Artist James McKenzie is a designer, illustrator and photographer. James is also the co-founder of Danger Horse, a fresh design studio in Melbourne, Australia. As a multi-disciplinary artist, James’s work is varied and vast. I’m happy that he took some time to answer my questions for this interview series, Artists Making Passive Income.
Jules: First, please tell me a bit about yourself, ie. Where you live, any schooling, how long you’ve been making art, your favorite medium(s), favorite artists/influences, and when you started to sell your art online?
James: I grew up in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne and always enjoyed creative subjects throughout school. This eventually lead to me studying design and advertising at university and starting a freelance design business. I’ve always appreciate a wide variety of artists, more based on their individual styles rather than the mediums they use and, as a result, I also enjoy experimenting with various mediums and styles myself. People have told me before that they can see somewhat of a consistent style throughout my work but personally I don’t really see it (besides in the occasional series of images that I produce that is.) I guess it’s something I’m still working out, but developing a signature style isn’t really something I’m working towards.
The first art site I joined was DeviantArt (DA), way back in 2006. I began by uploading some (now rather embarrassing) fan art wallpapers for bands and tv shows I was into at the time and started sketching a little. Shortly after I also got into photography which I seemed to have a little more success with. It was around this time that RedBubble invited me to join so I signed up and began uploading works to both sites. Back then RB had more of an ‘artist community’ vibe going on so I just enjoyed the interaction and was happy to sell the occasional piece alone the way. A few years later they changed up the website, began adding new products and seemed to put more focus on art sales. It was probably around this time that I started taking more notice of how much art I was selling but, being in the middle of my studies, I didn’t make too many changes to how I was doing things. I just kept uploading new works as I created them and over the years the amount of work I sold slowly increased. As many artists probably say, the popularity of an artwork isn’t usually on my mind when I begin creating something. I do however consider it a little before putting a design up for sale.
Jules: I really loved looking through your Society 6 shop. When did you decide to take your art – as a business – seriously? What habits do you strongly believe contribute to your success?
James: My creativity is at its most serious when I’m doing graphic design work, or when I’m working on something for someone specific. My personal art and photography however is more of a hobby. I have learned over time to make sure anything I have up for sale is available (and looking good) on as many products as possible, but I don’t stress about making sure I’ve uploaded a certain amount of work each week or anything like that.
That being said, I have heard that having new work available on a regular basis increases your chances of getting noticed and thus selling more art. Initially I was uploading work every few days and now do so maybe every week or two, which may have contributed to my sales.
Jules: How long have you been selling on print-on-demand sites like RedBubble?
James: I joined RedBubble in 2007 and had photographs for sale on DeviantArt shortly before that. I now also use Society6.
Jules: Did it take you a long time to sell your first product(s) there? And how many products (on average) do you sell monthly?
James: Initially sales were far and in between. I sold little more than a few cards for the first year or so. After that I sold a few prints also, but over all I sold very little for the first five years. This was probably due to both RedBubble being less well known and my artistic ability being less refined. These days I make around 20 sales a month, though around half of these are usually cards and stickers which you make next to no profit from. Someone out there really has a thing for stickers.
Jules: Haha! Right? My first commission from the Libby Dash RedBubble shop was .60 cents, for a sticker. I was like… Thanks? But hey, any passive income id good income, if you ask me.
So how often do you add new designs to your shop? Do you find certain products (ie., prints, cell phone cases, clothes, accessories, etc.) sell better than others on a consistent basis? If you sell on multiple platforms, do you have a system for keeping track of what sells and where?
James: I add new designs every couple of weeks at the moment. Sometimes more often, depending on how busy I am. Stickers sell the best. Why so many stickers? I’d love to know… Other than this I tend to sell a variety of items. I rarely sell art prints these days though, which is a bit of a shame.
Jules: Do you have a social media strategy for driving traffic to your shop?
James: Whenever I upload a new photograph or artwork to my RB/DA/S6 I also post it on on both my art blog and my personal blog on Tumblr. I also occasionally post some of my old works on my Facebook page, mostly to help keep it active.
Jules: Do you drive traffic to your RedBubble shop in other ways?
James: Not really.
Jules: Is there anything you find particularly challenging or frustrating about selling on RedBubble?
