How to Build an Online Art Business for Beginners
(No one paid me to write this ad, this is just my personal experience so far on my art business journey.)
You’ve honed your skills. You’ve established your style. You’ve created a wide variety of pieces. And now, you have a lot of art. What’s next?
It’s not a walk in the park.
The first thing you have to learn and accept is that the adventure you are about to embark on will not just come easily. It will require a lot of hard work. You may afford to pay someone else to do parts of the work for you, but you have to make it work. Personally, I do most everything myself. Some people don’t believe they have the right personality to do both the creative work and the business work, I dare you to try.
Read books, read blogs, do research on Google, ask friends who have more experience than you do. It takes longer, but it gives such a deeper understanding of the whole process. But if you just can’t even, I understand that too. If it’s in your budget or you have a good friend who is willing to help, it’s always better to play to your strengths. Leave the stuff you just can’t do to someone who will get it done for you.
So now where do you start?
You need a website. Depending on your level of coding skills, there are a wide variety of options for your website. Over the years of experimenting, I’ve dabbled with several.
Why not Etsy? If you’re starting out and don’t have the time or money to commit to a website, Etsy might be an acceptable and affordable option to test the waters. If you want to be taken more seriously, I highly recommend building your own website.
A lot of website starting tutorials, particularly the ones trying to sell you something, will push WordPress and GoDaddy. Though I’m sure many of them also use this option, I’ve used both and I don’t recommend it unless you have at least some knowledge of coding or you really want to spend hours learning about it.
In the past, I’ve also used Wix and SquareSpace. Both of these are solid options in my opinion, but I personally think they are better for portfolio type websites, websites for service businesses with a brick and mortar, or for people who really want to customize the design of their page. Wix is particularly good for customizing a page layout with zero coding background.
I recommend thinking twice before getting carried away with layout though.
As a rule, simple is better.
Currently, I use Shopify. I really love Shopify. It’s super easy to use, very customizable, discounts on shipping, and with only a few sales under my belt, they offered me loan capital with a plan that is reasonable and easy to repay. You can also buy your domain through them and make custom forwarding emails for that polished professional look.
Every option has it’s pros and cons. I’m not an expert on all of them. What I recommend is doing some research and choosing what suits your needs and budget the best. Always feel free to reach out to me if you have any further questions.
First and Foremost
When you start out, the first thing you will need to do is list all your inventory. The most important portions are the name, pictures, and price. I also recommend adding a description, categories, and tags, but that can all be added later.
[Should you get a business license? That’s up to you, but I would say not yet. I think I jumped the gun on this step so I would hold out for now until it’s absolutely necessary.]
My best advice for a basic price list is to just trust your gut. The system I use for my paintings is to find a percentage per square inch that I’m comfortable with as a baseline and when I feel like something should be more or less, I adjust accordingly.
Ultimately you’re going to want a wide variety of quality photos showing as much detail as possible and pictures showing scale, and also different ways to show off or decorate with your pieces. For now, post what you have.
It’s always better to do it and make it better later.
When writing your description, I recommend giving as much information about the piece as possible without swaying the vision. I used to talk more about what the image was and what it meant to me, but mostly now I let the pictures do the talking and only add tangible information such as the size and what it’s made of.
Easily one of the more boring but necessary parts of website building. My best advice is to research outlines for privacy policies, terms and conditions for your industry, shipping information, and return policy. This is the one time I highly recommend you really read over each page making sure it says the right business information and that you understand the terms you set and what it will mean for you and your business.
If you offer custom art or prints from an off-site print on demand company, you’ll want pages for each of these. Explaining in detail what you have to offer and what the next steps are if it’s something they are interested in.
It’s also important to have an about page and a contact page. Your about page doesn’t have to be super long, just a couple small paragraphs about who you are and what you do. Your contact page should feature all your social media and links as well as an email. I recommend adding a phone number, but I can understand if you aren’t comfortable with it. Another option is to get an app that gives you a forwarding phone number at a small monthly cost.
There’s no place like home
Last but not least you want to put together a home “landing” page. This is where your main URL will take your prospects. Here is where you want to lure them in. There are many ways to do this so I recommend checking some other pages and seeing what draws you in and what you don’t like and just playing with it from there. There really isn’t a right way to do a home page.
Blogs and Vlogs
There are many benefits to having video and/or written blogs. You can establish yourself as an expert in your field. You can tell your personal story. You can make tutorials. It’s just another creative way to keep people coming back and interested in you and what you have to say.
