My Story: My Weird & Wonderful Journey Into Becoming a Paid, Professional Artist
This whole printing thing was kind of an accident.
It wasn't anything I had ever learned in art school, and nothing I really knew much about. It was actually kind of the result of a quick Google search.
But let's back up a little...
People are always curious as to how I ended up in such a weird little niche. I know, It's still a little weird to me too.
I love hearing how others ended up where they landed, and as I approach my 8th (!!!) year of "entrepreneurship", I thought I'd share the long, long, winding journey of how I got to where I am today.
Settle in. It's long. :)
Growing up, I was lucky enough to be surrounded by people who always encouraged me to make. My family is big and fun and silly and musical, and we always had access to stacks of construction paper, colored pencils, glitter, and glue.
As a kid, my grandma was always putting me in these really cool painting and drawing classes whenever I would go visit her in Pasadena.
She would take us to the Rose Parade every year where she lived, and I would be amazed at how the floats were pieced together, petal by petal, seed by seed.
She was the only one in the family that was an artist per se. She did copper enameling (which I still don't get) and would make us necklaces and jewelry boxes, and sell her art at little shows.
When I got older, I'd still take an art class here and there for fun mostly. But as I went to graduate high school, I still had no idea what I wanted to do. I thought I would try teaching, but I wasn't really excited about it.
My Senior year, I remember walking up to turn in my final project in my last day of ceramics class. My teacher was super spacey and to be honest, probably high a lot of the time. He looked at me like he kind of remembered that I had been in his class all semester, and then looked at my project.
He said, "You should take AP art next year."
I said, "I'm graduating next week...."
Like I said, spacey.
Next thing I knew, I was going into my Freshman year as a declared "Child Development" major. I wasn't really happy about it. My schedule was pretty basic, but I threw in an Art 101 elective for kicks.
That class turned out to be a ton of fun. The teacher was this young guy who was also probably high a lot of the time too. But he was really passionate about art.
He changed everything for me one day when he made all of us stop what we were doing and brought one of our classmates to the center of the room. He said, "I want everyone to give Theresa a big round of applause. She just changed her major from Political Science, to Art."
As we were clapping, I thought, why can't I do that? I had been thinking about it, but the logical side of me didn't see where a job came in after that. I was used to following a path. But by the end of the day I decided I didn't care. I switched my major that week.
College after that was a blast, I loved all my classes and felt like I finally found my niche. I still didn't see a clear path, but at least I could see that there were options. I decided to concentrate in illustration, so I thought I'd illustrate children's books.
After a few years of illustration, I loved it but I wasn't sure it was going to be my career path. It was really competitive and you had to either be good enough to get an agent, or fight to get seen, and I wasn't confident enough for either of those options.
I tried to switch over to interior design, but turns out ID is not so much art, but a lot more like an architecture degree, so very few classes transferred over. I needed a break from school so I graduated with my illustration degree and decided to think about it.
I took a year off to work and figure things out. In that time I spent a few months at an "Adult School" which was awesome. I wanted to learn Photoshop and Illustrator again because I had a hard time with it in school. This time I got it and loved it.
I started working for a web design company and putting my skills to use. I'd work from coffee shops in LA making art on my computer, and it was basically heaven. It was my first taste of what a freelance life could offer.
Soon I decided I still wanted to pursue interior design. I got denied after applying because they said the program was full. I wrote a letter to the head of the department, and they accepted me. *in your face*
Two stressful years later I was fighting other students for classes, taking summer school, juggling living on my own, a boyfriend, and trying to work at the same time.
I was not in a good place at this point in my life. I was having major panic and anxiety attacks weekly due to the stress of trying to keep up with homework, working, and financial obligations. I contemplated dropping out many times.
Finally, in the attempt to just graduate and put myself out of my misery, I quit my job, moved home, and signed up for my final senior class which was to be 5 hours a day, 4 days a week, and basically take over my life for the next 2-3 months.
The class assignment for the summer was to design and draft a full set of construction drawings, complete with all specs (HVAC, finishes, furniture, lighting, and on and on) that we could essentially hand to a contractor to build from the ground up. Intense to say the least.
