Meet Bryn Merrell. An independent artist based in Tahoe City, California, Bryn creates stunning watercolors, graphic designs, and other forms of visual art with a funky, outdoors focus.
Bryn started her career journey with a joint major in math and environmental science, became an outdoor guide to spend more time outside, then moved into making her casual sketches a full-time career. Now, she sells her art on her website and works with brands providing art designs for projects like apparel and event signs.
This past year, she also created her Preservation Land series, where she donates 10% of the profits to nonprofits that work to protect and preserve the land.
Here’s what she has to say about her experience as a freelance artist. We cover general freelance, outdoorsy, and art topics including describing art style, holding onto the love of art while making a living, pricing and revenue, and imposter syndrome.
Year started freelancing full-time: 2017
Age when started freelancing full-time: 26
Preferred Pronouns: she/her
What’s your “about you” elevator pitch for what you do?
I generally give myself the title of freelance illustrator and artist. That can be anything from graphic design to whimsical watercolor collages.
I try not to pigeonhole myself as just a fine art or just a graphic artist, because that’s not the truth. I could do anything from a record label design to graphic apparel design, which is super fun. What I’ve found is that illustration and art encompasses all of that.
What did you do before freelancing?
I was working in the outdoor industry as a guide for a company called Backroads. We would essentially take people on either hiking, multisport, or biking trips for five to seven days, and I’d always bring my sketchbook and sketch a little bit.
So I’ve always been in the outdoor industry before taking the full freelance leap.
What made you decide to start freelancing?
I was really worried about burnout in the outdoor world. Because I was making [the outdoors] my full time job, I found that when I had a chunk of four days off, I just needed to go home, not socialize, catch up on laundry, and do sedentary stuff.
I didn’t like that I didn’t want to go outside and explore on my days off just because I was on the road for so long. Whereas the ideal situation for me would be to flip-flop that where on my days off I am going out, exploring, refilling my cup, and finding that inspiration versus just needing to decompress.
What was your education/experience before starting freelancing?
I got a degree in math, which is polar opposite of what I’m doing now.
I did that with high hopes of being able to work outside a lot more. I did a dual major in math and environmental science. In my mind, I’d built up this amazing situation where I’d have part time field work and then part time indoor modeling or computer work. But when I went into the industry, I found that generally they give field work to volunteers. So I was always stuck behind the computer, which is not for me. And that’s why I jumped into the guiding world just to get outside and try something new.
How do you balance making art because you enjoy it vs making art as a job?
I think the balance is found in what type of work you accept, especially in the freelance world.
When you’re first starting, you’re grabbing at any project you can get. You just always say yes, because you’re thinking I need to make that money now. There’s a feast and famine model where you don’t know what your next project is going to be. But once you get your name out there, I think the balance comes from the freedom to say yes or no to a project.
For example, sometimes I’ll get burnt out on commissioned pieces where if my heart isn’t into the piece, I struggle with it. Then I spend more time on it, get burnt out, and don’t have time for my own passion projects. So for me, it’s best to say no to most commissioned pieces, especially if it’s just something outside my realm or a place I haven’t been to and have no connection to.
But it’s a hard place to get to in the freelance world. You have to work hard to get to the point where you do have the freedom to say no to those projects. But once you’re there, it feels great and you’re not so burnt out.
I think for art in general, the goal is to be able to create what I want to create and have that somehow be my financial foundation.
I think that’s always the goal, in any freelance arena, but it’s a hard one to get to.
How would you define your art style?
Definitely pretty funky, colorful, and whimsical.
I was actually just working on a 2022 calendar with these weird watercolor collages and I was thinking how do you even describe this because it’s not a typical “fine art” piece. I never describe my art as “Fine Art”.
Do you often have that sort of conversation about style with clients or potential clients?
I’m lucky in the fact that when I’m speaking with clients, they’ve generally seen my style of art before because it’s not for everyone. But if I’m meeting someone on the street, and they haven’t seen my art or especially an older demographic, as soon as you say artist, they jump towards realism or fine art, and I wouldn’t even put myself in that category just because it’s so weird and abstract.
I’d say it’s this new age of art coming along, which I love. Especially seeing a lot of the pandemic artists, it’s given everyone the confidence to just paint whatever you want. It doesn’t have to be cartoony or perfect. It’s just these wild interpretations of whatever they’re trying to depict, which is super fun.
Do you ever experiment with different styles?
Experiment is a good way to put it because it never ends up exactly how I want it. But that’s also a fun side of it.
I just started playing around with water coloring on wood, which is pretty wild. Because wood is so absorbent, the watercolor bleeds a lot more. That’s the fun side of it too, because it’s pretty unpredictable on where it’s gonna end up.
What does your daily schedule typically look like with making art?
I can’t sit down and paint for eight hours straight — I hit a creative block or I end up getting too distracted. Generally I’ll paint for maybe three or four hours at a time, then give it a break or let it sit overnight. Then come back to it with some new eyes and a new perspective.