James: Getting noticed amongst all the other artworks can be a little challenging, but the variety of work available is great and it’s a good way to see what other artist are creating and what is selling well.
One thing that does bother me recently is the excess of pop-culture based designs around these days. It feels like you’re as likely to stumble across a t-shirt that says “keep calm and eat potatoes” as you are to see a decent painting or photograph, but maybe I’m just noticing it more lately. I have also noticed people selling the work of famous classical artists such as Van Gogh and Monet. While some of these works are now available under creative commons, so I think they can legally be sold by anyone, it does’t really sit well with me.
Jules: Oh yeah! I hear that. I had a portrait I named “Selena” and it got taken down because of copyright issues — nothing to do with the work itself (because it was not a portrait of Selena Gomez or Selena Quintanilla or any other popular Selena). Someone simply didn’t like me using that name. Yet, I see people straight ripping off others and they are super popular. It can be frustrating.
Do you remove any old designs and/or designs that don’t seem to sell as well?
James: Not often, maybe the occasional one, but it’s probably something I should do more often.
Jules: I have heard that it’s good to have a lot, but to delete those that don’t do as well. Of course, as far as I can tell, that’s anecdotal advice. So I just say, do what works for you and/or what you’re comfortable with.
Do you set any sales goals for your art?
James: Personally, I keep my mark ups on RedBubble to 25% and currently make about $50 a month, over 20 or so sales. On Society 6 most of the pricing is set and currently I make around $20 a month, over about 4 sales. I’d would of course love to make more, but as it’s just a hobby I’m pretty happy to be making anything.
Jules: What advice would you give to artists hoping to sell work on RedBubble?
James: You need people to see your work before they are going to start buying it, and this can take some time. It’s possible you could sell lots of work right away, but unless you already have an established fan base, it is unlikely.
Don’t be discouraged by this!
A great way to get noticed is to interact. Look at other peoples artwork, comment, like, follow. If you think someones work is great, tell them, it encourages them and increases the likelihood that they’ll check out yours.
Participating in contests both on RB and around the web is another great way to get your work out there, into the public eye. Social media is also meant to be great for getting some extra traffic, though personally I haven’t really noticed an increase in sales since I started using it more.
Jules: If you could collaborate with any other artist, living or dead, who would it be?
James: I’d love to do some work for some of my favourite bands. Producing art to compliment different musical styles would be a bit of fun. But in regards to visual artists, I think I’d happily work with almost anyone, just to see what we could come up with.
Jules: I got to make some album art for the first time this year, and it was super legit! I got to work directly with the artist, and I came up with a few different ideas and she loved them. It was so fun! (You can check out the single cover for RoyalBaby‘s song, Swayze here.)
What is your favorite music/song/band to listen to while making art?
Jules: What is your favorite art movement / period of art history?
James: The present. Most eras of the past seem to be labeled with a strong, specific style which sort of defines them. The present era feels a little more open with a combination of old and new styles all mixed in together. Looking back I’m sure we will be able to pin-point specific trends however, at least for now, it feels like there is more variety around.
Jules: I agree. The variety of art these days is so vast, I have to just shake my head anytime someone says they don’t like any art What/who/where inspires you most?
James: Nature has always been one of my main inspirations, though more so in regards to my photography. Having a camera on my phone is a blessing because I never miss a moment, but a curse because I’m constantly stopping to take photos of clouds, trees and anything else that grabs my attention. Ask any friend that has travelled with me. In regards to my art, the internet is probably my main inspiration. I’ve spent countless hours browsing art websites and design blogs and I think I have sort of taken it all, mushed it together in my head and just spit bits out when I need them. Much of my work is also just the result of me experimenting with different mediums and styles and seeing where they lead me.
Jules: Who is your favorite living artist? And do you own any of their artwork?
James: Chad Wys, James Jean and Kevin Sloan are three of my favourites. I tend to enjoy artwork with abstract or surreal undertones. I don’t currently own any of their work however someday, when I own my own place, I’ll likely purchase some.
Jules: Who is your favorite artist to follow on Social Media?
Jules: Thanks so much for sharing, James! I hope my readers will be inspired by this Artists Making Passive Income series, and I couldn’t do it without artists like you.
You can find more from James here:
DeviantArt – Art
DeviantArt – Photography
Tumblr – Personal
Tumblr – Art Blog
And Danger Horse here: