PLEASE NOTE: This article was written in 2001. Many things have changed, but I hope the article is still useful to you.
A small, pale drawing of a subject I no longer remember, drawn in a medium I’d never heard of, that years ago I saw hanging on the wall of a no longer living relative’s home changed my life in ways no one could ever, not in a lifetime of guessing, predict. I learned that day that the drawing was done with Prismacolor colored pencils. Intrigued, I soon bought a small set and got Bet Borgeson’s The Colored Pencil book from the library. I’d loved to draw since I could remember, and had dabbled in pastel, graphite and watercolor during high school, but unsure of my abilities, I’d always passed up art classes opting instead for a “safer” degree in English Education.
When I stumbled on colored pencil, I had two small children, and any creative juices I still had between heating bottles and changing diapers were being channeled into gardening, cake decorating and origami. We had no money, and one of our children was autistic and often ill, so there was nothing extra for expensive art supplies and no extra time for setting up paints. But these colored pencils were cheap, there was no set-up time, no clean up and they felt like home the minute I tried them. My neighbor saw my first piece and said I should enter it in our small county fair. I did. I won first place. I liked that! And I was off and running.
Thirteen years later, my life is colored pencil. I’m a professional children’s portrait artist with a 14 month waiting list, author of an internationally-distributed art instruction book Colored Pencil Portraits Step by Step, with a second book in the works, an instructor for portrait workshops nationwide, an art competition juror, member of the Colored Pencil Society of America and creator of a colored pencil e-magazine, From My Perspective. All without a day in art class! To tell you the truth, I can hardly believe it myself. So, how did I get here?
The simple answer to how I got here is that I felt I had little choice. When I was divorced 12 years ago, I’d been out of the career track for almost six years. The only thing I could do without further education was substitute teach, which would have meant putting my autistic son into day care - something I was unwilling to do. I’d been working with colored pencil for a little over a year by that point, and had been accepted into a gallery where I’d sold a few things, so I decided to take the plunge. And what a plunge it was. I was painfully broke for most of the next 11 years!
Art is no easy business to make a living at. I remember a time when, after filling the car with gas and loading the kids and a portrait in the car to deliver to a client in Oregon, I had exactly 17 cents to my name. I prayed a tire wouldn’t blow. But no matter how low the down side, the up side was worth it. I was my own boss, I often worked in my robe and slippers, I was home for my children, the commute was a few steps down the hall, and most importantly, I was doing what I loved. But maybe even beyond that, when you’re self-employed, the possibilities are endless and that’s what kept me going through the leanest years.
The even simpler answer to how I got here though is that I never quit trying to get here. Some things I tried worked; others didn’t or at least didn’t seem to at the time. Like most everyone who jumps into the creative arts business, initially I was sure all I needed was that big break; that one commission, that one client, that one award that would make all the difference. I’ve since learned that waiting for, or even trying to make that big break happen is a waste of time. It’s all baby steps followed by more baby steps; and with tenacity, talent, and a little luck, one thing leads to another and you eventually get there.
So, what was the first baby step? Gallery representation. Within a year of working in colored pencil, I was hanging in a well-respected, busy gallery in Seaside, Oregon. I was scared as all get-out to initially approach them, but they immediately accepted my work, and sold most of the 10 or so figurative pieces I gave them the first season. But with gallery sales, you receive only 50 percent, and the framing comes out of that. You never know when you will sell, so it is a tough business.
About that time, some family friends asked me to do a portrait of their two children. That was baby step number two. Again I was scared. After all, I’d never had to make a painting look like someone, but they were thrilled with my portrait and I loved getting a check upon delivery! So, my next step was to start calling friends, family and acquaintances. That took nerve I didn’t know I had, but when a mortgage payment is calling, it’s amazing what you can do! I never asked flat out for commissions. Instead, I said I’d love to use their children as models for a painting, in hopes that they’d buy the finished piece. That approach worked every time I tried it.
In the meantime, gallery sales did fine the second season, but stalled completely the third year. I started cleaning houses while my son was in preschool. A friend suggested a “silent auction party” in her home to sell all the unsold work from the gallery. She was well connected and had a lovely home she volunteered. About 40 people showed up, and I sold all but one piece that night. House payment covered!
Then I did get a break. I received a call from a Portland, Oregon woman who’d seen my work in the gallery two years prior. She’d taken my name and was calling to ask if I took commissions. Turns out she lived in a wealthy neighborhood and had a zillion friends. One commission led to another, and all these years later, the Portland area is still my portrait base with anywhere from six to 20 new children’s portrait commissions a year. Initially, my prices were very low. I charged $700 for a large, framed portrait, but I raised them by 10% every six months until I felt I was getting a fair price for the time and work involved. (Colored pencil is a very slow medium; a 16 x 20 portrait can take me up to 3 weeks to complete.)
I would never have found this woman on my own, so the lesson here was that even though I made very little money from the gallery itself, that representation changed my life. I actually have two completely separate careers: the portrait business and the teaching business. Success in the portrait commission business provided the base for the instruction side, but has taken many more steps to lead me to “success.”
