In my many decades long career as an artist I have seen or participated with nearly every aspect of the art world. I have been a struggling artist who networked his way through the New York City art world and into the position of having a major museum show and minor museum shows. It is my hope that my words will provide insight to some degree and aid you on your journey.
What does success look like for an artist, what does fame mean to an artist? On the surface, this question might seem silly, but the answer is at the core of your journey as an artist, and it’s actually only an answer you can give. The question should be examined before trying to figure out “how do you make it” since how do we know we've made it if we don’t know what that means? Andy Warhol succeeded in fame and money, but it was his place amongst his artist peers that bothered him the most. One famous artist friend told me that he painted himself in a corner with his style of art and doesn't like to painting anymore. As you can see, even with “traditional success", we might look at our careers as being far from successful. Success is often equated to currency; how much money do you make? It is also measure by the pedigree of the establishments you show at. These one dimensional definitions of success are a sort of trap. For an example, what happens when you don’t sell art or have shows? I have seen artist friends who question their self worth and the validity of their work when their careers come short of expectations. Most of us who make art really love making it, and yet we allow the mercurial business of art to taint our dreams and vision.
Granted, not many of us care to be the Van Gogh in our own story either. In my personal life and career, success comes in many forms and is not an end result. Success is an ongoing mission, especially because I define success in tangible and personal ways. Success isn't these events tied with money or the market, but rather based upon personal milestones such as when I developed a solid discipline. My success comes from a place of real achievement, tied to my abilities and drive.
It is rare for a living artist to get mainstream fame on the level of a celebrity. The last artist to achieve this level of fame was Warhol. There are artists who find mainstream press at moments, such as installing a public work or when their work reaches a high watermark price. However, it is more often that your mainstream success will only happen in review, after your death. The level of fame that most will achieve in their lifetime is a more milder form. I have a number of friends and acquaintances who have reached higher levels of fame and command huge prices for their art, yet even those who are educated in current art affairs wouldn’t know their names.
What "making it means" is different for many artists, there is not one definition. I knew an artist who works and sales art in a tent all day, every day. He claims to clear around $2000 a month. He is doing what he loves the most, and can survive. To this artist, he has made it. As far as my friends go, one artist told me, it is when you can make your yearly income selling as few paintings as possible. He wanted to be at a place where he could make three paintings a year to get his yearly income.
Wanting more is something most of us are guilty of, but we shouldn't be blinded by what we don't have to be able to appreciate what we have earned. Many artists who “made it” did it much later in their years, such as DeKooning or Jackson Pollock, or didn’t make it at all until after their death, like Van Gogh. Artists can change directions, make new discoveries, and improve their work, but if you give up, you certainly won’t make it. Art is very subjective, and some artist are far beyond the bell curve in terms of vision. People may not be ready to understand what it is you’re doing. The famous story about the birth of Cubism is that Picasso had a painting everyone hated so he turned it to face the wall for seven or eight years. The painting was the first Cubist painting.
Times have changed in interconnectivity and cultural values. There was a time when poets, artists, writers, scientists, inventors, and etc were our cultural heroes, a space that is now occupied by film and rock stars mainly. If one looked at fame in context of the time, it’s easier for an artist to reach fame in a nation the size of Texas, with nationalists who are all concerned with the reputation of that small nation. How many cities did Klimt need to reach to become famous? Between one or two? Be reminded that in the time before mass media, the competition if you were an artist from France was not with the global art world, but rather artists painting within the nation of France. Our art scene is now global.
Ultimately you have to decide when you have made it, when you are satisfied with your level of accomplishment because the industry might not give you any satisfaction. Personally, when I first believed I made it is when my work meant something to other artists. When artists wanted to study with me and I began to be treated like a leader without trying to be one.
HOW TO MAKE IT
The first question most people ask is “how to make it as an artist.” I don’t really know the answer to this question, as there is no magic formula. As a young artist I was constantly reminded by those far more established that I needed to pay my dues. Which essentially meant, I needed to go through the struggle of finding my own way and making it happen on my own. I heard it enough times to where I began to see it as code words meant to remind me of my freshman status. In truth I was proactive in making the best moves I could in my own career. I was out there paying dues daily. You do need hard work and a drive to make it.
