Friday, March 8, 2013

An Art Licensing True Story - by Artist j.c. Spock

Many licensing artists seek representation through agents, in fact the most read post on this blog is about how to find an agent. And if you search the web there are many other articles about agents and what they do. It's important to find the right agent as this story will tell you.

I met artist j.c. Spock in an Etsy forum. Her story is different from any other I have published so far and it's dedicated to all newbies to warn them of the pitfalls when entering the licensing arena. I congratulate j.c. for being courageous and for finding her own path despite the pitfalls, and for sharing her experience with us.

Artist j.c. Spock
j.c. considers herself an accidental artist. She didn't start creating mixed media art until the age of 35 when she left her corporate career in search for work that would nurture her soul. After experimenting with various arts and crafts, this self-taught artist finally figured out what she wanted to be when "she grew up." She now has a dedicated following and an on-going partnership with FORCE, a non-profit organization dedicated to empowering women with hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. She is inspired by the human spirit, by people who make brave choices, and by those who face their fears. Although her artwork has a whimsical tone to it, it is also largely inspired by the courageous people she meets, especially those dealing with cancer and serious illnesses - a connection that she considers to be one of the most unexpected joys of her artistic journey.

"My foray into art licensing began in late 2010," she says, "when I heard about this great way to make money with your art! Clearly I was uninformed about how much work goes into art licensing, so I set out to learn more. I began reading art licensing blogs (including this one!), read books on the topic and began submitting my portfolio to various licensing agencies as well as manufacturers. I received a couple of no's but mostly never heard back." She grew frustrated after a couple months and dropped the idea for a while - "once again, I was clearly unaware of how hard it is to break into licensing and the stamina it takes to pursue it long term," she adds.

In the summer of 2011 she received a message in her Etsy shop from a manufacturer who was interested in a large part of her portfolio. "They wanted to do a 110 sku program with my artwork and their current lines were GORGEOUS. It had the potential to be a huge deal. I was over the moon, but also aware that I was completely unprepared to go it alone."

"I knew I wanted an agent to help me work the deal and prevent any pitfalls or language in the contract that could put me in a precarious position as I felt I was in a you don't know what you don't know position." She used her opportunity as leverage to get her foot in the door with some of the top art licensing agencies on her list, she continues, and sure enough, one of them was now interested.

"I became aware that something was off when my agent immediately began picking apart my art and expressed concern over contracting my art as-is with the interested manufacturer. Part of it was a matter of style and likeness of my work and part of it was a legitimate concern over my use of patterned paper - which as a collage artist, I had no idea that the papers I was using were permitted for small business uses but not large scale mass manufacturing. I was asked to learn Photoshop right away so I could start altering any discernible images, which overwhelmed me as I was not a digital artist at all but a hands-on paint and paper artist."

The manufacturer who initially contacted j.c. was growing weary with her agent's stalling and they asked her to reconsider doing the deal alone with them. "But now I was a contracted artist with my agency and couldn't do the deal without them. I felt stuck. My agent asked me to create a similar line with different looks for the manufacturer to which I obliged but the manufacturer didn't like; they wanted the original material. My agent asked me to trust her and her agency's years of proven success. I reluctantly agreed and the ultimately manufacturer walked away from the deal. I was crushed." She has no way of knowing if they would have gone through with a full program, but it's hard not to wonder how it  would have impacted her career and if she had pursued the deal on her own.

"My agency assured me that more deals would be on the horizon but I was asked to rework a large part of my portfolio, which turned into changing my style completely and soon my work didn't look like my work. I was also pressured to churn out very commercial art – wine, fruit, chefs, roosters, etc. I mean no disrespect to artists who thrive with this material; it's just not comfortable or enjoyable for me. I was prepared to change a few things and push past my comfort zone but this was on a whole new level. I knew they were trying to position me for what sells in the industry but it's pretty obvious that my style of art doesn't lend itself to oven mits and plate-ware, but is more suitable for canvases, greeting cards and specialty gifts. I felt like a square peg trying to fit in a round hole."

The "show season" was fast approaching and j.c. was asked to beef up her portfolio (though she already had nearly 400 images in about 8 categories). "I did nothing but eat, breathe and sleep art licensing for about 6 months and to the great detriment of my online shop which was barely bringing in any sales due to my neglect. I was also not allowed to share any new artwork in my shop or blog because it would ruin the element of surprise they were hoping to bring to manufacturers.

"Because they were having difficulty with me not being a digital artist, I was asked to scan each painting several times throughout the mixed media layering process which added hours of work to each image so that it could be digitally manipulated down the road. I was working 12-16 hour days, many times 7 days a week for no money with the hopes that something might work out. I was lured by the promise of a big launch at the Atlanta gift show, a press release, and some notoriety as a newly signed on artist with a prestigious agency - none of which happened. My artwork began to suffer and my self-esteem took a dive."

She further explains - "I was becoming completely miserable and began to realize that art licensing (or perhaps my agent) wasn't a good fit for me. My initial visions of submitting my work and collecting checks couldn't have been further from the truth. After 9 months of trying to make it work, I parted ways with my agent. I didn't collect a single penny and essentially worked 9 months for free. To say I was initially devastated by the whole experience is to put it lightly. It took me several months before I picked up a paintbrush again. I took a break, got my shop back in order so I could make some desperately needed income, and in the summer finally began creating again for the pure joy of creating artwork – not based on anyone's needs or desires but based on what came from my heart. Finally I was back to my old self."

