Ask Craz! – Interview with Kiki D.

I was recently approached by Kiki D. (owner of the lovely character Crescent Gear that I had the pleasure of drawing for my first Furrydelphia dealer experience) to answer some questions for an Illustration course project. I had a fun time reflecting on my past experiences as I was answering these questions. And with questions about sales, growing a business, pricing, and my personal relationship with my art, I felt that (with their permission) sharing my responses to the advice blog could be insightful for others!

What is the story behind landing your very first client and what was the experience like?

My first commissions were when I was in college (2005) and creating art mainly to learn and grow my skill set. I didn’t charge very much (possibly $15-25 for a full color digital illustration of a fox-like character in a wintery forest clearing) and it was a commission for a friend on the gallery website DeviantArt. It was self-affirming to be commissioned (i.e. paid to do what I love instead of just a trade or gift) so the exchange meant a lot more to me at the time than the sum of money I charged for doing the work.

For those interested, my first official commission is The Approaching Storm here on DeviantArt.

What is your favorite piece of illustrative work that you have made to date and how did you go about creating it?

I usually have trouble creating a piece I enjoy for much longer than a day but I think my favorite piece is “Call of Support” which is a purple-toned, semi-abstract, semi-realistic personal painting of a wolf howling. It meant a lot to me when I created the piece since I created it as a tribute to my various long-distance friends who were all going through tough times; it’s a representation of my support and desire to console my friends despite the physical distance between us. The media I used included watercolor cake-style paints, watercolor marker, watercolor pencil, and gel pen. I sold the original in an art show at FurTheMore for the most amount of money I had ever sold an original. The purchaser identified strongly with the art which is why she bought it for the “buy now” price. The fact that she identified with the piece so much and loved it enough to purchase it for that amount of money had me on the edge of happy tears.

“Call of Support” – Prints are available in the shop.

What is your work schedule like as an illustrator and how does it affect your lifestyle?

My work schedule is a bit random at times which is the thing about being a full-time self-employed business owner and artist doesn’t work well for the types of people that like consistency or routine; it can be hard to stay on track at times but it can also be difficult to break away from work to focus on life and personal needs when you are focused intently on a project. It’s difficult to balance everything that my business requires; booking travel needs, commissions, ordering merchandise, shipping products to customers, advertising, managing finances and taxes, organizing and packing for events, and so on. I’ve written some of my advice blogs about how I try my best to maintain balance in my work-from-home life. If I focus too much on my work and work more than an 8-hour day and never take days off, my house could go into disrepair, my relationships with friends and family could devolve, and I could let my health falter. I have to make sure everything gets a fair share of my attention for the best results and so that I can keep doing my work for many more years!

Some of the benefits are that I can take time to take care of myself, cook cheaper, healthy meals at home, and not have to commute every day. I am still learning how to develop healthy habits and allowing myself to treat myself a bit more, get out of the house and socialize when I’m not at a convention, and schedule appointments for self-care. Because I’m my own boss, I can get my hair dyed cool colors without getting fired but toward the start of my business, I was a slavedriver; working 7 days a week, 12 hours a day, not eating, etc. It has taken a few years to learn that I don’t need to be pedal to the metal 24/7. I had to remind myself that I’m working hard so I get to have time off, sick days, vacation, medical appointments, etc. 

What is it like going to conventions to sell your work (the setup, gathering products, landing a table, etc.)?

I had sold at small local art shows (and even some big outdoor festivals) but I rarely made back the booth and application fees. Selling at conventions was a game changer for me. Once I got my foot into the Artist Alley marketplace at FurTheMore 2016, I found how much my art was appreciated in this niche market of the furry fandom.

Artist Alley tables are generally easier to attain when starting out since they require less commitment (both time-wise and financially.) When preparing to sell in Dealers Dens, the fore-planning is like playing 3-dimensional chess. You have to be aware of dealer applications which open as far as 8 months in advance of the convention itself, have a website to be sure the dealer jury has enough information about you and why you’re a good choice for their den, make sure you have the tax license information necessary to sell legally in a different state (which could take weeks or even months to arrive – some cons will not accept you without one), line up your hotel and travel reservations (some cons don’t have dealer blocks which can make it a chaotic challenge to reserve a room when you’re fighting to get one faster than regular attendees. And don’t forget to get some trustworthy roommates to help save on costs!), advertise your work and that you will be at this particular con, make sure you have an organized payment system (whether it’s Clover, Paypal, square, CashApp, cash, or all of the above and more), and develop an attractive display with marketing appeal so that people shop at your table and remember you (whether to follow you, buy from you at future cons, or shop your site online.) 

