How I Became a Professional NFT Artist (Well, Sort of)

And how you can, too

‘The Death of Socrates’ by Jacques Louis David (1787). Courtesy of The Met.

It took three hours, a partial understanding of some esoteric concepts, and $1,300, but I did it.

I created an NFT (well, four, to be precise).

You might’ve heard this term. If not, you will hear a lot about it. It’s the acronym for a non-fungible token, which is 2021-speak for “possibly, but not definitely a speculative mania.”

These “tokens” represent digital files with a key attribute: they are one-of-one. NFTs first emerged in 2017 with a project called CryptoPunks, which freely offered 10,000 unique digital avatars designed by an algorithm. Some had rarer attributes than others, like ones that an alien face or had a face mask (prescient!). Pivotally, the avatars remain impossible to copy.

Yes, you can copy the image and repost it on Twitter, but that would be the equivalent of printing out a photo of a Warhol screenprint. It might be the same image, but it’s not the same copy. Instead, a public ledger (usually using a blockchain technology called Ethereum) tracks who owns what file.

The point? NFTs allow for digital scarcity. This means that digital art for the first time can be subject to the forces that drive the art market: context and scarcity. Although they were given out for free at first, one CryptoPunk sold last month for over $1 million. Another NFT by the artist Beeple (who is the leading contender to be the Warhol of the NFT era) sold for $6.6 million.

NFT advocates argue that this represents the future of art: decentralized from gatekeepers, where anyone can launch a project and people worldwide can buy and participate.

Having played the video game Oregon Trail as a kid, I have internalized that when there’s a gold rush, you become a gold miner (perhaps that wasn’t the intended lesson, but alas). So that is how on a Thursday, during a global pandemic, I decided to create my own NFTs.

The first step in my transformation to NFT tycoon was to figure out how to actually create them.

There are three steps: the actual creation of the art, the “minting” of them (transforming the file to a one-of-one NFT), and selling them.

The first step seemed especially challenging. Besides a brief career as a go-to photographer of local emo bands in high school, I have no digital art talent. But I put that to the side, hoping to solve that problem later.

It turns out the second two steps are interwoven. There exist numerous platforms that allow artists to both create NFTs and sell them. Some of the big ones are Foundation, SuperRare, Nifty Gateway, and Rarible. Most also have a marketplace where the buyers can resell them (in a sign that capitalism is going strong, NFTs can also be coded so that the original artist gets a royalty from each secondary sale).

The second obstacle to my NFT creating (other than my inability to create art) is that most platforms require you to apply to create on them. I had imagined that I could walk in, throw down my best art, and soon be showing my work to the masses. Instead, I was met by forms asking me to explain who I was and my background. The decentralized future was definitely not free of gatekeepers.

There was at least one platform that seemed more flexible. Rarible was designed to be a platform that anyone could use to create NFTs. Credible artists are given a “verified badge” that denotes they are not complete jokes, but my ego could handle a lack of a badge — I was here to create!

The first thing that is confusing is that there isn’t a “Create Account” button on Rarible. Instead, it says to “connect.” But connect what?

Most NFTs (including the ones Rarible creates) are built on top of Ethereum. This blockchain technology is meant to be Bitcoin’s more useful nephew. Ethereum allows you to create “smart contracts” on the blockchain that have specific rules. The cost to creating or interacting with these contracts? Ethereum currency (which is trading at roughly $1,500 per Ethereum, or ETH, as it is abbreviated).

Ethereum is stored in a “wallet” containing not just the ETH currency but also individual Ethereum objects (such as NFT art).

When Rarible said I needed to “connect,” what they meant was connect a wallet. But what wallet to choose? Googling pointed to one called Metamask. This wallet is supposedly the easiest to use. More critically, it had a cute animal logo (a fox!), and I am a sucker for an adorable brand.

I downloaded the Metamask Chrome Extension and started creating an account. To do so, the platform generates a set of random words that act as a quasi-password (you also have a regular password). I don’t understand the computer science behind why, but I’m assuming they make it more secure. You are told, repeatedly, that it is your responsibility to write those words down and not lose them (that they are not recoverable seems to be a tagline for Metamask).

Once I created an account and hid away my magic words, I went back to Rarible.

With my wallet connected, I was magically also logged into Rarible. I’m confused about how that works but also feeling very smart for figuring it out, so I’m not questioning it.

There’s a big button that says “Create.” Yes, that’s what I want!

I was then presented with an option to create a “single” collectible or “multiple.” Not wanting to be too ambitious, I selected single.

That decision led to the screen I knew was coming but had emotionally blocked out: “Upload File.”

Shit.

In the last hour, I still hadn’t developed some prodigious skill for digital art.

Could I learn something? No, my attention span couldn’t handle that.

What about remixing something? Warhol screen-printed famous images in new colors (often not even with his own hands).

But art is about blending the familiar and the novel. Warhol-ifying something wouldn’t be particularly novel. NFT culture is also quite messy and funny. Me creating a colorful version of a soup can wasn’t messy or funny.

What about uploading something I didn’t create? Recently an account on Rarible started to sell images that were similar in style to Banksy. Hoping this might be Banksy’s secret account, some collectors began to buy up the account’s NFTs. They ultimately spent over $1 million on this fake Bansky’s art before Banksy’s spokesperson (he has one, surprisingly) put out a statement making clear that this was an imposter.

