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Clara Lieu, RISD Adjunct Professor

Selling Your Art

Clara Lieu
Art Prof & Partner

There is now a multitude of options for selling your art, many more than existed a few decades ago thanks to the Internet. You have to troubleshoot which venue is most appropriate for you and your work, as different venues will provide different results. My suggestion would be to experiment with different venues and see what works and what doesn’t.

A large factor of selling art is marketing and promotion, so keep in mind that creating work to sell is just half of the process.  I’ve seen artists with mediocre work doing extremely well because their work was aggressively promoted the right way.  I’ve also seen some really wonderful artists who haven’t done as well because their work wasn’t marketed appropriately.

Below I list the main venues and opportunities for selling your work. Some of the venues below have a highly selective screening process, while others are open to anyone.

Oil Paintings by RISD Adjunct Professor Clara Lieu

1) Selling online
Now with sites like Etsy and Ebay, selling artwork online is more popular than ever. When you sell online, you have 100% control over every facet of the selling process, in terms of setting prices, what you sell, etc. This can be great to have so much control over the process, but it also creates a lot of work for you.

I’ve had an online shop for my fine arts work for several years now and enjoy having the additional income. I’m not about to quit my day job any time soon, but I’ve had the chance to sell a lot of artwork that would otherwise be sitting in a closet collecting dust. I sell drawings, hand-pulled prints, digital prints, and sculpture, with the drawings and hand-pulled prints being the most popular items.

The majority of my work that I’ve sold on my online shop has been in the $30-$200 range.  I’m able to make a profit based on selling high volumes of relatively inexpensive pieces. This seems to work well online as most people shopping online aren’t ready or prepared to plunk down several thousand dollars for a piece of art.

The most challenging part of selling online is that most shop platforms are so saturated with artists that it’s very, very hard to get noticed.  You have to do a lot of marketing and promotion for people to even know that you exist, much less make sales. The amount of time that I spend maintaining my online shop pales in comparison to the amount of time that I spend marketing and promoting it.

2) Open studios events
Every major city will generally have annual open studios events for local artists to participate in.  Generally you pay a fee to participate and then everything else is up to you. When I was just starting out as an artist, I used to live in Jamaica Plain in Boston.  I participated every year in open studios. I didn’t have a studio in Jamaica Plain, so I opted to show my work at one of the group sites that they had for artists.  It was definitely a lot of hard work and schlepping: packaging the art, presenting everything in bins that were easy to browse through, pricing everything, etc.

Open studio events usually get a lot of traffic, and it’s wonderful to get to talk to people and other artists in person about my work-something that you miss out on when you sell online.  I priced my prints, drawings, and paintings in the $20-$90 price range and usually made about $1000 over the course of two days. I even got two major portrait commissions later from people who saw my work at open studios.  The audience is casual, mostly local people who are just browsing and making impulse purchases.   All in all, it’s a great event to do if you’re just getting started.  Like selling online, you get to control every part of the selling process at an open studios event.

3) Non-commercial art galleries
There are a lot of different kinds of non-commercial art galleries out there. There are galleries at academic institutions, artist co-op galleries, galleries at non-profit arts organizations, etc. Generally artwork is for sale at all of these different kinds of galleries, but in mostly selling the work is not the main priority of these types of galleries.  Non-commercial galleries will take a smaller percentage of commission, they usually take about 30% commission whereas a commercial gallery will take a 50% commission.

As far as how much you control, at each gallery you’ll likely be working with a curator and/or gallery director who will select the work to be shown.  Prices are usually set by the artist. Non-commercial art galleries are usually (but not all the time) easier to break into for artists. Most artists get exhibitions by having connections with other artists, curators, and gallery directors. That’s certainly the quickest and most direct way to securing an exhibition, and curators and gallery directors like to work with people who they trust and know.

However, I’ve gotten shows at non-commercial galleries just by contacting the gallery director and submitting my work to them. I once got a solo show at an artists’ co-op gallery just because I had entered one of their competitions.  I didn’t win the competition, but they liked my work and asked me to apply for a guest artist solo show. Many artist co-op galleries require membership, in which you pay a monthly fee and are guaranteed a solo show at the gallery every two years or so.

