There’s this thing with social media where you discover an artist, an artist with many followers who appears to be truly successful, and whether you intend it or not, it feels like that artist sprang into being right at that moment. You forget that the success you’re seeing was likely preceded by years of hustle and trial and error.
Seriously. I don’t know if this thing has an official science-y name or not, but it’s a real phenomenon and it’s ready to make us feel like crap about our own artist journeys.
Oh, look how easily that artist became successful! Well, I should be that successful that easily too and since I’m not, I must be worthless. No one likes me work and they never will. I’ll never have that! They’re just so lucky!
I know it does, believe me. I get caught in those loops myself, those moments of comparing my journey to someone who’s been at it far longer than I have, even when I realize that I’m being silly.
Because of that, I want to share my art timeline with you.
Left my day job for the first time. I had absolutely no plan and wasn’t even making much money from my art yet. Thinking I could wing it lasted for about a year. When my savings ran out, I headed back to an office job. Whomp whomp.
Left my day job for good. I spent the previous year working an office job and managing my thriving Etsy shop. It wasn’t fun working 40 hours a week at my day job then also working evenings and weekends on my Etsy shop, but when you’re trying to build an art biz, you do what you have to do. By August 2008, my Etsy shop earnings matched my day job earnings and that was good enough for me to quit my day job.
During 2007 and 2008, my entire art income was from my Etsy shop. I sold tiny watercolor paintings, art prints, and stationery, and maybe around $30K/year.
My first freelance client, a clear stamp manufacturer, found me through my Etsy shop and was my first taste of diversifying my income. My Etsy shop would be so busy during the holidays and then barely busy the rest of the year, so having some freelance income helped to balance things out.
2010 – 2012
More illustration projects started coming my way because of my Etsy shop, because I was sharing my art consistently. Mudpuppy hired me to illustrate a fairy sticker book and it ended up being the first of several projects we worked on over the years. Repeat clients are the best, y’all! During this time, I also illustrated my first books, two personalized children’s books with Chronicle Books. Those were my first five-figure projects and I felt like I’d hit the big time!
2013 & 2014
Well, turns out, I didn’t hit the big time. Honestly, I thought those Chronicle Books projects would launch my career as a children’s book illustrator and they really didn’t. I felt disappointed and I was tired of running my Etsy shop and really didn’t know where to take my art career next. I was still getting freelance clients, doing personal commissions, dabbling in art licensing, and running my Etsy shop.
Stuck in the cycle of chasing money, these were not my best years.
Instead of discovering what I wanted to create and build, I would scurry along trying out what seemed to work for this artist and or that artist. Most of it didn’t work for me, probably because it didn’t call to me and because I made a half-hearted effort at those things I wasn’t truly invested in.
By the end of 2014, I started searching for a day job again.
But my husband convinced me to give it one more year. He gave up his art dreams for a corporate job and I think he wanted me to feel like I’d really given it my all before I quit my art business.
I took a week off from everything. I thought about what I wanted from my illustration career. I thought about what I didn’t want too. I felt the call of children’s book illustration, so that went to the top of my list. Right below it: art licensing. And a note that I didn’t want to run my Etsy shop anymore.
This was a year of big changes and I started it out with some coaching to help me refocus my portfolio for children’s book illustration. Making cute art for an Etsy shop and making narrative art are certainly not the same thing and I needed a hard pivot for my portfolio.
January was spent working on my portfolio, rethinking my approach to marketing, and making a plan to find an agent.
As my self-imposed deadline for finding an agent loomed, I chickened out on submitting to my top pick, the Bright Agency, because I didn’t feel like my work was ready. Believe it or not, two days after I decided I wasn’t ready, Bright contacted me with an offer for representation! Is that serendipity or what?
(It’s also a perfect example of why you should go ahead and do the big thing that’s on your list. You’ll never REALLY feel ready and chances are, you are.)
So I got an agent and then I knew I’d finally made it big!
Yeah, I’m kidding and am absolutely convinced now that there is no big, defining ‘I’ve made it’ moment! But getting an agent made me feel confident and that was a beautiful thing.
2016 & 2017
After an initial bit of unsureness, I found my calling as a nature illustrator and started illustrating nonfiction children’s books. The pay wasn’t stellar, usually under $10K per book project, and I worked long hours to earn around $40K. In 2017, I closed my Etsy shop for good and started thinking about other ways to diversify my income. Working long hours illustrating books couldn’t last for too long. I needed to find other income streams that I felt passionate about, preferably those that didn’t require long hours too.
As my art skill has improved, the fees I’m offered for children’s book illustration have also improved. 2018 is the first year I can comfortably say ‘no’ to projects that don’t feel exciting or pay well. That’s a good feeling! This is also the year that I start focusing on teaching as a major income stream. Between children’s books, teaching, and designing greeting cards, I hit the $100K mark for the first time in my illustration career, and I feel how powerful diverse, scalable income sources are.
I continue to be more selective about the projects I take on and sign a contract for my highest paying book project thus far. I am happily in that sweet spot where the project fees are higher so I can pick and choose what I want to work on and give myself time to teach classes and build even more scalable income. In 2019, I make over $125K, with about half of that from illustrating books.
It’s my best year yet. I took a big leap and launched Illustration Career Jumpstart, a class didn’t just help new illustrators find their path, but also helped lead me towards a career pivot that I’m currently leaning into. In 2020, I took on fewer book projects than ever before and because I have scalable income from the classes I teach and a few other things, I could take more time to get back into my sketchbooks, to figure out what kind of art I wanted to make now. Still working on that last bit, to be honest. In 2020, I made $200K in revenue from my art business and if you told 2008 Steph what the future held, she wouldn’t have believed it.
As I continue to share in this space, I’m going to talk more about the things that help me earn six figures and the things that really held me back from success when I started out.
For today, I’m hoping that my art timeline gives you a bit of hope in return. My illustration path has been a slow and steady one. There is nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with someone finding success quite quickly either. We’re all different folks with different goals, different lives, and different obstacles to overcome.
If you’re feeling down today because you’re not where you think you should be, let that go. You might be in a tough spot right now, but it’s not forever. You’ll keep trying and maybe failing and then you’ll try again and again. One day you’re going to look back and be shocked at how far you’ve come.
You’re an illustrator. You can create your own future.