Recipe for Starting a Small Business
We have always had an appreciation for art and a desire to create beautiful pieces that resonate with others — and make us happy. Our love for design was solidified when we took an interior design class our senior year of high school. The course was outlined to introduce students to different design-based career fields, and it confirmed that not only did we have a passion for design, but we were good at it as well.
Many ask how we came up with the name for our business. While working on a partner project in class, we were given the task of coming up with a company name to go along with the assignment. Our mom was a Chi Omega at William Woods University and had always collected owls since it was her sorority’s symbol as well as the university’s mascot. Not having decided on a college yet, the two of us always imagined that we were destined to be Chi Os ourselves and were glued to the idea of carrying on the tradition of the owl collections in our own homes. In our design styles, each of us often incorporated different metallics — and copper was usually the winner when it came to a favorite. After lots of brainstorming, we decided on combining the two, and thus Copper Owl was born.
We both majored in interior design and minored in construction management at Missouri State University. The joke was on us because Chi Omega was not a sorority at the school, and we both ended up becoming Sigma Kappas.
The owl would soon become very special to us, just not in the way we had first expected. Copper Owl continued throughout our college career as Copper Owl Creations. We designed custom dorm decor that we sold through Instagram. We enjoyed having Copper Owl as our creative outlet and joked about our occasional “business meetings” when we went out to dinner together using the small business income we kept stored in an old pickle jar. As if we didn’t spend enough time together!
Our two interior design professors, Nancy Asay and Marciann Patton, guided us during our time in college and instilled many of the tools needed in order for us to have a successful career. We took several trips to furniture markets and spent countless hours on commercial and residential design projects. Thanks to dual-credit courses in high school, we both graduated after three and a half years and hit the ground running working for a statewide furniture company based out of our hometown.
The two of us managed the in-home design program for the company as well as the merchandising for all of their showrooms across the state of Missouri. While we greatly enjoyed the time there, we both always had an underlying wonder of what Copper Owl could become. Neither of us had lost our passion for interior design, but we were ready to experiment in a different direction.
After four years at the furniture company, we decided it was now or never to take the leap of faith. In December 2021, we resigned from our positions. We’d like to say that the journey to Copper Owl was “easy peasy,” but reality was not as picture-perfect as we had hoped.
We knew when it came to art and design that we had talent, but what were we going to do with it? The two of us had moved back home after college and were saving money to pay off new cars and college loans. Both of our boyfriends traveled for a living, so we spent more time together than we did with each of them.
We thrived on having a schedule, and it was hard waking up unsure of where to start every morning. The first few months were spent creating product designs for companies we didn’t even know would ever see them.
Earlier in the year, we had illustrated a couple of family recipes as gifts. This is something we had done a few times over the years and greatly enjoyed the process. Soon, a spark was ignited, and we ran with the idea of an illustrated recipe collection.
Hours were spent brainstorming, painting and sorting through family recipes. After completing a handful of designs, we faced a new challenge: finding a company to print our work. The task sounded simple, but it was one of the hardest problems to conquer.
We researched and contacted several printers in our area, but not many offered the services we needed, and if they did, it was quite costly for something on such a small scale. All of the locals specialized in large commercial projects. None of them wanted to mess around with scanning and printing watercolor art and greeting cards.
We experimented with a few other companies, but the outcome of each product was less than ideal. The scans were diluted, and the detail of our original pieces couldn’t be matched. To say we felt frustrated is an understatement.
After reaching out to a local artist, we were put in contact with another printing company located about an hour and a half from home. While the travel was inconvenient, we were desperate to find a solution — and we needed one fast.
We had just come across an application for an art show in Aurora, New York. MacKenzie-Childs was planning its first-ever Artisan Craft Festival, and we were dying for the opportunity for Copper Owl to make its debut — and what better place to do it?! We set our sights on finding a printer before the application deadline.
After sending our first batch of paintings to the printing company we chose, we were overjoyed when presented with fine-art prints that were exact matches of our originals. In some cases, we couldn’t even decipher the original painting from the print. Our next obstacle was figuring out how to get our scans printed on items outside of paper goods, such as tea towels and pillowcases. This process was just as hard as finding a good printer. We spent many days researching and reaching out to companies across the United States that offered such services. Several artists we met were even willing to share which companies they knew of, the pros and cons of each, and how to go about the process. After much trial and error, we finally had products to sell.
