Monday, October 8, 2012

Born with a Passion for Art - Artist Ronnie Walter



This has been a pretty introspective week; a lot of ideas and thoughts that I've been having over the last several weeks started coming together in unexpected ways. It's all been very good, though a bit overwhelming as I begin to ponder the implications of the possibilities they present as well as the amount of work it will take to achieve them.

Like I said, all good, but time to roll up my sleeves! 

This week, I'd like to present the very pleasant Ronnie Walter of Two Town Studios, Inc., and hear about her adventure as a licensing artist.

Artist Ronnie Walter
The Moon From My Attic: Please introduce yourself - I'm Ronnie Walter, an artist and writer and, along with my husband Jim Marcotte, one of the owners of Two Town Studios, Inc. which is an art licensing agency. A long time ago I went to art school, earned a fine arts degree and then had approximately 9000 bad jobs before I started licensing my artwork.

TMFMA: What brought you to art in the first place? I've always been an artist, it just took me a while to actually make a living at it. I was one of those kids who couldn't NOT draw, I always thought it was one of the most fun things to do. Ever. I was the obsessive margin doodler and the kid who drew things for other kids. My first art director was Michael Rose, another fifth grader who walked up to me in class and demanded that I "draw a leg on this girl." I did it, of course, and that set me up for drawing pretty much anything anybody wanted me to do including the Monkee's logo, cute kitties and race cars. I never questioned that an artist was what I wanted to be when I grew up, so I just kept at it until someone eventually paid me for doing it.

What's exciting about your creative work? I pretty much love all of it but I think the idea generation and early art process is my favorite time - when everything is still possible. I am very much about the content and concept, so for me nailing what I'm trying to say comes before any paint hits paper. Most of what I have been doing lately starts with the writing and I really enjoy sitting down with a big old mug of tea and a notebook and working through what I'm trying to communicate.

What's your favorite medium/tools to create with? If I do handwork, I use gouache as a transparent medium, using a Rotring pen for my line work. In the past few years, I've been creating more of my work directly on the computer and I use a Wacom tablet and a program called SketchbookPro that mimics my watercolor and line look pretty well. Also, I can work in layers so changes are way easier than on paper! I also use Photoshop to manipulate images and build my collections but I am far from being an expert. I have joked that if Photoshop was a $10 bill, I'd know about 35 cents, but so far it's working for me. I have become very good at watching tutorials on YouTube and Googling problems. I do become a teeny bit better at it daily. It's definitely a process.

Who or what has inspired you in your art? As a child, I adored Charles Schultz and I have always enjoyed studying how he portrayed so many emotions with such simple drawings. I love to see the drawings and sketchbooks of the great illustrators. On an emotional level, I am inspired by the notion that one of my main jobs is to help people communicate; to say the things that might be hard in a conversation. That keeps me motivated to find new ways to say something meaningful, whether it's through the sentiment, humor or the graphics.

How long have you been licensing your art? What do like about it? I signed my first license in 1994, near the beginning of art licensing as we know it now. There were certainly other people that were doing it by then, but the most successful artists at that time were well-known for other things like stationery and greeting cards. Mary Engelbreit, Suzy's Zoo and Debbie Mumm were the leaders of the pack at that time, but more and more artists who were not that well known were starting to license their art onto products. It was (and still is) an exciting time in the industry. I really enjoy working this way, particularly the collaborative nature of the deals and for the most part, the people I work with are clever, creative and motivated people.

What brought you to exhibit for the first time? I exhibited for the first time at the Licensing Show (now the Licensing Expo) in New York in 1996. I shared a booth with my pal and awesome artist Cathy Heck. It was a great experience and I did manage to get a few deals out of the show. I didn't exhibit again until 2000 after Jim and I had started Two Town Studios. We have exhibited at Surtex every year since then except for one, and most years at the Licensing Expo, now in Las Vegas. I believe in the shows for the most part. We have three days of meetings, lots of laughs with our friends and clients, and generally leave stimulated and ready for the next cycle of creativity. But of course it's a huge expense and an artist needs to understand that it could be years until you see the payoff in terms of contracts and royalties – sometimes that's a tough sell to your significant other!

Do you work with an agent or represent yourself? For the first 7 years I was representing myself and then Jim and I decided to start our own agency in 2000. Some of the artists who worked for me when I was an art director had been asking me to represent them, but I really didn't want to do it all myself. When I met Jim he was in the process of selling his business and representing other artists seemed like it could be a great use of both of our talents. It turned out we were right! We have a good mix of skills and we enjoy each other's company—a very important quality when you work with your husband! We both have sales backgrounds and we share the client and artist communication. Jim also negotiates the contracts, manages the royalties and handles much of the other administrative side of the business, which leaves me time to develop my own creative concepts.

