DIY Art Life: How To Be a Self Supporting Artist

What is it like being a DIY artist in Denton? First off, I don’t like to think of myself as an “artist.” I am, but the term is a little vague. I am an illustrator. I am a maker. And I am a business owner. I draw stuff and I make stuff with my hands. My name is Matthew Sallack and I am the owner of Otter Illustration

I’m a big fan of the show, Shark Tank. Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks and overall lovable loudmouth has a lot of catch-phrases on the show. One he says a lot is, “You’re not an entrepreneur, you’re a want-treprenuer.” While mostly insulting, what he means is if you want to create a start-up company and have the business succeed, you gotta be all in. Raise the money yourself and do it full-time. 

That’s exactly what I did Groundhog Day last year. I quit my job working at a liquor store and started Otter Illustration full-time. Like the movie with Bill Murray, I was tired of doing the same thing everyday, and I wanted to devote more of my time to what I really wanted to do. I opened a separate business bank account, I got a company credit card, I filed for my DBA, and most importantly, I jumped off the cliff into the sea of the unknown.

When your only income is self-generated, your gear changes. You become more driven by the fact that you don’t have a choice. You either find a way to sell stuff and make some money or you don’t make rent. There’s no net. You’re a self-employed daredevil. 

Yes, fear is part of it. Fear motivates you. For me, one of my biggest fears is never getting to all the crazy projects in my head. I don’t fear not succeeding financially. As long as I can pay the bills, eat pizza, and maybe buy a few video games, I’ll be happy. Oh, there is beer. Did I mention beer?

But what about Denton? What makes this such a worthy place to call home-base for an art business or any independent business? I don’t want this to turn into my love-letter of Denton, but let’s just say there’s no place like home. And Denton is home. 

One thing that resonates with people here in lil’ D is the concept of Denton being an alternative. An alternative to Dallas, Ft. Worth, Houston, Austin, San Antonio, and all the rest. We take pride in this community and having those connections. As a young business, it helps that word-of-mouth advertising is effective here. If people like your stuff, they will follow you. They will tell other people to go check it out. 

One great example of this is the new restaurant in town, Boca 31. I must have had 20 different people tell me about how great it is before I was finally able to go there and eat the food. And they were right. The empanadas are bomb.

I get most of my commission work from word-of-mouth. People either see my work around town or a friend refers me. It is a powerful system. Building those connections and testimonials is an ongoing part of my business. I meet new people every day practically, and just about everyone has an idea or a project that potentially involves illustration. Whether or not they are serious enough to pay money for it is another thing. Which brings me to…

Making art is just like any other service. It’s a valued commodity and should be treated as such. You are performing a service that has value that the customer can’t do themselves. Making things and asking for money for those things is like a dance. And that’s where clear communication, deadlines, and upfront price quoting are invaluable. One of the hardest things an artist has to figure out is what his or her time is worth. How much do you charge for a gig poster? A logo? Do you charge a flat rate or an hourly rate? Me personally, I look at:

-the overall scope of the project
-how many hours it will take
-will it be something I can show off to get other work?
-how will it benefit my business?
-what is the amount of reproduction/usage? (one-time custom piece for an anniversary present vs. a design for a t-shirt that has an unrestricted amount of re-prints)
-does the work have any positive/negative effect on the community?

You have to value your own time and skills for anyone else to. If you do things for free all the time, that cycle will continue and you will never make it. Doing things pro-bono is different though. And for me, here in Denton, it is an important aspect of what I do and the credibility I want to establish for my brand: That I am not only a competent artist and business person, but I contribute to the community in a positive way. Some of the causes my art has helped out with this year are: Denton Community Food Center, Friends of the Family, Serve Denton, and the Greater Denton Arts Council. The main non-profit I donate my time and skills to is the Denton Community Market. Not only is the DCM a great place to buy and sell locally-made products, I believe in its overall greater positive impact on the Denton community. (You can find me selling stuff there pretty much every Saturday!)

My advice for anyone starting out as a young artist/maker/entrepreneur in Denton is find a need. Find something we don’t have yet here or something that could be done better. If you can’t figure out how to get sales right away, donate your time and services to one of Denton’s non-profit causes. You can establish connections and get exposure which will likely lead to paying gigs. 

Another piece of advice: Don’t turn down an opportunity. You never know where it may lead. You can’t let a bad show/event get you down. It’s just the law of averages. And if you do enough shows/event, things will even out. Take into consideration the risk/reward of the opportunity. Sometimes a high booth fee can make you apprehensive. But you never know if you don’t check it out. And as great as Denton is, don’t overlook Dallas and the metroplex for shows and other opportunities. I just did a show in Dallas (Commerce Street Night Market) this last Friday and it was a lot of fun!

In the end, for me personally, I just want to make stuff and share it, and hopefully sell enough of it to live off of. Just enough for bills, food, beer, really. I think if you are humble and have a good work ethic, you can do just about anything here in Denton.

Step 1: Make something
Step 2: Share it.
Step 3. Acquire money in exchange for the thing you made. 

Matthew Sallack is a local illustrator currently living in Denton, TX. His portfolio is available at Otter Illustration website. If you'd like to say hi to him and talk pizza and tacos, he's a regular at the Denton Community Market on Saturdays.

Header image design by Jason Lee