For some of us it’s a mystery wrapped in an enigma. Why do people buy art? How do they choose? What motivates them? If I had fifty cents for every time someone has asked this over the past few years, I could purchase that new Bentley.
I once painted a Dalmatian that was jumping up and kissing a girl who was wearing a spotted dress. It wasn’t anybody’s typical subject. Over a period of twenty years I sent that painting to thirteen different galleries. Every time it came back I shipped it off again to somewhere else. I liked the painting. One fine day, surprise, surprise, there was a cheque in the mail and a note that caught my eye — Girl with Dalmatian, 16 x 20 — sold.
By telephone the dealer told me that the man who bought it had a Dalmatian and three daughters. This confirmed to me that one of the main motivators is simply “connection.” Look at it this way — paintings are on a quest to find someone. The darling things are just seeking a little love. And if they don’t give, they don’t get. It’s my feeling that for every painting, no matter how obtuse, there’s somebody. But if what a work of art has to give is pretty esoteric, like my Dalmatian, it might take some time. And art that gives less may take until doomsday.
Before I get ambushed for talking about “catering,” I’ll mention some of the other reasons people buy. It’s not that anyone has to pay attention to any of this — in some ways it’s a waste of energy — but these are the facts: People buy because they are sold — either by someone else or themselves. They buy because they want to enhance their lives. Because what they see reminds them of something. Because there’s a story behind the art or the artist. Because they want to get rid of money — sometimes lots of it. They want to invest. They need to make a gift. Their neighbors have something like it. They want to look smart, sensitive or clever. They want to have something on the wall. They already have a taupe chesterfield or a maroon Berber carpet. They want to encourage somebody or become a benefactor. Like a Bentley owner, they may just want to look good. And last but not least, they may actually buy because for some unknown, deep-seated, atavistic reason they can’t explain, they just can’t live without it. These last are the buyers you feel like jumping up on and kissing.
PS: “When you do a thing with your whole soul and everything that is noble within you, you always find your counterpart.” (Camille Pissarro)
Esoterica: Popular, mature artists often find the going gets easier. Collectors finally get the idea that they “need to get a Bloggs.” This is fortunate for Bloggs, who has paid his dues. These collectors, who tend to be the wealthier holdouts, may even pass up something better (and cheaper) by someone else, in order to get the Bloggs they now think they ought to own. This injustice is not lost on young artists. Youth has a wisdom that age knows not of. Age has a cumulative advantage that frustrates youth’s dreams.
Nuances of the sale
by Norman Ridenour, Czech Republic
I got a good laugh out of this letter. I have been selling wall and floor sculpture for thirty years, with up and down success. I go out of my way not to make it “nice” and a lot of it is highly socially and politically satirical. I subscribe to Picasso’s statement, “Art is a finger up the bourgeoisie ass.” You forgot one important reason people buy. In the western aesthetic, blank walls are frowned upon, the Zen ethic is out. So something is needed and it had better match the carpet, sofa or curtains. I have had potential clients show up in my studio with their swatches. If the colors were interesting for me I would maybe try to do something. If it was a pile of pastel crap I would send them away. In both cases they got my lecture on art outlasting sofas — even though I knew it was futile.
Clients fall into two major categories — (a) Those who know something about art and have a firmly developed personal sense of self and their own aesthetic. When selling to this group one only needs to fulfill their own “soul.” (b) Those who need to decorate. They only know they need something and if it can be personalized emotionally so much the better. But they will not buy anything provocative or different because they are aware of their friends’ reactions and they are not sure enough of themselves to stand negative comments which they will get from these doltish visitors. “What is that?” “How much did you pay for it?” “It is only the artist’s cleaning rag and you bought it?” “My daughter could do that!”
Generating the connection
by Luann Udell, Keene, NH, USA
Why do we make the work we do, and why do people buy it? Regarding your remark about “catering,” I feel you painted the Dalmatian and the girl because the idea appealed to you. And the buyer bought it because it appealed to them. This is simply connection. It’s up to every artist to decide for themselves how far they are willing to go, and how much they are willing to tweak their own vision, to generate this connection. There is just no one single rule about how to do that. It’s a road we all have to walk alone.
