Selling art is not easy so let's make it easier

THE ART OF MARKETING

Selling art is not easy. There I said it. I have been selling work since the early 90's and not much has changed. For years I followed the traditional route of selling, occasional gallery events, art fairs, and it wasn't until much later that we had the tools to start finding customers online. I started selling on Print on Demand sites because it sounded so much easier. No trips to print shops, no ordering expensive ink, no worrying about shipping, everything I once worried about would be taken care of. Suddenly selling art was going to be easy.

Not quite. Everything needed to sell art was easy except for the main ingredient needed for a sale. Customers. For those who haven't made a sale in a while on print on demand, customers are apparently humans just like us, except they have some money. I've heard that some even buy repeatedly. If you have sold nothing at all on print on demand, then you most likely haven't quite yet experienced the euphoria of one of these beings actually liking your work enough to buy it. When it happens, and eventually it will, it is a truly wonderful feeling.

Some artists have told me that they have been involved in print on demand for many, many years and are yet still to make a sale. My recent series of hints and tips should certainly help you along to your first sale. Above everything though I have found that there is a buyer somewhere who will want to own your work, it takes some determination and grit, and a presence around the web either via social media, or by joining art groups. Importantly you also need an offline strategy even if you only sell online. I covered this too in a recent blog post.

Don't get too despondent. Eventually it will happen. When I first started with print on demand I can only say that my first sale was down to sheer luck. I thought the process was that you uploaded some quality artwork and sat back until you could soon retire to a beach-front condo in Malibu. How wrong was I? A vacation in Malibu at this point from the proceeds is my first goal. In fact a vacation in Wales would be welcome about now. I always seem to be so busy.

Selling art at the art fair
Selling art is wonderful but why does it need to be so hard?

 

Now I'm a few years in on POD sites, sales are constant for perhaps 60% of the time, other times are just like visiting a mall that closed down years ago. The problem is that you need to promote without over promoting, and you need to have a strategy for the quiet times. You also need to remember that one of the biggest misconceptions around the print on demand industry is that the sites will promote you in order for them to make a profit. No, what happens is that there are lots of artists, I mean lots. Each of those artists promote themselves. Buyers then go to the POD site and make the purchase, that’s how they really make a profit. By promoting ourselves, we promote them.

I hear of disappointed artists who have failed to sell for years before eventually giving up or moving on. How you think of POD (Print on Demand) sites is about what expectations you came with from the off. What POD sites do is to provide a mechanism to get your art produced, handle payments and shipping, and give you an online platform to sell on. When you consider that some platforms are free, and some only charge $30 or so each year, it is actually good value. It would be nice for them to promote every artist, but with hundreds of thousands of artists who would they actually promote and when? Remember that Van Gogh only ever sold one painting in his lifetime, Red Vineyard at Arles. This painting now resides at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.

They do promote to an extent. RedBubble and Zazzle and even Fine Art America will occasionally spotlight an artist, but they have a vast pool to pick from and it makes sense to promote what, and who is popular. It would be great if a POD sites featured brand new artists, but until an artist has a decent portfolio, I can see why they favour more established artists.

What is perhaps needed are tiers. POD sites could set up areas for new and emerging artists, once an artist has made a determined number of sales they would move in to another area on the site. Each tier could then provide the artist with the tools that they need at any particular level. There is no doubt that we would see membership prices, and maybe more of a juried approach to the way art is displayed. But having a tier for new entrants will give those looking to purchase from emerging and brand new artists seems to make sense. It gives newer artists an opportunity to have their own area within a site that takes away some of the competition. Once they have made sales, they move in to another area geared for emerging published artists. As long as membership is capped though, no point in allowing hundreds of thousands of artist members in to an area that supposedly reduces competition only to increase competition even further. I will be covering the perfect POD site wish list in a future blog post.

Once you start to learn how it all works it does start becoming a little easier. I made that first sale and then had nothing the month after. Then I suddenly realised that I needed to do much more marketing. Much, much more. The problem was that I was not a marketing whizz, although I did have a grasp of how social media worked.

Art is not easy to sell even when the economy is booming, but it's not all necessarily about the state of the economy. People buy art even during rough patches of financial turmoil for the country, in fact some use it as an opportunity to bag a bargain. But for many artists the phrase "starving artist" has never been so prevalent.

Today there are more artists than I have ever known. It seems that everyone knows someone who creates something. POD sites have made it easier to publish your work, mobile phone cameras just continue to become better within each new generation, and social media connects us with everyone. Whilst opportunity abounds, the market becomes busier. I say busier over more competitive, because artists don't really have to compete with each other, everyone loves something different, and as I keep saying, you just have to find the people who love what you do.

