Cathy Heck + Julianna Larsen = Pure Delight!

These two! Okay, I had a blast interviewing my old pal, designer Cathy Heck and her a-MAZ-ing daughter Julianna Larsen. We talked about Cathy’s pathway to designing some of the most charming products on the market, how they chose to expand their business when the economy was a bit wobbly and some great stories on working on and in a family business. Just click here to watch and be prepared to giggle!

Which Licensing Camp are You in?

In a Facebook Live video I recorded last week with Cherish Flieder, we talked about how to be proactive with your licensing career. If you’d like to watch you can find the recording here.  Toward the end of the chat I mentioned I’d identified two basic tracks that artists travel to achieve their goals in licensing. I probably should have spent more time on it, seriously it’s about 2 minutes hiding amidst a whole bunch of juicy information about building your creative business.

But – it’s an important point that can help you have a deeper understanding where you might fit in this market, so I decided to march it out front and center. (Keep in mind I make some generalizations here and fully recognize there can be other pathways to get there. It’s not always a one size fits all process but play along).

There are two main ways an artist can be poised for licensing. The first is what I would call, for lack of a better term, an “Artisan Illustrator”. (Note: In the video I used the word “commodity artist” as I was struggling for the right term to describe what I meant). An Artisan is an artist whose portfolio represents a variety of styles in both seasonal and every day designs that are appropriate across a wide range of products. The other option is an “Art Brand”, an artist who comes to the market with a distinct signature style/concept based in who they are and what they stand for. The art is the driver of a message and/or unique look, and less about filling the typical product needs of the market.

And by the way, this does not mean that if you’re in one camp or the other you can’t cross over.  Depending on where you are in your career and what you are good at, opportunities that might support a different way of licensing your art can pop up at any time.

So, let’s go a little deeper.

If you are an Artisan, you have a look that’s marketable to a general audience, and you continue to refresh and refine your portfolio with a variety of high turnover designs. This kind of portfolio satisfies the ongoing needs of manufacturers who license artwork for products that typically are sold in volume and need to be refreshed season after season. Products like gift bags and wrap, greeting cards, paper tableware, decorative flags, floormats, stationery, giftware etc. These artists populate their portfolios with collections of seasonal and everyday designs with popular motifs suitable for Christmas, Birthday, Baby, Wedding plus florals, patterns, juvenile designs and trend-driven icons. And they continue to add to their portfolio regularly, cycling out old work as needed.

There are many successful artists who can do this and make a name for themselves because their look is popular, and it sells well. Some examples of “big name” artists in this category would be Susan Winget, Paul Brent, Sue Zipkin and Barb Tourtillotte, however there are scores of artists in this camp making a nice living by developing lasting relationships with manufacturers and supplying new designs year after year.

The “Art Brand” path is developed around who you are and a point of view, with your artwork supporting your message for a specific audience. For instance, it could be based around humor, inspiration, motivation, Scripture, a common cause or segment of the culture. The art brand artist finds the right manufacturers who “get them” and support their viewpoint. Products could be the same as in the first group, but can often be expanded into signature lines across a wide variety of categories like publishing, stationery, giftware, etc.

Often these artists come from another discipline; blogging, lifestyle branding, a popular book, entertainment, or the fine art world. Artist brands would include people like Kelly Rae Roberts, Mary Engelbriet, Drew Brophy, and Britto. Plus, there are artists who start with a theme or audience in mind and design a collection specifically hitting that target. Lori Siebert is an excellent example of a designer that leads with her message and then her incredible art supports it.

And of course, some artists do both, either by style or by the evolution (one way or the other) of their work and point of view. Over the years, as I developed my writing chops, I have been moving from an Artisan towards identifying as an Art Brand.

There is no “one is better than the other” here, each track has advantages and disadvantages. If you’re an Artisan, you may be faced with a lot of competition in the space, but there are many more licensing opportunities available to you.

