by Linda Lover
Painting has been more to me than color and expression, though these were its roots in the beginning. Over time, they branched into learning, discoveries, meeting new people and making new friends; also getting a glimpse of the mechanics of the industry. I continued to extend myself beyond those first opportunities once I overcame a preconceived notion that I would be rejected before I even asked. I quickly realized that was a sure fire way to stifle any possibility for growth and advancement. I decided to just let the chips fall where they may. It wouldn’t be the end of my painting career if I heard the word “no” or “not interested”.
Michigan boasts the world’s largest Christmas store, and when our kids were little it was an annual trek to see the lights, decorations and my favorite, ornaments. With an interest in painting, it was only natural to be drawn to the hand painted ones and never did I imagine I could be part of that at the time. I still remember the butterflies when I called to make inquiries about painting for the store. The person I talked with happened to be the one with the answers and an appointment was set up. When the day arrived, I’d put together 24 hand painted glass ornaments with various landscapes. Despite pre-jitter nerves, the meeting went fine, better than fine. I received an order for 12 designs on 600 bulbs. I was ecstatic but soon after my head was swimming over all that I had to put together. I found myself searching for a manufacturer and after looking on bulb boxes, came up with Krebs. Six hundred fit their minimum order. The next step was finding a company to buy boxes with an open window; once again a huge minimum order. It involved a little more exploration on my part to find gold stickers that spelled out “collectible”, also a requirement. It was all about the total package….presentation, which I learned was an important aspect to any form of marketing. Once everything was accumulated, I painted all that summer to meet a fall deadline. We had no air conditioning and my hands would sweat, and by the time I completed the order, I had pain radiating up to my shoulder from gripping the bulbs. I was painting whenever I had a free moment, even into the wee hours. If it hadn’t been for the window by my painting table I’d have missed seeing most of summer. But it was a fine day when I got the check and a follow-up order for the same. I was propelled by the desire to earn money toward a family vacation out west that we’d planned for the following year. After filling the second order, I decided I’d met my goal and this was more than I bargained for. I began to feel like I was missing out on life. As much as I liked to paint, it wasn’t my priority. It was taking too much away from family time. I even began to feel unfulfilled as a painter by the assembly line production of painting the same design repeatedly. In addition, it turned out I was getting about $4.50 a bulb even though I was getting $10 for each. Apparently the excitement of the moment of having my work accepted had over shadowed what I would put into expenses for bulbs, boxes and stickers, and also the fact that one third of my earnings was already going to go for taxes. And the store was getting $10 plus sales tax. Life is a classroom and the learning experiences never quit and this was one of those lessons. Experience is a great teacher, and in this instance, it taught me to analyze an opportunity more thoroughly before I go chasing after it. Yet, it still had a positive outcome as I had a sense of pride having my work in such a grand store. It also helped with our trip, which was fantastic as we toured the national parks. And it turned out to be a stepping stone to my next adventure in painting.
An unexpected opportunity presented itself midway through our western vacation that year. It was 1991 and we’d stopped at Carmel, CA on our way up the coast to eventually reach Vancouver. Near the restaurant where we ate, I could see a gallery sign stating “the largest folkart gallery west of the Rockies”. I could hardly wait to get inside the door. The paintings were amazing. I quickly noticed a miniature, about 4” x 2” glued to a velour background that was much larger and with several mats to bring the finished frame size to about 16” or more. It was selling for several hundred dollars, and I could see that it was painted in a relatively short amount of time. I struck up a conversation with the owner/artist and mentioned that I painted folkart miniatures and added that I’d sold hand painted bulbs commercially. So there it was, the experience had been helpful for a resume. I asked if he might possibly be interested in seeing photos of my work. I’d explained that we were on vacation and I could send them after I got home. He said that would be fine but there were no promises as he gave me his business card. As for me, thinking that I’d even asked about having my work in a gallery in Carmel was a giant step in confidence. I followed through after getting home, and to my surprise, he picked up my work. I actually was able to sell large framed, one of a kind folkart landscapes and this is when I learned about the importance of location. Because after 3 years, he moved his gallery to a coastal town in Oregon, retired and sold it. Sales were never the same after the move, and when the new owner had health problems, the gallery was sold again and no longer was folkart oriented.
Whenever we were on vacation I’d scout out shops and tourist areas seemed to offer the most. I sold lighthouse designs in shops on the east coast and around the Great Lakes but nothing compared to the gallery in Carmel. Later I directed my interests toward juried shows. I’d attended a few and, after the revelation about location, it followed that well attended juried shows would be better than the random church and elementary school bazaars. And they were. But it seems over saturation, a change in trends, and lots of pre-made decorative items in stores caused sales to drop more each year. I found I was making more products every year to achieve the same level of profits. I could hear more and more complaints about sales from other artists and crafters as well and could see the writing on the wall; it was time to move on again.
