This post is part of a monthly series where I record my process of starting an art business. I’m sharing this process as I go so I capture all the little stressors and small victories along the way. Here’s a real-time look at one person’s journey to starting an art business.
Mindset and Reflection
This month, it was unexpectedly difficult for me to write this blog post. I started drafts several times and then postponed my work. I even pushed back my schedule (this series is supposed to go live the third Tuesday of every month). And then I split it into two blog posts.
For this half of my February posts, I’m focusing on art products. I’ll cover:
What Kind of Art Should I Sell?
I knew my answer immediately. I started an art business wanting to make enamel pins. And that’s what I’ll do. But pins are expensive to manufacturer and can take up to two months to go from design to product-at-your-doorstep. So my question became “what else can I offer while I’m waiting on pins?”
The first thing that came to mind was art prints.
Every artist seems to sell art prints. And why not? They already have the product and it seems only natural for an artist to sell straight up artwork. But on the other hand, I was thinking, “does anyone buy art prints online?”
Obviously they do. But was it a big market? Even as an artist, I’ve never purchased an art print online. I’ve never had the desire to. I still don’t. But I have purchased prints and artwork at galleries, art walks, and events. An artist friend of mine said she’s the same way.
So with some reservations, I decided to give it a try. Because selling prints is easy right? Well, yes and no.
How to Make Art Prints
After I decided to sell art prints, I realized I had no idea how artists do this. Where do they print their artwork? What are the cost-efficient options? What kind of paper do they use? What printing method is best? And oh my gosh, how am I supposed to ship a print without it getting bent or outright crushed?
In retrospect, I was a little dramatic. But suddenly, it seemed like there were a million things to consider. Maybe if I’d purchased online prints before, I wouldn’t have had this little crisis. When I stopped wondering and started looking, I found four options:
- Printing from Home
My printer is a nightmare, so I immediately cut this option.
- Printing from an Office Supply Store
Think FedEx, Office Depot, or Staples. This option is very cheap and typically uses laser printing. (Home printing is usually inkjet.) Their paper options are limited, but at some places (or possibly all?) you can bring your own paper for them to use.
- Printing from an Online Business
There are probably several businesses like this out there. Many are photo printing businesses, but the one I found was mentioned on an Etsy forum and offers fine art prints as well. I won’t mention their name yet since I’m still deciding on whether I like this service.I received free print and paper samples from this company, but unfortunately they were all photo paper. In the end, I decided to just buy a few fine art prints to see if I like them. I’m really hoping I do.
- Printing from a Local Print Shop
This is probably the most professional option. You can usually get giclee prints, which are very high-quality and more likely to be considered fine art. I haven’t looked into this option because I only found out about it recently. I also don’t need fine art quality prints for Etsy.
Right now I tentatively plan to go with the online business, as long as the fine art prints I ordered turn out well. The Office Depot prints I ordered were available for pickup the next day and the paper quality wasn’t bad, but you could see the difference in color. Going with the online business means higher print prices and slower delivery, but the quality seems worth it. Or I’ll offer a couple different paper options in my Etsy shop.
Digital Downloads on Etsy
Prints aren’t available in my Etsy shop yet, but there’s a quicker, cheaper alternative: digital downloads. In theory, digital products are excellent for a business owner. After you’ve uploaded the product and made your listing, it’s basically passive income. Buyers make a purchase, download the files, and do all the printing themselves.
In practice, I’m not sure how well this works. There are thousands of digital download listings on Etsy, so I suppose someone is buying them. But I get the sense that products with a specific purpose sell better than art prints. To test this idea out on myself again, no, I don’t think I’d buy downloadable art unless I really, really loved the artwork or I had a specific use in mind for the print.
But I did see an adorable set of tea labels that I would consider buying. Even more so if I had sticker paper and a decent-quality printer. Gift tags, banners, greeting cards, and bookmarks also seem to be more popular in the realm of digital downloads. You’ll probably see me trying out a few of these in the future.
Here’s the product I’m really excited about. Because I have a lot to share. Mainly that my first enamel pin is currently in production!
It’s a zebra plant, naturally, and is similar to the first plant in my “Mini Succs in Pots” print. Here was my process:
- Create pin design
- Struggle immensely with digital art
- Research manufacturers
- Contact manufacturers for quotes
- Choose and get started!
