My first painting sold for $35 and was my only sale at the show. At my second show I sold fourteen paintings and made $640. Fourteen paintings! I was thrilled because I paid my show costs and could buy paint and paper to keep working. The paintings weren’t amazing but they were amazingly cheap. Was it a good idea to start showing and selling so early? When is the right time to start?
Showing work doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be sold - I think these two decisions can be made separately. If you show your work you need to be ready to deal with an offer but there are polite ways to explain your decision to retain a piece or a body of work.
Preparing for a show can be a strong motivator, and motivation is something every artist has to master. I need goals to work toward so pulling together a body of work by a certain date always results in a productive studio schedule. And a productive studio schedule means I’m working regularly and MORE. Two good things, no matter what the reason. Working toward a show also prompts me to get a group of paintings presentable – finished, signed, varnished, matted, framed, ready to go out the door – an investment of time and money and skills that have to be acquired. In fact, my mats were so poorly cut at one point that a frame shop owner gave me a free lesson.
I’ve always felt my best work should be OUT of my studio. What is the point of it stacking up around me? I began with venues where my work would be treated with respect and had a reasonable chance of being appreciated - restaurants, libraries, a coop gallery, and local art fairs. While rotating work at this level, I began applying to regional art fairs, private galleries, and state watercolor society exhibitions.
Eventually I was applying to the top rated art fairs and occasionally I’d apply to a better gallery. I was also being accepted into national art and watercolor exhibitions and shipping pieces to art centers and museums all over the country. The beauty of this madness (and I emphasize madness) is that I would look around my studio and panic because I didn’t have many paintings – when actually I had forty or fifty pieces on view in different locations. Now you can see what I mean by motivation (or manipulation).
A strong reason to show work is learning to talk about it. The photo above is of my studio during Gallery Tour. Answering questions and explaining process – it can take a while to get the hang of it. Making art is an intensely personal experience and many of us internalize our process to the point that we have difficulty communicating or maybe we think we’ll jinx ourselves if we try to explain our thought process. Learning how much detail to bother people with and how much of ourselves we want to expose is important - and unavoidable. And it’s slightly off the subject but I love what I do and I’ve learned to enjoy talking about it. It took a lot of practice though – A LOT – so I recommend diving in.
Of all the things that can derail an artist, I’ve found that sales venues top the list. Selling as well as not selling can make absolutely NO sense in the beginning and even less sense with experience. The difference is that after years of experience, you’ll adjust to the randomness and take it less seriously. I don’t think there is any way to prepare for it except to not draw conclusions from your sales statistics until you’ve been presenting work to the public for several years consistently. If you are going to let one show affect you psychologically, then wait. And by the way, good sales can drive us in the wrong direction as surely as poor sales. Both are feedback that we shouldn’t take too seriously but OH, that is hard to resist.
I certainly don’t think that showing and selling work is something every artists must do. For some reason, from the beginning, I felt I needed to complete some kind of circle. I needed to do the best work I could and get feedback from it, then take that feedback and use it to make better work. I don’t think I trusted myself to be objective or maybe I didn’t trust myself to work hard enough without an incentive. And of course, I had quit my job and felt I needed to replace income to justify spending eight hours a day in the studio. Now that I think about it, that was a pretty strong motivator!
But every path is different and this is simply mine. :)