Tuesday, July 20, 2010

"Selling Out" by guest blogger, Cedar Lee

This post is for my fellow painters and other studio artists, especially those just starting out.

Can you make money doing what you love?

I’ve found there’s sometimes a stigma attached to artists who make a lot of money (or sometimes, any money!) selling their art, and an assumption that they must have compromised their personal vision to such an extent that that what they’re doing is akin to prostitution, and no longer real or true. I’ve also found there is a lot of pain and bitterness amongst people who wanted at one time to be professional artists but failed.

Here’s what I think: it’s easier to blame the outside world for a failure than to take responsibility for it and begin again more intelligently. If you can dismiss the few artists who succeed financially as flukes, or if just being financially successful means they’re not true and soulful artists anymore, then you never have to even admit you’ve failed! It’s so convenient to just say that our society doesn’t value “real art;” it is impossible to make a living doing it; case closed.

One of my close friends recently posted this article on her Facebook. It’s about a studio artist struggling to make ends meet financially. A lively debate followed in the comments of the Facebook post. One person, at first glance, seemed to have palpable hostility for visual artists, saying that they are deluded and unrealistic—that they usually make mediocre things there is no demand for, over-price them, then whine and complain when they don’t sell anything—as if the world owes them a good living for doing nothing special.

Then a few people pointed out that our culture has virtually no such thing as art appreciation, and how messed up that is—as one person said, “it’s a shame when we live in a world that values ring tones and fantasy football more than the talents of our community.” (And I get that! Brings to mind this video I just saw.)

A few other people said that the harsh reality, unfair as it may be, is that it’s simply not possible to make a living as an artist, and that artists need to get over themselves and stop thinking of themselves as professionals, since in reality almost all artists are just hobbyists pretending to be professionals—in short, wannabes. The general consensus seemed to be that the outlook for artists was bleak indeed.

I sympathized with the artist in question, and this whole conversation struck a chord with me. I very strongly disagree that it’s “impossible” to make money as an artist! At the same time, it is absolutely imperative to have a business strategy, even a vague one, before attempting to sell art professionally. Even then, you may at first crash and burn, like the “whining” artist in the article. But I would argue that she should not just give up—there is still plenty of hope for her and for anyone struggling in her position.

If you want to make money with your art, here’s what you have to do.

1. Get Good
I will admit that I do get tired of seeing so many people producing work that isn’t up to snuff and then wondering why nobody will pay them for it. I’m not claiming to be anywhere near my potential skill level, but I am proficient enough to make some work that speaks to people.

Visual artists (I’m speaking mostly of painters, but all studio arts apply) need to take their work seriously and commit to a studio practice so they develop their skills. You need to constantly, enthusiastically, practice your craft so that you get better! You can’t expect a demand for work that isn’t technically proficient, interesting, and inspired. I’m not saying you have to feel like a master before trying to sell your work—(in my experience, no matter how good you get this feeling never comes—and if it does it’s probably a sign that you’ve stopped searching, which is bad for you and your art!) Just wait till you have some degree of confidence that you are offering something likely to have value to someone else.

2. Target Your Audience
In order to sell your art, you have to have a plan for who’s going to buy it. Even if you don’t have a clue, you can start with a guess, put feelers out, and make an attempt before moving on. You can’t just hang your work in a coffee shop and hope an art collector walks in and happens to discover you. You can’t just select a gallery at random out of a phone book and ask them to sell your abstract paintings for you, without ever considering that they only sell traditional landscapes. Spend some time thinking about it. You need to be very purposeful about targeting your audience directly. Figure out whether a niche exists for what you do, and get your work in front of people who want to see it!

3. Always Consider Demand
If you find yourself putting out work that is pretty good and reasonably priced, but nobody’s buying it, that’s a sign that it’s time to re-evaluate. Your work may be under-developed technically (Does it look unfinished? Are you using poor quality materials?) it may be over-priced (see my recent video on how to price your work) or it you may just not be putting it in front of the right people’s eyes.

If none of these are the case, and your work is still not selling, change your artistic direction and see what happens. Even a slight change may fix the problem—use a different medium or color scheme. Keep the medium and the colors but paint a different subject. As long as your wheels keep turning and you feel excited about working, you can and should change your direction if your art is not selling. I know this is not what you want to hear if you have your heart set on doing a very specific thing, but I strongly believe it’s possible to find what sells without giving up on your personal inner vision for your work. You just need to be willing to try different things, have fun doing it, and go with the flow.

When I first set out to sell my artwork, the most difficult thing was finding my style and creating a consistent body of work. For me, finding what sold, was a natural, if purposeful, consequence of searching for what I should paint in the first place. I forced myself to begin working in series. I found something I enjoyed painting (trees, at first) and made myself paint them past the point where I didn’t want to anymore. I took a break to move on from that to something else (skies) for a while, then found myself able to go back to the trees with fresh eyes and fresh purpose. A few things I tried didn’t pan out in a long-term way (portraits, cats, etc.) and that’s okay. Someday I may go back to those things. To this day I constantly flip-flop back and forth between a few different themes. This keeps me consistent without getting burned out, bored, or too formulaic.

Here’s how I decided which paintings to focus on: I painted whatever I wanted, but made sure I was painting a few different things at once. I tried to sell what I painted by putting it in front of people whom I presumed might like it. The things that sold easily and quickly, I kept painting. The things that didn’t, I abandoned (at least for the moment.) I then repeated this process, and plan to do so infinitely. Voila—I get to paint what I want, but I also sell my paintings. If you want to be a painter, you have to 1) love what you’re doing BUT ALSO 2) paint things that other people want to buy. Finding the balance between those things can be frustrating, but if you stick with it, it works. Which leads me to:

4. Never Give Up
This one’s so important. You definitely won’t sell any art if you give up the first (or the hundredth) time you fail at it. If it’s not working, try again but better. Repeat. Trial and error works, but it is not for quitters. Stick-to-itiveness is vital.

This blog first appeared at www.artbycedar.com/blog and is reprinted here with permission of the author.

Cedar Lee lives, paints and sells her work in Baltimore, MD. Visit her website at www.artbycedar.com.