If you’re an Art Brand, you do your thing because it represents who you are and what you believe. Because of that, you may have more of a challenge finding partners who believe that your message will resonate with their customers.  But once you do—it can be a beautiful and long-lasting journey!

I know there is a lot of “how to license your art” information out there (including my book, License to Draw), but not all advice (including mine) will fit every artist all the time. What you do, and who you are, at any given moment will determine what is relevant. Nor do you have to decide which camp you are in and only work under that flag. However, over time, as you get closer to knowing what you have to offer—and what you don’t—reaching out to decision makers becomes easier and more productive.

I’d love to have a further conversation about this idea, so please share your thoughts in the comments!

Did you like the video? If you’d like more information on staying focused (and pretty much sane) while running your creative businesses you can head over to my YouTube channel. I’m posting short videos to help you on your journey! You can watch (and subscribe) here. Thanks!


From the HR Department…

Annual rSnowman cartoon by Ronnie Waltereviews are a tried and true method for everyone in an organization to establish their goals and objectives, address weaknesses or full-on problems. And when an employee has a weakness, they don’t automatically get canned, but a plan is developed for working out the kinks and move forward.

Same thing with your portfolio.

So, here’s the Super Corporate Human Resources Department’s view of your portfolio:

The High Achievers
These employees are the stars of the show, the crème of the crop, the designs that should have certificates decorating every inch of their cubicle. The other designs either want to bask in their glow or talk about them in the ladies’ room. You didn’t necessarily know when you hired them that they would be the break-out employee of the month, but you keep reaching for that goal.

The Work Horses
Your behind-the-scenes heroes. The kinds of designs that you know will sell, are the tried and true subjects, categories, and style that your clients look to you to provide. They refresh every year and stand proudly in your portfolio. Sometimes they bring the donuts because they are just that nice.

The Problem Children
You know the ones. Maybe they show some promise but are languishing around the coffee maker talking about last night’s episode of The Bachelor. They have a lot of potential but try cashing that in at the supermarket. They may need a little nurturing and guidance to live up to that elusive starring role, but for now they either need to go on probation or step it up through a design update, new colorway or an updated technique.

The Delinquents
But they interviewed so well! You had such hope for them! But there they are; back on the loading dock smoking cigarettes while the others are toiling away making you into the artist you’ve always dreamed of becoming. Time to cut them loose and start over again or they’ll continue to drag the whole company down.

So, when it’s time to review what you are offering to the world, sit each design down and have a little chat about their past behavior and their future potential. Maybe your weaker 2-dimensional employees need a little guidance and “thinking time” before they will start pulling their weight at your company. Put them on probation until you know what to do. And nobody gets any satisfaction from firing someone (unless you’re C. Montgomery Burns).

But sometimes that’s the best route to go for everyone’s morale. Including yours.

How does your brain work?

Despite my constant defense that artists are not crazy (well, no crazier than the rest of the population), I do think our minds work slightly differently than, say, a software engineer, research librarian or the restaurant server who remembers everyone’s order without writing anything down. If Wally Waffle had required me to commit the entire menu to memory, I may not have made it through that second year of art school.

Over the years I’ve managed to accept that multiple tracks of information, ideas and every embarrassing moment of my life are all running at full speed and I’ve even devised a few methods to stop at the right station in order to get something (anything) done. So what do you do to corral the ideas, quiet the chatter and forgive yourself for that thing you said? Personally I am pouring all of it into drawing cartoons, writing and teaching what I know so I can blessedly sleep, knowing that it will all be waiting for me in the morning.

HonorYourBrainPS. My new Skillshare class, “How to make Money with Art Licensing” is now live. Use this link to get 2 months free–just think what you could learn in just two months!

When Bad Things Happen to Good Artists

RonnieInCup-WEBIf you know anything about me, you know I’m pretty positive. I try to be upbeat in the worst of situations, in fact sometimes I feel like I am cursed with a sunny disposition.

