Marketing for Artists

written by Sophie | Art Business

Art marketing (for artists) has a huge market. There are lots of books on the subject, and in my early years I read quite a few. Many are full of good sensible advice. Some are dating quite fast as they don’t take the unstoppable rise of the digital world into account. Others are still very valid today. I’ll recommend a few under this article.

There are numerous online marketing courses for artists available online. I have looked at a few of them. I even signed up for one. Some even promise 6-figure incomes or gallery representation, a solo business that brings eternal riches.  Many apply the same marketing strategies to art that are familiar to anyone who knows anything about marketing in general.

Burst Bubble

Most artists know very little about marketing. I didn’t have a clue and usually went on my common sense. But over the years I educated myself a little: I read books, followed marketing gurus on social media, read blogs and spoke to other artists. If we find the right sources we might learn that it can be useful to have a website and a mailing list. We learn how to approach galleries (and how not to approach them), we figure out what to do about vanity galleries, and how to protect yourself from dodgy gallery owners that don’t pay out after a sale. Some of us keep a database of work, dive into limited edition prints or pet portraits. Most of us realise sooner or later that making a living from just selling your art is pretty difficult. (See also this article)

I used to see these amazing artists, who are clearly very good at what they do, hang out at the great galleries. They have thousands of social media followers, appear in magazines, they have solo shows and get awards: they were where I wanted to be.

After years of hard graft I can finally join some of them in their world, and I realise that most are still struggling with the business side of things. They don’t earn a ‘living’ from selling their work. Another bubble burst.

Living the Dream

It is only the very few who make it to that special place. And to be able to make it to that special place where you can earn a living from just selling your work, you must fall into a certain category of artists; artists that produce a lot of work (and I mean a lot!), or artists that somehow manage to command extremely high prices for their work, or artists who can command and handle numerous commissions every year. And even for them it remains difficult (how some artists manage to earn an income from just selling art is a topic in itself, for another time).

Fact is that the vast majority of artists live from income that does not come from selling their art. They teach (often art), they are dentists, engineers, or office workers. Many have partners who support them in every way, including the finances. And yet they don’t consider themselves hobbyists.

‘Marketing for artists’ is a massive market. Artists get lured by that promise of a 6-figure sum (hey 4 figures is fine too, just any income would be nice, I can hear you shout) and many of us sign on the dotted line.

Shopping Baskets and Sales Series

In these courses we learn about funnels, mailing lists, scarcity, websites, shopping baskets and email sales series. I did. And as I have a nerdy side to me I could skip the mailing list and website stuff. I got all that. I love building a website. Been blogging for 15 years or so and have a mailing list going back at least that long. Those things will not make you earn a living, I can tell you that! But it can help.

So I learned about the other stuff. Funnels and webinars, SEO, lead magnets and sales copy. And the more I learned the more I saw that most art marketing sources offer exactly the same thing. They offer tried and tested marketing methods from other sectors, and apply it to the world of artists.

Because most artists do not come from the world of marketing, it is all new to us. But as soon as you read a few more books and look at a few more blog articles and courses, you realise they are all offering the same thing. They simply apply the common current marketing techniques to art marketing.

And that is where it falls on its funnel face, so to speak.

Funnel Your Art Away

You could, if you really wanted to, consider my paintings ‘a product, and my studio a business. Yes, I have income. I have expenses. Etcetera. But my painting isn’t really the same as a piece of software, an innovative tin opener, or a felt hat. I cannot predict how many products I will produce in a year or in a month. I cannot outsource the manufacturing of it. I cannot upscale production. I could (I suppose) calculate the cost of materials that go in a painting. But how to count the hours of labour? Does lying in bed thinking about it count? Sitting in a corner of the studio, staring at it? Who counts the hours anyway?  And surely the value of my painting cannot be expressed in the hours of labour. Perhaps I should just up the hourly rate, to express the value of my creative process? This ‘product thinking’ is starting to grind already.

Seeing your art as a product (with profit margins) is taking away some of its artfulness. Mind you, there is nothing wrong with doing that, if you want or need to do that. But I find it does take away some of the unique characteristics of an art business. It simply is like no other business. The product is like no other product.

