Starting a Successful Miniature Painting Business with Dark Elf Girl

Erin (aka Dark Elf Girl) took her love of D&D, terrain building, and miniature painting and turned it into a business that now makes up half of her income.

Learn how she builds community, diversifies her income streams, and, best of all, builds the confidence to sell her art.

Here are just a few highlights from the full interview in the video above*:

*Text has been shortened and edited for readability. Check out the full video for all of the candid, uncensored banter!

Prefer to listen to the interview? Download the Geeks Who Get Paid Podcast version of this episode on Spotify and Stitcher, or scroll to the bottom for a podcast player.

Let’s dive in!

Q: I know a little about you already, thanks to Instagram, but tell me a little about yourself!

A: Well, my name is Erin. I live in Portland, Oregon, US. I just turned 40 years old, and that was kind of weird. I mean, it’s not weird that I’m 40, but it was turning 40 during a pandemic. It’s not exactly what you picture 40 to look like, to be honest.

Q: What is your hobby, and how did you get into it?

A: I’ll just kind of go back to where I started. I’ve sort of been into art my whole life, whether it be drawing or painting or ceramics. I’ve always done something like that, but I’ve never really clicked with just one thing.

Meanwhile, I’m also a super nerd who’s into all the fantasy, Lord of the Rings, all that stuff. So, at my last job, some of my co-workers played Dungeons and Dragons. They started talking about it and kind of decided I should play.

I also decided I wanted to build a miniature haunted town just because I like that kind of stuff. You know, you see the Lemax or whatever that you can buy. But I wanted my own take on that, so both kind of happened at the exact same time.

One of the guys happened to make terrain and said, “I can help you. I have all this stuff.” He and I became really close and ended up dating, so so he kind of introduced me to that whole world.

There are so many amazing channels on YouTube with terrain makers that just teach you all the stuff. So, I started binging that and started playing D&D and fell madly in love with it instantly.

That guy ended up moving in with me and brought all his paints for painting miniatures, so I tried them out. Initially, I thought, “Nope, there is no freaking way. I can’t see them.” And then I thought, “Well, maybe I should try my reading glasses,” and oh my god, I could see! So I got into that and ended up becoming more of a painter than a terrain maker.

I prefer making stuff, but it’s just easier to paint. You just sit down, and there it is. It’s more instant gratification.

The guy ended up moving out, so I bought my own set of paints. I was only going a couple months before the pandemic started. So, honestly, the pandemic is what really pushed me into it. It was something I could do every day to entertain myself and just get lost in.

Q: So, you bill yourself as a miniature painter and terrain maker for hire. Tell me about that.

A: Well, I was getting into it so much just as a hobby and started seeing people doing commission work. It took me a really long time to make that step for multiple reasons. The biggest one was just confidence—self-esteem issues. I felt arrogant, honestly, to go out there and be like, “I’m good enough for you to pay me.”

Plus, within the hobby community, most people are painters. How do you tell other painters that you paint for money? They paint their own stuff. But I eventually just made the decision that I would try it out.

I also paint stuff and sell it on my Etsy and eBay stores. I make about half of my money doing commissions and half selling pre-painted stuff, which I prefer because it’s what I want to paint (not someone else’s request).

That’s what’s bizarre about commission painting is turning your hobby into something you make money off. It’s fantastic on the one hand, but on the other hand, you’re not getting to paint what you want. You’re being told to paint this thing, whether you have the inspiration or not. But I don’t regret it by any means.

Q: Do you charge differently depending on if it’s a mini you painted or something someone commissioned?

A: Not typically, no. It’s kind of really hard to come up with pricing. There’s a really weird thing in this community where people don’t flat out want to tell you what they charge. When I first got into it, I started asking people I knew that did it, and nobody will give you actual numbers. It’s bizarre, and I think part of it is because it’s so hard. Each client and their product is so specific and unique. It depends on what level you’re painting. There are tabletop standards, display, competition. It really comes down to how long you spend on something.

I think we make very little hourly. I think even the best painters don’t make much hourly. So, I constantly underbid myself, but it’s okay because you’re trying to build clients and a reputation, so I kind of have to accept that that happens at first. You just can’t walk in and be like, “Pay me top rate!” and they say, “Why would I? You have nothing to show.”

Q: Am I allowed to ask how you determine your prices now?

A: I did some basic research, like going on Etsy and seeing what people were painting and selling. One painted classic D&D character usually ranges between $20-40. I just go in the middle with $30 but ranging in both directions depending on how long I spent with it. I think at the end of the day, I make less than $10 an hour if you put it into an hourly rate.

But, I would rather have less money and do what I like than work for somebody else and be miserable, and that’s kind of what happened.

Q: Once you made the leap into commission painting, how did you find your first customers?

