The Art of Business


artist resources

Below are some resources, tools and equipment that I currently use or have used in recent past to set up and run my art and ecommerce business. It took my husband and me a LONG time to find this information when we first set up shop. By compiling this information in one place, I hope that I can not only provide transparency into my process, but also help other creatives solve common startup problems. 

Note: these are not affiliate links and I don't make a dime if you click on any of the links. I simply use and appreciate these tools.

All the items with * are what I consider essential items that will save you time and money in the long run, so I recommend saving up for those first.

SeeWhyZhang Art Studio

ART MATERIALS

Watercolor: I love the Kuretake Gansai Tambi* 36 color watercolor set. It is portable and the pigment is comparable to some of the much pricier brands. I highly recommend it for artists at all levels who want to paint on the go. Another travel friendly startup watercolor kit that is slightly less expensive is the $25 Sakura Watercolor set* with water brush.

For individual tubes, I have a growing hodgepodge that I've collected over the years from Winsor & Newton, Daniel SmithSennelier l'AquarelleM.Graham & Co..

Brushes: I use Princeton Art & Brush Co. synthetic brushes and Raphael Kolinsky Sable Brushes. Brush sizes 4, 8 and 12 meet my painting needs most of the time, but I do have a tendency to hoard upward of 20 brushes ;). As I gain more experience I now have an appreciation for nice sable brushes, but anyone can start painting with a cheap brush set.

Paper: Paper in my opinion is the most worthwhile investment when it comes to producing high quality watercolor art. I usually paint on Arches or Fabriano 140lb watercolor paper. I use lower grade watercolor paper for practice and can definitely tell the difference. 

Paper Trimmer/Cutter: Rotatrim M24 24 Inch Professional Cutter. This was one of my bigger investments besides my laptop and it has been AMAZING. The accuracy is on point and it’s so fast and easy to use. It can cut sooo thin that the paper you trim off creates a spiral noodle. It self-sharpens so I don't have to worry about the blade becoming dull over time. I choose this size because this is the max paper size that my Epson printer can print. #thinkingahead

E-COMMERCE

Online Marketplace: Etsy and this site, hosted by Shopify. If you're intimidated by having to set up your own website, just start with Etsy*.

Website Platform: Shopify (I'm currently on the basic $29/mon plan). I chose this platform because of a myriad of reasons, but in general I find that Shopify is and was always built for e-commerce, whereas some of the other platforms out there may be prettier but eventually as you look under the hood long enough you notice that certain features are lacking or would be cumbersome to get around. 

Other Online Marketplaces: I am reluctant to post my art to sell on Red Bubble, Society 6 and the likes but don't want to start ranting my reasons here. If there's anything that business school taught me, it is that the easier it is to set up something (low barrier to entry), the noisier the competition, more crowded the market, and the harder it is to stand out. 

MARKETING

Email Marketing: I use MailChimp to send email newsletters to my subscribers. Their free option is more than sufficient for someone just starting out with a small list (as long as it's under 2000 before you'll be required to upgrade). I do plan to upgrade my plan in the near future which will give me more robust features. Email Marketing is still my most valuable marketing channel, not social media.

Analytics: I use Google Analytics and built in analytics features in Shopify. As an ex-analytics nerd, I don't spend nearly as much time digging into analytics as I should for my own e-commerce, but I do look forward to the day when I can flex those analytical muscles again.

ELECTRONICS ($$$ but amazing)

SeeWhyZhang Studio Equipment

Computer: Apple 15’’ MacBook Pro w/ Retina Display (2.5Ghz Quad-core Intel Core i7; 16GB Ram; 512GB Flash Storage). Obviously this is not a requirement but you do need a working computer to scan, edit and print your artwork.

For making prints: PLAN A - DO IT YOURSELF

Printer: I make all of my prints using an Epson 3880 Printer. This model is discontinued but its successor is a lot more affordable with comparable features: Epson SureColor P800. I was able to permanently “borrow” the 3880 from my father in law who is a retired amateur photographer. The printer Ink retails for whooping $500.00 but I was able to buy new ink on eBay for $350 (9 cartridges).

