It’s already Friday and that means another cool talent is coming your way: artist Jeff Claassen! We love his style and the story of how he quit his day job to become a full-time artist and business owner. Being entrepreneurial ourselves, we found Jeff’s interview to be packed with a lot of great insights for turning your passion into something you can make a living out of. Additionally, he touches upon a subject that could be really useful for all you artists out there…crowd funding! He currently has an Indiegogo campaign that you guys should totally check out and contribute to if possible. As Jeff points out, there are a lot of new ways that artists can promote their work and make sales. The opportunities are out there for the taking. And on that note, you do not want to miss the opportunity to support Jeff’s Indiegogo campaign… With buttons, prints and original paintings, you can get a great Christmas present, all while supporting an artist’s work! Read on to find out more about Jeff and see some of his pieces.
: My name is Jeff Claassen. I am kind of addicted to Thai iced tea and I have an acute sense for finding a donut shop no matter where I am. I’ve been making art for as long as I can remember and in 2004 I quit my day job and opened an art gallery.
: I know that I was always drawing, but my first concrete memories of drawing are from about 4th or 5th grade. When I got really into skateboarding in 7th grade was probably when drawing became an obsession. I loved all the skateboard graphics and would copy all my favorite ones. I also have some pretty funny drawings of bands I liked at the time. In particular the skull portraits of Guns N’ Roses from the “Appetite For Destruction” album, which I had on tape. I first started painting when I was 17, but it took a few years for my painting time to equal my drawing time. After watching the documentary “Crumb” I got obsessed with sketchbooks and had one with me constantly. I’d pull it out at restaurants and draw while waiting for food to arrive. Luckily I had a job as a telephone sales person for a mail order skateboard company at the time and I would just draw or read between phone calls. I wasn’t selling artwork at this point, but it felt like I was literally getting paid to draw. As long as you answered the phone and focused on the call you could pretty much do whatever you wanted between calls. When I was about 22 I moved to Los Angeles with big dreams of making it as an artist. I got into some group shows, but nothing too exciting came of it. After four and a half years I moved back to my home town where I eventually opened my own art gallery. By that point I had four more years of painting under my belt and being in a small town I was no longer a small fish in an enormous sea. I also had a self education of what galleries in LA were doing, which I think helped a lot when I opened my own place.
: I basically got to a “now or never” point in my life. Working a day job was not for me and working to make money for somebody else didn’t sit well with me either. My dad was always an entrepreneur so I figured I would start my own business someday too. I had a few ideas, but it never occurred to me that selling art would be a business because I had assumed that an artist needs to submit to galleries and that sort of thing. Walking around town one day I saw a “for rent” sign for an upstairs office space. The rent was only $300 a month. I was sort of in between jobs, but had some money saved and I just thought, “why not open a gallery to sell my own stuff in”. The rent was low enough that it didn’t feel like a huge risk if I didn’t sell anything. To me it was worth losing $300 just to find out. The space was also month to month, as opposed to a year long lease, so there was no commitment or obligation to pay rent for a year. I had already amassed a big body of work, but made a lot more and put on a big art show. I sent press releases to local papers and left stack of postcards at any business in town that would let me. My idea was that if I can sell enough to cover the rent I’ll just do it again the following month. This “do it again next month” went of for two years until I moved to a bigger space on the street level.
: Crowd funding is an amazing tool! One of the biggest obstacles, I think, for artists that are trying to live purely off sales from their art, is that there is no guaranteed paycheck at the end of the month. We just paint and paint and dedicate so many hours on something and then we hope it sells. Crowd funding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo have turned everything upside down, in a good way. They allow artists to pre-sell work in a way we haven’t been able to before. This helps with the creative process in a lot of ways, but for me the main one is that I’ve been able to make paintings without that “hope it sells” thought looming over me. Creatively, being in that state of mind just makes for better artwork too.
: Thanks for asking! This latest project started with the idea that I wanted to paint 100 owls. I don’t exactly know why, but I love painting owls and it sounded like a fun idea to paint a lot of them in a short period of time to see how they’d evolve and what new details I’d come up with to make them all unique. I didn’t think painting 100 owls for my own enjoyment was enough of a reason to try to get funding. So, after sitting on the idea for about a year something finally happened where I legitimately needed help, which is what these crowd funding site are really all about. They want to help you. My newest campaign is to help me get out of my garage (where I’ve been working for a few months) and into a dedicated full time art studio. The reason I’ve reached out on Indiegogo is because my previous studio was open to the public and located in a popular downtown shopping district. Working in my garage has eliminated the whole retail aspect that I loved about my previous studio. Not having that has obviously had an impact on the amount of sales I’ve had. I’ve actually found a new studio to work in, but it’s in an industrial warehouse and lacks the retail setting that I need. Because of that I still spend more time working in my garage and will probably have to give up the new space. With this campaign I’m hoping to pre-sell enough artwork that I can justify having a space that’s not really open to the public. I took the owl idea, but expanded it to other animals that I like painting, so contributors can choose between getting a painting of an owl, octopus, kitty, fat bird or a bunny. They can also choose what size painting they’d like and the prices range from $30 up to $1200. There are a lot of more details and an embarrassing video at https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/owls-octopi-kitties-fat-birds-bunnies-oh-my/x/4885211
I am very uncomfortable in front of a camera, but am totally willing to embarrass myself for my art.
