Artists' Alley Beginner Guide

This guide is intended to help and guide artists who new to Artists' Alleys, whether at Anime Boston or elsewhere. It is not a set of rules. If you are looking for the Anime Boston Artists' Alley rules, you need to read the Artists' alley FAQ.

Posted below is advice based on years of experience by the Artists' Alley staff and artists who have attended Anime Boston and other conventions.

Some of those artists have contributed comics to illustrate some of the hurdles and first-time experiences encountered by Artists' Alley Beginners.

Remember: The advice that follows is based on years of experience from various people. You may find different methods that work better for you. This guide is intended solely to give you a starting point. It is natural that you will change and expand your methods as you attend Artists' Alleys.

  1. How do I know if I'm ready to be in an Artists' Alley?
  2. Preparing for the Artists' Alley
    a. What do I bring, and how much?
    b. Should I have a business card? How many?
    c. What are Commissions and why are they a good idea?
    d. Presentation and Displays
    e. I don't know what to charge. I feel guilty charging people. How should I PRICE my work?
    f. So what kind of materials do you recommend that I use?
  3. Artist Resources
    a. Book Printing
    b. T-Shirt Printing
    c. Prints
  4. Traditional Art versus Digital Art - which is better?
  5. Should I sell Fanart?
  6. Artist Survival Guide
    a. Things you should bring
    b. Should I take credit cards?
    c. Eating and Drinking
    d. Should I cosplay?
    e. Selling and relating to your customers
    f. Time Management
    g. Demographic Targeting
    h. Take Breaks
    i. Being a Neighbor Artist
    j. Other General Advice

1. How do I know if I'm ready to be in an Artists' Alley?
You never really know until you try and you won't lose anything by trying, even if you don't do well at your first attempt. The important thing is to have the confidence that you can do it and to try your best.

AA Beginner Guide Tip 1 Click to enlarge

The entire event is a learning experience. Your neighboring artists are often happy to offer advice on a wide variety of subjects, from displays and preparation, to what to sell and how to color. This is because an artist's alley at just about any convention becomes a community of artists and not just total strangers sitting in the same room.

Even if you don't meet your expectations, you will still walk away with something you didn't have before: experience.

2. Preparing for the Artists' Alley
What do I bring, and how much?
Basically, our advice is: "Keep it small and keep it simple."

If you have seen an Artists' Alley before, you have probably seen artists with huge and tremendous displays. Not only might they have traditional 2D prints, but also items such as comics, plushies, tee shirts, posters and more! Don't worry about trying to match what they have.

Carrying different products is a risk that established artists choose to take. That risk is mitigated only through trial and error experienced through years of Artists' Alleys. During your first time in an Artists' Alley, you should set small and realistic goals and focus on meeting them.

AA Beginner Guide Tip 2 Click to enlarge

The bigger the space, the more it will cost. And the more you try to sell, the more you will spend on materials. Take your investments a little at a time or you could be out a lot of money. Consider sharing your space with another artist. It can relieve some of the financial and mental pressures associated with filling up a space.

When it comes to what you are selling, try to focus on a single medium to start. If you are a print artist, focus on 2D prints. If you are a crafter, create a niche market with a specific type of item.

Also focus on quality over quantity. When starting, try not to make more than 5-10 products. If things go well, try making 1 or 2 new pieces before every convention you go to. Before you know it, you will have the large inventory that established artists have.

If you succeed in making 10 really good different products, don't create too many of each one. It is pretty much guaranteed that you will NOT sell them all at your first convention. And odds are it won't be the one you think will be the most popular.

Keep track of how many of each product you sell. From this you can learn what people like and don't like. With that information you can gear the products for your next Artists' Alley towards what sells the best. However, don't stop creating what YOU like though. As much as we all want to make money, we also want to enjoy what we create.

Should I have a business card? How many?
Our advice is to make at least 100 business cards. You can never have too many.

People tend to take cards even if they don't buy anything. And if someone does buy something, it's a great reminder of where they got it from.

It's also a good way to get your name out there and try to drum up business outside of a convention. If you keep your cards simple, you can reuse them at any event. A simple card might have the following:

  • Name
  • What you specialize in (i.e. portraits, comics, etc)
  • Website URL (if you have one)
  • At least one way to contact you (if you move a lot, make it an email address)
  • Logo - if you have time, make a simple graphic people can associate with you.