© j.c. Spock
Recently j.c. was contacted by another art licensing agency inquiring about her artwork and interest in art licensing. "I admit, I was flattered but politely turned them down. I know how hard it is to get agency representation and didn't take the offer lightly, but I know in my heart that I’m not ready to entertain that option again for awhile. My experience, while painful, was very insightful and I realized how much I truly love the direct contact I have with my customers in my shop, the handmade process involved in making a greeting card or mounted print in my studio and having full and total control of what I create when I want to create it. I may not get on the shelves of Target and become a recognizable name, but I've learned to talk my ego down and we're both okay with that. Life has returned to peaceful, calm and balanced."

Will you ever consider art licensing again, I asked? "I'm not sure. I know it's a great opportunity for some artists and I don't discount the art licensing industry nor the agent I worked with; both clearly work for some. But right now, I'm really happy where I am. My shop is successful, I love what I do and I'm okay with slow and steady. I'm currently working on a large wholesale project within my state of Colorado and finding my niche with those boutiques and shops that are looking for something local and handmade. My current approach works for me and every artist has to make the determination for themselves whether art licensing (with or without an agent) is a good fit. If you are considering the option, please do your homework and explore each option and potential trade-offs thoroughly. Don't let the lure of money or fame detract from who you are as an artist. Be true to yourself and your core values and make an informed decision from that point of reference. Licensing your artwork can be a great opportunity, but it's not for everyone.  And that's okay too."

j.c. lives at 8,300' in the Colorado mountains with her husband and two pugs. She feels extremely grateful to be living her life as an artist, creating from the heart. She is currently on a social media fast but can be found on Etsy at and her portfolio can be viewed at


Kathy said...

JC - thanks so much for sharing your story! It is so greatly appreciated- it is so important to hear all kinds of art licensing stories and you so rarely hear first-hand accounts like yours!! Best to you, your art and shop! Keep on working!! :D

Unknown said...

Such a great post, and so informative about insights into the licensing world. On some level, I think a lot of artists dream of having licensing contracts, and an agent to work with. I know it's one of mine! But, I appreciate so much JC how honest you are about your experience, and believe it or not, it really opened my eyes, too. Congratulations for discovering your artistic direction - very helpful!

Tara Reed said...

Wow - that really is a "wonder what would have happened if..." story. And also underscores the fact that choosing an agent is as important as choosing a spouse! Wishing you much success JC! – Tara

j.c. said...

Thanks everyone for your kind comments! I was quite nervous about sharing my story; was a little concerned that people would baste me as not being able to hack it in the world of licensing.

When I was considering licensing, I actually did searches on the pitfalls, cons, or downsides of art licensing and couldn't find any personal stories out there (I think artists are afraid it will harm their career if they share their less-than-glowing experience). So I felt it imperative to offer this honest, candid perspective.

As I mentioned, licensing is certainly not all bad but it's also not for everyone. A year later and I'm finally at peace with it all.

Jill meyer said...

j.c. I loved reading your story, and am so delighted that you are living the perfect ending to it. It does take courage and sometimes there is backlash when you are honest, so Bravo! We have several things very much in common. I hope we can meet and talk about them some day soon.

Nene-Indeya said...

J.C thanks so much for sharing your story!

Unknown said...

I live in Mill Valley and I've seen your magnets at my favorite health food cafe "Cafe Del Soul". I admire your courage to share your story, JC. You took a risk and only through that process you learned what you truly want. Following your gut and heart is the way. The ego and the "I shoulds" is where we must be careful. Art Licensing may seem like it is clearly the path to follow (to make more money and/or because that is what other artists are doing) doesn't make it the right path for you. That is the lesson I learned. I wish you continued success on your own journey.

Eva Ricci said...

Loved reading your story. I know what you mean. When you start doing things commercially the creative flow gets off balance. You must be very proud to have taken control of your art. I'm venturing slowly in licensing but so far no one has asked me to change anything from my art. Lets hope it continues this way.

Darlene said...

Thank you for sharing your informative story.

Wishing your much success on your new journey.

Mary Anita Winklea said...

Thank you JC! Just what I needed to hear this morning!

Nicky Ovitt said...

So kind of you to share your story! This was a great read, Alex! So much to think about here and very much in the early stages of looking for an agent myself so very helpful to hear all sides! Good for you to recognize that maybe it's just not the right path for your work, or right now. True to you! love it.

Jolie Kolaj said...

I can totally relate to this story. I too was signed by a "big" agent who represented the Harry Potter licensing franchise and her company promised me big things. However, nothing ever came to fruition and after 2 years no deal was ever brought to the table. I finally fired my agent and it was the best thing I ever did. Now, I have over 300 products in thousands of stores nationwide and represent myself. Even if you don't know anything about licensing, a good manufacturer will work with you and help you along the way. Thanks for speaking the truth!

j.c. said...

Thank you again everyone for the comments and to Alex for giving me a platform for this discussion. The response I've received not only here but also those that have emailed me privately has been so positive (and I know I'm not alone in my experience!). To each their own and to all the best!

Carolyn said...

Great story j.c. - a cautionary tale for sure. Although I believe your agent gave you good advice in not using elements in your design which could lead to liability problems, you probably put too much faith in what everyone else thought you should do. Everything happens for a reason. Although this was a tough lesson, ultimately it helped you believe in yourself and your instincts. Would you say in hindsight that the lessons were worth it>

Natalie Timmons said...

What a heart wrenching tale with an inspiring ending. The first warning sign was when the agent urged you to change your style, which is the very thing the manufacturer fell in love with. Such a shame. Now you're following your heart and your own internal guidance and I bet that leads to more rewarding things. I very much appreciate being able to learn from your experience and wish you the very best.

Sue said...

Good for you JC! It took me a lot longer to get out of a contract that wasn't working for me... and after 20 years in the art industry - doing everything from publishing to licensing - I'm finally at the same point you are... work from my soul and not from somebody else's vision. Congratulations on being in a state of joy and peace with your art!