Year 3 of Selling Art Full Time: 6 Things 2013 Taught Me

Justin Vining on the News at Penrod

This is the third article in an ongoing series. You can find the first two here: “Year 1: How to Sell Your Art –  5 Things I have Learned” & “Year 2: How do I Start Selling My Art? – 8 More Things I Have Learned

1. Be Hungry & Keep Moving Forward

One of the questions I get asked frequently by other artists, especially those who are thinking about making the leap to full time, is how do I do it?  There are obviously a lot of moving parts and a lot of outside things that help further someones success, such as natural talent and a personality for sales, but setting that stuff aside, I think there are three additional traits that have helped me succeed.  First, a sincere desire to create; second, a fearless confidence that I will not fail; and third, a willingness to work very hard.  I look at my career as a long term investment, and I am very motivated to put in the time necessary to survive.  2013 was my most successful year yet.  I booked an even more aggressive show schedule than 2012 and pulled more all nighters in 2013 than in all of law school.  My last show in a 5 month stretch (including one for which I was the Art Director) I produced 11 pieces in 27 days over Christmas and New Years for a small solo exhibit here in Indy.  Those 11 pieces were some of the best I had ever created and the only way I was able to pull that off in that timeline was a willingness to work every day (except Christmas) and to sacrifice sleep.  Working this hard is not just unique to me. I now work in a building with 30 other artists, many of which are full time. Recently a colleague of mine, another full time artist, had a big solo exhibit, and for the entire month leading up to his show, I cannot think of a time — whether it was 7:00 am  or when I was leaving at 3:00 am — that he was not there working.  I wholehearted respect his work ethic and am not at all surprised that he is able to succeed as a full-time artist.

For every artist, the path to success in the early years could likely go any many directions – some toward success and some toward struggle.  I often see artists who have good work but don’t know what the next step is.  There is no perfect next step, and as cliche as it sounds, the next right step is to just move forward.

2. Where I focus my energy is where I sell

For a long time I thought selling reproductions would be an easy way to make some incremental income with only a little effort, but in the past 12 months I have moved away from this.  In 2012, because of this mindset, I sold over 3 times more reproductions than in 2013, but in 2013 I spent the year increasing the quality of my work and focused on selling higher-end originals, selling over 3 times more original pieces.  There is a direct correlation between energy and time spent vs. where I am selling.  If I am focused on selling online, I sell online, if I am focused on selling reproductions, I sell reproductions, if I focus on selling my most expensive pieces, I sell those.  But what happens, is where I am not focused, all sales in those areas slow tremendously.  It is very rare I make incremental, “passive” income off of a channel I am not focused on.  In March 2014, I sold zero reproductions, zero online sales, and only six originals, but it has been my best month yet out of all three years being a full-time artist. I guess what I’m saying is — most art doesn’t sell itself, you have to be willing t0 work hard at both painting and selling.

3. Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket

In 2012, I was leaning too heavily on Facebook to sell work.  I was lucky enough to build a pretty loyal following, but in September of 2012, when Facebook updated the edgerank algorithm, my reach dropped over 80%. Over night, it became significantly more difficult to sell my work via social media channels.  I learned a huge lesson that day, and I didn’t know it until it happened. I was leaning too hard on one channel to make almost all of my sales.  Since this time, I have diversified and now sell through several different channels.  I have focused on building a local collector base and now do a wide variety of shows.  Everything from traditional art fairs, gallery shows, First Friday events to building out an online shop.

4. Create higher price points

The summer of 2013 was the first time I offered a price point of $1,500 or more at shows.  I found success selling at these price points and found that it’s really important to be able to articulate the difference between a $200 piece, a $500 piece and a $2,000 piece, especially when the paintings might not be too different in size or medium.  I have discovered how powerful it can be to really communicate the meaning and story behind a piece.  Nowadays, it seems that size and amount of time spent almost take a back seat to how much the piece means to me.  When I am able to articulate why a piece is different, special, and how it purposefully and carefully came into existence, I find the work easier to sell and easier to justify its price compared to the rest of my work.

5.  Presentation & Craftsmanship

A few years ago, I don’t know if I was ready to invest as much as I do now in the presentation and framing my paintings.  But the first show I did in 2013 where I invested significantly more in my presentation, I sold 17 of the 20 originals I took to the show — all at higher prices than I ever had sold before.  It wasn’t a coincidence.  Further, I believe that as my prices increase, attention to all the small details matter exponentially more.  All too often I see artists early in their careers throwing high prices on artwork where very little consideration has been given to the overall craftsmanship and presentation of the work.  Once you start moving out of that impulse-buy price range, it becomes exponentially more important to really pay attention to every single aspect of a piece.

In the last three years, I have also become an art collector and have a modest collection of work in my home and studio. As a buyer, it is a huge turn off to see an artist with obvious talent that has just thrown together the body of work in their booth with very little care or thought.  Even more frustrating is when it is obvious they have just quickly cranked out a bunch of mediocre work to fill up their booth.   I firmly believe that someone’s sincere passion to create stunningly beautiful work from the first brush stroke to the final presentation can be easily seen by even the most novice collector and can go a long way when placed in a selling environment.  It is really easy to talk passionately about a piece when you can articulate how every single aspect was carefully thought out and executed.

6. Don’t be afraid to ask

You can’t get what you don’t ask for.  As I continue to progress in my career, it seems that I am being more bold with what I am willing to ask for.  Quick example, I am a brand ambassador for Van Gogh Brand Paints and have most recently created a custom paper at Twinrocker with my logo watermarked in the paper.  This stuff does not happen by accident, don’t be afraid to go out and create opportunities!