How do Wildlife Artists Make a Living? Copy this and Get Started

How do wildlife artists make a living? Elephant drawing by kevin Hayler
Pygmy Elephants. My own reference photo and my drawing.

I’m well placed to answer the question. I’ve been making my living as a wildlife artist for over 20 years so I know how wildlife artists make a living. On the face of it, my lifestyle is very simple. I make and sell my art in the summer and travel all winter.

I’ll tell you how I do it and you can do the same.

Draw the most popular wild animals and sell them as affordable signed prints from a market stall. Demonstrate your skills, chat, and sell. Do this practically every day in the summer-time and with the money you earn, spend your winters in the tropics photographing more wildlife. Use your winter field trips abroad as a tax-deductible expense. Repeat

That’s the summary, but let’s dig in a bit deeper, there’s more to this than meets the eye.

People think the art sells itself, but sadly that’s not the way it is, I wish it was. I’ll show you how to make a living my way, from start to finish, and don’t worry if wildlife is not your subject because this approach will work for almost anything.

How to Start Making a Living with your Wildlife Art

lioness and cub work in progress demo for how wildlife artists can make a living

First things first, have you got a portfolio of work? If not you’d better get something done. If you’re going to sell your art, you must have a modest display. I suggest you start with 10-12 saleable images as a minimum.

What do I mean by saleable?

I mean standard portraits of charismatic animals. Don’t concern yourself with being clever and arty. Forget about meanings, statements, or metaphors, these are your bread and butter pictures to get the ball rolling. You can play around later when you have an income.

Wildlife artists love the natural world and they often make the mistake of thinking the public shares their enthusiasm. Sadly not. If someone has to ask ‘What is it?’ it will not sell. Beauty will not be enough. Stick to glamour.

Try to remember that very few people ever buy ‘art’ as such. Most people buy pictures and that’s not quite the same thing.

Where do you get your Wildlife Subjects?

You’ll have to do what I did in the beginning and visit a few zoos. If possible go on a weekday to avoid the crowds and take note of the most popular animals and find out the feeding times. Go for the day and take spare camera batteries.

With luck, one or two glamour species will have young. A mother with a baby is the easiest image to sell. Make it your priority.

Further Reading: 12 Wildlife Subjects that Sell

The following animals are good ‘sellers’. There are more, but try these as a starting point:

  • Elephants – Lions – Bears
  • OwlsTigers – Orang-utans
  • Wolves – MeerkatsGiraffes
  • Penguins – Zebras – Leopards.

It’s hardly a comprehensive list but most good zoos will have a selection of these animals. If you need to pad out your portfolio, add more elephants, giraffes, and big cats.

Further Reading: Where to Find Wildlife Subjects

Now you have some photo references, it’s time to get things done. Dedicate an hour or two for drawing or painting every day. I started by using my free time between work shifts to gradually build a small collection. It took me a few weeks but eventually, I got there.

Making your First Fine Art Wildlife Prints

wildlife art prints example for how wildlife artists make a living

The only realistic way to scale up your art business is to sell reproductions. You can try to ‘pump-out’ half-decent originals for a higher price but a word of caution, when I tried to mass-produce originals, I burned out.

Getting high-quality prints is one of the greatest hurdles you’ll face making your business idea succeed. If you are selling prints as fine art, accurate reproductions are critical. The tone, the detail, and the color must all match, if not to perfection then pretty damn close.

Here’s the catch, most printers are Jack-of-all-trades and masters of none. General printers will offer you a good price, promise you the world, and let you down badly.

You need a specialist printing company who print artwork and deal with artists on a daily basis.

I found a good printer in the small ads of an art magazine.

I learned all this the hard way and lost a lot of money in the process.

When I started my own business 20+ years ago, printing from home was not a viable option but times have changed. Now it makes more sense for many artists to buy their own printer and do it all themselves.

Further Reading: How to Make Prints of your Art

There are pros and cons to both approaches.

If a low price-point per print is your priority, you should find a reliable printing company who will mass produce your work on a press. This is called offset lithography. You can get a very good price if you order a large print run but with 12 images that’s a heck of a lot of stock.

This is how I started and my initial print run was 12,000! It’s quite a gamble.

If keeping tight control and printing what you need is more important to you, then home printing is probably the way to go.

Assuming you already have a computer, the cost for a commercial-grade Epson Surecolor P600 printer capable of making the best A3 images will only set you back about $700 (£500) on Amazon at today’s prices (2019). That’s a modest outlay for starting a business. Unfortunately, the cost of their inks will make you weep.

Your costs per print will be far higher using the Epson printer but then again, you won’t be lumbered with piles of unsold stock. You only have to print new stock when you sell the old ones, plus you have the flexibility to offer various sizes without any extra set-up costs.

