Building Your Business

Starving Artist No More: Lisa Congdon Explains How Freelancers Can Build a Legit Business

By Haniya Rae October 20th, 2014

Whenever someone claims to be an artist, the adjective “starving” usually precedes it. But for Lisa Congdon, a prolific freelance designer, illustrator, and artist, this myth of the starving artist can—and will—be busted. In her new book, Art, Inc., Congdon explains how you can turn projects into cash by focusing on the business of the art industry, which freelancers may overlook when putting all their focus into their creative work.

I spoke to Congdon about how freelance artists can protect their work, build an online presence, and structure their routines for a healthy career.

Why did you feel inspired to write Art, Inc.?

Chronicle Books had contacted me in 2012 and was interested in doing a book specifically about artists. Art, Inc. would be part of a series that was originally started by Meg Illasco—the Inc. series—and the first book in the series was Craft, Inc. in 2006. That book did really well; then she wrote a few more books in the series: Creative, Inc. and Blog, Inc. and, most recently, Mom, Inc. was published. They’re all focused on creative entrepreneurship and small businesses.

I had to think about whether writing the book was a good choice for me. My path as an artist was really not traditional, since I didn’t go to art school or through any of the traditional channels. I thought, “Who am I to write this book?” But Chronicle felt that was the perfect reason for me to write this book, and felt I had used social media and blogging in interesting ways to promote my work and build a career. I eventually felt if I didn’t write the book, I’d regret it.

What big step do illustrators and designers most often forget when they go solo?

The hardest thing to understand and accept is the idea that it doesn’t happen overnight. There are artists we hear about in the news who have overnight success. They graduate from school, and in months they get instant work and recognition. But they are a very small percentage of the population.

For most of us—even those of us who now have fruitful careers—we worked for years to build our careers. All of that includes working on making connections and all of those things take time. Sometimes it take a year, sometimes it takes five to seven years.

Patience is really important. Even if you’re diligent, it can take months to see results.

Art Inc.

What is the best piece of advice you give those just starting out?

The first step is owning your identity as an artist. You’d be surprised at how difficult that can be! Then, it’s beginning to see what you do as a business. Art, Inc. doesn’t talk at all about having the right art skills. The book assumes you already have a style and a voice.

Many artists think of their careers as a creative endeavor rather than how to make a living. Those aren’t the things that you think about when you draw or paint or make ceramics. But it’s both a creative endeavor and a way to make a living. You have to think about how you’re going to sell your work.

You need to look at the big picture. You might have a robust portfolio and a clean and easy-to-navigate website, but unless you’re active on social media and directing people to that beautiful website, it’s unlikely anyone will find it. For some people, the opposite is true. Their website is really outdated and their portfolio is weak, but they’re really active on social media. Where you focus your efforts when you are just starting out depends on what your strengths and weaknesses are. Maybe you have a great portfolio and website and you are great at promoting your work online, but you lack personal connections in the art community. So that’s where you focus your efforts.

The key is to eventually work on all of those things—your portfolio, promoting your work, building a community—over time.

How can freelancers protect themselves from getting work stolen?

I recommend artists register their work with the U.S. Copyright Office. Your work is your work from the minute you create it. You own it. But registering your work gives you special protection if something were to happen. I also recommend that you are thoughtful and judicious about what you post online. There’s no way to prevent someone stealing your work. You can use watermarks or use copyright symbols. The important thing is to take all of the precautionary measures, and that’s just about making sure that people can easily link back to your work and labeling your work and registering it. It is time consuming, but it’s a great step to take.

What do you find to be the biggest distraction when working, and how do you deal with it?

One of the hard things about being a freelancer is managing your time. You have to plan your day and know how you work and understand how long it takes you to finish things. That can feel very overwhelming and hard at times. The Internet is one place we all need to share our work and promote it. We also use it for research. The places that we use to promote are also the places that can suck us in. I have to have really strict rules about Facebook and Instagram.

I started this new thing where I work in 45-minute chunks. I work on something for 45 minutes and take a break for 15 minutes, then start another 45-minute chunk. That helps me focus and stay off the Internet, which is probably my biggest distraction.

Is the market ever too crowded to go freelance?

The Internet is great. It’s leveled the playing field for artists. It’s provided this way that anybody can show their work. That said, the playing field is also saturated because so many people are trying to get their work out there. It can feel really intimidating and crowded.

But I also believe there is a place for everyone; it’s about finding your audience. I don’t think just because there are a lot of people doing it that there’s a limit to how many people can be successful. It’s about the amount of effort and work you’re willing to put in. The good news is that building a career as an artist, while it’s a lot of hard work and strategic decisions, it’s not luck. By doing some very specific things, and working hard at those things, you can build and sustain a career.

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