Create opportunities. If you live in a location that doesn't have a robust art market, where can you create opportunities? Many artists' first challenge is that of location. Being part of a gallery scene in a major marketplace by attending shows is the best way to create opportunities. Not only will it create opportunities, it also develops friendships and peers, exchanges inspiration and allows for growth in our own works. The more regular your attendance, the more chances to mingle. This will get you more noticed, allow more conversations to take place, and given enough time, the more people will get to know you. Each person is a potential asset, but more importantly, they are some of the few individuals nationwide who values art and culture. These are your potential buyers, fans, and supporters. It is best to be understated, humble, and not pushy, let people find out about who you are, don't push it onto them, remember, if everyone knows you're an artist, they already know you most likely have an agenda, like getting representation from their gallery. The more people get to know you, the more curious and open they are. But don’t make it obvious or pushy. The idea that you are an artists needs to be relayed to others in an almost passing way, otherwise you will seem too eager and look like you have an agenda. In the art business it is about personal connections, social networking. Gallery hop, talk, look, give positive opinions such as, “this gallery always shows inspiring artists.” Or talk about your favourite show you attended there, “did you see the opening of Shane Van Pelt’s work last month?” The gallery you leave the biggest impression with most likely will want to give you a show because now you’ve become friendly. This also opens up doors. Gallery goers might inform you of galleries looking for artists, might tell you of a cancelation of a show and to talk to the owner asap. It could open the way for studio visits.
Keep the cards of the galleries and people who offer business cards in a rolladex or pasted into a book of contacts. I have a book filled with cards I taped in and some of those people I knew are working at some of the biggest galleries in the world or became well known gallery owners. Remember that lowly gallery attendants might end up being directors one day.
Another way to get into the business is by sending your work to various galleries that already show works that is kindred to your own art. But be prepared for lots of rejections. In my own experiences of trying to get a gallery as a younger artist I got a yes for every ten inquiries I sent out. And also do things to set yourself apart. I would send out packets of work with miniature replications of my paintings mounted on foam board, so the gallery could hold in their hands a small copy of one of my paintings. And that totally impressed people.
What I have suggested is a very hands on, feet on the street sort of way of breaking into the business. I know that there are prestigious shows that help an artist career, such as the Whitney Biannual, and I do have experience with that. I used to do the huge Outsider Art Fair, an invitational only show for dealers or gallery owners, and it gave me unexpected press, lots of sales, and exposure.
Finally there is creating an online presence. When I first began making art one could only submit slides to galleries. I was constantly trying to convince galleries to allow me to send digital images, which obviously is now the standard, but at the time there was a hesitancy to change. The digital medium has become important and having a webpage and social media platforms is very important, which you most certainly should do if you haven’t already. I must have been one of the first artists to have a website since I was “online” before there was an internet, through BBS’s (Bulletin Board Systems) and then AOL and Compu-serve. I was quick to learn HTML and JAVA and was very active with promoting my art online. I made sales (including to The Beastie Boy's record company who disliked the painting in real life, a testament to the fidelity of web image qualities back in the day). However the problem of being online was the level of saturation. As soon as people knew you could basically have free advertisement or connect with a subset of society online, the amount of pages devoted to a gallery or one artist or another grew beyond measure. It’s as easy to just become a virtual needle in a haystack.
Without a doubt the tools to promote your work and get it out there is in your hands as never before. But what does that actually do for your career? The progression of your career has little to do with the dollar amount you earn, but about "exposure" which really is the word on every artist's lips at the end of the day. But exposure to the greater art world, not just those looking to find tote bags with your images on it. Your goal isn't to make millions of dollars since that is the effect of proper exposure. You want galleries to give you shows, for journalists to write about you, to be noted for your style. One must succeed online and with the real world industry of art.
I want to reiterate one point I made in the beginning of this section, the importance of living near an art market, or at least being close enough to where you get to know the specific markets. NYC sales more art than the whole world does combined. Think about that. But there are artists who do well and launch world wide careers from other locations too. Most states will have a town or a city that has a bit of an art market, and some places will have very robust art markets despite their quaint size.
Logically speaking you cannot sale a product in a place that has no demand for such a product, so if you make abstract art in some "down home" place where everyone has a deer’s head mounted above their fireplace, don’t expect to succeed. Companies spend a great deal of money into market research, so if you haven’t researched your potential market place, you’ll start at a disadvantage. It’s always wise to know where your work would fit in before you make the effort to court that gallery.
BUT WHAT IS ART
I don’t believe anyone has the right to tell another person what art is or isn’t, and we are not going to be covering the meaning of art or personal tastes. We are not going to talk about what constitutes good or bad art.
