I'm not a big-time con woman by any means. I haven't ever traveled too far or done any big jobs to get me notoriety. But I have conned enough to have a few tips and tricks for those of you who are curious and maybe want to give it a try. If you've never done it before, and have ever had any interest in being a convention artist, this may be a good starting point for you.
There are all sorts of different conventions out there, big and small. You can find sci-fi, fantasy, Renaissance, anime, video game, comic book, children's book, steampunk, and just about every other type of con imaginable. Just consult Google the Omniscient. Chances are good that you'll be able to find conventions in existence that pretty well suit the type of art and audience you want to reach. Each convention is managed differently and has different rules and requirements; there is no "One Size Fits All" when it comes to talking about conventions. I'm going to talk about my personal experience, but if you want to try a particular convention, be sure that you read everything about it so you know what you're getting into!
|Some aspects of the convention experience can be pretty frightening. You may see things even more terrifying than this. Seriously.|
Most conventions have an Artist Alley and a Vendor Room. The Vendor Room is usually where merchants sell official merchandise, and the Artist Alley is a place for artisans and crafters of all sorts to sell their own work. This is where I make a sad, crushing point about the reality of fan-based conventions: most people attend conventions because of their fandoms. Official merchandise and fanart almost always sell better than 100% original work. Whoo, that's heavy stuff. Maybe I should have told you to sit down. But don't be discouraged. Original work does still sell. Some people are wildly successful with it. And you could be too.
So, with that established, we'll break this down into some basic beginning points.
How do I know if I'm ready/good enough to do a convention?
The simple answer? Try it and see! You will get a lot of feedback at conventions. Sometimes that feedback will come in the form of admirers throwing money at you. But sometimes it will come in the form of sitting back and doing nothing while you watch the guy across from you selling art so quickly that he can't keep up with all of his customers! Look at his art and determine what makes it successful. Look at yours and determine what makes it unsuccessful. Take notes. Do sketches. Improve.
Of course, if you don't want to go to all the hassle of trying a convention when you're really unsure, get feedback first. And not just from friends and family, unless you know that they can be brutally honest with you. There are lots of places online for you to get honest feedback. If you are an illustrator, go and get a print of one of the pieces you'd want to take. See how it actually looks with paper and ink. And get that print critiqued. Be prepared to take criticism. If you ask for criticism and you get it, don't complain or get huffy. Look at it as an opportunity to improve and to come back and impress your critics later.
You don't have to be perfect to try out the artist alley. If your stuff is pretty good, give it a shot! You may make connections and receive feedback that will help you to improve much faster and better than if you stayed at home, just waiting for the right moment. You may also find out that people like your stuff more than you thought! And of course, you could make some extra cash.
What kinds of things should I prepare to sell at a convention?
Of course it depends on what kind of thing you do. I'm speaking to illustrators right now, but some of this may apply to crafters as well. First, take art that is what you do. There are some wildly successful con artists out there. They do these amazing, shiny, gorgeous and painterly pinups of every popular character ever. They make a boatload of money everywhere they go. But if that is not what you want to do, don't do it. You will not enjoy making the art. It will not be as good as what you normally do. And it will never compete with what those artists are doing because they want to, so save yourself some time and grief and do work that you're excited about.
That said, you should make stuff that you expect will sell. Take quality work. Take things that you are proud of. Again, get some friends to help you determine what that should be. Get connected with your audience online or through other means to feel out what would be successful. Many conventions have online forums where you can view and join conversations to find out what that particular demographic likes. If you plan to be a commercial artist, be prepared to do some catering to your audience. Just be sure that whatever catering you do is catering you are willing to do.
The items that you actually take with you can be extremely varied or all the same thing. My general tips for beginners are as follows: 1. Provide a variety of prices. Your main artistic focus may be a thing that costs $20, but a lot of people might not be willing to shell out that much money, even if they like your work. If you also provide an item at $10 and an item that only costs a couple of dollars, you are more likely to get customers willing to shell out a little bit. Don't underestimate the power of "impulse buys." 2. Provide a variety of merchandise. Generally speaking, the more that you have, the more potential customers you can reach. If all you have is three prints and two buttons, that is probably on the scanty side. 3. Offer deals. (You can figure deals out later on in the convention if things are not going so well for you, or if you use the power of MATH.) Consider: You are a print artist who sells prints for $15 each. You are at a convention where the competition is very stiff, and you are selling prints in quantities of one. You put up a sign advertising "Buy Two Prints, Get One FREE!" People see the sign, and now begin looking for three of your prints to purchase. Now you are making $30 off of the average customer instead of just $15.
'Course, you might just be the kind of person who can sell five prints to each customer without making any deals. And power to you, friend!
Where should I start looking for my first convention?
Unless you have lots of money to spare, try something local. The local-er, the better. Something close to you that will not devastate your pocketbook, should you make zero profit. And do not assume that you will make a profit! You might, and that would be great. But you might not, and you must be prepared for that. You are doing well your first convention if you break even. Be sure to check out the rules well in advance first, as well. Lots of conventions have a very limited window of time to even acquire a table. To sell at conventions, you have to apply and pay for a table. In my experience, this can cost between $50-$500. (Sometimes more, sometimes less.) Sometimes you will also have to pay to register for the convention as well, which can be another $50 or more. Factor in travel cost, lodging, food, etc, and it can add up pretty quickly. Cut down on those costs if possible by doing something that won't put you out too much. Watch your convention website like a hawk. Mark application dates on your calendar. With some of these conventions, if you blink, you'll miss the application deadline. Also be aware of what you can and can't sell; most conventions will outline this clearly. Be aware. And be prepared.