Now that I have 3-Dimensional chess ironed out, I generally have cons planned out in September all the way through April. This is the general breakdown of my process:

  • 8 months out, applications open and I apply for a con. 
  • Approximately 7 to 6 months out (or sometimes closer to the con which is a little unnerving), I hear word if I have been accepted, advertise that I got in, pay for the dealer table and registration, reserve a hotel room, and organize a Telegram chat for the room with information about payment and room rules for the roommates that will join me. It’s often easier to room with dealers since most attendees going just for fun don’t plan this far in advance; we have to since our business livelihood depends on it. If I’m flying to a con, I may reserve a flight as soon as I’m accepted or a few months in advance of the con. 
  • At about 3-4 months before the con, I might take commissions for pick-up at the con. When preparing in the month of the con, I usually have a busy week or two restocking and making any signs I felt like I was missing from the previous con (for instance, I kept getting questions about the price of my various pins, buttons and keychains so I made small tags to stick to my cork-board that correspond to the different price tiers of these items. Anything to save my breath and eliminate confusion!) 

It took me a few years to realize that the week of a convention is a 7 or 8 day non-stop work week for me. This is why I don’t usually do at-con completed commissions anymore; I need downtime at the end of a sales day and I would like to socialize rather than be stressed for 72 hours straight haha! 

  • As I get closer to the convention date, I promote my merchandise offerings, advertise the ability for people to pre-order for pick up through my website shop, and otherwise get people hyped up about the awesome weekend coming up! 
  • I generally travel on a Wednesday for cons that I fly to or cons that are 10-14hrs drive away. That way I have some buffer time to decompress or deal with a delayed flight. So far I haven’t shipped my merch to a con or had my bags lost in transit but I’m sure that could happen as I start traveling farther from home. At some point, the safety of your goods and timeliness of transport is out of your hands (insert the “serenity prayer” here lol.) 
  • Thursday I’ll travel to most closer cons, check into the hotel, pick up registration, and set up my dealer table. 
  • At the con, I promote my table with the convention’s hashtag on social media, sell during the day, count my cash and make sure I have my cash-apron in order for the next day, then do my best to relax and socialize!
  • Sunday is when I tear down my display and pack. 
  • Monday I typically leave the convention hotel and either head straight home or stop for the night part of the way home and finish my journey Tuesday.
  • The day I arrive home, I do my best to keep people informed that I made it home but need some time to recover before resuming work.

The strain of selling can be intimidating if you have social anxiety and if you don’t have an assistant. I usually sell and travel alone. My husband helps me sell at Anthrocon which is an incredible help for one of the biggest, most profitable, and generally fast-paced cons I sell at! Otherwise I have to make sure I am near someone I can trust to watch my table while I go to the restroom, get water and food, etc. I pack drinks and food when possible; some hotels don’t allow outside food/beverages since they expect to sell their own to those in need.

As a professional illustrator, what ways do you continue to practice and hone your own drawing style?

When I have the chance to draw for myself or for commission, I always like to try new styles, techniques, brushes, media, and so forth. Sometimes accidents and random experimentation make for the changes in my artwork that stick around for years. Oops, I smudged this gel pen star but now it looks like a shooting star! Oops, I used the wrong transparency setting in illustrator but that makes for a really cool effect!

I also work in so many different media that I will often take an effect or style I developed in watercolor and use it with markers then try to imitate in Adobe Illustrator and so on. By using so many styles and mediums, they eventually help me take my art techniques and aesthetic a step up as I bounce between them all.

I have also found that combining media is far more satisfying than unfairly expecting a traditional media to behave like a vector art program or expecting colored pencil to be as saturated as marker. I can’t print UV reactive inks but my vector art line-work is more smooth and consistent than hand-drawn lines. So why not print some vector artwork and accent with traditional media? Why not embrace the texture of colored pencil but saturation of markers? This is how some of my new commission styles are born.