Over the last few months I have regularly written about my experiences and provided tips on chasing art sales, hopefully you have read the blog and you are seeing a positive difference. There are though many things that we can do as artists to improve our chances of success and to cover everything in a small series of posts would be impossible, and every week I learn something new that either works or it doesn't. Either way I am still learning despite being involved in art for more than 40-years, and commercially selling my work for nearly 20-years. So this week, I'm not thinking out of the box, because I've yet to meet anyone who can categorically tell me with a degree of certainty what the box actually is. I am though thinking of better ways to refine the sales strategy.

THE GRUMPY ARTIST

I have often thought about creating a Facebook page called The Grumpy Artist. Misery loves company, and a support group for those who are feeling a bit grumpy about sales has always struck me as a good idea. Cheaper than therapy, slightly cheaper than a roll of bubble wrap, I can imagine that it would get a few likes. If I had the time I would try it out. In fact I might make the time at some point.

My group on Facebook "The Artists Exchange" is a group where artists can go to support other artists by sharing their work, providing advice, and having a virtual fun time, but life isn't just about Facebook apparently. I hear that there is something called human interaction, and I often hear the phrase face to face. With the advent of new technologies we all too often forget about the offline methodology of communicating, in fact a few weeks ago I wrote about having an offline strategy to run parallel to an online strategy.

Local community. There's a concept we seemed to have lost over the years. I once knew all of my neighbours, now I know the names of three of them. I haven't counted the neighbour across the street because I honestly cannot remember if they told me their names were Sheila and George or Kerry and James. I avoid conversation that would involve speaking their names out loud for fear of embarrassment.

Whilst we do seem to have lost traditional community spirit in recent years, I was amazed to find a vibrant art community where I live. But wouldn't it be great if local artists could have face to face encounters within the community? Even local artists near me, although they participate in events, rarely do they actually come together to support each other. Maybe this is peculiar to the UK, but friends around the world tell me that it's something that they see as many events as in years gone by, but it is beautiful when it happens.

Perhaps taking some food and drinks to a local park in the summer or meeting at a coffee house, and even meeting at each other's homes. You see there are many who say we have lost our community bonds, even I have said this many times before, yet no one seems to take a leap by bringing people together. Of course no one really likes too many strangers in their homes until they get to know each other, but people need to interact initially.

PRICING TO THE ECONOMY

I have covered suggestions to help you price your art in previous posts but I didn't quite suggest what I am going to suggest now. Do not lower your prices. Unless they are exceptionally high and you're not selling at all, perseverance is a more viable tactic. You can lower prices eventually if you feel the need, but raising them also raises highbrows if the increase is dramatic. If you do raise prices, make sure they're not huge leaps unless you are selling a lot of work and it is a case of supply and demand. Equally though, if your art is so cheap, it might be putting people off. Quality costs. Whatever you do, think it through. I found raising prices actually increased sales. I have no explanation for this.

The arts market and this includes the little bit of the arts market we are involved in, is a constant wave of ebbs and flows. It's a long term market. Sometimes I can sell 20-pieces in a day, sometimes I can go a month and more without a sale. That's the business we are in. The market runs on trends and seasons, and as with any business, sometimes things are slow, other times we can’t keep up.

Art gallery
Art galleries are a hotbed of ideas

 

Galleries sometimes fall in to the same trap as artists, more so the local galleries in that they start offering discounts and then they start offering deeper discounts, before long they are offering 50% discounts, and still taking up to 50% from the artist in commission. Before too much longer that 50% discount turns in to a sign with the words closing down sale written all over. The market ebbs, flows, and you have to be patient. Difficult when you have overheads, but a long-term strategy almost always works better than a short-term win.

It's tempting as an artist to offer a discount and especially on the print on demand sites. But you need to factor in that these POD discounts are actually not affecting what the POD site receives but are offering a discount only on your commission. You might make $5 on a sale, 50% off means you will receive $2.50, but the base materials and shipping prices remain the same for the buyer. It can be tempting for buyers when your work usually carries a high commission for them to make a purchase, but if it's only a cup of coffee difference, they will buy the work if they like it anyway.

I raised my prices over twelve-months ago, a decision not taken lightly, but I raised them by the cost of a Starbucks. I may need to raise them slightly again to cover the costs of even more new hardware, but again I will use the cup of coffee formula. This year I will be investing in more new software and a new stylus, and maybe another large format printer. That little shopping list is going to cost around £8,000 so I either raise prices or loose out on potential sales, or create a Patreon account and offer free art to donators. Question is, does Patreon actually work? (Please let me know in the comments!). We can all only hope to win the lottery or be gifted with an angel investor.

I bring out offers occasionally. I used to offer three pieces each week at a discount but this actually had the effect of hurting sales. People would wait for the rotation to include the piece of art they wanted, or they would choose a different piece that was on offer. More often than not they would purchase from other artists in the interim, or they would find something else.

