What It Takes to Be an NFT Artist


At first, it looked like the biggest art heist in history. As rumors spread that online art marketplace OpenSea had been hacked, the estimated value of the stolen artworks reached as high as $200 million. It was as though someone had broken into Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum and walked off with almost the entire gallery.

In fact, the raid turned out to be a lot smaller than initial reports suggested. The attack took the form of a phishing email that affected no more than 17 people. Nonetheless, the 254 tokens that the thieves drained from the accounts of people who clicked a link in the message were still estimated to be worth a total of $1.7 million.

Although the theft was smaller than it first appeared, the high value of the items stolen underlined the prices attached to artworks that are often little more than colorful doodles in Jpeg format. Those prices can sometimes be very high indeed. Mike Winklemann’s “Everydays – The First 5000 Days” sold for a record-breaking $69 million at Christie’s in March last year. But that NFT consisted of a collage of several thousand creative digital artworks carefully drawn over 14 years. The kind of NFT collections taken from Opensea accounts tended to look more like quick sketches or heavily pixelated icons from the early days of home computing.

Cryptopunks, one of the most valuable NFT collections available, consists of faces drawn in colored blocks. Azuki NFTs, which made up a significant part of the haul, are a set of basic, anime-style cartoon profiles. 

The gap between those high prices and the quality of the most simple of NFT designs has opened an opportunity for people looking to make a fast buck. Churn out a bunch of quick digital drawings, mint them as NFTs and you can pitch them on platforms like Opensea and sell them for six-figure sums each. One of the Bored Ape Yacht Club NFTs stolen in the Opensea phishing attack was worth more than $307,000.

The result is that design houses around the world, and particularly in places where skills are high but labor is relatively cheap, are seeing huge demand from people launching NFT projects.

Unipen is a design house based in Pakistan that offers NFT design services on Fiverr. The company has been pitching its NFT service for about a year but in that time, has already completed more than 110 NFT projects.

Those projects are usually pretty simple. NFT collections can consist of very basic doodles, but newer collections tend to incorporate animation, three dimensional effects, and even custom soundtracks. Unipen’s portfolio shows ape-style NFTs, as well as anime NFT art, doodles, and more detailed designs. While some clients ask for three-dimensional images, most of the projects the company has completed consist of the most basic 2D cartoons. Clients provide details about the collection and the traits they want to include, such as different heads, facial features, clothes, and backgrounds. They receive a base character design with 40 traits. Randomizing the traits with the base character lets them create up to 10,000 different token designs.

Unipen charges from $250, and suggests that collections built from its artworks can produce at least “$500k + Potential Profit.” That’s a bold claim, but judging by the level of demand, clients appear to believe it.

“NFT is peaking at the moment and it does not seem like slowing down anytime soon,” the company says.

Pitching for NFTs

For anyone with even the simplest of design skills then, or for any creative firm that has a designer with spare time on their hands, offering NFT designs look like a good option. The designs are easy to create and the demand is almost unending. Even a profile on a freelance site like Fiverr can produce more than $27,500 of annual income for the most simple and—compared to many web design projects—enjoyable work.

Design companies looking to land projects will need to bear a few issues in mind though.

The first is how much to charge.

The usual way to fix a price for a service is to look at how much competitors are demanding for a similar service and start in the middle. A higher than average price will lead to fewer customers but more complex and satisfying work on higher budget projects. A lower than average price will attract more work but the projects will be simpler and smaller.

The price for NFT projects though ranges widely. Artists on Fiverr are charging as little as $40 for a single base character. Others are demanding over $9,000 for premium packages that include the NFT design, promotion, upload to an auction site, and even ten pages of website content.

The best way to pitch NFT design services though is to build a platform of your own so that other project planners know who you are and the unique style you offer. Bruno Wagner is an illustrator from Strasbourg who has created his own NFT collection under the name of Yayashin. His three-dimensional designs are animated and are influenced by fantasy. Other designs are futuristic but all have a clear style that enables Wagner to build a brand and show clients what they can expect to receive.

That’s the kind of marketing that allows designers to demand a premium price. And it’s also worth noting that unlike non-digital art, NFT projects enable artists to receive a share of the price each time a piece of work is resold.

Building your own platform before reaching out for projects will also help to solve another issue with NFT design work. Few NFT projects are particularly creative. Designers state that they can perform work in the style of apes or anime or doodles, work that is usually derivative and unoriginal. Designers can churn them out but producing another cartoon monkey in the style of a bored ape is rarely likely to deliver much in the way of creative satisfaction.

Creating your own style though, and accepting commissions to create NFTs in that style, will be both more creative and should also be more financially rewarding than pitching for more ape doodles.

That NFT brand-building will take time. Even established artists will need to build connections in the NFT community so that project leaders know that they’re available and that they understand the specific needs of NFT collections.

One way to forge those connections is to create your own entire collection of NFTs and mint them on a marketplace like Opensea. If no one buys them, you’ll still have a store in which you can display your samples. And if people do buy and trade the NFTs, you’ll be able to spread your name even further.

But a designer who’s prepared to mint their own NFT collections as a branding tool could simply stick with producing their own NFTs. In theory at least, they wouldn’t need to take work from paying clients and could benefit instead by taking the full value of their talent from their own work.

Why You Should Sell Designs, Not Mint Them

Selling NFTs though isn’t as easy as it used to be. With more than 170 new collections launching each day according to one source, and every Twitter thread about NFTs filling up with comment spam, projects have to work hard to stand out and earn a premium above the price of the art itself.

“The value for NFT is not limited to the NFT image only but mostly the perks that are offered,” explains Unipen. “People are coming up with crazy interesting perks for NFT holders.”

In practice those perks range from staking to earn more tokens to using NFTs in blockchain-based games. Membership in an exclusive club, with entry to parties in New York and Los Angeles, such as those enjoyed by owners of Bored Apes, are pretty rare.

But in a saturated market, it’s the perks and the marketing that make the sales. While high-priced NFTs steal the headlines, most NFTs don’t make much money. A study by artist Kimberly Parker, performed on OpenSea last year found that a third of all primary NFT sales over a one-week period were for $100 or less—and those sales were before fees. With fees at that price ranging from 72.5 percent to as much as 157.5 percent, sellers at that price were losing on average 50 cents on each sale. Even the 20 percent of artists whose NFTs sold for between $100 and $200 were only walking away with $92 from each sale, and that’s before they’ve included the cost of designing and marketing the tokens.

“These numbers do not show the democratization of wealth thanks to a technological revolution,” Parker concludes. “They show an acutely minuscule number of artists making a vast amount of wealth off a small number of sales while the majority of artists are being sold a dream of immense profit that is horrifically exaggerated.”

Those figures are a year old but current data suggests that the situation is little better. Sales are falling and so is interest on Google. The demand for new NFT projects might be increasing but it’s possible that when those collections are minted, there will be few buyers interested in bidding for them.

Designers and artists looking to cash in on the NFT craze now might have missed the boat.

That still leaves a couple of options though. Either pitch for the projects that other people are still willing to finance and cash in while the demand survives. Or create your own collections, use them to show off your branding and land higher paying jobs.

You’ll know you’ve made it when someone tries to steal your Jpegs.

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