Am I Working on the Right Thing?

Maybe not.

I know. Those are simply fabulous answers! Here’s the thing—we don’t always know if the activities we are engaged in will come back to us in dollars, satisfaction or a “learning experience”.* Every freelance artist or writer I know ponders this very question—and that does not necessarily change with experience. We just do a bit less flailing about worrying and accept that it is part of the dance of freelance.

So here are my thoughts on the yes, you are, maybe you are and you are definitely not working on the right thing right now.

Yes, for sure:

  • Artwork you are doing under contract like an editorial illustration or licensing deal. These are the activities that rise to the top of the priority list.
  • Projects that you don’t necessarily love but will result in someone giving you money for the actual purchase of actual food for your actual family.
  • Promoting yourself strategically in social media, but without being a slave to every little thing that comes along—or making everyone wish you’d just go home and draw a picture already.

Maybe/Maybe not:

  • Developing artwork in anticipation of a trade show or meeting with potential clients—you are pretty sure you are hitting the mark on what makes you, you and you think you have a pretty good idea that the market will respond positively but there’s always the chance that, well—you didn’t. But by not doing anything, you for sure will not get a positive result. This is called risk. It’s what we entrepreneur types do.
  • Adding new work to your Etsy, Society 6, etc shops—it might sell, it might not, but it certainly won’t if no one sees it.
  • Experimentation, throwing paint around, feverishly sketching in your sketchbook. These activities don’t necessarily translate into dollars and cents but without them, there is not a chance you will stumble across something that will.

Probably not:

  • Trolling Zappos** for comfortable tradeshow shoes while partially finished potentially fabulous designs languish in your Photoshop files. Ahem—get to it, sister!
  • Mimicking other successful artists or staying in a lane that is too crowded. Be you, already!
  • Whining about your lack of success. Yeah, that never works.

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

-Soren Kierkegaard

I know, that’s awfully deep for me and many, many people would find it hilarious that I am quoting Kierkegaard when I’m usually quoting people like Dolly Parton, Mr. and Mrs. Howell and Dr. Phil. But that’s the way it is, you know? And to answer that first question? It’s all in the looking back.

But I’d hedge my bets on doing your own thing with meaning, authenticity and really good technique.

So that would be a yes.


*Learning Experiences are great but they can’t make a car payment.
**This should only take place after 11 pm while drinking a glass of wine. It’s the rule.

And just where do I apply for that job?

TwylaTharp“We want our artists to take the mundane materials of our lives, run it through their imaginations, and surprise us.”
–Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit, Learn It and Use It for Life

Well, that sounds like a job description for Art Licensing to me!

The first Christmas card was published in 1843*—so for 173 years we’ve managed to come up with thousands of new cards every single year—that’s a lot of cards, each starting with an artist and a pencil (or stylus) coming up with a new twist or color scheme of our particular vision of Old St. Nick.

Generations of illustrators have developed designs for this particular season and we still pick up a greeting card, gift bag or Christmas coffee mug and think, “Isn’t this cute?” or “Ooh—I love this one!” Our collective creative souls show up and bring something new to the party all the time—on a really adorable paper plate, of course. How meaningful that we get to corral our hearts, our heads and our hands to present something new to our customers. All. The. Time.

So, yes, I would like to apply for that job—again and again and again.

(and if you haven’t read Twyla Tharp’s book on creativity, you need to go get it. Now.)

*yes, I actually did research; I didn’t make it up this time.

Fifty (or so) Jewels

I am honored to be featured in the “Coffee Talk” department at the very cool Fifty Jewels©Ronnie Walter - artist - writer - smart aleck website, a gathering place for  fashion, food, new ideas and interviews with interesting women. It’s worth a trip over just to see my corporate head shot from somewhere in the mid-eighties—the one not included in this trifecta of Ronnie heads.

Have fun over there, Kimberly has tons of tips and advice for those of us who have gathered our fifty jewels–so far!

Deeper, funnier, stronger…you

RonnieWalterIllustrationYou get it. You know what it feels like to sit up with a sick kid and clean up puke in the middle of the night–again. You are the one that has held a friend’s hand when she’s had a bad breakup, lost a job—or worse, gotten a bad haircut. You watched as your parents became confused or sat with them as they slipped into the next world. You’ve been there—and back.