What if I just uploaded old paintings that aren’t copyrighted? Would that be considered art?

Publications wrote that perhaps this incident represented the “top” of the NFT bubble — for my sake, I hoped they were wrong.

The idea of “art theft” is controversial in the NFT world. Users have found accounts on Rarible that take other digital artists’ art without permission, creating NFTs and attempting to sell them. Users diverge on where the lines should be drawn.

What about images that were in the public domain? What if I just uploaded old paintings that aren’t copyrighted? Would that be considered art?

Thinking this was my best idea yet, 10 minutes of internet sleuthing brought me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Open Access” Program. They had uploaded over 400,000 images of art in the public domain and released all copyright claims on the pictures. They were free to be used in any form, for any reason, without attribution.

My next step was searching for “the most famous work at the Met.” Shortly, I had downloaded The Death Of Socrates. The optimist in me thought that uploading this could provide an interesting commentary on the lines of what constitutes art — does reformatting something create something new? The realist in me thought it was the only way to upload something without breaking the rules.

File uploaded.

Next, I was asked if I wanted to create my own “collection” or put it under the general “Rarible collection.” Figuring real art would have its own “collection,” I selected that option.

Collection Name? This Is Not Art

Description? These are very much not art.

Logo? The artwork emoji 🖼️.

Next step, I had to create the collection in the Ethereum network. I was brought to a window in Metamask: doing this would cost .67 ETH (Ethereum) or, as we would say in normal-speak: $997.These fees vary based on how “congested” the Ethereum network is and are, non-ironically, called gas fees.

I sat mildly dumbfounded: The future is expensive!

But as I learned on the Oregon Trail, you need to spend money to make money. If I was going to be the next Beeple, spending $1,000 was a price worth paying.

In Metamask, I could “Buy ETH.” It said I was limited to $499 at a time, but I could do that a few times and get to the number I needed. I started clicking through the steps until I got an error. ETH purchases were not available for residents of New York state.

It turns out the New York State, the finance capital of the world, is also the capital for strict cryptocurrency regulations. There are only 26 companies approved to sell cryptocurrency in New York. Coinbase is one of them. So I found myself on Coinbase, where apparently I could use my debit card to buy ETH that I could instantly send to my Metamask wallet.

My real wallet felt sadly lighter. But I had bought enough ETH to create my collection. Next, I “sent” it to Metamask.

Feeling accomplished, I was ready to advance toward grandmaster of art status. But then I got a text message: My transfer had been flagged as suspicious and would be held up! To unstick it, I would have to upload a picture of my ID to Coinbase and take a selfie to verify my identity.

My head started to hurt, but art is about struggle, right?

If NFTs are the future of art, they certainly are not a revolution but rather a reinterpretation.

I awkwardly uploaded a picture of myself, hoping it would be reviewed by a computer so no human would be subjected to my frenetic hair.

Finally, the ETH hit my Metamask wallet. I could now create my collection (and be $1,000 poorer).

Once that ordeal was done, I now had to name my NFT.

I wanted to be honest, so “Not the Death of Socrates” was the answer. I then hit create, and apparently, there are also fees for that ($86 to be precise).

And without as much fanfare as I hoped, and with my bank account now missing another $86, my first NFT was minted.

I could sense myself getting closer to the gold rush. Soon, I would be selling my NFTs for millions and having auctions at Christie’s (as Beeple is doing right now).

But one NFT a collection does not make. So, I added a few more public domain images. I now had “Not the Mona Lisa,” “Not a Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat,” and “Not Washington Crossing the Delaware.”

All in all, it cost me roughly $1,300, but I had done it. I sat there staring at my “work.” Do the buyers come immediately? How does it work? I had been told this was a speculative mania. My art would sell quickly, right?

Five minutes went by. No bids…

Twenty minutes. Nothing.

My “not art” may have scarcity, but it doesn’t have any context. There’s no story. No narrative. I hadn’t been blessed by one of the curated marketplaces. Heck, I wasn’t even verified in Rarible: I was just some random account posting random things into the ether (pun intended, sadly).

If NFTs are the future of art, they certainly are not a revolution but rather a reinterpretation. Being christened as “important” is still essential. With the traditional art houses now moving into the space, even the conventional gatekeepers aren’t going anywhere. Spending $1,000 to create a collection is not accessible to everyone. The technology is clunky (though getting better), even if cute foxes make it appear approachable.

Where do NFTs go from here? More tools will come out to make it easier to buy, create, sell, and display. As others have pointed out, with any painting, the physical materials might only represent $100 of cost, the rest of the value is “virtual.” It’s the context, the narrative, the story, the provenance. NFT art perfectly captures these underlying forces. Humans have been seeking ways to collect, signal status, and be part of larger narratives for thousands of years. Now we’re just going to be doing it with digital images.

And my NFT career? The next morning I received a bid of .05 ETH (about $76) for each of my four NFTs. The Ethereum gas fees for accepting the bids? $88…each.

But I sold one, because even if I lost $12 on it, I’m now, technically… a professional NFT artist.

Allen Gannett is the author of The Creative Curve and the co-host of Creative Hotline. He is an active technology investor and father to a cute but mischievous corgi.

Author of The Creative Curve, a book about creating the right idea at the right time. Host of the Creative Hotline podcast. Angel investor and recovering CEO.

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