Pro tip on how to make your ink last longer: (hint: printer companies make way more $ from ink, not printers) Watch this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AHX6tHdQGiQ

Printer Paper: For high quality archival prints for sale we use fine art paper like the Epson Hot Press Bright Matte Paper. In my opinion it has better color reproduction for watercolor paintings than Epson Ultra Premium Presentation Matte Paper, which is a more affordable alternative if you do illustrations or artwork that has more flat colors.

***Recently I've made the transition to printing my art prints on Inkpress Media Watercolor Rag because Epson has significantly increased the cost of their cotton rag. In addition, I never liked having to manually feed the Epson paper individually which is what's required of that particular paper. With the volume of prints that I'm producing now, it saves a lot of time to be able to feed the Inkpress paper through the sheet feeder. Again, these may be nuances that are unique to my semi-aging Epson printer.

Scanner: I use an Epson Perfection V600 Scanner*. It scans up to 9x12 inches and some ridiculously high dpi (600+). For large pieces that I cannot scan, I either scan and stitch together the image in Adobe Photoshop, or take a photo of it (somethings I've not mastered).

Tablet: I recently tried out the newest Wacom 16 Pro but ended up selling it and getting an iPad Pro instead. The 12.9-inch iPad Pro more than satisfies my digital sketch and illustration needs and is more portable. Also, I heard Adobe Photoshop is coming to iPad Pro! (to be announce in Oct 2018)

PLAN B - OUTSOURCE PRINTING

I understand that all these equipment are expensive and it's hard to imagine spending money on a bulky thing that you may not end up using (though there's always eBay and craiglist for reselling). Another option if you don't want to invest in equipment in the beginning is to outsource the printing to print studios. I recommend this company for fine art prints, this for greeting cards, and this for regular prints.

Just keep in mind that your cost per unit will be higher than producing it in house, and it's only economical if you order larger quantities and fewer selection, which means you could be sitting on inventory that don't sell. 

Lastly, most of these print shops don't provide ready-to-ship packaging so you may still need to purchase your own packaging material to get your prints ready for shipment to customers. There are companies that provide end-to-end order fulfillment such as Printful, meaning when a customer places an order for a print, Printful will handle the printing, packaging and shipping so you don't have to lift a finger. The downside, as you can expect, is that your profit per order will be lower, but it doesn't hurt to try it out just to see if your products have the demand.

PRODUCT/SOCIAL MEDIA PHOTOGRAPHY

Camera Body: Canon EOS Rebel T2i DSLR Camera. Yet another piece of equipment I was able to permanently “borrow” from a family member. This is a discontinued camera body but the quality is enough for me to take high quality photos of oversized art pieces for the purpose of producing prints.

Camera Lens: Canon EF-S 24mm f/2.8 STM Lens. This is a cute little “pancake” lens that I was advised by my photographer cousin-in-law V to purchase. It is not super expensive for a lens and is great at taking still and product photos.

Tripod: I got a basic AmazonBasics 60-Inch Lightweight Tripod. This tripod will not be moving much so I did not need a fancy tripod.

Overhead Armstand for Timelapse Painting Videos: I attach my iPhone or camera to the Neewer Suspension Armstand to record timelapse videos of me painting that some of you may have seen on Instagram. Mounting accessories for iPhone here and here.

Lighting: I have two light softboxes. I do not know the brand as they were given to me but they look similar to this. These are used to diffuse and even the light and reduce harsh shadows on the art piece when photographing it.

Mobile Photography: Last but not least, I still rely on my handy iPhone for most of my stylized and flat lay photos, using softboxes and white sheets to control lighting. One small thing that makes a huge difference in photo quality is... a clean lens! I never thought about cleaning my iPhone camera lens but now that I am aware, it seems like a no brainer.

Video Editing: We are in the infancy of video documenting my process so this will sound elementary to a lot of a/v people. I film my timelapse videos with my iPhone using either the Hyperlapse setting in Camera or the Lapse It Pro app. Lapse It allows me to add background music and change the fps (frames per second) so I can speed up the video to however long I like, all on my iPhone.

