Client Spotlight: Watercolor Artist & Designer, Yao Cheng

Did you always know you wanted to be a professional artist, designer, or creative, even if you weren’t sure how you’d get there? 

Maybe you envisioned a life where your “boss” was your creativity and the only office politics involved choosing which of your many projects to dive into next!

My client, Yao, felt the same way. 

As a teenager, she envisioned owning a big studio where she could freely express her creativity without constraints. “I would daydream about what it would be like to have my own business and just make art all the time. Weirdly, I always knew that art was going to be part of my career.”

This dream, though fuzzy on the details, was a guiding light toward her future. Today, Yao is the visionary behind Yao Cheng Design and an amazing client I’ve had the privilege of working with for over 2 years now. In this blog, I’m excited to spotlight Yao: her creative journey, her unique business model, our coaching collaboration, and her aspirations for the future.

I hope Yao’s story inspires you to explore new directions in your art and business. When you create something wonderfully yours, you can often find more sustainability, fulfillment, and your own definition of success.

Meet Yao

Yao Cheng is a talented watercolor artist and designer who has been making her mark in the creative industry for over a decade. Yao discovered her love for painting at a young age, and it has been a driving force in her life ever since.

Yao’s artistic journey took a pivotal turn when she first experimented with watercolor. The medium’s fluidity, transparency, and ability to create immediate, striking results captivated her. 

That was it—she was hooked. 

From that moment on, watercolor became her primary tool of expression, allowing her to develop a signature style that is both ethereal and emotionally resonant.

I love her work so much that I even have a print on my office wall!

Through her work, Yao strives to evoke joy and inspire others. Her paintings often feature delicate florals, serene landscapes, and soothing color palettes that invite viewers to pause and appreciate the beauty in everyday moments. Her approach has earned Yao a dedicated following and numerous opportunities to collaborate with renowned brands such as Target, Tervis, and Chronicle Books.

Yao’s Journey

Yao’s rise to becoming a celebrated artist with her own unique style and solid business didn’t happen overnight. Her journey began at the Rhode Island School of Design, our mutual alma mater, which is also how our paths first crossed (though that wasn’t until 10+ years later!).

In her first year of art school, Yao admittedly resigned herself to becoming a starving artist. She was prepared to embrace this path, believing it would allow her the freedom to paint without anyone dictating her choices. “I was really ready to just do it. I thought I wouldn’t make any money, but I’d be able to paint all the time,” Yao recalls.

But, her perspective began to shift after she took on an internship, which, interestingly, wasn’t even in fine art. Instead, it involved painting murals for commercial and residential spaces. 

This experience quickly highlighted the impracticalities of her initial plan. “Even then, I realized that [the starving artist] path wasn’t going to work for me. It wasn’t practical at all,” she reflects.

Prompted by this realization, Yao pivoted to textiles, a field she considered much more viable for making a living while still applying her artistic skills. 

As she adjusted her career path, Yao started to view each opportunity not just as a job but as a stepping stone along the way. “I began thinking of each position as a full-time job that would provide some sort of financial stability. But I still wanted to make it into my own thing somehow,” Yao explains. This change in thinking was the start of her journey to becoming an entrepreneur.

Reflecting on her experience, Yao shares, “I worked in corporate fashion for a few years, focusing on the women’s brand at Abercrombie and Fitch. Some days, I got to just paint and make art all day—those were the moments that reminded me of my true passion and nudged me toward where I needed to be.”

Yao’s corporate role played a pivotal part in her journey, providing her with the opportunity to identify what truly mattered to her. Although she was pursuing her passion, she found that her creative freedom was sometimes limited by the demands of her job. This realization led her to understand that to create art on her own terms, she would need to embrace the path of entrepreneurship.

Defining Success Through the Years

When she first set out as an entrepreneur, Yao had a deep-seated desire to return to her roots. “I wanted to go back to painting.” However, she wasn’t sure if painting would be the most marketable path.

She had seen other artists find success with Fabergé eggs and thought her business would revolve around this medium, as she believed they would be more appealing to customers. She remembers loading up her car and setting up the eggs for an art show. However, by chance, she had some extra space and decided to hang a few watercolor art prints as well.

To her surprise, the eggs were an afterthought, and it was the watercolor prints that people kept approaching her about and wanting to buy. 

This unexpected turn of events became Yao’s a-ha moment, making her realize that her true passion, watercolor, resonated most with her customers.

With this realization, Yao decided to focus exclusively on watercolor. “I really just started with this one medium, and then it diverged itself and grew from there and changed,” Yao says. This focused approach, inspired by the success of her watercolors at the art show, allowed her to explore and expand her artistic practice organically.

