How Narrowing Your Focus Can Lead to Art Licensing Success

As creatives we are dreamers, and it’s easy to look at exciting things people are doing online and get tempted in all directions by interesting projects, new tools, amazing clients, pretty products, drawing challenges, etc. For years, not having a clear focus on where I wanted to go made me vulnerable to influences and left me feeling frustrated and spinning around in circles. In today’s post I want to share how narrowing my focus and setting specific goals helped streamline my life and work and enabled me to reach goals faster than I had before. 

How Narrowing Your Focus Can Lead to Art Licensing Success | Sketch Design Repeat

Blowing in the Wind

Let’s rewind several years back: I was a frustrated mom of three, trying to balance a career as an illustrator with never-ending housework and kids’ schools, hobbies, and appointments. I had been working towards illustration and multiple income goals for several years; building up portfolios for both licensing and book illustration, selling art, manufacturing small items, running an Etsy store, and teaching art classes. There were a lot of things I wanted to accomplish in illustration: Illustrate picture books & middle grade books (the two are different styles), and then design fabric, puzzles, kids’ toys, general home decor, and paper goods. I avoided making decisions or limiting myself, because life as a military spouse and mom was a life of constant change, so I figured I’ll just work on everything and when I get a breakthrough in one, I’ll go with that. 

My frustration kept growing, because no matter how much (of my limited) time I put into work, I seemed to be spinning around in circles. Looking back at it now, it’s no wonder! I was trying to reach a dozen goals all at once, and even if I made a step towards a goal every day of the month, dividing that up between 12 directions became a drop in the bucket. 

Surface design by Mirka Hokkanen

Focus and Prioritize

Then one day I listened to a lesson on goals and vision boards and decided to take charge and change my life. I had always resisted making a vision board, or writing goals down, because I didn’t want to feel stuck to things, and didn’t see how writing things down would make any difference. I had it all safely tucked in my brain! But I also realized that as a mom of three, I was limited in time and resources, and things needed to change if I wanted to get anywhere. The most important lesson for me was that I needed to FOCUS and PRIORITIZE my goals. So, I sat down, projected my thoughts into the future, wrote down all my lofty goals, and then put them in order of importance and vision. I posted my goals right next to my computer screen, so every time when I felt a pull to something that was counterproductive, I was reminded of where I really was heading and could course correct. 

RELATED ARTICLE: How To Set Realistic Goals for Your Art Business

Main Goal and a Few Little Ones

I picked one main goal — picture book illustration — and a few smaller secondary goals that I could work towards on the side when it was slow with book related work. I set aside my other goals and promised to visit them later, after higher priority goals had been met. 

One of my secondary goals was to see my illustrations on puzzles. I love puzzling and felt like some of my pieces lent themselves to puzzles already, so it felt like a goal that was relatively easy to reach.

Having a clear focus on puzzles, I was able to pick a few pieces out of my portfolio that worked for that niche and took the time to create a few more to round out a nice mini portfolio. My next step was to research puzzle manufacturing companies to submit work to. There weren’t many stores that sold puzzles around me, so I turned to Google for research. 

Surface design by Mirka Hokkanen

Steps to Reach Goal

When researching companies online, it might take a few searches to find and narrow down keywords. For example, if you google “puzzles,” the results are mostly for apps or websites that have online puzzles. But I was looking for companies that manufacture puzzles, not websites. So, I searched for “1000-piece puzzle” which then gave me better options to start narrowing down. I also searched “puzzle manufacturers,” which gave me sites that had lists of puzzle companies and companies that will make custom puzzles for you. What I found most helpful was to find a large online store that sells puzzles and then look at their brands sold list. For example, has a really great (but not exhaustive) list of brands they carry.

After I made a list of puzzle brands, I narrowed them down to the ones that my work fit with. I went to each puzzle brand’s website and spent a few minutes familiarizing myself with their company-look, and what kinds of puzzles they produced. If my work fit into what they produced, then I looked up their submission policies. 

For most companies, you can find if they are open to submissions if you scroll to the footer of the website, and look to see if there’s a FAQ, Submissions, or Contact button. The submission policies are usually posted under one of those headings. 

Out of about 30 puzzle companies I researched, I ended up sending emails to about 7 of them. Most did not reply anything back, but one company was potentially interested. They turned down the illustrations that I had sent but visited my website to see more work. They saw a piece that caught their eye and asked if I’d be willing to create a new illustration for them based on the one they loved on my website. 

I was more than happy to oblige, and so our working relationship began. The company, Puzzletwist, is small and I love working with them. So far I’ve created two puzzles for them, and we are working on the third one. Had I not narrowed my focus down, pulled myself together and really dove deep into finding the right puzzle manufacturers to pitch to, I would probably have missed my opportunity and would still be dreaming about puzzles.

Specific goals are easier to reach than general ones, and I hope that my story will encourage you to reflect on your priorities and set some focused goals that you might have been missing in the thicket of life.

Mirka Hokkanen
Written by Mirka Hokkanen

Instagram: @mirkadraws

Mirka is a Finnish-American author, illustrator & printmaker who finds inspiration from her Scandinavian roots, retro designs and nature. She creates books for children, and also licenses her work and sells on Etsy. She loves to share her knowledge on Skillshare and YouTube.

  1. Jan Mackay says:

    This is so impressive snd inspiring. Yes I have the same problem. I hate the thought of limiting myself to one thing but I really do need do to focus if I’m ever going to get any recognition. Thank you so much for sharing this.

  2. Mirka, thank you so much for this! I’m in a spinning my wheels phase right now – it feels like the current chaos of my life has infiltrated my work and I’m getting pulled off course. I’m going to narrow it down to my top two goals for now – thanks for the push!

    • Mirka H says:

      So glad to hear it Elizabeth! You can always return to other goals later, but narrowing down really helps getting yourself moving forwards.

  3. Diana says:

    Thanks so much for writing this. It’s exactly where my heads at being pulled between kid lit art and surface pattern aspirations. Even down to your detail about looking into puzzle companies as that’s something that sort of looks like your kidlit art. Thanks for the nudge and a shot of hope.

    • Mirka H says:

      Yes! I still really want to do surface design and design a fabric line one day, but right now focusing on my books is where I need to be. As the kids get older and more independent, I’ll hopefully have more time and can put more energy towards patterns.

  4. Amy says:

    Thank you for writing this article. Like you I tend to spin my wheels in a million different directions and have difficulty giving up on any major goals due to that ‘ just in case’ feeling. I am finally coming to realize this is not the way to succeed at reaching any goals, somewhat ironic that as an avid puzzler I to could not see this bigger picture logic!
    I look forward to sourcing out one of your puzzles as a gift for myself 🙂 Maybe as a reward for reaching my next specific goal!

    • Mirka H says:

      Thank you for your kind words Amy! So happy my post was useful to you. I love Puzzletwist puzzles! We have two out together, and a third one is coming out sometime later this year.

  5. Robin Kinley says:

    Great article, Mirka! I didn’t realize you were the one who wrote it til I got to the bottom and got a happy surprise when I saw your picture! It is certainly very timely advice for me.

  6. I can totally relate to this! Working, mother of two and heading in 10 different directions!! I’m going to try to niche down and focus on a couple of goals. I’ve never done a vision board so going to try and do this too!

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