How to Start Licensing Your Art (and Why You Should)

Natasha Wescoat painting used as mural on bedroom wall

Painting by Natasha Wescoat licensed to Murals Your Way

When I began as an artist, I was really enjoying the experience of selling my work directly to people. It was so much more exciting than hanging it on a wall in a gallery.

I had more control over my work, when it was available and where I could place it for sale. There was no middle man involved and I preferred it that way.

But something was missing.

I wanted to find other avenues of making money from my work, but I wasn’t sure how. I saw artists launching clothing lines, doing book signings and licensing their art on collectables with well known brands.

I wondered how they were doing that. Did the company find them? Or did the approach come from the artist? It appeared a daunting and impossible achievement.

“Those artists must be veterans by now,” I figured. “They have thousands of fans and their art has to be in galleries everywhere.”

I had no idea how licensing worked or what was expected. Interestingly enough, it was simpler than it appeared to be, thought not without some work.

Extra income, extra exposure

When I began licensing, it was through the well known site, Art.com. Back in 2005, I used their Print-on-Demand program for artists, which means they print orders as they are taken. They offered a decent typical market royalty to artists for every print sold and even later, a small percentage on their framing, which they do in-house. It was a great option, because I didn’t have the equipment or funds to offering prints directly from my studio.

I then discovered other Print on Demand sites like Imagekind.com and FineArtAmerica.com. It would turn out to be a great option for extra income as well as exposure to future collectors. For a time, because of Art.com’s program, I was exposed to a broader audience than I could’ve encountered through my site alone. This was invaluable to my business and helped me grow as an artist and a business person. I even acquired several custom commissions from clients who wanted something ‘larger’ than what the print sites were offering.

This was ironically a great way to also acquire new licensee clients. They found my art through sites like Art.com and emailed me to ask how they could put my work on their products. Because of sites like Art.com and Imagekind.com, I have signed on with product companies that now feature my work in stores like Bed Bath & Beyond, Target and art shops across the US.

It was wild when just one day, opening up my email to find requests on a regular basis. I built a larger following and soon had regular paychecks coming in the mail!

Residual income builder and gap filler

What’s great about licensing is that you are able to fill in the gaps when art sales are at a low or in a seasonal slump. This helps immensely when you need to get the bills paid! If you want to do this full-time, then you have to expand your multiple streams of income. Licensing is a continual, residual income builder.

Natasha Wescoat painting used on label of bottles of olive oil

Painting by Natasha Wescoat licensed to Olivia Olive Oil Company

Licensing 101

So how does licensing work? What do companies look for? How can you pitch to clients? How do clients find you?

First, licensing is a big business. Not only can you offer prints, but you have the potential to create a BRAND. Everything from collectables to home decor to car decals. There are endless possibilities.

Companies work with manufacturing companies that deal with artists and designers to create products. You have to know how it works in order to not only expand your art brand, but to protect it as well.

It’s worth registering the copyright of your work whenever you come up with a new design or collection. Here in the US, as in many countries, copyright is automatically granted to you as soon as you create a piece of art, but registering the copyright means that your ownership is a matter of public record, and makes it easier to defend your rights. For instance, if you want to bring a lawsuit for copyright infringement, you will need to register your copyright. (More information at the US Copyright Office FAQ.)

I remember one day, while on vacation in Florida, I spotted an artist friend’s signature fairies on a t-shirt in Hot Topic. I then contacted her to find out it was a copycat ripping off her work! Because she had her work protected under law, she was able to take that copycat’s products down. You have to protect your work and make sure it’s copyrighted with the Copyright office, not only to claim what’s yours but to protect it in the future.

What companies want

Companies are looking for themes that they can use across a range of products, with complementary images.

So whether you are a fine artist, illustrator or graphic designer, it’s important that you create your work in sets. I know it may seem unappealing if you are a fine artist to be a little commercial in your efforts, but if you can offer sets of 4, 5 or 10 in a collection of themes, they are able to make more products or sets with it.

Another attractive thing to offer is patterns. If you are a designer or can work in design, you could make patterns and designs that would work great to complement your original art images, or to license to fabric companies.

