How a Decorative Painter Built a Business

By Carolyn Edlund

Artist Debra Disman is an entrepreneur, teacher, writer and successful artist. She created her business in a deliberate and multi-faceted way, and shares insights for other artists.


Decorative Painting by Debra Disman


AS:  Tell us about your background and how you got involved with decorative painting.

DD: I majored in Painting at the University of Iowa, and was also in the Iowa Writers Workshop in Poetry.  After college I moved to San Francisco and taught at the De Young Museum Art School. This set me off on an arts teaching career that took me all over the Bay Area providing art classes, workshops and trainings, primarily funded by grants and fellowships that I wrote or co-wrote.

During that time I was painting and creating mixed media work and was commissioned to do a piece of “art furniture”, a painted chair. I fell in love with the process!

By chance, I discovered the Paint Effects Shop and Studio where the techniques of Decorative Painting were being taught. I couldn’t believe a place like this existed! I had never seen a business model like this close up – the combination of art and commerce, retail and instruction, with no apology!  I inquired and was later hired on the strength of my teaching experience and painted furniture work.

Having traveled and lived in Europe, I was fascinated by the historical aspect of many of the finishes we taught, as well as by their contemporary applications. Informed by my own experiences and study of art history, I began to develop my own approach and voice. I acquired clientele and thus my business grew. When Paint Effects ceased to exist as an entity in 2001, I went out on my own.

The field of decorative painting has so many applications and takes place in so many different environments. It really helps to have diverse artistic, technical, business and people skills.

AS:  You took business courses to help you get started as an entrepreneur. How did this help you and what have you incorporated into your business practices?

Most art schools don’t train us to be business people or entrepreneurs, which is exactly what you have to be if you don’t plan to pursue a full-time teaching career or have some other form of income. So it is important to embrace the process.

I had actually been conducting my business for over five years when I began attending the Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center in San Francisco and took “Start Your Own Business” and “Business Planning” classes. In addition to creating a business plan, I was given an overview of the totality of running a business, a context for many of the issues I was dealing with, and a community of people to interact with around those issues. I met my awesome web designer, Dianna Jacobsen of Jacobsen Design through Renaissance, where she also studied. I was introduced to many basic concepts – not just financials, the business plan and feasibility – but the concepts of networking, marketing, and connecting with others. My experience at Renaissance showed me a way out of isolation, which I think is a great pitfall for visual artists, even those actively involved in business, as we tend to work solo.

Subsequently I joined and was active in BNI social (online) networking communities, and Professional groups like MeetUp.  In addition, I began training with the International Association of Colour Consultants and Designers (IACC) to enhance my color skills and developed a further network there. I can see the line from Paint Effects, to the Renaissance Center, to BNI, to online networking, to professional groups. I made extraordinary connections through these associations, which had a powerful effect on my career.

Decorative Painting by Debra Disman


AS:  You have mentioned writing, and expressed that it is something that you love. Is writing a skill that you think aspiring artists should develop?

DD:  Being able to write comprehensively is a crucial skill to have – in all fields. It helps you clarify your own ideas, plans and goals, and also communicates these to others, which is necessary if you are going to have any measure of success professionally.

One of the joys of doing this interview is that I can share and offer advice on what I didn’t do, as much as what I have done! I didn’t write a business plan initially, nor would I have if I did not attend the Business Planning Class at the Renaissance Center. I had been taught to organize my thoughts through writing, and that skill has proved to be invaluable. Whether it was writing lesson plans, grant proposals, website text, or articles, writing intelligibly has been critical to my livelihood. So, when I did get to writing the business plan, I was comfortable with the process.

Writing dovetails with marketing activities, educates others about your art, and raises public awareness of it. I became a columnist for the Bay Area Women’s Journal, and the opportunity to write about decorative painting gave me a whole new view of what this multi-faceted art form contributes to our world, and my own relationship to it. Writing gives us the opportunity to offer advice and inspiration to others, which is another way of giving back.


