Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen

Change is hard. Embrace it.

At the End of the Rainbow, oil on canvasboard, 16X20, $2029 framed.

This weekend, I received a frame back from a gallery, unwrapped, battered and bruised. Some galleries treat artists’ work with shocking disrespect, so there’s no news there. However, it’s a large, expensive frame and there’s coffee splattered all over the linen fillet, as if it was stood in a corner during a party for the other, more popular paintings. That just adds insult to injury.

“What’s the point of galleries, anyway?” I grumbled. That’s a question I’m asking myself more and more. The internet and COVID have expedited shifts in the art market that are, I’m afraid, permanent. I can either roll with them or whine that everything is changing.

The Late Bus, oil on canvasboard, $435 framed.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light, is a line by Dylan Thomas that was part of every schoolchild’s repertoire in my youth. Along with Invictus, it was just about the worst advice ever.

The truth threads a narrow line between those two poems. We’re not the masters of our own fate, and raging against change is a fatal misdirection of our energy.

Meanwhile I need that painting for a show that I’m hanging this weekend. I’ve taken the frame apart, sprayed the fillet with hydrogen peroxide, and will start the laborious business of repairing the corners this morning, if it’s possible.

Red bud and Red Osier, oil on canvasboard, 12X16, $1449 framed.

Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen is one of the great lies we all labor under. Many people get stuck in it. Sadly, the troubles we’ve seen—disrespect, death, abandonment, duplicity, hypocrisy—are horribly common.

“But you don’t understand!” the soul cries out. “It’s worse because it’s happening to me!”

We humans love to discuss our injuries, hurts and losses. We take them out, caress and feed them, and then wonder why they grow. We especially like to convert our hurt into anger, because grief is enervating and anger at least feels alive.

Best Buds, 11X14, $1087 framed.

I had a potential exposure to COVID and have to quarantine until tested. I’m vaccinated and unlikely to get sick (although I can be a carrier), so it’s an inconvenience and I’m getting the test as a courtesy to others. That’s something to be profoundly grateful for, because until very recently, the potential implications were far more dire. COVID has hit me hard and personal, so I know of what I speak.

“I’m so mad at anti-vaxxers,” a family member texted. What’s the point, I asked. Anger just sows division. And if and when we ever get around to solving our soul problems, it adds another layer that must be unpicked.

Meanwhile, I chatted with the charming lady who sold us our new dishwasher and stove. “You already know this,” she said, “but every place is having trouble getting good help these days. I’m working six days a week because I’m the only person in this department.”

On Monday, I made oatmeal on a borrowed hot plate. “Do. Not. Talk. To. Me,” I told Doug and the dog, because I had to concentrate. By Tuesday, the hot plate and I were old friends. Change is hard, but we have no choice but to embrace it.

Monday Morning Art School: Should I apply to that show?

Entering shows willy-nilly can be expensive and unproductive. How can you tell what will pay off?
Midnight sail from Camden Harbor, 24X30, oil on canvas; see Hidden Holiday Sale for price.

“When should I enter calls-for-entry?” a reader asks. “There is a plethora suddenly in Colorado. I have pieces headed to a library for their show this winter (no entry fee, but I have to mail or deliver the paintings 200 miles away). Others are going to a museum ($35 entry fee; they keep 25% commission) and possibly a gallery ($35 for three paintings, $50 for 6; they keep 50% commission).

