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So You Want to Be a Convention Artist?

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This post is part of a series called Careers in Design & Illustration.
So You Want to Be an In-House Graphic Designer?
So You Want to Be a Comic Artist?
Annette Lees tablet at Animazement 2015
Annette Lee's table at Animazement 2015.

Whether it's a game, comic, anime, or another special-interest convention or art show, you may want to know how artists who regularly sell their work at booths in dealers rooms and artists' alleys got their start and make it work in their careers as working artists. 

I interviewed several artists who sell assorted merchandise, take on commissions, and travel all over to attend and be a vendor at various cons. Consider this your guide to working as a convention artist.

What Does a Convention Artist Do?

Let's start with a quick breakdown of some of the tasks convention artists have before, during, and after a convention:

  • Create merchandise: You've got to fill your booth up with something, and often artists get their start with handmade or self-produced merchandise.
  • Sell merchandise: I'm sure out there some people have a team of sales people to sell their goods, but most artists in an artists' alley are selling their own work and connecting with consumers face to face.
  • Take commissions: This is a big one, since it allows artists to make extra money and may drive other sales within their booths. Artists take commissions on character sketches, cosplay portraits, and more. Being able to perform on the fly is a great asset and something to consider when running a small booth.
  • Work with the public: Not everyone is a people person, but often you have to learn some skills in order to not only sell your goods but also connect with consumers. Some make sure they have a friend with them to boost their own people skills and keep things relaxed, while others are old pros at making small talk with passers-by and getting them into their booths.
  • Set up and handle booths: Presentation is very important. After all, in an artists' alley or dealers room you want your booth to entice the public without being obnoxious to the vendors around you. Additionally, artists often have to be the ones to set up and take down their own booths.
  • And more: Aside from the acts of creating, showcasing, and selling their work, artists also have to make sure to follow the regulations of running a small business depending on where they've chosen to be a vendor. There's a lot to consider when working a convention or art show, so let's get to it!

Where and How Do Artists Sell Their Work?

Let's tackle this question quickly so we can focus more on product and working at a convention or art show itself. Artists who occupy artists' alleys and dealers rooms do so at anime conventions, game conventions, comic book conventions, art shows, art fairs, and more.

Nick Minor at his booth at Phoenix Comic Con 2015
Nick Minor at his booth at Phoenix Comic Con 2015.
"My wife and I have sold my art at conventions since Anime Central in 2006. I didn’t go pro until this year 2015, when I was in a good enough place to quit my day job (actually both of us did, for different reasons) and now we both travel the country doing shows.  At first it was one show a year, then two. In 2010, we were doing maybe 5 shows. As of today’s date 9/17/15, we have about 25 cons completed this year." — Nick Minor, Radiant-Grey

Typically, artists submit an application as these shows and conventions are juried by organizers. Often there's a fee to be paid as well once they've been approved. Fees and amenities included vary from venue to venue. Some good questions to ask and things to know before you book your space or file your application are the following:

  • Is a table included?
  • Do I have access or need access to electricity?
  • How many chairs are provided?
  • How many people can be behind a booth at once?
  • Am I allowed to use racks or make use of vertical space?
  • What other limits (noise, lights, etc.) are there for this venue and space?

There is a lot to consider, including whether your work fits the style of the convention or art fair that you're applying to, before you get to the creating merchandise, packaging, and presentation phases. Figuring out the basics, though, will make your first convention an easier ride than learning that you needed a table yesterday when you're unloading your truck's contents into an empty space.

Prints and a price list on Leahs table from Anime North 2012
Prints and a price list on Leah's table from Anime North 2012.
"My fondest memory is when I got the news of a table for Anime North 2012.  I had been trying for years with either not getting a table, being placed on the waiting list and once missing my deadline to respond.  When I got that email, I actually ran around the house screaming.
"When convention day actually arrived, my parents, older sister and my niece came to cheer me on, actually has me tearing up just thinking back to that weekend.  Having family and friends that support you with your art is one of the greatest sources of inspiration for me." — Leah Francis, Reafu-fu

What Do They Sell?