As part of our final project, we had to choose a detail from the space and actually build it at full scale. So if you had a tile design on the floor, you would actually go to the hardware store, buy all the supplies, then actually tile and grout a piece of the floor.
Not having much motivation or patience for this, I decided on the cheapest and easiest to carry piece I could design...something fabric with a design on it.
Such began my Googling. I was designing an organic style wall tapestry that I wanted to hang in the imaginary lobby and I needed to figure out how to put some easy art on it.
The first thing that popped up was screen printing. No...I'd have to pay to get a screen burned and figure out all the supplies, too complicated. I kept looking.
Next I came across a 3 page pdf from some girl in the UK about stamp carving. Bingo. Super handmade, organic, and I could do it at home.
I ran out to buy some supplies, ended up with stuff that worked, but definitely not ideal. Stamped a simple pattern onto burlap, called it a day.
When it came time to present my project, I was so exhausted... I really didn't care anymore. What followed was somewhat of a daze, and as I sat back down, I heard the professor call me back up.
He was this very passionate Greek man that would go into woo-woo hippie land sometimes which didn't really appeal to me much, but in general I liked the guy. He went into this big speech about how amazing my fabric prints were and how it 'came from the heart' because it was handmade.
Long story short, I kind of never forgot that, or the handful of classmates who came up to me after class to say how much they liked it, and how I should keep working on fabrics.
Fast forward a few months, I got the F out of SoCal and moved up to San Francisco. I kept designing prints, not really knowing what to do with them yet. I wanted to start selling my art because that was the only job that didn't sound horrible to me.
I went to every craft show and event I could find and started talking to vendors and small business owners about how they got to where they were.
In 2010 I made it official and opened my little biz. My very non profitable biz.
I sold my prints on pillows and in frames at shows all over the city, but never doing as well as some of my friends who's businesses were taking off selling $5 tea and jewelry.
My prints took much longer to make, therefore had to be priced higher, and no one seemed to know what block printing was compared to screen printing and how much work I put into each piece.
After too much time and effort put into these shows, I decided to throw in the towel. They were way too stressful and discouraging, and often not worth it for me.
I spent that extra time working on my Etsy shop and selling pillows and prints online instead. It was still slow moving but at least I could work from home.
Then one day I got an email. Someone wanted one of my patterns printed..on 5 yards of fabric. I didn't have anything like that listed in my shop!
I freaked out for a while, not sure if I could actually do it, but eventually agreed to it. I ended up nailing it, which gave me major confidence to move towards bigger projects.
Many other projects soon followed. Designers and architects were finding me and wanting custom work. It was kind of a dream come true that I didn't know existed.
At that point I was doing ok, but I wanted more consistency. I got another random email in my inbox from some company looking for people to teach courses via their platform, asking me to design a class teaching my printmaking.
After ignoring it for a while, I realized teaching could be a great way to share my work and everything I'd learned, while also giving me another stream of income. I was nervous, but I got over myself and listed a course.
Five years later:
I'm still teaching weekly classes in my home studio to awesome adults who are excited to learn from me
I've done private workshops for companies like Facebook, Timberland, Evernote, and coming up soon, Anthropologie (#dreamjob)
I've taught classes through Groupon, Airbnb, and Gilt
I've collaborated with designers and architects on some really cool custom projects
And I've since been able to quit my day job
I say all that, not to brag, but to highlight all the rad stuff I would have missed out on had I stuck with "Child Development" and not just thrown caution to the wind.
Building a creative business from the ground up on your own is not easy. It's crazy scary not always knowing exactly what to do next and if that move is a mistake that will cost you your rent.
There's no clear path to success and you are the only one that can truly define what 'success' is to you.
For me, success is having the freedom to design my own schedule, call the shots, charge what I'm worth, and only accept work that I'm excited about.
My path here has been up and down and full of lots of doubt and questions, but being able to adapt when things weren't working while being extremely stubborn and persistent has gotten me far.
There are still big goals I want to hit, but you'll hear more about those soon :)
I hope that by sharing my story, you'll be inspired to go after something that makes you as happy as my weird little business makes me.
Thanks for reading, now go get it!