Monday, October 24, 2011

"Put a Little Zip in Your Life" - Artist Sue Zipkin's Licensing Story

In the past few weeks, amongst everything else I managed to complete the rough designs for my new website – I really need it in order to present my work. So this immediately brings up a new question: how do I want to show my art on products? Mock-ups are a good way to present your art I think - I used to create what's called an "architectural design board" with sketches or illustrations, plans and samples of the suggested materials to be used, to show clients design concepts. It's a very effective way to convey a design look. I learned then that presentation is key to selling your work.

There are different ways to present a product or art piece. Some are better than others. To help with this topic and with art licensing in general, I am very pleased to host a special interview with a wonderful pro artist, Sue Zipkin, who has a fantastic art style and a big heart. Here is what she shares with us today:

Artist Sue Zipkin
"I am a mom, wife, friend, artist, designer, illustrator, cook, and sometimes...cleaner. I have been designing artwork for products for 'thousands of years' (more like 2 1/2 decades)."

The Moon from My Attic: Welcome Sue! What brought you to create art in the first place? Since I was small I have always created artwork. It was one thing that I was always very good at, and it was like second nature for me. I recall how excited I was when I had the opportunity to "make things." I grew up in a very stressful environment and my artwork was a way for me to escape. I also did not fit in, for I was unable to do things that the other kids could do, like ride a bicycle. I was also picked on by bullies. But I was able to find my own little space with my artwork. I am dyslexic and have trouble with things that involve reading and writing, but my brain was very comfortable with doing artwork.

© Sue Zipkin, outdoor garden flag collection 
and also a greeting card design
TMFMA: What's exciting about your creative work? Being able to create something that makes me happy while I'm doing it, something that I can share with the world by hopefully getting it onto products that people can buy and enjoy. I have been fortunate to be able to earn a living from my creative work so for me it is a combination of who I am, and loving what I do. I have a passion for what I do. It can be challenging but I work hard to overcome them and keep on going.

TMFMA: What's your favorite medium or tool/s you create with? My favorite medium is watercolor; I have developed a signature look using watercolors over the years although I never actually learned the proper way to use the medium. I recall I did not have any watercolor classes in art school, but we did work with gauche which is very similar. To this day I wonder what my style would have become like if I had had proper training in the medium. I scan my artwork and then sometimes play in Photoshop. Recently I have been experimenting with mixed-media, incorporating textures and words, and even cut outs of my own artwork, mixing them with acrylic paint. It has been many years since I have used my acrylic paints and I'm having a great time experimenting.

© Sue Zipkin, Hydrangea presentation 
using a very successful fabric collection 
TMFMA: Who or what has inspired you in your art? When I was really small I remember my mom showed me how to draw a side profile of a woman's face. That was amazing to me, how she could make it look so realistic as opposed to a straight-on view. She was not an artist, but was great at doing that. I was always excited when my mother brought me crafts kits. As far as what and who inspires me today, it is endless. I would have to say there are so many talented artists doing what I do and I find them all very inspiring. I am very inspired by so much historical art. I am not always the best at remembering the names and the periods, but I can look at something and know I love it. Currently one of my biggest inspirations is working from nature. There is so much beauty everywhere.

TMFMA: How long have you been doing art licensing? I have been doing art licensing for about 16 years; my situation was very unique when I started. When I graduated art school in 1983 I set out to become a fantasy illustrator. I received a few illustration jobs but it was very difficult to get work with the kind of portfolio I graduated with, it was very strange and unique, not very commercial. In those days I was very immature about the business side of things and all I wanted to do was make cool pictures. At the time my teachers said there was work available with the kind of style I did and looking back I think they didn't really try very hard to teach us about the business. It was more about creating and learning techniques. 

© Sue Zipkin, Froggin' collection 
coming to market soon;
At that time, Boris Vallejo’s style was what was selling in fantasy art, not creepy, weird, made up creatures like I created. I realized trying to get freelance work was not going to pay the bills, and I was fortunate to get an in-house graphic design position where I learned a lot on-the-job. Many synchronistic events took place, and eventually I ended up working as a designer at a dinnerware company. I was not very happy working in-house and knew my destiny was calling to find my way as a freelance artist - at the time I didn't even know about art licensing. After that I connected with another company where I was an artist on contract/retainer; basically I was a steady freelance who worked at home. I developed many successful designs with them. I walked Surtex and met an agent who had represented the famous Mary Engelbreit. Blinded by stars in my eyes of fame and fortune, I signed a licensing deal with the agent so they could help build on my dinnerware success and expand into other markets.
Not long after that I was able to negotiate a licensing deal with a dinnerware company called Sango. This company and I built a very successful line called Sweet Shoppe that is still collected today. The rest is history. I have had many ups and downs over the years and am extremely grateful to have found a way to ride the waves of the business and stay in the game. Being flexible is a huge part of my success in the industry.  

