Recently I had an opportunity to watch people buying my paintings. It was a solo show where people were coming in and interacting in a friendly, social environment. By watching people’s faces, I noticed something I hadn’t quite seen before. Many buyers appeared to me to just glance at a work and make up their minds then and there. This blink-of-an-eye was of course followed by the regular rationalizations that buyers (particularly couples) go through when they’re considering something: “Is it too big?” “Where will we put it?” “How do you feel about it, dear?” At the end of my letter I’m going to tell you what I think triggered some of those instant decisions.
New research in neuroscience seems to indicate that advertising is most effective when some sort of desire synapse is triggered in a nanosecond. By covering volunteer heads with EEG sensors, using eye-tracking techniques and galvanic skin responses, researchers such as Dr. Robert Knight of the University of California, Berkeley trace the emotional roots of decision making.
In applying this stuff to art, it would have nothing to do with the sort of buyer who looks at a work and thinks he needs it because he needs to look smart or intelligent. Or the buyer who recognizes a farm he’s been on or a mountain he’s climbed. It applies to an open-minded person who simply and instantaneously feels good about something.
The advertising business (US$600 billion this year), dealing as it often does with visual stimuli, pays big bucks to people like Robert Knight to tell them what’s happening in people’s heads. I’ve never heard of anyone doing this in our business.
A clue to Knight’s thinking is his disdain for focus groups. By rationalizing everything, focus groups often come up with the “wrong” (and unemotional) decision. When you think about it, a couple anguishing over the purchase of a work of art is like a small focus group. Often as not they talk themselves out of it. At the same time, some works just seem to walk out of galleries. Are these works talking on an emotional level to the folks who can’t resist them? And what is it about these works that they can’t resist? No matter what type of art you’re looking at, at the top of the list I’d put “Unusually satisfying pattern.”
PS: “The brain makes behavior. If you can effectively measure the brain, which we think we can, we can give you information that’s not available through any other methodology.” (Dr. Robert Knight)
Esoterica: The brain, when instantly engaged, acts in an emotional manner — what we often call “heart.” Art in its higher forms is all heart. Sorry to admit this, but when I look at some folks in galleries, it seems to me that we are able to engage their hearts in the same classic way advertisers work hard to achieve: (1) You get their attention. (2) They become emotionally involved. (3) They retain what they feel. And it all happens in the blink of an eye.
Personal motifs win out
by Dar Hosta, Flemington, NJ, USA
I am thinking that a viewer’s response to a piece of art might just be the reverse of the artist’s, with regard to that satisfying pattern. Like many artists, I generally do not like what I am working on until at least midway through, until I’ve added all my own personal motifs. And one thing that, for whatever reason, I “must” put in is a circular, celestial body — whether it is a sun or a moon is often open to interpretation — or the work just doesn’t seem right to me. I hear, from my patrons, that it is often this very thing that draws them in. Perhaps my compulsion could be what engages them.
Dilation of blood vessels
by Marty Gibson, Scottsdale, AZ, USA
This painting inspired a buyer to exclaim loudly “I want that painting!” the moment he saw it. I’ve never had such a reaction and was puzzled about his instant and rather boisterous decision. When I asked him why he was so drawn to the painting he said “it excites me in a way that no other painting ever has.” The title of the painting is Ectasia: a medical term that describes the dilation of blood vessels — and the derivation of the word ecstasy. Maybe I’m on to something here!
Emotion lacking in US culture
by Kim Rodeffer Funk, Hampshire, England
I was trained in interior design… which should be an emotional response… but I have been slowly getting away from that since I found the very emotional work of painting. So many people do not like to admit they just like something because they do and so much they will find a place to make it work. Like much of education, they want to be told they like something and why. Think about it, in the US this is the way many of us have been educated. I know in other countries you are still encouraged to express yourself and support your reasoning, but that is sorely lacking in the United States educational system. So what is the answer? For me, it is to keep working from that place that feels right inside of me… But your letter also reminds me of an article I saw recently about how some research is showing that — gasp — the arts are helping with brain development and how the arts are important in education! Can you imagine? I wonder if it was a lot of focus groups which helped these researchers come to this conclusion.
