Selling Your Art?
Stay Out of the Way
Tips for Artists Entering the Market
September 26, 2017 10 Comments
Let me say without hesitation that I love selling art.
Selling is one of the most satisfying, exciting things about being a painter.
And not just for the obvious reasons.
It’s not about making money off your passion.
It’s not about feeling important, quitting your day job, or the validation of being a “real artist”.
It’s knowing that someone loves your work to part with their hard-earned dough. So much that they’re willing to live with it for a long time.
It’s sharing a piece of yourself that will outlive your great-grandchildren while covering expenses so you can produce and contribute more to the world.
But mostly, it’s that wonderful feeling of moving forward. Selling just plain feels good.
And I didn’t always feel this way.
Like many artists, I was conflicted about parting with the work. I wanted to and I didn’t.
If it sold too quickly, it felt like selling out.
If it didn’t sell quickly enough, it felt like rejection.
It pained me to let go of certain pieces, as if my favorite children were leaving with strangers and I’d never do anything good again. Painter’s block would be the price for abandoning them.
And all this madness discouraging buyers, who sensed that something wasn’t right.
At bottom was the same problem that I see in other artists:
Thinking too much of the work as yours.
Thinking too much about having produced it.
Thinking too much about yourself.
Which isn’t just a career problem. It’s THE problem.
Putting yourself at the center of your art creates self-consciousness and anxiety, over everything from a minor setback on the canvas to getting less for it than you hoped.
Identification spawns an emotional attachment that signals amateur to anyone thinking about buying your work. Which is why I stress the opposite:
Complete non-attachment to your art.
From the moment you begin, don’t think of your art as your creation. Think of yourself as the caretaker who merely helped the work along.
Which isn’t the same as indifference. It’s leaving the ego and its power to sabotage everything you do, out of the process.
Tracy Everly Leaf and Lisianthus
Oil on panel, 6 1/4″ x 7″
Staying out of the way
Are you as tired of the words, Treat your art like a business, as I am?
Not that this is bad advice, but it’s so overused.
So do book titles such as How to Survive as an Artist. Forget survival…how about we all prosper?
What we can get from the art marketing gurus is the wisdom of appealing to the hearts and souls of collectors, rather than expecting them to love our work just because we love making it.
Alex Mandossian likens selling to feeding pigeons in a park. Approach too aggressively and they’ll scatter. Earn their trust with something they want, and watch them swarm.
How then, do you reach out to collectors without scaring them off?
In short, you don’t.
Because most avid collectors are already on the lookout for great art. The key is to have them discover your art and not someone else’s.
Emphasis on the word discover. As in the feeling they’ve found a hidden gem that the rest of the world hasn’t. Or that they’ve jumped to the front of a long line.
If you’re too bold or self-involved, you’ll turn them off.
If you’re too modest, you’ll devalue your work.
And while the following is not an exhaustive list, here are some things that inspire collectors to make a purchase:
Feelings Over Content
Frank Hobbs Roadway
2015 Oil on canvas, 11 x 14 in.
Art lovers are drawn to the feelings evoked by your work more than the subjects you paint.
But, not being conscious of this, they’ll almost always respond to the subject. Which can lure you into painting “desirable” themes. This is the one area where you should listen only to yourself.
If your heart is into beautiful landscapes, still-lifes, or portraits—paint them.
If you’re drawn to gritty urban scenes—paint them.
Trust yourself, go all-in with the subjects you love, and your work will get noticed.
You’ll know you’re on the right track if you feel a little exposed when showing your work. Consider the great actors of our time. They don’t perform; they reveal something deep within themselves, giving us a glimpse into ourselves.
And surprise…they always have work.
Chelsea Bentley James, Pink Bathroom 2
Oil on masonite, 12 x 12 in.
The flaky artist stereotype can actually work in your favor–if you’re committed to being the opposite.
Which means being supremely well-organized. Collectors tend to be entrepreneurial types who admire ambition in others.
