Art Licensing: An essential guide

Art licensing is the most passive way to earn money from your art.

I like to refer to art licensing as the “secret world of art licensing”.

Mainly, most artists don't either know about this great way to earn from their art or think it even applies to the kind of art they make. In fact,

For most artists, it’s easy to think the only way to earn money is as a freelance artist getting paid through illustration jobs.

Art licensing is the most mysterious way to earn from your art.

What is art licensing?

Art licensing is where you let companies and brands use images of your work on their products. The types of products are limitless. From t-shirts and fabrics to greeting cards and puzzles.

In other words, art licensing is where you rent out the use of your copyright.

Here are a few out of this world examples of art licensing:

But these artists are the tip of the iceberg.

Alternatively, there are thousands of other artists out there who are quietly making 6 figures in art licensing. Most of them are artists you have never heard of.

At first, I started integrating licensing into all of my illustration commissions. Negotiating “usage rights” on top of creating a commission. These usage rights clearly identify how the company who hired me can use the image I created for them, for how long, and the cost of this.

For the longest time, I only pursued licensing from this perspective. Where I was integrating it into my business AFTER getting hired for a commission.

What kind of art is a good fit for art licensing?

Art licensing works for any kind of art.

From landscape painting to drawings of skulls to more abstract work to character-based illustration. There are no restrictions on art licensing.

Your art licensing foundation

First, set your standards. When you're licensing your art it means it's going to exist on products out in the world.

Bill Watterson is the creator of the wildly successful comic strip Calvin and Hobbes.

Despite his massive success, he has always refused to license the use of his characters on anything other than the comic itself. Which is why you can only buy book collections and prints of his comics.

It’s been projected that if he were to license his character in the way say, Garfield has, it would be a $400 million success. But he feels it would ruin the relationship his readers have with his character. This is the standard he set based on his love of the art of comics.

I encourage you to really think about what brands and products align with your standards – and stick with them.

What is the art licensing process?

Here’s what the art licensing looks like behind-the-scenes:

  1. Research. Your research and keep an eye out for companies and brands you would like to license your work with.
  2. Contact. Contact these brands with a hand-crafted introductory email. The only goal of this email is to see if they’re interested in your work and licensing in general.
  3. Meeting. If they’re interested then you can start qualifying them to see if you’re a good fit for each other. In other words, do they have a budget and agree with the basic terms of working with you.
  4. Make a deal. Clearly identify how long a company can use your image and in what context.
  5. Getting paid. As a baseline here's what I recommend when it comes to money and licensing to start. Always get an advance ($2K – 6K) upfront plus a royalty of sales (3-15%). This royalty depends on the size of the company and how many products your work is going to be on. Usually the more products the less your percentage.

Getting paid in an art licensing deal

There are two main parts to getting paid in an art licensing deal. Getting the initial advance and then getting the royalty payments.

Getting an advance 

The first payment you should receive in your art licensing deal is called an advance.

An advance is like a down payment for the rights to use particular copyright of an image. An advance can also be for your time to prepare and create digital templates and files for the use of the image.

And advance should range from $2-6K. This depends on whether or not you’re creating new work or how much time is required on your part to organize and deliver a specific print file required by the company.

Always require an advance because there’s no guarantee of how much of the product the company is going to sell or what will happen after you deliver your work.

With advances, they’re typically paid back. Meaning, you won’t see any royalties until the company earns back what they paid you in your advance. Once they earn back their advance, then you’ll start getting royalty checks.

You can negotiate to get your royalty check monthly or quarterly. Once again, it’s your business and it’s up to you.

Royalties

Royalties depend on the scale of the project and the size of the company you’re working for. Typically, the larger the company the lower your royalty. The smaller the company the higher. Royalties can range from 3-15%.

Art licensing and legal things to think about

Never agree to a “work-for-hire” agreement or ANY language that sounds like you’re giving up your copyright. Your copyright is the lifeblood of the licensing branch of your business.

Usage rights

When you're licensing your work, you’re renting out the use of the copyright of a specific image. For your image to be used in a specific way for a specific amount of time. And this needs to be worded clearly in your contract.

