I wanted to talk about an issue I have been observing, and shine some light on what I see as a mistake some newly professional artists are making. I've been selling my art for coming up on 10 years. So I started out as a fine artist in late 2009, when I made my first efforts at putting my work in shows. Before that I was just doing it as a supplement to my career as a concept artist. I want to talk about three of some common pitfalls that I've seen artists fall into when they decide to start selling their art.
Undervaluing Your Art
I totally understand why. I mean, you get into it and you think, “I'm just barely starting out. I don't know how to price it. I'm afraid that if I put my art too high in the beginning, I won't be able to sell any of it.” Totally understandable. I completely relate. But the problem is that it takes a long time for people to get out of that mindset and it kind of carries throughout their entire career until they get some big award which gives them some sort of justification for raising their prices. Or they just flame out because they can't sustain their career since they don't put enough value on it.
I’ll tell you a story about one time I severely undervalued my art.
I first started out in 2009 and at that point it was tough to sell art. It was the middle of the housing market crash, so the great recession was pretty much in full effect at that point. I was designing full-time for a startup company that was struggling to make ends meet. So I was forced to put myself into all sorts of different situations where I was using my art to try and make money off of it. I was just searching for any little freelance job that would come my way, which were very few and far between. For example, I would get hired to draw charcoal portraits for people for 20 bucks a pop.
I remember one time I was hired to do a live painting event where you set up your easel and paint either the scene that's going around you or you can paint something that you prepare for beforehand. It was a David Bowie-themed show. One of the things that they requested that we do was to put our art up for silent auction. One of the mistakes I made was that I made no minimum bid on my auction pieces. I remember bringing whatever I had and putting it up on the walls and at the show itself, I painted a 24 by 36 inch canvas live. The painting probably took me a few hours to do, and even by modest standards, an hourly rate for that would be like 150 to 250 bucks an hour for that sort of thing.
When it went to auction, I believe the finishing bid was a whopping 80 bucks.
So that was pretty deflating. But that's a pretty extreme case for me. I did still underprice my work for a while, and it wasn't really until I hit on my “Painted Roses” series in 2010 that people really started to catch on. Even that first Painted Roses show, I ended up selling a 4x4 inch piece for 80 bucks just because, well, I don't know how much I was supposed to sell it for. Something like that today would go for about four times that price.
Don't shortchange yourself.
it's a race to the bottom. If you do undervalue yourself just for the sake of a quick buck, it's harder and harder to dig yourself out of that hole once you're in it. Start from a place of an upward trajectory rather than the short-term financial goal in mind. You should always be working your way up, especially as an artist who is trying to make a career out of this.
What we're doing here as artists is baring our souls, aren't we? At least those of us who are honestly trying to express ourselves through our artistic voice in a way. If you're really putting yourself into the art, you're really adding a lot of yourself into it. It's your soul's work and your passion that only YOU have the power to express. If you think of it as a precious commodity in that way, then it almost stops making sense to undervalue it. The more you can understand how important your work is to the world, that better your art will be, but also, the more you will be able to show the value in your work.
2. Searching for sales in the wrong market.
This can manifest itself in all sorts of different ways. From approaching galleries without researching them, which is a huge common problem. I talk to gallery owners and they say that all the time. Also, not being honest about where your work fits in when it comes to the galleries you want to show. If you don't have a proven track record and you're going for the cream-of-the-crop galleries that are popular because you see them in magazines all the time, you could possibly get lucky. You don’t want to rely on luck in this business.
Gallery owners who have risen to the top know that they get there because they can recognize an artist who not only has the art skills and work to back it up, but they also can recognize work ethic and professionalism. So if you don't have that down-pat, it's better that you work with a smaller or less-known gallery to get your feet wet and learn all the ins and outs of our industry. Show in your local communities, make friends with the people in your communities. If they're good artists, a lot of them will be nice enough to help you in that way. If you're just starting out, I would recommend going that route rather than wasting too much time and energy getting into something that you may not be prepared for.
3. Jumping from market to market.
What you want to do as an artist is to do your best to establish yourself as a leader in your area of expertise. For example, I'm an expert oil painter. I'm mainly paint figures and landscapes. I'm starting to make some moves into teaching. Even though I have the ability to paint anything, I’m not much of a still life painter. I like painting animals, but I wouldn't necessarily position myself as the expert on painting animals. I would say that I am very good at painting the figure; specifically female figures and pushing the boundaries of what people expect in that genre. So, if I were to sum myself up in that way, I'd say that I'm an expert at creating contemporary figurative art work in oil.
So knowing that, then that means I should go find the venues that are experts in showing, presenting and selling that work. I wouldn't waste my time with venues that don't quite have that. I would advise you to ask yourself, “What makes me the most happy when it comes to creating and showing my art? If I were never to make another dime for my work, what would I still be compelled to create?”
Maybe you're at a point where you're not trying to sell your work, but you have it in your mind that you want to pursue that in the future. Pursuing art as a professional career means that you're going to be making a lot to create a business around what you're doing. The ‘Passion’ part of it has to be there or else it's just not gonna work. You're not gonna be motivated keep going forward unless you put your passion into the art that you're trying to sell. It's just going to burn you out.
Don’t get me wrong. It's totally okay if you want to experiment with different things. I do it all the time. But when it comes to business considerations, people will come to you because they expect you to be the best at the one thing that you're capable of being, which is your own personal style and your vision. In other words, they're coming to you because they want to hear what you share with your artistic voice.
Now it’s your turn to share: Tell me your stories of when you’ve undervalued your art!
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