Typical licensing terms

1. Royalties

Companies will offer artists anything from 4% to 30% royalties on the price of their products. It depends on the market and type of product. There are different types of royalty rates depending on the product. For example, typical royalty rates for prints and posters are around 10-15% whereas licensed gadget cases or similar can be around 4-7%. You can negotiate these as well, remember! Try to get the most you can for what you’re worth.

2. Contract length

Most licensing deals last from 1 to 3 years and will be renewed or canceled depending on how well the deal is working out for you and them.

3. Ownership of the work

Never ever let the company claim ownership of your art, take your ownership or give them exclusivity.

Unless you are creating an exclusive collection for that company that is separate from your other art, do not ever allow a company to force you into a corner. You don’t want them to take your right to license the same art somewhere else. Make sure it’s in the contract that they are not expecting you to only license to them for that particular product.

I’ve found many artists don’t realize just how much control they have over their own work, when it comes to art licensing. You not only have the power to create opportunities but you can make the deals happen.

You don’t need an agent. You don’t need a manager. You just need to learn how to license your work, and make it happen for yourself.

How to begin licensing your art

1. Do the research

Read books, websites and blogs such as MariaBrophy.com, Theabundantartist.com and ArtsyShark.com on how artists can license their art. There is valuable information on the steps to follow, but more importantly – HOW to negotiate deals and also HOW to PROTECT your rights.

Know what the typical licensing rates are for fine art or whatever your craft is and also know what you need to protect. With this basic knowledge, you’ll be ready to negotiate on your own.

2. Know your market

Before you pitch to any companies or brands, you should already know what your goals are and who you are selling to.

Are you a cartoonist? An opera songwriter? A fashion designer? A fine artist? A book illustrator? Your genre of work and your market will determine the best people to contact, because you’ll know exactly what products you want to launch or companies you will want to work with. E.g. You shouldn’t pitch to a company that only licenses fantasy art if you are a floral artist or to a children’s book art company if you are a fine artist painting landscapes.

Also – see what other artists in your genre are doing. How are they creating licensing deals? Did they use a certain site or do certain things that led to that? Who do they work with? Take note of these things.

3. Make the pitch

You can create your own opportunities. Make yourself known to companies you want to work with. Research their sites, their brand and then write a thoughtful letter describing your interest and make a brief introduction of yourself.

Offer links to your work, as sometimes attachments are marked spam or they won’t open. Show them how THEY can benefit. Not just that you want to work with them. Show how you two fit. Link to the best examples of your work that complement what they already license.

4. Create a plan

You should make it a regular plan to pitch to companies either monthly or every few months. Create a list of companies you’ve contacted and ones you want to contact.

5. Mock-up a catalog

If you have the skills, create a portfolio of products that your art would be great on. If you want to do toys, create some with your work. If you want to sell yourself as a voiceover, create pretend commercials or jingles that you’d do.

The idea is to help them envision your work already on their products. This can take a few months to create and put together, but it’s an important part of your ‘sell’.

Most people keep these offline or available as a downloadable file, or you can make this a public portfolio on your site – even better!

6. Follow up

Give it two weeks to a month before you contact again, asking if they have gone over your email. This is good to show that you are serious about your proposal and also to remind them, considering they might be too busy to keep up.

7. Use social media

If you really want to make a business opportunity happen, connect to the people who can make it happen – and social media is a great way to do this. Right from the start of my carreer, I’ve found it important to really connect with people and be a genuine source of friendship and value.

Follow them on Twitter. Talk to them on Facebook. I’ve found huge opportunities because of MySpace and eBay, two places you’d NEVER expect to make a connection. People are people. We are all normal. We are all using the internet these days, and not just for business.

Connect on a personal level and befriend others! Don’t expect that your opportunity to happen overnight. You have to provide them with something of value too. It’s a give and take space.

8. License the work yourself

There are lots of websites that will help you explore and develop your offerings, such as Imagekind.com, Artistrising.com, Zazzle.com, Glossi.com, iStockphoto.com and Blurb.com.

Some of my friends who are now famous authors got publishing deals BECAUSE of their success in self-publishing. Another very famous example is Justin Bieber, whose fame began on YouTube when he was just a little boy performing on instruments and singing! The potential options are ENDLESS!