A: I basically just announced on Instagram and Facebook at the same time, and somebody that I went to high school with immediately wanted me to paint a board game for him. So, that was my first commission, and I really underbid myself, but it was a good learning experience, and it was really fun. He was super happy.

It was a whole X-men set. I think it had 20 or so figures. My biggest mistake was that I charged as though I was painting something small, like typical miniatures, but these were much bigger. Every mini took me twice as long as I had in my brain. So, lesson learned, you know?

Q: When minis have an established appearance (like Wolverine has to look like Wolverine), is that easier or harder than coming up with your own schemes?

A: That’s also another toss-up. When people have a really specific idea of what they want, it’s nice because it kind of takes the brain work out of it. I don’t have to feel inspired. I can just do it. On the other hand, they know what they want it to look like, and you want to try and execute what’s in their mind or what that image looks like. That is a bit of a challenge.

It goes both ways. Somebody says, “Just paint it like this.” I think, “Okay, I hope I have an idea of what you actually want.”

Q: Does it usually work out pretty well, though?

A: Yeah, I haven’t had anybody unhappy yet!

Q: You also run a painting competition, right? The Dark Elf Dare. Tell me more about that!

A: Well, multiple competitions are run within the hobby, so I always kind of knew they were there. I’m not really a big joiner myself, but a lot of people do giveaways when they hit a certain amount of followers. Their thank you is to do a giveaway. It can be controversial that they’re “farming for followers”, is what people often say. I just didn’t want to create something that I was gaining from. I really wanted it to be something to give back to this community that has done so much for me.

That’s a whole other side topic: what this hobby and community mean to me mental health-wise.

So, I think I was about to hit 2,000 followers or something like that. I thought, “Well, I need to do something. It’s time. I’m big enough in the community that I feel like it’s time to give back something.” So that’s kind of how it was born.

I wanted the name to have my name in it but not be just my name. So, it’s like I’m daring you to try something new is the idea of the dare part. Then, “Dark Elf,” obviously. Dark Elf Dare.

Q: How does the competition work?

A: So, I thought, let’s just come up with a theme, and then there are two ways to go about running it. You can either have people like judges to vote, or you can do community votes. My thought on community votes is they’re a bit of a popularity contest. Not to knock people that do them that way, I just want people with 50 followers to have just as much of a chance as people with 5,000 followers. I want it to be an equal playing field.

So, I asked people in the community that either I was friends with or just knew that I thought would be a nice variety of people to be judges. We’re all within the hobby but come at it differently, so I thought that would be a nice way to balance it. On average, I have eight different judges besides myself.

We come up with a monthly theme and then just throw it out there, everybody does their entries, we do a vote, and then we announce the winners.

Q: What do the winners get?

A: The main reason I like doing these is inspiring people to create. I think a lot of times we lack inspiration or motivation to hobby, but we want to. That’s kind of a constant conversation within this community. Having somebody else give you an idea can spark inspiration, and people tend to try new things.

The best thing I hear from people is, “Wow, I tried something new. Thank you so much for getting me to do this.” And, that means the world to me. It just makes me so happy and gives me goosebumps.

So, there’s that, but then also I wanted to be able to showcase them. I love being able to showcase what people are making beyond what maybe their followers would see and then showcasing businesses within our community.

Every contest is sponsored by multiple people, all the way from tiny, tiny little people who are just starting up their 3D printing or dice making, all the way up to bigger established companies. Some of them reach out to me, some I reach out to, and then we work out what they want to offer and sort it into first, second, and third place prizes.

Then I realized we were getting people who felt like they were never going to win because there’s such a different skill level range. I want everyone to feel like they have a chance when they enter. While a competition is about winning, to me, the point is to make something and inspire yourself and feel good about what you created at the end of the day.

So, I started doing a drawing. Just by entering, you’re put into a drawing to win a prize now. It doesn’t mean that anybody couldn’t win. It’s just in their minds. Classic artists, we don’t think our stuff is good enough. I don’t want that issue for people.

Q: So, it sounds like the competition builds your community but also gives back to the community. It’s a win-win, right?

A: Yeah, it’s a win-win, and it does a lot for me. I really enjoy doing it. Sometimes it’s a lot of work. I even get a little stressed out because I’m the most unorganized person of all time. It cracks me up that I even run something like this, but my judges are more than judges. They’re definitely like my counsel. That’s how I think of them. They don’t just come forward and judge once a month. We talk it through the whole month, so it’s very collaborative. Yeah, it’s a win-win all around.

Q: I’m going to make this next one 2 parts. With all these things that you’ve got going on, what would you say is the most the successful thing you’ve done 1) to build your business and 2) to grow your community.

A: It is hard to separate those two. I feel like because everything I do very much revolves around Instagram, the more you build your reputation and your community, the more it builds you. It just kind of goes back and forth.

As your account grows and your reputation grows, you’re just out there more. More people are gonna know who you are, and they’re gonna want to hire you or just be supportive. So, they’re very intertwined for me.

