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.

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.

We’re all fauvists now

There’s no place for subtle in online art sales.
Headwaters of the Hudson, by Carol L. Douglas

If you look at pastel kits online, you’ll see a bias toward high-chroma colors, even though lower-saturation chalks are the workhorses of pastel painting. In part, that’s because all mixing results in lower chroma; pigments are impure and their overtones tend to cancel each other out. But more than that, pastel kits are sold to beginners. People who already have kits just buy individual chalks to fill in holes.

Bright colors are attractive; a kit with luscious reds, brilliant yellows, and tropical turquoises will turn our heads while the hardworking neutrals sit in the corner, ignored. Since pastel manufacturers are in business to sell their products, they give the people what they want.
Fish Beach, by Carol L. Douglas
The same thing happens with online painting sites. Although my Android phone has a 1440p display, the standard square image on Instagram scrolls by at 600×600 pixels. (Instagram stores at up to 1080 pixels, but doesn’t display at that size.) Compressed so severely, the best-looking images are the ones that have arresting composition, high contrast and lots of color.
Inside people’s homes, a very different trend continues. In 2015, when I painted my last house to sell, I used Benjamin Moore’s best-selling color, Revere Pewter. This is a warm, soft grey, and I ran it ruthlessly through that elegant 1928 interior. I wish I’d done it when I still lived there; it looked beautiful and the house sold fast.
Finger Lakes vineyard, by Carol L. Douglas. There are a lot of places in America with muted light.
Greys show no sign of abating. Benjamin Moore’s Color of the Year for 2019 is Metropolitan, a neutral that somehow manages to look like it contains every pigment mixed together. BM is marketing this palette as a neutral refuge from the noise of the modern world, with tag lines like, “The calibrated silence of layered grays helps a modern home find its soft side.” They are not alone. Other paint manufacturers are also exploring the world of greys words like “repose,” “sea salt,” “mindfulness,” or “passive.”
I’m not averse to this trend of neutral walls with eye-popping color within picture frames; it looks great and matches my own worldview. But it behooves us to remember that high-chroma is just a style thing, driven by our electronic toys. It’s not an eternal verity, and it might not be the best way to make our point. Is there room for the quiet, contemplative painting in such a media-driven world?
All flesh is as grass, by Carol L. Douglas
Yes. For one thing, the online market remains a small part of the overall art market—about $5 billion of a total market of around $63 billion. That means plenty of paintings are still sold in galleries.
But an interesting thing happened in the last cooling period for art sales, which was from 2015 to 2017. While traditional galleries and auction houses experienced retraction, online sellers did not.
I assume this is another sign of the bifurcation of the art market, between high-net-worth individuals trading pieces worth millions in the global market, and the small (under $10,000) galleries that represent the bulk of working artists. But sales aren’t tracked that way, so I’m only guessing.
The numbers for 2018 aren’t out yet, but in 2017, online sales represented 12% of the total art market. That’s too big a percentage to be ignored, and it’s steadily growing. We can’t ignore the screen-popping world of contemporary painting much longer.

Going by the numbers

We should all immediately switch to Instagram. But as with blogging, there’s a lot of unpredictability on the internet. There’s still plenty of room for intuition.
Joan of Arc, 1879, Jules Bastien-Lepage, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

Yesterday I had my left foot operated on, giving me a matched pair of incisions and some hope for less pain going into the summer.

My mind is muddled, so I’d hoped to reprise an old post. To that end, I consulted my stats for this blog. Blogger tells me what my top posts are (although this blog has been on three different platforms over the years). A few years ago, the most popular posts were The One Thing Every Painter Should Know and a recipe for scallops from my friends Berna and Harry.
Plastic bags, dethroned by art history.
Since I last checked, art history has steamrolled over them. The top view-catcher is this post about Jules Bastien-Lepage’s Joan of Arc. It’s eleven years old, it violates the modern dictums of length and language, it’s complex, and it continues to get readers. In fact, there are a number of art history posts on that top ten list, including The Adoration of the Magi in the Snow and Ingres and Napoleon.
Measured week-to-week, however, art history is a slow starter. Those posts usually have the lowest immediate readership, even when they have much to say.
Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne, 1806, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, courtesy, Musée de l’Armée, Paris
After more than a decade of blogging, I still see no discernible pattern for what will be popular in a post. That’s liberating. It means I can write about whatever I care about, rather than pitching content to some ‘expert’ idea of the public’s low taste.
A surveytells us that new galleries are opening more slowly than they did a decade ago. This is part of a general decline in entrepreneurship in the United States. It’s no surprise to those of us who worry about our battered small town Main Streets, but there’s good news in that same report.
It surveyed a group of high-net-worth individuals about their collecting habits. These are people with more than $1 million but less than $5 million in assets. The vast majority (89%) spent $50,000 a year or less on art and objects. That suggests they aren’t buying from tony Manhattan galleries, but from low- and mid-tier galleries. In other words, they’re buying works by people like you and me, in places like S. Thomaston, Camden and Ogunquit.
The Adoration of the Magi in the Snow, 1567, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, courtesy Oskar Reinhart Foundation
Meanwhile, the online market for art and collectables continues to grow, but at a slower pace. That makes sense as a market matures, and it’s nothing to worry about. More than half of online art buyers said they will buy more art online in 2018 than they did last year, according to the Online Art Trade Report.
Instagram has dethroned Facebook as the preferred means of online promotion. In 2016, galleries used the two platforms almost equally. Now only 31% of respondents prefer Facebook to the 62% who liked Instagram. Instagram is also the favored platform for collectors under 35, 79% of whom said they discover new artists on Instagram and 82% of whom said they use it to keep up with artists they like.
Going by the numbers, we should all immediately switch to Instagram. But just as with blogging, there’s a lot of unpredictability in sales. There’s still plenty of room for intuition.