Try to find a convention that is somewhat aligned with your personal skills or interests. If you can't find one, consider conventions that would likely have an overlap into what you do! For instance, if you do fantasy art and can only find a sci-fi convention, you may consider giving it a try. Lots of people who are into sci-fi are also into fantasy, and may be pleasantly surprised to find someone like you. (Of course, they also might not care. It all depends! Give it a try!)
How should I DO my first convention?
Conventions can be pretty overwhelming! There is a lot to figure out and plan. The first thing I would suggest for your first time convention is share a table. Get a fellow artist and split! You will split the cost of the table and often be able to share other costs, like transportation. Benefits of sharing: You will always have someone trustworthy to watch your stuff and make sales for you, on the odd chance that you are human and you sometimes have to use the privy. You will also have someone to talk to during quiet times. You will have someone to fill out the table space and make it look more enticing if you don't have enough merchandise on your own, or if you want to draw in more people with the variety of stuff. You will also not feel so weird and confused and lonely doing a convention by yourself. And if you do, you'll at least have someone to feel weird and confused and lonely with you. Buddies are the way to go for the first time.
Bring a stash of supplies. Things like tape, pens, paper, safety pins, lunch, and deodorant can go a long way. Some people have made more extensive "Con Survival Kit" lists for artists, so I will not go into much detail here.
Bring your art stuff so you can sketch or work if/when times are slow. You may also pick up some commissions this way, or just have people gather to watch you work! This is a good time to learn not to be shy when people watch you draw. Be warned that people sometimes ask for things in commissions that you may feel uncomfortable with. Never, ever be afraid to say no. Be polite. But don't feel the need to explain or apologize. Just say no. If they gripe about it, tough beans.
Most customers are polite, or at least, not impolite. Every now and then you will encounter someone who is just so rude that you can't believe they escaped kindergarten without a few solid spanks. It happens. Don't take it personally. Brush it off. However, if someone harasses you, notify a staff member immediately. Jerks happen; that doesn't mean they have to be sanctioned.
Be prepared-- but be aware that no matter how well you prepare, there will always, always be frustrations. Accept this fact, and be willing to face those frustrations when they come with grace and dignity.
Have a great display! If you can, plan it out beforehand with your table buddy to figure out how things will go to display items effectively. Have a display that people can see from a distance, or else you will be ignored. Sad but true! Common and cheap display elements are PVC pipe displays and wire cube displays. PVC pipes can be bought from any basic hardware store and fitted together into a rectangular overhead display. Wire storage cubes can be bought from Target for a decent price and arranged in clever ways to display your stuff.
Have change in your cash box (or bag). Be prepared for people to always pay with $20s. They will.
Do be polite. Do be enthusiastic. Do smile at your customers and attempt conversation.
Do not hawk. Do not sit behind your table and glower at attendees, or sit and watch funny videos on your iphone, or talk loudly to the person next to you about how Dr. Who is the greatest TV show ever and anyone who disagrees must be missing a few brain legos. (It should be a given. But you would be surprised.)
Here is a great little comic that brings up more preparedness points. Some of it may not be pertinent to you, but overall it is a great summary to help new artists at conventions.
Are conventions for me?
You're probably tired of this answer. But it's true: Try it and see!
Conventions do not have to be the final result of your career. They can be, or they can be a stepping stone for you. They are great for meeting people, making money (paying off student loans!), and improving your art. Conventions helped me to get through college with minimal debt. Now they're helping me pay off other silly bills.
Be prepared to experience some pretty overwhelming and/or frightening stuff. I'm not going to lie; some con-goers are downright scary. You might see things or meet people that make you shudder down to the very depths of your gizzard. Your faith in humanity might be tragically and permanently shaken. And you might not ever be able to forget the special odor of thousands of congregating unwashed nerds we just call "con funk."
You might not make any money at all. You might have lost money, in fact. You might feel dejected and unskilled and sad.
You might be bored out of your mind. You might spend the weekend asking yourself, "Why did I come here?"
--You might meet some amazing people! You might have a great time. You might see some fabulous costumes and charming people and incredible artists. You might make friends and gain fans. You might find that your work connects deeply with people and that they are so happy you decided to put yourself out there and enrich their lives. You might get connected with an influential person in your industry who can hook you up with your dream job. You might not only break even, but make a sweet, squishy profit! You might have a blast. You might come away feeling better about yourself and your art than you ever have before, and you might be more determined to make amazingly, mind-blowingly awesome work than ever. And it might help you to hone your skills to the next level so you can get that sweet concept art job you've been wanting, or the pro children's book portfolio you need. And did I mention cash?
And you WILL learn something.
Try it and see. I would highly, highly recommend trying a convention if you want to pursue art as a hobbyist or as a serious career building opportunist. If you want more help or need more convincing, peruse the web, ask friends, find forums. There is always more help available. And frankly, conventions need more good and diverse and respectable artists. The fans need YOU.
This post is only a starting point-- there is so much more to figure out when you stop and think about it! There are fantastic resources all over the web. One I would recommend is this facebook page for Artist Alley Artists. You can get feedback from other artists, see photos of their displays, and access documents listing places to get your work printed or finished.
That was a long haul. Thanks for reading, and I sincerely hope it helps some of you artists out there! Try it and see!