Teaching Art Online for Six Figures a Year

The e-learning industry reached $107 billion in 2015. Today it’s the norm to learn nearly anything online, including art making. How are art teachers taking advantage of the boom happening in online courses?

Bill Inman (inmanfinearts.com) is a successful floral painter based in Indiana who has sold in a variety of art galleries over his 20-year career. Like many mature artists, he felt the urge to begin passing on his painting knowledge. In 2012, he created his first YouTube tutorial. He filmed himself creating one of his floral paintings, from start to finish, including every brush stroke. When it was finished, the video was over 20 hours long.

Would anyone want to watch 20 hours of thinking, changing positions and head scratching, he wondered. He edited the video to under 10 minutes and posted it on YouTube as a way of attracting new students. Since then, Inman’s YouTube page has accumulated over 17,000 subscribers and more than two million video views. Not overwhelming numbers compared to the big YouTube stars, but more than enough to encourage Inman to create his first online course.

Inman sorted through dozens of online tools to learn how to record, edit, host and sell the course. He fit his trial and error approach in between time spent painting new pieces to sell through his galleries to support his wife and seven children. He thought getting his first course online would take two to three months, but it ended up taking more than six months. That course, with more than 20 videos, walked through every bit of Inman’s floral painting technique as well as how to pick the right paint and supplies.

Struggling to have time to make and sell the course, he brought on a partner, but after more than a year of working together, the course still wasn’t selling well, and they parted ways.

Fortunately for Inman, in October 2016, his son David stepped in to help. At that time, their mailing list of potential students was a respectable 1,200. David took over managing the course website and the marketing. He took a class on Facebook advertising and built an audience for Inman’s courses by using advertising to encourage interested students to join Inman’s mailing list. Potential students could see this video advertised on Facebook, click on the ad and be taken to a page on Inman’s site where they could submit their mailing address to get access to the full video.

Today, Inman has over 40,000 artists subscribing to his mailing list. Those artists receive updates on blog posts, as well as a series of emails explaining the benefits of his painting courses. Inman and his son tell me that nearly all of their students come from their mailing list.

The courses are highly profitable for Inman. For one of the courses, he charges $267 for a six-week program. As of May 2017, they were signing up a new student at the rate of one per day on average. You can find more information about Inman’s classes at masteroilpainting.com

TYPES OF CLASSES TAUGHT

There’s a wide variety of art classes taught online. Miriam Schulman (theinspirationplace.net), a mixed-media artist based in Scarsdale, New York, offers a dozen courses through her website. Like many artists, she offers an art journaling course. She also offers courses on specific types of art done in her style, titled Dog Days, Crazy Cats and Mixed Media Madness.

Schulman also sells most of her classes through her mailing list. “The key to actually getting people to enroll,” she said, “is to only offer limited enrollment periods.” At any given time, you can only sign up for about five courses on her site. Most of the courses have a week-long enrollment period and are only available once or twice per year.

The courses are all pre-recorded material. Students pay for the courses packaged together with personal feedback time from Schulman—either alone or in groups. Schulman tells me that she made over $100,000 last year from her online courses. She gets some of her students from organic search traffic to her blog, some from Instagram, but mostly from Facebook ads driving people to a series of short tutorial videos that offer a glimpse of her course material.

There is no hard data available on the number of art courses available online, but the numbers are in the thousands. Many courses are offered by universities, for-profit colleges and online course sites like CreativeLive and Skillshare. Prices for universities are regular tuition prices. Course marketplaces range in price from $15 per course up to $99. The most profitable way for an artist to teach courses? Create the course yourself and sell it through your own website. Master classes from some of the top artists can reach $500 or more with all of the revenue going directly to the artist.

More examples of these master-level courses include:
– Flora Bowley’s Bloom True course on intuitive painting (FloraBowley.com)
– Donna Downey’s Ultimate Guide to Learning Encaustic(DonnaDowney.com)
– Amy Won’s Labyrinth of Enchantment course on intentional art making and composition (AmyTWon.com)
– Wendy Hollender’s The Practice of Botanical Drawing (DrawBotanical.com)
– Yim Mau-Kun’s 5-Step Drawing System (YimMauKun.com)
– Ezshwan Winding’s Drawing and Painting Faces (Ezashwan.com)

WHAT TOOLS TO USE

The biggest challenge many artists face in teaching courses online are technology-related. This is why so many platforms like CreativeLive exist, and why artists like Inman have to struggle through months of trial and error to create a course that lives up to their expectations.