Every opportunity in thirty plus years has culminated in making painting the interesting journey that it has been for me. One door would close and another would open, sometimes quickly and sometimes so slowly that I wondered if any work would come along again. This is where I came to understand the description of “feast or famine”. Yet, all the experiences were letting me grow and learn as a painter. I was meeting more people, and like a sponge, I was soaking up a wealth of information. I saw many ways decorative painting fit into our lives and how it was being promoted by companies and individuals. It was much broader than I’d anticipated but it was also challenging and competitive.
It was great to be a freelance designer most of the time and make an income doing something I enjoy; one of the best perks is working from home and scheduling your own time. However, even doing something you enjoy can still be work. When creativity takes a vacation, it can be a real struggle. Giving up plans to meet a deadline isn’t fun. Redoing a project, sometimes more than once, is frustrating. Sometimes a submitted project is left in limbo for an indefinite period of time and eventually returned after having counted on the income. And one of the more difficult times is not finding any work available and not knowing when the next job might come along. And though it’s infrequent, sometimes a manufacturer might wait for months before sending out an endorsement fee. So one thing you can count on is that you can’t count on anything until it’s a done deal like a signed contract or a check in the mail box.
As my children grew and the youngest was in high school, I had more hours to paint. But I felt I needed to focus rather than go in so many directions, so I decided to put my energy into submitting designs to craft and paint magazines and let go of shows and shops. Increasing articles is a benefit in that it can give a designer the recognition of being prolific. But you have to take into consideration that in the ‘90’s there were dozens of craft and paint magazines and many had special and holiday issues included. It wasn’t uncommon for one designer to have 3 or 4 published articles featured in various magazines in one month’s time and just as many in a single holiday issue. It wasn’t uncommon either for editors to contact designers and request specific projects or ask for a design to be painted on a particular surface.
When craft and painting magazines were at their peak, so were endorsement programs and these provided a large percentage of income for a published project or book. Fees could range from $10 to $500 for listing product(s) along with a project(s) in magazines and paint books. This was in addition to the fee paid by an editor or book publisher. With the decrease in the painting trend, some companies have continued to retain their original program while others have downsized or removed them entirely. Some companies will only pay out to a select few designers, others offer product or mix product with a fee. Earnings from books can depend on if the book is self-published by the author or done by a publisher for the author, also whether it is a single or combined artist and distribution is also a consideration. Then it goes to the size of the book, color verses black and white pages, quality of paper and amount of projects. Some publishers will pay a single up front amount, others may include royalties after a certain quota is met. Some publishers pay a specific amount on each book sold. And some will require their expenses paid from profits before any profits are given to the author. If the quota is not met in this kind of arrangement, then the designer is responsible for any remaining costs. So there is risk at times, risk for the designer and the publisher both. The best scenario is to be able to sell a book through a publisher and/or distributor and also through a home based business as well as having a booth and teaching at major shows.
Contacting companies in regards to freelance work offers additional potential for the designer. I’ve been able to do pattern sheets for chains and ads for a particular product or surface. It all helps toward opening a few more doors and for building a resume. Though often these jobs are a one time opportunity, the visibility has the potential to go beyond that, and is one of the most important assets you can create for yourself. A designer needs to continually discover ways to keep their name and their work current. You can’t depend on what you’ve done in the past. Constant visibility in magazines is what caught the attention of a marketing rep around 1999. Out of the blue, I received a call from the editor at “Crafts” magazine and she said a company was interested in promoting their product. The marketing rep had seen a few of my projects in their magazine and liked my style and would it be alright for them to contact me. How quickly could I say “yes” to such a welcome opportunity? Pretty quickly! The information was passed on and I received the call and it was explained that the company was interested in entering the decorative painting market and would I be interested in doing some projects for them for a brochure. This would mean leaving a product I’d been using for 15 years, giving up a good endorsement program as well as a quality product and enter into an unknown. Despite not knowing, I also wondered what this might potentially offer to the future. I thought back to the seminar in regards to not burning bridges because you never know when you might meet on that painted road again. I called the designer liaison I’d worked with and explained the situation and that it would mean I’d have to change product. We talked a short time and I said it was difficult to leave but that this seemed like such a great opportunity and one for possible growth as a designer. I was so relieved to get such a warm and encouraging response from her. She said that she understood the importance of going after an opportunity and, if ever I chose to return, I would certainly be welcome. She also wished me success and thanked me for all I’d done with their product. I was so impressed, even to this day, by her congenial attitude in business. As later I realized this is not always the circumstance. This had been my first real experience in comprehending how important ethics are in business. Managing situations with integrity and honesty leave a good impression and business friendships in tact; this is an invaluable asset to maintain. When dealing with an individual or company where this might not always be the case, it can create difficult situations which can result in misunderstandings or hard feelings. It’s always best not let personal feelings interfere with business and that’s another lesson learned.
To be continued……