So for all of you artists, writers and potential dreamers of creative careers, remember this; it’s the tattered and sometimes faded memories and experiences that bring the depth, the seasoning and the patina to your work. Don’t believe me? Take a look at that cute twenty-six year old sitting there in her cute shoes, unlined skin and that fresh illustration degree. She’s talented and clever and has a big future ahead of her. She’s your go-to gal for the ‘aren’t we cool and sophisticated?’ images (which I love by the way). But is she the one that can write a greeting card about loss or courage or see the rip snorting hilarity surrounding sagging boobs and hot flashes? Can she write a book about the horror of watching her adorably sweet former baby drive off in her hand me down car for the first time—alone?

Wear your badge with honor, ladies—fly that “I have seen what life serves up and I can still find the humor, the joy and the pride” flag with style and confidence!

Don’t let anyone tell you its too late. Sit down, cut that crap out and draw and paint and write from the very depths of your heart. And once you’ve mopped up the tears and finished the wine just look at what you’ve done. Maybe it’s a tear and wine stained mess but somewhere in there is the nugget of what you want to say, what you want to portray and what and how you want to send a message to someone walking the same mile in the same cute shoes as you. And whether you serve it up with humor, sentiment, scripture or with gorgeously rendered images, the message is this:

It’ll be OK.
I’m there for you.
Life is pretty good, when you think about it.
I understand.
I will not leave you.

So tap your inner goddess, the mama warrior, that holder of truths won from age and experience, and let that woman out already! You, my dear, are the conqueror of complacency!

And remember, you get it.

Tell me the truth…maybe.

RonnieCheerleader-WebRecently someone in one of the art licensing Facebook groups asked where people go for critique of their work. And occasionally someone will post an image and ask people what they think of it and its viability in the marketplace. I have been known to have my fingers poised over the keyboard to compose a (brilliantly kind) critique from my perspective as a qualified fresh eye. But I stop myself. Why? Well, I don’t know this person and I don’t know if she really wants criticism or does she want someone to say “Good Job! You worked hard on that!” Does she want honest feedback or does she want a cheerleader? Two very different things, and I am not going to second guess that answer with a complete stranger on a public forum. Not my can o’ worms to open.

As many of you know (because I keep talking about it), I have been writing for the past few years and have published a couple of books. What? You didn’t know that? Well, click here to learn more about that! In this process of figuring out how to craft stories out of thin air, I have become more connected to other writers through blogs, books and actual human connection. Critique partners and groups are much more common in the writing world and have helped lots of writers improve their craft by hearing the input of others who are qualified to give it. Or it’s caused a few writers to curl up into a tiny ball of angst after hearing that their dialog is stilted and the plot needs a complete overhaul. It is not for the faint of heart to listen to comments about the work you have wrestled from each fiber of your being and spewed onto a perfectly good sheet of paper. I once made the mistake of reading an early excerpt from a story I was writing that was not the typical subject for my writing group. I will not forget the sting of criticism from someone who clearly had no affinity-or respect- for the genre itself, much less my writing of it. I realized that I was reading up the wrong tree.

So if you are going after the hunt for honest critique of your work (and you should at some point), there are people who are qualified to critique your work as to its viability in the art licensing arena and there are some (ok, most) who are not.

Qualified to critique your portfolio:

  • Seasoned professionals that understand the business like:
  • Most Art Licensing Agents
  • Other artists who have successful licensing careers over a decent chunk of time who are not threatened by other artists
  • Consultants to the industry as long as they are up on current trends and market
  • People you trust and respect.

Not qualified to critique your portfolio:

  • Artists who want to be licensed. As much as we love them, if they haven’t figured it out for themselves, do you want to take advice from them?
  • Artists who have a bad attitude and do not have your best interests at heart
  • Your Mom. (sorry, she fits into another category…or two)

I am a huge advocate for artists supporting each other and I don’t know what I would do without my own posse of fellow creatives who get what this world is like to live in. And although we sometimes give each other honest feedback (when asked) we are really cheerleaders for each other. (“You can do this! I know you can! And if you can or can’t, I don’t care! Now have some wine…”) So who should be in your Cheerleader camp?

  • Artists who are on a similar path to yours and are not threatened by your work.
  • Your friends who just want to see you succeed already!
  • Your significant other
  • Your Mom–See? Here she is!

