The Strategy for Selling Art

Having a strategy for selling your art
the Strategy for Selling Art
Each week I write a brand new article to support members of our three wonderful art groups on Facebook, The Artists Exchange, The Artists Directory, and The Artist Hangout. This week we take a look at what really needs to be considered when you start to create a tangible and sustainable strategy for selling your art.
This article will turn into an ongoing series of my thoughts and ramblings about what might or might not work based on my own and admittedly, not always successful experiences over the years but this week we need to focus on laying down the foundations on which to start building a strategy that puts you as the artist front and centre. A strategy that will hopefully mean that you transition from starving artist to thriving artist, but be warned, this isn’t a quick fix or get rich quick way to make that transition. What it is, is the first step forward.
What today’s article isn’t, is a strategy in itself. It is a myriad of things that are useful to know that might help you to create your own strategies for marketing and selling your work. It is an identifier of some of the obvious and not so obvious things we need to be aware of.
Yes, this is one of those war and peace length epics, but business skills in art aren’t always learned in minutes. 
Step One – It’s not easy…
If you have ever tried to sell art professionally there’s something that you might have come to realise fairly early on, and that is that it is easier to sell snow to Antarctic penguins. Not that I have ever attempted selling snow to penguins but given that they do seem to thrive in the white stuff and they already have plenty of it, one would imagine they would still be a slightly easier proposition than selling art to the general public. 
I can paint all day and my heart rate according to my Fitbit never pushes much above resting. The moment I endeavour to step on to the path of marketing and selling my work, my pulse seems to hover somewhere close to my Fitbit calling an ambulance on my behalf. After all these years I still dread the process of marketing because like so many other artists I would rather be spending quality time in the studio. 
And art or rather the selling of art can be a slow process. Tediously slow, and when I say slow, I am talking a long drawn out process that can sometimes mean that you have art sitting around almost as old as your artistic career. Other times it seems like you can just paint something that you thought would never go out of the door and people are queuing up for it. Create something similar next time and it may hang around forever. There’s no way of knowing exactly what people will buy or when, or even if. This isn’t a new problem in the art world, it’s something that has been around since forever.
Once you have a following the story starts to change a little and you might see more art sales more frequently, but getting to the point of having any following can also be painfully slow. Art has always been a long game, and just as I have said before there are a million easier ways to earn a living than to ever consider becoming a professional artist. 
So why do people even consider becoming artists? For me it really wasn’t a choice because it is something that I have to do to function anywhere near normally. My family are convinced that if you were to split me in two, the word ‘ART’ would be inscribed right down the middle. 
Creating art and then selling it is a long game and it is a game you need to have a strategy to play. The problem is that we often don’t have a strategy, or we do but it’s not working, and even when we do have a strategy it takes a little more than that to sell anything at all but having a strategy is at least a start.
It took me years to work out what I needed to do to sell my work, and even today some thirty-something years later I frequently have to revisit my strategy and change things around. People’s tastes change often, people’s love for one style over another can change, and the way people buy art too, well that changes constantly so it makes sense that if you forever go with a single strategy or no strategy at all, you will get left behind. There’s no rocket science to any of this, its simple business but unfortunately that’s a skill that isn’t always taught in an art class.
When I started out, selling art wasn’t simple but there was a relatively linear path that one had to follow to get any artwork seen. That path was to produce great art, find a gallery to represent you, do a few shows, and do whatever you were told to do by the gallery who would handle the marketing and the selling and then you just needed to hope upon all hope that something would eventually sell.
One of the biggest myths I hear from those starting out is that the gallery gig is the answer to everything. If you do manage to secure gallery representation there are still no guarantees that your work will sell, and your first gallery gig is often more of an internship, you have to move up the gallery system and you have to do this often to advance from intern to CEO to rock star, just like you do in any other job.