If you want to license your work, search the web for your particular craft. There is bound to be a site and software available for you to start making the product happen today.

Over to you

So what do you think about licensing?

Do you plan to license your work or produce your own products?

About the author: Natasha Wescoat has been a full-time artist since 2004, living and working in Michigan with her two children and extended family. Her art is seen in publications and licensed products across the US and at WescoatFineArt.com

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Responses to this Post

Comments

  1. This article is a great introduction to Art Licensing.

    Many years ago, when he was in his early 20’s, my artist husband Drew was given the best advice of his career, by an art agent who had represented Rick Griffin, artist of many big bands including Grateful Dead. He told Drew:

    “Never give the copyrights of your art away. Always keep the rights, that way you can earn money off of your images again and again. When you’re dead and gone, your kids will make money from that art.”

    That one piece of advice changed everything for Drew, and it’s what led him into being the top licensed surf artist in history! We feel good knowing that we can leave the art behind for our kid when we are gone.

    Great article, and thanks for linking to my website in it!

    • Thanks Maria – wow, that’s great advice. I think of that alot when I do this stuff. Would love to see it continue to be a sustainable business and become something that benefited my kids when I’m gone. You guys are my inspiration! :D

  2. Congratulations Natasha!

    That was a well written step-by-step feature on the success that can come with art licensing.

  3. What a treasure trove of information. I’ve sometimes considered licensing my music, but I didn’t have a clue where to start without diving into a great big corporate bog.

    Thanks, Natasha!

    • Thanks Joel! Wish I could say I knew where to begin in terms of the music world, but I’m sure this might apply similarly in terms of making connections online. So many new ways to license music with the web! :)

    • Hi Joel, if you see this message you might want to consider reading anything by Peter Spellman. He has some excellent and accessible books and ebooks on the music industry.

  4. What a great article and a lot of terrific on-point info. I’m sharing this like crazy with my art friends. Thanks for writing this!

  5. Wow! Amazing timing. For the last 2 weeks I’ve been re-thinking, re-organizing, re-strategizing how I sell my art including exploring the idea of licensing. Thank you for providing a well-written process that makes me want to pursue this even further.

    joyfully, Maureen

  6. I’m an artist and I operate an art gallery that sells originals. From that vantage point,I think the information in this post is clear and useful to those who want to license, and it’s always good to think about copyright. But I confess to being a bit bothered by “And Why You Should.” Not all artwork is suitable for licensing. Not all artwork lends itself to reproduction on greeting cards or coffee mugs. Not all of it translates well into other forms, like toys or t-shirts. And not every artist wants it to. Some artists just want their work to be taken seriously as itself. It happens that some of my own art does quite well in other mediums, so it isn’t sour grapes I’m concerned about. But to say, “You should license..” is I think a distortion. If you want to license, by all means. But surely it isn’t a model that needs to apply to everyone.

    • Mark McGuinness says:

      Good point as usual, Laureen. I’ll take the credit/blame for “and why you should” as that was my addition to Natasha’s original headline.

      I meant it in the sense “here are the benefits, you should consider them”, rather than “this is what is what all artists should do with all of their art”, but I appreciate that may not have come across.

      So if it didn’t, it’s my fault, not Natasha’s. :-)

  7. I am an artist of some repute, having won a major art prize in 2009.
    I thought the flood gates would open after that…….. unfortunately no.
    I then decided to make a limited Giclee edition of 60 from my winning entry.
    To my dismay have only sold a handful.
    So as you can see your article caught my attention.
    You might have some advise?

    Regards
    Alex

    • Thanks for sharing your experience Alex, this is a classic issue and an uncomfortable truth that all artists have to face up to at some point: artistic achievement is no guarantee of commercial success. While it can certainly help in some contexts, most of us also need to learn skills such as networking and marketing. So if I were you I’d make it my mission to learn them. (I cover the fundamentals in my free Creative Pathfinder course.)

    • It’s definitely true that despite any quality of work or rewards, it’s going be downright difficult or daunting to get it to sell.