My methodology now is to offer occasional pieces for up to 25% off, but I only run the offers when I have had a decent sales run. If people have made a purchase chances are they will log on to the site again to maybe track their delivery details. If they see an offer on another piece they like, they might be tempted when realising that it's a bargain compared to what they recently paid. It's a strategy that is working well at the moment. The regular sales essentially subsidise the promotional offers. The promotional sales to me are a little bonus.

SELLING SMALL

I recently posted a blog that offered some advice if you feel that your niche isn't working. Today I'm going to suggest something else you could try. If you are a painter, sculptor, or potter, and your work is at the higher end of the price range, consider making smaller pieces that are more affordable. Don't reduce the price of the larger pieces, cater to the market smartly. With this method you can chase aspirational shoppers.

At one time my smallest print would have been around 40x26 inches. Now I focus on smaller prints and this has been made possible by using print on demand services such as Fine Art America, part of the Pixels group, and Zazzle. Previously I would be limited by the volume needed on a print run, ultimately I would need to print more pieces than I could really hope to sell anytime soon. Print on demand addresses this, but it's not without its pitfalls. The base price for materials is a higher than my local print shop, but then the worry of printing and handling shipping and the money is largely taken away.

Offering smaller works widens the market opportunity. Not everyone has the space even if they have the money to hang an 8 foot painting in their home. Selling smaller pieces is also a way to introduce your art to those who cannot necessarily afford your larger pieces at this time. But those larger pieces become aspirational and people might return at a later date to purchase the larger piece that they have wanted for a while.

Visa card
Consider taking card payments too!

 

Whenever I exhibit at art fairs nowadays, I would say that 80% of the work on display are smaller pieces. This way I also manage to increase the portfolio on the day and save significantly when it comes to paying exhibition fees. This works really well at Christmas when people might be making gift purchases for others, and it also works well when exhibiting in tourist areas where people may just be popping in for a browse. Taking an 8 foot by 4 foot print home in a Mini Cooper is impossible. I know, I once tried to load a 6 foot framed print into one, in the end I called a courier. It was Tetris on wheels.

PROMOTING OTHER PAYMENT AND BUYING OPTIONS

Galleries are great at working out the markets and we can learn from their approaches. Some galleries now have rental plans for artwork and the artwork is swapped out periodically, meaning that the client continues to get a fresh supply of art without the upfront commitment.

Other galleries extend payment terms sometimes over 12-months or more. But there is a more lucrative market for small business based artists and that is to look at the emerging corporate art market. By this I don't necessarily mean chasing big businesses, but by offering a rental of your work to that brand new cafe that has opened, it can create a steady income stream especially for those pieces you might otherwise have sitting around.

Other artists are looking at subscription approaches whereby a client pays a fixed monthly fee for a single piece or multiple pieces, and the art is rotated between subscribers every week or month, or year. This works well when a few artists can come together to bring a range of genres and styles.

Where this can work particularly well is when you offer this service to local businesses. If they want a seasonal display and perhaps a few pieces that will remain long-term, offering a route to essentially hire yours and others work will be of interest particularly to younger companies who are starting out.

I collaborate with five artists to do this already and our work is displayed in various foyers and meeting rooms. The beauty for the company is that whilst they have a small outlay each season, they avoid the up-front costs associated with buying larger artworks. The works are sent out via a courier and are ready to hang, occasionally they require additional services such as an art installation specialist, and if they eventually decide to keep the artwork they get a discount based on the rental costs already paid. One other thing we tend to do is offer a commission for a referral that has resulted in a sale. It is a relatively simple service to set up, just so long as you can collectively produce enough artwork.

BUILD A CLIENT BASE

Keep a list of buyers if you can. Your best new sales often come from previous customers and keeping them informed is critical to your success.

Maintain a database of customers, just make sure that they know their details are on file. Most customers will be happy to continue to be informed whenever you release a new work. One point is to try and personalise each email and also ensure that they stand out from every other email that the client receives. This is usually a good opportunity to offer previous buyers a loyalty discount.

EXHIBITING

Enter and curate shows. Building your reputation as an artist is really important. If you can curate your own show perhaps after exhibiting at a number of shows, you can then start to look at creating new shows with your themes.

I recently wrote about exhibiting at local art fairs, and if you pick the right one you can jump start your artistic career. If you pick the wrong one, just keep trying until you find the right one. Entering for juried and curated exhibitions is also worthy of exploration.

COMMISSIONS

For me, commissions are a large part of my work. I usually take on around a dozen or so each year. Most of my commissions are for abstracts to feed the corporate market, but landscapes are popular too. Typography for me is also a popular theme, especially for corporate clients, but there are people making a living who do nothing but family portraits.

For a long time I refused commissions based on previous experience and customers who thought they knew what they wanted, i.e. a blue abstract and sixteen revisions later they actually want a red abstract. Now I know that I have to have an agreed brief and offer additional revisions based on the final price.