Art is a journey of various types. It is a journey of personal growth, of technical growth. A journey of self discovery, and one’s relationship with the world. The greatest work of art you will ever make is yourself. It is a career path that is linked to an individual’s dreams and identity. Not all dreams come true or might fail our expectations, which could be damaging for some on a personal level. I have a friend who's art I would like to buy 90% of his output after a certain year. His art is amazing. Yet he nearly gave up as he began to see his dream fade. Instead he changed and became one damn good artist with a vision.
Ultimately art is a business, a business that centres around luxury goods that many people cannot afford, and those who can afford your art, how many of them would think about buying a work of art before a new computer system or TV or car or take a trip? Your pool of buyers economically are slim, and those who would think art is an important investment is even more slim. You are trying to sell art to the needles in the haystack.
The art world is a competitive market. It is also filled with big personalities, especially the higher up the food chain you reach. Many of the top gallery owners and curators become a type of celebrity. There are many dreamers who climb over one another to become the camel going through the eye of a needle.
Becoming an artist is to follow your dreams, and the world is not always kind to the dreamer. We also cannot expect quick returns on our dreams. I was six years into my career when I questioned my future as an artist. To make dreams come true, one must hold on to that dream. This doesn’t mean that you have to suffer for your dreams. Having a viable way to support yourself will be important because art never starts off being a profitable venture. Chuck Close told me in the beginning of his career he subsidised it by being a landlord.
Because it is so hard to become an artist it is important to develop a critical and honest assessment of not only your work but also your motives, are you trying to get shows, to progress art, or is it more like a hobby you're passionate about like Winston Churchill? There are those who want to be taken seriously but simply have yet to develop their own vision of what their voice is. Most of us, including me are not terribly good until one day we reach levels of excellence. The rule of the learning curve is that you reach an apex, then you plateau, and then you dip some before the next apex. There is a fact that no one who is creative wants to hear, that you might not be good enough to make art your career choice, and not many people have the level of self criticism or honesty about what they make to see the flaws in their own work. Certainly my first Bob Ross like paintings as a teen seemed fine to me and my mom. They were a step above paint by number kits and certainly had zero passion. Many artists think whatever they do is art and stands as a masterpiece. I have experienced this, and I do think it's part of being a younger artist, where you make something that looks neat, but really it's silly. Sometimes it's not art, it's just parroting some concept of art you've learned or admire. The real key lies within you, your experiences and emotional well. The only way one can make art a career choice is by pushing past your comfort zones, into places you don't know.
I have to make this note, Bob Ross was not an artist. He was taught a method of painting that was never put towards a vision, but only a narrow vision. Anyone can paint like Bob Ross, but only you can paint like you, if your true self and vision is laid bare. Good art takes risks, and one of the big risks we take is by removing the paint brush from the outward, like nature and portraiture- things we can see, and moving it inward to yourself, your experiences, your flaws and fears.
One thing I tell artists I mentor is that the world doesn’t need another Dali, they already had one, what they need is whatever your last name is and what you bring to the age old conversations in art. So you can be an artist who is derivative of Dali or Warhol, or some other artist, or an acolyte of more original artist, or you can be your own master and develop something the art world actually has a use for, a new vision. A new aesthete. Your vision and aesthete.
Ultimately what art is you will define, but keep in mind it is an ancient conversation between those who have come before you, who inform you through art that resonates with you, and a conversation with the present and future of art. You are part of that conversation, if you make your voice matter.
A note about finding your own style:
As a young artist, what "having my own style" meant was such a mysterious concept for me. I couldn't understand it in an intellectual way. What it means is that you develop something unique to your own art. No one could really explain it to me in such a way that it formed a lesson, like "this is how you find your own style." If someone could instruct you on it, it wouldn't be unique, nor would it be your own. For my own style I experienced what I would call "gateways" that lead me into my style. First was writing words on my work. Then I began to allow my mind to drift into repetitive motions which underscored the power of the subconscious in my own work. I began to make changes to allow me to respect my natural creative being. My mentor, my uncle Armando Alvarez, would always say that in art one must destroy the sacred, which he meant those perfect pieces of the painting. For an example I was very good with realistic figurative art, so my paintings would have elements of realistic hands or feet. It really didn't go well with what I was trying to achieve. He was specifically talking about how I work so hard on the hand, and that hands represents my comfort zone, my highest level of achievement. When to really make the painting I want to make, to make a good piece of art I needed to destroy that image- "the sacred", and be comfortable in doing that to get past my comfort zone and into new territory. It was a good lesson but also opened up a new gateway, destruction. I got to love messing up the stuff I worked so hard on, to deconstruct it and then reconstruct it.