It’s about time for you to consider your summer workshop plans. Join me on the American Eagle, at Acadia National Park, at Rye Art Center, or at Genesee Valley this summer.

Online holiday marketing for artists

What’s shifting in 2017 holiday marketing? A lot, especially with email.

Off Marshall Point, by Carol L. Douglas. This is for sale in Chrissy Pahucki’s new venture, pleinair.store.

If you sell paintings, you’re in retailing. And if you’re in retailing, you’ve probably learned by now that holiday sales are an important part of your business. While all retailing sees a jump during the holiday selling spree, the jewelry sector posts more than a quarter of its annual sales during the holidays. That’s important because jewelry sales and painting sales have much in common. They’re both luxury items, and their value is primarily aesthetic.

For a decade, seasonal spending outpaced the US economy, meaning we were concentrating our money more in that one-month period. Then, in 2016, something changed. Seasonal sales were down, except for automobiles and gasoline.
One year does not a trendline make, but I’ve noticed a few things this year. The absurd deals that created Black Friday culture weren’t in my Thanksgiving newspaper (which cost $4, by the way). Retailing is in a major meltdown right now, with bricks-and-mortar stores closing in the face of new consumer trends.
Tilt-a-Whirl, by Carol L. Douglas. This is for sale in Chrissy Pahucki’s new venture, pleinair.store.
But the thing that really hit home was the abuse of my in-box over the past week. I’ve been deleting a few hundred email ads a day without even opening them. I receive multiple, similar offers from the same vendors. They’re all companies I like and have purchased from, but they’ve created a wall between me and the emails I need to see. In other words, they’ve tipped email into a black hole as a marketing strategy.
How does an artist make his or her voice heard in that cacophony? The short answer is, we can’t. I’m only looking at mail from my close friends and business associates right now, so if you sent me a seasonal special offer, it was deleted without opening.
Glen Cove Surf, by Carol L. Douglas. This is for sale in Chrissy Pahucki’s new venture, pleinair.store.
Artists must watch retailing trends carefully. It’s not enough to understand what others are doing now, we have to understand what others plan to do. I watched a webinar recently about creating an email marketing funnel. This is an advertising concept that converts brand awareness to sales. Like every other one-person shop, I could be a lot better at it.
The presenter taught us how to collect email addresses and then qualify and refine information about the buyer. That was fine, but it ignores a basic reality: people sent and received 269 billion emails per day in 2017. With all that chatter—and it’s so much cheaper than snail mail—it’s almost impossible for your message to stand out with any clarity.
Marginal Way, by Carol L. Douglas. This is for sale in Chrissy Pahucki’s new venture, pleinair.store.
In the end, on-line sales will have created new and different problems from the ones they seemed to fix. As always, the muscle will lie with the big marketers that have the time and talent to tinker with new strategies, not with sole proprietors like us.
What’s a poor artist to do? First, realize we’re not alone in this. Every small retailer faces the same problem. From my vantage point, we do the same things we’ve always done: reach out to regular customers, create opportunities to buy, and carefully analyze the competition’s marketing strategy. Above all, we have to be open to new ideas, which is why I’m trying out Chrissy Pahucki’s new venture, pleinair.store.
And somehow, we need to find time to paint.

Bits and bobs go on the block

Chrissy Pahucki has created an easy platform to experiment with online marketing this Christmas season. You might want to try it.

