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.
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.