Have you been making art for a while, hoping for a sale, and wondering why it is not selling?
Yeah, I’ve wondered this, too.
After mulling this over for a while, I’ve come up with 4 factors that influence your sales: your style, your inventory, your fame, and your price.
1. Your Style Isn’t Recognizable
When you think of an artist like Alexander Calder, you think of mobiles made with organic geometric shapes in black and red. The ultimate in Midcentury Modern.
When you think of Frank Stella, you think of huge abstract-geometric paintings with carefully drawn lines.
When you think of Salvador Dali, you think of perfect blue skies over golden dreamscapes populated with melting clocks and bizarre dream imagery where time and memory are distorted and jumbled.
When you think of Mary Cassatt, you think of tender scenes of mothers and children.
If your style is all over the place, people won’t be able to identify your work. Some artists might feel like they are being pigeonholed or labeled, but it makes your work easier to sell if it is recognizable. People need to be able to identify your work.
If your work isn’t recognizable, you might sell a few one or two pieces here and there, but you won’t be very collectable, because you won’t have a distinctive body of work.
2. You don’t have enough “inventory”
When I talk about inventory, I mean your body of work. Your body of work needs to be cohesive: a collection of artworks that clearly go together. There will be some kind of continuity between them. There needs to be breadth and depth and all look like it came from the same artist.
If you’re a sporadic artist, you won’t have enough work to sell. You have to produce a lot in order to sell a lot. It’s really that simple. And the more you produce, the better you get and the more recognizable your style will become. In turn, your work is more likely to sell just on recognition, which translates to fame. More on this in a minute.
3. How Famous Are You?
Andy Warhol is reported to have said that, “In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.” And somebody, somewhere, perhaps Seth Godin, said that now in the internet age, we are all famous to 15 people.
The point is, the average person is “famous” to somebody. Every time you post something on Facebook, the same set of people are likely see that and pay attention to it. And yes, it’s probably your relatives and close friends. So in a sense, you are already famous! You have people who like seeing what you are doing. It’s just that that number might be very small. But it doesn’t have to be enormous, either.
This is where the idea of 1,000 True Fans comes into play. If you have 1,000 people buying $100 worth of your stuff each year, you’re making $100,000 a year. Granted, half of that goes to taxes and then another big chunk goes to overhead, but it is a good enough place to start make a living for most people.
And for fine artists it may be more like 10 True Fans buying $1,000 of your work every year since. That sounds like a tremendous opportunity to really get to know your fans
4. Is the Price Right?
Pricing is a really tricky thing to deal with because there are several factors: materials and overhead, time and effort, skill level, and fame.
Materials and Overhead
You have to pay for your materials and overhead before you can sell your art: canvas, paint, varnish, clay, stone, tools or utensils, stretcher bars, studio rent, utilities, furniture (such as easels and work tables), and operating costs such as photography and everything involved in marketing your work such as a website and any advertising you might do.
Time and Effort
When you start out, it might make sense to base your pricing on your hours or the size of your work. But the bottom line is you have to pay yourself for your time and effort. If you’re good at what you do, charging hourly for your work punishes efficiency.
An experienced artist might be able to produce a fantastic painting in fraction of the time it takes a beginner to produce something at a lesser level or even the same level. I have produced fantastic paintings that took just a few hours and others that took 20 hours or more.
If I were hiring somebody to do a website, I wouldn’t care how many hours it takes them as long as they do it. I’d say, “Here’s $X,000, go do it.” Not: “Here’s $X,000, do it in XX hours.” The developer of course will make sure the time spent is appropriately in line with his or her skill, whether it is 20 hours or 2. For all I know, they already spent 300 hours creating a customizable product that only takes 15 minutes to set up.
Paintings executed with a higher level of skill are much more likely to be more expensive. And the more skilled the artist, the faster that artist is likely to complete the paintings, so in effect it is a dramatically higher hourly rate. You’re paying for experience and expertise. A 30-year veteran knows a lot more about painting than someone who just picked it up last week. Someone with this much skill is likely to produce a higher-quality piece of work.
The More Famous You Are, the More You Can Charge for Your Work
Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991. Glass, painted steel, silicone, monofilament, shark and formaldehyde solution, 2170 x 5420 x 1800 mm | 85.5 x 213.4 x 70.9 in.
As you grow your fame or notoriety, you can charge for it. Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons are pretty famous in the contemporary art world. They made a splash 20-something years ago and continue to do so. Jeff Koons can mass-produce a gazing ball and sell it for a lot of money. Is it simply because he is a famous contemporary artist? Maybe. There is some skill involved, but I suspect the greatest skill is a keen sense of marketing and knowing what people will buy as well as being famous for being famous in a particular niche.
People buy name recognition. Why do you think fashion labels are so successful and go plastering their logo on their products?
So. What Does This Have to Do With My Work?
With these factors in mind, let’s take a look at my own work.
I’ve been painting since 1999. But I haven’t sold very many paintings. My sales have been pretty much nonexistent, averaging less than one a year. Pretty sad, huh? Yeah, kinda. But I think I can see why this is the case.
I have painted in several distinct styles over the years, but up until recently there hasn’t been anything to really tie it all together. That said, I think I’ve found a visual idom that makes sense.
I have not really been very prolific. I have been lucky to finish 5 or 6 paintings a year. But if I really push and do a challenge like Art Every Day Month, I’ll produce that many in a month.
My practice is not consistent enough to produce work on a regular basis, which might explain for the scattered quality and varied styles. The obvious thing is to develop a more regular and disciplined practice of creating art.
In other words, I think I need to fail faster. Go for quantity over quality.
I think my pricing is right on the mark as far as my materials and skill level, but I don’t think my pricing speaks to my level of fame, as it were. I’m pretty much unknown, even locally.
Fame is the one area where I’m hesitant. It’s honestly kind of scary to think of becoming famous.
But this is why my friend Jeff talks about why it’s okay that nobody has heard of you. Embrace your invisibility so you can get better faster while the world isn’t watching.
Finally, I don’t think I’m getting it out there like I should. I’m trying to figure out how to market it. People can’t buy my art if they don’t know about it. Since I’m unknown, I’m not famous.
I think the reason I’m not selling is that I’m not producing work steadily enough, which makes my style somewhat irregular and creates a lack of product, or inventory. Since I’m not producing regularly and getting it in front of people, nobody knows about it, so I don’t have any name recognition to leverage.
I know exactly what I need to be doing now. It all starts with a regular studio practice. Once I get that ball rolling, I’ll eventually be able to start selling my art on a regular basis, probably in the next few years.
What About You?
What do you need to do to get your art selling? I’d love to hear your ideas.