What are Commissions and why are they a good idea?
Commissions - or 'on the spot art' - are always a good way to supplement the products at your table. Sometimes people like your style, but don't happen to have any interest in the products you have available. If you can take commissions, your clients will tell you what it is they DO want to see. A commission will take some of your time, but will also net you more money than a single print would have. They can also give you more ideas on new prints to make.

So, if you have the ability to handle the simultaneous pressures of doing art with a deadline and having people look over your shoulder, then this is a good route for you to take. Just remember, you have to be able to complete it before the end of the convention. If you want commissions to really be worth your while, you'll want to be able to do more than one. On the other hand, bringing the materials to do commissions can take up space in your art luggage.

Our Advice: Set out a sign-up sheet and pen with limited slots (around 5 to start) and list the costs of the different types of commissions. As you gain more experience, you can gauge better on how many you can do and expand the number of slots.

On the sign-up sheet, leave a little room for descriptions of the commissions. If you have 5 people signed up, and if you are still working on the first one, you might forget the description of the picture that person #5 wants. Writing down the descriptions is always a good idea.

Presentation and Displays
Here are some suggestions to cover the basics of any display setup:

AA Beginner Guide Tip 3 Click to enlarge
  • Use a piece of fabric as a tablecloth. It will give your display a clean and nice look.
  • Put prints into a portfolio book so they can be easily flipped through and viewed.
  • Place a price sticker on each page of the print book so the prices are clearly marked.
  • Put a printed sign with your name and/or studio name in an 8x10 plastic photo frame to make sure people know who you are.
  • Another printed sign can advertise special sales, commission rates, and other prices.
  • Have a card holder for business cards, so people can remember you later.
  • Above all else, remember to keep it simple!

An additional display ideas is using wire grid cubes. They are modular and allow you to build up, but break down for easy traveling. They can be sturdier than using pvc piping and clamps. You can pick them up at Target or online.

I don't know what to charge. I feel guilty charging people. How should I PRICE my work?
This is a tough question. All artists have to work this one out on their own. All we can do is provide starting price points that you will need to change as you gain more experience.

A good way to work this out is to see what other artists charge for the various types of things they have and average it out. You can take notes at conventions when visiting their artists' alley, or ask artists on the forums.

Keep in mind that what you charge for a print, as opposed to what you charge for an original or commission, will vary widely. A one of a kind, premade original (sold only once) and a one of a kind (on the spot) commission will be close if not the same price. While a print, since it is a mass produced copy of an original, will be much less.

When you price your work consider its worth, including materials and time spent, and charge accordingly. When you charge $5 for something that took you hours to make, you may sell out fast, but you are also going to burn out quickly. You are also going to bankrupt other artists who try to price competitively, but cannot afford to lose the same profits you can. Everyone deserves a fair wage per hour for their work. Price fairly and you'll ensure this for everyone.

Even so, here are some suggested starting price points for 2d artwork (depending on size and quality):

  • Prints:
    • Black and White: $3-$10
    • Color: $5-$12
  • Originals:
    • Black and White: $20-$40
    • Color: $30-$50
  • Commissions (prices lower due to rush):
    • Pencils: $5
    • Black and White: $10-$15
    • Color: $15-$20

The prices above are based on print sizes of 8.5x11. Though that is the standard print size, sometimes people sell smaller or larger sizes. Smaller sizes should be priced less and larger sizes should be priced more. As you gain experience and confidence, you can adjust these prices as needed.

You may offer different types of color mediums at different prices. For instance, if you usually color using the computer, but can't offer that as a commission option at the convention, you can lower your prices and use colored pencils or even markers. The lower cost offsets the difference in quality.

Due to the immense variety of products that can be done in a 3d manner, it is harder to come up with starting price points - remember these are all suggestions only:

  • Plushies: $20-40
  • Hats: $15-20 even upwards towards $100
  • Costumes: vary too widely depending on intricacy of the specific costume being made.
  • Glass: $12 - $40
  • Pins: $1 - $5
  • T-shirts: $10 - $20
  • Paper Fans: $10 - $40

So what kind of materials do you recommend that I use?
This is a matter of personal preference. Below are lists of what other artists use, but you have to make your own decisions.