Artists sell a variety of products, depending on what kind of artist they are. Illustrators and designers often go for recreations of their artwork in print form, selling a variety of art prints and assorted printed merchandise like t-shirts, tote bags, printed acrylic charms, and more!

Additionally, many artists are also artisan crafters and can render their visions into a variety of products like plush toys, sculpted crafts, pottery, knitted items, and more. It's quite a wonder to see what artists bring to their booths each year at conventions around the world.

Not everyone creates their physical merchandise as well. Many artists use the services of various manufacturers to produce their designs on a variety of products in order to meet time constraints, produce more product for less money than doing it themselves, or create something they can't do by hand. So long as an artist is selling their own designs, it's often welcome at a convention or art show.

Lauras sample prints shes working into greeting cards
Laura's sample prints she's working into greeting cards.
"Illustrated media, though I would love to do more crafts. I mainly sell prints and t-shirts, as well as products featuring my surface design. I want to get more into toy design as I’m highly interested in making my 2D characters three dimensional. That and I love toys. Because I’m really a five-year-old." — Laura Langston, Laura Illustrates

How Do They Produce Merchandise?

Let's say you're going to go the hand-made route for everything that you wish to sell at your booth. You'll need to figure out what your products are and how to present them. If you're selling prints you'll want to make sure you have clear plastic sleeves and backing boards or that they're rolled (if the paper-type works well with rolling them) in tubes to keep them safe during the rest of the convention.

Many artists use a printing service for posters and such, but some print their own art prints on a giclee printer in their home. Researching ink, paper, and packaging options will allow you to figure out what's affordable as well as what you can feasibly sell. The same goes for the tools and materials for anything you'd be creating: t‑shirts, bags, plush toys, crochet scarves, etc.

If you're using a manufacturer of some sort to create your merchandise, you need to know not only the costs of doing so, but what their minimum orders are, how many designs you can create per item, and how long it'll take them to create it and get those products back to you. Additionally you have to consider shipping costs as a part of your costs in creating the items.

A page from Kaylas comic Midwinter
A page from Kayla's comic, Midwinter.
"For technical, if you want a quality product, you must be familiar with terms such as DPI, bleed, trim, safe zone, etc. and the differences between RGB and CMYK color profiles. Many online printers will provide a template for you to work with, but you shouldn’t have to rely on them. Create your files with the intent to print and work with your printer so you know their specifications. It’ll make things easier for both sides!" — Kayla Swain, Midwinter

While having a third party create your content will allow you more time to not be creating everything by hand and may cost less overall, you also have to consider that perhaps their printing methods are off or the product may not be created as expected. Many artists tell tales of receiving misprinted merchandise, colors not matching their expected color profiles, or products damaged during shipping. 

It's best to do what you can to ensure extra time if something happens to your merchandise. The same, really, goes for creating it yourself. You have more control over the final outcome, but if you set out screen-printed t-shirts to dry and your cat runs across them, trailing little inked-up paw prints all over, you'll need to have a backup plan.

A fan-art print from Zambicandy regularly sold at various conventions
A fan-art print from Zambicandy regularly sold at various conventions.
"Sometimes they screw up! So its always good to make sure you order stuff way before you actually need them done in case something goes wrong! Things can and will go wrong. Even if you've worked with the company before and they're super professional." — Erica Francis, Zambicandy

In short, whether you're creating merchandise yourself or having a third party handle the production, make sure you're up on how it's being created, when you can expect it, and what to do if something doesn't go to plan.

How Do Artists Take Commissions at Shows?

For starters, you need to let customers and passers-by know that you're keen to take on commissions at the convention. Whether this means you're available to sketch up something requested or schedule a larger commission outside the show is up to you.

Often artists create a sign of some sort, letting customers know they're open to take something on and providing a small price list. Having examples or descriptions of the service you're offering helps too, especially if it's a visual example so customers can see what you can do for the price you've set. Additionally, you can set limits on what these price points entail.

Special show pricing (on both booth merchandise and commissions) is often an incentive for customers to purchase your goods or services, by the way. It's not something you have to do by any means, but can be something you offer on a single day (perhaps the first day or the final day) or something for specific shows in order to boost your sales.