I’m going to give you some very good advice about materials.
The adage, “you get what you paid for” is quite true with art supplies. Obviously there will be many readers who are at various levels in their journey to becoming an artist. By now I am sure many of us have tried the cheapest brands of material, and some we know is junk. Some products such as oil or soft pastels do not resemble the professional materials. The quality can be so far off that it could turn you off from a specific medium simply because you got the wrong impression due to the lack of quality with cheap materials. I was turned off water colours due to using cheap hobby kit like water colours. Even brands that pass its products as professional may be far from the actual mark.
The only way one would know what to buy is either testing products themselves or getting advice from more experienced artists. Reviews do help, but can be misleading if the reviewers are not professional artists or don’t have much experience with different brands, such as the case of the reviews of Rowney Georgian oil paints, which are glowingly positive for a brand of paint that no artist except a child should be using. I was really surprised that there was not more negative reviews, however those negative reviews were pretty damning and matched my own experiences using this brand as a young artist. I have had this brand of paint crack and chip off. When you layer your paint, there are conditions where the top layer will not bond with the lower layer. It is not a paste, like oil paint usually is, but more liquid. This means you need more of it than you would with more professional grades to cover the same amount of space.
To be frank with you, most professional grade supplies are just as good as another. I use allot of Old Holland, Bloxx, Williamsburg, and other very top of the line paint, however I cannot honestly say they are any better than the far more reasonably priced and more common brands like Winsor Newton. You do not need to buy new paint, you can buy quality paint second hand, or even damaged tubes. Ebay is a good resource for used and barely used art supplies. Often there are paint lots you can buy of quality brands. Grumbacher and Winsor Newton are the most common supplies you’ll find. The online store of Dick Blick is very good and often has sales and clearances. Hardware stores are where I go for all my odourless mineral spirits, large bristle brushes, and other items. I go to fabric outlets or wholesalers for linen or shop Dick Blick for canvas sales. When you are buying from fabric places, make sure you buy the thick linen. The thinnest I would use is known as upholstery grade (or I am pretty that’s what it’s called). You can get twice as much or more linen for the same price of a small roll from an art store.
If you are starting out or lack money, the student grade of paint is fine. Make sure it is one of the top brands, Winsor Newton makes a very good student grade. The Blick brand is very good from my understanding, however I have never used them. The student grade I most used as a younger artist was Utrecht who partnered up with Blick, but at one time you could only get Utrecht in NYC and region. Utrecht has up their levels of quality in current times, and I liked it when I tested it out. What I said previously about the coverage for the cheapest brands should be understood. You will find that a higher pigment and finer oil quality brand will go further, so you might spend 8$ or so for a student grade quality brand, but really need 1 and a half tubes to cover as much as one tube of professional grade paint. Still, I wouldn't suggest buying professional paints until the funds open up for you and only when you are at a level where you feel devoted and will stick with the discipline of painting (otherwise you'll be selling your lot of paints on eBay).
I don’t want to get into the “acrylic or oils” conversations, but it is common enough to where I will say that either type of paint is fine depending on how you paint. The paint choice is really a matter of preference in according to how you paint. If you are used to instant results, apply the paint thick, have lots of textures, covering large swaths of canvas in blocks of colour, want to finish the painting quick, then acrylic might be best suited to your needs. However acrylics are flat, have far less values in their colour than oil, although you can add value by underpainting. In some ways acrylics are less and more flexible in terms of their tones. It is a good idea to be more deliberate about colour selection and where your brush work is located with acrylics because it dries fast and is less flexible than oils in that regard. There are far more mediums you can add to acrylics like tar gel, sand pastes, or polymers of various consistency and effects. Oils on the other hand has deeper colour values, the longer drying time can be shortened with mediums. The longer drying time is useful for people like me who like to experiment without the paint setting, or who works on sections of a painting for more than a day. You can use oils over acrylics (once acrylics dries), but you cannot put acrylics on top of oils (you actually can, but it could peel off or not be fastened to the under layer properly due to the drying time of oils).
Acrylic smells bad, and to some people oils smell bad too. Oils are not poisonous like many people think, people often mistake the oil in oil paint to be some petroleum product when it is a plant product, actually most commonly the flax seed which flax seed oil is edible and consumed. However linseed oil is derived from the flax seed using a different process and often has additives that are harmful since it is used in many industrial products. All acrylics are poisonous. The base, a plastic based polymer is harmful to humans.
