Artist Interview with Stan Prokopenko
Popular fine artist Stan Prokopenko of proko.com offers insights into the trade-off between teaching online art classes and creating art in this artist interview.
Stan Prokopenko Bio
I was born in Odessa, Ukraine and came to America at the age of six. At the age of 13, I pronounced myself as a lifelong student of art. Since then I have devoted my life to the arts. During high school, I got an internship at Sony Online Entertainment to animate for the upcoming video game, Everquest II. I wrote an article on animation for Imagine Magazine at Johns Hopkins University and created a five minute animated short film, “A Game of Pool”, which featured on all American Airlines flights in September through December of 2004.
In 2003, I began studying at the Watts Atelier of the Arts in Encinitas, California, where I got most of my arts training. After attending the Watts Atelier for many years, my focus shifted from animation to fine art painting. In 2007 I became a teacher at the Watts Atelier of the Arts and have taught drawing and painting classes on numerous topics such as portrait, figure, quick sketch, and plein air landscape.
What is Proko.com and can you give a breakdown of the different ways you earn an income now?
Basically I teach people how to draw. I try to make my videos fun and enjoyable, yet thorough and effective. Currently the focus is on drawing people. We have lessons on Portrait, Figure, Anatomy, and Caricature. But, we’re also working on a future Perspective course. Most of my revenue comes from selling premium courses and model reference photos on my site. I also make a little bit from my mobile app (Skelly), youtube ads, and affiliate stuff. I stopped doing private painting commissions and selling paintings when I started making tutorials.
I heard you decided to become a professional artist because of a high school animation class, how did that class motivate you?
I was always interested in drawing, but yah, that class made me get serious. I think it’s because it was so enjoyable. I practiced animation every chance I got. I was hooked. That’s probably why I try to make my videos fun. It comes from that desire to keep drawing fun.
When was the first time you sold your art?
I started selling to my parents’ friends in my early teens. They would commission me to draw portraits of their kids. It was fun because everybody was so encouraging. I got paid only about $50, but I was young, so I felt like I was making bank.
My advice to anyone is to just practice and learn as much as you can. If you’re trying to start a business selling your art, just keep in mind it’s very difficult. Sometimes you’ll sell, and sometimes you’ll go a long time without selling anything. Stay hungry, hustle, and try new things. But don’t forget what your main focus is.
What did you do before Proko.com?
When I was a full-time student, I started a bunch of random businesses in my spare time. Very random things… Like making nursing scrubs, a website to find taco shops, a nightclub promotion service, and a website creator app for artists. All these businesses failed, but I was exploring. I learned from all of them and that eventually led to a successful business doing what I actually wanted. Drawing and teaching people how to draw.
How have art awards affected your career?
They’re nice affirmations that can lead to more paid work. Obviously the more awards you can win the more you can use those to open new doors. Whether that’s getting introduced to new clients, beefing up your resume, or increasing the price of your commissions.
For me specifically, it has led to a lot of important opportunities. The first major award I won was the Presidential Scholar award from the President of the United States. At that award ceremony, an executive from American Airlines saw my animation and decided to show it on all America Airlines flights. That gave me a lot of exposure and led to a few freelance projects.
Another award I won was the Artists’ Choice award at the OPA National Juried Exhibition. That year it was held in Scottsdale, which has a lot of really good galleries. One of the owners from Gallery Russia saw my painting and the award led to them showing my paintings in their gallery. They did a much better job selling my paintings.
You studied and taught at the Watts Atelier, please tell us what that is and how it impacted your career.
It’s a traditional drawing and painting school. The class sizes are small and there’s only a few instructors, so you develop a relationship with the teachers and students. It’s a lot like an apprenticeship. It has greatly impacted my career because I learned the core drawing skills there. Jeff Watts, the owner, brought me on as a teacher at a really young age, which really forced me to improve and read up on the things I was teaching. The drawing and teaching experience I got there allowed me to create proko.com.
What is the trade-off between focusing on developing as an artist and running a business to earn an income?
That’s a hard balance. I’ve always enjoyed the business side of it, so I probably lean too far that way. Some people lean too far the other way and never make a living. Most of us probably go through a few shifts, hopefully finding a happy medium.
Right now, I spend most of my time running proko.com. We’ve expanded to an office with a pretty good sized team of people working on the videos. I’m trying to get the company to a place where it runs itself. Right now it depends on me a lot. Eventually I’d like to find time to create more personal art.
Yes, it’s difficult making a living as a fine artist. But as your skills improve and as your network grows, it gets easier.
What kind of commitment is required to be a great artist versus just doing it as a hobby?
If you’re trying to become a professional artist, practice often, practice smart, and go to a good school. When I was younger, I dedicated 6-12 hours a day to drawing, painting and animation. I also attended Watts which had a huge impact on my skills as an artist.
Yes, formal education makes a difference. It can be a positive difference or negative difference. If you do decide to pursue a career in art, choose the school wisely. Most art colleges suck. I prefer the atelier system, smaller studios, and online courses over most accredited programs.
If you’re just doing it as a hobby you can relax and go at your own pace. I recommend one-on-one classes, but online courses are really good nowadays, too.
You have over 600,000 subscribers on your YouTube channel, please tell us about how YouTube has impacted your career and business.
It’s completely changed my life. Without being able to reach a large audience, I would have had a much harder time turning Proko into a successful business. Having a platform that promotes my videos to people around the world for free is amazing. I owe a lot of my success to YouTube.
Do you think creating courses for artists is a good business direction for artists to take?
In general, I think it’s easier to make a living teaching online than selling paintings. Although some of the top artists make really good money selling paintings. But it really comes down to what you want. You have to have the right mindset. If you don’t like teaching, your students will know.
If you’re a good artist and you like teaching, making online courses is a good source of income. I’m currently looking for great teachers to partner with. If you want to publish courses with proko.com shoot me an email.
How important is blogging for artists to promote their work?
It’s a very useful tool. But it doesn’t have to be blogging. Artists that build a large social following are able to sell more work and get more jobs. The internet has really changed things for the better. You don’t just have to rely on galleries anymore to sell your work. You can take commissions online, sell prints and T-shirts, create tutorials or self publish books. If you’re looking to make a living doing art, there has never been a better time.
Off the top of my head, I can think of James Gurney, Josiah Brooks, Ross Tran, and Stephen Silver as artists that have all leveraged the internet in some way to promote and sell their work.
If you could start over, what would you do differently?
Mainly, I would try to focus a little more on drawing from imagination. I focused almost completely on drawing from life or from reference. That’s really important too, but I would add sketching from imagination to the mix. I’m trying to improve on that now, but it would have been easier if I had a good balance from the beginning.
What advice do you have for aspiring artists?
Be hungry, work hard, stay true to yourself, and never stop learning.
This course is approachable enough for beginners and detailed enough for advanced artists. Stan’s philosophy is to teach timeless concepts in an approachable entertaining way. Stan Prokopenko’s philosophy is that when you are having fun, you learn better.