Sienas table at Sabakon 2015
Siena's table at Sabakon 2015.
"I tend to charge about $12 an hour for pricing when considering time. For sewing commissions I just do that plus material cost." — Siena Holland, Holliander

So you've set up your sign, your pricing, and you've been commissioned for a portrait sketch or character doodle or whatever it is you offered. You'll need to know how long it'll take you to complete. Are you going to mail the drawing to the customer after the show, complete it while they're standing in front of you, or give them a certain time to stop by later during the show for them to pick it up?

Figuring out how long it will take you and when they can reasonably expect to receive their commission is just as important as the pricing and selling of the commission itself, since customers expect you to have an answer for them (and not flake out).

Yennie at her table at a recent convention showing how to use vertical space
Yennie at her table at a recent convention showing how to use vertical space.
"I recommend not to stress yourself out every day to work all the time. Work to your limits and figure out the right schedule for yourself. You’re your own boss and it’s a great thing." — Yennie Fer, FaithWalkers

How Do Artists Interact With the Public?

This brings us to the rather important topic of interacting with customers, passers-by, fellow artists, and convention staff. 

  • Be courteous and kind: If you can, be chatty. Smile, and be friendly and kind. No one wants to hang out near the booth of someone who's being mean to them. Understandably, you're human, and may not feel like smiling, so do your best to be friendly to potential customers.
  • Be ready to answer questions: People are going to want to know who you are (as an artist), what your work is, and why they should buy your work. Be ready to field all sorts of questions, such as whether or not merchandise is child-friendly.
  • Be ready to have an answer to questions you don't want to answer: Who's your printer? Can I have your patterns? Where did you get this? Not every artist likes to share their sources, and that's perfectly fine. Some artists love to share every detail of their creations, and that's fine too. Consumers and artists alike may ask many questions you don't feel comfortable with answering or don't want to share because you don't want extra competition. Consider what your answer will be without it being rude ahead of time, or just know you'll need to think on your feet if someone is too nosy for your tastes.
Donovan behind his booth at Wizard World 2015
Donovan behind his booth at Wizard World 2014
"If you have multiple types of products, have them be related and have them leading toward the main thing you want to sell. I keep my most eye-catching products on the outside of my booth to get people to come check them out. The conversations about those products lead toward the other products, the books, which are what I’m really there to sell." — Donovan Scherer, Studio Moonfall
  • Make friends with your neighbors: If you're alone at your booth you'll be so glad you made a point of being friendly and chatting with your neighbor when you have to use the restroom. Additionally, your neighbors know what you've gone through to get behind that booth and throughout the convention, since they're going through the same process of getting their work out to the public. You might make some great artist friends and have a fantastic weekend because you chose to see booth neighbors as assets and not competition.
  • Be helpful to staff: Running a convention or various aspects of it is hard work for anyone. Make sure you're a part of the solution of a successful event and not a part of the problem by meeting your deadlines for applications, fees, and time-slots for setting up and taking down your booth. Clean up after yourself during the convention and once you've taken down your booth. Leave the space as clean as it was when you arrived. Additionally, make sure you know the rules and regulations of a convention so you can follow them while there and not give organizers an additional headache.
  • Be able to set boundaries: This one is important for your own sanity. You don't want someone to set their drink down on your t-shirts for sale or let their kid's sticky fingers wipe across a scarf you hand-knitted. Set boundaries in a firm, but friendly manner. Some convention goers are just super-rude and may have no idea, so do your best to not scream at them when they spill their coffee on your table, but if they break or ruin your merchandise, you'll likely have to confront them in some way. A sign reminding consumers to keep their distance with more expensive merchandise might be the way to go.
Annettes buttons which she sells both online and at conventions
Annette's buttons, which she sells both online and at conventions.
"A con veteran I was tabling next to gave me a much needed pep talk. He told me not to be discouraged and the only thing I can do is learn from it and make the best of it. There was no such thing as the perfect con, there’s always going to be highs and lows, so I shouldn’t stress out.
"I should just focus on my work and try to keep improving since a con’s success isn’t really within my control. He also said that I should be proud of myself that I took the risk and came this far as an artist." — Annette Lee, Annetti Spaghetti

What Makes a Good Booth Space?

Let's get down to the booth itself. How should you present, display, and package your work? The options for what you do with your merchandise and booth space are numerous.

