Alexandrea Pangburn got her start as a paid artist doing pet portraits in Columbus, Ohio. She then moved to Golden, Colorado, and is now able to focus on commissioned work, murals and her own art in addition to managing the gallery at RiNo Made, an art store in Denver.
In our conversation, Alex shares:
- how she networks within her local arts community
- how her first mural became a huge marketing piece
- how she utilizes Instagram to get advice + connect with other artists
After earning a B.S. in Animal Sciences from the University of Kentucky in 2010, you worked with animals and spent time in the business world before getting more involved in art. Can you tell us what made you decide to pursue art?
My mom was an art teacher and we did art growing up, so art was always in our lives and I always did art on the side.
When I was doing [veterinary technician] work in Columbus, Ohio, I noticed that a lot of the clients were coming in wanting portraits of their dogs. And so I just kind of started painting pictures of people’s dogs, and then the next time I saw them being like, Hey, I painted this picture of your dog, do you want it? And of course they’re like, Yes. By the third year I was booked a year in advance for pet portraits.
So that’s kind of how I got started doing my own thing. And then once I got [to Colorado], I just kind of engrained myself in the culture and it just kind of snowballed.
When did you move here?
I moved to Colorado in September of 2017, so I’ve been here almost two years.
When you started presenting those pet portraits to the pet owners, did you offer those for free or were you charging?
The first ones I did for free and then I was like, Hey, it costs 20 bucks if you want it. If not, I’m just going to put it up in a gallery.
People started showing the work to their friends and they started commissioning me to do their pets, and then the price changed. But I always wanted my art to be something that was cheaper because I know art can be expensive. I mean, it is a lot of materials, time and effort, but I wanted my stuff to be obtainable for everybody. I guess I was marketing myself much lower than I should have, but it booked me a year out and paid a lot of my bills.
How did you determine when you needed to raise prices?
I guess it was when every single person was like, You need to raise your prices. [Laughs] So then I just looked at what other people in the pet commission portrait business were charging for their stuff, how long they had been around and just tried to base it off of my experience and also how much I was spending on materials.
Are you self-taught with your art?
And how did you choose your mediums?
I always worked with acrylic paint. That was something I loved doing. I did work with watercolor for a really long time, but acrylic was something I thought was really fun. And spray paint. That mural I did on 26th and Larimer [in Denver of a Western Tanager bird] was the very first spray paint mural I’ve ever done. I had such a blast with it that I love it, it’s so fun. I would rather do that than anything else, it’s so fast.
How did you teach yourself? What was your learning process?
A lot of trial and error.
I always loved mixing colors when I was a child, so that was something I did first — try to figure out what made a color.
Learning technique was really hard and I tried to make sure to ask people a lot of questions who were in the craft and who I looked up to. Thankfully Instagram makes it so nice to be able to connect with other artists. And depending on their caliber, artists will get back to you or they won’t. The ones who do get back to you I feel have a lot of good points and tips on how to make your craft a little bit better.
Can you walk us through your creative process?
Sure. It starts very small and then it kind of gets more complex. It’s never done all at once. It takes me a week or two to really build something that I’m really happy with. There’s a lot of change.
Because I was a commissioned artist for so long, most of the stuff that I’m still doing is commissioned, even the murals. People want to work with me on the design and the concept so I start by getting what they are thinking first and kind of go off of that.
The mural on 14th and Krameria, he wanted the krameria flower tied in and then something Colorado. He had no other requirements besides that, so I actually had a really hard time trying to figure out what I wanted to do on that wall because it’s so long. But I really enjoy the whole flora and fauna thing, so I think I was just going through Google images and looking up different animals, seeing their poses. The pronghorn was something that really stood out to me. I haven’t seen them in any murals out here and I feel they’re such a fun little gem of Colorado to find out in nature.
So I just started like that — I put a pronghorn on there, then I put another one and then it turned into this herd of pronghorn that are kind of running in the foreground of krameria flowers.
What does the process look like when you first present a design to a client? Is there a lot of back and forth or do they sometimes just approve whatever you show them?
Yeah, fortunately there hasn’t been a lot of back and forth. A lot of them were super stoked on whatever I came up with. But I’m more than willing to go back and forth to an extent. I want to make sure if I’m doing this for somebody that they’re happy because then I’m happy too. So there might be some compromise but it usually turns out to be pretty perfect in the end.
And how about your sales process for things like negotiating, selling, deposits and invoicing? What does that look like?
In the very beginning I didn’t charge any deposits — I had a lot of trust in people. But then I got that one person who burned me, so then I started with a $50 deposit on my pet portrait commissions. That just covered my cost and initial time if, for whatever reason, they decided they didn’t want it at the end.
