Originally from South Carolina, Denver-based painter James André has been blazing his own trail as a full-time artist for over 5 years.
At 25, it became clear to James that he could either join the rat race or dedicate himself to his art. He opted for the latter. And after selling a painting for 16 times what he thought he could get for it (thanks to his then-manager’s advice), he’s well on his way to becoming a “successful living artist.”
In our conversation, James shares:
- How combining social media with moving around the country grew his fan base
- Why understanding shipping costs and procedures can save money and headaches
- How managing clients and their expectations can be a full-time job
Can you give us a quick overview of who you are as an artist?
I’ve been painting full time for the past five years and lately have gotten into animal paintings.
You’re originally from Greeleyville, South Carolina, where you attended high school at the South Carolina Governor School for the Arts and Humanities. You also went to the Art Institute of Charleston for a while before landing here in Denver. What brought you here?
I had an art manager for about five years and we both worked in San Diego together before he moved to Denver. For about a year he kept trying to convince me to move here. He said the art scene is great out here and he felt my art would sell. He finally convinced me and I think within the first few weeks I was here, St. Anthony’s Hospital bought a painting from me for $5,000. So that’s when I agreed that I’d stay.
When was that?
Is that when you went full time with art?
And how did the hospital find you and your artwork?
You know, it’s hard for me to say because that’s what my manager was for. I wouldn’t necessarily get involved with clients. My manager would just ask me to show up to meetings and introduce myself. I just focused on painting and he handled the emails and stuff like that.
What made you decide to start working with a manager?
Actually he was a good friend of mine and he chose to do it himself.
We met in 2010 and he kept telling me over and over that I should put my art out there. And once he saw the extra money he could make from it as well, I guess that was more motivation for him to keep doing it.
He just enjoyed doing it and it was also a way for him to network. My passion is painting, his passion was getting out, networking and meeting people.
So we both enjoyed what we were doing and we both made money.
What kind of agreement did you guys have? Did you give a certain percentage?
Yes. I believe in the beginning I gave him— it was 20% to 40%. It was worth it for me because I wasn’t out there pushing my art to sell.
That $5,000 painting I originally was going to sell for $300. So 60% of $5,000 is a big difference. It worked out.
You said you no longer work with him. What was the reason for moving on from that partnership?
We’d done it for about six years and nothing bad at all happened, just moved on. He got a girlfriend, I kept doing my thing.
Would you hire another manager in the future?
Yes, I need it badly. [Laughs]
How did you make ends meet before you went full time as an artist?
I worked in the service industry for a long time. Actually cooking is my second biggest hobby after art painting.
I always wanted to put little notches in my belt within the culinary industry. I was a pizza maker for a while and then I love coffee so I was like, Oh, let me be a barista. And then I was a sushi chef for a while. I was also managing restaurants and things like that.
Those jobs allowed me the flexibility to focus on my art. I could go to the restaurants, put in my eight hours, then get off work and not have to worry about it again that day. Plus, if I needed to get time off of work to do my art, usually the restaurants would allow it because I always put that out there whenever I started a job. Some of them were so cool that they would let me take six months off at a time just to focus on my art clients.
How did you know you were ready to go to full time with your art?
It was just the amount of work that I was getting. I’ve had over 50 clients at a time and there was no way I could work a full-time job or even a part-time job.
Actually, I do remember the exact moment it happened. I remember talking to myself about it. I was like, All right, I can work at this restaurant and make $400 this week or I can spend three hours on a painting and make $400. That was the point that I realized whatever I painted, 90% of the time it was going to sell. If I painted three paintings for three hours each a week, that’s only nine hours of work doing what I really enjoy doing and I’d make that same amount of money, if not more, instead of going to the restaurant and working for someone else.
Where were your clients coming from? Were they coming from your manager or how did people know they could buy your work?
Well, over the years I’ve travelled across the country and lived in 16 different cities across America. Everywhere I went I stepped into the art scene a little bit. So basically I started growing followers in every city —from South Carolina to Florida to San Diego. I guess just all of that moving around got my art out there and now I’m an artist from coast to coast.
Then a lot of people tell me that they show their friends my work, so that’s how it continues to grow. I also realized that as my friends get older they get more successful and a lot of them tell me whenever they can afford my work, they’ll buy it. And over the years a lot of people kept their word on that.
That’s awesome. And the way you stay in touch with them, is that mainly through Instagram?
Mmhmm, yes. Instagram is a visual app so I take advantage of that and specifically focus on just posting there since I’m a visual artist. I don’t post too much of my personal life, just my artist life.
I used to have Facebook and a website as well. But I don’t like social media at all. If it wasn’t for my art I would not be on any of it.
Do you have any strategy for when you post and what you post?
I used to work with a couple of guys who did social media for a living and they managed my social media for a while. But now I usually post around 7 AM, 12 PM and 7 PM to connect with my following from South Carolina to San Diego — I use specific times that I know those users are most active.
Okay. And how about engagement? Do you try to go in and respond to comments from people?
It depends. There are times when a lot of people are messaging me but I’m busy and I do forget a lot and I feel bad. But it just depends on my mood and how much I feel like interacting with people.