by Ines Smrz, North Easton, MA, USA
The article about sales “in the blink of the eye” has been my experience in the over twenty years that I have sold my art through galleries. I have always called it “lightning” sales. I produce large wooden screen panels that are hinged to become a free-standing screen. In addition the images are sculptured to a 3D bas-relief. They are a tremendous amount of work, therefore expensive. The clients who have bought a screen have done so “in the blink of the eye.” They walk into the gallery and it is like lightning has struck them. The purchase, in most cases, is instantaneous. No amount of advertising or e-mailing can produce this effect. It is an instant, emotional involvement with the piece. I enjoyed reading this article because it resonated with my experience through the many years of selling my work.
The mystery of it all
by Gwen Purdy, Seattle, WA, USA
One never knows what it will be that grabs the art buyer, certainly it’s not always what you intended the art object to mean at least to you. I recently experienced that when I showed some of my collages to a friend, the one “she loved” was titled Marriage but it was a spoof of that. She saw only the sacredness and depth of marriage in it, as she described her feelings evoked. I was amazed. So I said, it’s yours. Anyone with that interpretation deserved to own it. We never know what the onlooker “sees” in our art. So each piece put out for sale is a gamble, for either a sale or for a different interpretation than you intended. That is what makes sending art out into the world such a fascinating reward besides the money earned.
Sensing a connection
by Sandy McMullen, Toronto, ON, Canada
Analyzing how to capture a viewer’s heart is a paradox. Perhaps when artists put their heart into their work, work from their passion, their strengths, their delights and the practice of their craft, people will be converted from viewers to buyers because they can see, feel, sense the connection. Artists are the guardians of this domain. We are the ones who help bring the wisdom of heart of emotion to others who have been trained by our society to only trust the rational, analytical response. Dance, music, poetry and visual arts provide a gateway for people to bring beauty and soul into their lives. Let’s reflect on standing in this rich territory as our beginning point so that we have a chance of having it come through us into our work for others to see. Whether an artist has a preference for the mind over the heart is not what matters. Allowing ourselves to express who we are in our work instead of trying to “figure” everything out from a marketing perspective is at the root of being an artist IMHO otherwise we would be in marketing. Marketing and sales of course must be addressed if we want to make a living at our art but it is not what comes first. Letting our passion show is viral and sparks those neurotransmitters in ourselves and others.
Fundamental human responses
by Patricia Ryan, Beavercreek, OR, USA
I think “unusually satisfying pattern” nails it, dead on. I have spent many hours trying to figure out why some very abstract paintings corral my interest for years, while others have absolutely no effect on me. When one grabs me, it evokes feelings that I can only rarely express verbally, but nonetheless are solid and memorable. It’s like a feeling of connectedness to something I need. Maybe the pattern of lights and darks, or the combination or patterns of colors causes a response in the brain that simply mimics patterns of stimulation associated with really fundamental human responses. Or maybe the patterns are stimulating a function of the brain that current science doesn’t understand or even recognize — some kind of non-verbal awareness. Not everyone “gets” truly abstract art, and those who do don’t like the same works. So the patterns may be individual.
The complete artist
by Terri Menefee, Royal, AR, USA
I grew up in an art gallery and now I teach and make art for a living. Yes there is something to this heart process in the purchasing tendencies. Here are a few other things to consider: Often a buyer will buy several pieces by a particular artist because they like the person with his or her story. It is always a good idea to be available for your buyers and share a story of the whys and how tos. Another point to consider is the social impact some buyers (not me of course) buy to be seen buying, or to show off, purchasing not for art’s sake, but for bragging (this buyer has all coordinating furniture and furnishings)… so as much as I would love to say pouring our heart (as we do) into our work, having a good story and a nice suite helps too.
