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Print on demand (POD) aka passive income (PI) for artists

O,h passive income – one of the most misleading terms I can think of. Passive might suggest that money come to you without any your action from your side and tell you what, this is quite opposite. I’d say that’s just a name to call some model of making money. Basically it involves working your ass of for X amount of time, very likely without any instant profit. So you can say: like opening most of businesses. Weeeell kind of, key however (this word and other similar like: although, but etc. will be overused in this note, so brace yourself – I’ll really need it to make a point) is to set your business in this way to automate most of processes and in a long run being able to earn money continuously while doing something completely different.
There are many, many types of PI and all this is fascinating (zero sarcasm – it really is) – if you’re intrigued I strongly recommend you to listen to one of PI guru Pat Flynn on  http://www.smartpassiveincome.com/.
In short he’s extremely motivating and gives tons of priceless advices on, well, kind of everything –  from running niche site to time management, to diet, to giving a speech. Brilliant guy, I like to listen to his podcast while putting colors or doing other less thinking requiring tasks.

Nevertheless, I don’t see the point for me to write much about generic stuff (just visit Pat for that  – it rymes because it’s true). So! I’ll jump right to “my thing” which is:

Passive income for artists


From my experience, there are 2 main ways to earn money on illustrating:

  1.  You get commission from some company or even some ‘private” person – they need some specific illustration and they willing to pay x money for that. So you complete this task to get paid and that’s it (yeah, simple as that, hahaha 😉
  2.  You make some work without any direction from no one and hope to sell it somehow. This one can become your passive income. You can sell it to company as license for using it, or you can sell it direct to customers in a form of prints on any type of surface or product, through online and offline galleries/boutiques, your own Ecommerce or Print On Demand type of sites. Beauty of this is, that sometimes you can sell one illustration in many places at the same time, although I heard more than once that some companies that buy licenses are not allowing artist to sell same design through other channels but! I have also very little experience with that, so again let’s focus on what I know best which in this case will be:

Print on demand – my story

My very first try with this was maybe in 2009, when I found out about Zazzle (one of the biggest POD platforms) on other illustrator’s blog and opened my first store there. That was just a try, I didn’t exactly know what I was doing and for sure, I wasn’t willing to put much effort on that and let’s face this fact from the beginning – this business requires tons of hard work and patience.
Process in short looks like that:

  1. Uploading your illustration as a jpg or png file
  2. Making mock up online using templates provided by POD platform – every shop has different range of products. Some of them have mostly basic apparel, prints on paper and phones covers, but some offer such items like baby pacifiers, dart boards or soap dispensers. It’s up to you how many mock ups you make with one design.
  3. Additional work would be making this customizable (this option is not available everywhere) and I think that this is worth the extra hours. Most people for example prefer t-shirts with some message, but it might happen, that someone will love your illustration, but not your “super funny” punch line – how cool is the opportunity to change it? Maybe for some inside joke or maybe just delete it? Very cool – that’s the answer.
  4. Super important step is write good descriptions – POD sites put automatically some copy about product itself, what type of material is made of, all measurement etc. What you need to do, is give clients opportunity to find your product in browsers by using proper keywords, both in tags and descriptions. This is time consuming, if you wish to do it right and obviously you do. That how Internet works – no way to go around it.
  5. Last step is marketing, which is completely different story.
  6. Haha! It was not a last step, because POD platforms tend tinker around all the time, making changes in their search engines, products options etc. and sometimes it means you need to fix hundreds of products, because they looks bad suddenly. Also, some of new products introduced by company are silly and you can’t imagine who would buy it, so you can skip it but! sometimes those are exciting like removable tattoos or bolt fabric and you just need to add those even if half of your team strongly disagrees 😉


  1. So, as I mentioned, just make few products and left it like this. I was getting few dollars now and then, but nothing serious. Situation turned around when Tytus closed his shop in Warsaw and we move to Barcelona in 2011. With more time on his hand, he decided to help me out with some of aspects of illustrator’s life. First, he looked through the computer and gather most of illustrations I had there, made for various occasions most as a portfolio I was sending to children’s book publisher as that was always my primary target. He started educating himself about SEO and stuff. The problem was, that money didn’t really come very soon, so we both lost enthusiasm specially I got super busy working on picture books and couldn’t (or at least thought that I can’t) deliver new illustrations for Zazzle.
    However ( 😉 ), being young illustrator (I mean experience wise) tend to be hard and somewhat frustrating. There were months without any reasonable propositions for me so between creating darkest scenarios related to this in my head I was also making new portfolio pieces and some drawings specifically for Zazzle. And then, I again got super busy with my “regular work” and ditched Zazzle and so on and so on…Nevertheless “magically” we started selling more and more and even though it was still not that much I remember very well months when those extra money saved our butts 🙂
    On those “on” periods we opened together:
    1) 6 stores on zazzle.com:

a) Colonelle – very first shop made mostly with my portfolio pieces and some little experiments.
b) Party Monster – one we planned a little more. Here we put designs suitable for accessions like birthday and holidays.