Making it ‘all about the client’ (a common marketing phrase) inherently clashes with original art, which comes from deep within you. ‘Repeating what works’ (heard that one often)  goes against the creative process. ‘Hanging out where your clients hang out’ is disingenuous, and working your ‘cold leads’ down a funnel feels manipulative.

Art is Unique

My paintings are full of me. You put your own creative ’something’ into your work. That’s why people love art; it is special, it is not like any other product. It is something else altogether.

And so the usual marketing methods do not apply either. I am not saying that we can’t have a sale event now and then. By all means, we all need a studio clear out at times! I am also not saying that traditional aggressive marketing methods can not work for some. And I am not saying that some marketing knowledge is not useful. Realising how marketing works can be incredibly worthwhile.

But for some reason or other, bombarding your clients with repetitive loud messages about your amazing art just doesn’t sit right. A burger business or chain of supermarkets could perhaps do that. But it would make my art look tacky and bullish. We’d expect little else from the supermarkets.

Not all marketing sources are this bad though. There are an increasing number of marketing voices going against the aggressive grain. There are those that pick and choose the good bits that are applicable to us artists. One example is to tell stories. To share why you are doing what you are doing. To share your passion and simply be the best you can be and create the best you can create. “Start conversations and the conversions will take care of themselves” I heard a sensible marketing guy say recently. He is right.

Using your creativity to market your art surely is the way we should go, instead of general marketing formulas that take the art out of it.

I am not sure what that means either.

But our art is unique and deeply connected to ourselves. Our art is made for an audience that gets it and loves it just as much. Surely, somehow, that should be the starting point of any marketing.

I have vague plans to write more about art marketing and want to do more research into artists that make a living out of their art and the very many artists that don’t. It seems that the market for art marketing is perhaps bigger than the market for our art and many artists are taken advantage of.

Be Careful if You Want to Take a Marketing Course

There are many ‘experts’ and ‘gurus’ trying to tell us we can live the dream (ie be rich) if only we follow their marketing methods. They all offer the same aggressive marketing techniques, dressed up in a Ted Talk about mindfulness, the ideal client and other seductive talk, that might have worked for some big brands, but that will take the artfulness out of your art and turn it into a product like all the others.

Part of this blog post is a warning to all of you fellow artists.

There are art marketing courses out there that offer hefty affiliate commissions to their students. For them selling somebody else’s course is more profitable than selling their own art. I was in a course like that. I won’t name names. But I see artists endorsing this course on social media, telling their friends it is an amazing course. They conveniently leave out the part that they get a 4-figure sum for every ‘friend’ that signs up. That’s more than many of us get for a painting. Their ‘love’ for that marketing course is completely muddled up with this ‘I-can-now-pay-the-rent’ fee. So be careful when you sign up for a marketing course. Many are great, but some prey on the ‘starving artist’ that is desperately looking to pay the rent.

By All Means, learn some Marketing

Yes, an artist should learn about websites, mailing lists, and how to run a business. There is lots I should have learned much earlier than I did. But I think I should have learned from the start that making a living from selling your art is only for the very few and even if possible it will take a lot of time. And that in order to do that, many of us (not all!) might have to sacrifice something that you might not be willing to sacrifice: your art.

If you need to make money in order to have a roof over your head, go and make some money somewhere. It’s all good. Whether you use your art to make money, whether you create derivative products from your art to make money, whether you find another job to make money: it’s all good. I am not judging. But just know your choices and why you might opt for one over the other. For most of us, the myth that we can make money and stay completely true to our art should be truly busted by now.

So I am back to where I started: in online forums with fellow artists; at the easel painting. Sharing what I do and learning from others. But now I know a little bit better why and how I work. My art is my art and is meant for those who love it like I do. I welcome new people who feel the same about my art with open arms (of course). I will try and market my art in the best way I can. If I can help others enjoy their art journey I will. I won’t lie to young wannabe artists by saying we can all live off our pastels and oils. If I can bust some stupid myths on the way, I will.​

What do you think? How doable is it to live off just selling your art, without sacrificing some of that artfulness? Leave a comment below.