Debra Disman painting


AS:  Marketing is important for artists, and your website gives a great presentation, including video. What recommendations do you have for other artists looking to publicize themselves?

DD: I see marketing as a three-fold process:

– face-to-face/in-person experiences: joining and meeting with business groups and individuals

-“behind the scenes” actions such as mailings, phone calls, and emails

– consistent online activities to create a presence, such as maintaining a website and blog, sending out an email newsletter, and participating in social networking

Not everyone loves to write, join groups, or present online, but the act of connecting with others can yield unexpected gold. All the teaching and exhibition experience in the world did not cause me to grow in the way that participating in BNI for two years did, because I had to return to the Chapter each week, and present my business and my art in front of a group, and define in words what I was doing.

Through Twitter, I connected with the master decorative painter Lyna Farkus, co-host, with the creative entrepreneur extraordinaire Rebecca Parsons of the blog radio show Artistically Speaking Radio an interview program spotlighting artists and the creatively self-employed. Because of my connection with Lyna, I was interviewed on the show. It was not only an honor, but a real joy to share with these amazing women and their listeners about some of the things we care about most – offering information to support others.

Having a video on your site can be very helpful to present and share about what you do. Engaging in the educational, marketing, and networking activities I have described may lead you to the perfect videographer to showcase your work.

Whether you are making a web site or a video to present your work, blogging, crafting an “infomercial” or an “elevator” pitch, tweeting, posting or updating, you are using these forums to share what you do, and inspire others to become interested in your work and ultimately to buy it. A salient way to do this is to communicate the value of what you do to others. This can be achieved in multiple ways for the greatest impact.

Equally important is to give back, whether it is through contributing time or consultation to a worthy cause, mentoring other artists and those new to your field or donating your skills, tools or equipment to create something.


Decorative Painting by Debra Disman


AS:  Time management is a challenge in your busy career. How do you plan and organize to get the most out of each business day? What are some of the tools you use?

DD: Many of my time management and organizational tools are deceptively simple:

  • One of my tools is the humble analogue notebook. I use it to prioritize tasks, peruse websites and communications, track progress, make comments and evaluate where I am at any given time.
  • Sometimes saying no can be as important as saying yes. Say no to perfectionism and overworking.  Don’t continue to pound on a problem – instead, of take a break from it.  Walk away, and get some exercise and refreshment. Getting “away” helps to free up the mind for solutions.
  • When overwhelmed with the challenge at hand, I try to break it down into manageable steps.  I focus on each individual step without worrying about the outcome. Then I set a specific amount of time to deal with a task.
  • I have a plan for each day, but the plan needs to be loose enough to allow me to respond to an unexpected client calling about a project, a moment of creative inspiration or a surprise email. To remain focused, yet flexible is a supreme art form and one that requires constant practice.
  • I am a big fan of identifying and doing things that bring you back to your central joy and passion about your work and about what compelled you to follow this path in the first place, which remind you why you love to do what you do, even with all of the struggles, frustrations and sacrifices.


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  1. Thank you for sharing your biz building insights Debra! Artsy Shark is a nice blog too. Good info.

    • Thank you Dianna, for taking time out of your very busy work life to read the interview. it was a joy to share about your creativity, artistry, and services.
      Great to move through this working journey with you, and thank you for all the great work you do for ArtiFactory Studio!

  2. Lyna Farkas says

    Debra Rocks! Her work is beautiful- whether painting or writing….

  3. Looking forward to Part 2 with Debra!

    From Part 1, I particularly liked this quote: “Writing gives us the opportunity to offer advice and inspiration to others, which is another way of giving back.”

    • So fun to hear from FUNCOLORS!
      I am honored by your comment. The more we can support and inspire each other, the more we move forward!
      Thank you for your color…

  4. Appreciation for Artsy Shark…Thank you Carolyn.

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