      You need to teach yourself all that you can on self-promotion and befriend people who can be helpful and supportive of your efforts as well. It goes a long way when you have the postiive reinforcement of friends or family!

      Without marketing and true investment, both in time and money, it will be impossible to sell art. It cannot sell itself, no matter what we do.

      Best example of marketing is Andy Warhol. He sold soup can pictures! There’s a lot more to it than we tend to imagine. Go to a book store and look at magazines on the art industry, small business marketing and books on the same. Also, be sure to scour all you can from this wonderful blog Mark has as well as others mentioned. They will help guide you in the right direction.

  8. Rolando Diaz says:

    I have a book on marketing and licensing and this just gave me even more ideas. Great article.

  9. Thanks for this article, Natasha. I agree wholeheartedly with Maria and others who point out how important it is to keep ownership of your work. I remember speaking with two artists who had sold their art outright, and in both cases the companies who bought the art used them on multiple products, for years at a time with no additional benefit to the artist, of course.

    One of them sold his work because he didn’t know about licensing, and the other because a major card company refused to license his images and he chose to make the sale because he feared he had no other buyer.

  10. You suggested creating artwork in “sets”
    What does that mean?

    • I m also curious to know this …please ans

    • Working in sets means to create an even number of artworks that are related by theme, whether it’s color, seasons, cats, whatever. Have at least sets of 4 or even 10 pictures that would work together. This makes art much more licenseable as most artwork and designs are used to create a collection. For example, if a company wants to use your work for a dish set, they’d like to have 4 or 5 different kinds of pictures of a similar idea or “matching” artworks so that they can put them on cups, plates, napkins, etc. See what I’m saying?

  11. This article is such an eye opener on what one can do with their artwork. Especially for artists like me who do not have the financial capability to have my designs on different forms of merchandise.

    How does it work with confronting a licensee personally?

    I’ve heard from some people that you need to have them (the licensee/prospective business partner) sign an “NDA” or a non-disclosure agreement even before you present anything. I know this applies mainly for inventors of gadgets/machinery, but for artists, does this apply too?

    Regards
    Carlos

    • Hi Carlos,

      From my personal perspective dealing with NDA’s before approaching licensees is a huge time waster. I would be careful who I was approaching, but for the most part companies will not rip off your design. The ones you have to worry about doing that are independent designers who work FOR companies when making products. They are the root of most copyright infringement in merchandise and collectible products I have found.

      Approach them as you would any person – build a conversation and relationship. Ask them if they are looking for other artists or explain to them that you are interested in working with them and think your work would be a fit. It’s really a case by case basis. You shouldn’t try to approach every single company in the world. Work effectively and choose your time wisely.

  12. no doubt that this article is an eye opener.its a support to artist like me who don want to do regular boring job anymore while i can do something which many people cant do.Now i ll search more about licence and copyrite for my artwork meanwhile please keep on updating me so that an artist can make life of another artist :)

  13. Thank You Natasha for giving this information. I have dabbled in many forms of art. I paint faux finishes which may be a great avenue for wallpaper designs. I also love mixed media art and journal making. I have painted whimsical art on bowls, candle sticks, furniture. I love interior decorating…I just had to smile…the list goes on and on…I am now trying my hand at jewelry making and design. I am going to take your advice and move forward with my adventure!!!! Again THANK YOU SO MUCH!!!! Also I have a blog at http://clovermoondesigns.com/ here I hope to post my creations and how to make these things yourself! I am still in the learning process for blogging!

  14. Thank you SO much for sharing this with everyone! I took notes on the whole article and saved web pages and now I’m re-thinking how i have my portfolio set up on my website, it should be grouped in collections…which is actually easy for me to work that way because i tend to paint a bunch at once with the same inspired theme/color/feel. Every time I walk into anthropology or any cute gift store I’m always thinking “I can do that!” “Thats all I want to do” and then “but how? :( ” I started a shop on etsy but its hard to keep up and market all by yourself. This is really encouraging for me. I basically have visions of creating my own world with my art (children’s books, aprons, herb books, teapots + cups, posters, toys, etc) and it sounds like branding it would be the most effective and efficient way of doing that.

    Thanks again <3 blessings & much love

  15. May I ask a question?
    Do you need to license your art if you are making character design and game sprites for a game? If so, how does it work?