Those few hour blocks are what work best for me and I’m definitely most creative in the morning. I love waking up and right off the bat painting because that’s when I feel the most inspired. When that putters out three or four hours later, I’ll start going to packaging orders, invoicing, or responding to emails. That’s my day’s wind down.
What do you think has been the most important thing with establishing yourself as a professional artist?
In terms of establishment I would say my style.
I think for artists in particular, one of the coolest things to have is a unique enough style to the point where someone can see your piece and without even seeing a signature or seeing where it’s from, say “that’s a Bryn Merrel piece”, which is really awesome.
It’s so easy to have imposter syndrome or to have your work be swallowed up and drowning in a sea of other artists’ work. To have that style recognition is really cool and a pretty important factor in the artist world.
How important is the medium or quality of supplies that you use?
My primary medium is watercolor and the nice thing about watercolor is one palette of watercolors can last you three years, which is amazing.
But in terms of print, I’m quite picky about how my prints appear. (Prints being any sort of publication of the original.) When I was first starting, I really struggled with that because I wanted the art print to be affordable, but also didn’t want to compromise quality.
I would just print on a heavy bond paper and I really didn’t like how it had this sheen to it and it just made it seem not as great of quality. Then I swapped over to recycled paper and canvas prints which made a world of difference. Sometimes it’s hard to even tell the difference between print and the original just because the quality of print is so great, which I love. It makes people feel like they’ve got something special even if they can’t afford an original which is pretty awesome.
In terms of quality, the first thing that comes to mind is I always use shit paint brushes because I destroy them so often. I’m traveling a lot with my paint set, so I’ve gone through the heartache of having them smashed in transit or even if I’m cutting, playing around, or I didn’t rinse it well enough. I destroy my paint brushes. So that was one realization. I decided to just stop spending money on good quality paint brushes and just focus on the quality of the paper.
What sort of quality of paper?
Generally with watercolor paper in terms of good quality paper, there’s a cold pressed and a hot pressed watercolor paper. They both absorb the watercolor a little bit differently. Either one are great options, but there’s definitely a world of difference between a cheap Blick watercolor paper where it either absorbs too quickly or not enough so you get pooling and you can see the paper warping and wrinkling.
I generally try to stick with higher quality paper.
How do you decide how to price paintings?
That’s probably a struggle I will be dealing with for the rest of my career. Pricing is honestly the hardest thing and I don’t think I’ve even found a formula yet.
It always seems like a double edged sword. If you price your paintings too cheap, it weakens the value of them and your work and effort. But on the flip side, I don’t want to exclude who I can sell paintings and prints to and I do want it to be accessible for the general public.
Generally, when I finish a piece, I ask how quickly was I able to do it? What’s the quality of paper that I had? How much creative time went into it beforehand in doing research and sketching, along with the painting?
For example, let’s say one piece took a combined 15 hours. I always take into consideration if I had a creative block one day, so I really only painted for two hours, but technically I spent the whole day on it. So even though you’re only painting for a combined 15 hours, you really probably spent 35 hours on the whole piece itself.
And it’s difficult too, when you take into consideration photographing the piece, putting it online, writing a description, answering emails about it, shipping it. So much time and effort is put into it, I’m trying to be more conscious of paying myself for those hours that I put into pre and post production.
What does your revenue stream look like as an artist?
I’ve only recently fine tuned that side of it. Before the pandemic, I didn’t even have any sales for my website. I just had it as an online portfolio showcasing past work.
When the pandemic hit, I started creating prints on my website, which turned into a very great consistent revenue stream for me. When my design retainer clients with hotels and restaurants shut down during the early days of the pandemic, prints really swung in and helped me replace those retainer clients I lost. Then things started opening up again and I got those clients back, which was amazing. So now it’s just an overall boost in my annual income.
And then the other fraction of my income comes from outdoor apparel design, which is what I love doing. Generally, they give me full creative freedom and the only limitations would be, we want a desert scene or a mountain scene and we have to cap it at six colors and then they’re like, go wild.
How do the retainer clients work?
Generally, it is working on graphic parallel designs that will come out two years from now.
In the apparel world, there’s two times of the year where they’re prepping for either spring/summer or fall/winter. And that’s when repeat clients will come to me around February and say, Okay, we’re working on our spring and summer 2023 line, which is so wild, but you’re making a design for two years in the future.
Generally, it happens around the same time each year so you can factor that into your scheduling. There are occasional last minute designs randomly throughout the year as well.
Is that the same with the hotel and restaurant clients?
Those are generally more consistent throughout the year.
For example, I do a lot of menu design and logo and art design for restaurants in Palisades Tahoe and they’ll shoot me an email with the new menu for the winter season and request for swapping over the website, images, and graphics over to more winter esthetic versus summer patio music scene.