But if you want to develop an ongoing cast of comrades to act as fellow critique-ers, remember that selecting critique partners or groups is a delicate process. Trust, respect and a healthy sense of humor are essential qualities to set the stage for everyone’s growth. To prevent anyone from feeling hurt, embarrassed or just plain ticked off, snide comments, rolled eyes or anything resembling sarcasm should be left at the door–but they are mandatory while watching The Bachelor with your girlfriends. It will also help to learn the fine art of critique which in writing circles is called the Critique Sandwich. It works like this:

  • Lay down a base of positivity. “Your color palette is incredible; love that you used the aqua and orange-y red as accent colors!”
  • Spread a layer of criticism. “But I’m a little concerned about who your audience is. The sentiment seems like it’s for adult women but the art style feels juvenile to me.”
  • Top it off with a big old dollop of positivity! “Your style is really beginning to emerge and your message is spot on! I think with a few tweaks this will be a great collection!”

There! Now, wasn’t that easy?

Using phrases like these can help your partners come to their own answers:

  • Have you considered_____________?
  • Tell me about why you ___________.
  • Maybe____________might be a stronger approach.

Instead of:

  • What were you thinking?
  • It’ll never sell.
  • Well, that sucks.

And here’s another thing. Remember everybody comes to the table with their own viewpoints and sensibilities. So thank them, don’t argue and consider whether what they said gave you more insight into where you want to go with your work. A good critique will open up more questions, leading you to find the right answer for yourself. And the other kind is just…someone else’s opinion. But you can tell the difference, can’t you?

And when it’s your turn, be kind, be clear and don’t forget the sandwich.

Finally, be very careful when asking anonymous forums for a critique of your work—you can open yourself up for all kinds of grief when faceless, possibly heartless people have a place to voice their opinion. Or worse, all you’ll hear is, “great work!”

I have worked in the illustration biz since Hello Kitty was a wee kitten, including time spent as an art director, illustrator, agent and consultant, so I have a pretty good eye for evaluating an artist’s portfolio’s potential for art licensing. I can usually spot the pieces that rise to the surface and which ones should either be reworked or retired. I love this process and the clarity it can give an artist—I also know the feeling of staring at something for so long you can’t tell of its good, bad or boring. But you see—I’m qualified. And I am also seasoned enough to first ask the question—are you looking for a critique or a cheerleader?

Because I’m pretty good at that too—except for the cartwheels.

The Seven Stages of Art Licensing

Ronnie Walter, art licensingMaking a living by licensing your artwork on products is not an event but a process, a process that repeats day after day and year after year. Along the way you’ll have successes and failures but it will all work out in the end. Maybe.

I’m here to break down those steps to success so you can understand where you might land on the “Gosh Darnit, I want to do this for a living” scale. Just like any Seven Stages list, they don’t have to be experienced in any order and you may need to stay in a particular stage until you finally figure out how to move on. Personally, I like to hang out in Denial as much as possible and although it’s a nice safe place, it doesn’t pay particularly well.

Awareness: Wait…what?? There are people who will send me money because they want to put my artwork on their coffee mugs, fabric and gift products? Well now we’re talkin’! Where do I sign up for that deal?

Acceptance: So you’re saying I have to pull together a professional presentation, maybe a website and make art that hits the market at the right time? Yeah, I think I can do that.

Bargaining: Hey honey, can I talk to you for a minute? So here’s the deal, for the next oh, say 4 years or so, I am going to spend all of my free time and quite a bit of our cash to develop a plan to make a living with my artwork. Seriously. Stop laughing. You will enjoy all kinds of fast food each day and I will concoct delicious meals from food we already own, including that unidentified block of maybe meat or possibly banana bread in the back of the freezer. A couple of times a year I am going to spend extra money to attend tradeshows, maybe exhibit a few times and spend way more than you thought possible on comfortable–and adorable– shoes. There will be some drinking. Between now and when I get my first royalty check you may witness a few emotional ups and downs every so often and it won’t always be pretty. If you happen to see me curled up in the corner of the couch watching a “Say Yes to the Dress” marathon, I will tell you that I am doing “market research” for my new bridal collection coming to stickers near you. And I suggest that you believe me. Any questions so far? No? Great! Because you can do your part by supporting me emotionally and financially, and it would be best that if around 9 o’clock each night you’d bring me a glass of red wine and a piece of dark chocolate it will all go swimmingly for us both. Thanks, babe–you’re the best!

Joy: I got a check! I got a check! Look, honey! I got a check! It’s for $63.38!!! We’re building the empire, baby!

