How I go started in the Decorative Painting Business
By Liz Miller
Colored Pencil Class
I didn’t start out to have a decorative painting business. It was a very gradual process. I was a dance therapist and RN at a private psychiatric hospital when I discovered a decorative painting class at a local craft store. I now knew about coma strokes and floating, although nowhere near proficient. After just four weeks of classes, I began to teach decorative painting to my patients at the hospital. I could manage to stay a week or two ahead of what I was teaching.
By now my appetite for painting was well established. About that time I found the Wood Depot, a decorative painting shop in the weekend flea market mall. Here I received lots of advice and support from Pat and Gary Boyce who introduced me to the NSTDP (SDP) and the local chapter. Pat had the most wonderful collection of decorative painting books that I spent hours looking through each time I visited their new shop, now in a full time store where Gary sold the wood items he cut and Pat organized classes. It was at a Christmas show that a wonderful decorative painter, Mary Ann Spainhour, generously showed me how to paint small stroke roses and even painted a sample for me to take home.
After much practicing, I painted small stroke roses on refrigerator magnets for family and friends, and their friends, and then for my supervisor at work who asked me to paint them for all the nurses at the hospital. Five thousand roses later, I was fairly good at small stroke roses and this became the first class I taught at the Wood Depot.
One Saturday morning I headed off to Durham for my first Heart of Carolina Tolers meeting where Jeannine Rundquist, who had been in my first class, and Margaret Pickett greeted me. They were experienced painters who I learned had helped establish the chapter. Both became terrific friends and inspirations. They took me under their wings. Now I was part of an exciting adventure. They soon introduced me to Debby McCormack, another new painter near my age. Before long we were all off to Orlando, Fla for Extrav!, a wonderful week long painting experience. After Debby and I drove 12 hrs to Fla, we were fast friends and travel partners. We attended seminars, learning technique and theory from wonderful teachers and painters.
I sold my first painted pieces at a local craft co-op where I met another painter who dreamed of owning her own gift store. When the co-op closed, she opened a store and asked me to teach and sell for her. Teaching at the two shops was wonderful and a real education for me until one, and then the other shop closed. My students wanted to continue classes, which had me out on my own looking for another space. One of my first students, Betty Ann Garrison, volunteered her converted garage and we were off painting again.
I was sure there were more prospective students in Raleigh. I found an unfinished furniture store with an owner willing to let us hold classes rent free. We would push the furniture back and cover the unfinished tables. Soon students filled all the seats and I needed another time slot to start beginners. As more students found me I added an afternoon class, and then a night class. While working a local craft show, I met a wonderful fiber artist, Gail Schmidt, who saw my paintings, handed me a check, and signed up for classes on the spot. Instant friends! Gail was certainly talented and a born teacher so when I needed help starting beginners, I asked Gail to teach. We held classes at the same time so that I could help Gail when she needed me.
Gail and I discovered a new interior design mall where we could rent a small booth to sell our painted items. We were impressed with the look and liked the concept of the store. They took care of sales and sent us a monthly check. How exciting! After obtaining our city business license, we enthusiastically painted a great French wash on the walls, then decorated, and displayed our painted treasures. Sales were slow but it was somewhere to sell our painted furniture and accessories, and so exciting when we actually sold something. Requests for custom work began to filter in.
When the unfinished furniture store where we held classes sold, the new owner agreed to let us continue with classes, but was less than enthusiastic about having us there. He moved us to a back storeroom filled with boxes we had to move each week before setting up folding tables for class. Some students even used the boxes for a table. And the toilet smelled! And the classes continued to grow. When he moved the shop he said there was no room for us.
Here we were looking again. If you keep your eyes open, opportunities are there. With Gail as my new partner, we found an older office building which we could afford together if we took the space as is, dirty carpet, crayons on the dark paneling, and it was all ours! Here we were, excited again. Gallons of off white paint later, a good carpet cleaning, and some woodworking, along with two very tired women and husbands, we were ready to set up the studio. (Notice, we are now calling it a studio.) We had 500 sq feet in the basement corner divided into 3 rooms and no windows. With 2 classrooms and an office/painting supply room there were seats for 12 students in one room and 8 in the other, although we did squeeze in an extra student at times. A bathroom was located across the hall and a great restaurant next door to our building. With students helping, we painted the studio walls with various wall effects including chipped plaster and brick, and even a mural. We all loved having our own space where we didn’t have to set up and break down each time we painted. Our rent included utilities, signage, and housekeeping, which was a good deal. Now we just had to make sure we made enough money for rent each month.
Then I needed to stock the studio with painting supplies and surfaces. Doing business as Liz Miller Decorative Painting with a sales tax number I could order wholesale. However, with no money to buy lots of stock, I only ordered basic supplies and paints that we used all the time. In addition I took orders for specific supplies and surfaces from students. Gail’s husband is a wonderful woodworker and created lots of unique items to supplement those I ordered. In addition to collecting class fees I now needed to manage sales. With my trusty calculator and sales book I gave students a discount as an incentive to buy from the studio. As a good little merchant, I calculated sales tax. Because this took too much time after class, I found a two-part sales slip the students could fill out themselves. I priced each item to include sales tax. I then told the students we were on the honor system. They were to fill out the sales slip, total it, write me a check, and place it my sales box. This worked well. I couldn’t compete with paint prices at the large craft store in town, however, I could offer unique, nicely made wood items and decorative painting supplies they didn’t stock. We were all excited when new boxes of supplies arrived and some items never made it to the shelves.