  • Paper for Drawing:
    • 100lb Bristol Board (good standard drawing paper with archival quality)
    • Use smooth (Bristol) for pens and markers
    • Use Vellum for pencils and chalk pastels
    • Most Cardstocks - it's a good cheap substitute, but isn't archival. Protected, it'll keep for 20+ years
    • Hammermill 80lb Bright White Cardstock (available at Kinko's) is a particularly nice and smooth cardstock to work with. Good for pencils, inks and markers
    • Watercolor Paper - Hot and Cold - around 100lb can be nice for some effects as well. (Note: Cold usually means that the paper has texture, while Hot means it's smooth.)
    • Hot/Cold Press Illustration Boards
  • Paper for Printing:
    • Photo Glossy
    • Photo Matte
    • Hammermill 80lb Bright White Cardstock
  • Pens - Most of these are available in most craft stores or art stores, but all can be found online easily. Different sizes are usually available such as .005, .1, .3, .5 and more, and are available either individually or in sets.
    • Microns (favorite of many artists)
    • Staedler Pens (good for designs and logos)
    • Faber-Castell
    • Copic multiliners (available at the Copic website or at the Copic stations at various conventions)
  • Pencils, Color - Keep in mind that many color pencils do not travel well. Being banged about breaks the soft lead inside MUCH easier than regular pencils. That can be a problem when you are trying to sharpen them to continue working on a picture.
    • Prismacolor
    • Designs
    • Random - Don't be afraid to try random brands. You can find the most amazing pencils in the oddest places - including what are regarded as cheap sets.
  • Markers
    • Prismacolor- Most people start with these despite them being $2-3 a piece. But you can often find inexpensive sets on eBay.
    • Copic Markers- These are expensive and should not be invested in unless you have learned marker and painting techniques. They have generic sets as well as specialty sets such as the 'skin tone' set. They are costly but if you use markers a lot they may well be worth the cost.
    • Le Plume is another good brand that can be used with water.

3. Artist Resources
Some of the most commonly asked questions in the forums are:

  • "Where do I get this printed?"
  • "Where do I go to make T-Shirts?"
  • "How do I publish my comic book?"

Every business has its advantages and disadvantages; you will have to find which one works best for you. One place may only give good prices for mass orders while another place is good for smaller orders. These are not your only options, but here are a few to start with:

Book Printing:
Different businesses have different order requirements.

  • Lulu Publishing: Lulu is a buy on demand site and makes it possible to keep your inventory small if you don't have the cash for it but it also costs more per book to get printed.
  • Ka-Blam: Speficically does comic issue printing. The graphics look better and are generally more consistent. The prices are decent and various discounts are often available. They also offer ways to do online promoting and selling of your comic issues.
  • ComiXpress: Recommended alongside with Ka-Blam as a good source for printing comics by many artists.

T-Shirt Printing:
Of course, you don't have to send out your T-shirt design to a third party such as the ones listed below. You can buy special transfers to use with your printer and hand make them. If you do it yourself, the quality may not be as good, but it will be more cost effective since the price of professionally printed T-shirts increases per each color added to the design.

Keep in mind that some "Print on Demand" sites are good for most products, but with T-shirts they can be sort of odd, especially with darker color shirts. We suggest running/ordering a test print before committing to anything.

Some artists use a combination of his or her own personal printers and printing companies, such as Kinko's. Some artists have expressed dissatisfaction with Kinko's and recommend finding a local, small printing business for better prices and service. Here is a list of businesses that are easy to locate regardless of where you may live in the country. Remember that Kinko's, unlike some of the others on the list, specializes in printing.

4. Traditional Art versus Digital Art - which is better?
The truth is, neither is better than the other.

You will find opinionated people all over who proclaim one to be superior but the truth is neither one of them is. They both require skill, time, and a love of art to do a piece WELL. There is the distinction.

Some artists use a mix of traditional and digital, others love to draw by hand and others just can't get the hang of using a drawing tablet. The great aspect of digital color is the unique quality it produces and the fact that, done right, no mistake is unfixable.

A picture isn't better just because it was done traditionally or digitally. Truthfully, there has been both good and bad art made either way. The artist's chosen medium does not necessarily reflect the quality of the art produced. Either way will require dedication, practice, and hard work.