© Sue Zipkin, hand painted dinnerware collection - Tea Garden
TMFMA: What brought you to exhibit for the first time and how many shows have you been in?  For the first few years my agent exhibited at the show. When I decided to go it alone, it was before the internet. The most viable option to get exposure to clients in the art licensing industry was to exhibit at Surtex. I also exhibited a few times at the licensing show when it was located in New York, but have continued with Surtex all these years.
TMFMA: Do you work with an agent or do you represent yourself? I have worked with two licensing agents in my career, and I am grateful for my time with both agents. I learned so much, however those relationships did not blossom into anything long term. Most of my career I have been representing myself. Currently that is what I am doing. I am actually very open to getting some sort of business help, perhaps another agent. Since I already have a group of established clients and have been doing this for so many years it is not easy to find the right fit with an agent. Many agents are really looking to represent newer artists who might not have much going on yet. I think that an artist who is established and has had success over the years should be able to negotiate a different percentage than an artist who is just starting out. I also do not want to give up my existing clients that I work with directly, yet many agents want to be able to run your entire business. Still, at this time I am very open. There are certain markets that I'm not established in, although I have plenty of artwork that could work for them. My main focus now is to try to keep my current clients happy, so it is hard to look outside and develop new relationships. There is only so much time in the day.

TMFMA: How does one go about getting licensing deals? What's the "protocol" if any? As far as how one goes about getting licensing deals there is no one-size-fits-all answer. First, an artist must be realistic and research the market. When I first started out I had a foundation with my success in one product area. These days things have changed a great deal. Artists need to have a focus, but also be very versatile at the same time. There are many ways to do this. Some artists develop a certain look and style that is very distinct, focusing on certain unique limited subject matters. Then there are other artists like myself, who have a certain style, yet focus on products that are across the board.

© Sue Zipkin, Sweet Shoppe collection
One of the great things about art licensing is the ability to take one image and spread it out into many product categories. I have done this over the years, however, I have found that some of the areas that I concentrate on really do need totally different artwork. So for example, what I would propose to my dinnerware client is not the same kind of design I would propose to my fabric client. There are times when there is crossover, however it is not always the case.
I think a person trying to get into art licensing needs to really think about what and who they are trying to target. Perhaps they might try and concentrate on one or two markets at a time and not try to be everything to everyone (I need to take this advice for myself also). Sometimes I get so excited about the possibilities of doing it all, but like a great buffet, you can overdo it and end up very sick at the end of the day. I take pride in being able to provide my loyal steady clients with my full attention.

© Sue Zipkin, new design 
in new mixed media style 

TMFMA: What do you suggest new artists do to present themselves to the world of licensing for the first time? The first thing I would like to suggest to a new artist presenting themselves to the licensing world is to make sure that what they're putting out is original. Many artists I see online trying to break into the business study others' artwork and try to emulate them. It is perfectly ok to look around and study what others are doing, but keep that in check. We all study the trends and the markets. Themes and ideas are not copyrightable, however the way you express those ideas is. There are so many myths about copyright; artists often think they just have to change something a certain percent and it's ok to call it their own. An artist should educate themselves on copyright law and also make sure they know what they are signing when entering into licensing deals. It would be very wise to hire a lawyer to help you create a basic standard boilerplate contract. If you are going to sign with an agent please make sure you know what you're signing. There are many terms you might not understand that can affect you for years and years to come when you sign these deals. 

TMFMA: Please give us your analysis of the market based on your own experience and contacts. I think it is all over the place. Clearly companies are struggling with the economy, and then there are other companies who are experimenting and finding niches in the market and doing really well. Each product and product category is very different, like in life, everybody is experiencing something unique. Each company has different expectations of what they need for success and how to keep their business going. Challenging times can also create opportunities for companies to find ways to be innovative and think outside of the box. Some companies are playing it very safe and often you cannot tell one company from another. My guess is the companies that are doing the best are those that are always reinventing themselves but also staying true to what they are about.

© Sue Zipkin, new design
in new mixed media style
TMFMA: In your view, what was of major interest to manufacturers this year? Manufacturers this year are looking for what they have always looked for: good fresh designs that they feel are going to help sell their products. 

TMFMA: What do you think the main trends are for 2011-2012? I am not seeing too many specific trends these days. It feels that the market is going for safer themes, like classics. For Christmas I hear a lot about Santa making a stronger comeback then he has in a while. I'm still seeing plenty of nature designs, inspirational feel-good artwork. 