After Ros Stallcup taught at our local chapter, I scheduled her for the next summer at our studio. My first seminar! The local students were eager to sign up and we filled the seats in one week. Now I needed more space for the seminar. I rented a large room at the mall across the street for two years just for the seminar. However, on the third year the space became unavailable a month before the seminar. Luckily the office space next to our studio was now vacant. One big room, prefect for a seminar. The building owner, who was very supportive of our painting, rented the space to me for an excellent rate. So our space was doubled! Wonderful!
Each week I taught four classes at the studio, the class in Cary, and two classes in the homes of my Japanese students. Gail taught a morning class and an evening class while she took class from me in the afternoon. Besides word of mouth we began advertising at the Southern Ideal Home Show where we distributed flyers. When we demonstrated in our booth at the show, we had observers stacked 3 and 4 deep trying to see and ask questions. Everyone wanted to learn decorative painting! Another yearly seminar, this time with Ginger Edwards was added to our annual seminar with Ros. We maintained our booth at the mall and took custom orders. Gail and I would stay late after classes organizing, planning, and catching up. It was fun because we were doing it together.
And then Gail, my partner, moved! Her husband’s job was discontinued and he thought he wanted to move back to Fla. Through lots of tears I helped them pack and watched as they drove away.
I have always been fortunate to have talented and willing students. Three of them stepped up to teach the Basics and beginning classes, Lynn Strickland for day and Sandra Finger for evening classes at the studio and Debbie Brooks in Cary. We still had new students looking for classes. When Sandra wanted to stop teaching, Dianne Cantoni took over evening classes. They were wonderful at getting new students started. Lynn helped with seminars and Dianne helped me get my sales and paperwork organized using the old computer my sister donated, which made organizing and preparing class instructions a lot easier and quicker.
But at this time the business was all mine, studio, booth, custom work, all of it. I couldn’t get everything done! I needed to make a decision. I decided to focus on teaching, which I enjoyed the most and made the most money. However, I wasn’t ready to give up the booth yet because I enjoyed the merchandising and still hoped to bring in some money.
Although classes for experienced painters held steady, the number of new painters decreased as scrap booking and beading became popular. Class enrollment on the whole declined and some of the Japanese companies closed in the US, sending families home to Japan. It was very sad to see my Japanese students, who had become my friends, leave.
Eight years had passed at the studio when the fire marshal paid his yearly visit and informed me that we were limited to no more than 10 people in our entire space at one time.
That was news to me and defeated the purpose of having classrooms and seminars. Time to look for a new space. One of my students, Nicki Shishakly, wanted to have a retail shop, so we decided to join efforts. After much searching for both of us she found an available storefront in a retail shopping center that we both liked a lot. The rent would double and we would not be on the front row of the shopping center but we decided to make the move. We now had lots of windows, our own bathrooms in the studio, and we were next door to a cafeteria! With the new space we needed to arrange utilities, phone, signage, carpet in the classroom, and we would be doing our own housekeeping. All of our staff, families, and even some of the students worked hard and long creating great retail and classroom spaces, featuring our painting. We painted walls, some with decorative finishes, a mural in the retail area, a brick and plaster doorway, and even painted the concrete floor in the retail area to look like terracotta tile. It was beautiful. On moving day we had a train of vans and trucks, staff and students, making trips to the new space in record time. Getting everything where we wanted it took more time but we were able to hold classes in the new studio without missing a week. Finally a lighted sign with our new name, Artful Endeavors.
We were there for three years and love the location. Nicki’s husband was transferred and she moved, leaving the whole business to me, but I had wonderful volunteer staff, each with their own talents, besides Lynn and Dianne teaching basics and beginning levels. I taught 4 weekly classes and my Cary class which met in a café, which is not open at night (the owners were very supportive of the arts). In addition we had a monthly introduction class which required no experience, workshops on Fridays and weekends, and several seminars a year with fantastic national teachers. Beginners didn’t flock to take classes as in the past but the new painters we found were more interested in continuing with their painting and many of the painters who started years ago continued. Money was still tight each month but I was paying my rent and managing to keep ahead of bill payments.
Several artists recently have referred to me as “successful” and although I had not thought of myself in those terms, I guess I am. I’m self-employed in a job I love, teaching and painting, working with people I thoroughly enjoy. Decorative painting has led me in wonderful directions and to wondrous adventures with others who love art. I never saw myself in the future having a shop and studio but I love it and plan to be here as long as possible. Please visit us at Artful Endeavors in Raleigh, NC.
Post script 1/25/07: I have just received news from our realtor that we’ll need to move the business! They need the space for more realty offices which we knew was a possibility from the beginning. I’ve been here before. Decorative artists are flexible, right? I’m excited! Here is a new opportunity/challenge for my business to grow and evolve. I’m out looking for new spaces and new possibilities, and from past experience, I know that something exciting is waiting for us to find it. Watch my blog for our latest news.
Post script 7/6/2015: Years later finds us still painting, now in our dream studio. When we were forced to move back in 2007, we found a terrifically wonderfully awesome studio space. Did you get the idea that we like our current studio? Lots of space with windows on 3 walls and a video monitoring system for class use. Sometimes changes work out for the best.
Some of our same students are still here and some have returned after a break for life to happen. We’re painting wonderful subjects and learning more with each class. I am designing my own art along with painting some wonderful projects from other artists/designers. We have classes, workshops, and seminars with some terrific teachers from around the US. 30 years after I began my business we’re still here and still creating.
We’d love for you to join us at Artful Endeavors.