How to sell your artwork

Think the world is going to beat a path to your door just because you’re brilliant? Think again.
Blueberry barrens on Clary Hill, by Carol L. Douglas. Every residency and event is a bullet point for your resume, but more importantly, a chance to be noticed.

“I read your recent post on business realism,” a reader wrote me. “I think I paint well, but I can’t seem to get any traction in the current marketplace. I’ve lost two galleries this year, and that really hurt. What am I doing wrong?”

The art market is morphing, and this reader was right when he added, “there’s no clear path forward.” His loss of gallery representation may have nothing to do with him, but with rapid change in the marketplace.

I know this painter’s work. It’s as fine as anyone’s out there, including many painters making a very juicy income. Why are their paintings selling and his not?
The bottom line is, he’s not nearly as well-known as he ought to be. While he’s painted with some of the big names in the plein air business, that hasn’t given him a particular leg up. Networking is important, but it only takes you so far.
Athabasca Glacier, by Carol L. Douglas. Want people to be interested in you? Do interesting things, preferably without killing yourself.
Do you want it enough to go for it? That makes marketing your primary job. Some people are offended by that, but unless you were born into the upper crust like Édouard Manet, you’re going to have to work to make connections. A better model is Frederic Edwin Church, who embraced, rather than rejected, his father’s bourgeois business model. Nobody can say that Church sacrificed his artistic goals.
You don’t necessarily have to be a starving artist to want to market yourself. I have a friend who’s fascinated by the uncharted machinations of a career in art. After a career in business, she wants to ‘crack the nut’ and figure out how it’s really done.
Spruces and pines on the Barnum Brook Trail, by Carol L. Douglas. This was painted at ADK Plein Air. To have a following, you must be seen.
It’s not about whether you can paint or not. The late, unlamented Thomas Kinkade is just one of a long line of incompetent painters who parlayed an artistic vision into money. I’m not encouraging you to paint terribly, but I am telling you to stop beating yourself up because you’re “not good enough.”
It helps to be young and beautiful. If you’re no longer either of those things, you need to be witty and fascinating instead. A hippie friend once watched me doing my self-care routine. “Why do you do those things to yourself?” she asked in amazement. I can’t be young anymore, but I can be attractive.
You have to be willing to exploit social media. I know you don’t see the point of Instagram and Facebook, but it’s critical to a profile in the modern world. If you don’t have a clue how to do this, find a book or a webinar and learn. Your website is still important, but it’s the catchment basin for all those other things.
Teaching is a great way to get your name out there, but for heaven’s sake, don’t do it unless you can actually teach. The world doesn’t need any more incompetent teachers.
You need a real-world presence somewhere. You’re going to have to do plein air events, tent shows, be in a cooperative gallery, or have gallery representation. You’re going to have to pull up your big-boy paints and go to openings. (This is the hardest thing for me—not because I don’t like people, but because my bedtime is 7:30 PM.) One real-world contact is worth a thousand internet hits.
You need to plug away, a little every day. Running a $1500 ad in a collector magazine is not going to net you anything if you haven’t done incremental publicizing in advance. Press releases, openings, studio parties, blogs, and emails to your collectors are the heart of modern publicity.

Business realism

If a tire-kicker like me will buy a snowblower online, it’s time to retire my arguments against internet stores.
Breaking Storm, by Carol L. Douglas

This is the week when I hole up with my fellow painter Bobbi Heath and talk about our business plans for the coming year. The question I’m asking myself has been niggling at my planning for at least three years: do I want to invest significant resources into setting up online marketing? Or a bricks-and-mortar gallery in my Rockport studio?

My arguments for not doing so have been:
  • It takes a lot of time to set up an e-commerce-enabled website;
  • People won’t buy expensive things sight unseen;
  • All painting sales are relational;
  • Conflict with my current gallery representation;
  • I’d rather be painting.

Cape Elizabeth Cliffs, by Carol L. Douglas

Ten days ago, I was lying in bed whining about an upcoming winter storm. We’ve always shoveled snow rather than hire a plowman. But I’ll be sixty years old next month. While snow never gets old, I sure am. “Let’s buy a snowblower,” I said to my husband.
I pulled out my cell phone and texted my gearhead son-in-law to ask what brands he thought were most reliable. “My uncle has an Ariens,” he said. That was enough for me. Said uncle always buys quality equipment.
Fifteen minutes later I’d charged an $1100 snowblower on my credit card on an online site attached to a bricks-and-mortar store nearby. it was in our garage, ready to use, by dinnertime.
That’s anecdotal, but my own metrics tell the same story. In 2018, my family placed 115 orders on Amazon alone. The total value was nearly $10,000.
Parrsboro Sunrise, by Carol L. Douglas
If frugal, older, careful tire-kickers like me are doing that much business online, that can only mean our arguments against selling art on the internet are out of date. This year, I go into this planning session not with a generalized idea, but with a firm goal.
The problem will be implementing something so far outside my skill set. There are only two ways to do this. The first is to pay someone to do it for me, and the second is to suck it up and learn how myself.
Dry Wash, by Carol L. Douglas

Then there’s the question of the brick-and-mortar gallery. I spent yesterday morning looking at spaces where there are galleries, spaces where I know there will be galleries, and comparing the shopping districts of area tourist towns. I walked away thinking there may be marginally better retail spaces than the one I already own, but none with such great advantages that they’re worth the extra cost.

Note: before you can start specifically planning a retail business, you need a basic strategic plan. If you don’t understand your customers, the work you like to do, your strengths and your weaknesses, you’re more likely to fail.

How to get into a gallery

It’s just like a job search.
Yes, gallery representation is an attainable goal.

“I guess I really don’t know how to get gallery representation,” an experienced artist told me. “I tried a couple times, unsuccessfully.” As with a job search, you have to try many times before you get there.

There are no shortcuts.
Make sure your website is up-to-date. It should include your newest work, dimensions, media, and, optionally, prices. A neat, easily-navigated portfolio of photographic images, including current curriculum vitae (CV), is good to have in reserve, but don’t plan on taking it around and sticking it in gallerists’ faces. Instead, introduce yourself, hand the gallerist your card, and follow up with an email.
Don’t assume you have to talk to the top dog. A good gallerist trusts his or her assistants’ judgment.
Do your research. If you’re mass-mailing enquiries, you’re doing it all wrong. At a minimum, you should have visited all the galleries in an area before you approach even one.
Don’t approach a top gallery if you’re an emerging artist. It’s a waste of time. Be sure you like the galleries you approach. While there are often vast differences in style, there are always commonalities, too. Visualize your work on their walls. Are you a good fit?
When you write, direct gallerists to an online portfolio—either your website or one you made especially for them. Always include a current curriculum vitae (CV). Ask the gallerist to review your work against their future needs. Talk about your experience and why you think you’re a good fit. And remember—there are lots of candidates out there. Rejection may have nothing to do with your skills; the gallery may simply be overloaded.
Doing this event in Camden Harbor started my relationship with Camden Falls Gallery. (Photo courtesy Howard Gallagher)
No stealth visits
When I’m scoping out galleries, I make it clear that I’m an artist, not a buyer. I don’t ask to show my work at that visit; I give them a card and follow up with an email if I’m interested.
Misrepresenting yourself is a terrible way to start a new relationship. Many of my best conversations with gallerists have been because I’m an artist.
Respect their time
Never stop to chat when they’re changing their show. They won’t appreciate the interruption. Likewise, don’t interrupt a potential sale, ever. If they say they review portfolios at a specific time, respect that.
Historic Fort Point, by Carol L. Douglas. This painting at another event started my relationship with the Kelpie Gallery.
Maintain your image on social media
You love Facebook; gallerists do too. Be professional, up-to-date, and informative, and don’t include information that will shoot you in the foot.
Reverse engineer resumes
Identify a few regional artists whose careers you admire. Their CVs are usually on their websites. You can track their progress from local shows to important galleries. This will give you ideas on what paths to follow.
A Little Bit of Everything, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard, long since sold.
Choose a smart path in
Almost every gallery invitation I’ve received has been the result of an event I did in that community. Gallery owners pay attention to them, especially when they organized the event. If the gallery you’re interested in hosts group shows, apply to them.
I (almost) never turn down an opportunity to show my work, but I know the difference between my local farm and a university gallery. Not every venue is a resume builder.
The studio visit
Should you be lucky enough to net a studio visit, be neat, clean and organized. This is your workspace, and it shouldn’t look like a party house or boudoir. Don’t expect miracles, and don’t try to push the gallerist into taking work he or she doesn’t like.
And, above all, be nice.