The Art of Design and Selling Art

I’d decided to combine two things today. One is the wrap-up to the design concepts I’ve been presenting the last couple of weeks, and the other is a how-to and review of what I’m doing to market my own graphic designs right now.

Firstly, there were three brave volunteers that sent me ‘homework’ from last week. I’ll ask in the comments that you keep it respectful, and if you want to share a link to your efforts go ahead but expect critique.

Wine of the Gods Series Postcard
Pam made a comment in her email that her covers are too dark. I don’t think that’s the case here. But I do think that text on the face isn’t a good idea. I’d suggest backing the horse a step, so there is more room in front of the horse’s face, and putting text there. Also, Pam, you want to consider that this is not a YA series, having a child as the face of it may give the wrong impression. I personally loved the Black Goats but…
This is the back of Kevin Cheek’s postcard. My problem is with the legibility of the font here. You can us more than one font in a design, and in this case I would do a simple font for the text excerpt, maybe georgia or calibri (or whatever you set for the interior of your book).
And this is the front of the card. In contrast to the back, this is open, low signal-to-noise ratio, and to me, punchy. The only thing I would add would be a tiny url under ‘begins here’ for the people who don’t want to use a smartphone and scan the QR code, although since you do have it on the back that’s probably enough. But as a mnemonic which is the basis of a logo, this is great for imagery.
Ney-Grimm Postcard
Another single-sided postcard, this one also takes advantage of a limited color pallet which can be very effective. There are only a couple of things I’d change on it, and one is , I suspect, already set in stone. But the other is an easy fix, which is to add a url for the book, whether to an author’s website or directly to Amazon. She chose not to use a QR code, which is fine, as those are mostly aimed at people who either don’t want to carry the card around (I’ve had people pick my card up, scan it, and put it back down) or who want to buy the book on the spot (which is great!).


Moving on to the next topic:

Selling Art

I know there are not a lot of us who are working at art and writing. I probably wouldn’t have gotten into it, the art is sort of my sanity valve when school gets intense, except… I kept getting asked to sell pieces, print, coffee mugs (looks hard at a certain person). So I started looking into how to sell pieces without too much effort on my part. I’m frankly too busy (or too lazy, take your pick) to try and get out and do physical shows with my artwork. So it had to be online-only. Ebay is right out, I’ve always thought of it as an online flea market and these days, a chancy way to buy anything. And I’ve had an Etsy shop (actually more than one) in the past, but that’s a whole lot of work to set up properly and keep it going, not to mention listing fees and FREE always sounds better anyway.

So. I have a DeviantArt account and use it, including setting up to sell prints and files through it, but after a negative comment on the quality of a print, I knew I had to look elsewhere. My first thought was to look at buying a printer to create giclee prints, because having them done as one-offs by a printer was going to put the price through the roof. This is doable for less than two hundred dollars initial cost, the printer can handle up to 13×19″ prints, and I may still do this down the road, but it was still a chunk of money that I wasn’t sure would pay off since I’m not doing shows (see above, lazy, busy… but if you’re interested, read James Young’s excellent posts on the topic).

And the coffee mug, well, that one was a stumper. I looked at what it would cost to have a run printed, and I thought about what I would do with 72 mugs that might never sell, evn though they would be affordable to my customers that way. And it would limit me to one design. Hrmph… Ok, CafePress or Zazzle?

I set up a CafePress shop. It’s pretty plain jane, but it is free to set up for the artist, and it does give you a fairly large audience (in theory) of people who actually shop the Cafepress shop. But their algorithms push best selling items to the top (as they should) and unless you’re selling a lot, you make 5%. Take a look at CafePress pricing sometime, and keep in mind the artist doesn’t get much of that… it’s as bad as traditional publishing.

Fortunately, you aren’t locked into selling with them, because I was able to find the ideal solution for me with WooCommerce and Printful. Printful, to tie it to the industry most of us are familiar with, is like Createspace. They are a POD company but rather than books, you can use them to order tee shirts, mugs (aha!), prints, and other things I haven’t even considered like ballcaps and leggings. The best things for me are that I can tie them right into my website, since they use my woocommerce portal, and they are free to the artist during set-up.