“When is it worth it for the exposure, and some lines on my resume? How can one tell whether artwork actually sells at these shows? When do you stop entering them? Is it all just a vanity thing for amateurs? If one is, like me, wildly experimenting in all directions, does one pick a particular ‘body of work’ to enter, or send a smattering of everything?”
This is a different business model from the one where gallerists assumed all the risk in exchange for 50% of the sales. The art market is changing rapidly, and I no longer think all pay-to-play galleries are inherently bad; in fact, I’m gingerly putting a foot forward in one for next summer.
Farm song, 14X18, oil on linen; see Hidden Holiday Sale for price.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the models you describe, although I do think 50% on top of $50 is a bit steep. They’re not necessarily just for amateurs, although some are banking on people desperate to get their foot in the door. Many reputable shows charge an entry fee. 
As an artist, you must figure out what return you’ll get for your investment. That’s easiest with local opportunities—just go and investigate the gallery space on your own. Is it a good-looking storefront in a good area, staffed by knowledgeable, competent gallerists?
Not all of us live near a thriving art market. Farther away, the research gets more difficult. If you have a buddy in that area, ask him or her for an opinion. Read the organization’s website carefully, and check the show terms with an eagle eye. If you can’t get there in person, use Google Maps to inspect the street where the gallery’s located. Is it a place you’d go to buy art?
Early spring at North End Shipyard, 14X18, oil on archival cotton panel; see Hidden Holiday Sale for price.
Many of these shows are offered under the imprimatur of established organizations. How long have they been doing the event? Do they have a proven track-record of shows? Google the show itself, something along the lines of “Charming Gallery Annual Landscape Show Artists” and see if you know anyone who’s participated. Contact them and ask about results.
However, you can stand this whole process on its head. This is how I did it: I looked at the resumes of artists I admired and had work sympathetic to mine. (It’s easier today, since everyone has websites.) I noted what shows they’d done and who represented them. Then I researched those shows and galleries.
Early spring run-off, 8X10, oil on archival cotton panel; see Hidden Holiday Sale for price.
That didn’t mean that I expected to get into their current galleries. I’d scroll to the bottom and see where they entered the art market. This required a lot of research across many artists, because galleries and shows come and go. But it taught me a lot.
As for what to send if you’re still ‘wildly experimenting,’ just send in the work you like the best. Acceptance and rejection is in itself feedback.
My Hidden Holiday Sale for readers of this blog is on its fourth day—check here to see all the additions over the weekend! On Friday, the sale goes public with advertising, so your chance for first dibs is limited.

Rejected in favor of dreck

If you can buy something similar at TJ Maxx/Home Goods, it’s not really art.

Spring Mountain Lake, Carol L. Douglas

Earlier this year, a young artist asked me about a gallery she was approaching. I gave her what advice I could and wished her well. This week she sent me a note telling me they’d chosen to represent another artist instead. One could accept that with equanimity, but she also sent me some images of the other artist’s work. Frankly, it’s schmaltz. It’s no more complex or insightful than the ‘art’ they sell at TJ Maxx/Home Goods. I can see why my friend was upset.

What the other artist has is breezy, light patter on Instagram, and cute graphical pictures to match. Like shoes, these are easy to market on-line, but they have no depth. That doesn’t mean all online paintings have to be shallow. In fact, I can help my young artist friend develop her online presence. First, she’s got to get past her disappointment.
Small boat harbor, Carol L. Douglas
There are roughly 19,000 galleries in 124 countries and 3533 cities worldwide, according to the Global Art Gallery Report 2016. The vast majority of them are in the US, Britain and Germany, with the US being the far-and-away leader. That means that my correspondent has lots of options, but she may have to leave her town to find them.
The gallerist’s primary job is to cover his or her nut. Generally, galleries do this very badly. They are risky revenue generators, even in good economic times. 30% of them are running at a loss. Only 18% make a healthy profit margin of over 20%. This means there’s lots of turnover. Only 7% of galleries are 35 years old or older, and almost half have opened since 2000. (These are international figures; the US has a healthier gallery scene, but it’s certainly not easy even here.)
The gallerist who rejected my young friend’s work was thinking about what he could sell, not what’s insightful or brilliant. Or perhaps he’s not thinking acutely at all—remember that almost a third of galleries are losing money.
Keuka Lake Vineyard, Carol L. Douglas, courtesy Kelpie Gallery.
Rejection itself is a sign that the relationship wouldn’t go anywhere. There’s no future with a gallery you have to woo aggressively. The gallerist has to understand and appreciate your work. “I have a perspective worth sharing,” my friend said, and she’s right. But if the gallerist isn’t on board with her message, her work will languish on the walls, or, worse, in a storeroom.
One advantage of old age is that you’ve experienced rejection enough that it generally doesn’t hurt so keenly. You realize that the difference between success and failure is picking yourself back up and pounding your head against the door… again and again.
Sentinel trees, Carol L. Douglas
When I said my correspondent might have to leave her town to find better options, I was speaking of both geographically and online. The Art Gallery Report asked gallerists to rank their key competitors. They said:
  1. Other galleries
  2. Dealers
  3. Artists
  4. Auction houses
  5. Online platforms
Their heads are in the sand. Online selling is a far bigger threat to gallerists than artists’ occasional studio sales. It’s an area that my young friend can exploit, and I hope she does.