By using so many styles and mediums, they eventually help me take my art techniques and aesthetic a step up as I bounce between them all. I have also found that combining media is far more satisfying than unfairly expecting a traditional media to behave like a vector art program or expecting colored pencil to be as saturated as marker. I can’t print UV reactive inks but my vector art line-work is more smooth and consistent than hand-drawn lines. So why not print some vector artwork and accent with traditional media? Why not embrace the texture of colored pencil but saturation of markers? This is how some of my new commission styles are born.

Commission in markers and pen for Lvanhound featuring shooting stars.

Where do you look for sources of inspiration when drawing and designing new pieces of art?

I admittedly have been slow to create artwork for myself lately but when I create merchandise it usually comes from something that I’m passionate about. My Tiger Splat design (which I debuted in February 2019 graces everything from vinyl stickers to keychains to hoodies), started as an iPad Autodesk Sketchbook practice doodle but I liked the appearance enough to convert it to vector in Adobe Illustrator and adjust some colors to test out UV reactive (neon) inks.

Since I went to college for printing, sometimes art concepts come to me based on a printing aesthetic I want to test out. Both my Tiger Splat design and Hart of Gold design were because I wanted to try new inks or features with my screen printer, Ian of KittyBoxPress. Sometimes I get requests for species to showcase in my artwork. Inspiration also comes from fellow artists, TV, movies, music, animals, print styles, and more. I never know where, when or how I’ll be inspired but it’s so satisfying when the concept strikes and I can get it out of my head and make it into something that others can enjoy.

UV-reactive effects of the Tiger Splat Hoodie in action thanks to an ultraviolet blacklight!

How did you establish a constant source of commissioned work and how do you keep it?

When I started my business in 2016, commissions were my bread and butter. But I also didn’t make very much money compared to my profits now. Sometimes I would barely break even after all my travel costs. Basically I started at a low price for what I offered and did my best to post often on sites like FurAffinity and DeviantArt, eventually migrating more toward social media like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Convention presence helped as well. People that are willing to pay to attend a convention are often more likely to splurge on fairly priced artwork while for the most part, I’ve seen a lower budget mindset from those shopping online with a few rare exceptions.

Being seen is how to get your foot in the door. Offering great products and even better service is how you grow a following and nurture a good reputation. Offering those items at a reasonable price (so that you can still make money but your prices are approachable by those who haven’t worked with you before) is how you start building a reputation and fan base. Maintaining a consistent line of communication with your commissioners and followers, working at a good pace, and not allowing your queue to overwhelm you is how you keep commissions rolling in.

By providing a service of illustration and design to others, what do you base your pricing on?

When I started in 2016, my merchandise was mostly small items (like buttons and stickers which I created to test out the favorability of designs), coloring books, and prints. The merchandise I had sold but not a lot at any given con; people came to me for my commissions. I was severely undercharging for my custom work because I didn’t have small lower-priced mass-produced items for sale. People saw my art for such reasonable prices, I was bad at saying ‘no’ when I was close to being overloaded with work, I was stressed out, and often burned out from the high demand. 

My first time at Furpocalypse in their 2016 Artist Alley – Half a table which is about 3 feet wide and 14″ tall from the top of the table.

After some time, I realized there was a price disparity against my best interest. “Why sell matted prints for $35 that cost me $3 to make while offering full-color custom art pieces for $25-100? That didn’t seem right.” So over the years, I’ve grown my fan base, slowly increased my custom art prices, added merchandise options to my catalog of products (now offering keychains, lanyards, enamel pins, and apparel), commissions have fallen by the wayside. Now that I have items for all budgets, I have a more stable income from the merchandise I create and don’t have to work myself to death for months on numerous of custom commissions to make the same profits. This means I sell more mid-price items with less extraneous work and I keep breaking sales records while taking fewer higher-priced commissions. Overall, I’m less stressed out and more able to balance my time between travel and commission work.

My 2019 Anthrocon dealer set-up – 1.5 tables for a display that is 12 feet wide and over 4ft taller than the table!

In retrospect, I’ve found that my pricing has evolved in phases with my perception of value and with the increase in merchandise items I offer. When an artist starts out, they simply think about how much their materials cost. “I love what I do but if people will pay, $5 seems reasonable for a sketch!” 