When I started out in this wonderful world of art we had no internet and the telephone was in a box in the middle of the street which you had to feed with coins. Today we have the internet, we have smartphones, and we have online galleries, so surely you would think that this should make it way easier to sell your work?
I don’t think it has. If anything it is certainly easier to get your art seen, but it is just as difficult as it always has been to sell it and whilst you can get your art seen, whether or not the right eyes are seeing it is another question entirely. 
The internet has made art accessible and fewer galleries on the high street means that many more people are figuring out alternative ways of buying art and they also have a much wider choice that now spreads around the world rather than being confined to just the local gallery. For some people the consumption of art might even mean that they no longer feel a need to make a purchase, art is literally everywhere we look online and offline.
Back in the 90’s I remember one of my local galleries having six or seven artists on their books or in their stable as they termed it, a decade ago they had more than 50, and then they closed. Galleries are closing at a faster pace than at any time I can ever remember, people are using the internet, people are buying different art, and the economy and hikes in business rates have really taken their toll not just on the galleries but on the people who buy art too. 
Ask a gallery owner what it takes to open up a brand new gallery and they will probably tell you that a constant stream of spending, changing market strategies, and being able to predict the future are just three of the essential qualities that you need, and then you will need to spend even more money until you eventually run out. 
Today it’s not unusual to find a gallery diversifying, selling craft beers and coffee and not exhibiting in so many of the large art shows as they once did or not exhibiting in any shows at all. Of the many galleries I have visited over the past few months, many were unrecognisable from what they were just a year ago. They had to change their strategies to stay relevant and that’s something that artists have to do too.
What’s in a strategy?
A strategy for creating and selling art should be at the top of your to do list if you are a professional artist or want to become a professional artist, but this strategy needs to focus on the right things. 
We can search for strategies online and sure, Google will throw something resembling a strategy up in the results, but often the strategies online were created with a particular artist or type of artist in mind which makes them a little too generic at times. Every artist is different, and every artist will need a different strategy although there will be a few things in every art strategy that will be more generic. The problem is that we don’t always know what a strategy really is or we have the view that Google or other search engines and the wider internet give us. 
Most of the articles talk about sales channels and knowing your market, I have written about those things too, and many times over because they are a given and they are absolutely important. But there’s one thing missing from most strategies and if it is missing will lower your chances of ever creating a successful strategy at all or at least creating a business model that is sustainable.
That something is about ‘you’ as the artist. You and your art are the most important things in your professional career as an artist, yet all too often we focus on only the business side of the strategy or the creating side of the business, and we as artists forget that we as individuals need to be considered within it too. 
So if you are planning to update or create a brand new strategy for creating, marketing, and selling your work, the ‘you’ is where you really need to start.
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Starting the strategy…
As much as my heart rate is always at its lowest when I am creating art, the business side of things always manages to nudge it in the wrong direction. Heavy workloads, day to day responsibilities, juggling life in general, and the stresses that come from our daily lives let alone running a business are definitely things we need to take into account. These external pressures can not only take a toll on you, they can take their toll on your artwork too. Trust me on this, I have experienced it many times and I have seen it in other artists.
Creative block is something that I have written about previously and it is something that every artist will go through at one time or another no matter how much of a rock star in the art world they are. 
The first thing we usually do when this happens is to start looking for new inspiration, new ideas, and sometimes we will find something that reignites the passion, other times that period of creative block can seem to last for years and indeed for some it does last for years. 
Finding inspiration from elsewhere is always a step but the better step is to recognise how we got into the position of creative block in the first place. All too often we fail to recognise that we have burned out or there are other things going on that subconsciously have an impact on our artwork. The problem is that we label ourselves with having this condition of creative block when the problem might actually be sitting somewhere else entirely.
Looking after ‘you’ first is the approach that needs to be at the very top of any artist’s strategy and that approach might only need you to make small changes in the way you approach things. Stress is unavoidable such is life, there will always be a stressor that kicks in at some point and while we can’t always do much about it, what we can do is take a look at other things that we do which might make dealing with those stress points a little easier. 