For my murals I have a $100 deposit that covers me going to the space, taking the pictures, drawing up the concept and the design and presenting that to them. If they don’t want to go with me, then I’m covered for my time. But if they do, then that $100 deposit goes towards the end cost of the mural. I don’t really know how I came up with that, it just kind of fits how much time I’m spending on the project.
How do you invoice clients?
It’s super simple. I just do something in Excel or Word, put together a little spreadsheet with the size of the walls or the paintings and charge them that way. I charge per square foot for my murals so it’s easy for me to be like, This wall has this many square feet, so this is how much it’s going to be. For my paintings it’s just time and size. For larger-scale stuff that’s not super detailed I won’t charge as much as the smaller pieces that have tons of detail.
Is word of mouth the way most people have found you?
Word of mouth so far has been the best. And the people who know me.
Also thankfully because the bird mural on 26th and Larimer is in such a prime spot, it gets a lot of foot traffic. One of my clients saw that mural and then commissioned me to do his stairwell. It was seven walls and up three flights of stairs, this whole continuous mural. He’s a real estate developer so it’s kind of perfect.
Do you actively do any marketing, like on social media?
I do Instagram. I’m not super on top of it. I do social media for the RiNo [River North] Art District and also RiNo Made so most of my energy is kind of put into that and I don’t want to do my own. But any of the art that I complete or I’m in the process of doing, I will always post to social media. I try to interact with a lot of other artists on social media and build a network. I feel like that’s really helpful.
You’re also the gallery manager for the RiNo Made Store. Has that been beneficial to your art?
Super. When I came here, I didn’t really know anybody. I’d moved here right after Crush [Walls mural festival in Denver] had ended for 2017 but I knew I wanted to do it in 2018. And they were opening the store RiNo Made in November of 2017 so I reached out to the creative director. They needed some help part-time and I have a background in management, so I just naturally started to manage things and ended up being the manager there.
With all of the artists who have been coming through there, all the people and the connections I make are super beneficial since I’m trying to be in that community. And through that community I met Robin [Munro], he runs Crush, and he’s been a huge resource for a lot of great connections and really great artists.
A lot of artists have many different ways they earn money and kind of piece it all together. You’ve got your gallery manager work, murals, commissioned art — are there any other ways you’re earning money and how does it break down percentage-wise?
Yes. So RiNo Made definitely is the bulk of my income — probably 65% — and then the rest from art. Since I did that bird mural I’ve gotten a lot of mural commissions from that and it’s starting to pick up. It’s the first year that I’ve considered doing art full time, which has been pretty exciting.
I’m working on my show for November 2019 right now, so I’m not taking on any other commissions. I’m committed to getting that show done.
Can you tell us more about your show?
Yeah, I’m having a solo show at RiNo Made in November. A lot of my inspiration for the show drew from this western painter, Mark Maggiori, and a couple of other western artists. Mark’s stuff is mind-blowing, his clouds are unbelievable. I’ve been highly influenced by him and he has definitely been a muse of mine since we’ve been here.
You know those old photo booths where you can dress up all westerny and whatnot? There’s one of those in Golden and I reached out to the lady who runs it to see if she had any clothes I could just borrow. She was more than happy to help and I got some old western gear, like 1930s western ranch-style clothing. And then the girl down the street has four horses and I’ve been riding with her since I moved out here. So I took her and her horses, two of my friends and all the clothes up on the mesa and we did a photoshoot. I took all the photos myself and I’ve been working off of building this story about ranch-style Colorado days with these two women and horses.
How many pieces are you putting together?
Yeah, different sizes. I think the smallest that I have right now is a 12×12” and I’m working on a big 46×32” right now. I’ll probably do one more that will be bigger than that. I really prefer to work larger. It’s so much more fun.
Do you have any cost-saving tactics to help you sustain what you do as an artist?
Just trying to live simply, I guess. I’m not trying to spend my money on a bunch of things that I don’t need and instead put it towards my art. Stuff that will help me become a better artist — better quality brushes or better quality paint.
But I don’t know, that’s kind of a tough question. It’s hard. Living out here is super expensive, so it’s definitely been a challenge.
What prompted the move from Ohio?
Scott [Santee, her boyfriend] is a tattoo artist and he works at Til Death Denver. He’d been coming out here for the past decade or so and they offered him a full-time position, so he asked me to come with him. He had brought me out here a couple of times prior and I just fell in love with it. I always had a love for the West and hadn’t really had a chance to be in it and experience it. I loved it as soon as we came out.
Besides the bird mural, what have been some of your biggest successes so far?
Probably just making the connections that I’ve made out here with people. The art community is super supportive. That’s something that I’ve never really experienced before — being able to talk to everybody, people wanting to help you. I think just being part of the RiNo Art District was a huge success for me in really putting myself in that position.
It’s just very inspiring out here, all of the nature, all of the artists, there’s just a lot of talent. So I feel like just moving out here was a giant success.