I am definitely noticing more textured layered artwork using  mixed-media and painterly crafty styles. Many products are influenced by hand-crafting and illustrative art. In the last few years we have seen quite a bit of very flat retro style artwork, that is still out there, however I am seeing less of that. I personally think that birds will still be going strong for a while but that the owl is down-trending - or else it is wishful thinking - on a personal note I'm just tired of seeing owls everywhere! They're cute and all, but how many do we need? So many look the same and I cannot tell one artist from another at times.

TMFMA: How does a new artist find manufacturers that "match" their styles? The first thing they need to do is study the market, they can go shopping in different stores and look at products that they feel their artwork would work on. They can subscribe to trade magazines, search the web, and find companies by going to trade shows. However, when visiting shows, there is a certain trade show etiquette it's very important to understand. I would strongly suggest finding more information online about trade show etiquette. 

© Sue Zipkin, tin design filed with nuts & candy 
being used by The Girls Scouts 
for fund-raising this year 

TMFMA: What advice would you give other artists that are considering the art licensing field? I think that the biggest piece of advice I would give artists who are starting out is to approach this very realistically. They need to create a body of work that is specifically targeted for certain products, and have a clear vision of what they are trying to do. One of the biggest mistakes I see new artists make is that they create beautiful and unique images that might not have anything to do with the market or the product they are going after, then go and buy product templates online and just slap the art onto the product. Just because you can make something fit on a shape does not mean it will sell well on that product. For example I took these fun pictures at the Bronx zoo. I mocked them up for everyday dinnerware. Many people love Monkeys but this style might not work for the average consumer. 

TMFMA: Any other useful info that you'd like to share about art licensing? Doing your homework is extremely important. These days there is so much useful information online. An artist needs to be flexible and willing to make changes on their artwork. The manufacturer is investing money to make a product with your artwork on it. If you want to be in control all the time, I suggest you figure out how to manufacture your own product.  

Keep in mind that this really is not just about you and your art, but about developing relationships that are win-win for both you and the manufacturer. Always keep learning. Keep your mind and heart open and follow your instincts. Sometimes you might get a very bad feeling about a company or a situation and you should not ignore those feelings, they could be telling you something you need to know. If you do end up in less-than-perfect business situations that is ok also, you can grow from them and learn all kinds of lessons. Being successful in this is a very long, slow process, so if you’re going to try it, get ready for a crazy ride. Don’t forget to wear your seatbelt, it will be a bumpy road ahead!! Good luck!

Sue's website and blog.


Cathy said...

I love this interview. I think Sue is spot on with her comments on the business of licensing ... and her illustrations just make me smile! Cathy Heck

Phyllis Dobbs said...

This is a fabulous interview with Sue. She is so knowledgable about art licensing and is explaining it truthfully. Plus, her art is simply gorgous, cheerful and uplifting!

Nancy Barth said...

Great interview!

sue z said...

Thanks again for doing this Alex!

Thanks Cathy, Phyllis & Nancy for your kind comments& support!

Monica Lee said...

HI! This was a good read, Sue! I appreciate your perspective! Weird-it almost put me in the mood for Christmas, haha! I was so over doing Christmas art but for some reason I am now motivated! Thanks Girls!

Chris Chun said...

Insightful and inspiring interview. Sue is one of the 'superstars' of art licensing. Not only is she a very talented artist but she's very knowledgable, has a great track record and is a savvy businesswoman too.

Best of all, she's a wonderful person.

Shelly Comiskey said...

Such an informative interview with Sue! She is so generous with her knowledge and experience. Love her art!

Karla Dornacher said...

Thanks Alex for another great interview! Love Sue... love her art and her heart and appreciate the personal insights she shared with us all here... makes me want to start licensing again!

Lana Gordon Rast said...

Wonderful article, thank you so much for sharing this story. I love that Sue shared that she is dyslexic and had problems growing up. Yet her work is so happy and makes other people happy to look at it. What a lovely person to do that. Thank you so much! Lana

Terri Conrad said...

Hi Alex,

wonderful blog, and equally wonderful interview with Sue Zipkin sharing her hard earned knowledge about the industry, and happy art. thanks for sharing!


Acornmoon said...

A great interview with a lovely lady. Her comments on Surtex and working with licensing agents rang many bells with me. Even if things do not always go the way you would like you learn about the industry and move on better informed.

Unknown said...

Thank you very much to all for such lovely comments!

Beth L said...

Awesome interview, thanks ladies! Sue is an amazing talent with incredible insight and experience in this industry, how great for her to share like this!

Eunice K. said...

I'm just starting out and found this interview helpful. So glad to have been able to read it. Thanks for sharing.