Have a break…
One of the best things that I started to do a few years ago was learn to just take a break. That break might be for a couple of days but mostly it’s for just for minutes, or maybe a few hours. Take a walk, grab a bottle of water, and watch something totally mind numbing on TV, anything that takes you out of the situation for even a short time will make a difference. Now I always put some time aside each day to catch my breath, relax or go for a walk and the difference it has made has been significant and more than that, I have become way more productive.
Stop being your harshest critic…
Artists really are their own worst critics. There’s always something missing from the artwork, we could have done something this way instead of that way, or we could have used this colour instead of that. It is at this point we start making changes that we think will make the end result closer to perfection but often those changes can feel forced and the reality here is that I don’t think the perfection we all look for is even attainable most of the time so we set ourselves up to labelling ourselves as some kind of failure and we’re not.  
If you want to try something different, try it next time. Part way through painting on a canvas is not always the best time to switch artistic styles. When we force something it really can show through in the work.
Many of us aren’t too great at managing time either. A client will call and demand a commission by Saturday, the problem is that today is Friday and then we say “yes of course I can totally do that”. We are great at setting unrealistic deadlines, and this is something that I totally know I used to do and probably to an extent I know I still occasionally do. 
Today though I realise just how long it takes to create an artwork and with the best will in the world there is no way that my average time spent on a piece (30-40 hours but often more) will ever be able to be squeezed into 12 hours or 24-hours. 
So we also have to learn to say no. No really is a complete sentence and one of the best sentences you can ever learn. Of course it’s not always possible to say no to that one job but when this happens you have to have a fall-back for the other jobs that you have. So any strategy should also look at prioritising one thing over another and effectively becoming better at managing time.
Look after your health…
Okay so I’m not the one to be preaching this because I still struggle to look after myself and manage my Crohn’s disease but I am starting to make headway by making sure that rest is part of my normal routine, or at least that I do take plenty of breaks. 
Okay so rest is something I can’t really preach about either, I average about 5-hours sleep a night but what is important here is that you do need to recognise that the body is a delicate machine that needs to be looked after and cared for. 
If you feel under the weather that too can show through in your artwork, and it makes everything less enjoyable. 
Make time for family and friends…
Again this is something that I have seen so often. 18-hour days are fine sometimes when they are a one off, but if they are the norm then they really aren’t sustainable. I know because fifteen to eighteen hour days were the norm for me for many years. 
Today my days are shorter and even shaving four or five hours off an eighteen hour day makes a huge difference, but if you can make it a more sensible 8-houurs less then it makes a really positive difference. 
One of the things I found out rapidly after reducing the number of hours I would spend working, was just how much more productive I became. Now I try to limit the longest days and the norm is usually at most ten hours with fifteen and eighteen hour days now thankfully a rare thing. They still happen because my day job can be taxing with very long and frequent commutes, but you do have to make the commitment to yourself to address these kinds of time pressures. 

selling art what you need to know
Crafting the business strategy…
Now that the ‘you’ is front and centre of your strategy for creating, marketing, and selling your work, you can start to look at the other areas of the strategy that really do need to be thought about because these are the elements that will ultimately guide what you do and how you do it.
What are you selling and to who?
This is where it becomes a little more generic because to sell any art at all, you need to know who you are selling it to. The problem many of us have when we start out is that we don’t always know who the market is at all. Finding out is the really difficult bit and sometimes we don’t truly understand completely what it is that we are really selling. 
Some artists work in niches which can make focussed targeting of the market much easier but not every artist has, or even wants to be confined within a particular niche. That goes against the grain when we read the text books and listen to the art world and the purists, but the way people buy and consume art has changed so much that the thinking has to change too. 