And I know how much we want to put a rainbow and Skittles® face on how super uber fabulous drawing pictures for a living is. And it is.


I have been in the illustration biz almost longer than I have not been. I have had products that stayed on the market for years generating good royalties in some of the biggest retailers in America. At any given moment I have projects cooking, my work is under consideration somewhere and the royalty fairies are working their magic.

I have managed to not have a ”job job” despite the cultural bias that says that artists can’t be successful and we’re all a bunch of flakes. OK, maybe the second part of that can be true in some cases, but I’m not naming names. Although I could.

And of course, getting paid via royalties can involve wild swings from “I’m rich!” to “I’m broke!” over the course of any given year (or week). And truth be told, I have managed to make enough money to not worry every night about whether or not I will be eating cat food when I’m 82. I mean, I even went on vacation that one time!

So far, so good.

But what do you do if, for instance, in spite of your best efforts you never ever get that client or project you want? Or things were going along swimmingly, and then all of a sudden pulling together your next mortgage payment, or student loan–or grocery money—becomes tricky at best, or maybe scary beyond what you have previously known in your life?

What if a project that showed so much promise and consumed months of your work and talent tanked at retail? Like really tanked—even though all kinds of pretty smart, experienced people gave it the green light every step of the way?

What if you were having conversations with someone about a juicy awesome project and you shared your whole bloody hopes, dreams and unique plans with them, and five minutes after they passed on it (with you) you see that they have implemented your hopes, dreams and unique plans with someone else?

Or (deep breaths, kids) you found yourself in the middle of a (gulp) really expensive lawsuit?

Well, there! How’s that sunny demeanor working out now? And just so you know, over the course of my career every one of those things has happened to me at least once. Thankfully, not all in one year but spread over lots of years of drawing pictures for a living.

Ask anyone who has a business doing anything. The guy who owns the tire store. Your hair stylist. Heck, even your gynecologist (because who doesn’t like a bit of small talk during your exam?). They will tell you this: business is fraught with risk. And rewards. That’s why many of the wealthiest people in the world are business owners. They have weathered any number of hardships and slip-ups and bone-headed moves and still managed to stay focused on the big picture. Of course, many businesses do not make it. That does not make them horrible people or losers or any kind of “less-than”. But most of them will tell you, it’s not how many times you fall; it’s how many times you get up that makes the difference. And knowing when enough is truly enough helps too.

Each time I was tripped up I chose to get up. To brush myself off. To absorb the hurt and maybe the anger. To make it right when I could. And forgive myself when I couldn’t.

And then I go find something funny or surround myself with the people who love me and still think I am adorable and hilarious.

And then I draw a picture. Or maybe two or three.

Sprinting Surtex

RonnieAndTheSloth-WEBSo, I’m back. I hit the ground running in New York and didn’t stop until I stretched my legs on the trip back to Florida. Oh, and I won the airline lottery on that flight—no seatmate! Now you know how much I love humanity, but after a few days in Manhattan I was gifted with a tiny travel oasis when to my delight the doors closed at JFK and I realized I had two seats all to myself. And since it was a teeny aircraft there were only two seats on each side of the plane so I did not have to negotiate for the middle seat real estate with the aisle passenger. It was mine, all mine!

So I used the time to draw, read my magazine—use the other tray table for my coffee, water, yogurt and the extra cookies that the flight attendant slipped me—there are perks to the silver hair, people!

And I had a little space to reflect back on my trip. As you know from my newsletter, I offered 20 minute coaching sessions to the nine artists who scheduled with me first (plus I added a 10th person because I’m so nice).

All of these appointments were crammed into about 4 hours. Without food or bathroom breaks. Although I did offer one person $100 for a Tic-tac. Again–I am a professional. I received two texts from pals who offered to bring me food but I didn’t see them until afterward and even so, I didn’t want to squander my “coachee’s” time (or potentially grossing them out) by stuffing my face with Javit’s hot dogs.

