Our experienced artists, Mindy Sommers, answered a few questions about what the licensing world is like for an artist.
ALI: Let’s start with the basics. What is your name and where are you from?
MINDY: My name is Mindy Hope Sommers, and I also go under the name of Color Bakery, my custom art tile company. I am a digital artist, I live in a 200 year old New England house that is painted completely and totally purple---inside and out. We also have an open garden art gallery on our front lawn). My husband, a Texan, had the courage to marry a Brooklyn girl (the cultural differences and how we tackled them are worthy of at least a short play) and we both compromised on Vermont. We have two cats, Emily and Marcie, and we both dote on them shamelessly.
ALI: What tools do you use to create your art?
MINDY: Photoshop, Photoshop, and Photoshop. The mother of all tools, the biggest, baddest weapon in any digital artist's arsenal.
ALI: How long have you been licensing your art?
MINDY: I started licensing my work in February of 2010. The CEO of a licensing company called me on a Saturday morning after having seen my work online on Color Bakery. I wasn't really doing the kind of stuff that was licensing-ready, but I think he saw potential and was willing to take a chance on me. I am grateful to him for that chance, and I was hell-bent on making the most of the opportunity. It's a funny thing---you sign, and there's the excitement of signing, and there is some validation in that someone thinks enough of your art to represent you. But then you realize you have way bigger hurdles to scale. You look at your peers that your agent represents and you say, "My Dear God, these artists are beyond awesome, I am competing against them! Oh my God, I'm not good enough!" And then after you have some successes and you get more confidence, you realize there's a world of artists out there---outside your agent---that are simply brilliant, insanely talented, and you're competing with them for a piece of that very same small pie.
But I've learned to put that out of my mind and try to stay as true to my vision as I can, buck trends when I can, rebel when I can, pick my spots. I tend to be a loose cannon, I like non-traditional color palettes and would rather start a trend than follow one, but in licensing that isn't always realistic. I've learned a lot and am still learning. Since there is no rulebook for licensing, you fly by the seat of your pants and it's a continuing education. I love licensing for many reasons, not the least of which you get to sell the same image over and over again ;) But on a more serious note, it's incredible to be able to actually work with a manufacturer to design a product line and then see the fruits of your labor when the designs you agonized over are now arranged stunningly on a showroom display table and the buyers are excited about what they're seeing. It makes the countless all-nighters worth it :)
ALI: What is your favorite trade show to exhibit at?
MINDY: I am not an exhibit person or a show person---I'd rather sit quietly behind the scenes and have my agent handle the hand-shakes and presentations. After having a long sales career, I am kind of tired of the promotion part. I like working and creating alone after so many years of corporate life, and to me shows remind me of that. Seeing photos of my stuff at shows is usually enough for me, it's just not my thing. However, I am going to attend my first licensing-related show this October in my hometown, NYC. I am looking forward to that. This show is kinda special to me.
ALI: What do you suggest artists new to the licensing world?
MINDY: I think they have to decide whether or not they want to represent themselves or sign with an agent. Whichever path they choose, they must be prepared with a serious, comprehensive portfolio that has just beef and no fat in it, i.e., the very best work they've done. The next step is figuring out where they fit in, where their strengths lie. Is their work more suitable for greeting cards or are they more of a pattern designer for fabric? Are they more niched or are they more diverse? I promise you that you won't waste your time if you spend hours upon hours looking at art licensing companies *and* successful artists online and see what kind of work is going on what kind of product. Then you will be able to objectively assess your own portfolio to see what market would be most likely to buy your work. Make sure you show your art in collections of twos and fours, images that match and complement each other. And finally, once you decide the kind of products your art would work best on, make presentation sheets using templates shaped liked products so that either prospective agents or prospective manufacturers can easily visualize your art on products.
ALI: What is it like to work in the mass market?
MINDY: It seems to me that this recession has made manufacturers a bit gun-shy about being stuck with inventory that doesn't move so they are less likely to take chances with new ideas than they might have in the past. Hopefully, since the economy is an ever-swinging pendulum, the manufacturing sector will get strong again and with it more opportunities for artists and more risk-taking on a creative level. Seeing the same stuff on the retail shelves year after year is very telling about the lack of risk-taking at this point in time. It's pretty evident to anyone who does any amount of shopping.
ALI: What do you think are the newest trends?
MINDY: I have to admit that I am vigilant in ignoring, as best I can, trends and fads in licensing. I find them distracting and somewhat useless. I don't want to do what everyone else is doing and I don't want to use a color palette just because some color research firm or focus group said that aqua and sage green is the hot color combo this year. I don't care. I truly believe if the art is quality, and the artist stays true to his/her vision, they will rise quite nicely without needing to obsess about market trends---the manufacturers will react positively to good work even if it doesn't fit their preconceived notions or wish lists.
I don't think manufacturers necessarily always know what they want; some of them may actually want to be shown something they've never seen before, Sure, we'll always have those "point and shoot" kind of projects when a manufacturer will tell you exactly what they want you to design and the artist's creative input is minimal, and that's cool, but I think there are many companies out there who are so bored of seeing the same old stuff that they are open to new possibilities. What was of major interest to manufacturers this year? The same thing that's of interest to them every year: making money and getting a bigger piece of the market share. They just have different philosophies about how to achieve that goal. My personal opinion is that playing it safe is never the road to dominating any market in any industry.
ALI: What advice would you give other artists that are interested in the art licensing field?
MINDY: If you think that your art comes from the angels in the cosmos and that you wouldn't dream of changing that sage green to a golden amber, or you wince when you're art-directed or critiqued, run from licensing as quickly as you can because it's not for you. Licensing is not about creating art as much as it is about selling products. Leave as much of your ego at the door as possible and be prepared to be extremely flexible, turn a project on a dime and happily make changes to your work that may, at times, make your stomach roil. If you want the most exciting roller coaster ride of your life and are willing to work very hard (very, very hard) and redo that tomato fifteen times when the customer asks you to, you'll do just fine in licensing. In fact, you'll love it!