Firstly, vendors tend to have, and are often required to have, some sort of cloth or sheet to cover their table. It allows you to create a fresh and simple space for you work to be displayed, but also allows for the space under your table to house some of your boxes or bins that may hold copies of your displayed merchandise or personal items. Additionally, you can reinforce your branding or accentuate your design style with a variety of cloth, sheet, or banner types.

Speaking of banner types, you'll want something either behind you (on the wall, hanging, or coming up from the floor in some way, if allowed) or on the front of your table that displays your name or brand so passers-by know what your booth is or who you are as an artist.

From there we have ways to display your work itself:

  • Racks: T-shirts, jewelry, buttons, and more all have rack options. If a space allows it, a clothing rack may help display and house clothes and accessories. Tables can often hold jewelry and small accessory racks as well.
  • Display units: Boxes, small shelves, and more are all an option for merchandise display. Making use of your table and allocated area (so long as you have clearance to do so) allows for a variety of shelving or boxes for customers to look through and for you to hold more than just a table's worth of merchandise.
  • Wall space: Whether it's a wall behind you or a wall you've brought along (again, make sure anything you use for your booth is approved by the convention and venue) making use of vertical space for display or to showcase certain items allows consumers to see what you have and can also allow for some distance between consumer and item as well if it's unique or expensive.
  • And more: There are always more options, as artists tend to think of marvelous ways or showcasing their work. Consider visiting a local convention or art show and seeing how artists display their work, or even consider how small stores solve the problem of showcasing merchandise in a small space.

Good booth spaces aren't going to bother those around them, will entice customers to come to them and look through them, and aren't a huge pain to set up and take down.

Asher Bensons boothspace making great use of her personal branding and vertical space
Asher Benson's booth space at Salt Lake City Comic Con 2015, making great use of her personal branding and vertical space.
" I knew what my top sellers would be, I presented them at eye-level, and I knew my demographic. I purchased accents to complement my bright artwork and I didn't skimp on paper quality. Think about how you'd feel about purchasing something and wanting to display it." — Asher Benson, Asher Bee

Advice From Artists

Some of Sienas hand drawn buttons she sells at various conventions
Some of Siena's hand-drawn buttons she sells at various conventions.
"Do it because you love it first, don’t hop into it thinking you’ll make bank off the bat. You’ll stress yourself out and what I’ve been telling a friend who’s new to tabling right now is that she needs to do it because she loves it.
"She primarily does fan art so she’s constantly stressing about what’s popular and what’s going to sell, but you can clearly tell in her art when she’s drawing something she loves and when she’s drawing something she thinks is popular.  In the end though, do it because you love it. I may not live off my art but I love doing conventions and I love the artist community." — Siena Holland, Holliander
The Green Bunny Workshop booth at an outdoor art fair
The Green Bunny Workshop booth at an outdoor art fair.
"Constantly work on your skill, you have never and will never achieve perfection in any technique, there is always things to learn, try, test and experiment with. The day you just stick with what you have and do not bring novelty to your items/booth is the day you will start to lose customers instead of gaining new ones." — Eloise Pare, The Green Bunny Workshop

Conclusion

Artists who work conventions, art fairs, and more, selling their work to the public, have double duty as artist and retailer. They bridge the gap between content creator and consumer themselves, meeting with the public and bringing a personal touch to selling their work. They also often serve as their own manufacturer, advertiser, and boss, handling all aspects of their businesses.

It can be a difficult process, going from concept to product to convention floor, but it's wonderfully rewarding too to sell your work directly to consumers and get your name out there with your consumer demographic. Most artists don't retail at conventions as a full-time job. Some have it as a hobby and some do it in addition to being a full- or part-time artist. 

I hope you found this article interesting, inspiring, and informative. The artists involved took time out of their busy schedules, many in the middle of preparing for an upcoming convention, to share their experiences with me from their years of convention experience. Each artist is unique in what they offer to the public: illustrated work, artisan crafts, a plethora of products, and a variety of commissioned pieces from their table in creative spaces around the world.

Many thanks to the artists who participated in this article. Check out more of their work, shops, and convention schedules in the links below:

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