With more than a year under our belts, we are thrilled with what we have been able to accomplish and the products we have produced thus far. This next year, we hope to experiment with different types of art, such as botanicals and landscapes, as well as custom-order recipe prints.
Recently, we participated in several local shows and pop-up events. We plan on continuing this with the expectation of introducing our company to more people and widening our brand. We also hope to expand our wholesale orders to more locations and collaborate with some of our favorite companies and artists.
It has been an absolute joy teaming up with our family friend and photographer Rachel Taylor throughout our journey. She offers a keen eye for photography, appreciation for all things art and design, and a friendship that we couldn’t live without. While the photos she produces bring our visions to life, the unfiltered moments behind the camera are the ones we cherish most.
Last, but certainly not least, we are working toward having our own studio space that can house Copper Owl in a more permanent location. For the first year of production, our “studio” was our parents’ basement and a family antique trunk we filled with all of our painting supplies. A small but mighty space, for sure.
With a dedicated studio, we’d like to create a home for Copper Owl product creation as well as a place for us to continue working on and offering our interior design services.
Process for Creating Our Art and Business
All of our artwork starts out as an 8-by-10 or 11-by-14-inch sketch. The concept for the overall design has usually been brainstormed on a piece of scratch paper as a general idea beforehand. That draft is then recreated on the watercolor paper. We normally start at the top of the paper and work our way down. We like to begin with the title first because once that is sketched, we have a pretty good idea of how much room we need for the actual illustration and the recipe itself.
Once the title is complete, we add a rough outline of where each illustration will be placed. After we know where the pictures will appear on the artwork, we start outlining the ingredients and directions portion. This usually takes a few tries in order for the piece to feel balanced between words and illustrations.
Many times, we will stop working on a piece at this stage and come back to it the next day before taking any paint to the paper. This allows us to look at the overall design with fresh eyes and tweak anything while there is just a pencil outline.
After examining the pencil-lined draft and making any corrections, it is time to paint. We experiment with the color scheme on scratch paper prior to painting to ensure an appropriate arrangement is selected and coordinates well with the recipe. A basecoat of the general color is first painted onto each section. We let this basecoat dry before adding any other layers of color. This allows each layer to stand on its own rather than merging into one another and creating a blob of color. Likewise, we try to keep as much water off the piece as possible to keep the paper from wrinkling too much.
Watercolor-colored pencils are used to create extra highlights and shadows that can easily be blended into the already-dried paint. Once the painting is complete, black pen is used to go over the words, and white gel pen is incorporated to add small details throughout to make the illustrations pop.
More often than not, we have heard people say that they are intimidated by watercolor and don’t know where to start. Watercolor is very forgiving and, in our opinion, mistake-free. Each piece of artwork gets better with each layer. Mistakes happen and are easy to “erase” by taking plain water on a brush, rubbing and diluting the unwanted paint, and dabbing the area with a paper towel.
Once the watercolor painting is signed and completed, we take it to the printing company to have the artwork scanned and turned into a digital file. This digital file is then used to produce several sizes of fine art prints, greeting cards, gift tags, pillowcases, tea towels and stickers. The subject of the print usually dictates what it will be turned into. Some recipes, like bar drinks, are more popular as large prints, while others, like holiday treats, are more popular as greeting cards.
With each new recipe and print, we can gather a better understanding of which artwork would be most popular on certain products. No matter what we decide, we always design something that we love first.
Remi is our most helpful studio assistant. She is our 2½-year-old spunky kitty and rounds out our feline clan as the youngest member. While our other cats lounge around the house, Remi is always active in the studio, swiping paintbrushes off the table, splashing in water glasses and sprawling out on in-progress paintings. She started out as a stray kitten at a local church, and thanks to an empty tummy, a cat carrier and a can of tuna, she’s made herself right at home. She keeps us on our toes, and our studio wouldn’t be the same without her.
When we first started Copper Owl, we read many articles about other artists and how their businesses came to be. People were quick to offer up ideas of what they thought would be “bestsellers,” but as many other artists know: It’s difficult to produce art that we’re not inspired by. Something that stuck with us were these words from a fellow artist: “Create what you love, not what you think will sell. If you love what you create, it will sell.”
Because of this advice, we have always stayed true to our style and only create artwork that brings us joy and happiness.