Here’s an example:

“2 years of exclusive, non-transferable and non-assignable use of the artwork for the purpose of one t-shirt design.”

If this isn’t clear, then the company might use your work on many different products and advertising campaigns. Then your compensation won't match how they're benefiting from your work.

This also means you can’t license this image for the use of a t-shirt with another company. But you CAN license this same image to another company on any other product.

Get credit

Credit is more valuable than anything.

Always require your name and/or logo to be printed with your image on the product.

Establishing your copyright

Every few months copyright images you intend on selling with the US Copyright Office online. You can easily set-up an account with them here.

Common questions about art licensing

“Is art licensing right for my style of art?”

Yes, no matter your style or subject matter, you can license your art. From still life, burning skulls, flowers, fluffy paintings of cottages, abstracts, graffiti, character illustrations, anything.

But your experiences and interests matter just as much s your style.

Let’s say there are two abstract artists who make the same kind of work. One has an interest in surfing while the other is 100% completely in love with New York, the city they live in.

They’re both going to be attracted to partnering with completely different brands and companies based on their individual interests.

As you set out to approach potential art licensing partners you have to keep your interests in mind.

This brings me to the second most asked question:

Organizing your art licensing portfolio

Your art licensing portfolio is your “product”.

It’s what you’re going to be selling to brands and companies. The way you organize your work will depend on your style and way of working.

If you’re more of a fine artist you have two ways you can organize your portfolio. By focusing on just your style or organizing your work based on the subject matter in collections.

I personally like showcasing a group of 12-21 images that show my explorations of a style. All of my work sticks to a common theme and subject so I really don’t need collections just yet.

But if your work explores different subject matters – and you have 12-21 images of each subject matter – then organize your work into collections. This way when you're reaching out to future licensing partners, you can send them to the most relevant collection page on your website.

LeRoy Niemann does a great job of this on his site.

Check out the LeRoy Niemann collections

“I’ve got recurring characters in my work, how does this change my approach to licensing?”

Characters can be even more fun to organize on your site. In the realm of licensing, it helps to showcase the world around each character. Give the character more depth than just a visual design.

Here a few great examples of how you can organize your characters on your website:

Calvin and Hobbes characters

Paul Frank characters

Peanuts characters

“I created different stories and think of them as their own worlds, now what?”

Maybe you have a successful series of kid's books. Maybe you have different worlds you've created in the form of comics. Then you can start thinking of your work in the realm of franchises.

Disney realized parents think in terms of their kids wanting “Frozen” or “Monsters Inc.” – not so many individual characters. So they’ve organized their licensing empire into their own individual own franchises.

At a smaller scale, artists like Jamie Hewlett created different brands and franchises for his creations.

Being clear and organized

Organizing by style, themes, subject matter, characters, and worlds – there are many different approaches for getting your work presented in a clear and logical way. Each depending on your work.

Your number one goal should be to present your work in a clear and organized way.

If a complete stranger were to go to your site would they understand your work?

When you start reaching out to future licensing partners it may be the first time they've ever heard of you and seen your work. So do what you can to make your work make sense to them. This way they can see the connection between your work and their products.

Key points about art licensing

  • Your images have a lot of selling power. The only reason brands are able to manufacture and sell products because they have your awesome images on them.
  • You're the expert in making your work, coming up with ideas, and making them look great. So as long as a company or brand is profiting off of your images, so should you.
  • You determine your prices and what's required of who you're partnering with so you feel great working with them at the end of the day.

Final thoughts about art licensing

This is just a quick overview of art licensing. My aim is to get you thinking about how you can inject art licensing into business in art so you can pivot and become a career artist. No, you don't have to become a starving artist.

Think about it, it’s hard enough to make prints and manage an inventory of original art.

Alternatively, think of the amount of time you would lose if you start making different products. Products such as t-shirts, greeting cards, puzzles, etc. You’ll be spending more of your time managing inventory, shipping orders, returns, quality control, and manufacturing.

You'll be left with zero time for making art.

Art licensing lets you focus on what you do best, make art.

While it lets your clients do what they do best, manufacture and sell goods.

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