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How Do You Brand An Artist?

digital illustration seagulls with retro lawn chair and igloo cooler on the beach

I keep finding myself feeling stuck toward the end of a drawing. Where does it go from here? How does it answer the question, “But, why?” I try not to be influenced by the work of other artists who post their art and get tens of thousands of likes. It’s hard to do, but I at least need to try to create in a vacuum. Is it even possible to create something completely original? No, probably not. Of course not. We’re all feeding off each other. We learn from and get inspired by the work of other artists and that’s a beautiful thing. I like to picture the collective body of work by all artisans, builders, makers, bakers, writers, musicians, and anyone who intentionally crafted something as a massive quilt that is woven together into one colorful, lumpy, dynamic fabric of humankind. Maybe there are parts of the quilt that form a pattern. Other parts may clearly be the inspiration that led to another.  But zoom out and all you see is the most beautiful thing that was ever made.

I suppose originality, when it comes to artwork (my artwork, anyway, and how I appreciate the work of others) comes down to this: Create work that draws from a shared human experience/feeling/memory and present it from a new perspective. And why do we need a new perspective? Because it stands out in a crowd and when you stand out in a crowd you have a better chance at succeeding. And why do we need to succeed?

Well, we all need money. We all need to keep the lights on and the refrigerator full for our families or our pets or ourselves. Would it be better to create from a place where I wasn’t thinking about earning potential? Of course, and I can’t complain because I do have options, after all. I can try to create products from my art or I can go get a job and save my art for me in my personal time. Although, while money is important, maybe it’s also a good measure of success. Why keep doing something if all it does is fail? But if something sells out, then I know what to make more of. Little by little, I like to believe, I’ll get a better understanding of what works to generate a steady income. You see, I don’t like to leave the house, so I’d rather opt for #1.

The other day I listened to a podcast about KPIs, SEO, and driving your brand with digital marketing campaigns. I know I need to embrace that stuff, but honestly it just makes me want to crawl into a cave and fingerpaint on the walls for someone to find generations from now. It makes sense to me. I’m capable of taking in the information and I know I could do all that work to draw traffic and convert to sales. Cha-ching! It’s just that it is so not what I want to be doing. I suppose it comes down to implementing what feels comfortable for me while recognizing that going a little outside my comfort zone every once and awhile isn’t such a bad thing. In fact, it’s good for me.

What I can’t do is look at what other small business artists are doing and expect it to work for me. I need to be smarter about juggling all aspects of marketing, order fulfillment, and creating new designs if I want to achieve a level of success that is right for me. I don’t have a staff, so I don’t need a warehouse full of inventory. And if I’m being really honest, maybe I don’t even want all of my success to come from shop sales. As I’ve been dipping my toe into wholesale, I think I could be quite happy designing and creating for a handful of wholesale accounts that become regular stockists. So maybe I don’t need to juggle the scary marketing component.

Though I’m married to a marketing director, I think marketing for a small business artist is a little different. Believe me, I wish I could just hand it all over to him to do. But I don’t think what I’m trying to do involves telling a story and connecting with a customer through an immersive experience that will have them understanding who I am, what I’m selling, and why they should be compelled to buy from me.

Creative work, itself, isn’t a product. Well, of course it is and can be. But let’s just think about this little drawing that I’m currently stuck on. Right now, I can’t see anybody wanting to buy it printed on a tea towel, postcard, or sticker. It’s just the result of me following a vibe after I drew an old-school lawn chair for my book project. It’s me playing. (I don’t ever want to get so locked into a production process that I don’t have the space to play and experiment.)

Creative work isn’t a brand either. And after typing that I realize that’s not entirely true. Artwork can absolutely become the brand after a collection of work can consistently engage with an audience in a unique way. This is the result of a long and winding creative process where every little step along the way was necessary to achieve it.

Here’s the real question I should be asking:
How do you brand a product (my artwork) that is in a constant state of organic growth?

Taylor Swift is the answer. The reason I return again and again to her albums and have alarms set to livestream Eras as it moves across the globe is because both her product (her art) and her brand (her) have connected with me in a way that makes me want to be as good at what I do as she is with what she does. She is a living example of making it work. Taylor Swift began with words in a journal and strumming a guitar alone in her room as a teenager. That’s phase one. (I’ve been in phase one for my entire life.) Phase two: she had some hit songs that opened doors and she continued to create, to understand what worked, to learn, and grow. She tweaked, responded, experimented until her sound became her own. Her work became her brand. She is her brand. They are all one and the same, but only after she put in the grunt work. Right? And she’s still working, building, and revolutionizing how we experience Taylor Swift. Each album innovates and draws from new sources of inspiration, diving further into the sea of what’s possible for one singer/songwriter.

So maybe it’s all about quantity? Does quantity lead to a product, a brand, and success? In her book, The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron instructs artists to repeat again and again in our daily creative pursuits :

“Great Creator, I will take care of the quantity. You take care of the quality.”

I will keep my little drawing on the back burner as I tend to today’s orders, design some boards for a potential new wholesale account, and continue to add metatags to all my photos. Maybe the thing that’s missing will come to me. Regardless, I’ll finish it, put it out into the world, and then move onto the next. Please be right about this, Julia Cameron.

Oh, and I added a quote to the drawing from the other day. Maybe a good quote is all that's missing in my work!

digital illustration beach bonfires under a crescent moon and stars next to a california lifeguard tower

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