haloween day of the dead invitations with cats
c) Like it – place where you can find stuff with messages like “I love coffee” or “I like food” on
d) Daisy O. – designs made in different style, inspired with subcultures and tattoos. It does pretty well, consider how little things we have there.
e) Bigger Boss – my favorite one, connected with Jamaican music and style of people who are devoted to it. We’re both deeply in love with early reggae, ska and rocksteady, collecting and occasionally spinning record with this (original pressings from 60s only). One day I made B-day drawing for Tytus with his records and put on Facebook – that was a hit! So I started doing more of illustrations connected with this subject matter and as it gain big popularity among guys like us (crazy about this all thing) after many questions about this, eventually we started to sell those as well. In this shop, people are ordering mostly t-shirts. What I love about this one is, that I have connection with clients and occasionally they send me photos or I see some people wearing those t-shirts on festivals 🙂 Awesome feeling. You know – knowing that someone is using object with your illo is amazing enough but seeing it is 10 times better.

my BFF in one of our tank tops

My BFF in one of our tank tops.

f) Pattern Emporium – under invested project – it was made after my experience with flat, vector like patterns. That was for some competition, which I didn’t win and which left me with bunch of patterns in different style than my usual. As they didn’t really fit in we opened another store for them. I know that I will someday make more of those. Someday. But it stays out there and make few dollars from time to time.

2) Red Bubble – other major platform. It offers way less types of products and that set their apart is quality of work presented there. As all those POD platforms are free to use, you can imagine that there’s tons of garbage there and they deal with this in their own way. RB seems to care more and just in case we put only good designs and we sell definitely less here than on Zazzle, but interesting thing is that bestsellers are quite different. For example this narwhal did not have much of a success on Zazzle. Yet is a star on RB.

Cute Narwhal with donut t-shirt

3) Cafepress – here products are cheaper and range is quite wide, but I know that people complain about quality. It give us some extra profit though.

4) Spreadshirt – this is European alternative and we set this up for our fellow Europeans who had been witting us messages like this: Oh, I’d love to have this t-shirt but ordering it from US is expensive, not to mention you need to wait so long. For now, we have only Bigger Boss designs there, but we’re thinking of expand. We both wear t-shirts and tank tops (ok, this just me and this product I truly love, such a good line and pleasant to skin fabric <3) form there.

5) Society 6 – this one we barely tried. Collection which is shown on marketplace (appears in search on site) is hand picked and well, no luck here. Maybe one day, but not a priority

How it works for us right now?

There’s no easy answer for that (obviously ;)), but if I have been forced to give it I probably would go with “that’s kind nice extra money every month”
There’s no way we could live right now only with money from POD however!
1) we know now that we made many mistakes along the way and lack of commitment would be one of the biggest ups.
2) there are pretty serious indications that we could be successful if we put some more efforts (like always).

Let’s go over some example


This quite a simple cat inspired by Dia de Los Muertos – so far, during about 2 years, it earned over 520 GBP net (I count only Zazzle, but occasionally it sells on other platforms as well). And this is the biggest money I earned on illustrations so far. Actually, this is more than twice what I’m getting for double page spread with complex scene I usually do for picture books.
People are ordering mostly T-shirts but also some, mugs, phone covers, bags, cards and occasionally some other items
I painted this cat in maybe 30 minutes when I was still working with traditional media, on the side of some other illustration. I don’t really like it now, but it resonates for some reason with people so it stays.
All process of putting this on Zazzle I describe earlier (excluding marketing) takes 3-4 hours depends on type of design (e.g. patterns are way easier and faster to add that singe cat illustration + customizable copy). That’s a seriously good work to money ratio even if it came to us after while.
We have over 350 different designs on our hands now and there are few stars which earn similar money, bigger group, which making less, but still decent money and majority is actually earning very little. It looks like this classic 20/80 rule.
Why is that so? At the beginning, I haven’t been making anything specifically for POD – I just had some illustrations and used them. Beside the fact that, some of those are just poorly drawn, more important thing is that not everything is suitable for this (and that’s general rule in illustration business. Btw different type of illustrations is great for book, and different for gift market).
I made some miscalculation too like e.g one of my fav illustrations, which I spent many, many hours on and bring few cents…This is tough, but I needed to face the fact that, some things are sold and some don’t. I’m starting to see some patterns and I intend to use this. In my case for example, it seems like everything connected with Day of the Dead, as well as other kind of skulls and skeletons and Halloween –y things are good way to go. And that’s great, because I really enjoy doing those 😀
There is also good chance that, Holiday art, Santa and co. could be good idea to invest time in – as even those really terrible, super old drawings are selling surprisingly well of course mostly (but not only- sometimes someone buys Christmas Panda in March) in a season. This is maybe not my dream topic, but can be fun as well.
Bottom line is – I know that, there are artists who earning a living only on POD, so if they can, so do I! Specially I don’t have to do it on my own.