Published: April 16, 2019

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  1. Thank you for your tips and comments, however I’m Interested in a book or online course dealing with marketing of the art "in general" (Not selling my art), specially paints.
    Do you have any suggestion about it?
    Thanks in advance

    1. Not sure what you mean by ‘paints’ but I’d suggest checking amazon and googling it. I am sorry I can’t recommend any!

  2. Great stuff. Thank you.
    I guess you could say I’m one of the many who have books and products for artists. (I’ll resist the temptation to use this comment as marketing for them).

    What I think is most important is that artists find something, anything, that they can feel as though they are comfortable associating their name with a style of marketing, and an approach that feels right to them. Lots of things out there tend to be over the top for most artists. But it does not have to be, therefore don’t let marketing stop you from finding your marketing voice. You don’t need to be a screaming car dealer to sell.

    Because marketing isn’t natural for most of us who wield a brush or pastel, or slap clay, know that it does not have to be overwhelming. You don’t have to do it all. All you have to do is kick the can down the road a little bit, then kick it a little more. A grand plan isn’t critical (though helpful). Think of it this way… you only need to get the anchor 1/4 inch off the bottom for the boat to move. Little things can add up to big results. But doing nothing leads to no results.

    You’re doing a great service and giving good advice.

  3. This is certainly an interesting subject. Even more, it is an important subject if you want to make more art, because making a living at it means that you are full-time. Full-time is more intense, with more customers collecting your art giving you feedback with their reaction.
    I have been a full-time professional artist for fifty years. I sell my paintings and prints myself and through dealers etc. I have tried and survived quite a lot of different ways to sell my work as the markets have changed. I have my own websites, I blog, I have written a couple of books about it. I have sold paintings by hanging them on park fences in London, I have gone door to door and sold paintings, I have paid to do trade fairs and art fairs. I have hosted Artists Open House exhibitions for many years. I have been abroad and exhibited in many other countries. And now I embrace the internet.
    My message to my fellow artists is don’t give up, choose and use established marketing knowledge from inside and outside the art world, and don’t be ashamed of using at all the complexities of business survival.

  4. Hello Sophie.
    Thank you for this great article. It raises a lot of interesting questions for us artists.
    I think that our modern times is full of people that thrive on making other people take unjustified risks. Those who sell marketing courses for artists and promise earnings should be accountable for that. Unfortunately, our times is full of these kind of people, auto-proclaimed experts that have never been there themselves.
    Our modern times are also responsible for the fact that few artists can make a living out of their work. Though I don’t think it is linked to their skills or number of works they produce. It is purely luck. Of course some of them are talented. I’m not denying that. But who gets chosen to be on top, that’s luck.
    And there is proof of that not only in art but in lots of other domains. It is has something to do with what mathematicians call the Pareto law.
    I’d love to discuss this subject further with you and other people interested in changing this situation. I think if artists unite their forces, they can come up with creative solutions.

    1. Thank you for your reply. It’s good to hear you enjoyed my article. I think that some of the artists that take ‘these type’ of courses might actually end up earning money, but like I wrote, they might well have to sacrifice something else for it. There are marketing courses for artists out there that are not so bad and truly aim to teach artists some decent basics. It’s not all bad, is what I am trying to say. But I did want to warn artists that some are bad, and to stay alert to that.
      I don’t really think it is luck that makes some artists more financially successful than others – but that’s a different topic altogether. I think there are a number of factors that make some more financially successful than others. I hope to do some more research into this some time.
      Thanks for your comment! Much appreciated.

  5. Hello Sophie- I am wondering what is that green thing with somebody’s hand over it? Just kidding. Many people never have seen a typewriter. I’m pleased that I read about your thoughts and concerns. Your a “good” person; your wisdom will protect you. I’ve searched for the meaning and purpose of making Art. ( From books.) I just keep returning to the Cave Paintings. It started with telling a story for others to know. Communication with others. Nothing has changed. The Art work of today is the Artist connecting with his or her viewers. I grew up in Wisconsin, one of the States. I look at the paintings and feel at home. You talk about money and Art. I have another goal. I am 68 years old. So many people pass on between the ages of 73 years old and 77 years old. I am hoping family and friends will bring some of my Art (that I have given them) to my funeral. I am hoping that Great grandchildren, not yet born, will be encouraged to make Art. That’s better than some “green paper”. I will be remembered. Tim

