Amber Vittoria is a creator who wears many hats. The portfolio of this soon-to-be-LA-based artist, illustrator, and poet spans the mediums of ink, pencil, paint, language, and most recently, digital fine art via NFTs. Not to mention enviable collaborations with commercial clients and brands like adidas, Caraway, and L’Oreal.
In 2020, Vittoria was named on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list in the Art & Style category. After two previously sold-out NFT collections, “Memories of a Masterpiece” launched in July 2022, and also sold out immediately. Earning more than 100 ETH in volume in its first 24 hours on secondary markets, the collection was covered by the likes of HYPEBEAST and NFT Evening, which rightly proclaimed Vittoria’s explosion and influence on the Web3 scene.
The digital art marketplace allows the vibrant fluidity of Vittoria’s colorful, feminine-inspired art to become “fully abstracted.” She’s also found time to publish her first book, These Are My Big Girl Pants: Poetry and Paintings on Womanhood, which will be out in January 2023.
Ahead, Vittoria speaks to The Leap about what she’s learned on her journey as a creator, and how she’s able to unlock new revenue streams with NFTs.
What did your career trajectory look like before you became a freelance artist?
When I graduated college in 2012, I moved home and freelanced while trying to find a full-time job. I freelanced a lot in college, and it was something I enjoyed. In the long term, I knew I wanted to do fine art painting. But in the short term, I thought it’d be cool to do illustration, since I have a design background.
My first job was at Victoria’s Secret as a web designer. My second job was VaynerMedia, where I was a designer and then an art director. At that point in time, I knew I wanted to do more freelance work — it was just really tough with an agency job. From there, I found a web design job at Avon that was a proper 9-5, which allowed me to ramp back up my freelance work. I was at Avon for about a year and a half before I took the leap into full-time freelance.
And what made you decide to go freelance full-time?
For a while, I could kind of juggle both, but I think the tipping point was that it became really difficult to do both. I would get up early and try to do my own work, and then do [freelance gigs] when I got home, and I would just be really tired. [Eventually, I realized] I could live off my freelance income if I removed my full-time salary and made some adjustments. I would have eight hours a day that I was working a full-time job to put into my freelance.
[Me and my now husband] were on vacation in San Francisco one day, and I was like, “I’m ready to just quit my job.” But this was after a lot of years of building up clients and getting that confidence. In early December 2017, I started doing full-time freelance work.
How did you make the transition?
I remember my first paid thing was for the holidays. I did many little portraits of people for $10, and I did 60 of them. So I made $600 and was like, “Let’s go! Yeah!” I remember loving to figure out what I wanted to do and have the time to do that. But I did have some privilege going into it: I didn’t have any college loans. I paid off the one loan I had early on in my career with my savings from my high school jobs. And my parents took on the rest of the loans and absorbed it into their mortgage. Back then, I also didn’t have any of the health issues I have now.
In terms of dependents, it was just [my husband] Dave and I. And worst case scenario, he had a full-time job. So all those factors helped me take that leap a little earlier. Worst case, I thought, I’ll take a full-time job again. It’s not the end of the world.
If you made $600 from your first paid freelance gig, you must have quickly figured out how to set your rates. How did you learn to become more entrepreneurial?
So, the reason why those portraits were $10 each is mainly because they were for my friends [laughs.] My client work of editorial projects was priced a lot lower. The more corporate projects that either were licensed, or on the rare occasion that the IP would be purchased, would be priced a lot higher.
I was lucky to have been freelancing for several years before going full-time freelance. To know pricing was really helpful. But in those first two years, I also befriended a lot of other freelance artists, and we’d share what we’d charge for certain types of projects. I learned to charge more when I found out what a friend would charge for similar projects. Being a freelancer, it’s always nice to share or ask. Sometimes, people are a little leery about sharing [how much they made from a project], but usually it helps because you can gauge where the ballpark is.
How have you been able to develop multiple revenue streams?
The [revenue stream] I’ve had the longest is my print shop on Society6. My husband and I live in a small apartment, and to do additional prints of every single painting would be really tough. Especially since some folks want larger paintings or prints, some folks want smaller prints, some want prints on canvas, some want framed prints. It allows people to choose. Society6 was just the best place to me for [selling prints of my artwork].
The second piece was finding client work by posting work on social media and reaching out to clients. The majority of my work would come from cold outreach. I would email certain companies to see if they’d be interested in working together, while also selling paintings and drawings. Sometimes I would do little flash sales on Instagram.
Flash forward to more recently, and my work is digital collectibles or NFTs, which have been a life-changing income stream. It’s not only an income stream. For the first time, it feels like I’m not just shouting into the void at an audience. It feels more like a community where I’ve met and befriended folks that have collected my work. It feels like this base of collectors are people that truly care not only about the work that I make because it resonates with them, but for me as a person. Hopefully this is going to be the future longterm as we build on this decentralized marketplace. I don’t think it will be just a marketplace, but a decentralized version of the internet.
On the topic of Web3, what’s your experience with NFTs?
In 2018 or 2019, I learned about CryptoKitties, which I didn’t realize are NFTs. They were looking for artists to draw different cat traits, and even though that wasn’t in my style, I reached out. I remember thinking, “Wow, people can just sell their own stuff as this digital form. That’s really cool.” And then I totally forgot about it when the pandemic happened.
In February 2021, a few of my husband’s friends bought CryptoPunks. And I was like, “These are expensive. That is insanity.” But after doing some research, I was like, “Oh, yeah! CryptoKitties! Now anyone can sell whatever they want.” So we pulled some of our savings and got a punk. Shortly thereafter, probably March 2021, I started to sell work on MakersPlace, a platform to sell NFTs. I sold a few and was very excited. It helped, especially during the pandemic, but there were a few hurdles I was facing. The first was financial: to mint a piece at that time was maybe like $500, without knowing if it would sell. The second thing was that my work — even though I do digital work — was predominantly done by hand.