Denial: When all those art licensing experts talk about success being a long shot and it will take a while to make money, they’re not talking about me are they? I’m special! My mom and my girlfriends told me so!

Author’s Note: The paneled rec room of Denial is Delusion where you are convinced that no one has ever seen such amazing and incredible work before they gazed upon your portfolio. Bonus points: calories don’t count here either!

Endurance: I’m in it for the long haul, baby! Every year I’ll conjure up a couple of new Santas! An entire Civilization of Snowmen will be unleashed by my supreme creative powers! I’ll find dozens hundreds of ways to say Happy Birthday! Foxes? Owls? Hedgehogs? No critter will be safe from my speedy and precise paintbrush! Bring it baby, I’ve got what it takes!

Realization: OK, got it. I’ll work hard, stay in tune with the market, bring my best work and try to work with people who are reasonable human beings, risk takers and actually pay royalties when they say they will? It. Just. Might. Work.

Money Saving Tips for Freelancers

Here’s the deal. Freelancing is not for the faint of heart. Some days you will be strutting your stuff and thinking you are the greatest thing since they figured out how to weave Spandex into jeans and some days you’ll feel like that tiny rock that gets wedged in the crevices of the sole of your sneaker. The really really, tiny rock. But you’re still freelancing and that, my friend, is a pretty cool place to be. You just don’t necessarily know which kind of day it will be when you pour that first cup of coffee in the morning.

But one thing I know for sure, there will be times at any given point in your career that you may need to pinch a few pennies to squeak through the lean times. It happens, and it can happen at any point too. I won’t list all the reasons you may find yourself in this situation since I am all about positivity and delivering uplifting messages, right? Right?

So here are a few tips to get you through the lean times. You can thank me later.

1) Don’t get a new phone unless you dropped yours or someone stole it. Whatever you have is fine, no matter how often your teenager rolls his or her eyes when you pull it out in front of his or her friends.
2) Only buy accessories, I’m not talking about designer bags or shoes, but cute scarves and cheap and cheerful jewelry can really spiff up a basic outfit.
3) Start cooking at home, people. I just made a pan grilled fish and sautéed spinach with mushrooms, garlic and a little bacon and I swear to you I had it all done in 15 minutes. I’ll send the recipe for the spinach if you like. I made it up myself.
4) Use up everything before you buy new. Art supplies, hair products, condiments. Who knows what brilliant designs, new hair styles and menu items you can come up with before you have to shop again? But send me the pictures of your new hair. I promise not to post them anywhere. Really…I promise. Mostly.
5) Go to the library! They have the most amazing art books to lose yourself in when you’re having a less than creative day. Some libraries even have coffee shops in them now, mine doesn’t– but then our first stand-alone Starbucks is being built as I type this.

So there you have it, let me know if any of these work for you and if you want the world’s least expensive MBA in Art Licensing?* You could buy my book you know!

*It doesn’t exist, I looked it up.

Relax! What could go wrong at SURTEX?


No one will show up.
Yes, they will! It will just feel like they never will in the beginning. Just be ready to smile and say hi!
My banners will fall down.
Yes, they could. And that’s why you will bring every adhesive known to humankind with you on the plane or you will beg for extras from your neighbors. If begging doesn’t work, chocolate often does.
I’ll be meeting with someone who is a complete dullard while the Best Potential Client Ever Ever Ever walks past.
Yes, that happens all the time! And since the Best Potential Client Ever Ever Ever does not wear a badge that actually says that they are the BPCEEE, you may never know. But if they love your walls enough and you are easy to find out there in the world, they will contact you. I hope. Or they won’t. Sorry about that.
I will vomit, pee or faint in my booth.
Sure you could! But just pray that it doesn’t happen all at the same time!
I could spill coffee on my cute outfit and my adorable shoes will slowly kill me.
Oh, yes, coffee gets spilled–but hear this: Be really careful! Tight fitting lids, people! And by the way, I have never in my entire career spilled coffee or tea on my artwork or portfolio. But let’s not talk about the red wine incident of 2003. And shoes have been known to take down even the most seasoned exhibitor. Bring an alternative pair of super cute shoes to the show with you. I recommend black patent for the 2nd pair since they go with everything. Now do you think my year and a half as Assistant Manager at Famous Footwear was a complete waste of time?

So go ahead and worry, but it really won’t do you any good. Either something icky will happen or it won’t. But if you haven’t shown up for the potentially awful to occur, then you won’t be there when the amazing moment happens either, now will you?