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Selling your art? Stay out of the way.

Christopher Gallego Painting Studio, Brooklyn, NY 2008-2009

Tips for painters new to the market

September 17, 2017
By Christopher Gallego

Let me say without hesitation that I love selling art.

Selling is one of the most satisfying, most exciting things about being a painter. And not just for the obvious reasons.

It's not just 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 enough 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, 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 once had conflicting feelings 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 felt painful 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.

All this madness was discouraging buyers, who sensed that something wasn't quite right.

At bottom was the core problem which later surfaced and then resolved itself, the same problem that I sometimes see in other artists:


Thinking too much of the work as yours.

Thinking too much of yourself as the artist.

Thinking too much about yourself.

Which isn't just a career problem. It's THE problem.

Putting yourself at the center of your art invites self-consciousness and anxiety, over everything from a minor setback on the canvas to getting few bucks less for it than you hoped.

It creates an emotional attachment that signals amateur to anyone considering your work.

Which is why I stress the opposite: complete non-attachment to your art.

From the moment it's available, ideally, from the moment you begin, don't think of your art as your creation. Think of yourself as the caretaker. You simply helped the work along.

Which is not 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
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 and it lacks passion.

So do book titles such as such as How to Survive as an Artist. The hell with survival; how about we all prosper?

What you 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 your work because you love making it.

Alex Mandossian likens selling to feeding pigeons in a park. Approach 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?

The short answer is, you don't.

Because most avid collectors are on the lookout, consciously or not, for great art. The trick is to get them to discover your art and not someone else's.

Pay attention to the word discover. As in the feeling that they've found a hidden treasure that the rest of the world hasn't yet. Or that they've jumped to the front of a long line.

If you're too self-involved or aggressive you'll turn them off.

If you're too modest you'll devalue your work.

And while the following is hardly an exhaustive list, in my experience, these are the things that collectors respond to most:

Feelings over content

Frank Hobbs
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 because they don't know this will usually respond to the subject.

Which can lure you into painting "desirable" themes, but it's the one area where you should listen only to yourself.

So if your heart is into beautiful landscapes, still-lifes, or portraits, then paint them.

If you're drawn to gritty urban scenes, paint them.

Trust yourself; go all in with the subjects you love, and the world will pay attention.

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 the human condition.

And surprise! They always have work.


Chelsea Bentley James Paintings
Chelsea Bentley James, Pink bathroom 2
Oil on masonite, 12 x 12 in.

The flaky artist stereotype can work in your favor... if you're committed to being the opposite.

This means being supremely well-organized. Collectors tend to be ambitious types who admire ambition in others.

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.

Bottom line is that 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 just makes buying your work feel 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 all your energy will be channeled into being different, not better.

And with everyone out there trying to be different, different is not so different. 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 your attention. Don't fidget as you look around the room at your own stuff. Explain your work without over-explaining.

Show them you're excited, but not desperate, about the prospect of their owning it. The simple phrase This is my job always scores big points. It shows commitment.

Leaving them alone in the studio for a few minutes - Excuse me while I check on something? - allows them to focus and take ownership.

Set your bottom line price and stick to it. It's fine to be negotiable, but again, 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 multiple careers at once. Or second, third and fourth ones.

You can start at any age and you can be as commercial or as non-commercial as you like.

Too many artists sound apologetic for having full-time jobs. News flash, earning a living is noble.

But what makes the 21st century so exciting are the increasing 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 some confidence, imagination, and to the point of this post, empathy for your clients.

And let's please give Thomas Kincaid a break. He was just doing his thing.

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10 thoughts on “Selling your art? Stay out of the way.

  1. 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.

  2. Wonderful information, thank you. P.S. Thomas Kincaid is dead and from what I hear, not such a nice guy. ; )

    1. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

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