A major drawback, for me at least, is the steep learning curve involved with using a commercial printer. They are designed to be used daily which means leaving them idle can cause malfunctions. The set-up and maintenance is technical stuff.

Lastly, don’t forget that your work will have to be professionally scanned or photographed if you want top results. I advise you to use professionals to do this job, at least when you first start out.

Where do you Sell your Wildlife Art?

wildlife art for sale banner. Multiple framed wildlife art drawings

Art and craft markets are your obvious choice but by no means your only one. You aren’t limited to arty venues, that’s far too restrictive. Try seeing yourself as a retailer who just so happens to sell their own art. It helps to change your mindset.

You can trade wherever there are enough people passing by. It’s a numbers game. The more passing trade there is, the more chance you have of selling something.

Some wildlife artists do weekend markets or attend a series of shows throughout the year. If you travel that route, you’re playing the long game.

It takes time to discover the most profitable events and the top shows are likely to be booked a year or two in advance. It’s a matter of trial and error. A show that looks promising on paper may turn out to be a turkey in practice, and vice versa.

Further Reading: Should You Sell Your Art in Galleries?

Another viable option is to find a private pitch to rent outside a shop or building on a busy street. You could even consider taking a short term let in an empty store or renting a pitch inside a shopping mall.

Approach large hotels and hospitals to see if they have an ‘artist in residence’. What about local zoos? Maybe you could set up a booth.

Approach local large employers and see if you can set up a tabletop display in their canteens and take orders and commissions. I did something similar around our local schools by leaving portfolios in the staff rooms.

And don’t forget to ask your local authority if they issue any permits for local artists.

I have an ‘Artists license’ issued by my town council. It’s a peppercorn rent which allows artists to trade on designated streets as a tourist attraction.

Think outside the box and you will see possibilities everywhere.

Making a Cheap and Effective Art Display

Simple cheap art display example

Presentation is important and it helps when you make a good first impression. That said, don’t get obsessed about it. It doesn’t make or break your business.

Your display must catch the eye, that’s the most important thing. Good taste is secondary. You want heads to turn your way. In other words, subtlety will not get you very far.

Have you ever heard the expression ‘The cash is in the flash’? It means you have to be in people’s faces when it comes to advertising your wares.

My best crowd-puller is a huge enlargement of my baby chimp drawing. It hits all the right emotional triggers. Kids point and call out, there are ‘Ooo’s’ and ‘Aww’s’ and all the right noises. And my work becomes the center of attention.

Forget restraint, make your signs bigger and bolder. If you are indoors, use spotlights, if you are outdoors, use more color.

Add titles to your work. If you haven’t done it already, do it now. Titles alone can sell a piece.

If a title resonates with the viewer it can give the picture an added meaning. Think carefully. To demonstrate my point I have a lion portrait called ‘Head of the Family’. It turns a picture of a proud lion into the perfect present for Dad!

Likewise, add captions. People like to read about the picture. Just a paragraph will do, just a few lines long. Keep it short and snappy.

Write a bio with a photo of yourself, and place it centrally. Again don’t waffle. A good approach is to write your story as a journey. I’ve written mine as a transformative narrative, starting from where I was then, dreaming in the fridge factory, to where I am now, traveling the world and making a living as a wildlife artist.

I sell black and white art and in order to catch the eye, I make use of strong contrast. My white prints are displayed on black boards. To add some color both my parasol is bright red.

If you want to catch passers-by, you’re dealing in micro-seconds. That’s all the time you have to grab their attention. So what do you do? My answer is to put up a ‘wall’ of prints.

The public reacts to what’s right in front of their noses and not to what you might have tucked away.

The mistake too many artists make is assuming the public care about their art. That ain’t the way it is.

It’s all about turning heads, grabbing attention and knowing what to do next, which leads us to the next section.

Learning Some Basic Selling Skills

Basic selling skills image. example prints with a sales receipt

The secret of good salesmanship is being friendly, building a rapport, and gaining trust. In other words, a full complement of social skills will serve you well.

Forget the hard sell, no one likes a pushy, over-eager salesman. You can coerce someone once but you’ll never see them again, and they will never speak well of you.

The gold is in repeat trade. Your best customers will return and spread the word. Nothing beats word of mouth.

So, is there anything else to know? Yes, of course, first you have to break the ice and that’s one of the trickiest things to master.

The public is defensive in a retail setting and very wary of entering into awkward sales situations. It’s your job to allay those fears and put people at their ease.

The first rule of thumb is to acknowledge the customer.

You should be cordial but unconcerned. I like to describe it as ‘attentive indifference’. Be casual and relaxed as if you have plenty of other things to be getting on with. You want the prospect to instantly realize that their presence is no big deal.