So back to my “mini-first class”. I took out my journal and wrote down everything I learned from the experience. This is in no apparent order nor do any of them relate to one exact person, in case you are playing along at home.

What I learned from coaching 10 people in 3 hours*

  • Scratch the surface for the really good stuff.

Lots of portfolios have “pretty good” art. The artist has taken “the classes” and has learned about typical arrangements of collections, developing a color story and presenting it a clear and concise manner. But where’s the soul? Where do you (your experience, your culture, your unique point of view, your heart and guts) fit into the equation? Dig a little deeper, honey—that’s where the good stuff lives.

  • Follow your calling.

Does the thought of patterns and snowmen and the newest “it” critter make you roll your eyes and maybe even develop a twitch in that very same eye? Then don’t do it—leave it for someone else. Do your best work and don’t worry about the rules. Figure out the highest and best use of your art and remember there is room for the square peg. In fact there is a square peg writing this blog as we speak. And she’s a doll.

  • Trust yourself.

If everyone who has looked at your book, your website, or your adorable bookmark has said some version of “hey, that’s pretty cool”, then believe them. And move it out into the world further and further until someone who can do something with your art says, “hey, that’s so cool, we’d like to develop that into something” or “naah, not right for us.” You are ready for that.

  • Ideas are cheap—focus is everything.

We all have mountains of sketchbooks, paintings, notes on grocery lists, church bulletins and tiny slips of paper tossed all over our desks. Idea generation is usually not a problem for us—but moving them into something that can be received and evaluated and understood is the hard part. Some (most) ideas fall apart during the process—but you cannot know which ones are the winners and which ones just need to live in your sketchbook until you test  them against a process to see if they have “legs” in the market. (hmmm…that sounds like another blog post—or a Periscope)

  • Right rock, wrong hill

Each step of the process of getting a collection closer to actual numbers on a bank check can feel like pushing a rock uphill. Some of the hills are smooth and gradual while some end at the edge of a harrowing cliff. Some of the rocks you can kick along in front of you while others require Herculean (or Sisyphus-ian) strength. Sometimes you have amazing artwork that will not be appropriate for the market as we know it. Hey, it happens. So you need to march that rock over to that other hill which might just be the exact right one for your designs.

  • Narrow your focus.

We are not all things to all people. We are not even some things to all people. But by golly, we are the exact right thing for some people. Find those people. Tighten your story, find your audience, be okay with responding with, “yeah, thanks, but that’s not me.”

And—I met ten of the most interesting, vibrant adorable artists that I am so excited to see blossom on their chosen path! Oh, and the rest of the time in New York? Super fun!


*actually I knew these things before but boy, did they become crystal clear to me with that kind of intense activity. Even without the hotdog.


To Surtex or Not to Surtex?

This question was posted recently by the (very talented) Melissa Washburn in one of my Facebook groups:

“Is anyone else *not* going to Surtex? I realize that Surtex is not necessarily the place for everyone, and is a huge time and money commitment that not everyone is ready for, but I feel like EVERYONE BUT ME is going (leading to those terrible comparison thoughts and “If I don’t go to Surtex I’m never going to get clients” thoughts). Anyone care to start a “Not going to Surtex” Support Group, lol?”

Melissa’s posts received lots of responses from “maybe some day” to “I wouldn’t miss it!”. It’s a timely subject and  I was planning to write a blog discussing this exact issue. Taking each side of the argument, I’ve written my own little Point/Counterpoint—with myself. So here we go!

SurtexDebate2Why you SHOULD exhibit at SURTEX:

SURTEX attendees are a concentration of art directors and decision makers across lots of disciplines and product categories. If they are in the business of licensing art from independent artists and agents, then they will likely attend the show to scout for current projects and also to discover talent for future product lines.