Here’s how it works. You sign up with Printful, setting up an API code to link your WooCommerce store with them, and then you can upload print-ready files. They are very good about making sure that you know if there is a problem, as in uploading a file that will not print cleanly. I have had good reviews from the folks who ordered tee shirts through them, and I have seen myself that their quality is high. But it all depends on that original file, so be sure you understand how to do that before proceeding.

Once you have a file (or more) uploaded, you will be able to create ‘mock-ups’ where your image is superimposed on the item you want to sell. You can do this yourself, but so far I’ve let Printful handle it, and most of the time it looks great (prints that are landscape orientation is the primary exception to this).

Here's a few things from my shop, on Printful mock-ups.
Here’s a few things from my shop, on Printful mock-ups.

Once you’re happy with the positioning and size of your art, you can turn your attention to the fun part, at least for me. Picking colors. While the mugs and posters come in one color, the tee shirts are available in many colors, shapes, and sizes. I’ve had a lot of fun with that. So much better than the standard geeky tee color: black and more black. If you’re lucky, grey.

Moving on…

Setting pricing is fairly easy. You will be paying Printful when an order comes in, for the printing, product, and shipping. On top of that is your profit, and you get to pick your amount, although you will want to keep paypal fees and taxes in mind, so don’t set it too low. I usually tweak mine to be in the ‘makes a little money’ and ‘customer can afford this’ range. Once you’re done, you can either sync with your shop, or order a proof. Yes, you can order proofs to see what their work looks like – Cafepress doesn’t offer this option, and I’ve been very happy with it from Printful. It let me see their quality in person, and they offer a discount to artists who are doing this, so you won’t break the bank to handle the goods. This isn’t a way to get a lot of stuff to sell at a show – they cap how many and how often you can order.

And that’s pretty much it. When the customer orders an item from your stop, the order goes to Printful, the item is printed, packed, and shipped from their facility (it’s in California). You don’t have to pack it up, run to the post office, and worry about a thing. It’s done.

And so am I on this post. I’ll be around for comments, though, and happy to answer questions.

25 thoughts on “The Art of Design and Selling Art

  1. There’s also Spreadshirt, where you can set your own commission level… which probably explains why products there are generally more expensive than on CafePress. But likely more profitable if you’re offering something unique to yourself.

    1. I can tell you that Printful let’s me set how much I want to make – and they wind up a little higher than Cafepress, but not much. For me the real selling point is that it all publishes neatly on my WooCommerce shop on my website. Also, if I choose in the future I can propagate my products to Amazon, but that’s a monthly fee so I’m still weighing the cost vs benefit.

  2. I am sure I am going to make some huge grammar or spelling or logic error, but “low signal-to-noise ratio” bothered me. I think you mean “high signal-to-noise ratio” or “low noise design.”

    And while I don’t know ‘Wine of the Gods’ from reading it (yet) and agree that the text shouldn’t cover the image, at least as it does, it did get me to try to click on the image to see if I’d get a link to somewhere. I believe that is called ‘success’.

    1. The ratio is low if there is more signal than noise. Yes, it’s a bit counterintuitive.

      And LOL – yes, this is called success. I hadn’t put links in to their books, but I suppose I could do that. Seems fair after public critique 🙂

      1. Signal:Noise or s/n, so if you want signal higher is better. Low is signal “buried in the noise” and if you’ve listened to shortwave (or even AM broadcast) you know that one all too well.

  3. I would remark that I along with an estimated 10% of men suffer from male pattern partial color blindness. Red on black or black on red is somewhat difficult for such as we to distinguish, and I found that to be the case in the first and last of the covers.

    1. A designer (also male) told me that the black and red combo was difficult for people in general, and is considered a design no-no. I had used that combo as a placeholder for where I was putting the logo on my spine; it served as a visual “lorem ipsum”. I believe book designer Joel Friedlander advises against that particular combo as well, whenever he comes across it in his monthly cover design awards, which are very educational. I love what JM and Kevin did here. Very inspiring.

      For color combos, I recommend using sites such as (No “M” at the end; also I am not affiliated with them) to test color text against color backgrounds. If you go to that site, they use contrast ratios that are dependent on whether you’re using large “title” text or smaller, lengthier text such as the description on a book cover, and whether you’re using serif fonts (Goudy Old Style) vs. sans-serif (Helvetica). I otherwise use the general color wheel guidelines.

      I work on the web where we have to incorporate accessibility. Tools like these speed up design for those of us who are not visually oriented.

