THE BLOG
12/16/2014 09:22 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Advice From Today's Top Illustrator-Entrepreneurs

In today's creativity celebrated culture, where you can become "instagram famous", learn Photoshop over YouTube, or open an Etsy shop in less than 10 minutes, it is easy to see the appeal as to why so many amateur artists are now trying to make a name for themselves online. It is a highly competitive venture to embark on, where the hyper-creative class vie for a slot in our instagram feeds, and we the enthusiasts and art connoisseurs must wade through threads of off-beat wannabe art students to find the truly talented.

When it comes to building brands online there are no group of individuals more successful or sought-after than the artistic entrepreneurs I interviewed for this article. They understand that being artistically skilled and talented is only part of the equation to success, and that it involves hard work, dedication and putting themselves out there. Here is some insight and advice they have shared that will help you with your own creative ventures.

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Photo courtesy © annawithlove photography

Company: SS Print Shop
Artist: Stephanie Sterjovski
Website: www.ssprintshop.com
Years in Business: Since 2012

How would you describe your background and what has led you to this point in your career?

I have always been a creative person, I've had experiences in freelance photography, styling, makeup and blogging that all started as a hobby which led me to the career I have now. I am so grateful for having had the opportunity to explore different creative routes and the value it brought. I also believe simple jobs like one my first being a cashier at the grocery store when I was a teenager formed as a stepping stone to customer service and interacting with people. Every job can teach you something, it's all about your attitude.

How would you describe your creative process?

I try my best to not force things, my best designs come at the opposite season of what I am working on and are usually the most organic. I get inspired all the time, I'm always writing things down in my phone or notebook when it hits me. Travel, a walk, a book -- anything can spark something creative for me at anytime. I love taking photos of what inspires me as well to serve as a visual while I sit down for the design process, as it takes me back to that hit of inspiration.

What is your favourite medium to work in?

I love graphic design! Creating stationery has been such a dream come true and seeing my designs turned into hard copy is such a rewarding feeling.

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Photo courtesy © annawithlove photography

Which piece would you say is your most popular?

One of our best sellers is the "Stop and Smell the Peonies" print. It has such a cult following! People who love flowers are a committed bunch, pun intended. I love that I was able to collaborate with one of my best friends, annawithlove on this piece as well.

What advice would you give to an artist starting out?

Stop looking at Pinterest and stop looking at what everyone else is doing. Focus on what you are doing and encourage others (1 Thesalonnians 5:11). Comparison serves no purpose to you as a creative.

What do you think sets your work apart from other designers?

When I opened my print shop there weren't very many at the time, so I was not familiar with what it entailed, how it should run or look like. My shop was created from the demand of my blog followers asking me to start selling my designs from an old thread I used to call "Wednesday Words of Wisdom," ... I created what I loved, what inspired me and what I would hope to encourage others and have always just tried to stay true to this.

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Photo courtesy Eighty Seventh ST

Company: Eighty Seventh ST
Artist: Monica Smiley
Website: www.eightyseventhst.com
Years in Business: Since 2009

How would you describe your background and what has led you to this point in your career?

I went to school for Fashion Design and graduated knowing that I wasn't going to make it as a technical designer/pattern drafter. I've always loved to draw, I used to draw fashion croquis on the side of my notebooks since elementary school, and I knew after graduating that it was my only marketable skill so I had to find a way to make it work as a full time career.

Where do you find your inspiration?

Inspiration is different for each project. When the project is client based and they're looking for something specific, there are a few more restrictions on what to do. With eighty seventh ST which is my greeting card company, I tend to look for ways of tweaking the typical greeting card categories ie: birthday, wedding, holiday and adapting them into a fashion product/idea. Fashion and the fashion industry are probably the biggest inspirations for me. I love clothes, always have and I love character studies and satire and the Fashion Industry is never lacking in extraordinary characters!

What is your favourite medium to work in?