The first step was to join the Colored Pencil Society of America (CPSA). Nearly every aspect of my non-commission career is directly related to joining CPSA. Through that organization I met people who asked to include my work in art instruction books they were writing and was also accepted into several CPSA International Exhibitions which led to my work being printed in the Best of Colored Pencil book series published by North Light Books. My published work gave me credibility and led Cynthia Daniel, of The Stroke of Genius website (www.prtraits.com) to ask me to join her incredibly professional, beautiful portrait website. Inclusion on her site led to more great things, but I’ll get back to that later.
Next, I began calling local art leagues to ask if I could give a demonstration talk about colored pencil techniques at their meetings. No one turned me down, I made a little money, I made great contacts, and I got practice talking about my technique. Before I knew it, people were asking for more and I held my first workshop. Again, I was scared spit less! Not only had I never given a workshop, I’d never attended one! I also wasn’t really sure how I achieved my results in colored pencil, but nothing teaches you like teaching. By needing to pay attention to what I did in order to teach it, the mystery of my own technique unfolded and I was able to break down and articulate my particular methods. (Isn’t it funny how life works; my two years of teaching junior high English and my expensive Education degree were starting to pay off after all.)
When I saw an artist’s work I admired, and who seemed further along in their career than I, I made appointments to talk with them. Most were gracious, and I learned lots. I learned about the American Society of Portrait Artist’s through one of those contacts, so I joined, then promptly asked if I could write an article about portraiture in colored pencil. I knew the medium was new for fine art, and decided early on to capitalize on that “newness.” They accepted my article giving me more exposure, more credibility and one more line on my resume!
I sent photographs of my work to the manufacturer of the Prismacolor pencils that I use. This seemed initially to be a dead end, as I never heard back from them. But about a year later, I received a call from Sandra Angelo asking if I’d teach a workshop in San Diego. Turns out the manufacturer had forwarded my art to Sandra. The next payoff from sending those pictures didn’t happen till last year when an attendee of my San Diego workshop, who’d since moved, asked me to come teach in Utah. I’ve now held three profitable workshops there, with three more scheduled for this year. All from sending a few photos seven years ago…
When a clerk at our Seattle Daniel Smith Art Supply store commented on how many colored pencils I was buying, I asked if he’d like to see what I do with them, then went out to the car to get photos. He immediately called the store workshop coordinator and presto! A new workshop venue! And don’t forget about trade magazines. I’ve had a subscription to the Artist’s Magazine forever. When I couldn’t afford it, I asked for a subscription for Christmas and birthdays. Nothing tangible has come from subscribing (yet!) but ideas, inspiration and just feeling connected is easily worth the cost.
With the number of books I’d been featured in growing (thanks to CPSA), I received a call over three years ago from an acquisition editor, Jamie Markle, at North Light Books asking if I’d like to write an art instruction book. Intimidated, but ecstatic, I said, “Yes!” The advance was low, the amount of work overwhelming, but I knew this was a chance I couldn’t pass up. I got right to work, and found my years of teaching workshops absolutely invaluable in writing the book. I basically just sat at my computer and gave a workshop. I delivered the manuscript a year later and then had to wait 15 months to actually see Colored Pencil Portraits Step by Step in print. But it was worth all the work and the wait.
And finally, back to the Stroke of Genius website. I somehow had the foresight to add that website address (which includes my email address) to the “About the Author” section of my book. As soon as it was published last spring, people started viewing me on that site and I began receiving “fan email” from all over the world. It was so exciting! I saved each email, having no idea what I might do with them. That is until last fall when Deb Mason from Texas emailed asking if I could give her online lessons.
That’s when the idea of a subscription-based monthly colored pencil online magazine was born. I sent an inquiry out to the 200-plus artists whose email I’d saved, to see what sort of response I might get, and within 3 weeks had over 50 subscription checks in my mailbox. Terrified about having committed to a website when I didn’t know the first thing about web-design, I bought two technical books and plunged ahead. Five months into the venture, I have over 200 subscribers in 43 states and four countries, and it’s growing every day. And as a bonus, I’ve received six web-design jobs since I put my site up. (2015 Update: This magazine is now available in print and digital download.)
Last but not least, last summer, as soon as I saw that my book was selling fairly well, I proposed a second book to my editor. The contract was signed last week for Soft Realism in Colored Pencil and now I’m petrified as to where I’ll find the time to write a book, but excited about the possibilities.
There are a few common threads here in all the baby steps I took. First, they were all about networking with others in the field. Second, one step seemed either to lead to another step or help with the next one. Third, I was really scared each step of the way. But, I just didn’t let the fear stop me… or maybe I should say the fear of being on the streets has always been greater than the fear of my newest project.
So far, without ever actually setting any goals, my career has taken me places I wouldn’t have dreamed of. When my 18-year-old daughter was a baby, I’d settle her in our hand-me-down stroller, and we’d walk down to the local gallery a few blocks from our apartment. I wanted so badly to have a picture hanging there but was afraid to dream that big. This year, I was asked to serve as juror for their annual exhibition. Sometimes I still pinch myself.
(Written in 2001. Re-published in 2015.)
Ann is the author and publisher of numerous books on colored pencil. She continues to champion colored pencil enthusiastically in publications and in workshops held internationally.