Spoonflower Power, Part 1

I love living in the digital age! The opportunities for artists have burst wide open with the inception of the interwebs, the print-on-demand phenomena, and companies like Society6, RedBubble, Blurb, and Spoonflower that allow you to upload digitized artwork and apply them to a crazy cool array of objects. Mugs, cutting boards, clocks, rugs, curtains, bedding, towels, placemats, furniture(!), iphone cases, t-shirts, leggings, tote bags, backpacks, books, and notebooks, not to mention frameable prints. It’s brilliant!

With on-demand printing, there’s no inventory for the artist, so it’s eco and storage-space friendly. There are no gatekeepers, so all interested artists can participate. Someone else takes care of production and shipping, so more time can be spent doing the fun, creative stuff. And, in comparison with the fabric industry, there’s no seasonality. The big fabric companies, or at least those who print quilt fabric, run a collection once and then move on. A fabric designer for a big-name company recently said that she wrote a project book to show how her commercial fabrics could be used, and by the time the book was available, the fabrics no longer were. With a print-on-demand company, patterns and images are available as long as the company is in business and the artist keeps them in her shop. Again, so brilliant!

I haven’t ventured into Mug, Bathmat, or Legging Land yet, but I’ve been DIY-ing fabric through Spoonflower for several years. I found my happy place when I learned how to use Photoshop. I looooove it! The only time I’ve ever had to be called to dinner twice was when I was messing around in Photoshop. And when I learned how to create seamless repeat designs, a whole new world of possibilities opened up.

About four years ago I decided that I knew just enough to participate in the design challenges that Spoonflower hosts each week. They announce a theme, designers design designs in response to the theme, the Spoonflower community votes on them, and the top vote-getters receive prizes, usually in the form of Spoondollars. I entered four challenges within a two-month period and had a fairish amount of success. Three of my four designs were voted into the top third, and my second entry, a recipe tea towel for Mother’s Day, actually won 4th place. Beginner’s luck!

L to R: “Bestrewn,” Floral Coloring Book Wallpaper challenge, 83rd/310; “Ambrosia Bites,” Mom’s Recipe Tea Towel challenge, 4th/127; “Glossy Peaks,” Utensil challenge, 57th/201; “Waikiki Quiver,” Surfing (Limited Color Palette) challenge, 39th/169.

The quality of the artwork created by many in the Spoonflower community is impressive. The top designers appear to be professional illustrators and painters, and as a ceramist turned quilter and novice designer, after the fourth entry, I realized that I didn’t have the chops to compete with them. It became painfully clear that 1) tossed repeats (where all the motifs are scattered through the block) are very hard to do well and 2) that I wasn’t really the novelty fabric type, both of which earn big votes in the challenges. Discouraged, I ended up dropping out of the challenge scene and wandering away for a while to chase other butterflies.

. . . . .

In keeping with the goal of this blog—to find out how much artists can earn—I can report that I did make a little money with that first challenge adventure. At the time, Spoonflower sold a packet of fat-quarters—one from each of the top ten designs—for the week following the announcement of the winners. Eleven people bought the “Mom’s Recipe Tea Towel” collection, so I, along with the other top nine, earned $15.40 from the sales (a commission of $1.40 on each sale). I couldn’t buy new tires for my car, but it was an encouraging beginning. It’s good to know that there are buyers out there!

Sadly, Spoonflower doesn’t offer the Top 10 packets anymore. I still get occasional sales on the tea towel however. I’m always amazed when people find it because I’ve done absolutely nothing to promote it. My other entries were never made available for sale because I didn’t proof them—a Spoonflower prerequisite. Looking back, it seems like a bit of a waste given the time I put into them. A wise woman would flesh out collections for those designs and add them to her shop.

My So-Called Business Plan

Shifting gears from “artist” to “artist who sells stuff” reminds me of the day I got tired of losing at Scrabble and decided to play for points instead of poetry. Up until then, if I’d been given the choice of playing “qi” on a triple word score for 33 points or “quince” for a plain, old 17 points, I would have chosen “quince” because it was prettier and more exotic.* Seriously. I compared it to seeing a rare bird in the wild. “Oh, look! A whooping crane! Cool!” A moment to be commemorated and celebrated. Points be damned.

Being intent on winning seemed a bit distasteful too, as so many of the world’s problems—greed, aggression, ruthlessness—can be boiled down to “playing for points.” And so with art. Focusing on the money rather than the art seems unsavory—kind of soulless and sellout-y—but I either need to up my game or find a soul-sucking, back-aching desk job. Surely I can find a way to be congenially competitive at art and Scrabble.

610 MAGNOLIA, 2016, 51” x 40”

Making art for art’s sake is a wonderful thing, but it hasn’t gotten me very far. Like the rare bird, novelty has been something I’ve sought in the studio: “What can I make that doesn’t look like anything else even though it might end up being weird and ugly?” And—surprise!—even though I found the work fun and quirky, others found it strange. I once heard my quilts described as something from “outer space.” Few people were beating down the studio door to take any of them home.

So, I need to change tactics, and looking at my work through a lens of greater appeal and sale potential has helped crystalize the issue. Some ideas get pushed immediately to the periphery while others come whizzing into the forefront, and I see them falling into three categories:

  1. Items that are made and sold and that’s it. A one time deal. Let’s call it, “Art.”
  2. Items that are made and sold and can be remade and sold again, which sounds a lot like “craft.”
  3. Items that I design but are made by someone else as often as demand dictates. Mmmmm . . . “Royalties!”
I still have a cute, little, R2D2-sized kiln, so ceramics are still on the table. Licensing, podcasting, and workshops also seem like viable possibilities, but they don’t fit particularly well in any of the Business Bubbles.

Potential avenues:

  • Art—galleries, exhibits, juried shows, Etsy, Instagram, interior designers, a 2nd blog
  • Craft—Etsy, craft fairs, a 2nd blog
  • Royalties—Spoonflower, Society6, RedBubble, Blurb

So, now that I have too many ideas, where do I start??

Putting on my pragmatist’s hat, it seems like “royalties” are my best bet. If I can create a library of digital designs that can be printed and delivered by third parties, that would create an income stream that would give me time and space to focus on the more labor-intensive, riskier, higher overhead arts and crafts.

 

* I know “qi” isn’t all that ordinary in real life, but in Scrabble whenever you draw a “q,” you can almost always find an “i” to give it a home.)