Is there any image more romantic than being a traveling artist? When I first set off I traveled with a full set of art supplies and made money along the way. I had to, I was broke So how did I do it, and how can you sell your art and travel the world too?
Sit down in busy places like hostels, cafes, or shopping streets and draw or paint in full view of passers-by. Ideally ‘finish’ an existing project. Have plenty of work with you available for sale and engage in conversation. In the developing world concentrate your efforts on selling to fellow tourists. Make small, light work that can be transported home easily.
This is how I did it in more detail.
(I get commissions for purchases made through links in this post. However, I only promote products I like and recommend)
Selling Art and Traveling
How did we all cope before the internet? In many ways, it was far better. No pre-booking, just getting on a bus and looking for a guest house. No research, no planning, just spontaneity, and a dream.
In the 1980s my first ‘adventure’ was to fly to America with a portfolio of paintings to sell my art to galleries. I just turned up uninvited and unannounced and I sold the lot!
That was followed by taking commissions from ex-pats in Egypt, selling wildlife art on the beaches of Kenya, and drawing youth hostels in NZ and Australia.
My aim was to subsidize my trips, indeed I was so poor, that it effectively paid for my trips. I journeyed through East Africa with only £300 ($400) in my pocket. Even in the 80s that was nothing.
Yes, the modern world means you can blog your way around the world, pre-book everything and never really leave home. Much of the adventure has gone.
But there is nothing like being with real people and selling your art in person and this is how I became a traveling artist.
I started by flying to America.
Selling Art in America: My First Attempt at World Travel
My idea was simple. I’d buy a one-way ticket to Miami, sell my portfolio, make loads of lolly and take America by storm.
Sometimes naivety is your best friend.
It was only as I sat there on the plane, questioning my sanity, that I began to consider the wisdom of my idea. I had hardly any money, no ticket home, and most of my paintings were of British landscapes!
What could possibly go wrong?
I wouldn’t get past immigration these days, but luckily things were more relaxed back in the 80s and I was allowed in.
I landed in Miami and headed for Fort Lauderdale with a portfolio, one set of ‘smart’ clothes, and an English accent on my side. Luckily Americans seem to think Brits are posher and brainier than we really are, so all I had to do was talk ‘proper-like’ and I was in.
I sold 6 landscapes in Fort Lauderdale and buoyed with success I headed for Palm Beach. If there was a lot of money in Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach was in another league, even the fire hydrants were chrome plated.
The galleries were far grander with incredible works of art, but even here I managed to sell a drawing. It was a quick sketch I’d knocked up as a portfolio filler and I still remember the price, $150. Not bad in 1987. Looking back, I was brazen just walking in with a portfolio.
Back in Miami and flush with some extra cash, I met a guy who told me about a discounted flight to Yucatan in Mexico, and off we went. I had no intention of backpacking as such, but what the hell?
I traveled down to Belize, through Guatemala and up the west coast of Mexico, and re-entered the United States in California.
I’d lugged my portfolio around with me all that time, and now I had to sell some more paintings or I couldn’t get home.
I had no luck in Los Angeles, but I heard about a town up north called Carmel which was rich and full of galleries. It was worth a try and off I went.
I arrived with my remaining paintings having traveled with them by public transport through Latin America. I laid them out in the first gallery I visited.
I had a small portfolio of British landscapes, absolutely nothing to do with N. America, certainly not the Pacific Northwest. How could I think that it was a good idea?
I sold the lot. WooHoo!
With that cash, I made my way back across the States to New York City and home.
Selling Art to Expats in Egypt: Travel in the Developing World
I went to America to sell my art and it opened my eyes to travel. All I could think about was getting away again.
I got a temporary job and some quick money and went to stay with a mate who was teaching English in Cairo.
I took my art equipment and found a market doing commissions and selling my art to ex-pats. Even in the developing world, there is money if you look in the right places.
I realized that ex-pats are often paid western wages, but living for peanuts They have money to burn. That was an eye-opener.
My mind kept ticking over with possibilities and when I returned to England I saved up for a one-way ticket to Kenya.
