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Rev. 6/1/05

Rather than struggle to live off his art, Sebastopol's Zak Zaikine decided to market it.

January 2, 2001

     Just about every surface in Zak Zaikine's Sebastopol home is covered by his art.
     Bronze sculptures are stacked along the floor, oil paintings line the walls. And he hasn't limited his work to just those typical media.
     His art also graces clock faces and mouse pads, serving platters and candle holders. Even the miniblinds in his kitchen are a piece of art—when he closes them, his painting of a dog appears.
     Zaikine, a professional artist for more than 30 years, made up his mind early in his career that he would never be the stereotypical starving artist.
     Sure, he sells his paintings and sculptures, but those sales aren't what he relies on for his income.
     He also licenses his work for everything from T-shirts to greeting cards and mugs, which find their way into galleries and gift shops in Sonoma County and all over the country. While those licenses don't make him a ton of money, they keep the checks coming in between art sales.
     "I'm proof in the pudding that you can have this passion and carry it to the extreme," Zaikine said. "I actually live off and feed my family and pay my bills through my art. I feel like I'm one of the luckiest people in the world."
     Licensing original artwork is big business nowadays, between museums that have entire floors dedicated to gift shops and retail stores that specialize in everything from posters to umbrellas and magnets with famous paintings on them.
     In licensing their work, artists still own the pieces but give permission to another company to use the art on another product.
     It's different from commercial art, where artists create something for a specific use. For example, a commercial artist might paint something for an advertisement.
     Zaikine does not design art for a specific purpose. Instead, he agrees to let other companies put his work on t-shirts or magnets, and he takes a percent of the sales.
     Zaikine first started licensing his work in the late '80s, when someone saw one of his paintings in a gallery and suggested it might look good on a clock.
     It was another five years before he licensed his first work, putting a series of whimsical animal paintings—brightly colored cats and dogs playing with chickens or watching the sky—on mouse pads.
     At the time, he said he didn't even know what mouse pads were. He was skeptical about licensing in general, afraid that it would cheapen his fine-art work, but was won over when he realized it also would make his art available to people other than collectors.
     He's able to make a living with his art, Zaikine said, because he's creative in how he sells it. Nearly everyone wants art in their life, but not everyone can afford an original piece. So he makes it available in other ways.
     "Artists need to show their work, and it isn't enough to have galleries," Zaikine said. "People really want to see art and hold it."
     The key to licensing, Zaikine said, is to keep control over how his work is used. He isn't afraid to be picky or get pushy when it comes to working with licensors.
     Zaikine often will make demands, such as insisting that licensors use the best-quality t-shirts or asking for a higher percentage of sales.
     He typically gets paid 8 percent to 12 percent, which can lead to $500 or more a month from just one licensing agreement.
     If Zaikine doesn't feel comfortable with the agreement, he won't sign it. It sounds simple, he said, but it's something many professional artists have trouble with.
     "That is a very key issue, being strong enough," Zaikine said. "I have to come out of a spiritual, creative realm into a very businesslike place. You have to create your passion, but also realize your worth."
     Zaikine said it helped him to take things slowly. He started out by designing and marketing his own line of greeting cards. They didn't sell well at first, mostly because he was selling them for about $10 each, which was more than most people were willing to spend on a card.
     But today he has a full line of cards that sell for about $2.50—still more than anybody thought he could get for a card 10 years ago.
     Once he felt comfortable with his own line, Zaikine slowly expanded to other licensing agreements. He now has more than a dozen of them, which each bring him anywhere from a few dollars to $500 or more every month. In a good month, he can make $4,000.
     Zaikine said he doesn't design his work with licenses in mind. He created his most popular line, the one featuring the playful animals, a year or two before he started licensing. The images just came during a happy time in his life, when he wanted to paint something fun and colorful.
     Gallery owner Dyanne Celi said Zaikine's art is popular with licensors because it has broad appeal. Her store, Impressions Gallery in Healdsburg, is one of several local galleries and gift stores where both his original work and licensed products are for sale. His greeting cards, for example, are available at Copperfield's Books and Sawyer's News in downtown Santa Rosa.
     "It's very accessible," Celi said. "It has whimsy as well as fine-art quality. It works with a lot of different people, and people can relate to it."
     Zaikine works in several different media, from the bronze sculptures of his early career to oils and watercolors. He's now into using recycled items—everything from recycled paper and canvases to old pieces of metal he picks up from salvage yards.
     His house is also his studio and a gallery where he invites collectors to see new pieces. His art decorates the walls and shelves in every room. His paintings go for anywhere from $1,200 to $8,000. He once got $25,000 for a bronze sculpture.
     In addition to selling his pieces and licensing his art, Zaikine also makes money mentoring other artists. He gets paid $90 an hour as a consultant, helping artists put together portfolios or giving advice on licensing their work.
     He also is putting on a workshop in February about licensing and is writing a book about art and business.
     Zaikine said some artists occasionally accuse him of selling out and commercializing his work. Although he understands what they're saying, he doesn't agree with them, mostly because he said he's very careful about how his art is used.
     Besides, he doesn't see any reason why artists shouldn't be able to make a living off of what they do best.
     "I went to a Van Gogh show once and the bookstore had little kiosks with ashtrays and servers and greeting cards—people were lining up for it. And he sold two paintings in his lifetime," Zaikine said. "I thought, 'I'm not going to suffer like that.' I'm not going to prostitute myself, but I'll do whatever it takes."

Staff Writer Erin Allday can be reached at 521-5494 or email

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