Finessing your own sales
by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada
I am currently making pre-sales on my new show Fallen Angel. I represent myself, run my own gallery space, market and sell my own work and close all the deals. I think people are more savvy these days and buying directly from the artist gives them more of an experience. I have learned everything the hard way and made every mistake twice. I come from a family of stock brokers, so I seem to have some business sense. It has been my experience that Husbands shouldn’t buy art alone. They take a piece home after touring my studio and inevitably the piece comes back, with the wife in hand, to see the rest of the collection. I always look for what I call “The face light up!” This is where the clients face has that light bulb moment where they know this is their piece. I know then that the deal has closed and the client loves what they are getting. That magic moment where what you are communicating is what the client reads and there is that “esoteric” connection, but it is rare and fleeting. I always say, art is a luxury item and is the LAST thing people buy. Artists should resolve themselves to the fact that 90% of the population will not like their work and of the 10% left over only 5% can afford it. You got to sell like you don’t need the money! Sell with a velvet glove and if the deal isn’t closed within 48 hours, it’s not going to happen.
Emotion beats focus group
by Les Stones, Yorkshire, England
As a professional artist, and with 30 years experience the last 15 as a professional, maybe I should know why certain paintings of mine sell — and why others don’t seem to hit the mark, but I don’t. Your article made me think, as at the open evening of a group show I exhibited in this week, two men in smart suits were standing in front of and discussing one of my paintings. It was a small simple scene of sheep in the snow with evening approaching. Leaning closer to take a look, each in turn seemed to be pointing out certain aspects to his companion who nodded thoughtfully. It all seemed very business like, they seemed to study each brushstroke, analyze and discuss the composition — it seemed so clinical that if they could have weighed the painting and worked out a ‘paint to canvas’ ratio I’m sure they would have! Meanwhile, a lady approached, seemed to glance at the painting then walk on. The two men were still in front of and discussing the painting when a few seconds later she returned. Again she slowly walked past, peering ever so carefully around the men to be able to take a second look at the painting, and then walked off. A few minutes later she approached me, introduced her self and told me she had just bought the painting! She said that she just “loved the colours and the feeling in the painting, and had to have it” She seemed thrilled, though she had seen the painting only for a matter of seconds she knew she wanted it so bought it before the “two chaps who were in the way decided to.” I think her emotional response to the painting must have equaled the emotional response I had when I first chanced upon the scene when I was out sketching, and must have captured in the painting. It wasn’t the quality, size, or any perceived investment value of the painting she was buying — she just loved how it made her feel. She felt, and bought the ‘poetry’ in the painting, not a visual description of what sheep in the snow look like. Maybe that’s it, as a professional artist I have to sell what I paint, and if someday I am ‘painting to sell’ my emotional response is not there and will not come through in the finished painting. Some of my paintings have remained unsold even though I may think they are more technically proficient — they may describe the subject well enough, but not let people ‘feel’ it.
Balancing the brain
by Judith Madsen
I just did an 8-session, one week brain training to equalize the activity of my left and right brain spheres. The technology is only 4 years old, fascinating and amazing and it is because they can now directly measure the activity within your own brain, and coax less than active alpha, beta, theta, delta, gamma waves with music for only your brain that they have pre-assessed. I turned out to be more left brain than right brain, which did not surprise me. One session of 2 times a day for four days is what is recommended and then to wait 2-3 months for the new neural pathways to entrench. The concrete thing I noticed immediately was that my blood pressure went to normal, so no more hypertension! I’m not feeling depressed or anxious like I was before. I was hoping for less procrastination, but that I can’t measure yet. It was $1800 for all 9 sessions of 1.5 hours each) and I talked to so many referrals and testimonials that I was really excited about this new technology. I don’t mean this to sound like a sales pitch but I was very excited to hear the technology has developed to so accurately measure the brain using eeg-trodes run by a 9 volt battery. The technology is all in the amazing computer developed by Lee Geddes. You can even see brain chatter or when you blink. Really was fun. I managed to improve my brain balance 50% more than where I started.
(RG note) Thanks, Judith. Brain State Technologies can be found here.