A gift to share
by Nancy Christy-Moore, Glendale, AZ, USA
Today’s topic serves to remind us all that fine art isn’t necessarily a “product” as much as it’s an intrinsic value with huge connectivity qualities. I have to constantly remind myself that the colors and shapes flowing through me are a gift given to me to share with others. Some will want to possess the images and others will be content to simply see them and feel the spirit they are conveying. But I have given something of value to the world. Someone once told me at the beginning of my artistic journey that there is a buyer for every painting and it’s my responsibility to that painting to get it in front of them. That I can accept that principal and continue this journey is a source of personal pride.
by Edward Abela, Markham, ON, Canada
Does price come into the decision? It would be interesting to hear opinions on this.
(RG note) Thanks, Edward. It depends on the market. Often in club and group shows and community hall art exhibits price is a factor and people will shop around for the best deal. In many areas, though not everywhere, these sorts of shows attract “bottom feeders” as well as legitimate bargain seekers. People who call on your studio can be in this mode too. On the other hand, commercial galleries may use higher prices as part of the mystique. In this sense represented art does not march to the supply-and-demand drummer that works for doughnuts. Further, in the investment art sector buyers expect to pay ever higher prices in the self-fulfilling prophecies that bubbles along in the name of “collectable art.” Bubbles sometimes pop.
Include the story
by Paula Christen, Winthrop, WA, USA
The selling of original paintings or prints seems to be a “package deal.” Most people not only want to own the art, but also want to “own” the story behind the work. It makes for great cocktail conversation at their home when they can retell the tale of the painting. After realizing this, my Fresh from the Studio email newsletter now includes not only the most recent painting, but also the story. Another artist friend puts a small printed card on the back of her prints that explains why she did this particular scene. It’s not catering, it’s connecting.
(RG note) Thanks, Paula. You can check out Paula’s system at Paula Christen Watercolors.
Selling with Art Circles
by Joe Jahn, Denmark
My wife always sees my paintings first, and for some she says, “Oh, I don’t like that.” Sometimes I revisit the painting and question its value, but most likely I simply say, “Someone will like it,” and send it off to one of the galleries. Then usually I have the pleasure of saying, “You know that green one you didn’t like? It sold yesterday.”
If the painting is good, and honest, there is no way I will ‘over paint.’ Some of my unsold paintings are 15 years old. They have just not made contact yet. For artists here in Denmark there is an old tradition of forming Kunst Foreningen, that loosely translates to Art Circle. These are people that contribute a small sum monthly and then have exhibitions of artists in local hospitals, schools and businesses. They purchase one or two paintings from the monthly exhibitions from the artists they choose to have exhibit. They have an elected board that chooses the artists they wish to have exhibit. It includes Bank Art Circles, Government Office Art Circles and large businesses. At they end of the year there is a general meeting of the Circle and a drawing for the art that has been purchased over the year.
The truth in money
by Carla Sanders, Hope, ME, USA
I love this topic. I’m gathering local artists to discuss the philosophy, religion, and business of art, and this is perfect material and I’m forwarding furiously! It reminds me of something Richard Feynmann wrote in his memoirs. The famous physicist sold some drawings he exhibited under a pseudonym, and was embarrassed by them. Then he realized that selling art was a way of making sure it went to someone who loved it enough to give up money for it. Whatever reasons are behind a person’s choice to buy, it is an unambiguous statement of desire fulfilled.
Most always made for someone
by Penny Duncklee, Las Cruces, NM, USA
When I was a potter in Tubac, AZ, I learned to wait patiently until the person I made the pitcher or bowl for showed up. I used to say, “I am so glad I made this for you.” Sometimes several pitchers would sit on the shelf in our shop out front of our home/studio for months before the person would show up and “absolutely love” the pitcher, or whatever it was. Because I did mostly custom work was why I learned that I most always made a pot for someone, I just didn’t know who for awhile.