Photo Editing: For mobile photography, my favorite editing app is Snapseed* ($2.99 in the app store, iOS and Android). With its super flexible editing functions I usually don't need to apply any filter in Instagram. My favorite feature in Snapseed is the ability to spot treat areas on the photo such as saturation, burn/dodge, exposure. It's like a mini Photoshop on my phone. I also use ColorStory and VSCO but Snapseed meets my needs 95% of the time.

SeeWhyZhang Work in Progress

SHIPPING

Shipping Label Printer: Another favorite! I bought a used Zebra LP 2844 Thermal Label Printer* from eBay. This little gal doesn’t need any ink cartridges ever and saves lives as well as time.

Shipping Scale: American Weight Scales Table Top Postal Scale. Easy to use and clear display.

Materials for Shipping 8x10 and Smaller Prints: I put my prints in these Cello Bags backed by a Chipboard Cardboard and place this in a Quality Park Extra-Rigid Fiberboard Photo/Document Mailer. For extra precaution I put a passive aggressive message on the mailer using this Do Not Bend Stamp.

Materials for Shipping Larger Prints: For larger prints I use Brown Mailing Tubes  that are at least .060 thick with a 3’’ inside diameter. 

Online Shipping Center: I have found Shippo (integrated with Shopify) to be a convenient and cost effective solutions for domestic and international shipments. They charge a very small fee per shipment but has no monthly recurring fee. Once I reach a high enough volume of orders, I plan to switch over to Shipstation, which charges a monthly fee but has lower per-shipment cost.

BUSINESS/FINANCE

Business Cards: I used to print them from Moo. Moo cards are daamnn fine but they do get pricey (the nicer they look, the more people want them and the quicker I have to replenish, so now I also print my own using the extra white space on my art prints paper and my mighty paper trimmer mentioned above.

Accounting: If you want a simple bookkeeping software but are not ready to commit to a monthly subscription like most services out there, Waveapps* offers a free online program with features like invoicing, income and expense tracking (synced to your banks and credit cards a la Mint.com), payment, and payroll. As my business needs grew I have switched to a monthly subscription accounting software Xero. It seems to be the best choice on the market for small/mid ecommerce and retail businesses. 

Business Email: I pay $10/month to G Suite (Google) for each of my business email accounts. It comes with Google Drive which makes it easy to share documents with people in and outside of your business. Sure, you can keep using your free @gmail account forever and conduct business there but I find that having an email with your business domain helps to elevate your brand image just a tad bit, especially when you communicate with other businesses. But this shouldn't be the first thing you spend money on.

OK, how the F#$% do you afford all this selling pictures and stuff? In a nutshell, everything mentioned above were accumulated over several years and were afforded by years of working in full time professions (before I took the plunge), living at or below my means, freelance income while growing this business, family and friends hookups, and investments. I don't believe in getting in debt to start a business (especially a creative one), because lack of funds is a real threat to creativity. I have a lot of thoughts about this but will save them for a dedicated blog post.

RECOMMENDED READING

Art, Inc.: The Essential Guide for Building Your Career as an Artist by Lisa Congdon. This is a very informative book that helped kickstart my artist journey. I ended up taking her online course and she is definitely one of my heroes. 

The Crossrodas of Should and Must - Medium Article by Elle Luna. Elle started #the100dayproject movement which prompted me to explore watercolor in the first place, but her article (which turned into a book) was one of my very first real triggers to evaluate my happiness with my career path.

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. It's like therapy with a touch of tough love for people who encounter creative resistance, which is everyone. I find it less woo-woo than The Artist Way.

Start Something That Matters by Blake Mycoskie. Blake is the pioneer in the One-for-One e-commerce model with TOMS Shoes. This book inspired me to invest my time in building a meaningful career, rather than one that pays for nice shoes and vacations.

FAVORITE PODCASTS

List to be updated!

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Photography: Charlotte Allegra