Year 1: How to Sell Your Art – 5 Things I Have Learned

First I would like to start out by saying I am by no means a well established artist on the national scene, in fact I just started selling my work in the last few years and really only consider myself an emerging local artist.  However, over the last three years, I have sold over 400 pieces all over the world and I have learned a few things along the way that I believe may be helpful to an artist who is trying to sell their first few pieces. 1.  Set Goals.

So where do you want to take this? Your local coffee shop?  Art fairs? Local galleries? Wholesaling prints and originals nationally? Larger galleries in big cites?  Museums?  You don’t know? Artists have very different goals, which change over time, and the answer to this question will more than likely be a big factor in moving forward with the business side of creating.

My personal business model has gone against the advice of fellow artists, gallery owners and peers who own their own businesses.  However, my personal goals do not align with theirs and I have subsequently structured my business to hopefully take me where I want to go.  For myself, it has never been about making money.  I want to do three things, create unbelievable beautiful paintings with highest quality supplies so it can become a long-term investment for my collectors, put my art in the hands of those who appreciate it the most, and use this gift to best serve the community in which I live.

Now, the decision making process becomes more pointed as I have direction in which to move.  Just to give one example, a year and a half ago, I decided to stop making prints of my artwork as it was time consuming and I found myself spending so much time in the proofing process ensuring the prints were of the highest quality that it was preventing me from painting more.  I found this to be a great way to generate additional income off of already created work but it did not align with my original goals.  As a young artist, I am focused on improving the overall quality of my work, exploring new mediums, painting more, and spending less time exploring alternative avenues to make money off my work.  This is not to say that I will not explore this avenue in the future, but it does not align with my current goals.

2.  Think twice before lowering your prices.

First, how does one even go about pricing their work? Starting out, a young artist will probably have to experiment finding a fair price in which their work moves quick.   However, once this price is established, I do not believe it should be lowered.  At this point, I look at the collector purchasing my work as an investment and at a fundamental level, investors do not want to see their investments decrease in value.  That being said, it is important for a young artist to show a steady increase in prices, thus increasing their value.  In the beginning, struggling to sell art, I would put artwork “on sale” just to move it and in hindsight, I am not sure that I would do that again.  It works to undermine a previous purchaser’s investment since they purchased my work at full price.

I also quickly discovered that there is a fine line between too cheap that it appears you undervalue your work and then priced at a point where collectors are enticed to buy.  Putting a price tag on a tangible item that I’ve created is a difficult thing to do as it has special personal meaning and it is essentially priceless. Instinctually, I started my work priced high but was not moving anything and then found myself practically giving art away.  At first it was difficult, walking in and out of galleries, no one wanted my work.  Finally, putting my stuff in a local coffee shop, just to watch most of the stuff sit at prices that were probably too low.

Another consideration to think about is the difference between priced-to-sell and priced-to-sit.  I prefer selling a lot of work at lower prices, thus making less money, which sometimes when galleries take their cut, I make very little money, but this aligns with my goal of putting art in the hands of those who appreciate it as my work is currently affordable to a wider range of income brackets.  Out of the gate, others prefer pricing their work higher, building up a big inventory, doing lots of shows thus building credibility, but more than likely selling less work, which in my eyes, keeps the paintings in their studio or a gallery and out of the hands of someone who is going to display it proudly in their home. What will work for one may not work for another but it is important to think about how even a small difference in price could potentially mean the work will sit for 6 months rather than 6 hours.

3.  Don’t get discouraged.

Knowing nothing about how to go about selling my work, I was living in Indianapolis the first time I walked into a gallery with art in my hand and the hopes that they may like what I was doing, possibly give me a chance to hang some of my work on their walls.  Long story short I walked into several galleries that day and went home with all of my paintings and a whole lot of humility.  Now three years later, building a modest following of collectors and really starting to throw myself out there in the world, I sometimes receive comments, messages, and emails from people offering words of discouragement, many times with unconstructive negative feedback about my artwork and what I am doing.  Even still, now that I have really developed some confidence in my paintings, my brand, and myself, it is difficult not take these messages personally.  However, at the end of the day, I believe in who I am, what I am doing, and where I am going and as hurtful as it is sometimes to get your ego crushed, it is important to take the licks and keep looking and moving forward.

4.  You are a brand.

I believe one of the more important exercises I have done over the last three years was taking an 8?x8’ blank wall and visually brain storming with my friends about my career goals.  On Wednesday nights over the course of a few months, we took turns writing, drawing, and listing all sorts of stuff on this board.  Doing exercises like each one of us would write one word that describes my art, one word that describes my brand, one word that describes my goals.  We created slogans, logos, picked apart the repeated elements in my work and discussed the underlying symbolism behind these elements.   In doing these exercises and more with my closest peers, I really started to learn things about myself and where I wanted to take my art.  This process also helped define my short and long term goals and again gave me direction in which to guide my ultimate business decisions.

I strongly recommend taking the time to go through this great slideshow by Marty Neumeier that describes what it takes to create a strong brand.

5.  Quality vs. Quantity

Most artists could probably testify that if they made only one painting a year, they could probably make one very incredible piece of artwork, spending months on the planning and execution.  But this is an unrealistic endeavor for most artists and many artists prefer plain-air painting or creating paintings in a much shorter time frame, thus they have the opportunity to create a higher number of works per year.

I mentioned before that I have sold over 400 pieces in the last three years and when you do the math that adds up to creating one piece of artwork every three to four days.  Honestly, three years ago when I started selling my work, my goals were different.  I was not thinking of my artwork as a long-term investment for my collectors, rather, I was thinking about my bottom line, generating more income and the way to do that was creating more paintings.  In hindsight, I was painting a ton and producing a lot of work which really helped my skills improve quickly. However, looking back, I think I was focused too much on quantity rather than quality.  I believe it is important for an artist to continuously be producing in order to foster development, improvement, and growth, but at the same time producing too much can result in a decline of quality.  For myself, I am still finding a balance between creating a lot of work and maintaining a very high quality.  Not all paintings are great successes, but when I finish a painting I want to be able to confidently say to myself that this is one of the best pieces I have created to date.  If I cannot say that to myself, I believe it will be time for me reassess what I am doing.

About a year later I wrote a follow up & update to this list - "How do I Start Selling My Art? - 8 More Things I Have Learned"