Further Reading: Selling Skills for Artists

You must gauge the attitude and body language of your customers before making any contact. Some people will avoid eye contact with you at all costs and that’s fine. Don’t hover, simply say something mild as a casual remark and back away.

My favorite ploy is to casually point out my other folders with a few words like ‘there’s a few more on the table here’. At the same time, I make fleeting eye contact, step back and busy myself with another task.

The point is to break the ice and demonstrate that I’m OK. Fear not.

I can’t tell you how important it is to appear slightly distracted. It takes the pressure off the customer. As long as they have an escape route they’ll relax.

Different ice-breakers will suit different folk, in different situations. Try any of these:

  • Smile with eye contact
  • Comment on something
  • Ask a harmless question
  • Eavesdrop and join in
  • Make a compliment
  • Crack a joke

In time you will develop some sales patter with a repertoire of tried and tested one-liners and chit-chat that usually works.

Another sales ploy you must learn is the power of scarcity. Ignore the effectiveness of a limited supply at your peril.

People will happily put off making a decision. Commitments are stressful. Their solution is to go away and think about it. People who walk away are unlikely to come back so it’s in your interest to infer that coming back later is not an option.

In effect, you are manufacturing a shortage. You don’t have to lie about anything, all you need to do is highlight the likelihood of losing out and cast the seeds of doubt.

  • Q – Are you going to be around all day?… A – Not if the weather forecast is right.
  • Q – When do you close?… A – When it gets too quiet or it rains.
  • Q – Have you got plenty in stock?… A – Only a few left, you’d better grab it.
  • Q – Have you got a website?… A – Yes but I sell them cheaper here.

If you recall I advised you not to advertise your website. The reason being it demolishes the illusion of scarcity.

If I’m asked for my business card I always answer with the same question, ‘What were you thinking?’ It forces an answer and reveals their hand.

Further Reading: How to Get Commissions Quickly

Commissions can be discussed there and then and if it’s an inquiry to buy a print, I urge them to quickly look through the portfolio ‘in real life’ before they go.

In both cases, I take my time to find a business card and this allows me time to talk while they browse. It’s amazing how many sales result as soon as they see a print they really like. Impulse wins.

It’s important to stress that I never lie. I won’t claim to have one last print if in truth I still have three. I will, however, state that I have ONLY three prints remaining and suggest that there’s every chance I’ll sell out. Fear of loss is a powerful emotion.

You can roughly divide people into 3 groups;

  1. Those who will never buy
  2. Those who want to buy
  3. Those who might buy

It’s the third group you need to convince. All your rhetorical skills and powers of persuasion should be directed towards the waverers. Winning them over is the difference between going home with a healthy profit and wondering why you bother.

The psychology of selling is a big subject but if you take away any tip from this article it’s this, ‘people who walk away empty-handed seldom return’. It doesn’t matter how sincere and well-intentioned they are, if they are not one of your raving fans, it’s a lost sale.

Do everything you can to entice the public to BUY NOW. When it comes to selling face-to-face, a bird in the hand is definitely worth two in the bush.

And Finally, Work your Butt Off!

artist at work sign

Last but not least, are you a worker or a dreamer? How’s your work ethic?

Your mindset will make or break your business. Art doesn’t sell itself, you must work at it.

It’s tough, but business is tough. Why should your art business be any different? If you take the plunge into self-employment there’s no wage at the end of the week. It’s an insecure life.

Ask yourself:

  • Are you self-motivated?
  • Will you work unsociable hours?
  • Can you cope with rejection?
  • Handle the public?
  • Are you able to compromise?

If the answer is yes, you have every chance of making a living and enjoying the benefits.

These include:

  • Being your own boss
  • Job satisfaction
  • Money in the bank
  • Respect from others
  • Traveling the world

It really is all possible. If you have ever dreamed of doing something similar, it’s never been easier and cheaper to give it go. Don’t keep putting things off. You know, deep down, that tomorrow never comes. If you’re not careful, you could end up looking back and wondering why you didn’t even try.

Conclusion

In this article, I have given you a good insight into making a living as a wildlife artist. It’s a comprehensive overview that will point you in the right direction at the very start of your journey.

There’s far more to know and I have many more tips to help you. I’m happy to share my knowledge with you. You’ll benefit from all the experience I’ve gained over all these years.

I can’t teach you how to be rich and famous, that’s all BS, but I can teach you how to make a living doing something you love. Tell me that’s not rich enough.

Who knows, this time next year you could be giving up the drudgery of a crummy day job and be selling your own wildlife art for a living.

Here’s to your many adventures to come.


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how to make a living as a wildlife artist. A rhino drawing with pencilsn for pinterest

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