I paused for a few months and started to study what other artists were doing in terms of marketing and selling their work, and realized that selling digital pieces was just a lot easier [and lowered] the barrier to entry. People could get to know me as an artist and a person, and I could get to know them. Eventually I figured out how to bring my physical work back into it.
And your first collections sold out so quickly.
The “Inaugural Collection” that happened on OpenSea was incredible for a few reasons. One, it was all digital, and it was the first time that I made fine art digital work. The second reason was OpenSea has what they call a lazy minting feature, where you don’t pay to mint it, and that happens when a piece is sold. This took away the burden of spending all this money even if it doesn’t sell. The worst case scenario is that no one likes my work, no big deal. But I started selling these pieces. I would list them and, by the end of the day, they sold.
Then I launched my “Alphabet Collection” a few weeks later, which also sold out at lightning speed. It was wild. From there, I started to experiment with bringing my physical work back into it, with limited editions of some of my paintings, similar to a limited-edition screen print. Sometimes a tethered one-of-one NFT and a painting together, but not as often, since folks usually like the idea that NFTs are liquid as an artist grows in fame and they can trade for more money. Folks that want to collect and keep the art longterm will be the ones that buy those one-of-ones.
Has the NFT space changed your approach as a creator or entrepreneur?
As a creator, it’s allowed me to slow down actually. I used to make a drawing or painting a day, plus client work to just get my name out there. Now I have the privilege of being able to slow down, really experiment, and dive deep into different ideas that I want to paint or create. It’s been really nice to take a step back.
As a business person, it has allowed me to slow down a bit, too. It feels more intentional and less [pressure] to keep up with the algorithm. It feels like I have more peace in terms of being able to work at a pace that feels less stressful. I don’t want to share everything, but the things that mean the most to me. The intentionality of Web3 has given me that time back.
Since you mentioned social media, how has your sense of marketing evolved? What’s your outlook and practice on promoting yourself?
It definitely changed. In 2017, Instagram was posting images, Stories didn’t exist, there was a chronological timeline, and Reels didn’t exist. TikTok wasn’t a thing. Twitter was a thing but it wasn’t as visual as it is now. I was lucky because I hit that Instagram bubble at a good time. A lot of people found my work, followed it, related to it. As time went on, video became the newer form of communication. When TikTok came out, I was like, “I’m not following these trends. I’m not dancing. This is so cringe. Man, what can I share?”
I started sharing my process. In the beginning, I shared the full process, but then I noticed that there were a lot of mimics of my work. Everyone mimics other people’s work, [but when] I started sharing my full process, a dozen people a day would reach out to me saying, “Hey, this is an exact copy of your work.” So I paused and started to only show small, close-up clips of it. More about ASMR and pausing and showing the small details. That allows me to share my process in a way that feels okay. I’m not Bob Ross teaching people how, you know? When I initially shared the full process, people were like, “What paint to use? What do you recommend? What paper is that?” And that was not the headspace I want to be in on social media. I want it to be about the art and the meaning behind the art.
That subtle shift allowed me to post less, which is nice. I have a comfort zone knowing that I don’t have to be online all the time. People sometimes say that it seems like I am, but I’m really not. You can repurpose Reels. You can repost a Reel that was posted three months ago and no one’s the wiser. Being kind to yourself and going on your own schedule is the most important thing, because we don’t know how the algorithm works. It’s always changing. Do what feels right for you. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Use whatever platforms make the most sense for your practice, which allows you to ebb and flow as these platforms change. It gives you time to grow, brainstorm, and change with it without feeling reactionary.
Any tips for monetizing content so creators can fully live off their craft?
There’s no one way to be a freelancer. There’s no one way to figure it out. I did a lot of cold outreach while I had full-time jobs. And I had money saved, I didn’t have debt. I added up all the components in my life to know when it made the most sense for me to take the leap. I know illustrators who do very well, and who still have full-time jobs because that’s what they prefer.
Tap into yourself as a creative and as a business person, and decide what is best for you. [For some people], working in a coffee shop during the day and making artwork at night is the balance they need. There’s no wrong way to be successful.
As an artist, you have to tap into yourself and allow yourself to change as you grow over time. You might want to freelance full-time for a bit, then decide not to, and then decide to do it again. There’s really no wrong way, as long as it feels right to you.
Having boundaries is also very important. It’s awkward to have conversations about getting paid on time, or getting paid in general, or certain things that you want to push back on in your contracts. But if you stick to your boundaries, you will get projects that you will love. If you start to flex on those boundaries, that’s when [you can] be taken advantage of. And that’s a tough thing to do — sometimes you need to pay the rent, pay for food, just grin and bear it. And that’s fine. But if you have the ability to slowly start putting in those boundaries, eventually you’ll get to a place where you can eliminate [stress] from your practice completely.
I appreciate your approach to freelancing as a flow, a process, a journey.
When I was younger, in 2017, I won the Art Directors Club (ADC) Young Guns Award, and James Victore was the speaker. In his speech, he said, “You’re never going to have an isolated moment. People are always searching for a moment, but it’s a journey.” He got a letter from the MoMA and was like, “Cool, now maybe I’ve made it. Wait, no, I want more.” That always resonates with me, and it takes a lot of pressure off.
I feel like sometimes, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to have work sold to a specific collector, or work with a particular brand. At the end of the day, if you’re making things that resonate with you, and they resonate with others, that’s more than enough. It’s hard, but I try to reframe it as a journey versus finding a destination. It’s an ongoing journey on the planet. And it’ll end when it ends.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.