What is your view of what an ideal agent should be? Obviously, an agent needs to have a well developed understanding of the marketplace, a good creative eye, needs to know and be able to get along with a lot of different personalities. Although we are not in the training business, I feel part of the role of an agent is help an artist develop their look and message for our audience of manufacturers. My experience as an artist has helped with that as I can look at a concept in the early stages and help the artist develop it into a workable collection. We tend to have a bit of back and forth with the artists we represent but I know not all agencies do that. This is one of the reasons we keep a fairly tight roster of artists.

How does one go about getting licensing deals? There are many ways to skin that cat! Paths to success can range from exhibiting at shows, answering calls for design, sending appropriate images to selected manufacturers, developing mailers, and some very successful artists have even been discovered on Etsy. Most artists I know use a combination of these activities, depending on the time of year and what they have to offer. No matter which way you choose, having compelling work, a cooperative attitude and patience are going to be the keys to success.

What do you suggest new artists do to present themselves to the world of licensing for the first time? A clear presentation of your work is most important. Look around at the competition and honestly ask yourself if your work can stand up next to theirs. Get your hands on some of the magazines that showcase artists in our market (like ArtBuyer Magazine,Total Licensing and Gifts and Dec). Explore some art licensing websites. These are expeditious ways of seeing a lot of your competition and how they work in a concise way. I believe that designs should be shown as a collection, with a title and maybe a short paragraph describing what it's about. Showing how a collection can be used is very important, even if it never turns into the products you have developed. It shows a manufacturer two things—first, you are showing them how the design can be applied to different forms and it also shows that you are "thinking product." Over the years this has become very important since in-house staffs have become smaller and not everyone can visualize how something will look on product. But be thoughtful about how you design products—the "decal approach" is not particularly effective—meaning using the same illustration and icons over and over without regard to whether or not it makes sense on the object.

What advice would you give other artists that are considering the art licensing field? First, you need to have something to say! I think the most compelling work I've seen in the market these past few years has a clear point of view and a pretty obvious message. The art needs to be well done and the presentation clear. Our clients make decisions on what art they want to consider very quickly and your work needs to engage them just as quickly. On the other hand, decisions on what they actually want to PRODUCE can take an excruciatingly long time! The other advice I would give is to have another way to make a living while you are heading down this road (a super rich relative would be nice, but they are very hard to come by!). Jim and I have always joked that this is a "Get Rich Slow" scheme and you need to be looking at it in the long view. Also, the world has changed a lot in the past few years. Products do not stay on the market as long as they used to, sku counts are way down, and there are many, many more artists coming into the field. So this means your efforts have to be increased, you need to continually come up with new ideas and your financial expectations may need to be "adjusted." Have I scared you yet? Oh, yeah—and whether or not you have an agent, you need to build your own audience through your website, maybe a blog and certainly with various forms of social media. Manufacturers are more likely to pay attention when you come to them with a platform of pre-qualified followers.

In your view, what was of major interest to manufacturers this year? Any trends? In the past few years we've seen growth with very concise, stand-alone message based properties. Our manufacturers are looking for both a point of view and strong art/graphics. The types of collections that we have been showcasing lately fall quickly into the "yes" or "no" category for a licensee – we're trying to stay out of the slush pile of "maybes." It's a higher risk approach but it has worked very well for us. On the other hand, seasonal art and everyday events (new baby, birthday, wedding, etc.) need to be continually refreshed. Artists need to distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack by staying fresh but still working within the categories that sell. Not an easy task. Trend-wise, I'm seeing a lot more hand drawn looks as the design pendulum swings away from the very graphic vector based art and patterns of recent years. I think the consumer is looking for products that look like an artist did it rather than a computer. That also dovetails with retro designs that harken back to the illustration looks from the sixties and seventies. Hand drawn and chalkboard type is also very strong right now.

Any other useful information that you'd like to share about art licensing? To be successful you need to be in this for the long haul, and over that long haul you need to keep showing up with new ideas and new designs. I believe that dreams do come true, but only if they are backed up with hard work, the willingness to adapt to our changing markets and an open mind to new ideas. And if it's not any fun, then you're in the wrong business!

Ronnie's contact info:
facebook: Ronnie Walter Writes and Draws
twitter: @myfriendronnie
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