It also depends a lot on where and how you sell you work and to who to. If you are exhibiting in a gallery then having a niche is pretty much a given, but most people aren’t your customers and most artists are not in galleries. 
Independent artists are in a totally different market and they are catering to different audiences and markets and some of those audiences will prefer to make their purchases from anywhere other than a gallery.  People buy how they want to buy and what they want to buy, there’s no longer a predictable path that leads only through the gallery door.  
If you happen to come across a niche that is more successful and you enjoy creating in that niche, that’s great you should hold on to it, but some artists want to express themselves and create work in many different styles and mediums. What you do tend to find is that many artists who do this can pretty much create anything and the work they produce is still recognisable as one of their works because they bring a certain individual style to whatever they are working on. 
Today it is more acceptable to work across a broad range of subjects and mediums although the purists would argue that you should only ever focus on one thing, one medium, because that’s what the rule book says. I have never seen that rule book because it is really something that was made up based on opinion and data from a different age. I think we have to move on. 
My stock answer to the purists is that artists can and probably should work in niches but it really depends on their audience. The reality is that to survive as an artist you can’t always afford to do that single focus, and besides, this approach is not new in the art world at all. 
Many of the world’s greatest masters frequently dipped in and out of styles and mediums throughout their careers. Eventually many of them became known for a particular style or series of artworks. 
Some of these artists will have produced hundreds and hundreds of works but more often than not will only ever be known for the ten or twenty or so that were favoured by the art world or later discovered and then an assumption is made that these now famous artworks reflected the overall style of the artist throughout his or her career and that’s not always the case at all.
And you know what? Some artists want to express their creativity in many different ways so who are we to shackle their creativity?
Finding the Audience...
Your strategy is really about having a plan for everything you need to do. It should feed into attaining whatever your ultimate goal is, be that goal just getting your artwork seen or making sure that your artwork is not only seen, but it’s sold too. 
As I have written before, your goals might always be the same but the route to achieving them might have to take a detour.
Those two goals of getting your work seen and getting your work sold both need you to get to the place where people can see your art, but finding those people is the hardest part in everything that artists do. 
You are one of the lucky ones if you already have an audience and a market that you are selling into, but many artists’ even years after starting out still find themselves looking for the audience or more specifically their audience, and at a deeper level, their people, the people who really do connect with the work of the artist. 
This is where selling art becomes distinctively different from selling say a widget. If we worked in mostly any other business we would hope that the widgets we make and sell would solve someone’s problem. People would see that what we sell is the solution and then they would make the purchase.  Art is different because it doesn’t necessarily solve a problem in the same way as most widgets solve problems or in the way that some widgets can answer questions. 
Whilst there is a need for art on a deeper level in humans, art isn’t solving a problem in the same way as say not having a widget that opens the bottle of wine or having a widget that opens a door, or a widget that keeps your food at the right temperature or pretty much any other widget, tool or service that we use in our daily lives. 
The deeper need for art in our lives might be fulfilled by visiting a gallery rather than buying an artist’s work to take home, or it might be fulfilled by browsing art online, or even from studying. Businesses who sell widgets that solve specific pain points for people are selling solutions which cannot be fulfilled or resolved in any other way. You can’t open a bottle of wine by looking at a corkscrew on the internet alone.
What we have to do with our art is not necessarily look to provide an answer to a particular problem in the traditional business sense, but to provide something that offers a value to a person, or an experience or an emotion or a connection. Ultimately we need to offer something that creates some type of bond between the art and the person, in short I think we kind of need to glue them together, or at least that is what I’ve found more so in the past decade.
That value might come from an emotional response to the artwork which might not even be what the artist wanted to convey when they created it, but the buyers experience of the art makes it somehow meaningful to them and they connect with it and then they might buy it or aspire to own it at some point in the future. As artists we need to focus on joining the dots together or in this case, we need to sell a connection or evoke some sort of emotion and if we can do that, our art starts to offer a tangible value to the buyer and it doesn’t have to answer the question or solve the problem in the traditional sense. Often I think we try and force a known model or a model we understand better to art sales, but art isn’t generally a widget!