If you are a digital artist and want to be able to do commissions at the conventions, keep the following in mind:

  • Not all conventions provide electricity and you may not be guaranteed electricity if it does.
  • You will need to bring your entire computer system, including printer, with you to the convention to produce the requested commissions.

With traditional work, it's easy to figure out if you are holding the original. You take a piece of paper and you draw on it. If you flip the paper over, you can see the lines and the bleeds. You can sometimes see how far it was absorbed into the paper especially if you have used ink or markers. To make prints, you scan and print copies, or you use a photocopier to make copies. When placed next to each other, you can generally see the difference between the original and the prints.

With digital work, what is an 'original' and what is a 'print' can be difficult to differentiate. A digital print looks the same no matter if it is the first off the press or the hundredth. If you want it to be billed as an original, you have to make sure you NEVER print it out a second time. Otherwise you have to alter the picture, make a label or put a stamp on it that says the picture is a print and not the original.

5. Should I sell Fanart?
You are more likely to sell anime fanart than original at an anime convention. But that being said, you shouldn't be discouraged from doing non-anime art. Artists can do well selling works depicting Lady Gaga, Bieber, or even colorful ponies.

You should also feel free to do completely original art. Try making your own characters or landscapes. Experiment and find your own style of creation. After all, every character starts off as an original creation.

Above all, you should enjoy what you make.

6. Artist Survival Guide:
Things you should bring:

  • Business items:
    • Cash Box
    • Lots of small bills (and change if necessary)
    • Receipt books
  • Table Supplies:
    • Garbage bags
    • Seat cushion
    • Scissors
    • Exacto blade
    • Utility knife
    • Tapes:
      • Gaffer's tape
      • Masking tape
      • Invisible tape
      • Double sided tape
    • Portable paper trimmer
    • String, zip ties, and/or wire
    • Needle nose pliers
    • Rulers
  • Personal Wellbeing:
    • Rucksack or Backpack
    • Snacks
    • Water (stay hydrated!)
    • Comfortable shoes
    • Throat Lozenges
    • Band-aids and pain relievers
    • Febreeze
    • Eye drops
    • Feminine hygiene products
    • Hand sanitizer
  • Sanity Supplies:
    • iPod w/charger and/or speakers
    • Camera/phones/PSP/DSi and necessary chargers
    • Nook/Kindle with charger
    • Electrical extension cable
    • Power strip

Should I take credit cards?
Normally, we would say no, but Square is free and relatively painless. All you need to have is either a smartphone or tablet that can work with it. If you have one already, it doesn't hurt to get Square. Just sign up on the Square website and they will send you a device for free and the app is free, too. The only fee is a small percentage of what you make.

Eating and drinking:
Make sure you eat. If you are irritable because of hunger, you could drive potential customers away. You can get together with your neighbors and send someone out on a food run, or bring quick and easy snacks and drinks with you every day. The important thing is that you eat!

Try not to bring messy stuff, and if you have to leave and close down the table, leave a sign that says "Out to Lunch" or similar.

Bring caffeine. Coffee and soda work well, but we don't recommend Red Bull or other sugary energy drinks due to 'crash factor'.

Should I cosplay?
Sure, why not? Sometimes it can attract people to your table. And it's fun if it's something you like to do. But keep in mind that you are in a small space and that you will be in that costume all day. You should make any cosplay comfortable and easy to move in. And don't bring large or delicate props.

Selling and relating to your customers!
Don't be cocky and rude or assume that people should want to buy your products. Be humble, polite, and thank people for their business and compliments. Tell people with a courteous smile, "If you like my art, please take a business card and check me out online."

Do not call out to a potential customer while they are at another artist's table. Aside from being incredibly rude and offensive to everyone, it can also take away sales from other artists. Even if it is because you want to take a photo of a cosplayer, try to be sensible about this. You wouldn't want to have a potential sale taken away from you!

If someone is blocking your table and clearly not interested in your products, politely ask them to move. If there is a large traffic jam, try to get convention staff to assist if you need help.

AA Beginner Guide Tip 4 Click to enlarge

Actively engage potential customers. You need to be friendly and outgoing towards customers and talk to them even if they are just browsing. Ask them how the convention is going for them, let them know your price info, tell them to let you know if they have any questions. Greet people as they pass by your table, you may entice them to stop and see what you have available. Even if you don't feel comfortable making small talk or a sales pitch you should at least stand up (or look up) and look friendly and approachable. Smile and greet people when they come over.