Designing an Enamel Pin
For me, designing can be split into two stages. The fun, idea generation part and the painful struggle to transfer your design into a digital form part. But before we get any further, I’d like to make sure we’re all on the same page. Because if you aren’t into pins yet, you might be wondering…
What are Enamel Pins?
You can look at a picture of a pin and get it, but when you’re designing a pin, it helps to understand the manufacturing process. In a pin mockup, the line art acts as a barrier to separate the colors.
Manufacturers create a mold with the line art acting as raised barriers. Then they fill in the recesses with the right colors. So no gradients or colors without a line separating them. You also want to avoid fine details to ensure that manufacturers can get enough color into the recess. The way the colors are filled in depends on the manufacturing process you use.
Soft Enamel vs. Hard Enamel
All the pins I’ve purchased have been hard enamel pins. Here’s the difference.
With soft enamel, each section only receives one coat of enamel paint. The result is an uneven surface with metal ridges (line art) higher than flat colored sections.
To make hard enamel, the colored sections receive multiple layers of paint until the filling reaches the top of the metal mold. The top surface of the pin is polished for a smooth finish.
I strongly prefer hard enamel pins. Soft enamel often looks a little messy to me, especially if it’s a big design. But they have benefits too.
Soft Enamel Pin Pros
- Cheaper to produce
- Greater range of color
- Colors possibly more vibrant
Hard Enamel Pin Pros
- Very durable
- Smooth surface looks cleaner
- Looks better (in my subjective opinion)
So although soft enamel pins cost less, I think the quality of hard enamel is worth it. That’s why you may see pins with a big price difference. People usually advertise hard enamel pins as such, but may not specify when a pin is soft enamel.
The Quest for the Perfect Manufacturer
I already went into my digital art struggles in part two of this series, so now let’s talk manufacturers. I’m about to drop some insider knowledge on you. Ready? Finding the best manufacturer is every pin maker’s struggle. You want a company that’s easy to work with and has a low ratio of B grade to standard grade pins.
In our digital, always-online age, you’d think this would be easy. Couldn’t you just Google “enamel pin manufacturers” and look at reviews?
No. You can’t.
Pin makers are strangely secretive about their manufacturers. I guess it’s best to keep your manufacturer to yourself so they’ll continue to have a low turnaround time? Is that it? I don’t really know, but I’ll keep mum for now too. But this only applies when you work directly with Chinese manufacturers.
There are several pin businesses in the US and Europe. Except they all use Chinese manufacturers too. They’re middlemen, so you’ll only end up paying more than necessary. The benefit is that you receive a more customer-friendly experience. They usually have prices displayed online, extensive explanations of their manufacturing process, and several samples of their prior work.
Here’s a list of businesses I considered:
Shoutout to Zap, who will touch up your design for you, and Night Owls, with the most adorable website ever.
But in addition to these four businesses, I considered four manufacturers I found through Alibaba. I asked for quotes from these four and Night Owl (who doesn’t have prices on their website) and heard from four out of five companies. Zap, Cooper, and Stuck Up all have prices listed on their sites, so I used those for comparison.
When working directly with manufacturers in China, the language barrier and shipping costs are two things to consider. Personally, I didn’t have any trouble with the language barrier and found it almost comforting to work with someone who’s not a native English speaker. Maybe I’m just missing Korea. I only had one awkward moment when a manufacturer referred to “shipping” as “freight” and it took me longer than it should have to understand.
Shipping will naturally be more expensive but since productions costs are generally lower, the overall cost is more competitive than most American or European manufacturers.
One thing I like about working directly with manufacturers is that you get to see the cost breakdown. Your design mold will be around $60 to $80 and the cost per pin ranges from $0.50 to $2.00. Keep in mind these prices are only based on the manufacturers I contacted.
Stresses and Successes
Since yesterday’s post included this month’s Stresses and Successes, I have nothing to report…except that you can now reserve a Zebra Plant Pin for a discounted pre-order price! It would mean a lot to me if you took a look.
See you with another art business post in March!
Other posts in Starting an Art Business:
- Starting an Art Business Part 1: The Prequel
- Starting an Art Business Part 2: We Are Live!
- Or visit Monicartsy on Etsy
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