Finding your audience

Marketing art is about being as visible and transparent as you can tolerate.
Electric Glide, by Carol L. Douglas

“Any thoughts you ever have on who might be interested in what I do, either gallery-wise, or direct buyer-wise, I’m all ears,” a reader commented on a recent post about finding your audience. I know this painter, but she lives in Colorado and I don’t know her market. I do know she’s already taking the first step I’d recommend: applying to plein airevents to get herself noticed.

What does ‘marketing’ mean?
  • Getting your paintings seen by an audience;
  • Keeping that audience engaged with your process via regular communication;
  • Inviting them to your events.

Put that way, it’s not so daunting, is it? But expect to work half your workday at this marketing gig—first by studying how it works, and then by implementing what you’ve learned.
Dry Wash, by Carol L. Douglas
For example, although I’ve had an Instagram account for several years, I only recently figured out how it actually works. I learned that by listening to webinars and my friend Bobbi Heath.
An artist can’t have too many friends. Often, the sale is less about what you know than who you know.
Still, can you talk comfortably about specific pieces of your work? Your inspiration and process? This self-knowledge is critical to selling your own work. Here’s a test: ask your best friend about what it is that you do all day. If he or she can’t answer, then maybe you need to start talking about your process more.
Cape Elizabeth Cliffs, by Carol L. Douglas
Everyone has an audience, and it started with your family. Just as your social circle grew in concentric circles from them, so too does your audience start with close friends and family. Your friends on Facebook and your followers on Instagram are your first audience. You need to connect with them regularly about your art. From that, your audience will grow as naturally as your circle of friends did when you were a child.
Your posts in all media should be designed to show a ‘whole’ you—not just your finished paintings. Your studio, your town, your brushes, your gaffes all combine for a total picture of you as an artist. Be as transparent as you have the nerve to be.
Tricky Mary in a Pea Soup Fog, by Carol L. Douglas
And update your website, or make one if you don’t already have one. That’s your business-card to the Web, and it must be as beautiful and inviting as you can make it. It doesn’t have to be exhaustive. It should include a bio/CV, artist statement, images of your work, and contact information.
Only then are you ready to approach a bricks-and-mortar gallery, because the first thing they’re going to do is look up who you are on the Internet.
As for what galleries you should approach, that requires legwork. Make a habit of visiting galleries in your area to check out the work they sell. Get to know the gallerists. Approach only those that seem like a good fit. And don’t be afraid of rejection; there are many reasons galleries won’t take you that have nothing to do with your work.
Tom Sawyer’s Fence, by Carol L. Douglas
At the beginning, I said that my reader is already applying for plein air shows. They’re a great way to be seen by a wider audience. So too are art festivals and juried shows. Apply to as many as you can tolerate.
Here’s a final bit of advice from my pal Bruce McMillan: “I tell my students in my children’s book class that the way to deal with rejection when submitting a manuscript is to assume it’s going to be rejected. That way you’re never disappointed. And while it’s away, get the next place lined up that will reject it.”

How professional artists structure their businesses.

While hundreds read the post, only a small handful answered the questions. Their answers are still fascinating.

Last week, I asked professional artists to tell a young painter from Alabama, Cat Pope, how they organize their business.

This is the first survey I’ve ever written. It was very easy to produce, but there are things I should have asked differently. If you haven’t taken it yet, you can still go to the link here. The results mostly speak for themselves; I’ve just added a few parenthetical notes.

The respondents were heavily slanted to the northeast. Would artists from other parts of the country have answered differently? What about Canadian painters?

How hard, I wonder, is it to keep more than 3 galleries supplied with work? I should have also asked about other spaces like coffee shops, restaurants, or hotels.

This next chart represents some serious online work, even for people who aren’t direct-selling through websites.

I feel the frustration of wearing all the hats, all the time. Apparently, I’m not alone. A lot of us put a lot of soul into the ‘sole proprietorship’ idea.

The following was a badly-designed question. I should have given respondents the opportunity to answer “none.” 40% of respondents skipped it entirely, which makes “none” the second-largest category.

 Another missed opportunity. Why didn’t I ask about annual sales goals?

I included this last question because artists are always being asked to “showcase their work” in charity auctions, yet it’s not a deductible donation for us. When we see that work being sold for a fraction of its gallery price, we think it would be easier to just write a check.

