Erin Hanson - L.A. Lady Interviews

Erin Hanson, Contemporary Impressionist. Interviewed by Michele Carroll. Photography: Stevie Nelson


For our readers who don’t know, give us a little rundown of what you do.

I make my living as a fine artist, creating large and vibrant landscapes in oil.  I get my inspiration from hiking and backpacking through National Parks and other scenery and then I re-create moments of beauty on the canvas.

You've been interested in the arts since you were a child. However, when attending UC Berkeley for your undergrad,  you ultimately decided to study Bioengineering. What were your original plans for this degree? 

I wanted to work for NASA or some cutting-edge laboratory where I would get to build bio robots or something.  I took a very inspiring course in college about the Space Program and terraforming and building space rockets, and, being a life-long science fiction fan, I became very interested in this field of fiction-come-to-life.

When did you decide that the bioengineering course wasn’t the right path for you?

I worked for a few professors in the bioengineering department, while I was an undergrad at UC Berkeley. I realized that studying science was much more interesting and exciting than the actual day-to-day practice of being a scientist. I decided I didn’t want to spend my life passing long hours in a laboratory and asking other people for grant money.  I wanted to be more in control of my life, and I vaguely had the idea that I could maybe start my own business. One of my friends in college had started his own business of buying out companies that were closing down, and he would resell all the computers and furniture and office supplies, and he ended up making a very respectable income for a 20-year-old!  I actually helped him sell SCSI computer adapters online, and that was my first introduction to selling on eBay.

After college, you found yourself in this unexpected position as one of the early storage wars pioneers! How did this come about and what did your job entail? 

After college I worked at an “eBay drop-off store,” which was a very popular concept ten years ago.  Customers would come into the store bringing all sorts of collectibles and jewelry and rare goods, and I would research every item, photograph it, and post it on eBay for them (in exchange for a cut of the proceeds.)  After this job, I decided to start my own business of selling on eBay, and I discovered public storage unit auctions.  I would purchase 3-6 large storage units every week, empty out the units, and resell all the furniture and goods inside.  I used eBay, Craigslist, and swap meets to sell most of the things I found.  I worked 80-90 hours a week, but it was terrific fun!  This was by far the most fun I had ever had making money, and I knew I would never want to work for someone else again.

— Erin Hanson

What did you learn from being your own boss at such a young age? 

I learned that anyone can start a business, if they aren’t afraid of working hard and they are willing to study and learn new skills.  It was surprising what I had to research and learn to do to be a fine artist, including coding in HTML, learning how to open a corporation and the intricacies of tax law, how to pack and ship paintings, how to make my own frames, how to do accounting, how to take perfect photographs and make great layout designs in Photoshop and Indesign, how to publish a book, how to maximize search engine optimization, how to open a gallery, how to hang paintings and what lighting to use… just to name a few.  When you start your own business, you have to be willing to learn all the hats that make up a company.  Luckily with the internet and the great book resources on Amazon, you can learn anything you want.  I am pretty sure I have read every book on art marketing that has been written in the past 5 years.  I believe businesses can be started without any seed money, and without going into debt.  I have in fact started a half dozen businesses that each supported me, and the first one was started using only $40 and a bicycle (I didn’t even own my own car!).

Your eBay business eventually led you to relocate to Las Vegas, which is where artistic fate stepped in. Tell us about how this move led to your decision to start pursuing a career as an artist? 

When the “Storage Wars” business became too competitive, I moved to Las Vegas to see if I could escape the competition. The storage units were just as crowded with people up there, but I just adjusted and adapted my business model, and I ended up selling other people’s storage unit finds on eBay, and taking a sales commission.  Later I morphed it into a wholesale import business, and later into a drop-shipping business.  When I moved to Las Vegas, I also started painting again.  I knew I could support myself with eBay and I wouldn’t have to work “for the man” ever again, so I started thinking about what I would really like to do in this life, and that was painting.  So I decided I would create one painting every week, and see where that took me.  I have stuck to that decision ever since, of painting one painting a week, for 10 years now.

What were your insecurities about making this career transition? 

I made the transition from reseller to painter in a very smooth manner.  I used minimal resources to paint and my first art festival was only an investment of a few thousand dollars. Any money I made selling paintings I re-invested in myself as an artist: buying a van, buying more canvases, applying to more shows, spending more time painting, etc.  Of course I had insecurities about whether I would be able to make a living 100% as an artist, so I counteracted that by continuing to refine my other business so they didn’t take up so much of my time.  My idea was that if I could just act as a middleman between wholesale and retail (act as a distributor) then I wouldn’t have to work as hard.  So I managed to cut my hours back from 90 hours a week to 30 hours a week, and I spent the rest of my time painting and rock climbing… oh, and I took up the professional trade of stone masonry for a year (to help out my boyfriend at the time).

Once you decided you wanted to pursue art, what was the first action step you took?

My first decision was deciding “what should I paint?”.  Luckily it was particularly beautiful driving from Los Angeles to Las Vegas that day, and I decided without reservation that I would paint landscapes.  Later that week I discovered Red Rock Canyon, just outside of Las Vegas, and decided that was the most beautiful landscape I had ever seen.  I started rock climbing every week, and so for two years I only painted rocks and sunrises and stunning desert vistas.

Which skillsets from your time as a Storage Buyer and eBay Store Manager would you say helped you in running your art business?  