Do people mainly contact you through Instagram’s direct messages? And how do you collect payment?
Yeah. And I usually use Venmo or Zelle for payments.
Okay. And what are the different types of pieces you sell — are they commissions, originals, prints?
It’s usually about 50/50 commissions and originals that I paint on my own. I try to keep a balance and just paint whatever is inspiring me at the moment. For example if someone came to me and ordered a painting of their puppy today and then a week later you came to me and ordered a painting of a giraffe, if I wake up the next day and I’m feeling that giraffe, then I’ll paint that.
It can create a conflict for me with a lot of my buyers because they commission work from me, but I don’t really keep an order of how I paint it. All they see is the final product that they really like but they don’t understand that that final product came from just the creative flow and the inspiration that naturally comes to me. I don’t force any of these paintings.
So what do you tell your clients? Do you give them a rough idea of when to expect their pieces?
It depends on the situation. This is where I need management because I’m not a business person.
I’ve been freelancing for the past five years and, even in school, I’ve always waited until the last minute to do anything. Deadlines were not my friend. Well sometimes that extra pressure helped, but I’m not used to making deadlines for myself. I do a lot of things on my own schedule.
If you ask for your pet portrait, in my head I envision it happening within a month, but there’s also no telling what’s going to happen that month. If it’s a smooth creative month for me you’ll probably get it within a week. But if, I don’t know, I have car troubles or my puppy gets sick then it’ll take longer.
I guess that’s the part people don’t realize. This past month a lot of people have been messaging me asking for updates and once a lot of people start messaging me I tend to shut down even more.
I feel a lot of people are used to Walmart or Target or something like that where they get their instant customer service and the customer is always right. But I’m just one man who has to email 50 people and paint and just live a normal life as well.
So at this moment I’m trying to finish out these last few paintings I have to do and then I’m sort of stepping back again. Because with all the clients and everything it’s beginning to get stressful again.
How much time would you say you spend on creating versus business tasks?
I can actually paint really fast. Just the other day for Crush [Walls, a Denver mural festival] I think I did five paintings in an hour and three of them sold. Odell Brewing had asked me to live paint [at their taproom in Denver].
But I’d say I spend the least amount of time painting and a lot of time trying to figure out how to respond to people or how to package. Like right now I have a package that I have to send to England and I guess there’s all of this customs paperwork that I never knew about. So now I have to sit down and spend time trying to figure out how to ship to England in time for my client’s daughter’s birthday.
What about contracts — do you usually put together contracts for clients?
I have them available but I just use Zelle or Venmo as my contract or my records instead of spending more time writing out a contract. And a lot of people personally know me or met me throughout the years.
I’ll have the client pay a 50% deposit and once they do I leave a message with the payment that says “Deposit for Zebra painting” or something like that. And once they receive their painting then the other 50% is due.
Is that also how you keep track of what is still outstanding?
Pretty much, yeah. Whenever I’m trying to figure out everything I have to paint I’ll go through my Venmo or Zelle account and just keep records of who paid and who hasn’t paid and what I have to finish.
What does your creative process look like?
So this is one reason that I like Instagram. I follow National Geographic, Animal Planet, zoos and just accounts that post amazing photos of animals. Animal photos are usually my main inspiration. I’ll just screenshot a lot of them and then at some point go back through my phone and see what I’ve collected over the past few weeks. Then whatever painting or picture inspires me, that’s usually how I pick out what I’d like to paint.
I pretty much just put on headphones and paint. I don’t plan anything, nothing is premeditated besides the animal I want to paint. There’s no real in-depth, How am I going to do this? It’s just whatever I feel in that moment.
It’s also the music that I listen to. I usually listen to 2- to 4-hour mixes and they go through their own waves of emotions as well. So if it’s a sadder or happier part of the song you might see that come out through my technique. It just depends on how I’m feeling, the music or just whatever is happening at that moment.
A lot of people who follow my art know this already, but I’m colorblind as well. So color isn’t what I preplan or focus on either. I hear the color through the music, and whatever I’m feeling is like a visual connection with the paint color that I’m choosing. If I ever have to go specific, like if I need red, a lot of times I literally have to look at the color that’s printed on to the tube.
For the music mixes, what do you listen to?
It’s a lot of progressive trance. It’s just this group of DJs that I follow. One’s named Kidnap. One’s named Luttrell. They’re basically from Anjuna Beats and these guys are really cool. They’re world-famous DJs. I’ll send them my art sometimes and they will actually reply and say, You did this? Cool.
Nice. You mentioned when you were creating those pieces for Crush that you knocked a few out in an hour. Do you typically do each painting start to finish or do you jump around a lot?
Oh yeah, I jump around a lot. I guess that’s where the deadline comes in. That pressure does something to me and even though I was really, really, really tired I was thinking financially at that point that if I didn’t do it then I was going to lose out on a few hundred dollars or whatever. So I just forced myself to paint.
But usually I have 30, 40, 50 paintings I’m working on at a time and once again, it’s that inspiration thing. Maybe it’s just the composition of the painting or the idea of it that I’m inspired with so I’ll do that part. Then I’ll lose the inspiration for where I was going and I’ll just leave it there. And then in my mind over days, weeks, months or years, after a while that inspiration hits again, then I’ll jump back into the piece.