  6. Thank you Sophie for publicly stating what many of us think about the manipulation of artists. The practices you highlighted encourage and promote very bad art, confusing the public who want to invest in original artworks, and then by simply making it a marketplace for cheap and affordable art, force more meticulous and talented artists to rush and produce artworks that are below their own personal standards that they are not pleased with. This is soul destroying. Unscrupulous promoters give the impression to customers that certain artists are difficult or not very good, if they can’t extract promotional fees from them to promote their artwork, which is just awful, not considering that the artist has to eat and pay rent, and buy art materials and find the time to paint. ‘Being an artist’ has also become a retirement project for many, with cash to splash, and the real artists either give up, or do what they’ve always done, starve in a garret. I’m sick of the formulated abstract art that’s everywhere too, but people are buying it for good money. The public are confused, as they go to ‘see’ and ‘look’ at an art exhibition, or to get ideas for their own art, the intention to buy art, or to support or make a donation to the maker is hardly ever, if at all there. The more disposable income an artist has, the more they can effectively ‘bribe’ people to promote them. I’ve seen critics ‘persuaded’ by artists. Publications printing flattering paid-for articles, etc. Some young female artists are even exploiting themselves in skimpy clothing posing in front of their art on social media, in the hope of a sales. It’s so sad. Overseas online artists are also in effect ruining the serious UK artist’s sales. Also, exposing too many bad practices can get an artist blacklisted, as if they’re not paying to participate, or making promoters money, or if they are not respected, nobody in the art world cares if they dissappear. I don’t know what the answer is, but I know we need to bring some exclusivity and well run galleries, good promoters, informed customers, better pricing and overall higher standards into the art world. Saying that, some people really love to buy cheap and simple art. We’re all told that the art market is financially solid and expanding, but we can all see why, – cheap originals are replacing reproduction prints. BUT it is a free market, and as long as artists are viewed as self-serving, self-indulgent, self-gratifying, time-to-waste painting pointless stuff jobless attention seekers, who don’t pay any taxes (and they usually don’t if it’s a secondary income to them) this exploitation will continue I think.
    This is just some of what I’ve come across over 30 years or so as someone who’s studied art, trained as an illustrator, diversified into other careers and come back to art again. Best of luck to us all.

  7. Thank you, Sophie, for sharing this.
    It took me many years as a serious painter to accept that, for me, in the current market, my art sales weren’t going to make a living.
    I took a similar path to you, Sophie, learning how to build websites, ecourses, and marketing funnels, and found that I enjoyed tech and general marketing but still could not/cannot bring myself to use it the same way for my art self. It just doesn’t fit.
    A good test of art business consultants and marketing courses of all kinds is to see how the person selling it- the top personality- is making their money or how they made their first money. Most often I cannot find their initial art/writing. Usually they were a struggling artist who made money only after talking about and selling how to make money to other hopefuls. How to sell selling makes money.
    I agree with you that marketing and business savvy is no bad thing. I’ve been immensely helped by it, and while it’s true that paying for something can force one to take the value of the education more seriously, before paying a lot for something, do some research on when and how the “guru” started to see those shiny, big numbers roll in. From their art? From their capitalisation on the hopes of artists?
    Sophie, one of the activities that impacted me most was that you teach or taught small groups in your home. Even if you no longer do that, it really struck me that it was okay, even beautiful, to accept that our craft at a certain level often has a very small but sincere group of painters that want to learn and that leasing a huge studio didn’t have to be the only way to make it happen.

    1. It’s funny. In the blogging world there is a similar thing: loads of bloggers make lots of money teaching others how to blog. But many never actually blogged about anything else then ‘how to blog’. The ‘capitalisation on the hopes of artists’ is nicely put. Indeed.
      Small groups is the nicest way of learning and teaching I think. Teaching from your own kitchen/home studio is also a very practical choice: as all materials are there. But yes, they were nice groups and I hope to get back into that some time in the future. Thank you Thimgan, for your kind and thoughtful reply.