    • It’s all a matter of what YOU want to do Tim. I wouldn’t think you’d need to license our art for games. Games are designed in house, so I would look into working for them if that’s something you want to do, otherwise I don’t know of artists that actually art to a game. It’s all inclusive with those kind of products.

  16. I have had a business since 1990 of illustrated family records with designs for birth records, anniversary and family trees – I would like to license some of my birth record designs …but if I do this, can I still continue to use and sell these birth records designs to my customers for my product?
    I have been doing more work in oils the past 7 years and have a series of beach bike paintings that have sold well, is this something a product manufacturer would be interested in?
    Any feedback would be great..
    Linda

  17. I’ve been approached by a woman who asked for pricing on licensing but it seems to be contingent on a crowd funding campaign at her end, meaning I’d provide an image free until funding goal is reached. I’m an oil painter and she’s a client who has a new book publishing business with 15 authors. She states: “What I am asking for is an image to use for the cover design and the header for the new website. You will receive free online publicity and exposure to your work. When the campaign funds I will pay you the agreed upon price for the rights to use your images. If the painting is sold through the campaign you will be paid for that also. If you feel that this is a good way for free exposure of your work at no cost to you, I would like the rights to use the images that we agree upon until the end of the funding campaign in April.” My questions: Does this sound okay? Also, what should I charge for my image on her book cover & website header as well as tee shirts, book bags, notecards, etc.? I’m at a loss for what to charge. Many thanks, Jeanne

  18. I say thank you tremendously. I created a work of art and had heard of licensing. I still didn’t think anything of it until I made copies at a staples.
    Well the employee made two copies for himself….it threw me for a loop. I decided before I even go to an establishment next time I will copyright.
    I learned a lot from just this one page you put up. kudos to you for sharing.
    Cynthia

    P.S. The manager asked why there was only 33 pictures on the contact sheet and he said it was the program they had.(one big awful lie). He did it because he didnt see a copyright sign. *** my lesson learned.

  19. This was a good article into licensing. You know I never really thought about it seriously until this article.

  20. This is a wonderful article. It really opened my eyes. This is the direction I’ve been wanting to go in for a long time, but I wasn’t exactly sure how. I would like to develop a web comic and see if anyone would be interested in putting the characters on products. Do you have any recommendations about who I should talk to? (Thank you!)

  21. Art20omega says:

    Great article. I am a marketer who decided to put my skills to good use help artists gain additional revenue streams. I licence art but go above and beyond and take care of production and marketing opening the network for artists to connect with buyers and businesses. What your thoughts on the “selling out” aspect as an artist when it comes to licensing?

  22. I really liked your article and was wondering if you could help me take the next step in getting my art out there. I went to the ART.com site and how do I start posting my stuff. Any help you can provide or information would be greatly appreciated,

  23. Thanks for such a well written article! I have been interested in licensing my art for years, ever since I read the Mary Englebriet story, but most of my research has only led to limited information that sounded really complicated. You have given me hope that my lifelong dream of being a paid artist may still be attainable even in my middle age years. I have pinned this to a board on my pinterest page for future reference and in an attempt to also share with other artists, there is a link at the top of my blog.

  24. Wow! Thanks for such a well written article that takes the mystery and confusion out of the idea for me and actually gives me hope that I can make this happen! I’ve been interested in licensing my art ever since I read the Mary Englebriet story years ago, but everything else I ever read made it sound so complicated that I couldn’t see how I would be able to do it. I pinned this article to a board on my pinterest page for future reference for me and other artists, thanks again!

  25. oops! sorry for the double comment… i thought the first one didn’t post. LOL :-)

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    like its aided me. Good job.

  27. Anahid Dominguez says:

    I am in fine arts, but haven’t even began nor do I know where to begin. I understand the importance of licensing your art and having copyrights. I want my specialty to be animals and nature. I also want it as posters, pictures, calendars, mugs and etc. I don’t know where to begin nor have a found a inspiration to start. All I know is that once I do, I have a bright future and will be where I want to be in life. Can someone recommend a book to read to give me inspiration, encouragement and direction. Please.