Selling Art to Tourists in Kenya: Real Adventure Travel
In the 80s they called Nairobi, ‘Nairobbery’ and I discovered why soon enough. I was mugged on my first day. It’s a long story but the mugger got caught and banged to rights, and far from putting me off, I was on a high. This was a real adventure.
I had £300 in my pocket, a box of 200 pastels, and no ticket home, but first things first, I’d hitch into Meru National Park.
As I sat atop Leopard Rock overlooking the ramshackle chalets, now a luxury lodge, I had to pinch myself that I was really looking out over the wild African bush. It was a dream come true. Unfortunately, I’d already been ticked off for hitching into the park, now I was told off for climbing Leopard Rock too. Apparently, the clue was in the name.. OOOPS.
Never mind all that, this was what I’d always dreamed about and for a fiver a night I was as happy as Larry.
My style is super realistic but don’t think this is what I did while traveling. My style was much less detailed. Take a look at this Domestika class by Lapin for inspiration.
To fund my travels further I had to head for the beach to make some money. I took the sleeper train to Mombasa and went south to Diani Beach and on to a campsite/hostel owned by an old colonial called Dan Trench.
He was a miserable old man and the only time I saw him laugh was when I lost my moneybelt down the long-drop toilet. He walked off chuckling away, and returned with a fishing rod!
I got it back thank goodness.
I settled in and stayed 2 months painting wildlife from postcards (my own camera was crap).
I’d paint 90% of the picture beforehand and finish it off in the neighboring hotel cafe and wait for curious tourists to come over for a look. It worked a treat.
I had a distinct advantage over the local hawkers selling their wares on the beach, as a tourist I wasn’t considered a hawker, but that’s what I was if you think about it.
I sold enough paintings to fund a trip to Uganda.
I’m so glad I saw Africa at that time. Without regaling you with endless travel tales, it was still ‘old’ Africa in many ways and I saw glimpses of a world that has all but disappeared.
Is being a digital nomad the way to go?
- Is Selling Art Online Worth It? Can You Make Money?
- Is Print on Demand Worth it? The Pros and Cons of a POD Business
- Is Selling on Etsy Worth it? Pros and Cons for Artists and Crafters
Selling Art to Locals in New Zealand: So Friendly
After a 2nd African visit, I turned my attention to Australia and New Zealand.
I learned some lessons from my African trips, not the least of which was the importance of traveling light, and the limited availability of art and craft supplies. You can’t buy your favorite supplies everywhere.
I decided to take only basic drawing materials with me and try to get some commissions along the way. The plane ticket cost a fortune so somehow I had to eke out my spending money.
I began my trip in New Zealand and ended up in a small town up north called Russell. It was situated in the Bay of Islands and I stumbled upon a wonderful little hostel run by a friendly ex-pat alcoholic.
I hadn’t planned on staying more than a few days but, as it turned out, I stayed for 3 weeks.
I decided to sit down and draw the hostel, in pen and ink, and hoped that someone might like to buy it as a souvenir. That’s when I found out that the owner had a love of art and had been an art student in his youth.
He loved it and I traded the drawing for one week’s accommodation.
He loved my drawing and I traded it for one week’s accommodation. He asked me to draw the view from the other side of the building and traded me for another week.
The owner was well known in the local community and he took the picture down the pub to show his mates. He returned with a bunch of commissions!
I could’ve stayed longer, but I was young and restless, and now I knew how to make some extra money.
Everywhere I stayed I sat down and drew the hostel. If the owner wasn’t interested, a backpacker would be sure to buy it. Plus I supplemented my income with a few portraits and local views.
Useful Budget Travel Sites:
I’d already learned that ex-pats have plenty of spare cash, but now I learned that the backpacker world is a captive market, and far from being broke (like me), many backpackers are minted. I left New Zealand with the same amount of cash in my pocket as when I arrived.
Don’t forget that you can sell sketches along the way that you do for fun. Check out Alicia Aradilla on Domestika (English subtitles)
Selling Art in Australia and the Backpacker Scene
Australia was more difficult. The country is bigger and brasher and not so easy to navigate without a car.