Sculpture & Mezzzotints by RISD Adjunct Professor Clara Lieu

4) Commercial art galleries
There are commercial art galleries at all different levels.  There is everything from the small, local gallery to high end galleries that are at the top of the food chain in terms of selling art.  At these different kinds of galleries, clients can range from people who want a painting that will match the color of the sofa in their living room all the way to powerful clients who purchase art for their personal art collections or for the sole purpose of donating the art to a museum. The major advantage is that a commercial gallery’s primary objective is to sell the art. Commercial galleries have an established audience and clientele, and they will do the marketing and promotion for you, which can be an enormous advantage.

One of the drawbacks of commercial galleries is that you will probably not have much control over the kind of work that you’re showing and the prices. At the beginning of my career before I knew better, I once got into a heated argument with a commercial gallery director over the pricing of one of my oil paintings. Remember that commercial galleries are focused on selling, so they will sometimes exert pressure on artists to show certain kinds of work. One of my colleagues once told me that when he wanted to switch from making his popular city paintings to something else, his dealer “had a heart attack”.

The more prestigious the gallery, the more difficult it can be to get into as an artist, and even more challenging is to get representation with a gallery.  In general, most artists get into commercial galleries (especially the high end ones) by having an artist who is represented by the gallery recommend them.  Most galleries refuse to even consider unsolicited artist submissions.

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5 responses on "Selling Your Art"

  1. I think it’s great advice to beginning artists to at least have some work available at a smaller price point; regardless of the type of work you do or where you end up selling it. If you’re just starting out, you’re not going to have the kind of audience right away that will want to spend a lot of money on an unproven talent, so having some cheap prints on-hand in additional to your high-dollar paintings is a smart move! I would also suggest, even if you do go the online route, that you try tabling at a small art fair or open-studio at least once… At first it can be a really scary (and, honestly, humbling) experience, but you do learn a lot about how people view your work, what captures their eye, etc.
    I once spent hundreds of dollars printing copies of a graphic novel-length comic book for my first Zine Festival, thinking people would be really impressed by the size of the collection… It didn’t occur to me that people don’t go to that type of show looking to spend a lot of money, and so I only ended up selling two copies! I was devastated. Meanwhile, my friend who I was tabling with sold dozens of his cheapest book – which also happened to have a really dynamic and colorful cover (as compared to mine, which had a sparse, “minimalist” look). Needless to say, I haven’t printed a book with a black-and-white cover since, and all of my comics are priced “to sell.” If I just tried to promote these pieces online, this stuff would have never occurred to me!
    This sort of approach can sometimes feel a little crass, but ultimately this kind of feedback is great information to have, much in the way it’s constructive to get someone else’s perspective in critique… And much like a critique, you always have the option to totally ignore it!

  2. Selling work is absolutely it’s own can of worms, but with patience, persistence, and perseverance anything is possible. In the same vain as what Alex mentioned, getting out into your immediate community is a great way to showcase work in a very genuine way. Finding connections in your community allows you to become involved in your local art scene which can be an excellent way to sort out where opportunities are without feeling overwhelmed, plus you never know who you may meet!

  3. The internet is great when it comes to selling your art, but it still takes a lot of effort. Like Professor Lieu said, online shops like Etsy are really useful, but also a lot of work when it comes to promoting. I just recently started selling a few of my illustrations online, and I’ve found that attracting your audience and promoting yourself is just as important as having a desirable product! It’s something I never realized until I was actually doing it!

  4. Last year was the first year I really got into selling my artwork, and I had the opportunity to test out all of the venues listed here! I used to have some hesitation about being a commercial artist, thinking it would dictate my output, but at least at this point in my career, I’ve found that I have a huge range of flexibility, and can make different work for different venues and enjoy all of it. If you’re interested in selling your work, I definitely recommend diversifying both your business venues and your price points. Like Prof Lieu, I made a large portion of my income selling work at art fairs and open studios, which were all small dollar venues where I showed cards, prints, and drawings. I only sold a couple high dollar paintings last year, so learning how to sell small work at art fairs and getting my cards stocked at shops really held me over from one month to the next!

  5. When I first started hanging my work at local coffee shops, I was blown away at the response I got! Some offers to buy, some people hired me for private commissions, and sometimes people just shot me a friendly email saying they liked my work! Before hanging at shops I had a really weird aversion to it…for no logical reason I can think of! Even having one consistent painting at a shop has been a pretty constant shout-out to the community about my work!

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