Apps for days…
If you fall down the website rabbit hole, you’ll be overwhelmed with the options of add on apps to use for your business. There are many for free and even more versions that you can pay for. I would caution you to use these apps on an as-needed basis. It can seem like you are streamlining things when in actuality you’re annoying anyone who stops by and slowing your web pages loading time.
Once your website has all the basics, you’re going to want to get your message to the people. Social media is a fickle animal. If you’re not already doing well on any one platform, I recommend spending some time with each and seeing what suits you and helps you show off what you do.
There really isn’t any single way to do well on social media. A lot of it is just dumb luck. My main rule of thumb when it comes to marketing on the internet is create, share, engage, and give.
This one means both create your art and create content. Make videos showing the details or how it’s made. Write blog posts about your struggles or personal successes. Take pictures and videos to share behind the scenes and give people a unique view of what it is you do day-to-day. You’re a creator. This is another opportunity to create.
The more social media you can keep up with, the better off you will be. Find unique ways to show off your craft in a way that works well with the platform you are sharing on. Post your work in a context that isn’t pushing a sale more often than one that does push sales. Your goal is to build relationships, the sales come second.
When you feel like you’re oversharing remember most people won’t see your post. Another rule of thumb to keep in mind is that people often have to see your work a minimum of 7 times before they feel comfortable buying from you.
Build relationships with people. Follow people who inspire you. Follow people you have things in common with. Expand your network. Then focus on them. Talk about their needs. Don’t even talk about art if it doesn’t come up. This is about them, not you. Let them know you care about their needs and earn the right to sell to them.
Do not spam them. You will lose their respect, their sales and your reputation as someone who anyone is willing to do business with.
Show your gratitude. Give whenever you can. Give extras, give information, give art. Sometimes if I’m toying with a new craft or idea I’ll throw in a sample with an order. This post is an example of giving free information. I give discounts and run contests.
A simple way to give thanks is just to handwrite a thank you note to go along with an order.
There is a myth that if you give people will just take and take at the detriment of your business. You can tell if someone is taking advantage of your kindness. Most people will be grateful. Another common myth is that if you tell people all your secrets and how you do things, they will just do it themselves. Don’t fall for it. This is fear leading you away from success.
When in doubt, give.
Take it to the Streets
Art shows, galleries, and other public displays are always an option. I’ve done a couple of art shows, but thanks to the internet I hardly think it’s required. However, there are people who would love to see your work in person. So if you are like me and you can’t have an open studio, doing an art walk or public display once or twice a year might be a good idea.
If you find it’s something you really like, do what feels natural and works best for you.
It’s about who you know…
This comment really fucked me up for a long time. Then, one day out of the blue, I realized something crucial. You can meet people. Thanks to the internet this is easier than ever.
Again, the key is not to annoy anyone. The key is to learn who you’re trying to reach and find genuine ways to connect with them that are mutually beneficial. This is much easier said than done, but mastery of this can be life-changing.
So you have a website, you are connecting with people and you’ve made your first sale. What next? Get it ready to go. If you’re using Shopify, you can easily prepare packing slips and print them from home.
When packing your art, remember to protect it from shipping damage, but I also recommend finding unique and personal ways to make it pretty. I wrap all mine in brown paper and tie it with a ribbon or some string. I then wrap it in bubble wrap and add a handwritten note on hand-stained paper, a few business cards and whatever extras I’m giving that order.
I work to get orders out in no more than 5 business days (typically I shoot for 2-3) but I won’t ship until it has all the usual parts.
*I recommend working shipping into your prices and offering free shipping as soon as possible. I currently offer free shipping on all US orders.*
It’s a completely personal decision to offer custom art. Some artists only do customs, others don’t do any customs. I fall somewhere in the middle. Mostly I sell original pieces, but I’m open to customs with the right people.
My rules for custom work are to have some sort of rules and written agreements ready. Don’t over complicate things. Also, work into your agreement a non-refundable 50% downpayment to protect yourself from wasting your time.
I always do initial sketches for free. But in my experience people will lead you on more than not, so just tread with caution.
Prints and Other Merch
If you have the budget, totally feel free to order these things to sell and ship directly. That’s definitely goals for me. In the meantime, there are several print-on-demand sites for getting your art on a wide variety of merch.
Please note that you check the image requirements. You will most likely need to scan your work or get professional pictures done for print and merchandise purposes.
Thank you for reading
I hope this guide was helpful to you. I really tried to get as much of my best beginner advice onto one document. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me if you have any questions. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out my contact page for my other contact info and social media links.