There were lots of skills that translated into being a fine artist. I had the ability to set up a whole show in a few hours, move lots of heavy boxes by myself, be productive on very little sleep, develop a website, take professional photos and edit them in Photoshop, deal with customer service issues, type 80 words per minute, and use Excel to organize data, to name a few.

What was your first ah-ha moment, when you realized all your hard work towards becoming a full-time professional artist was coming together as a reality?  

Well, after four years of painting and selling at art festivals, while continuing my other online businesses, I finally had the cognition that my time was actually more valuable when I was painting than when I was posting up new wholesale products to sell.  I made a decision in that moment: I decided to sell off all my other businesses and concentrate solely on being an artist.  This was tough decision to make, since I loved my other businesses as well, but I could tell that they were just acting as a time waster at this point, and that if I could only paint more, I would make far more money, and be much happier as well.

Since your time in Las Vegas, you have built an incredibly successful business, selling almost every piece of art you create (while maintaining your pledge of creating 1 painting per week, I might add!). What advice do you have for other artists and/or business owners striving for similar success? 

I think if you can find something you are passionate about, then working hard (80+ hours per week) won’t seem like work at all.  It really does take thousands and thousands of man hours to get a business off the ground.  Until you can afford to hire help, you end up doing everything yourself, as well as the actual production of the artwork.  Eventually you will build up enough collectors and fans so that you can afford to get others to do the work.

Knowing what you know now, would you do anything differently about how you started your business?  

I would have hired an assistant sooner.  It was hard for me to “let go” of all the administration side of running an art business. I was worried that someone else wouldn’t be able to do it as well as I could.  However, I just kept persisting and training people, and after going through a few employees I finally found the perfect assistant/gallery manager.  I actually feel that I could easily hire a second full-time employee right now, since I still find myself doing things that prevent me from painting.

Can you think back to a particular unexpected setback or mental block you had to overcome in your art career? What did you learn from it? 

I used to think that I could work with art galleries, as well as having my own collectors and doing art festivals and selling paintings online.  I discovered, after 8 years of working with galleries, that it just wouldn’t work.  I have a business system that works for me and allows me to stay connected with my collectors through monthly communications and promotions, and I spend 80% of my painting income promoting and running my business.  A gallery does not want their artists running their own business, so they end up having conflicting goals.  Luckily, with modern art fairs and with the internet, it is easy to bypass the traditional methods of selling art, and you can sell straight to the collector.

What is it about your passion that gets you out of bed in the morning?  

I get very excited at the thought of starting a new painting and making this painting the best I have ever done.  It is always a bit of struggle during the painting processes, as I fight to make the paint and the canvas become more vibrant and more alive than “real life,” but the end product is almost always satisfactory. I am also drawn from bed thinking of all the administrative work that needs to be done (I have five paintings to ship out tomorrow morning, plus a whole museum show I need to frame, not to mention starting work on my next “Romance in Bloom” collection which needs to be completed by February 14th!)  The days just zoom by, I hardly notice the time passing, and before I realize it the day is over, and then the month is over, and then it is Christmas again.

Where do you see yourself 5 years from now? No need to be modest!  

I would like to have an even more epic gallery than I even have now (I have my eye on a 14,000 sq-ft building in Atwater Village.)  I would like to have a team of assistants, and I would like to have the freedom to travel and paint wherever my fancy takes me.  It would be great to have an actual business manager (CEO) who could run all my other employees and make sure everything is done perfectly.  Of course I want to try to continue to double my income every year, which I have been doing for the past 8 years.  It is fun playing this game, since the end product is my paintings being beloved and brightening the homes of my collectors around the world.

What does a typical work day look like for you – morning to night?

I wake up, drink coffee, and am at my gallery by 10am.  I try to handle all my administrative work and cope with the business side of being an artist until around 2pm.  I spend the morning coordinating with my assistant, ordering frames and shipping boxes, invoicing sales, editing images, updating the website, applying to art shows, and all the hundreds of other small things that always pop up.  I have to be careful not to let myself spend too much time on the minutia, important as it seems to be, because if I don’t spend 8 hours painting every day the whole business falls apart.  So, if I am in front of my easel by 2pm I consider myself on-target for the day.  I can paint until 10pm, and then drive home and spend some time talking business with my fiancé before going to bed and starting all over in the morning. During my show season I spend 2-4 days every weekend traveling and selling my paintings at high-end art shows across the Western states. (I do about 30 traveling shows every year, as well as another 10 shows in my gallery.)

If you could have an all expenses paid trip to anywhere in the world to paint, where would it be? 

I would like to go to southern France, and then meander around to Greece.  I like the idea of painting romantic European landscapes and visiting all the past masters’ sources of inspiration.


Favorite area of L.A.? I like the Sunland-Tujunga area, it is where I spent some of my childhood and I love being right at the base of the Angeles Forest mountains. The landscape seems wild and untouched compared to the rest of L.A.
Favorite eatery in L.A.? Home Restaurant, just down the street from my gallery in Silver Lake.
Menu item we must order there? Mom’s Chicken Noodle Soup.
Favorite weekend activities in the city? My favorite date night destination is the Pasadena iPic.
Audio of choice when sitting in traffic? Whatever Audible audiobook I am listening to.
Place or thing you want to do most in L.A., but haven’t yet? Visiting the Norton Simon Art Museum.
Biggest L.A. guilty pleasure? Gunning it on certain 5 freeway onramps, getting over 90 mph and shooting onto the freeway like a slingshot.

-Erin Hanson, Contemporary Impressionist