  8. Thanks Sophie, excellent article. You have saved a few hopefuls from losing a pile of money. I know so many fabulous artists, some make a good living, but so very few, it’s the art market! It’s either there or it isn’t. What would make great sales is a culture that values art and artists enough to offer basic support for their work, and a public that values a uniquely created piece above much of the flimflam they sprinkle their money over. Oh, we all wish it were just a matter of painting your love and then having a wonderful admirer waiting to take it home. Most artists I know teach/paint. sometimes sales. What’s most important is to not measure our success or failure from sales. And women always have to keep in mind that the road to success is pretty much blocked for them, while 50% of artists are female, they only get 20% of gallery representation and a tiny fraction of major shows or solos. If we can’t be seen, or get media coverage, we can’t get the value of our work in the sales we make. I believe the stats that women artists make $.40 to the male artist’s dollar (I can check that). We can even look at the numbers of followers on social media. It’s the women who follow, the men have the big numbers. The deck is stacked against fame and fortune, but it doesn’t mean we can’t make the best art. Thanks for being a voice Sophie. It’s so appreciated.

    1. Thank you August! I appreciate that.
      I suppose different cultures value art in different ways but it is rare for a culture to value it so much that artists can all live and prosper 😉 . And indeed, I don’t think anyone would measure success on sales as we’d all be depressed! LOL No artist every became an artist to sell art. You say true but sad words about women in art. We still have a way to go! thank you, August, thank you for being a voice too.

  9. Hi Sophie. Thank you for taking the time to write this great piece. I remember when, having found myself working, almost by default, in what was in reality the sales/PR game, I heard this buzzword ‘networking’. For me, I came to know that this entailed a lot of what I considered to be two faced behaviour and making ‘contacts’ for no other reason that to sell them something. Even if at times they couldn’t afford it nor maybe wanted it. However I also learnt that as soon as you get into that you are effectively competing. Competing with the “mark” and competing with others trying to sell the same or a similar product. The one who’s best at the bull gets the sale. Does the best music sell the most? But I accept there can be no judgement. Everyone has their own journey. For some, this stuff can be done in their sleep. For me, it took too much to silence the questions and the nagging. Thanks again. By the way, talking about affiliate sales, what brushes from Jackson’s would you recommend as I start my oil painting journey? For 10×12 and 8×10 to begin with? 😉

    1. LOL, your last question made me laugh. Thanks Larry, I totally hear what you are saying on the marketing. Indeed, I also felt too much nagging and had to silence the questions. But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are other ways! As for oil painting brushes – ah, tricky question, it depends on what you paint and how you paint! Have a look at this post, it might help. I’d definitely start with just a variety of brushes so you can explore what suits you best.

  10. I so appreciate the information in this article. Last year was the first year I considered myself a professional artist because I began to sell some of my paintings. And then, of course, the next step is realising that one has to market one’s art if one really wants to sell more than a few paintings. I have received quite a number of marketing course invitations and actually was about to sign up for one. After reading this I will investigate a bit more thoroughly and also re-explore the need for me to take a course or, instead, put a little more energy into discovering things for myself. As a note to your endorsements, it is because of you I discovered and happily use Jacksons’ Onyx small brush for detail and also discovered Jacksons, my now favourite online art store. I live in Spain and until you mentioned Jacksons I was using an online store here in Spain. Jacksons offers so much more in supplies and their delivery time is outstanding. Thank you Sophie!!

    1. Hi Laurelle, thanks so much! Great to hear you found Jackson’s as good as I do. Wishing you all the best in your professional career!

  11. Spot on thoughts for me, Sophie. Our Art is personal and so our marketing has to be too – not some mass production splurge out there. Seems to me there are a lot of people targeting artists to make money out of US!!! And then we get caught up in the admin of marketing THOSE PEOPLE’s businesses. Good on you for a great blog post. Happy Painting!

  12. Spot on!

    I have nibbled around the edges of a few of these courses.
    Your article made me so I leased the haven’t signed up.
    It was only a matter of time.
    Thank you!

    The Art has to come first😎

    1. Thanks Ann! There are good marketing courses and books out there. Just be careful you choose wisely, especially when you part with money… that’s what I learned! 😉

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