Head east through the grounds of the Texas Renaissance Festival, past the King's Arm Feast Hall, and you'll walk past a little cottage whose walls are adorned with prints of intricately painted, skeletal women and images of the Doctor Who Tardis swirling through space. That's the booth of artists Sarah Wilkinson and Nigel Sade, who are the rarest type of artists: the non-starving kind.
“It's a massive problem with the art world, I think, that nobody's taught anything about marketing your own artwork or anything,” Sade said. He compared the issue to an episode in the TV show South Park in which a group of gnomes made their living through stealing various characters' underwear – though the gnomes' business plan seemed to be missing a crucial component. “[The gnomes] said, step one is you collect underpants. And step three is profit. And that's what the entirety of art school said…They said, step one, learn how to be an artist, learn how to paint, learn how to draw, sculpt, whatever you want to do. And step three is profit.”
Artists are taught to wait to be discovered, Sade said, not to forge their own business plan for commercial success – which is what he and Wilkinson have done, through a combination of working with licensed properties and selling original work, often by traveling to attend conventions and events like renaissance fairs. This is their first year at the Texas RenFest.
At just 19, Wilkinson landed her first professional job in art with Lucasfilm – the production company behind Star Wars – when it licensed her to be able to create art involving Lucasfilm properties. (In other words, she's officially allowed to draw Princess Leia for companies that manufacture Star Wars merchandise.) She's now worked with properties from Lord of the Rings to My Little Pony, creating trading cards, comic book covers and even Halloween masks.
Wilkinson had been working solely with properties for nearly a decade before she met Sade at a comic convention in Detroit, when she walked past the booth where he was showing his art and stopped to take a closer look. “I was happy I was doing art,” she recalled. “Like that's what I wanted to do with my life, but I wasn't producing any work that was my own ideas, my own concepts. It was all just other people's work. And that got really draining. So after I met Nigel and I saw what he was doing, I was really inspired. He was doing what I wanted to do and I didn't know how to make that transition.”
Sade was equally impressed by Wilkinson, but was trapped in a conversation with another woman who'd stopped by the booth.
“She was telling me a story about one of her friends was sick, or something like that. And it was a very long story,” Sade said. “And maybe it wasn't; maybe I was just very much wishing that the story would be shorter so I could go talk to this amazing woman who just walked by my booth…It was the longest 20 minutes of my life.” The two are now engaged. Together, they run the Studio De Sade, where they teach students not only about art but how to make money off it.
Wilkinson also soon started creating original oil paintings alongside her property work. (Sade also works with properties, such as Doctor Who, but admitted that he doesn't work with them as much because he's “terrible as an illustrator.”) Wilkinson said that she tends to illustrate her emotions, while Sade cited his degree in philosophy as his main inspiration for riffing on philosophical motifs. However, there's one thing you likely won't find in their art, which Wilkinson believes makes them stand out at Renaissance festivals: fairies and dragons.
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“There is artwork like that there. It's awesome,” she said. “But we don't fit into that category. All of our pieces have a lot of meaning, and I think people are just not expecting to see that at a Renaissance fair.”
And though Sade and Wilkinson might have worked out a plan to support themselves through their art, they caution that it's far from easy. They advise potential artists to reach out to companies they want to work with, to show at conventions and to make prints. Above all, they said, keep creating art constantly and prepare to fail. A lot.
“Listen, I wake up in the morning and then I paint and then I go to bed, and that's my day. And if that doesn't sound absolutely amazing to do that six to seven days a week, then don't be an artist,” Sade said, adding, “Art is a compulsion. It's not a choice.”
While Wilkinson and Sade's art will be on display and for sale every weekend of the Renaissance, Wilkinson and Sade will attend the RenFest in person during the weekends of November 5, November 12 and November 26.