I also think people are buying a lifestyle. They say something like, “I wish I could do that, be an artist and live in an artist’s community like you.” Then they would buy a pot, now a small painting. It gives them a connection to a dream.
by Lillian Tkach-Matisons, Calgary, AB, Canada
People who like high realism or bright colors usually walk right past my work without hardly a glance. Those who have become my buyers, however, are drawn to my work in a peculiar way. They walk toward my work, they skirt it, they come back as if drawn by some force, they leave, they return, they look at it from different angles, from a distance, close up, and they keep coming back until it seems they have no choice but to buy it. Their reaction to my work somehow reminds me of a ‘bird’s mating dance’. Those who walk right past my work without a glance don’t affect me. I understand that I was unable to “reach them.” I like to introduce myself and talk to the buyer who has just purchased my piece. Almost always, their reason is a very personal, emotional response to my art. I feel, somehow, that our souls have ‘connected’ and that they understand why I choose to paint the way I do.
Feeling the frustration
by Tanis Laird, Vancouver, BC, Canada
“This injustice is not lost on young artists. Youth has a wisdom that age knows not of. Age has a cumulative advantage that frustrates youth’s dreams.” Thank you for putting into words a frustration I have been feeling for quite some time. In an ideal world I would be selling my paintings to big galleries and reps. But in my case, theme, style and subject matter, I am not recognized in the mainstream. This makes it a bigger challenge finding a ‘niche’ or even the smallest amount of ‘acceptance’ in the world of successful art making and selling. So, instead, I am taking it into my own hands and doing it my own way… no matter how small that may be. One example is my own website. It’s a start.
Replacing the irreplaceable
by Mary E. Whitehill, Newburgh, NY, USA
Recently I was commissioned to replace a painting that was lost in a devastating fire that destroyed the couple’s entire house and all possessions. The one thing that they missed the most was the painting that they loved. They said they “couldn’t live without it.” It is impossible to duplicate a watercolor exactly but I will do my best.
Need to create
by Margaret Stone, Panama City Beach, FL, USA
Perhaps we are born with a need to create that is similar to our need to eat and breathe and it manifests in many forms. And perhaps buying/owning/viewing an artwork connects us through that basic and shared need to create, giving us a glimpse into another person’s soul.
Collectors’ letters like this one
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Coquitlam, BC, Canada
The painting of yours that we bought is not woolly whatsoever — it stands its ground in all light conditions. I moved it around the house and it stays beautiful no matter where I put it. We look at it often and never get bored of it — the colors glow and the composition just sucks you right in — we absolutely love it and we think that it was painted just for us. I feel that sweet surprise at the base of my belly every time I look at it. We went into that gallery to research potential representation for me, but when we walked in and saw your paintings, I knew that we would not walk out without one of them. Actually we knew ours as soon as we saw it. I wonder if you often get letters like this from your collectors? I never hear from mine and on some lonely nights I start thinking that they might be banging their head against the wall. Do artists typically hear from their collectors?
(RG note) Thanks, Tatjana. Written enthusiasm and further curiosity are much more common since the advent of the Internet. Email lubricates the interpersonal and we are all the better for it. You’ll get an email soon, I guarantee it. For the record, I’ve noted that the British and the Canadians tend to be the most reserved and not forthcoming. The Scots and the Irish leave you close to tears. Continentals tend to give nodding approval and a glimpse of their knowledge of the subject. Folks from the USA, on the other hand, can be all over it like a fat kid on a Smartie.
by Francois Ulcakar, Paris, France
I am a French watercolorist and have been experiencing what you write since I started to seriously exhibit 5 years ago. I’m looking for a method or a formula to price correctly my watercolors. Have you written something about pricing of paintings for unquoted artists?
The giclee trap
by Jean Morey, Ocala, FL, USA
I have found out this the hard way. I had 75 of my plein air paintings scanned and available in giclee form. They have been useful as portfolio and in small print for as gifts, but they don’t sell. It was natural for me as a published illustrator to expect this was a good idea. I know now that in “fine art” they want the originals and I am not very up on the know how to market these. I have three galleries that handle my work here in Florida and will be pursuing one in Wisconsin but I continue to work as an illustrator and at the present this work is also scarce.