So that’s more sprinkled consistently throughout the year versus two main pushes with the apparel design. But it’s generally very casual like, oh, now we need artwork to have on sandwich boards when we’re closed.
How do you charge with those recurring clients?
I generally do project based. When things go back to normal, it usually would be a monthly thing. When I work with clients I’ll estimate how many hours per week or per month the project would take and it would be consistent work, but that was when there were more in-person events happening.
But with fewer events, it’s shifted to more casual email “we need this” sporadically. I’m guessing when in-person events come back solidly, that will go back to normal, but right now why pay for a design when you don’t know if an in-person event is going to happen.
How did you get those recurring clients, especially when you first started?
That was lucky in the sense that it was through word of mouth. Since Truckee, Tahoe area is relatively small, I think it’s actually helped me because there’s one gal in town that does social media and one other freelancer that does all website design. So when I started working on random art projects, they’d say, Oh, I know a girl that can help you out with some apparel design. And vice versa, I’d recommend the other gal for social media and marketing.
We kind of formed this little alliance — we’re all working independently, but we all work so well together that generally, if I pick up any new client, they’re probably working with the same photographer and marketer that I’ve worked with for the last couple years. So lucky for me a lot of it’s word of mouth.
Are most of your clients local?
I say it’s 50/50.
A lot of my retainer clients are local, which is nice. Then I’ll have one off random outdoor brand groups where I really only work with them twice a year, but they’re still repeat clients.
How much did you make in your first year freelancing full-time?
I think around $20,000 before taxes, so probably netted 17,000. I have a spreadsheet to keep track of that by year for personal motivation as well because you can see the growth.
Approximately how much do you make annually now?
Looking at 2021, it’ll definitely be my most fruitful year, which I’m super grateful for. When I lost those repeat clients, I panicked a bit and swapped things out with print sales, which was amazing and I feel grateful I’ve had awesome clients through word of mouth.
I’m on track to make around $70,000, which feels good.
What was the most challenging thing for you when you first started?
It’s just such a game, especially when you’re first starting. You generally just get taken advantage of a lot. It’s the classic story of “it will be great exposure, so I should either do it for cheap or free,” which I assume everyone experiences. It’s super challenging to find that balance between sticking up for yourself but also, a lot of times it really is good exposure.
I hate to say it, but you almost need to do that to even be seen just because there are a lot of people that do exactly what you do. Until you can market your specific style or what makes you unique or your voice, you kind of need to put your head down and grind. Which is super challenging.
Have you ever felt or experienced any challenges as a woman in the outdoor industry?
In the design side of things, you get a lot of “that’s cute”. In my eyes, I hate the word cute. It seems like you’re impersonating something else, which is not a term of endearment for someone. Especially when it could be exactly the same thing as a male in the art world where they get the adjectives badass or whatever. And then to have “crafty” or “cute” labeled just because I’m a female is not great.
But I’ve been lucky in the sense that I’ve gotten a lot of clients through Instagram and social media and I generally don’t post photos of myself, so I get a lot of “oh, I always thought you were a man, like Brian.”
I actually just posted a picture of myself on my website and social media, and just said hey, I’m a woman. It was kind of funny to have people be like, “woah, that’s wild!” because if you look at my designs, I don’t have a particular feminine touch to it. So that was kind of fun for me in a way. After the third interview where someone’s said “in his art” and “he says this,” I realized people really do think I’m a man.
Have you ever noticed changes in treatment after someone finds out you’re a woman?
When I finally did say, hey I’m a female and proud of that. I found I got more support, which is awesome. I’m very grateful for that.
Not that it should even matter, to be honest, but it was nice, especially in the internet world where there can be a lot of backlash if you stand for any opinion or any side.
But I take pride in that I’m a little bit of a faceless artist and focus on the art versus the person.
What advice do you wish someone had told you earlier in your journey?
Stay true to your style.
It’s so easy to have imposter syndrome or look on social media and see other artists creating such great things or having clever ideas. But it’s really nice to remind yourself that people are reaching out to you because they already like the style or the voice that you’ve developed and established for yourself and they want you for what you do. You shouldn’t change how you paint or write or edit photos to emulate someone else’s style.
You’ve already created this orb of uniqueness around your name, so just remembering that that’s why people reach out — because they’re already loving what you’re doing and what you’ve built. Everyone has their own little niche and it’s a collaborative effort.
Do you have any tips for dealing with imposter syndrome?
One fun one, which I just started doing, is anytime you get any sort of positive feedback, whether it’s a comment on social media or an email expressing gratitude for work you did, screenshot those little bits of affirmation and positivity. Put it in a folder on your desktop and anytime you’re having a downer day or comparing yourself to others, it’s really nice to open up that little folder and reread some of those affirmations.
It’s a nice thing to ground you and reaffirm you’re in the right place and you’re doing awesome stuff.