I landed in Sydney and hit on the idea of approaching the Youth Hostel Association to see if they needed any illustrations of their hostels. As luck would have it, they did.
They had half a dozen premises that looked too ugly in photographs, and drawings would be much better. They paid me a fixed sum per drawing with travel expenses. WooHoo.
I got to see some backcountry I wouldn’t have seen otherwise and it kickstarted my hop along the coast.
I followed the same formula that worked so well in NZ and hitched all the way (bar one bus) to Darwin.
One of my proudest moments was being offered a ride by some other tourists and we started to talk about working in Oz. They then brought up a story they’d heard about a guy who was traveling around Oz drawing hostels. They were talking about me!
Selling Art and Traveling the New Way
Those trips were over 30 years ago, long before the internet. How the world has changed. Now I’m one of those old guys who have to bite their lip before saying ‘You should’ve been here 20 years ago’. The truth is, the old timers were saying that when I was young, such has been the rapid speed of change in this world.
Now the world has shrunk and the digital world has expanded. Everyone wants to be a digital nomad these days and the romantic dream of remote working on a tropical beach is alive and well. What’s more, it’s attainable.
There are still plenty of beautiful places, where the cost of living is cheap and the locals are friendly. I have a hang out in the north of Sumatra where I stayed for a month or two every year or did before the pandemic.
I have everything I need:
- A cheap bungalow,
- Reasonable wifi,
- Good snorkeling,
- Excellent diving,
- Friendly locals,
- Cheap food,
- Good coffee
- Some fellow Westerners
- A private balcony
- A hammock
- The village soap opera
It’s a great way to spend a few months. There are plenty of benefits, not least the tropical sun in mid-winter.
It’s only by staying in one place and mixing with the locals that you get to learn about the different cultures of the world. You don’t learn so much when you travel quickly through a place. It’s only by getting to know a lot of people locally, that you gain insights into their way of life.
It’s an eye-opener. I hang out in a deeply conservative Islamic region of Indonesia governed by Sharia law. If you misbehave the punishments are painful. Fun is frowned upon if not forbidden, the call to prayers are deafening, and women have to cover their heads in public spaces.
Yet village life goes on as it does everywhere else. They’re all shagging each other! …and you’d never know that there was a serious drug problem. Scratch the surface and it’s the same crap underneath. Cultures differ, but people are the same everywhere.
As long as you keep one step back and observe only, it’s all good fun. I’m an outsider, a paying guest and that’s the way I like it. That gives me the best of both worlds.
I can get on with my work every morning. I sit in the local cafe, order breakfast, and use their wifi. I’ll write until about 1pm and stop for lunch before snorkeling or diving in the afternoon. In between, I natter to other regulars or new guests turning up. What work-life balance could be better than that?
I’m not sure if I qualify as a digital nomad just yet, but I’m getting there.
So what’s not to like about the new lifestyle?
All is not what it seems. Being a traveling digital artist or content creator is not romantic. It’s hard graft. Most ways to make money on the web are either hard work or a fallacy. Forget passive income. If it exists at all, it’s bloody hard work, to begin with.
Taking your work with you changes everything about travel. I learned that the first time around. Taking work with you is not a holiday. How do you switch off?
I gave up being a traveling artist in the 90s because it concerned me that I was forever looking for opportunities to make money instead of enjoying the moment. I couldn’t meet people without wondering if they would want a portrait or buy my art. It got in the way. I was neither on holiday nor at work.
I opted to make money at home and travel in the winter. I separated the two experiences.
Life as a digital nomad also has the same hybrid lifestyle; for most people, it has to be a full-time job to pay the bills. You don’t have the freedom just to pack your bag and go, or visit a remote place with no signal.
It’s a business and if you coach or teach you have time zones to think about. If you are a vlogger you must write, film, and edit your videos. You will be forced to carry valuable equipment in hostile climates or in places where crime is an issue.