I'm a simple pencil, paper, ink/marker girl. Most of my greeting cards are coloured digitally to make sure the colour is enhanced and vibrant when it prints so that it's ready for retail.

Of all your pieces, which is your personal favourite and why?

I like the satirical pieces the best. If it makes me laugh I'm happy. I don't know if I could pick a favourite because I'm always critical about something. Maybe the Rob Ford Thanksgiving piece, that's probably one of my favourites, I always wished I could be a political cartoonist, but I just get so bored with politics.

What advice would you give to an artist starting out?

It's so much harder today than when I started eighty seventh ST. five years ago. Instagram has seemingly unleashed this sort of illustration renaissance. When I began in 2010 I started eighty seventh ST simply because no one was hiring illustrators, so I sought to do my own thing and get my work out there, and there was no instagram where people could find your work just by coming across a hashtag. I guess maybe just keep going, keep refining your skills and try to find your own style. I think in another 10 years the illustrators who will still be around are the ones who have their own distinct voice and style.

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Photo courtesy Eighty Seventh ST

What would you say has been a career highlight for you?

There have been lots. Getting my products into a store in the beginning was HUGE, and it's still such a thrill to see my cards on store shelves. Last year we began a holiday collaboration with Holt Renfrew which we continued this year and it's amazing.

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Photo courtesy The Aestate

Company: The Aestate
Artist: Jessica Rowe
Website: www.shoptheaestate.com
Years in Business: Since 2011

How would you describe your background and what has led you to this point in your career?

I've been drawing since forever, then five years ago I started experimenting with watercolors, totally self-taught. I shared some of the first paintings I did on my interior design blog and I was really surprised at the response. So many people were contacting me asking to buy that I ended up opening an Etsy shop and kept painting new pieces.

How would you describe your creative process?

I never start anything anymore unless I can see the finished product in my head first. Everything begins with a sketch. Once the general image is laid out I'll begin painting. Watercolors are notoriously unpredictable, but I use this to my advantage and make it a part of the process. The end result is never exactly how I pictured it, most of the time it's actually better.

Of all your pieces, which is your personal favourite and why?

I tend to be really critical of everything I do, so it's rare that I'll actually be able to enjoy any of them, but when I finished the "Lola" lips piece, I was kind of in love.

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Photo courtesy The Aestate

Which piece would you say is your most popular?

Everyone loves the "Beverly" tropical leaf series. I can't keep them in stock.

What advice would you give to an artist starting out?

My advice to artists starting out to remember that there are people less talented than you who are successful. It's often the talented people who doubt themselves the most, so don't be afraid to put yourself out there and go for it.

What do you think sets your work apart from other designers?

I've worked hard to cultivate a distinctive style. Most of that just comes naturally, but you always have to be mindful that what you're creating will be recognizable as yours.

What would you say has been a career highlight for you?

Seeing my originals in the Jonathan Adler Fall 2014 catalog was one of the coolest things that's happened so far. He's been one of my favorite designers since I was a student studying interior design in college, so that was definitely a "pinch me" moment. It still trips me out if I stop to really think about it.

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Photo courtesy Danielle Kroll

Company: Danielle Kroll
Artist: Danielle Kroll
Website: www.hellodaniellekroll.com
Years in Business: 2 Years

How would you describe your background and what has led you to this point in your career?

I majored in Graphic Design at Tyler School of art but the program is pretty interdisciplinary so I was able to try many different mediums while in school including silk-screening, jewelry, ceramics, sculpture, lithography, and painting. I got a job in Anthropologie's art department right out of school and continued to work there for 3 years. When I got home from my day job I'd make my own artwork and eventually I started getting commissioned work from that. I quit my job at Anthropologie and have been working for myself ever since.

How would you describe your creative process?