Which medium should you use to start with? I honestly couldn’t tell you because again it is about how you paint and what you wish to achieve in the end. I think learning from a traditional base and expanding out is always the wisest choice. My first paintings from high school I made with oils, and it came easy. When I became a professional artist I started painting with acrylics, the drying time appealed to me and it is what my mentor used. However it dried too fast, and was really difficult for me to use. I found oil paintings more to my style and pace of work. The more I knew about the practical side of applying paint and using a brush and other tools like pallet knives, I no longer had the same issues I first did with acrylics, now I use both. Even so it took me a long time to learn to deepen the tones with acrylics, which comes pretty automatic to the use of oil paints.
Do you need so many colours? No, actually I would not buy a bunch of colour variations. I would stick with the primary colours and slowly build up a set of paint over time. If you really want to know your colours, you will experiment and study colour charts to create your own mixes of colours. You will find that your ability to make colours on your own, once you have it down is far more superior than store bought colours. I love my first colour schemes in my earlier paintings because they were made with the basic colours. They are unique. I own every colour by one brand in particular, but I find myself still making my own mixtures and rarely use most of their colours. There are colours like sepia that are wonderful to have, or carbon black, or silver. So there are specialised colours that I do use, but mainly I use the basic variations of yellow, green, blue, and red. The variants will make your colour mixture different, such as using French Ultramarine versus Cobalt blue. Play around with colour mixture, learn online about how to make colours.
I will also make my own paints, especially if the manufactured tube of paint costs lots of money. One colour I use, the tube of paint would cost me nearly $300. I won’t get into making your own paint since you can learn about it online better than I could talk about it here. But using pigments and the oil of your liking certainly is a cost effective way to broaden your colour schemes.
If you apply the principal of mixing your colours, you will find that buying four tubes of quality paint is not as expensive as buying lots of colours in the student grade of paint. My first set of paints as a professional was built up slowly over time. I would buy a tube of a different colour with every pay check.
In terms of brushes, you have more flexibility in the quality of a brush. Cheaper brushes that are from good brands will wear out, but cheap brushes from no nothing brands, like those you get in economy packs may have a tendency to shed on your paintings, leaving hair stuck to your painting. Brushes are something I have had to experiment with, and find just buying cheaper ones are better although I have to replace them more often. I own very expensive brushes too but rarely have need for them. It is easy to not care for a brush properly, and so with expensive brushes, it can be a costly mistake, whereas a cheaper brush you can throw it away without too much pain. One thing I have made mistakes with is in using brushes designed for water based mediums with oil paints, which will fray the ends.
One last thing I will say about the quality of different mediums is that the more expensive the material it is, as a younger artist without much money but wanting to experiment more, it was very hard for me to want to even use that expensive material, afraid I would waste it somehow. In some ways going cheap for experimental use is the smart choice. It’s far easier to waste an 8$ tube of paint than a $16 one. It’s easer to start a painting on cheap canvas than expensive linen.
When you reach a certain level I would advise that you use better materials. Upgrade to brands you like. I tried most brands of professional paints. Ultimately I have found there are some brands I like for one reason or another, while another brand is better for another reason. Is there a best brand of paint? I do think Golden is the best acrylic paint I have ever used. For oils, I couldn’t give you a best brand. I could say that for the money Winsor Newton is great, as is Holbein (although their caps utterly suck and often get glued to the tube of paint), and Gamblin. The brand I mostly use is Sennelier, but theres allot of Old Holland, Micheal Harding and Schmincke.
In the end, as you become a more seasoned artist, you will have materials you prefer for whatever reasons. You’ll find your preferences through trial and error. You will educate yourself on the materials and their uses. In the end you will be an expert at your craft and all that is associated with it.
PRICING and EXHIBITION
a. When should you have a show?
There are some concepts you need to realise before you sell art. The first is recognising that you might not be ready for a show yet. As an artist we all have this desire to “get our work out there” and are eager to have shows. Usually a new artist will have to create several bodies of work over a few years to really know what they are doing. It took me six years, although at the time I thought I did know what I was doing.
It is very wise to not show art until you are absolutely ready for it. You want your introduction to be the best possible. One alternative you can do is invite people for studio visits or studio shows where you have the power to turn canvases to face the wall if you don’t want people to see them, and they will understand that what they are seeing is works in progress. When you are ready to show, I hate to say this, but don’t trust your judgement. In your mind all your art will either be very good or very bad. You’re too close to it to be objective. Have your friends chime in about what they think.
b. What to expect at a show?