Professional artists, please take this survey

A young Alabama artist wants to ask you some questions. Help a girl out, would you?
American Eagle in Drydock, by Carol L. Douglas

Cat Pope is a young artist in Mobile Alabama who is serious about building a sustainable art business. She planned a trip to visit an established artist in her community, and shared her questions with me beforehand.

Why limit this to one artist’s experience? Drawing from her list, I created a short survey, which you can access here:
If you are a professional artist and can complete this, that’s great. If you can forward it to your working-artist friends, that’s even better.
What am I going to do with this data? Why, share it with you, of course.
It can’t be all brushwork and happiness…
Here are more of Cat’s questions, which I’ve answered from my experience. If you have any advice you want to share with her, just write a comment here (not on Facebook) where she’ll see it.
How often do you replenish stock at a gallery? When I finish a new piece that is appropriate to a gallery, I approach the gallerist with it. Paintings take a long time to sell. Be patient.
How do you ship work? Small works, by USPS. Large works, through a dedicated local shipping company that makes the crate for me.
A shipping crate from back when I used to make my own.
Do you provide the gallery with your own contract, or rely on theirs? In Maine, things are pretty informal. I read their contract and ask questions and make annotations if necessary.
How often do you increase your prices, and by how much? Every few years. I survey the competition and my galleries for advice.
Do you ever offer discounts for repeat customers? Of course.
What made you choose your art market? I like the tradition of plein air painting on the Maine coast, and it’s a market with a history of making and buying landscape paintings.
Barnum Brook, by Carol L. Douglas, is located in the Adirondacks, which I still consider as part of my regional market.
What percentage of your time is spent creating work? Office duties? I shoot for a 50-50 division of time between painting and promotion.
How many off days do you take in a week for family and personal time? I try to work five days a week. In the summer, that’s impossible, but I remember that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
What advice would you tell young professionals who want to build a fine arts business, specifically in original paintings? Be serious—as you are—about a business plan up front. Frederic Edwin Church was from a very successful family. Their wealth enabled him to pursue an art career. In turn, he was expected to be business-like about it. It was his skill in business and promotion, as much as his prodigious talent, that made him the legend he is today. 

Online vs. gallery sales

The mechanics of selling are changing, but common courtesy (I hope) will never go out of style.
Headlights, by Carol L. Douglas
Yesterday I wrote about the inevitability of online sales. Until now, I’ve avoided it, preferring to sell the old-fashioned way. But more and more professional artists are embracing the idea, and I doubt it will go away anytime soon.
A professional artist sent me the following comment:
I still want to be in galleries, but only a very few that I have a great relationship with. The appeals of online selling to me are these:
  • No framing, you ship only when you sell, and you can charge for shipping or not (free shipping on small paintings is a nice thing to be able to offer your subscribers);
  • You can offer a painting on multiple online venues at the same time, as long as you remember to remove or mark them sold everywhere;
  • It’s a nice way to be able to offer a sale without offending your galleries.
Commercial scallopers, by Carol L. Douglas
Most galleries have contracts with their artists that limit their sales in the local geographical area. Artists should respect these agreements, not just in their letter but in their spirit. If you think being an artist is a dicey financial venture, consider the costs to run a bricks-and-mortar store selling artwork. If a gallery has taken you on, you owe it the courtesy of supporting its marketing efforts.
Online marketing is, in fact, a good way to do that, but as with everything, you should talk with your galleries first. Some have specific rules about cross-listing with selling websites. Avoid putting yourself in the position of retrieving a painting from a gallery because you sold it somewhere else. Your gallery deserves a commission for work it’s showing.
A lobster pound at Tenant’s Harbor, by Carol L. Douglas (courtesy of the Kelpie Gallery)
Artists occasionally do dumb things that undercut their relationships with galleries. Showing at other venues in violation of their contracts is one thing. Undercutting prices in side deals is another. Even worse is saying disparaging things after a few glasses of wine at openings. Alcohol and business don’t generally play well together.
You, the artist, ought to be more of a salesman for yourself and your work than anyone else. “Be relentlessly positive,” is the best motto I can think of in sales. If you’re doing business with a person you don’t respect, what does that say about you?
The new sandbar, by Carol L. Douglas
This same logic extends to social media. There is no distinction between your identity as a person and your professional identity as an artist; you are one and the same. “I was just being funny,” is never an excuse. People read your Facebook posts.
Yes, galleries and artists need each other, but there is a power dynamic at play, too. It shifts depending on who is more successful, the gallerist or the artist. In general, we need galleries at least as much as they need us.
I doubt that will change as we buy and sell more across the internet. There will always be makers of merchandise and sellers of merchandise. The names of the relationships may change, but common courtesy (I hope) will never go out of style.