Having a clever idea is very important in my work so I always start with a concept in my head first. After I have a solid idea I'll flip through my inspiration books and images and think about the style and what sort of feeling I want the piece to portray. I work with gouache, India ink, and cut paper to make my final images. Sometimes I'll edit the colors and composition on the computer if I'm not totally happy with what I ended up with.

Where do you find your inspiration?

I get really inspired by everyday life in general. I always get my best ideas when I'm just walking around my neighborhood and letting my mind wander. I love buying exhibition catalogs from shows I've seen and ones I haven't seen too. When I was traveling around the west coast a few years ago I stumbled upon a beautiful show at the Seattle Art Museum about Australian Aboriginal Art. I still reference that exhibition book regularly.

Of all your pieces, which is your personal favourite and why?

'Ladies at the Beach' because it feels fun, cheeky and sophisticated. I'm always trying to go for that balance in my work and I feel like that piece gets it just right.

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Photo courtesy Danielle Kroll

What advice would you give to an artist starting out?

Start a blog to post your artwork on. I had a really small following on my blog when I was just starting out but just knowing that even a few people were expecting me to post was enough motivation to keep me working on new pieces.

What do you think sets your work apart from other designers?

Stylistically, it feels friendly and handmade which can be refreshing in a life so full of computer screens and digital matter. I think my work can also be distinguished by its playful and humorous quality. Life gets hard and there are tons of artists who make beautiful work about serious issues. But for me, I get more inspired by the silly things in life and just hearing that my work made even one person smile always makes me feel some validation for what I'm doing.

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Photo courtesy Lavish & Light Photography

Company: Lily & Val
Artist: Valerie McKeehan
Website: www.lilyandval.com
Years in Business: 2 ½ years

How would you describe your background and what has led you to this point in your career?

For as long as I can remember I've loved to create. Although I never pursued any formal drawing or art training, creativity was a big part of my childhood and always encouraged. I graduated from college with a degree in marketing and pursued a career in advertising. I owned a small agency with my now husband and when we got married I created a piece of chalk art for our kitchen on a whim. After hearing such a great response to this little sign, I decided to start Lily & Val as a hobby.

How would you describe your creative process?

I think of ideas for new pieces all the time and record them in my phone. When I set out to draw something new, I'll choose the subject matter and roughly sketch out design concepts in pencil. Sometimes the quote in my mind will automatically dictate the design. I can literally envision the drawn words and illustrations. To most, my sketchbook looks like a bunch of scribbles, but it helps me solidify the design in my mind. I don't like to get too detailed in my sketch since elements and details arise during the process of putting chalk to slate. I never really know how the dustiness will shape the pieces, but it is this variety that produces drawings with character. Once I am happy with the chalk drawing, I photograph the artwork and bring it into Photoshop for minor editing and adding color. I use this digital file to create the products in my shop.

What is your favourite medium to work in?

I love the simplicity of chalk art. It is literally dust on a surface, but watching a beautiful design emerge from that dust is rewarding.

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Photo courtesy Lily & Val

Of all your pieces, which is your personal favourite and why?

"Stand Tall, Darling" is one of my personal favorites. I've heard such touching stories from customers giving it to their daughter who was facing bullying at school or a friend that was going through a hard time. I love the pink flamingo, but more importantly, I love the message behind it.

What advice would you give to an artist starting out?

It may sound a bit cheesy, but be true to yourself. It is easy to get caught in the comparison game and this only leads to discouragement. Comparison is truly the thief of joy. If you are intensely passionate in what you are doing let that passion show. Not everyone will like it, but when you stay true to who you are as an artist you will be much more fulfilled.

What do you think sets your work apart from other designers?

I think the raw, authentic nature of my designs sets them apart. They are imperfect and undeniably hand-drawn, which makes them feel home-y and comfortable. To me, the simple things are what matter most and I translate that philosophy into my artwork.

What would you say has been a career highlight for you?

My hot cocoa recipe illustration was used on the set of the Food Network's 2014 Holiday Baking Championship! That was definitely fun to see.