Reflecting on this experience, Yao acknowledges that learning to trust in her own creativity rather than following others was pivotal. By trusting herself and her creative process, she found a fulfilling path that allowed her business to evolve naturally, aligning more authentically with her personal vision and artistic goals.

The Business Side

As Yao navigated the dual challenges of defining herself as an artist and managing the business side of her entrepreneurial journey, she quickly learned that conventional business models wouldn’t cut it for the innovative blend of business and art she envisioned.

Navigating the common dilemma many artists face—balancing personal creative desires with market and industry demands—Yao crafted a unique business model tailored to her needs.

Split Business Model

“Over the years, I’ve settled on a business model where it’s split. So 50% of my business is developing my own products and selling direct-to-consumer, and then 50% is focused on client licensing, working with larger brands [like Target, Google, and Chronicle Books],” she shares.

Above: Yao’s packaging design for Target

Above: Yao’s Collaboration with Google Photos.

“I think the split model is unique; I haven’t seen a lot of creatives do it this way. For the longest time, I felt very self-conscious, worried I was doing it wrong. But no matter how I tried to fight it, I just couldn’t ever commit myself to one part of the business over the other,” Yao explains.

Balancing Commercial & Commissioned Work

Today, this strategic split continues to offer Yao the flexibility she needs to thrive creatively and commercially.

“It works so well for me that if I ever get stuck with one thing, they kind of inform each other back and forth. For example, if I’m working on a project with Target and they ask for some commissioned work, that informs what I’m painting in my studio for my clients or my own collection. It forms that connection.”

“I think because I’ve split it, it allows me the ability to do both in tandem or jump in and out depending on what I want to do at the time. So if I’m feeling like I’m doing a lot of work that’s dictated by the industry and what is based on other people’s needs, then I can spend some time painting and creating more of my own work that I sell direct-to-consumer,” Yao reflects.

This approach provided a creative outlet that adapted to her changing needs and desires as an artist and a business owner. “[It gives] me the ability to more flexibly move between the two,” she notes.

Year-round Stability

Yao’s innovative split business model not only allows her to balance her creative passions and market demands but also provides stability throughout the year

“The split model is great because they support each other, especially at different times of the year,” Yao notes. 

When one aspect of her business experiences a dip, the other often sees an increase, allowing for a natural balance.

Financial Independence and Sustainable Growth

Yao’s success is a testament to her dedication and self-sustained growth. “I’m proud of a lot of different parts of my business, but the one that stands out is that I built my business 11 years in without taking out a loan. It was 100% funded by me,” Yao proudly shares.

“It’s allowed me to hold myself financially accountable, so I can only grow as much as I’m able to make in a year.”

This self-funding strategy has helped her to take a more disciplined approach to growth, ensuring that expansion only happens in line with real business performance

The Ups and Downs of Entrepreneurship

Yao’s entrepreneurial journey has been full of learning, growth, and resilience. By choosing to be hands-on in her business, she has taken a challenging path that allows her to fully understand and control her processes.

“I know my business well, which lets me be flexible and make changes whenever I need to,” she states. This deep understanding has been key in navigating the ups and downs of entrepreneurship.

Reflecting on her journey, Yao shares, “When I was first starting out, I wish someone had told me that the struggles don’t end once you gain momentum. I thought that after the initial hard work, I’d be set and could just cruise along. In reality, you’re always facing new challenges. What I’m realizing now is that there are consistent ups and downs: really high highs and really low lows. And it’s not only at the beginning. It happens at every stage, whether it’s year five, year eight, or year eleven.

Yao recognizes that challenges don’t go away with success. “I still go through it, but I can better point out when it starts to happen and anticipate it a little bit more.”

She finds value in the tough times, saying, “I actually think the lows are really important because they humble me, they ground me. Entrepreneurship is hard every day and no matter how much you accomplish, it doesn’t mean that it stops being hard. There’s always so much more to learn.”

Yao’s insights show the importance of resilience and adaptability when facing entrepreneurship’s challenges. Her choice to be deeply involved in her business, while not the easiest path, has given her the knowledge and flexibility to handle the ups and downs while maintaining a growth mindset—a key factor in her success and continued innovation.

Business Coaching

When I first met Yao, she was already extremely successful by any measure. Her business was thriving, with a booming commercial front and a steady stream of commissioned projects. From the outside looking in, she was checking all the “boxes” of success.