I think just being super involved and consistent with what I do is what has been the most successful.

Q: Has there been anything that you tried that just didn’t work it, like it just flops, and you don’t do it anymore?

A: No, not yet. I feel like I’m so new to all of this I’m still sorting out what will be the best avenues. There’s not going to be one stream that I make all my money off of. It’s always going to be a collective thing.

Q: That’s a really good point to make. If you’re new to it, and you think you’ll make a full living off just selling miniatures, that’s probably not the case, right?

A: No, no, unfortunately, no. A lot of people have asked me, people that have careers or full-time jobs. They ask about what I think about them getting into commission painting, and honestly, my answer now would be, “Don’t.” If you plan on staying with your job, don’t ruin your hobby. If you don’t need that extra money, don’t put that pressure on your hobby.

I will admit that that is definitely a struggle for me. Something that you find pleasure with that is relaxing, that’s your creative outlet…when you have to do it for someone else, it can be a struggle. Not to complain, but it’s just the reality of it.

Work is work, even if it’s something you like.

Q: How do you motivate yourself when it’s kind of feeling like a slog?

A: I’m not great at motivation, but I am good at consistently making myself paint. I paint every single day, and I think that’s a key. A lot of people will say, “Erin, just walk away.” There are moments where I do walk away for a day or two because I’m feeling disgruntled. Still, for the most part, I come in here every single day, whether it be for an hour or eight hours, and I just make myself do something.

Some days I’ve got all the inspiration. Other days I don’t, but I’m still doing something. As long as you keep doing it, you’re gonna get better. It’s just the law of artists. We might plateau for a while, and that can be really discouraging to feel like you’re not getting better, but I think what’s actually happening is that you got to a certain level, and you start appreciating even better painting.

You want to try harder things, so you’re harder on where you’re at because you’re not there yet. You forget that you weren’t here either before, so you need to give it a second. The only person you should compare yourself to is yourself.

Q: We have been talking about a few challenges, but what would you say is the hardest thing about doing miniature painting for income?

A: The inconsistency of the income. It’s never going to be this guaranteed income every month. Like, right now, I don’t have a commission, but the nice thing about that, back to selling stuff online, is that it tends to balance out. Suddenly, everybody will want a commission at the same time. Sometimes, five people approach you in the same week, wanting you to paint things, and you’re thinking, “Oh god, I’m not gonna be able to get you.” Then you’re done, and you’re like, “Where is everybody now?” you know?

Then, I have a really hard time putting myself out there, like “Hire me!” I tend to put myself out there in the other way, which is more like, “Here I am, if you want me.” I think people could be more successful if they’re comfortable saying, “Hey, I do commissions.” Saying it every day and really being kind of an earworm. I’m not good at that yet.

I look back on how terrified I was to even say I was taking commissions, and now I just say it. So, eventually, it’ll get easier and easier

Believe it or not, I have stage fright, and I stream every week. The first time I went live was an interview like this, and I had to take an anxiety pill. I was terrified. Then it gets a little easier, a little easier, a little easier. I still have a moment of butterflies before it goes live, but it’s so much fun, and that outweighs the fear.

Q: You mentioned Twitch streaming as something that you’re going to be doing in the future. Any other big plans?

A: I think I’d like to kind of have a multimedia channel where I do lots of different things because I’m not just a painter. I’m a gamer, and I’m also just a dork who likes to talk about random stuff. I would like to maybe have one night a week where we talk about the competition in whatever way that means, another night of the week that’s like maybe a mental health and hobby talk.

That’s what I want is to eventually establish a kind of channel that has a regular schedule.

Q: Just to wrap it up with a nice little bow: Let’s say someone loves painting and have been doing it as a hobby. They’re ready to make the leap to doing it for commissions. What’s the one big piece of advice you would give?

A: I’m gonna sound so cliche and cheesy but honestly, believe in yourself. There’s gonna be times where it’s gonna seem like nobody is interested in what you’re doing. You might not be happy with what you’re doing, but just believe that you can do it and that people do like it. Don’t let that little voice in the back of your head get too loud. Just go for it and trust that things will work out.

It’s not gonna be today, and it might not even be tomorrow, but just keep plugging along. Whatever pace you want to do is fine.

Thank you so much to Erin for taking the time to speak to us and give us an insider’s look at what it means to run a miniature painting business.

You can follow and support Erin on her various channels:

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One Response

  1. I’m not in a place to do my own business but I live painting characters and am preset good at it. Do you hire artists to paint characters for you?

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About the Author

Ami Defesche is a self-proclaimed geek and serial side-gigger who is eternally fascinated by the ways people make careers and side hustles with their hobbies and interests. A certified career coach, game industry veteran, and professional online community manager, her main story quest is all about helping people make their geekiest dreams come true. 

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