I interviewed teachers and reviewed courses from dozens of artists and I’m impressed at the variety of tools used by artists. Some of the popular tools used to get courses up and running include:

Video creation, editing, and hosting. Many artists create their courses with nothing more than an iPhone and less than $100 of lighting equipment. Simple stand lights can be purchased on Amazon or at a local photography store. Simply set your phone on a tripod with good light shining on your work, and you can paint away. If you need to talk about what you’re doing, most artists do that as a voice over after editing the video, but you can also just talk your way through it if it’s a short lesson.

For editing, you can use the software that comes with most computers like iMovie for Mac and Windows Movie Maker for Windows. More advanced editing tools include Adobe Premier, Adobe Final Cut, as well as the less slick but open source (free) OpenShot.

To get your videos online, YouTube is the easiest and most familiar way to host them.

If you want more fine-tuned control over which pages your videos can be seen on or how they’re viewed, Vimeo Pro is an excellent service that offers a range of controls.

For those with larger budgets and more marketing savvy, Wistia will do all of that plus give you in-depth analytics and integrations with complex marketing automation software. This will allow you to do things like trigger emails when someone completes a video or prevent them from progressing to the next lesson if they haven’t finished a video.

Websites/LMS. A website built specifically to host online courses is called a Learning Management System or Learning Management Platform. These services are built to handle memberships and course formatting without any programming, using just a visual wizard for setup. Connect them with your payment system and email marketing system, upload your content and you’re ready to go.

There are dozens of them on the market. Common LMS among artists include: Doki.io, Kajabi, Rainmaker, and WordPress (with the Sensei or LearnDash plugins). Unless you are already technically savvy, WordPress can be very confusing to first time users, although it does give you the most fine-grained control. Many artists recommended that you either hire someone to build your WordPress site or use a pre-built LMS like Doki or Kajabi.

File hosting. Classes often include downloadable supplementary documents. You can upload these files to your website and have people download them that way, but adding large files to your website can slow it down and cause it to crash. Many artists choose to host their files on services like Google Drive, Dropbox or Amazon S3.

EMS. You need a way to let your students know when classes are open, and you need a way to communicate with them during the course. If your course attendees are few, you can use your webmail account. Once you get more than a handful of students, however, you will want an email marketing service to automatically send out your lessons and other communications at the right time.

Community Engagement. Many artists find it helpful to create a place where students can engage with the teacher and with each other. Just like in a real-life classroom, these are places where students can share with each other, commiserate, and get feedback from the instructor. There are many apps used for this, the most common being Facebook Groups. Other popular tools include apps like Slack, Voxer, WhatsApp, and Google Hangouts. Leaving these groups open after the course ends is a great way to let the students continue to engage with one another and keep the conversation going until your next course.

BUILD WITH THE END IN MIND

For the best student experience, instructional designers tell teachers to build their courses with the final state of the student in mind. When someone takes your course, what will the final outcome be for them? In other courses, the student might build a bench, be able to do math, or better understand a book. For an art course, it’s just as important to have an end state. It will be much easier to build the rest of your course material. It will also be easier to sell your course.

Examples of end states for art courses might be: learn how to draw a dog or other specific figure, paint a Tuscan landscape, learn how to make a 4×4 encaustic piece or how to use light like Monet did.

SHORT AND SIMPLE IS KEY

Many artists, especially experienced ones, make the mistake of trying to teach everything they know about art making in a single course. This isn’t usually possible. People can only learn so much from a single course. Students will have a better experience if they are able to complete a course and feel like they have learned something from it than if they fail to finish a longer, more in-depth course.

Students who complete a course and feel satisfied with it are far more likely to purchase another course. Artists who have mastered giving their students these small, easily-accomplished goals see far more financial success as teachers.

A good rule of thumb is to keep your videos less than 5 minutes in length. Teach the shortest version of the subject that you can. If it’s a complex subject or technique, break it into segments and embed each video into the lesson separately.

Offer additional supplemental material, like PDF downloads of different stages of the completed project so that students can understand how each stage should look.

DO IT NOW

There are a few times when business opportunities are a gold rush, when the early adopters can make money just by showing up. Right now is one of those times for teaching artists. While there are lots of artists teaching courses online, there are even more people looking for opportunities to learn something creative, fun or inspiring.

Investors are still pouring money into online learning companies, which is a good indicator that there is still growth in the marketplaces as well as opportunities for individual teachers to stand out.

Cory Huff is the founder of TheAbundantArtist.com, where he teaches artists how to turn their art into a successful business. He is also the author of the book How to Sell Your Art Online (Harper Collins, 2016). He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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