Pay attention to people. It's a huge turnoff to go to someone's table and they're hunkered behind it drawing and ignoring you. You can still draw, but if you make sure you look up and smile and say hello, it makes them aware that you are willing to be interrupted without being pushy and in their face. If you engage in conversation, stand up. It's really hard to engage people in conversation when you are not at eye level, since it is harder to make eye contact from a chair.

Talk and chat with customers on a one-on-one basis. Don't act like a carnival barker and yell "Buy my stuff!" (and other variations) repeatedly. Yelling drives customers away and makes you a bad neighbor. Having a personable tone helps immensely.

Time Management:
Managing your time effectively is key to properly preparing for the convention. You need to know how long it takes to make a product, but also how much time you have available for preparation. It is always good to get things done as far ahead of time as possible

Try to make a plan of what needs to be done before the convention. Set a date of two weeks prior to the convention to finish everything that needs to be completed. You will most likely not finish your plan by the two week mark, but it gives you breathing room to deal with last minute changes, emergencies, and panics. However, if you procrastinate, you will find your time is gone faster than you realized.

If you go to multiple conventions, try to keep a set of dedicated bags/containers prepared just for Artists' Alleys so that you will only need to restock them with a few supplies or products between events. You will find that this can reduce your preparation time drastically. Keeping a reusable list of what you need for each convention will keep you from panicking as much.

Demographic Targeting:
Consider who your potential customers are. Who are you selling to and what is popular right now? If pirate or ninja shows are hot, try to design products based around those themes. Even original work can be highly appealing to your audience if corresponds to popular media. Customers will most likely be between the ages of 14-25, so place yourself in their shoes as if you were looking at your merchandise. But still remember to enjoy what you are making.

Take Breaks
Selling and socializing are totally great, but it is important to take a breather from it all before you get burnt out and cranky. If you have a table buddy to watch your space, find a quiet space to relax and decompress.

Get up from your table and take some personal time to wander around the Artists' Alley. Chat up your fellow artists and get to know them. You will see many of them at other conventions. Don't forget to enjoy the convention itself. See a panel, check out a video room, get that autograph you've been after. Getting away for a bit will also refresh your mind and give you more vigor and a happier attitude.

You want to make sure you actually enjoy being at the convention, or you won't want to return.

Being a Neighbor Artist: It's important to be nice to the other artists! These are the people who are going to lend you duct tape in an emergency, lend you a pen when you can't find yours, keep an eye on your table when you can't find your helper and desperately need to use the bathroom, and generally offer you advice and support.

It is true that we are all competing against each other to sell art, but this is still a very friendly and supportive community. Respecting the other artists will earn you their respect in return. Their help and advice can get you through any rough patches you encounter in the Artists' Alley. Bonding with the other artists throughout the convention is a rewarding experience.

If you plan to leave your neighbors in charge of your table at any point, make sure you show them your inventory setup, cheat sheet for prices, and any other rules, and make sure you tell them if you have any deals going on!

Other General Advice:

  • Make sure you know what's in your cash box when you started and use receipt books to keep track of what you sell. It'll help keep your helpers honest and can aid you immensely when planning for the next event.
  • Don't let people put drinks and stuff on your table! They can damage your products and block others from seeing your work.
  • If you have stuff that's very mobile, like loose prints, jewelry, charms, and buttons, anchor them down. People will touch, move and jostle things so taping or pinning them down will keep you from having to keep tidying up and keep them from disappearing.
  • Offer deals, as they give customers incentives to buy more. For example, one of each for $5, or 3 for $12. Customers usually buy more with incentives like these. But only do this if you are okay with letting your products go at that price.
  • You cannot have enough signage, listing prices very clearly and in several places (especially up high if there happens to be a crowd and people can't see the table top). Your best bet is to have a price on each item or print.
  • Be aware that no matter how much signage you have, some people will always ask for prices and other information. It is unavoidable.
  • If you are selling 3D products, it is a good idea to have photos of your merchandise. Place them in a flipbook, on your table, or on any high structures you have. This will maximize the number of potential customers who can see your items, even if it is crowded. More importantly, if you sell out of an item, people will still know you make them and may make special orders.
  • Organize your workspace behind the table. It will help all your transactions to go smoothly and will prevent your supplies from taking up more space than they should.