As they grow a following, gain demand for their work, and evolve their style and attention to detail, they start to realize that their media is only part of what goes into their work; time is a factor that they overlooked. This is what I consider the second phase of value enlightenment. “You know, I was crazy to charge only $5 for a sketch. It takes time to make this sketch look this good. I think $25 is a good price for this sketch! That’s just under minimum wage for the time it takes, which is fine.” 

The third phase of value enlightenment would be when an artist realizes that they have demand, they’re overworked to keep pace with prior expectations for completion, feeling less inspired, and put far more into their work than they ever had before. They may also be making merchandise which supports their business well and they have even less time to converse with customers, work on custom work, and so on. An artist at this level of realization will consider how the time is far more valuable now that their business demands more of their attention to maintain; materials may not haven’t changed much but the value of the service you do with the little time you have and the materials you have has changed. “You know, I was crazy to only charge $25 for these sketches. I don’t have time to do much and I sell things for $2-65 that are outsourced. If I’m going to do custom work that won’t be produced for merchandise/prints, the customer alone will enjoy this, and they will own the original piece. It’s XX hours of my time, paid once, and done. If they really want a sketch from me of their character for them to cherish, they won’t be afraid to pay $150 for my materials and my time.”

I have seen artists that charge well above what their art may be valued by most people but it is far more harmful for artists with valuable art that perceive the value to be much lower. If you over charge, the worst case scenario, the artist has to readjust their prices or communicate the benefits of the piece. I had started out charging $45 for a full-page “Your Character Here” (YCH) badge and people weren’t interested because they weren’t aware of how big a full-page was nor how it would be finished; this was a marketing/communication issue on my part combined with the fact that many people had only started following me and had yet to see enough of my work. As I completed more pieces, more commissioners started rolling in. I charge over 5x that amount now since I have a positive reputation, people know what they’re signing up for when they pay me, and my skills have evolved. 

I feel that more artists get into trouble by selling too many commissions for a lot less money than they are worth. It benefits neither the artist nor the customer to undersell your work for an extended period of time. From the artist’s standpoint, the work never stops and there never seems to be much in the way of available funds. Often times, using all the money from a commission before it’s completed, which could land an artist in trouble if a refund needs to be given. From the customer’s perspective, the art may be cheaper but the quality of customer service is hurt, whether by delaying completion, not completing the commission correctly, or not completing the commission at all.

With so many materials available to the everyday artist, what are some of your favorite materials that you use to create your art pieces and why?

I have so many media choices that I use and many of which fight for the position for my favorite as I use them more and more. I also like different media for different aesthetics or when I’m in a particular mood. I adore Adobe Illustrator for making vector artwork for its crisp lines, beautiful gradients, bright solid color, and the fact I can easily resize designs without pixelation or data loss. I love Prismacolor or Copic markers for intense color that can give textures a soft almost watercolor-like appearance. And I’ve been warming up to more types of brush pens to create black ink illustrations. The use of different line thickness by way of pressure and pen type, the contrast of dark ink-filled areas and negative (white space), all fascinate me.

The development of a full-body illustration commission from pencil sketch, to vector lines, to vector color.

What is something important that being an illustrator has taught you about?

I think that as I’ve honed my skills and grow my business (despite graduating college to be in the print industry), I have taken the information I learned in college about business/management for print media and combined that with my personal enlightenment regarding the value of my art. Over the years of being in the furry fandom, seeing other artists who may be as talented or more talented than I am but fail at business, it has solidified my belief that if you are capable of improving your work on your own time, you don’t need to go to an art school to be an illustrator. I feel that more artists in the fandom would be more successful and better to work with if they took some business courses at a community college. I am of the belief that my business skills learned both in college and in the print industry help me far more than any art class ever did.

I have seen artists in the fandom that have a tough time talking with their customers, don’t know how to manage their queue, and severely undercharge their work to the point of burnout and (in some cases) run away from their debts and angry customers. This is a problem for them but also hurts the reputation of fandom artists as a whole as it makes customers less likely to try working with new artists since they keep getting burned by terrible business practices. My art friends and I don’t want to be grouped in with a few bad apples and we would like to commission some of these fantastic artists if they would make an effort to learn to respect their customers and value their own work.

If you found this post informative, feel free to share on social media!
If you have experience or suggestions to share, I would appreciate your comments below!

Much LORF!

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