Seeking a new gallery

"Hazy mountain afternoon: Keuka Lake," by Carol L. Douglas. Available through the Kelpie Gallery.

“Hazy mountain afternoon: Keuka Lake,” by Carol L. Douglas. Available through the Kelpie Gallery.
Yesterday, Sue Baines from the Kelpie Gallery in South Thomaston picked up eight of my works, with another half-dozen or so headed there next week. I’ve noted this gallery since it opened, since it’s on my way to Spruce Head. It stands off neat and proud against its setting near the Owl’s Head Transportation Museum. Being noticeable is a good first sign.
I’m in the process of searching out new gallery representation, and the Kelpie Gallery was the first place I approached. It started with a visit, obviously.
"Overlook," by Carol L. Douglas. Available through the Kelpie Gallery.

“Overlook,” by Carol L. Douglas. Available through the Kelpie Gallery.
The Kelpie Gallery hosted the Third Annual Paint Along the Weskeag in August, which gave me an opportunity to spend some time there unattended. I was looking for professionalism in grouping and displaying paintings. This doesn’t always mean lots of white space—it depends on the real estate—but it does mean that the gallerist is thoughtful in matching work thematically and in color relationships.
I wasn’t looking for other artists who paint like me. I wanted to see artists whose work is concerned with the issues I find compelling—the light, feel and architecture of the landscape. It is important to me, also, that they be contemporary in outlook. There is nothing inherently wrong with following the Old Masters, but a gallerist who focuses on that won’t really understand my work.
"Monhegan Lane," by Carol L. Douglas. Available through the Kelpie Gallery.

“Monhegan Lane,” by Carol L. Douglas. Available through the Kelpie Gallery.
When you show in a place that’s not philosophically attuned to what you’re doing, you won’t sell. Worse, your work subconsciously responds to their group norms. The biggest difficulty I ever face is getting into the wrong group of artists and trying to live up to their standards. It never works.
I asked how many artists the gallery represents. If you’re one of too many, your work is likely to languish in a back corner somewhere. “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member,” Groucho Marx famously said, and there’s some sad truth to that. If it’s too easy to join up, they may be less than selective. Luckily, that isn’t the case here.
"Rising Tide at Wadsworth Cove," by Carol L. Douglas. Available through the Kelpie Gallery.

“Rising Tide at Wadsworth Cove,” by Carol L. Douglas. Available through the Kelpie Gallery.
A good gallerist spends a long time looking at your work and takes only a select few. Watching them sort through my work is my favorite part of the process, by the way. Often they will choose works that I find unresolved. That tells me something about where I’m headed as a painter.

Beautiful, artistic Maine

Camden and Mt. Battie, by Carol L. Douglas
Tomorrow morning, I’m going to the Belfast Creative Coalition’s annual meeting. I’m going because I’m interested in a Land Trust proposal, but mostly to satisfy my curiosity.
Belfast is a city of 6,800 people, located in a county of about 38,000 people. Yet Belfast has enough art galleries to have a Fourth Friday gallery walk, and the Coalition could put together a Columbus Day Farm and Art tour with more than a hundred venues.
Visit Castine, population 1300, and you’ll be given this map of attractions.
Belfast is just one of many art cities on the Maine Coast. There are Rockport and Rockland, which is now home to the Center for Maine Contemporary Art and the Farnsworth. Camden, and Damariscotta are also chock full of galleries, teaching spaces, and studios.
The list of painters with feet in both Maine and New York is extensive and includes Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, Childe Hassam, Rockwell Kent, George Bellows, Frederic Church, and Thomas Cole. For them—like me—the draw isn’t primarily the art community, but the land and sea themselves: the ceaseless rise and fall of the tide, the granite outcroppings, and the dark pines.
Damariscotta, by Carol L. Douglas
Later this week I’m heading up to Schoodic to scope out painting sites for next year’s workshop. The class is about half full now, so I recommend that if you’re interested, you get in touch with me soon.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.