Sports Illustrator, Ryan
Simpson, On Selling Sports Prints & His First Big Break
Ryan Simpson is a talented illustrator based in Charlotte, USA and a huge basketball fan. Ryan centres his freelance business around creating digital illustrations of iconic athletes. While the majority of his illustrations depict legendary NBA basketball players, Ryan also loves to draw famous footballers, boxing champions, baseball legends, and much more. With sports fans all over the world eagerly wanting to buy his work, Ryan set up his own online shop, which has found phenomenal success in the last few years. We caught up with him to discuss how he grew his extensive customer base, the peaks and troughs of trading online, and how he landed his first “big break.”
Hi Ryan! Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to be a freelance illustrator?
I’m a fun guy. Obviously I love the game of basketball.
Growing up I always loved art and creative stuff. I was the kid in math class doodling instead of taking notes or trying to draw something to make my friends laugh. Later on in high school I learned about graphic design and felt like it was a viable professional field I could pursue that would still allow me to be creative and have fun. So at collage I majored in graphic design, and shortly after I graduated I landed a job at a branding agency where I worked for about five years.
Over time the environment and expectations at said agency kind of wore me down and I wasn’t happy. The creative aspect of design no longer seemed fun when there was always pressure and expectation for everything you do to be great and also have some brilliant explanation behind it. At the time I began doing a little bit of illustration as a hobby and was having a lot of fun with it. So I decided to ask my boss if I could work in a more part-time role while I pursued illustration on my own. He said no, so I just dove head first into going out on my own. I figured if it didn’t work out I could always go back and get another design job at some point.
"It’s great to be able to bounce questions, ideas, and thoughts off each other or even, if nothing else, to have a group with whom you can vent as we've all experienced the same frustrations that come with being in this business."
Why, in particular, do you enjoy creating illustrations around sports?
Sports have always been a fun, enjoyable outlet in my life. Whether that’s been through taking part myself or watching the best of the best do it. Growing up, I think anyone's favourite athletes take on a larger than life, almost god-like quality. Like a lot of kids growing up in the nineties, my idol was Michael Jordan. I was obsessed with him. And even though you mostly grow out of that, I think there is something long lasting about that phenomenon of having true idols as a child, that sticks with you even as you get older, and I think that influences what I create.
What prompted you to set up an online store selling your illustrative sports prints?
I think it’s a lot of artists/designer's dream to be able to do their own thing and make a living from it. That was always my long-term goal and I felt like selling prints was one way to make that a reality.
What have you found most rewarding about selling your prints, and what have you found to be most challenging?
The most rewarding is that I am completely self-directing and creating what I want and how I want it. And when I receive a good response from others on what I'm doing it’s extremely gratifying. Ultimately, to be able to make a living doing that, is just the dream.
But the most difficult I'd say is the ebb and flow of the popularity/response to what I'm creating. If you’re lucky, like I've been, some things you do have a great response and people are interested. But even if you’re able to develop a following that support you as an artist, there will still be times when you do something new and it turns out not to be very popular. Even if people don’t let you know that by directly saying it or hitting you with criticism, the lack of sales confirms it.
How did you decide on a price point for your prints and which selling platform to use?
I like to be able to control the quality of my prints and also print on demand, so I invested in my own printer. Initially I purchased an Epson 3880, but have since replaced that with a Canon PRO-1000. They aren't the pinnacle of art print production, but they're very versatile and reasonably affordable.
As far as pricing goes, that's just an ongoing trial and error system for me. I don’t know what the perfect price point is, but I just think it’s important not to charge too much so that the prints are reasonably affordable. I think that’s especially true in the sports art world.
"The most important mantra I’ve learned, and must
continue to learn, is that I am enough but I can always work on being better."
How much time do you allow for creating personal work and prints vs client work?
I'd say my path has been somewhat atypical from most professional illustrators. The majority of my time is spent creating new stuff off my own back. I usually take on client projects as they come here and there whereas I think the majority of illustrators spend a lot of time actively seeking client work. So I’ve been very lucky in that regard.
How much marketing/promoting of your shop did you do before you started to see any sort of solid customer base, and did you use any strategies other than social media posts to do so?
The way I got my first real "break" was back when I created a series of illustrations during the NBA playoffs and posted them on the NBA sub-reddit. A bunch of people were interested in them and asking me if they were available to buy. At the time I didn’t have them as prints and didn’t know much in the way of creating prints. But this led me to start researching the different options out there and buying my own printer later down the line.
A lot of people saw that thread, including an Art Director at Grantland. She asked me to do an illustration shortly after, which was my first professional freelance illustration gig.
"I don’t know what the perfect price point is, but I just think it’s important not to charge too much so that the prints are reasonably affordable."
With regards to a customer base, that really developed over years of continuing to do new stuff and being active. Another big break-though came when Shea Serrano decided to do an “Art Party” for me on Twitter. He saw an illustration of the different Jokers I created for an article on The Ringer and reached out to me regarding getting a print of it. Serrano has a huge following on social media so when he shouted about my prints on his various social channels it was big time for me. I sold more prints in the 2 day period or so when he was tweeting about my stuff than I'd sold in the year and a half/two years prior to that!
In the early stages what was some good advice you received, and what advice would you give to any artists/designers wanting to set up their own online shop to sell prints?
I didn’t really seek a lot of advice when I was starting out, that I recall. I just kind of blindly went for it and did what felt right and what had me excited. Fortunately, people picked up on my work on their own, via me posting it on my various social media platforms. Social media is really the most important thing that has allowed me to make a living doing my own thing. The path that I took/am taking wouldn’t exist without social media.
Another thing that I did over time was develop friends/connections to different professionals doing the same or similar things to me. That's really been invaluable. It’s great to be able to bounce questions, ideas, and thoughts off each other or even, if nothing else, to have a group with whom you can vent as we've all experienced the same frustrations that come with being in this business.
Can you tell us about any exciting projects you’re working on currently?
I spend a lot of time looking at old sports art/design/relics for inspiration and sometimes I buy stuff for my own collection. Alot of the people who follow me on social media are into the same type of stuff so recently I’ve been having a lot of fun curating/collecting these and offering them for sale. If you like old sports stuff check out @vvarehouse on Instagram.
Finally, as our name suggests, here at Mantra we’re curious about what keeps our favourite creatives driven and pushing forward. What’s your personal mantra, Ryan?
I’ve wasted a lot of time over the years worrying with self doubt and what people think, and if I'm good enough. The most important mantra I’ve learned, and must continue to learn, is that I am enough but I can always work on being better. I think that applies to anyone's profession but also every aspect of life. The old cliche “you can do anything you put your mind to,” is true. The implied subtext is “as long as you put in the work.”
Check out Ryan's sports prints here.