I felt like a complete fool.
The year was 1989, or thereabouts, and I was sitting in the rather swanky office of an interior design firm. I’d just given them my quote for a large mural in a night club that would take me weeks to complete, if I managed it at all.
I was all nerves. It seemed like so much money I was asking for. Their reaction?
“Oh I think we can pay you more than that!”
They ended up paying 50% more than I asked for.
You see, I’m really bad at selling.
I suspect I’m not the only one, particularly among artists. But there’s something you need to realise if you’re thinking about turning pro, and especially if your thinking about selling ether your work or your teaching online: You’re going to be running a business.
That may seem obvious. But many of the skills it takes to run a business well – most importantly marketing and selling – don’t come easily to many artists, I suspect. They don’t come easily to me.
Which is ironic, because the day jobs I’ve had for the last few years before becoming independent were in – you guessed it – marketing. I was an SEO (that means I got visitors to websites from Google for a living).
The unpleasant truth is that if you want to be an independent artist, you also have to be a business person if you want to survive. At a minimum, that means selling your work. More likely, it means selling your time and knowledge, too.
To do that, especially online, you need to know how to get your thing in front of enough people (whether it’s your work or your teaching or both) and then you need to sell it.
Why is this so hard for artists?
Honestly, I don’t know. Maybe I’m the only one. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. I have a feeling that the following play a large part:
- Cultural programming. We’re not supposed to be good at this stuff, right? We’re not supposed to be practical. It’s very easy to be unconsciously manipulated by the stereotypes that others impose on us – and even embrace them. I mean, if you’re good at selling stuff, then you’re not a real artist. Are you?
- We’re concerned with other things. I suspect that the business of making (and teaching) art is so encompassing, so demanding that there isn’t actually a lot of energy left for selling – especially if you have to learn how to do it, too.
- Self doubt. Well, it is with me. But I think that self analysis is naturally part of the makeup of an artist. And if the salespeople I worked alongside for many years are anything to go by, that tendency towards self reflection isn’t a natural part of the skill-set of your average salesperson. I don’t mean to be unkind. It’s just true.
The problem is that if we can’t get over these issues, we could very well never become independent, always be dreaming but never making our goal a reality – and the really sad thing is that the world will be the poorer for it.
I’m biased, of course, because I’m an artist. But I think the world needs more artists, not less!
How to sell when you’re bad at selling
I don’t have any real answers here. This post is more of a question than an answer, I’m still trying to figure this out for myself.
But for me, I find that it helps to think about what you contribute. Art gives a lot of pleasure to people. I know it does to me. I have a few paintings and prints that I’ve bought from artists that sell online, I don’t regret any of them. They mean a lot to me, in fact, and are some of my most treasured possessions.
And if you’re teaching, and you’re doing it well, there can be few more important tasks than the passing on of knowledge.
I’ll tell you what really helps me, too. When someone emails me with thanks for something they’ve learned from me, or leaves a nice comment about how I’ve helped them with something, even just made them feel better about something, I realise that for some people at least, the contributions I make are worthwhile.
Knowing that you make a difference makes it easier to sell the thing that makes that difference, because without it, that difference would never be made.
I know. Obvious, right? But I find I need to remind myself of that often.
What’s this worth?
And it’s still hard.
Have you ever struggled to decide how much a piece of work of yours is worth? What about a course? I find that incredibly hard, and I’m pretty sure I still under-sell most of the time. If I could, I’d happily give it all away for free.
Now, I’m sure some people are thinking that you can just outsource that part of things to galleries. And I’m sure you can. But then, you still need to sell yourself to a gallery, right? My own attempt at that, a few years ago, didn’t go so well. Doing it in the midst of the last recession probably didn’t help. But all I got was rejections.
And now, I’m too energised by what I see as a new paradigm for selling your art – selling directly to people online. It’s too soon to say how this phenomenon (and I do believe it is one) is going to develop. But I do think that increasingly, we’ll see lots of different ways of doing it.
The “painting a day” thing has been and, I think, probably gone, with the exception of the people who are already successful at it. When it was pretty new I think it was enough by itself to get you noticed, if you were good enough. It was its own differentiator. That’s not so effective when a lot of people are doing the same thing. And getting noticed by enough people is very important when you’re online – because so are a very large number of other people! Other ways to do it will surface, and it will be up to us to figure out what they are.
Maybe I’m too independently-minded for my own good, but I like the idea of being able to sell directly to people. I like the idea that we get talk to each other directly, get to know each other, and that I get to see pictures of where my paintings end up in peoples’ houses. That feels a lot more meaningful to me.
But the most meaningful and personally satisfying thing I do is teach. If I could only choose one, teaching or painting, I think I’d choose teaching.
How about you?
How comfortable are you with selling your work, your time and your knowledge? How much does not being comfortable with – or good at – selling keep you from doing what you want to do full time?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one.
Best wishes and thanks for reading,
Subscribe to Learning to See
Subscribe to get updates on blog posts and free webinars