And here some cons and pros:

What is NOT that great about POD

1) It’s still quite new thing and some people not entirely understand the concept. You can’t imagine how many times we explain how this works just to be asked very next time if we are taking stuff with us when travelling or where we keep inventory, if we offer so many products…
Also I understand that photo of real existing product is more convincing than mock up. We’re ordering some samples for us and for friends, but obviously we are not able (nor we would wish to) order everything.


2) I strongly believe that, in online shopping whole “experience” is super important nearly as important as product itself . Nice packaging, some “thank you for purchase” note with personal feeling, maybe small extra (which can be really cheap – Tytus once got lollipop with socks he order  – I loved this!) – This can all make your clients feel great, like they got a gift, as they didn’t expect it and maybe in social medias era when people seems to taking picks of everything (“hey, Instagram look how cute package I got from company X) make some buzz around your brand. So this all you’re loosing with POD as they send everything in your behalf in standard packages.

What I love about POD

1) It suites our traveling lifestyle, we’re spending about half a year far from home, with all belongings reduced to medium size backpack + carry on. Fact that, we don’t own inventory yet people are getting products with my illustrations is the best.
2) There are no cost for us except for time = no risk
3) There’s no need for waiting for approval from some art director. I can take action whenever I want to. Trying to win illustration gig might be very frustrating and this kind of freedom and control over the process is somewhat refreshing. Here customers decide if your work is good enough to earn money and hey! there are way more “regular shoppers” than art directors right? 🙂
4) It takes off pressure of decisions. When you want to produce physical item for sell, it costs – so usually you’re able to start with limited number of size, colors not to mention designs. How you choose what to offer to people? For example T-shirts – your illustration on it might be awesome, but if you make only white one there’s little chance that person who doesn’t wear white will buy it. For instance, I love white tops, but I also find them absolutely impractical during trips and (ha-ha) I am kind of master of getting dirty. I don’t know, some girls are princesses and some are like me. There are other issues, like size range and line of said t-shirt. I do not love v-neck, but it’s flattered and favorited for many. SO-MA-NY-CHOI-CES! Sooooo many,,,
Selling via POD makes that problem disappeared – you show one option and customer can change style to his/her liking.
5) number 4 makes this also Eco-friendly, as there are no waste not to mention that this not support exploitation of workers in 3th World sweatshops and those products, we offers are made locally in US and Europe. Maybe this should actually be first point.

This year we’re determined even more to make our POD work and I’ll be posting our progress and more specific strategies, so if this is what you’re interested in stay tuned! And if you have any question – ask here on comments or write me via the contact form. Maybe one of us are able to help


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  2. Thank you so much for writing such an informative in-depth personal account of POD! You are so hilarious, and I love your cute art!

    Liked by 1 person

    • oh thanks Kathy! 🙂 I’m planning whole series about this topic and illustrator’s job in general.
      btw i love your work!!!


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  5. I really enjoyed reading about your experience with POD. I am thinking of exploring this option for some of my illustration work and found your insights very interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve had the most success with Society6 and Redbubble. Those sites are some of the best that also get a ton of traffic. I started getting more sales after I started writing blogs about art posted to those sites though. In my blogs I show off all the products that can be printed from the design. It works well because if the viewer isn’t interested in buying the design as an art print, they might be interested in buying the design on a t-shirt or tote bag etc. Its a great way to get additional traffic to your work that will continuously get visitors. You can take a look at one of my blogs to give you an example. https://smartworkdesigns.com/mermaid-wall-art-decor#more-693


    • Hey Don!

      thank you so much for your comment! it made me regret that I abandoned this blog. For sure your idea is great but also your artwork is pretty amazing so no wonder it sells 🙂


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