Having a show and what to expect varies from gallery to gallery, art market to art market. Having a show is an expense for both you and the gallery. If it’s a month long show and if you make no sales, the gallery has a business to think about, rent to be paid, insurance, staff, etc. You have to frame, transport, be there, which depending upon how far you are from the show, can be an expense. Framing alone, if you don’t do it yourself or bargain shop for frames is a huge expense. Cleaning, repairing, repainting or staining second hand frames is the best idea. You can pick up these frames for cheap and they are often plentiful. There is advertisements, literature, and food to consider. Who pays for that? The gallery or you? And if the gallery doesn’t provide these services, does it make sense for you to foot the bill? There are times when a gallery owner will work with you. They will pay for advertisement, you’ll pay for food and drink. There are times when a gallery does everything for you, and times when they will do nothing for you but give you walls to hang your paintings on and make sure the lights are all turned on.
Having a show needs to be done right depending upon the marketplace. The bigger the marketplace, the better the gallery, the more perfect the show should be. I am at a point in my career where I am asked to have shows fairly frequently in places that know me. However the expense, even if I make sales might not balance out favourably. My shows need to mellow parties. I pick the music, get food and drink. I play host. When professionals are throwing shows for me, unless it's at a museum, I don't attend and are not involved in the show other than providing my paintings.
I should mention there are galleries who are “pay to play” galleries. They prey upon the dreams of artists who don’t know better. This isn't to be confused with juried shows where one pays a submission fee, or co-op galleries. You should never be asked for money to show somewhere.
I helped fund and run a co-op gallery in Gallup New Mexico, Art 123 (not my name). I have mixed feelings about the co-op gallery system. Rarely will a co-op gallery will actually help your career unless you are looking for some extra money on the side of your "real job." Some co-ops can actually help your career, but that's very rare. The "Alleged Gallery" in NYC which was featured in the documentary “Beautiful Losers” was a co-op that made a splash due to the curator, Aaron Rose.
Co-op galleries are common in places without a big or profitable art market. A co-op isn't as concerned with sales because membership fees keeps their doors open, along with grants their non-profit status allows them to apply for. They are often more community orientated, and sometimes the only creative voice in a town or region. I certainly believe that co-ops serves a purpose. The downside of a co-op is that they are not often professionally done, especially if artists run them. The mentality of a co-op will not have the business mentality of an actual gallery owner who's main thought is about how to keep the lights on and making sure rent is always covered (artists don't always have business minds). So sales are not the main agenda. A co-op would most likely think about starting a community class where their artists can share in tuition fees more than they would of promoting their artist's own work in venues that can bring in more sales.
Not all artists have the money to pay membership fees, and especially in places where the co-op is the only outlet to show and sell work and mingle with others interested in arts and culture, fees can prevent community and professional experience. The artist cut out of the group might actually be an important artist one day. When I was faced with being a co-director of a co-op gallery I suggested we- the various directors pay for the gallery and not the artists, or at the very least create a “grant” like situation where we didn’t say no simply because that artist didn’t have the 50$ monthly payment or whatever. So if the co-op is truly community minded, they will bend a little when they see poor young and enthusiastic artists wanting to participate. After all, galleries need cleaning, to be staffed, ads need to be designed, etc, so maybe a trade can happen?
The show you will have at the higher levels, the gallery takes care of everything. They probably will even want to set your prices. Let them! Unless you really have a problem with it. They know the market better than you do. The higher level galleries also have contact lists of patrons, collectors, reviewers, etc. If you find yourself having shows on the higher levels, don’t blow it. I had a friend who was having a huge show with two other artists (which both artists became famous, and one became very famous- R.C Gorman). One artist was openly gay, the other was not gay. By the time the show was ending for the night and people were slowly trickling out. The gallery wanted photographs of the three artists. My friend, now drunk off his ass says something about standing next to "faggots" and that ended his career, literally. He was elderly when he passed away but was barely out of his teens when this happened and never would be offered shows like he once had been offered as a young man. It was really a shame because he was carrying on a traditional Spanish form of Jewellery making and was a master of the craft.
There is no room for negativity in public spaces, under any conditions. Behave yourself at shows, and don’t drink too much, it takes down your guard. If you need a drink or fume, do it after the show with your personal friends.
