Patreon for artists: how to get more from the platform

The potential of Patreon for artists is life-changing. In case you haven't heard, Patreon is a membership program for artists that keeps creators creating through regular donations from supporters. Whether you make street art or 3D movies, it might be just what you need to push you forwards with your projects.

To many onlookers, Patreon can appear to be a numbers game. Artists who use the platform jockey for subscribers, and therefore funds, as part of a transaction for their work. As for the site itself, the statistics speak volumes. Set up five years ago, Patreon has sent over $150 millions to its creators, who in turn get to keep 90 per cent of received donations. The site has had an impact beyond these figures, though. Patreon has put creators back in the driver seat and freed them up to create more personal work.

For many, it’s been the platform they’ve been waiting for. "I’d been dreaming of Patreon for 10 years before it existed," explains Peter Mohrbacher, a fantasy illustrator whose passion had always lain in personal work. 

"After about seven years working in the games industry, I stopped seeking new employment because I wanted to pursue the dream of making a full-time living from my personal work. Not long after that, Patreon launched and I jumped right on board." 

We've found artists who are using Patreon to achieve their goals, and asked for their tips on how you can utilise it with maximum success. So read on for seven things you can do to get the most out of the platform.

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01. Embrace the new model

Wylie Beckert released her first playing card deck, Wicked Kingdom, via Patreon [Image: Wylie Beckert]

Illustrator and artist Wylie Beckert turned to Patreon out of frustration with the traditional career model of working for clients, brands and commissions. "I realised that if I was ever going to make it in the industry, I had to cut out the middleman and create that product myself," she explains.

By setting up shop on Patreon, Beckert was able to concentrate on her own work. Seeing her art turn into a reliable income is an immensely gratifying draw to the platform for her.

"There’s this poisonous misconception in our culture that if a creator isn’t creating sheerly for the joy of it, then they’re somehow less of a legitimate artist. Yet in reality, it’s a heck of a lot harder to create something worthwhile when you’re stressed about money or burned out after a long day at your ‘real’ job."

02. Build an audience

Michael Lim built his fanbase before creating a Patreon page [Image: Michael Lim]

Despite the fulfilment it offers, Patreon won’t do the legwork for its users. "Having a fan base is key, and is probably one of the most important aspects of creating a Patreon page," says Michael Lim, aka Daarken.

"All of the people I know who are making a decent amount on Patreon had a large fan base beforehand. With the oversaturation of art and tutorials online, trying to make a name for yourself can seem almost impossible."

Concept artist Irshad Karim agrees, "Patreon’s a great tool for monetising an audience, but I don’t find it to be effective at building one from nothing. Before you even think about launching your Patreon campaign, get out there and show people you’ve got something to offer."

03. Find your fit

Orc and Gnome's Mild adventures is one of Karim's Patreon-funded projects [Image: Ishrad Karim]

Karim explains that every project requires a different approach: "Unfortunately, it’s not a one-size-fits-all scenario. My Drawabox campaign has grown steadily since it was launched. I also draw a web comic, Orc and Gnome’s Mild Adventures, which itself has a Patreon campaign – and it’s a whole other beast to contend with. Balancing what to give away for free and what to hide behind a pay wall is an inherently uncreative decision."

04. Offer incentives

The enamel pin Beckert produced as an incentive [Image: Wylie Beckert]

To attract an audience, and therefore more funds, Lim suggests offering personalised incentives. "If people think they’re receiving something that no one else does, then it becomes more valuable. It feels more like the creator created something specifically for them. Patrons want to feel like they are a person, and not a number."

This is exactly what Beckert did when she launched a Patreon-exclusive enamel pin, promising one to every patron who signed up by a deadline as a signing bonus. "My patron count nearly tripled in a month," the artist reveals. "This was a bit of a risky investment. Manufacturing and shipping around 700 pins cost me thousands of dollars and many days of stuffing envelopes. 

"Yet while a lot of people dropped their pledge as soon as they got their pin, today [six months later] I still have about twice as many patrons as I started out with, and Patreon has gone from supplementing my commercial work to almost completely replacing it."

05. Support and share

Karim's Orbs of Knowledge: Patreon is a way of garnering support [Image: Ishrad Karim]

Patreon also gives creators the chance to support the development of other artists by sharing their knowledge. Karim found himself moving on to the platform after spending time passing on his accumulated expertise via Reddit and amassing a large community in the process.

"People started asking how they could help contribute and give back for what they’d received," Karim says. "At that point I hadn’t thought about monetising the community. Rather, I figured it could help me develop a reputation, and then further down the road perhaps I’d offer mentorships or something, when I felt my skills and experience levels were ready for that. And so, my Patreon campaign  – as well as the Drawabox website itself – was born.

"I’ve always seen Patreon not specifically as a way to make money, but as a means of garnering support," Karim adds. "It just so happens that the easiest way for someone to support you is with a burger’s worth of dollars each month."

"If I hadn’t been lucky enough to enter the field at a time when this platform was available to creators, I’d probably be building spreadsheets instead of strange fantasy worlds," says Beckert.

05. Value the community

Giving back to the community is just as useful for the teacher as it is the student. "Tutorials serve a hidden purpose for me," says Beckert. "Normally, it’s all too easy to zone out while working on a piece and start to rely on habit instead of conscious decision-making – at which point, the quality of my work starts to suffer. Documenting the process as I go keeps me engaged and reviewing my photos and notes after the fact helps me find ways to fine-tune my process."

And Patreon has an inbuilt way of connecting with your audience, Karim explains, "Patreon’s Discord chat integration is a seemingly minor feature, but truly an amazing one. It’s simple to set up and enables you to build a stronger bond with your community. And that is how one succeeds on Patreon!"

06. Use Patreon to balance tough industry conditions

Morbacher's Redux. Morbacher couldn't have devoted his full attention to his work without Patreon [Image: Peter Mohrbacher]

"There are a lot of creative industries where the pay and the terms of work continue to slide into unliveable conditions,” says Mohrbacher. “Illustrators in particular have become abused and exploited by their industry. “I’m hoping that an alternative to working for big companies will create the competition we need to help improve wages and terms."

For artists like Lim, though, Patreon hasn’t really affected his freelance work because he uses the platform to offer a different service altogether. "Since the decline of my mentorship attendance, Patreon has enabled me to keep the lights on," he explains. "Without the monthly revenue stream from Patreon, I wouldn’t be able to pay my bills."

This article was originally published in issue 170 of ImagineFX, the world's best-selling magazine for digital artists. Buy issue 170 or subscribe to ImagineFX.

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