THE BACKSTAGE TOUR

If you have a studio consider offering a backlot tour for previous buyers. Buyers feel that they are rewarded for their loyalty, and by making it a special one off occasional event, it becomes more exclusive.

Outside caterers can provide nibbles and drinks, as long as nothing is so close to the artwork that it spills on it, and offering a piece of art as part of a raffle also draws people in. This is a great way to engage with your loyal followers, and it really does help with future sales. I've said so many times that buyers like to connect and engage with artists, I'm going to say it again. Buyers love to connect and engage with artists.

SOMEWHERE DIFFERENT

I have written about exhibiting many times before, but think beyond the usual venues. Local independent furniture stores might be interested in recreating a family room and art on the walls that complements their offering could lead to more sales and exposure.

I very often say that artists shouldn’t work for free. Sometimes it really does pay to offer the loan of an artwork to the right people with the right client demographic who might want to buy your work. There really is no point in creating a piece that will be forever hidden away from view and especially where the client is unlikely to want to pay for your art in the future, but get it displayed in front of the right audience and in the right place and free can lead to chargeable work at a later date. Don't ever be coerced in to providing free art if you have an instinct that somewhere down the line your efforts will have been completely wasted.

Wine tasting events can also be little gems, as can offering a few pieces to a local café or print shop. Hospitals tend to be a choice some artists make to display their work, but maybe it is just me who thinks that the last thing I want to see in a waiting room is a sales pitch for art. I get nauseous from even the slightest medical procedure such as phoning for an appointment. But maybe if the art was displayed as a showcase rather than something that is purely decorative, that might be much more engaging and is likely to relax an already stressful experience. Simply displaying it on the wall that leads you to the area where your appointment is, is a missed opportunity. If I am running late or feeling anxious about the appointment, in all honesty I am likely to miss it. I may hang around after the appointment if there is something more akin to a local showcase or exhibition. I might even visit if I hadn’t got an appointment, something that could be monetised to raise money for much needed equipment.

Whilst displaying your work in cafes, hotels, hospitals, golf clubs, furniture stores, is not necessarily a fast-track road to fame and fortune, it will serve to increase your exposure. You are your brand, so anything that puts a positive vibe in to the community about you and your art should serve you well, particularly if you have excess inventory.

Cruise ships are an excellent venue to market your art in. I must admit that one of my favourite activities when cruising on-board a large ship is to take frequent strolls around their art galleries. Very often they will also display their own art, millions of dollars’ worth of art in the cruise ships private collection. There is always something to see that’s a little different.

Explorer of the Seas
Royal Caribbean Explorer of the Seas. Did this last year, this year I will be trying out Navigator of the Seas

 

However, the art auctions and galleries are usually owned and operated by third-parties and getting those gigs is very difficult. You first need to be represented by the gallery, and the galleries tend to be at the higher end of the art market. But if you can achieve it, then there is a captured audience who are likely to have disposable income. Best of all that audience can change between every three or four days, or every couple of weeks. The auctions also tend to be well attended, and impulse purchases are more frequent. This is my ultimate goal, not to have my work hanging in a gallery on-shore, but to provide a ship with art and in return they give me free passage. I am what you would call a bit of a cruise fan.

If you are already exhibiting in a gallery you will want to be aware of any clauses that you have signed with the gallery or even some online sales outlets. Occasionally you might find an exclusivity clause which may prevent you selling through alternative methods or in certain market areas. It’s always best to check any terms and conditions, and let the gallery know ahead of time. If they are planning on promoting your work at the same time that it can be found for 50% of the price in a local café, it can send out an inconsistent message to potential buyers and damage sales from the gallery.

STAY POSITIVE

Through all of this you need to stay positive. Remember that art continues to sell through even the worst of times. Be that a famine, a plague, or economic collapse, there are people who continue to purchase art no matter what else is going on.

Focus on finding out who your audience is then target them with military precision online, offline, and everywhere in between. Engage with other artists. This should never be underestimated as a tool to use. Other artists who publicly like your work and who have experienced success as an artist are already influencers. Find other influencers too and engage in groups on social media and in the community.

I have no idea what the so called “box” really is, but you definitely need to think outside of it. Keep an eye out for brand new social networks. Whilst Facebook may be the daddy, people will check out new social networks. If you get in at the start you will have an extended reach to other new signups from the onset.

Never be afraid of testing the market. If you think that there is a chance your art may sell in a corner shop or a fancy restaurant, try it. If you don’t try new things you will never know if they work. All it will take is for you to reach the right demographic. Think about who you see buying your art, are they mainly female and between a certain age, or are they young hipsters. Information is power, and that’s exactly why so many retail stores and brands get it right, they know their audience.

If you have any more tips to share with other artists or you have exhibited in a non-traditional venue, please feel free to leave a comment below.

 

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