Rather than struggle to live off his art, Sebastopol's Zak Zaikine decided to market it.
January 2, 2001
By ERIN ALLDAY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Just about every surface in Zak Zaikine's Sebastopol home is covered by his
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 artwhen 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
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
It was another five years before he licensed his first work, putting a
series of whimsical animal paintingsbrightly colored cats and dogs playing
with chickens or watching the skyon 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
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
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
"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
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
$2.50still 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 itemseverything 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
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
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 cardspeople 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."