I have been involved with shows where I look at the paintings hung next to my work and think, “what the fuck!” But I keep my mouth shut and say to myself “it only makes my work stand out in a positive way.” There are galleries, actually quite allot that has no taste at all. There was a gallery recently in a big city that asked me to have a show. The gallery had gotten a lot of press, and so I was interested until I saw the other artists they represent and declined. You don't always have a choice, like with group shows, but do try to keep your work in what you think is in good company.
c. What is pricing?
Before we get into pricing your work we should understand what drives prices for the work. If you are an untried and new artist, your work will not be priced high. Since the gallery selecting you has to attempt to make some money off their business, they might reject you simply because they already know you’re wanting too much for your work being a totally unknown artist. If they really like your work and you, they might try to modify your expectations and ask you to lower your price. I have been in situations where a gallery will actually raise my price drastically, by three times what I was asking for it.
When I began getting representation, my art dealer has a concept of “real pricing.” I don't know what it actually means, he never explained it although I asked. But from what I could tell it is a slow and steady growth that is not too much or too little. Sometimes this is trial and error. You sell paintings for 1000$, you raised it to 1200$ and now you’ve made no sales, so you bring it back down to 1100$ and people start buying again. There are games that those who sell art will do, such as devaluing your art, which happened to me once. I had a dispute about my prices and refused to let my new batch of paintings go for the price the marketplace wanted, so the director placed one of my paintings in an auction that sold for something like $200-300. He attempted to cut $1200 of growth and value in one swoop in an attempt to quell my demands. The sale still comes up as one of my values of my art online. He did such damage to my pricing when I was already basically subsidising my own career by accepting the prices I was from him. How this hurt my career is that whenever gallery X is considering me for shows, they google my name and that sell comes up. Now they must consider if I am worth their time or not based upon a false $200-300$ price tag.
While I do not know how “real pricing” is calculated, my feeling is it’s about gut feeling and what the market will bear. Personally I do not know how to price my works in any qualifying method that actually is fair to either me or the consumers. And have always felt it is arbitrary to even try to figure it out. But even so, in the next section we will learn ways to establish a price for your work.
d. How to price.
Pricing is a struggle for both the gallery and the artists. It is a balancing act that is neither good for the artists, the gallery, or the consumer. Everyone gets cheated ultimately. When you reach a level where your paintings go for tens of thousands of dollars, then this equation changes. Everyone is getting what is fair, assuming the consumer is wealthy enough to spend tens of thousands of dollars on one painting. But at the lower levels, you are attempting to turn water into wine, get blood from a stone, etc.
And not all artists truly understand what is means when a work of art is sold, there is a type of entitled feeling that the artist has, rightly so. They made this work of art, it has value in their eyes, and so it's worth is whatever they believe it is. I have seen new artists sell equally sized paintings for $700 and $10,000. Who's painting do you think sold? The $700 one did. If a gallery cannot sell your art because you have an inflated idea of what it's worth, then they are operating on a loss. They have to cover the rent, utilities, and labour. Enough times of losing a month to no profit means the chances for that gallery to remain open decreases. If your work is price at an unreasonable price, especially if you research the market you are in, then you just wasted your time and resources to have a show that ultimately was more about your vanity and self esteem than a wise business choice.
And if you are a person who happens to buy the work at it's inflated price, you might be sitting on something that looks nice in your living room, but will never increase in value because the artists never came to anything, or their prices never rose higher than $10k. You risked a good amount of money on a mysterious outcome.
I’m sure we have all heard that if you under price your work, people will not think it’s valuable. That’s a myth. The tendency is for artists is to either over or under charge for their work, and to be honest, what is your art really worth in the eyes of others? How do other artists price their works? I have seen three ways that artists price their work. By size, by hours, by emotions (what they feel it is worth for various reasons). I know artist who calculated his price by square inch, I know artists who keep track of their hours. How I do mine is based upon past sales records. So if I sold for 5000$ for a year, my next year's prices will be based upon how much I actually sold. If I sold one painting for $5000, it would be risky to give myself a raise. If I sold six or seven paintings, I might wish to give myself a slight raise, no more than 240-500$. If I sold the majority of what I brought to market, then I will increase the price from 500-1000$.
This is to say I price my work based upon history and performance.
Knowing your market is a the key. I have had shows in areas that I knew could not afford the higher prices for my paintings, so I made smaller paintings or allot of works on paper, or other such works that I could let go at a lower price, saving my core works for a better marketplace. Allot of artists will not differentiate between one market from another. In more humble places, your prices might insult the gallery goers. That's happen to me, "who does he think he is?!" Well... I'm someone who sells art for just under 3000$ for my smaller works. The gallery I work with increased the prices by their commission, so now the painting is just under 5000$. Sorry....