By exhibiting at SURTEX, you have the opportunity to be seen by and meet with the companies that you have dreamed of working with. And as a bonus, you also have the opportunity to meet people you didn’t know you wanted to work with. (And sometimes you can cross a few off your list once you have met with them because you won’t work well together…).

SURTEX is an enormous networking opportunity to meet potential clients, industry influencers and lots of other artists who are doing, or aspire to do, the same thing you are doing. It’s a way to develop face to face relationships with people that so far you have only met online.  And that’s really fun, plus you never know when those paths may cross again.

If you exhibit at SURTEX you might even get a deal for your art! Yes, that’s right; you could walk away with a licensing contract under your belt before the end of the show. It has been done, however in reality it doesn’t happen often during your first few years.

If you are on the hunt for agency reputation, you can scope out the agents who are exhibiting and possibly have a conversation with them. At the very least you can get a sense of who they are, and maybe whether you would want to talk further with them.

Exhibiting at SURTEX (or License Expo or Blueprint, etc) is only recommended when you feel like you have a clear vision for your business–and your body of artwork is deep enough to attract a wide range of manufacturers—and is at a competitive level for the market. This is no time for a “well, let’s see how this goes” attitude unless you have recently won the big Powerball. (Then you’d probably just want to hang out on the beach in Maui anyway. Call me!)

This is a show chock-full of eye candy: great art, emerging art trends and industry insights that you can observe first hand. Exhibiting at SURTEX can make you feel like you are playing with the big kids—that you are ready to take a big step in moving your creative career forward.

SurtexDebate3Why you SHOULD NOT exhibit at SURTEX

Contrary to popular opinion, SURTEX is not the Holy Grail of success in this industry. There are many artists, agents and a lot of licensees who never set foot in the place. Exhibiting at SURTEX does not guarantee success by any stretch of the imagination; in fact it could take a very long time to earn back your expenses from the show.

Here’s the math:
Say your booth and other expenses total somewhere around $7000 for a 10 X 10 booth. Figuring a 5% royalty on wholesale, your deals would have to net your clients $140,000 at wholesale in order for you to break even. As in no profit yet. And that’s a lot of money. Many deals (like a few greeting cards for example) will never come close to that number. And most artists will tell you that they didn’t get any real traction until they exhibited for multiple years. Yikes.

You are early in your career and are not really sure if your work is right for the industry. Many artists and art styles are not. Instead of risking those kind of expenses you could spend a little more time showing your work to art directors via email and reaching out through social media. Getting additional feedback makes much more sense, particularly in the beginning.

If you believe that you will never make it unless you exhibit. Many artists who have either never exhibited, have stopped exhibiting or do it only occasionally have viable businesses and lots of profitable licenses. It’s just not true that if you don’t exhibit at SURTEX you will be missing out on all the best deals.

If you believe that you’re not “somebody” until you have exhibited at a show. If you are eager enough to make a living with your artwork, you can find other far less expensive ways to get in touch with decision makers and influencers.

Keep in mind that you do not have a lot of control over who sees your art (despite making appointments and promoting yourself) at the show, due to your potential client’s schedule and agenda. They have a lot to see in a short time, so they may not stop at all. You may have better results by sending targeted information to them when they are not in “show mode”.

If you have never walked the show (trust me, you only have to do it once to figure out if it is right for you or not), then you need to pony up the money to attend as a visitor before exhibiting. Spending a grand or less (depending on where you live) is a whole lot cheaper than dropping upwards of $7000 and finding out that you are in the wrong venue for your art.

So there you go—some reasons why you should and why you shouldn’t exhibit at SURTEX. It’s not for everyone and it’s not guaranteed success.  A well-planned strategy and thoughtful promotion of your artwork places you in the position to be seen by decision makers–whether at a show or not.

I hope my little argument with myself helps you in your decision!


Note: All of the free in-person coaching spots have been filled at the show, but keep in mind that I am offering a 20 minute free “get to know each other call” after I am back from  New York. Sign up here!


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.