But, beneath the surface, Yao felt a persistent struggle. “As I settled into my routine and the studio,” Yao explains, “I became very torn. I remember talking to Erin about this weekly. My biggest struggle was feeling like I never had enough time to devote to any one part of my business.”

While creating sustainable systems has been a game-changer for Yao, some of our most impactful, long-lasting work wasn’t at all what Yao expected.

Soon after we started working together, it became evident that while better systems were useful, Yao’s real issue was something many creatives face: too many ideas and not enough time or capacity to execute them all.

So, we took a deep dive into the core of her ‘why,’ refined her vision, and crafted her personal definition of success. This allowed Yao to align her priorities with what truly mattered to her, rather than getting pulled in a million directions.

“Talking to Erin, or just having someone to remind me from time to time about priorities, or when it’s a good time to focus on certain projects, has helped me a lot,” Yao reflects. 

“I’m still figuring it out because almost every year, my answer changes.”

“In the last two years, I’ve found it most important to listen to where my heart wants to spend time. In the past, when my creative mind wanted to do one thing but I felt another needed priority, I spent a lot of time fighting that. It was a waste, trying to wrestle with myself over where to spend my time, and it never really got anywhere.”

Yao has come to realize the importance of listening to her heart, which now guides her priorities. By getting clear on what matters most, she’s able to make decisions with confidence and create a business and life that truly lights her up.

“Now, I just give myself permission to follow my intuition, and those naturally become my priorities, which turns out much better.”

A New Definition of Success

Yao used to have a fuzzy idea of what success meant, mostly influenced by watching others. “Honestly, until I started working with Erin, I really didn’t have a clear definition of success. I thought that if I just did what other successful people were doing, I’d be successful too,” Yao shares.

This approach, however, didn’t feel right to her. “It always seemed fake because it wasn’t really me. I was just trying to copy other people’s success, and it was stressful. It never felt right, and I felt lost because what I was chasing kept changing,” she explains.

Business coaching helped Yao see things differently. 

She began to define success in her own way, not just in terms of making art or money, but in creating a life that blends her passion for art with a sustainable business. This new vision of success is all about being true to herself and what she really wants to achieve.

Today, Yao’s definition of success is short and sweet but extremely meaningful. Her one-sentence definition of success is: 

“I am successful when I have fulfilled my financial obligations and can do whatever I want creatively.”

By redefining success as meeting her business responsibilities to her team, clients, and partners while having the freedom to pursue her creative passions, Yao has found an authentic path to fulfillment and purpose.

What’s Next for Yao Cheng

With a clearer vision of success and a more streamlined approach to her business, Yao is excited about the future. She plans to continue growing both aspects of her business while maintaining the balance that has been so crucial to her success.

On the commercial side, Yao is actively reaching out to new brands for collaborations and licensing opportunities. She recently released a new set of planners with Blue Sky & Target, which is always an exciting milestone for her. These yearly releases showcase her unique style and allow her to share her art with a wide audience.

Meanwhile, on the creative side, Yao has been dreaming up a children’s book project that she’s been working on for years. It’s recently been picked up by her publisher and she will even be able to paint the illustrations herself (which is not always the case)! She wrote both the manuscript and proposed the artwork, so it’s a project that’s especially close to her heart.

Yao is also exploring new artistic avenues, such as partnering with a musician for a unique collaboration. She’s been painting a lot of colorful art for kids’ nurseries and her own product line, finding joy and inspiration in the soothing, happy colors. 

Additionally, she’s been expanding her travel series with cityscapes and Mediterranean coastal scenes, allowing her creativity to take her to new places.

Teaching has also been a recent focus for Yao. She’s been sharing her knowledge and techniques with others and plans to turn her lessons into an online course in the future. It’s another way for her to inspire and connect with fellow creatives.

As if that weren’t enough, Yao has an exciting new product launch with Tervis coming summer 2025 and is also pitching a range of giftable products with Chronicle Books, hoping to see some of her ideas come to life in the coming year.

Yao’s diverse projects and passions demonstrate the incredible potential for creatives who refuse to be limited by a single path. By embracing her many interests and finding ways to integrate them into her business, Yao is creating a career that is truly her own.

As she continues to explore new opportunities and collaborations, Yao remains committed to staying true to herself and her creative vision. “I’ve learned that the most important thing is to trust my instincts and follow my heart,” she reflects. 

“When I do that, everything else falls into place.”

Want to follow along with Yao’s creative journey?

You can connect with her on:

Instagram, Her Website, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

Yao’s designs can be found at: Target, Tervis, Blue Sky Planners, Chronicle Books, West Elm, and more. 


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