It’s a slight twist on how most businesses work by selling widgets or services that are answers to specific questions or problems, but it’s a slight twist that can make the difference between selling a work and not selling it. 
The audience and the ‘who’…
Our strategy becomes a little clearer and easier to formulate once we begin to understand what it is we are really selling. The “who” are we selling to is still something that we need to figure out. Figuring this out suddenly becomes a little easier at this point because we now have an understanding that we are not selling a widget, we are selling something that people can connect with and which offers them some deeper value. 
Finding out the “who” starts when you start paying attention to people who are interacting with you. Those people don’t have to be buyers at all, anyone who interacts with you and your art should have some attention paid to how they are interacting with you and your art. This interaction might be through social media or at an art fair, or from someone who reaches out to you through email or through your website, these are opportunities to not only take notice of the people who are interacting with you, but to start picking up on patterns.
These are the interactions that provide us with the opportunity to ask the questions that will start to fill in the “who” part of our art strategy. Why did you like this artwork and not that one, what did you get from it, how did it make you feel. Equally if the interaction wasn’t positive, we can still really learn valuable insight from the answers that those people give. Why didn’t you like this, and what is it about this piece that didn’t come together or feel right for you?
People generally love to answer questions, that’s why polls on social media are really popular. Most people whether you know them or not will be happy to provide a simple yes or no answer, and many people will be happy to extend that answer and give us even more valuable insight. 
Asking the questions and taking notice starts to build up a better understanding of where buyers pain points are, what type of art or subject or medium they would like to see more of and less of from you. If we carry on asking those questions and get into this mind set we can continue to refine the strategy and not only provide the value that buyers need to take away from the art, but to ensure that we start to build a much more sustainable model for selling our work in the future. 
By taking notice and building up this information from direct interactions you can start to take control and you can start to really influence your buyers on a personal level. This then becomes the point when you start to move away from the starving artist label to the thriving artist reality. It makes it easier to sell because you know that you are hitting those pain points in the right way and this in itself will build your confidence. This is the absolute essential foundation of any business.

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What’s your story?
I very often hear the phrase “I am not a natural sales person” but being a sales person and influencing people’s decisions is in built within us all. Whilst it might not be apparent, selling and influencing and convincing are all skills that we use every day in other aspects of our lives but we don’t always recognise that these skills are similar or often the exact same. If you have children, how many times have you had to gently convince them that doing A instead of B is the better option, or how many times have you been in meetings in the day job and you have influenced decisions?
There are ‘art’ experts who can sell art all day and they will always feel like they are in their comfort zone, but the reality is that you are always going to be your best chance at selling your work no matter how much of an expert the expert is, you are the best expert on the subject of you. 
Only you know your own story, so even if you have a master sales person working on your behalf, unless you have conveyed your story to them in a huge amount of detail and they managed to absorb everything you relayed, they will never be able to repeat your story in quite the same way that you can. You are the starting point and this is really the lowest price of admission to art world if you want to sell your work regularly. 
The story is something I have written about many times. The story of you, the story of your art, the story of your process, and this is exactly why we see the big corporate brands connecting with audiences through stories. Stories add the human element which is necessary to trigger the emotions and reactions that we need to be better able to sell our work and to connect our work and ourselves with the people who might buy it. Stories are if you like, the glue we spoke of earlier.
The story is an essential part of any artist’s strategy. Generally artists take many years to surface into the big arenas of the art world and the reality is that most never do enter those arenas at all. It is very rare that an artist be they a visual artist or a performing artist, will make it to the point of being the next ‘hot’ and must have, must collect, artist where everyone needs to own at least one or two or all of their works. 