This rock study was painted at Upper Jay, in New York. While I might be able to pass it off as Jay, Maine, it would be better to just sell it to someone who loves the Adirondacks.
Over time, an artist’s studio gets overrun with orphan work. These are the one or two paintings from a previous body of work, field sketches that came back from trips and weren’t sold, and work left from plein air events.  The more you’re making art, the more these things tend to clog up the works. In fact, if we were to be strictly honest, we sometimes want to sell paintings mainly to make room to make more paintings.
Like most painters, I have a bin of plein air studies. This is where I drop things that I’m not going to pursue. Visitors are welcome to fish through them whenever they stop by, but they’re not orphan work. They’re my repository of ideas.
This spring lake was painted in New York. It should go home to New York.
A non-artist would be shocked by the turnaround time for selling artwork; it can take several years for a painting to find its buyer. This is why we don’t aggressively mark stuff down at the end of each season: we know its sale depends on it being seen by the right person.
I haven’t had a holiday painting sale in several years, since I moved to the edge of the continent. By the time Thanksgiving rolls around, the visitors are gone and all that’s left around here are other artists.
This is the last painting I have left of Vigo County, Indiana.
I decided it was time and that this year I should do it solely online.
Sales events always force me to try to make objective judgments about my paintings. This year, I decided I should mark down work created outside of my current location in midcoast Maine. There are some funny bits and bobs in my studio.
And one of two I have left of central Pennsylvania.
I have only one small canvas left of paintings I did in Vigo County, Indiana. I’d had the opportunity to go out there with my friend Jane while she took care of some family business. I have two small canvases left of a set I did from the top of a hillside on Route 125 in Pennsylvania. I’d had a 360° view of rolling farmland and capitalized on it by turning my easel around on the top of the hill. I got most of the way around before the light failed.
Perhaps the most difficult to add to this collection are my two remaining canvases of the Genesee River at Letchworth State Park. I spent a summer driving down to this spot, hiking my equipment into the gorge and concentrating on painting the rock walls. My goal was to learn to simplify and abstract them, and in these two canvases, I think I succeeded in that. But last year, they were knocked from the wall in my gallery and their frames were damaged. I realized then that they perfectly represent the Genesee Valley but have no place in my current inventory, so they, too, are going on the block.
These were part of a series I did from a mountain top, trying to capture 360° in one painting day. I almost succeeded.
Where am I going to do this? My friend Chrissy Pahucki has started an online plein-air store, here. By this weekend, I expect to have my work up, but that’s not why I mention it. I think other artists ought to try it, too. Chrissy is a painter and art teacher herself, and her terms are very reasonable. I haven’t pursued online selling because I didn’t want to have to add e-commerce to my website. This is an easy way for me to dip my toe into this marketplace.

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.

How to avoid getting scammed

Is this art buyer legitimate or pulling an internet swindle? I asked the hive for help.
I sold this painting to an online contact. Since then, she’s become a valued friend.

There are two schools of thought among artists: those who embrace on-line selling and those who don’t. I’m strongly in the bricks-and-mortar camp, but I do occasionally sell paintings to people who see my work online.

I’m usually happy to oblige and in most cases, it works just fine.
People who regularly sell work from their websites usually accept payment through third parties like PayPal. That insures that they get their money. It gets dicey when someone wants to pay by check.
This week, I’ve been communicating with a buyer who is setting off a low-level vibration in my fraud detector. I checked a number of sources for advice. Here’s their consensus:
Check references
That’s difficult with an online contact, but I Googled him and came up with nothing. As a control, I ran the name of one of my students, my late aunt, and a sister-in-law who doesn’t use a computer. I found all of them.
This painting of the Delaware Water Gap sold to someone who saw it on my blog. There were no problems in the transaction.
Always use a trusted middle man
The fees we pay to systems like galleries (online or real-world), eBay, PayPal and credit card companies are there in part to cover the risks involved in commerce.
If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.
Artists are particularly vulnerable because we are emotionally involved with our product. It’s hard to be objective about when a response is normal and reasonable, and when it isn’t.
I’ve noticed serious buyers generally have a specific painting or subject in mind when they contact me directly. Scammers have no real interest in the content, and don’t tend to ask incisive questions.
Don’t be overeager.
This is hard advice for the impecunious artist to follow, but scams work because their victims’ excitement blinds them to the deal’s faults.
Low Bridge (Erie Canal) 40X30, is probably only going to sell online, since I no longer have any gallery representation in New York.
Never accept personal checks and only accept checks for the exact amount.
I sometimes insist on a cashier’s or certified check drawn on an American bank, in the exact amount. This isn’t a guarantee that the check won’t be counterfeited, sadly, but they do clear faster than personal checks. I never give out my bank information for a wire transfer.
You mustn’t ship the painting until the check clears, no matter how much urgency the client expresses.
Does the money pass the sniff test?
We’ve all heard of the Nigerian money scamand its many daughters. Nearly all online scams start with an unusual financing request from the buyer, often including an overpayment.
The same is probably true of this little study of the Queensboro Bridge approach. It’s a good painting, but it’s not going to sell in a Maine gallery.
Avoid buyers with too many stories. 
This is a red flag for me in the conversation I’m currently having. He might be a “Chatty Cathy,” or he might be trying to muddy the waters. But the sob story, in all its wonderful permutations, is the oldest scam around.
As Frank Scafidi, public affairs director of the National Insurance Crime Bureau told USA Today, “Slow down, ask questions and don’t become emotionally involved in the sale.”
Trust your gut. “If it feels awkward, stop all contact,” expert Linda Criddle told AARP.
Be wary of overseas buyers. 
This is tricky for me, since I have sold paintings to people around the globe. However, it’s harder to verify payments across national borders.