What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered?
I do feel like there’s a stereotype of the Wild West out here and it’s totally true. It’s just harder out here. I don’t really know what it is but a lot of things just don’t come easily, you have to work harder. I don’t know, just have more patience for stuff that’s going on.
Probably the hardest part is trying to make sure that I’m making enough time to do my art. In Ohio I worked all of the time and I was hardly ever doing my art. It’s hard to motivate myself sometimes to do my art.
How much time do you think you spend at your day job versus being able to make your own art?
Probably six to eight hours. Even if I’m not at RiNo Made I’m meeting with artists or going to their studios. Especially for the gallery curation that I’m doing. I really make it a point to see who these artists are and how they work. That helps me because I’m basically marketing their artwork and if somebody asks me a question, I want to know who the artists are. So I love to go to their studios, see their artwork, see what they’re working on, what drives them. Then I can talk about them without them being there.
First Friday [art walks and gallery openings] weeks are insane — I don’t get to paint at all and that sucks. But it’s cool because I really love getting those artists other opportunities. That’s something I always enjoy, getting artists jobs or promoting them and marketing them. So the curation projects have been super fun for me.
I try and put in at least an hour of painting a day, even if it’s just in the morning or at night right before I go to bed. Just something so that I can have a little bit of progress on the pieces that I’m doing. When I’m doing mural projects, though, that usually takes up all of my time.
Since you do work with a lot of artists, what kinds of things do they ask for help with? And do you have any tips on ways artists can get their work out there more?
Yeah, it’s just making connections. Go meet all of the artists in the town. It’s really about putting yourself out there. You can sit in your garage and do a whole bunch of paintings, but if you’re not putting them out there nobody is going to see them.
And just do everything. Art. Everywhere. A lot of the artists I curated have really engrained their lives into art, doing art in so many different ways, not just doing paintings. One artist I curated is a tattoo artist on top of muralist on top of painter. Artists with so many different mediums are the ones who I find are really rocket shipping up in the industry because they are putting themselves in all these different artistic mediums.
How are you finding these artists and what’s your selection process?
Since I’ve been at RiNo Made I’ve just had the ability to meet a bunch of different artists, which has been really nice.
The criteria is just hustling. These artists are just hustling and they are full-time artists most of the time. I want to say that everyone I’ve curated through Ironton [Distillery & Crafthouse] are full-time artists — they don’t do anything else but art. And it’s just a way for me to help them boost by putting a show together. For the whole first year Ironton was open they had a gallery space where they didn’t charge any commission to their artists which was huge, no gallery does that. Their gallery space is giant so it’s very intimidating for artists to come to it and think that they have to do an entire solo show there. But they always pull it together and it pushes them a little bit to know they can do something like that.
What’s a dream project for you?
Collaborations with other artists. I think that’s the most fun because you pick up little tips and tricks and nuances and you can kind of add them into whatever you’re doing as an artist and vice-versa. I think to be able to do a large-scale mural with one of the artists I’m super stoked on right now would be really tight.
For my Crush submission this year I’m hopefully going to be collaborating with a girl who does abstract art. I just don’t think you see that very often, where you have an abstract artist and a realism artist come together on something — at least nothing that I’ve really seen, especially in a mural.
What drives you as an artist?
Just the creative streak. I’m inspired by almost everything — other people, nature, animals. I really wanted to be a vet but I just wasn’t cut out for that much schooling. When I was a kid I always talked to animals and I thought they were talking back to me. So in my art I really try and create some sort of emotion with the animals. Rather than them just standing in a field, there’s some sort of action going on. They really do express a lot of themselves in body language so that’s something I try pulling into my art. That’s highly inspirational for me.
Twisted (Acrylic paint on handmade birch panel) – This was a private commission by some friends in Ohio and probably one of my favorite pieces I’ve done to date. My goal is to always create something that shows emotion. Animals show emotion through body language instead of words. So in my art, I love capturing animals in emotion. This piece makes me feel a sense of struggle as well as romance. –Alexandrea Pangburn
What are your hopes and dreams for the future?
I hope to do more murals. They’ve been super fun. It would be cool to do a mural overseas somewhere and just travel around and do that.
I also want to hone in on my art skills, something that I haven’t really had a chance to do. This year is really proving that it could be possible to do that at a higher level, so I’m excited for that.
Interview edited for length, content and clarity. Artist’s work (images, audio and/or video) courtesy of the artist unless otherwise noted. All other photographs by Kim Olson.
- Crush Walls – annual art + mural festival in Denver
- First Fridays – art walks + gallery openings in Denver
- Ironton Distillery & Crafthouse
- Mark Maggiori – American West painter
- RiNo Art District in Denver
- RiNo Made – shop featuring work from Denver artists
- Robin “Dread” Munro – Denver artist
- Til Death Denver – tattoo studio