Do you have sizes that you prefer or work with?
Yeah, right now 30” x 40” is what I love working on. That and a more special size is 24” x 30” because it’s cheap to ship. Once you cross that line then your shipping cost is not worth it anymore a lot of times.
And most of your clients are out of town.
What kind of paint do you like to use?
I really don’t have a specific paint I like to use. It all works the same for me so far.
For your prices, it sounds like you’ve kind of run the gamut from a few hundred dollars all the way up to thousands of dollars. So how do you figure that out?
Since I’m doing it full time I kind of have to be flexible with it. The guy who managed me for a while would always tell me, You have to up your prices, up your prices.
For me, shipping comes into play as well. I found locally $300 to $600 without the shipping cost, if they can just come pick it up, is worth it, especially if that’s around the price of my rent. It’s like I can just take a few hours to paint something and now I have 29 more days to figure out my rent for the next month.
If I’m just focusing on staying afloat and getting more art supplies then I’ll take on these $300 to $600 projects. If it’s a corporate business or a hospital, they will pay whatever really. And then some people who’ve followed my work for a while pay what I want my art to be. I wish I didn’t have to sell under $1,500 anymore, but I don’t know — $600 cash also feels good.
So yeah, it pretty much just depends on the situation. But then there are also people who follow my art who tell me they love it but they don’t have any money. I know they aren’t trying to pull one over on me or anything so I will sell them a piece for $100 or something.
Case by case.
Yeah, yeah, exactly.
When selling to corporate clients, do they normally come to you and say the number that they want to pay or is there a negotiation process?
It’s normally their whole idea. There was one situation where it was a corporate business that opened up right there beside Coors Field. Their designers contacted me and I kind of went off their old pricing where they paid five grand for the last one and they wanted a piece twice as big. So I just kind of rolled the dice on it and I said, You know what? I’ll just see what happens and I told them $10,000. They eventually were like, Well that’s out of the price range, we’ll figure out something else.
So I guess even with corporate people I pretty much let them give me their budget, and if it’s too low then I’ll tell them to meet me in the middle.
But yeah, it still tends to be case by case because some corporate people, if it’s a whole design project, they may not have that budget just for a specific piece.
30” x 40” acrylic & oil on canvas. —James André
What’s your biggest challenge or struggle, either right now or that you’ve had to deal with?
If I wanted to be more vague it would be the business side of it. I’m not a business person.
But if I wanted to pinpoint it, it really is clients. They’re my biggest struggle. And communication. I don’t know how to stay on top of emails or keep emails organized or give people updates throughout the week.
I’m just like the stereotypical artist who stays up all night painting. I choose to do that because that’s the only time my phone isn’t blowing up from clients. But if I stay up all night painting and have a meeting that next morning — and this has happened plenty of times — by the time I’m done painting I crash because I stayed up all night trying to paint for another client.
So all of the things I have to do in the mornings like shipping or emailing or updates, all of that daytime business stuff I sleep through because I stayed up all night painting since that’s the only time my phone is quiet.
That’s the biggest struggle, just balancing clients. If clients would understand they will get their piece, just let me balance it all— that’s why my business is successful, because people get their art. It’s just that I don’t have the answers for how long it will take because I don’t know. I just paint. That’s all I do.
What drives you to paint?
I guess all through my life the closest people to me like my mom and my art teachers in my hometown, everyone really supported my art and me pursuing it. And at the age of 25 all of my friends were graduating college, getting their houses and all of this stuff and that started to put pressure on me like, What am I doing, still just painting and working in restaurants? Not that that’s bad but I felt like I didn’t have a future ahead of me.
So six years ago at the age of 25 I asked myself, What should I do — should I go to school to be an accountant or a nurse or should I chase my dream of being a successful living artist? And within a split second I answered myself. Or I asked myself another question — I asked, At the age of 60, would I regret not even trying to be a successful living artist? And immediately I said, Yes, I would regret it.
From that point on I gave up caring about what everybody else was doing and focused on my art. That’s my drive, to prove to myself that I can be a successful living artist.
A lot of times societal pressures still creep back in. How do you keep reminding yourself, This is what I really need to do?
By thinking of that painting that sold for five grand.
Then on a daily basis I get constant reminders. I do have a good following on social media where other artists will contact me for advice. And people like you ask me to do an interview. Even walking around Denver there are times when people come up to me in the grocery store and are like, Oh, you’re James André the Artist.
On a good week whenever there are no stresses, whenever I’m just in that great creative flow, I do sell one to five paintings a week. I get contacted for work all the time. So there’s no time for things like “you aren’t doing anything” or “you aren’t successful” to even creep into my head.
Interview edited for length, content and clarity. Artist’s work (images, audio and/or video) courtesy of the artist. All other photographs by Kim Olson.
- Anjuna Beats
- Crush Walls — Denver Mural Festival
- Kidnap — musician
- Luttrell — musician
- Odell Brewing Company
- South Carolina Governor School for the Arts and Humanities