: This is an interesting question because I’ve met a lot of people that became interested in making art later in life. When I say later I just mean after they got out of high school. You know, every kid draws when they’re really young and most grow out of it when it’s no longer required in school or they simply find other interests. These people I’ve met that got into making art later in life basically missed out on 8-10 years of drawing opportunity and they struggle with finding their “style” when they should be focusing on just drawing all the time. When you’re a kid you’re not afraid to suck at things the way adults are. For me, since I didn’t stop drawing when everybody else did in 5th or 6th grade my style came very naturally and at that age I didn’t even realize people had “styles” and because of that I had trouble answering this question for a long time. I finally realized that my style started developing when I was a kid in 6th grade because I hated using pencils. There was something I just didn’t like about them so I used a ballpoint pen for all my schoolwork and for drawing. My style came about because I couldn’t erase since I was using a pen. At a very young age I was forcing myself to draw things that I knew I couldn’t mess up at. Not in a perfectionist sort of way, but if I was drawing a face, I would purposely draw one eye super big and exaggerated and the other eye would be really small. Trying to draw eyes totally symmetrical when you can’t erase is impossible, so I developed this style where it was very obvious that I wasn’t trying to make a perfect face. When I did mess up I had to cover up the mistake in some creative way where I might turn an ink smudge into an alien character or something. I still do that to this day and it’s because of these “happy accidents” that I’ve ended up painting some things I wouldn’t have thought up on my own. These days I’m using a paint brush and a bottle of ink, but I’ve totally spilled and splattered ink on paintings by accident and then I’ve had to turn the spills and splatters into something else. My work is very spontaneous like that. I allow the element of chance to play a roll by not sketching things first and just seeing what happens.
: This kind of goes back to the movie “Crumb” I mentioned earlier. At some point in the movie he’s in San Francisco people watching and drawing and he makes a comment about how so many people are just walking advertisements. They have the SF 49ers logo on their shirts and hats and he thinks it’s crazy. I never really thought about it that way before and realized if I’m going to wear a t-shirt I might as well wear one with my own graphics on it (or at least a company I really believe in). I taught myself screen printing and started making shirts and stickers, which are a great way to get your artwork out in the world. The other merchandise items happened after I opened my art gallery and I learned very fast that not everybody can or wants to buy an original painting. To survive as a full time artist I had to make things across all price points, but it’s not all about business. I really like the merchandise and I think it’s fun to have. I read that Keith Haring would carry buttons with him when he would do his subway chalk drawings so that whenever someone would come up and talk to him he could give them a button and I thought that was great because it’s like a little tiny art piece that you can wear. Learning how to screen print is a really good thing to know because of all the different applications you can use it for. I’ve used screen printing in my originals and prints and have also printed on shirts, pillows, ties, napkins, belts, tote bags. Basically, anything you can lay flat you can screen print on.
: My wife, Coral, is always inspiring me. Sometimes she pushes me to work more when I’m in a sloth mode, but watching her work is very inspiring to me because no matter what she’s working on she goes above and beyond what she needs to. She does a lot of different stuff with different clients ranging from photography, to copy writing, to designing marketing materials for the web or print ads. Sometimes I think she’s crazy because she’ll be working on a project and when most people stop at the “good enough” point she just keeps going and going and the end result is always amazing and far exceeds what you’d expect.
Over the years, I’ve become less inspired by other artists’ actual work and more inspired by the amount of their output or work ethic. When I see somebody being really productive it inspires me to get off my ass and create more. Also, since I’ve gotten more into business and marketing books I’ve seen an overlap in those topics with self improvement. I thought Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers” was super inspiring. I read it years ago, but still think about it all the time. It doesn’t really fall into the business or self improvement section of the book store. I think it’s in the Psychology section, but there is a lot to learn about business in it and some of the stories are very inspiring. Another book I think about a lot is “The Mutt” by Rodney Mullen, who some would consider to be the best skateboarder ever. I think that even you are not interested in skating his story of persistence and determination would inspire anybody. His level of dedication doesn’t just border on insanity it runs right past it at full throttle.
: I get that feeling every time I sell a painting. Even after ten years of selling art as my full time job I still get a total high when something sells. With life in general though, I have three kids, so any morning that I can sleep in past 9:30am is the best day ever.
: If you want to be a full time artist I think it’s really important to draw or paint all the time. At the very least an hour or two a day. If you don’t have kids take advantage of the free time because you have no idea how little time you get for yourself once you have people that depend on you for everything. Read books and blogs about business and marketing and dedicate some time to those things because being “discovered” probably isn’t going to happen. I’ve seen some very talented artists fail because they lack a business sense. Unplug every once and awhile. Put your phone on airplane mode and close your laptop when you’re working on your art. The least amount of distractions you have will allow you to really dive deep into it and your work will be a lot better for it. Also, be open to opportunity when it presents itself because you never know what it could lead to.
Make sure to check out more from Jeff!: