How do we respond to slowing sales?

Overall, the shows I’ve done this summer have been flat, so it’s time to rethink my strategy.

Home Port, by Carol L. Douglas, available through Camden Falls Gallery.
Where is the art market going? This is a question I ask myself every year at this time. It’s more important this year than ever, since my same-event sales have been flat.
I had an interesting conversation with artist Kirk McBride, after an event I’ve been doing for six years seemed to let all the air out of its tires. “I think there are too many plein air festivals,” he said. He may be right. They’re in every town, and the smaller markets can’t support them year after year. That doesn’t mean the model is bad; it means the market needs adjustment.

(An important caveat: an individual show can buck all market trends, and there may be regional differences in how your own shows are going. It requires a lot of input to decipher what’s happening, which is why I’m asking for your comments below.)

But here are some sobering facts from Artsy, collected in 2019:
Adjusted for inflation, the global art market shrank over the last decade. It totaled $67.4 billion in 2018, up from $62 billion in 2008. However, these are nominal figures, not adjusted for inflation. Do that, and we see a market that’s shrunk from $74 billion to $67.4 billion.
To compare, global luxury goods grew healthily. In adjusted dollars, they went from $222 billion to $334 billion in the same time period. In some ways, a Hermès bag is more useful to a person who already has everything. It’s portable, easy to change, and you can store a revolving collection in the space that a painting takes up.
Midsummer, by Carol L. Douglas, currently on hold.
Over that same decade, the global economy roared, with global domestic product increasing from 3.3% to 5.4%, according to the IMF. That means art sales should have risen. Instead, just the costs of doing business—rent, materials, and time—increased.
I live in a boom market for galleries. Mid-coast Maine—led by Rockland—has been an amazing success. Nationwide, we’re seeing galleries surviving better than small businesses in general. However, we aren’t seeing a lot of new galleries opening. Colin Page’s new gallery in Camden is one of the wonderful exceptions.
I looked into buying an existing gallery earlier this year and walked away. I still might do something similar, but it won’t involve expensive real estate or labor costs. I’m not passionate about selling art, just making it, and that’s not enough to carry a business.
Ottawa House, by Carol L. Douglas, currently on hold.
There’s been a significant change in the model of selling art. We’re no more immune to globalization or to the internet than any other industry. It’s time to face facts: while our educational institutions threw away technique starting in the 1960s, it was always being taught in Asia. Those painters have as much access to the on-line market as do we, and their aesthetic may be closer to what’s wanted today.
“Auction houses are going begging for people to buy antiques and art,” Andrew Lattimore told me last week. “Kids don’t want their parent’s stuff. They want ‘experiences.’”
He’s right, and that impacts artists who sell to the merely well-to-do (vs. the biggest money players, who are buying an entirely different kind of art). The average United States millionaire is 62 years old. Just 1% of millionaires are under the age of 35, and 38% of millionaires are 65 and older. That means that the people with the cash to buy important paintings are of an age to be getting rid of stuff, and their kids don’t want it. Ouch.
Beaver Dam on Quebec Brook, by Carol L. Douglas, available through 

Gallery of the White Plains County Center

Then there are the ethnic patterns of wealth in America. Asian-Americans are the wealthiest Americans, led by people from the Indian sub-continent. Many of these very wealthy Americans are first- or second-generation citizens, so their aesthetic is more attuned to Asia than to traditional American painting.
Is this the death knell for painters like me? Hardly. We need to act as would any other industry in a time of flux. We adapt or die. That means rethinking pricing and reevaluating our sales channels. Perhaps it means a major strategic change in selling.
I’m very interested in your thoughts on the subject. What kind of market did you experience in 2019? What are your experiences with marketing on the internet? Where do you think we should go from here?