My involvement with a gallery on the business end in a robust art market proved to over price their work, however I never understood where this idea came from. Certainly when one compared work with other galleries, we were spot on in our prices. But because the gallery was new, was doing things wrong despite my advice being ignored, their solution was to claim everyone's prices are too high.
The larger the market the bigger the pool of people who can afford higher prices for goods. The smaller the market, the smaller the pool of people who has that kind of extra cash. So know your market before you price! You will be competing with Ipads, ear buds, TVs, holidays, watches, and etc. Stuff that people use every day. They might not see the sense of laying down lots of money for art.
The two questions you need to ask when pricing your work is, will the market bear it, and do you want to make sales? How find out if the market will bear it is by going to other galleries and comparing price ranges.
The question of prices are different when you are more established as an artist, when you have sales history, but for new artists, you need to keep prices low to build a price record. Alternatively you can price your paintings near or at prices you feel are fair and also offer cheaper goods like sketches, drawings, woodblock prints or etchings and the like, to balance things out. I think the first five years of my career most of my sales was from works on paper rather than my canvases, not that I didn’t sell my paintings, but that I had so many drawings that I priced from $10-$50 that anyone could afford them.
What affects your price the most is your experience as an artist, the more experiences under your belt, the more your art will be worth. The marketplace wants a healthy commission, so you need to remember that your ultimate price will have a 35%-50% commission on top, and might mean the difference from a sale or not, the market may not bear a high total price, although your work strip of commission might be fair. One article I read suggests a total sales price of $5000 for an emerging artists in NYC, which would make the base price around $3700 or so. I'm very bad at math. But it's a fair approximation. Almost every artist seems to misjudge 50% as being 100% commission. So they will calculate that their art for 5000$ of the other half of that 50%, making their painting sell for $10,000. But 50% of 5000$ is $2500.
If you have made it into a show, ask the gallery owner for advice on how to price your work. Let them do it, they know the market better than you do. Remember they are taking a risk, and anyone who buys your work is taking a risk. You might be a teacher in two years and never again make art. Your direction might go off somewhere the collectors and galleries don’t wish to follow. You don’t have an actual value yet, and so in showing you and buying your work, people truly are taking a risk.
My own career is not so much a lesson for you to follow, I really don’t think one could emulate my career even if they wanted to. My career was a product of lots of drive, I mean I was always walking the streets of NYC, going into galleries, collecting business cards, talking to attendants and owners, or sending out packets of my work, always lining up shows and connections. I have a great personality and many friends in very high places (famous friends actually). And that helped me allot. Also I had an ability to be very honest with myself about the limitations of my work, so I was willing to change when things were not working out for me. I also didn’t want things fast, recognising that for the trap it is for a young artist. If you get well known at a young age, you usually don’t progress stylistically. You just keep making the work that you know will earn you money, soon the point of making work isn’t for art sake but for money.
If I had things to do again, I think I would be fine with the way my career went with one exception. My early success made me try less harder, success was very easy for me, so I had reached a point where I was more than willing to let others take over my business while I painted, and although it’s reasonable to want to focus on your art and leave the minutia to others, that was a huge mistake. If I had stayed on top of things, I could have mitigated certain problems that would arise. For one example I began my career as a pastelist, and one of the ways I used the medium, as one art dealer said, they have never seen anyone combine these two mediums in the way I did, and was utterly impressed. Yet my dealer was not interested in my pastels, never sold them or tried, although I did ask a few times. When I did start selling my pastels, instead of asking, I just did it. I sent my pastels to two gallery unconnected with my network, and I ended up making hundreds of dollars a month off of my pastels. Also I had to battle to keep my prices up, which had I been more proactive in my own career, I would have never been in that position. By the time I was involved, my prices were in a state where I needed to play catch up. The Outsider art markets didn’t like that, but my other non-Outsider markets didn’t blink and eye. I went from selling a painting for $1600 to $2800 over night.
I wasted many years listening to professionals or trying to change things but never pushing too hard. Once I did start pushing for my rights, people began to play games, and I literally asked myself, who are these people who have been in my life for as long as they have been?
The NUMBER ONE TIP I can give you:
There is one piece of advice I think is wise to heed. If you want to sell art, you have to have your work in places that sell art. You have to be in an art market. Being in an art market gives you face to face access to those who will be most interested in arts and culture.
I know this has been a long section to read…. I hope I have been informative enough to make reading this worth your while!