Artists must find time to make their art, film or write, take photos, and market themselves on social media. It all takes a great deal of time. Forget about working and traveling, you won’t be able to travel around. You’ll have to base yourself somewhere and if you choose a digital nomad hub you’ll discover that the prices get hiked.
Not only is the workload likely to be more than you think, but you’ll also have to carry around your gear, including your laptop, camera equipment, and art materials! Do you realize how heavy your bags will be?
If you are determined to give it a go, and I applaud you if you are, I suggest that you choose a way of selling your art that limits your reliance on high-tech. I suggest that you concentrate your efforts on selling digital downloads and print-on-demand services.
It’s still tricky abandoning a laptop altogether, but it can be done.
You can open an Etsy shop and sell your downloads and printables or connect it to Printful or Printify and dropship their products. Or you can open some POD accounts and use their marketplaces to sell your designs.
Read these posts for more insight:
- How to Sell Art Prints on Etsy: Mega Selling Guide
- Is Redbubble Worth it? Pros and Cons For Artists
- Sell Art on Society6 Step-by-Step (It’s FREE
You can get away with just an iPad and use it to take photos and videos, use the apps for editing, and the Procreate app to make your images and designs.
And read this: Is The Procreate App Worth it For Beginners? Get the Facts
When all is said and done, there is more to selling your art online than just posting your best work and hoping a buyer will buy it. You have to market yourself, crack the algorithms and research the best SEO practices for each site.
You will also have to have a good body of work or be prepared to create a large portfolio and make art people want to buy.
You’ll have competition from all over the world and much of it from the developing world. It’s not easy. Posting a few art pieces now and then will not be enough. You must be consistent and produce work regularly to a high standard.
Do you know what? there is something to be said for making and selling your sketches as you go. Old school.
Sell Your Art and Travel: Final Thoughts
This is only a fraction of what happened on those early trips. I continued to make art and travel extensively, especially in India.
I switched from selling art as I traveled, to selling art at home to fund my travels. A big difference, and as it turned out more financially rewarding.
This is how I make money: How Do Wildlife Artists Make a Living? Copy This and Get Started
Although traveling with very little money played a big role in my adventures, it was always hand-to-mouth and very tiring.
I realized that I would be better off earning money at home and saving up for a trip, but how? I still wanted to combine art and travel. I found the answer in New Zealand.
When I was in Russell (village) there was a small gallery situated near the jetty and he was selling prints of his drawings. I saw the tourists arrive every day and this guy was doing well.
His drawings were of NZ landmarks, they were OK, not bad, but nothing special. His ace card was adding color. He sold his B/W prints for NZ$7 and his hand-tinted prints for NZ$20 each.
All he did was sit outside his shop, at his easel, with one half-completed work on display. It was effectively a prop, used to attract customers. I don’t recall him ever painting. I later discovered that he paid art students $5 per print to color them for him.
He sold just the prints. Not even framed. It was so simple.
I returned home burning with new ideas. I could do something like that, why not? It took some years, but eventually, I got there…. but that’s another story.
If you like the way I draw and want to try things for yourself, this is my basic kit:
- Pentel Mechanical Pencils 0.3mm
- Derwent Graphic Drawing Pencils
- Daler-Rowney Heavyweight Cartridge Paper
- Jakar Battery Eraser
- Tombo Mono Eraser Pen
- Faber Castell Putty Eraser
- Blu Tack
- French Box Easel
If you dream of selling your art and traveling too, I’ll show you how to do it, in a simple practical way. This is the guide I needed 20 years ago!
Has this article given you food for thought? If so you might like to enjoy these:
- Can You Copy Art and Sell a Painting of a Painting? I Found Out
- What Kind of Art Sells Best? The Secrets Revealed
- Art Commissions – How to Get Them Quickly? (It’s Easy But Scary)
- 12 Wildlife Art Bestsellers (Use These Subjects to Make Money)
- How to Sell Your Drawings (All You Need to Know)
- How to Plan a Wildlife Photography Trip for Artists
Plus find an ONLINE COURSE that suits you.
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