you intend to start small with your art business, some degree of finance will likely be required to kick-start your venture. (Think online registrations, investment in art supplies or product stock, or funding required rent a stall at a retail event or craft fair.)
Having some sort of float to get you started and to enable you to invest in your business and your ideas is a good idea.
Your access to upfront funding, as well as your risk appetite, can be helpful in determining your business and marketing model. If you don’t have large reserves of cash up front before you begin, you may like to follow a business strategy whereby you don’t hold large inventory of your product, and that sees to receive the money from orders before you fulfil the order (such as through drop-shipping).
Or you may like to focus your business model, and therefore art style, on being able to shift a large volume of quickly-replicated original, handmade pieces quickly to get cash flowing in and to gain traction.
However, if you do have large cash reserves at the outset, this may afford you time to invest in sophisticated website or app development that will naturally have a longer route to market.
Get Financially Savvy
Whether you obtain your initial funding from savings, from family or friends, or from an external investor or a bank, be clear on what you need and what each penny or cent will be used for, and stick to your plan. Keep a cash reserve too for emergencies.
My own art business didn’t need *huge* levels of investment to get going. Some cash was need for website hosting, domain name and plugins (I developed my website myself), and a standard Nikon DSLR camera for a few hundred pounds to take the photography and turn my paintings into prints. A reasonable amount had been spent on art supplies and canvases over previous months, and this was all that was really needed to get started.
I follow a drop-shipping model whereby I only fulfil a delivery after receiving the order online, which is great from a cash flow point of view. Unless you need specific equipment to create your art, not a huge amount of money is required to begin selling your art. Undoubtedly, the biggest investment was my own time.
10. (Bonus Point!) Get To Work
Once you have your initial plans in place, have an art style and product you’re confident in, and know how you will reach your desired customer, commit to your art venture and get going. While you may (and probably, at this stage, should) feel excitement for your burgeoning art business, you will also likely feel some apprehension and doubt too.
This is normal: what you’re attempting is a difficult and somewhat daunting challenge. You probably don’t yet have all the necessary skillsets required, and you will be tested.
Be clear on what your work schedule will look like – commit time and effort to making your ideas a reality. Have the discipline to persevere through the challenging parts, creating a routine to help you get going. Seek assistance and advice on specific challenges from experts.
Be patient with your venture, expect results to take longer than you anticipate, and seek progress rather than perfection. Have fun – but with the ability to delay gratification and get stuck into the less glamorous and more difficult things you need to get done. Be always willing to learn; adapt, change course and throw your old ideas out when necessary.
And always, always focus on providing a great customer experience at each stage of your customer’s journey. Your customers and potential leads are the most important piece of the jigsaw.
Kerwin’s Final Reflections
The start of my ‘By Kerwin’ journey feels very different to what I spend my days doing today. My initial focus was on building my website, promoting my art for the first time, and producing a larger body of paintings. I also spent a lot of time researching different marketing options; aimed at building my first traction and gaining my first few customers.
Almost four years on at the time of writing, the activities I do on a day-to-day basis are very different. Back when I started, I had no idea of the different components, such as blogging, that I’d eventually spend my time working on. I have also gained many diverse skills and learnt a huge deal about how to run my own art business.
Take The Leap
I would encourage any aspiring creative to dive into their art venture – but doing so with the persistence and patience I advise above. I’m fortunate that my business school background means I had some prior understanding to launching and growing a startup. I also enjoy the commercial side of my art – whereas I know a lot of creatives do not like this part.
Unfortunately for anyone who falls under this category I don’t think there is any way around the pricing, promoting and selling or your work and yourself if you wish to do so commercially. However, these are all skillsets and mindsets than anyone can learn and develop – and the rewards at the end can be great and fulfilling.
I wish you success in your own art venture – I would love to hear your thoughts on my 9 steps above, as well as any further ideas you have. Email me at [email protected].
Which of the 9 steps for starting your art business did you find the most helpful? Do get in touch for further advice on any of these points
My full range of Jackson Pollock-inspired acrylic paintings can be viewed at www.bykerwin.com – the originals and prints of these are available to purchase, with worldwide delivery. You can follow my art progress on Instagram and Facebook.