Finishing a stubborn painting

Asking a respected peer for an opinion is good, but sometimes we’re stuck fixing our problems without help. That’s where knowing how to self-critique comes in.
Tom Sawyer’s Fence, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard.
Yesterday I got a text message from a peer that read, “Working on a commission and can’t figure out how to finish it.” She went on to add, “That last 20% of the painting is always the hardest part for me. I can tell something is wrong but finding it and fixing it is the challenge.”
From my perspective, it was easy enough to see that the background needed to be toned down so that the focus could ring. That’s because I wasn’t wrapped up in its creation.
Downdraft Snow by Carol L. Douglas is on exhibition at the Joseph A. Fiore Art Center this summer.
I had a similar experience at Castine. I couldn’t get the contrast to work between the water and a roofline. Kari Ganoung Ruiz suggested I add a shingle edge. That single brushstroke changed everything. Similarly, Kirk McBrideasked for an opinion from his wife, who’s also an artist. Her suggestion made his painting more coherent.
Painting, however, isn’t always a game of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Sometimes, we’re stuck answering the question without a Lifeline. One of the best ways to do this is to subject your own work to formal analysis.
That means you ask yourself how each of the five basic elements of painting design are working. That doesn’t mean you have to write a dissertation. It means you consider your painting in terms of each of these design elements. Are you using line, shape, space, color and texture to guide the viewer through the space you’ve created? Have you emphasized important passages and subordinated others? Is there repetition, pattern and rhythm in the piece?
Marshall Point Rock Study, by Carol L. Douglas
A painting that doesn’t work almost always fails in several of these areas. You are as qualified as anyone to analyze your paintings based on these objective standards. There’s a great advantage in learning to do this: you will never be led astray be a stupid critique again, and you can help yourself fix what’s wrong.
I like to consider my own paintings first on the questions of motive, line, and value. I’m looking for a strong impulse—created by dark shapes—that pulls the viewer through the painting. I’m not relying on chance to create a focal point; I want to drive the viewer there at warp speed.
Good group critiques teach us to look at our own work dispassionately and objectively, rather than possessively and emotionally. For those of us who’ve experienced the nasty criticism of art classes, it can take a lot to unbend from the defensive posture. That’s why I practice positive critiquing.
Ottawa House, by Carol L. Douglas
Positive reaction, done right, is harder than negative criticism. You need to catch a person doing something right before you can comment. That means constant vigilance and a rock-solid understanding of process. It requires being able to differentiate between idiosyncrasy, style, and the real technical issues that can cause a painting to fail. Above all, it requires confidence. Nobody is supportive from a position of weakness.
I demonstrated this technique to my friends in the Knox County Art Societythis week and realized I’ve never blogged about how to do it. Look for it.
Meanwhile, I have two new opportunities for you: a Tuesday class from my Rockport studio, starting on August 20, and a second watercolor workshop aboard American Eagle, September 25-29. I’d love to see you there!

The maddest, gladdest event of my year

Partying cuts into my painting time, but I’m willing to make the sacrifice.
It’s going to be called Little Toot, if I can find enough time to finish painting the boat in at the top left.
Castine Plein Air is always fun. I see my friends who live here, and many painter friends. Among them is Ben Pahucki, the son of painter Chrissy Pahucki. For years, Chrissy has been bringing her kids to events. This year, Ben took first place in his age group at Easton Plein Air. That’s a stellar accomplishment.
Of course, those of us who’ve watched him grow up are very interested in where he’ll end up. It may be gossip, but we’re talking about him when he’s not around.
Like most young people, he’ll be under strong social pressure to do something other than art—not from his parents, but from educators and his peers. There’s a pernicious lie in our culture that artists can’t make a living. I hear it often when I’m outside working. I just smile and say, “you’d be surprised.”
Laura Martinez Biancotold me a wonderful story from her teaching days. Her principal challenged her about encouraging kids to go to art school. “You were a science teacher, right?” she asked. “Tonight, we’ll each go home and draw up a list—you of people you know making a living in science, me of people I know making a living in art. We’ll see whose list is longer.” The next day, he forfeited. Even though we (properly) emphasize the STEM curriculum, very few people make a living in pure science.
Water Street, by Carol L. Douglas
Last year, I was painting on Battle Avenue when Laura stopped to talk. Her phone had been ringing incessantly while she was trying to work. Finally, she gave in and answered it. It was a call to tell her that she was going to be a grandmother. We both cried. This year, I got to see photos of her grandson, now six months old. I teared up again.
I’ve had dinner with Kirk Larsen and Kirk McBride two nights in a row. That’s because our hosts have taken it in turn to feed us. Since both hosts are good friends of mine, I’ve enjoyed myself immensely.
“Do you guys all know each other?” I was asked. In fact, that’s much true. The plein air circuit is a bit like professional rodeo. There are lots of people doing one or two events, but the core group see each other over and over every season. I’ve known some of these painters for twenty years.
My host and I were unsure whether this was the event’s sixth or seventh year. Since it marks the start of our friendship, I was keen to know. I asked organizer Don Tenney as he stamped artists’ boards on the Common on Thursday morning.
“Seven,” he answered. “You can tell how long it’s been by how much Ben Pahucki has shot up in height,” he said.
Kirk Larson, who was in line in front of me, smiled wryly. “We’ve known that kid since…” and he made a rocking motion with his arms. It’s a slight exaggeration, but most of us have watched all three Pahucki kids grow up.
All this partying cuts into my painting time, of course, but I’m sanguine about it. I don’t get to see my Castine friends that often, and one painting more or less isn’t going to break my career. In the end, friendship is infinitely more precious.

Sorry this post was late, but I had no internet this morning and had to get painting.