So if someone asks to see six still-life images, then send them six still-life images. Send them fast; it shows intelligence and respect. Don’t muddy the waters with too many choices.
Guys, please–dress shirt and blazer for your openings, not your painting clothes.
Because the bottom line is this…
Presenting yourself as a professional, and not another (yawn) rebel, doesn’t make you less creative and it doesn’t make you a sellout.
It makes buying your work safer and a whole lot easier.
A Unique Style
I’m torn on this one.
Having an unmistakable style, or branding, may get you noticed. But it won’t make you great.
Because your energy will be spent on being different, not better. And with everyone out there trying to be different, different isn’t so special. It’s not even interesting anymore.
So just focus on getting good. Better yet; become extraordinary. It’s the best way to stand out from the crowd.
Daniel Sprick, Peter’s Brother, 2012
Oil on panel, 20 x 16 in., detail
When You Meet with a Collector
Relax. Give them your full attention.
Don’t fidget or look around the room at your own stuff. Explain your work without over-explaining.
Show them that you’re excited, but not desperate, about the prospect of their owning it. The simple phrase, This is my job, always scores points. It shows commitment.
Leaving them alone in the studio for a few minutes (Excuse me while I check on something?) lets them focus and take ownership.
Set your bottom-line price and stick to it. It’s OK to be negotiable, but if you’re too soft you’ll devalue your work and lose collector confidence.
You Can Do This
There are so many artists out there with both talent and success, reminding us that we don’t have to compromise. You can have integrity and a great career.
You can have two careers. Or third and fourth ones.
You can start at any age.
You can be as commercial or as non-commercial as you like.
Too many artists sound apologetic for having full-time jobs. News flash—making a living is noble.
But what makes the 21st century so exciting are the growing possibilities to how it’s done.
Millennials are traveling the world while earning six figures off their laptops,
Stay-at-home moms have professional blogging careers,
All we artists need is a little confidence, imagination, and, to the point of this post, empathy for our clients.
And let’s please give Thomas Kincaid a break. He was just doing his thing.
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Thank you for sharing your thoughts on that topic. I feel reassured in painting what I enjoy without to much worrying about what people like. Your blog post are always right to the point and I am going to share them with my artist friends and students.
Thank You Doris! Best of luck with your art!
Thank you so much for your comment, “give Thomas Kincaid a break…”. I never thought I would hear another artist say that in my lifetime. I am so sick of the critiques artists hurl at other artists. The arrogance required to be a self appointed judge of someone else’s art is boggling. Thank you for not going there, for choosing a higher road. I am floored. You are definitely unique and have earned my respect. I hope to meet you some day.
Thank You, Dwanette, that means a lot to me. Yes, like you, I’m turned off by snobbery in all its forms. So glad though, that you enjoyed the post!
Wonderful information, thank you. P.S. Thomas Kincaid is dead and from what I hear, not such a nice guy. ; )
Thanks Bridget, I’m glad you enjoyed the post.
I’m sorry to hear about Mr. Kincaid. The comment was meant to be taken more metaphorically than literally as I find my colleagues are hard on the commercial types. But should edit the line.
Chris, you treated this topic in one of the most articulate and insightful ways. I’m going to share this post with lots of artist friends!!
So nice to hear you voice Christopher! Thank you for that smart and sincere point of view. I agree with all of the above and the emphasis on balance is something rarely discusses with regard to this topic. I’ll pass this on to my students.
Great article. Thank you Christopher.
I’m off to see a gallery owner next week and it’s given me some confidence in being clear about what I do, why I do it and pricing.
But the “read more of this post” link didn’t work; I clicked on the URL below.
Apologies, Loel. Minor tech issue when the post went out to followers.
Thank you for this post so insightful – and refreshing. The topic is very tired in how it’s been treated, and always fresh in how it’s lived – as a lot of things. This, however, is straight to the (real) point.