Repeating patterns sure are fun to make, but I’ve personally had way more success getting my paintings licensed for surface design. And if you’re a fine artist or photographer, you can do the same.
I remember when I discovered the joy and delight of creating repeating surface pattern designs in the early days of 2017. “This is so much fun!” I said, over and over again, making patterns out of everything I could think of, from daffodil drawings to hand-lettered words and random shapes.
Recently, I also revitalized my love of painting and was mostly focusing on landscapes and uplifting word art, but there was something so very satisfying about creating patterns. I took some online classes and it’s where I learned about surface design and licensing artwork for fabrics and home goods, which I thought would be totally awesome! I kept creating patterns for a time, uploading some of them to Society6, but then sort of forgot about them.
One thing I didn’t forget about, though, was the idea of my art being used on the surfaces of products. I started researching items that usually had art on them, along with companies that licensed artists’ work.
And I quickly realized that I might be able to license some of my paintings and that patterns weren’t always needed!
I quickly honed in on greeting card companies as a place that might be a good fit for my artwork, as there is a lot of artwork needed for many different card companies. At the time, my personal style and artistic voice weren’t very developed, but I thought some of my work might be a good fit. I looked for card companies that showcased work with at least a somewhat similar vibe to mine and started emailing anyone that listed artist submission information.
And then I was rejected. A lot.
I also thought licensing some of my art for traditional wall art might be a good idea, but I was also rejected. A lot.
This is not a sad story, though, it’s a story of persistence (something I’ve written about here before) and how lots of companies need your fine art and photographs for their products, but sometimes it takes a while to find the right match (or to develop your skills!).
Eventually, as I became a better painter, clarified what subject matters to focus on, and created a larger body of work, I did get work as a surface designer.
First I had a few paintings — one floral, one whimsical landscape, and one piece of word art — licensed for stickers. Later on, the same company licensed eight of my paintings for use as boxed notecards and wall art. Then they acquired some winter-themed landscapes for holiday cards. Once you start working with a company, you have a direct line to the art director and can easily share new work with them.
After my initial success licensing paintings, I found my interest in patterns again. This time, I made much more detailed patterns, realizing I could use Photoshop to create repeating designs using hand-painted florals, one of my favorite subject matters!
I made pattern after pattern, and had some interest and there, but overall had a hard time getting my work licensed in this format.
What I did get, though, was another licensing agreement with a company that made wallpapers and wall coverings. I reached out initially because wallpaper companies use patterns, and I thought my floral work would be a good fit. The art director looked at the portfolio link I sent, passed completely over my patterns, and focused on my paintings. He asked to license some of my landscape work and even some abstract paintings for large wall decals and wall art, and of course I said yes!
For now, I’ve taken a break from creating patterns, as it seems my other work is more appealing to art directors, and as long as I get to create, it doesn’t matter to me if it’s a traditional landscape or some sort of pattern, as long as it’s marketable.
Related Article: Why Your Art Didn’t Get Picked Up by an Art Director
I’ve only had success getting my art used on surfaces for a year and a half or so, but I’ve been learning about and researching the industry for much longer, and I want to impart that knowledge to you, too.
A Quick Overview of Surface Design
Surface design simply means artwork that’s used on some sort of surface — it could be the surface of a tissue box or a pillow, a mailbox cover, or a card. Some surfaces are well-suited to repeating patterns, such as wallpaper or pencil cases or fabrics. Many other surfaces need good old paintings or photographs on them, though, and your artwork may just fit the bill!
Think of all the surfaces you’ve seen artwork on: t-shirts, throw pillows, posters, journals, and food packaging, and that’s just scratching the surface. Many of those surfaces have paintings or photographs on them, so if that’s what you create, lucky you! If you paint coastal or mountain scenes, Christmas or other holiday-themed items, animals or pets, you’ll find places for your work.
You may also wonder about the tech side of getting your art on products, and how on earth you get a painting on a dishtowel. Well, the first step is to make sure you have a high-resolution image.
If your artwork is relatively small and flat, scanning at home is a perfectly acceptable option (and what I do). If you have larger-scale artwork, you may need to have it professionally scanned or photographed in order to get the detail and resolution that will be needed by companies reproducing the artwork. If you’re a photographer and already working digitally, then you already have what you need!
Now that you have some idea of the basics, here are some products that would look great with your artwork.
A non-exhaustive list of products and surfaces on which fine art can be found
This is a wonderful place to start when trying to license traditional art! If you search online for card companies that accept artwork, you will find dozens and dozens. Look closely for a company whose existing body of work matches closely with your style. Some companies explicitly say they don’t accept photographs.
Others have very specific themes they’re looking for, and if you paint southwestern desert landscapes while they’re looking for botanical gardens, you’re not a good match. Items like florals and anything holiday (winter or snow scenes, pumpkins, etc.) are always popular.
These companies take your high-res fine art files and turn them into prints on canvas, paper, metal, and other surfaces, which in turn may be sold in online shops or brick and mortar retailers. Think about all the art you find at TJ Maxx or even Lowe’s; it all came from someone!
Wall coverings and wallpaper
Though wallpaper is generally made from repeating patterns, there are wall covering companies that also provide decals and other wall art, and often look for original paintings and fine art. I’ve had success getting both traditional landscape fine art and abstract work licensed with a wall covering company.
As I mentioned, stickers were the very first surface my paintings were used on! There are lots of sticker companies out there now, and if you make child-friendly, whimsical, or word/quotes art, this might be for you.
Obviously, there are a ton of calendars out there with beautiful photographs, but there are also calendars with paintings on them. Florals, landscapes, mystical themes, pets, butterflies, you name it. If you have a large catalog of similar work that would work cohesively in a 12- or 16-month calendar, this may be for you.
Similar to the calendar category, photographs — especially intricate, interesting, or landscape subjects — are often used on puzzles. There are also puzzles for kids with cute puppies or kittens on them, magical puzzles with unicorns or wood nymphs, floral designs, landscapes, intricate patterns, barns or buildings, realistic paintings of wildlife, and more.
These tend to lean in the direction of holiday and garden themes, and if you paint either of those subject matters, this may be a great surface for your art! Look around at the garden flags in your town and you’ll see Christmas trees, kittens, butterflies, flower bouquets, pumpkins or turkeys, and more.
Yup, if you’re creating mystical and magical paintings, you should look into tarot cards.
Notebooks and other stationery
Do you paint flowers? Stripes? Watercolor scenes? Notebooks or other types of stationery can be more challenging to break into, but there is certainly a market for any sort of beautiful, broadly appealing artwork.
Pillows, plates, tablecloths, napkins, all of these items need artwork, and often a little landscape scene or floral composition grace these.
Once you start looking around, you’ll see that fine art and photographs make up a huge chunk of the art you’ll find decorating the surfaces in your home and office. You don’t ever have to compose a repeating pattern; all you have to do is create the beautiful pieces of art you’re already making!
To get started, simply notice what you see when you go shopping or are perusing online. If you see a product with art that reminds you of your own, look for a company name and then research it online.
Getting fine art and photographs used on surfaces isn’t necessarily easier than repeating patterns; it takes just as much time and dedication to research the companies that can use these products. However, it’s incredibly satisfying to add another income stream to work you’re already doing!
Written by Jen Picicci
Jen Picicci is an enthusiastic painter and surface designer. She’s always loved art, but didn’t think she could pursue it as a career until the birth of her daughter. These days if she’s not painting, you can find her hiking, planting flowers, reading a book, or eating a brownie.