Those artists who have started to surface and emerge in those big arenas will all have a back story that is similar. Often for many years before this type of success is achieved they will have made those connections, told their story and they will have taken notice of their audience and asked those questions such as “what is it that you like about my work” and “what don’t you like about my work”. It’s even rarer to find a true overnight success story, and even rarer for it to be a sustainable model. 
I think sometimes not asking those questions can be what is holding some artists back, they just don’t ask the questions that will give them the data that will take them to the next level. Instead they might start believing that their work is inferior when the reality is that their work is excellent and maybe better than some other artists who have made the big time.
That’s a feeling we artists always get and talking to some high-profile hugely successful artists over the years, it’s usual or at least was usual for them to feel like this too and to the point that ultimately it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that prevents any progress at all. Even some of the major names still get that feeling or they feel like frauds, it’s a thing. Ask the questions and then start thinking differently is the advice they usually give and I have to agree with them.
Another part of the strategy for selling art is to get over the myth that if you build it, paint, create it, they will come. They won’t. You have to build the audience too. 
The real point of including the story and having you control that story when building up your strategy though is that by doing this you are also protecting yourself. As with any aspect of life there are good players who want to collaborate or represent you and who will guide you and help you, but there are bad players too. 
Over the years we have all seen and read the stories of artists being manipulated by the bad players who generally think that hey, here’s the artist, he or she is really great at creating whatever, but they just don’t get the business side of things. That essentially makes the artist a target because the bad players are looking for weaknesses, and if you aren’t familiar with the business side of the art world then those bad players have an opportunity to take advantage. 
Building on the foundations of your strategy…
Everything I have written above should be included or considered in your strategy, those are the foundations that make sure that you look after you, and you can start to really focus on your work. You might want to add some more elements to that strategy including maybe taking business classes or simply reading up on modern day business skills from a ‘For Dummies’ book, but having at least the foundations will give you a solid ground to really build your strategy upon. 
You might want to consider too, that people want burdens taken away from them when they buy anything. Buying shouldn’t be a complicated process filled with a million decisions, so adding an element of being the advisor into your sales role is something that is good to have within your strategy as well.
Just as you are the expert on you, you are also the expert on your art. So never be afraid to let buyers know that you are the authority on your work. Make a point of helping and sharing knowledge and provide this as a core service that you offer. It deepens that buying experience and it creates yet another connection with a human element, and giving the right advice at the right time can make you less salesy and more people-ly! Just keep it honest and always act with integrity. 
If you add this into the mix when you create your strategy it also opens up other possibilities that make it easier to start looking at things such as the up sell. If part of your strategy is about building those important relationships and working more closely with buyers and you then develop a trust and they see you as the authority of you and your work, then adding in the up sell becomes much easier. Need a frame with that?
Of course there are many other elements that we need to consider when creating an overall strategy. You might want to separate out the marketing strategy from the sales strategy because they are both different things. Some skills should be separated out from your strategy altogether because they belong in your skills toolbox which helps you to set and achieve a sustainable and strategic direction. The overarching point here is to start recognising where various elements of your business fit within the strategy and working out what skills or other things you need to have in place to realise your potential. 
One of the biggest things I have learned over the years is that you kind of need a strategy for everything. Maybe a strategy of learning new skills, a strategy for getting over creative block, or a strategy to make your posts more engaging on social media, or the other million and one things that come from running a business.
None of these strategies need to be lengthy, a couple of sides of paper is a start, and as long as each strategy you create feeds into the overall aim of moving you from A to B towards your end goal then it’s a worthy exercise. 
I will be creating some more articles in the future that will hopefully give you some useful snippets into developing these strategies further, so if you have found this article useful, please do leave a comment below!
About Mark…
I am an artist and blogger who has a serious addiction to art, independent artists and good coffee. You can purchase my work right here:  
Any art sold through Fine Art America and Pixels contributes towards to the ongoing costs of running and developing this website ensuring that I can continue to write new articles each week and support other independent visual artists. 
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