The long spoon of mockery
by Jim Larwill, Lac Bussiere, QC, Canada
Like a boot torn by a dog I ponder the lives of painters, north window being light that guides a canvas world where a poet befriends landscape fashions of his time; my friend telling me his mother has died with less word emotion than my lover’s story of her gnawed footwear, each picture a lost passion in markets of style and form where acrylic colour and washes of grey water contend, frames twist and turn in a whirlwind of wanting while on they cling to humble hopes of art. In this dance of the pure I am their piper who pays their tune with quick laughter devil of divine nothing they offer me cash in payment of songs that sing silence to every image they blank from a world on to the walls where endless nails mark craft of smooth manufactured plaster, each board sandwiched between cellulose sheets screwed to 2×4 works of nature, creative grain sculpture — time hidden between spaces that light no longer penetrates, but still past shining screams out along threads of screws calling to forests timbered in acid free falling, paper bleached by leach chemicals, capital that brushes green to mills of sepia need as rivers suck the life colours out of hillsides bleeding brittle and dry, autumn now a blaze of burnings in a pastiche world whipping with winter storms of tanned cotton spun by a horse grinding bark on a tread mill, happy with the endless progress it makes (such never ending movement) bag on its mouth comfort as hooves march in open highways of its own shit circled, they stuff their mouths with oats as they fallow a carrot dangling. Like a dog kicked by a torn boot I ponder my own life knowing bitter mockery is the long spoon I offer the lives of painters who eager of any payment will take what they can get even when it comes from failure’s voice screaming sandwiched between their sheet of image radiant with didactic proclamations, I blow egos to wind until the balloon explodes with thunder and hot raiment’s melting my visions into brush strokes captured in their mind, now eyeless with ranting Cyclops poetry hungry knowing the north window is the painter’s window and poet’s carve words to numbing tungsten blades slashing lashes on backs of gallery slaves pulling on oars headed for the end of the world, an ocean of perspective that drops.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes A. Carole Grant who wrote, “I am a quilter. I had a solo show a few years ago now, and it was a very revealing time, both for me as a person and an observer of people. I made it a point to be available on Saturdays to meet and interact with the guests. Watching them look at, talk about my work was almost an out of body experience. There was more emotion, rather than rationale in the purchases.”
And also K.S. Harris of Italy who wrote, “I understand where you are coming from, saying that the first thing which touches you is pattern. But for me, the first thing that touches me is color and mood (I think). How do we know what is the FIRST thing which attracts us? So many things are probably happening at the same time. But I think I see color and mood first.”
And also Kordelia Kudelka of NC, USA who wrote, “I am currently in a small show, and when I found out I hadn’t won anything, I rushed through the rest of the show, looking at the pieces as ‘the competition,’ ‘how’s he/she better than me,’ or with disdain. Yesterday, I went back with a friend, and in better circumstances, enjoyed looking at “The Show”…so I guess mindset activates the shutter of the eyes, allowing for enjoyment.”
And also Claudia Lorenz of Saanich, BC, Canada who wrote, “I suggest revisiting Kumar and Melamid’s examinations of consumer desires in art production. Their conclusions are perhaps even more enlightening than Dr Knight’s.”
(RG note) Thanks, Claudia. Students of art, Kumar and Melamid, tried to figure out the “most wanted picture” of several cultures. In the US interviewing results showed a family, outdoors, by a lake, with some deer and George Washington, and was about 2 feet by 3. A native of Delhi India where he studied printmaking and painting at the Delhi College of Art, Shaurya Kumar graduated with his MFA from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in 2007. Kumar is currently an Assistant Professor at Bowling Green State University. Kumar has also directed documentary films on the painting traditions of India. Their research does not seem to be the emotional reactions of serious collectors so much as ideas of persons otherwise uninterested in art as to what they think are the best pictures.
And also Nancy Cook who wrote, “Have you read the book Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell? Quick thinking is what it’s all about. In that nanosecond we “know” something. We don’t always know why or how.”
(RG note) Thanks, Nancy. Yes I have, and I wrote a letter about it here. And it seems that when we try to put our decisions into words we get into the business of fooling ourselves and muddying the waters.
Enjoy the past comments below for Grabbing the heart…