    2. I got my degree in broadcast studies (long story short: cool equipment, fast major because I had limited scholarship time left after switching, and if I’d realized how close I was to a Philosophy minor I would have gotten one, because Jesuits are hardcore philosophers and it is not for the weak.) One of the things that TV studios used to have is B&W televisions everywhere, because *you need to be able to see how it looks in black & white*. Mind you, this used to be because B&W televisions were still around, but I think it’s a highly useful trick for any graphic designer.

      Slap a B&W filter layer on top of your design. If you have trouble understanding it, FIX THAT.

  4. Another thing – if you have cover art already and you’re struggling to figure out what harmonious color to make your title and byline, the following may help you. I have Photoshop, but I’m assuming this can be adapted for those of you using Gimp, etc.

    Let us suppose your cover art has a predominant color – green grass, stormy blue ocean, red autumn leaves, whatever:

    Select the eyedropper tool and click on the portion of the art that has the color you want to match. The color will show up in the “color picker,” which are the two little boxes at the bottom of the Tools dock in Photoshop; it has one box atop the second box. Click on the picker and you can get the CMYK values (for print), or RGB/hex for web. Hex values are simplest to copy/paste so that’s what I grab.

    You can take that value to sites like the one I mentioned and they’ll give you a palette to choose from to make the most harmonious choice.

    I hope this helps.

      1. I would also suggest several shades lighter or darker, to increase the contrast level. (Pale yellow on solid purple, for example, or dark green on a moderate pink.)

  5. Thanks for the feed-back. Thank you for the link – that was unexpected and greatly appreciated.. The back of my card looks busier than I thought. I agree with using a plain font for text, especially blocks of text as is seen here, and will have to remember that one not only for covers but for projects at work.

    I’m also wondering if I should have went with a dark textured background instead of a winter night sky, maybe fading from black to dark blue in not quite a photographer’s backdrop motif. Was going for a dark, mysterious/fantasy feeling, and never quite liked the choice here, which might be a better fit with horror. White text might have worked with a black to dark blue background.

    On the QR, I downloaded a free reader to make sure the image worked, and discovered that while it could decode a dark on light QR, it choked on a light on dark. That’s why the QR on the back is black on yellow. Maybe it was a quirk of the QR reader, but didn’t want to take that chance.

    1. I agree that it signals horror, but didn’t know what your genre was. Good thing to consider moving forward. Hopefully I was helpful. I know I usually run designs by people before I set them in stone – we all want a little objective input at these times.

  6. Thanks for the feedback, Cedar. I’m curious what the other change that you would suggest might be. Even if it is set in stone for this project, I can always learn for the next one. 😀

  7. Bless you for doing this research. I’ve used a Café Press shop to make one- (or very-small-run) -offs and have pretty much let my account lapse since the cost was too high for the quality of product.

    This appears to be the perfect alternative. Thank you so much.

  8. For Pam’s, one obvious choice is just horizontally flip the horse and boy. But there’s something “pushy” about having the horse facing against the left-to-right reading line. I prefer the “move the text” solution, too.

    It does seem a bit mild and young-adult-ish for the series content. There are a lot of kids in the stories, though. Perhaps a slightly older boy with a sword belted on? Enough to signal “some violence” without losing the youth? Wine of the Gods has become a bit epic to be summed up in one picture. I don’t think there is a right answer. My choice: Reverse the color scheme and use the God of War on Jet (black horse needs a lighter background) as the picture – but that’s not an accurate summation, either.

    The front of Kevin’s looks amazing. No idea about story content, not having read them, but the mood of the front and back is very different. I’m interested in the green eyes; not so much in the dark, scary series (no idea if that’s an accurate perception, but it’s my perception).

    Very much “not likez” the title font of Winter Glory; way too hard to read. The text font is a nice medium; has the same feel as the title font, but much more readable. I like the illustration, but does it scale down?

    Critique is easy. Getting from “picture in head” to “picture on paper” is almost impossible for me. Not ever being able to get Christmas cards out on time, we send Groundhog’s Day cards, which are always a silly Photoshop of us or our cats. I’ve learned I do not have the skills or the patience required to create something good.

    If I ever finish writing it, I’m going to sketch my idea for a cover and let a pro do the work. At least I have some idea what I want. I don’t imagine “read this book and make something up” is the best way to make friends in the art world.

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