(RG note) Thanks, Jean. At the present time there is an overcapacity in giclee production capability. All kinds of folks have invested in the equipment and are trying their darndest to keep the machines busy. Distribution of the print product is still the problem. I find giclees to be most useful where charities need to do a predictable run for a gift or fundraiser.
by Judi Gorski, San Francisco, CA, USA
I paint for myself and hang them in my home and invite the public in from time to time to see them. I do an annual Open Studios with the rest of San Francisco in October and am working on doing this twice a year by helping to organize my neighborhood artists to join me for a collaborative Spring Open Studios. A local store has 15 paintings on display for nearly 2 years and that has sent many people to me who have made purchases. On occasion I participate in an art show that is held in Golden Gate Park. I don’t go far from my home, which is a 3 story art studio/gallery and residence. I have sold a couple hundred paintings and giclee prints this way. I paint what I see (the beach, surfers and the life that gathers around my neighborhood). I paint what I want to hang up on my walls for myself and if no one likes or buys it this year or next year, it’s okay. The giclee printing process allows us to make prints as ordered, so we don’t need to be in horrible debt constantly to get the work out there and shown or to make a reasonably priced sale to someone who responds to the image.
Highly sensitive dogs
by Judith Madsen, Gabriola Island, BC, Canada
I do pet portraits. These hit on quite a few of the reasons you gave why people buy. I don’t charge a huge amount – $300 to $500 (Canadian). I had a man from Texas phone who builds dog beds, starting at $15,000 and up to $45,000 (US) and wondered if I was interested in passing his name out to my clients. When I phoned him back he was doing a quote for a $110,000 dog bed out of marble.
(RG note) Thanks, Judith. People pay that for a decent marble sarcophagus. I asked Dorothy if she’d like one and she said she’d rather go for a walk. Personally I don’t think she’s capable of discriminating between marble and terracotta. You can buy a dog but you can’t buy the wag of a dog’s tail.
Life on Jackson Square
by Dorit Pittman, New Orleans, LA, USA
I paint every day at my home studio and load up car and set up on Jackson Square in the French Quarter in New Orleans on weekends. And I kid you not, almost every weekend we have this very same discussion on why people buy art. I will print it out and pass it around. By the way, I’m looking for an inexpensive, (cheap) place to go to next summer, July and August to paint. I am not looking for luxury, one room with facilities will do. I need to bring my dogs with me.
To rescue or to chuck?
by David Sorg, Denver, CO, USA
What do you do with second rate paintings? Awhile ago you mentioned your friend George Lengvari fished one of your paintings out of the trash can and it became one of his favorites. My second rate paintings of today are better than my first rate’s of yore, perhaps better than trash, but not good enough for the galleries today. What do you do with ’em? Gifts to family or friends? Many of them wouldn’t know, or care, about the difference, but one dislikes admitting to them that it’s not your best work. A garage sale? Usually I just toss them with thanks for the lesson(s) learned and regret for not being able to see the failure(s) more quickly and putting good time after bad. But then, sometimes the rescues work quite well.
(RG note) Thanks, David. The one George found was a study and I thought I had finished with it but he hadn’t. Please take a look at the clickback The fine art of hanging onto dogs.
Dealing with commissions
by Robin Ann Walker, Dallas, TX, USA
You missed the boat on your answer to Pippi Johnson regarding her questions about contracts and deposits on large commissions. From a business standpoint, on a commission of this magnitude, my experience tells me that a written contract and a 50% deposit (or thirds along the way if it takes her a month like she mentioned) are a definite requirement. As far as supplies go, knowing that oversize canvas is more expensive, I would roll the additional costs into my quote up front. In my case, the contract would be in the form of a written quotation with the descriptions of the work spelled out to the last detail, including any special colors or imagery, the delivery date, and the payment schedule.
Often a deposit serves not only to protect the artist financially from a client changing their mind, it also tends to prevent a client from doing just that. There’s something about a monetary commitment that makes it harder to break.
As far as a presentation goes, I would do that in person with maquettes. And since it’s a very large image, I would do several sketches, and a color board with small swatches of the primary colors proposed. After the imagery has been approved (the sketch returned with the client’s signature), I would keep the client informed as to the progress of the painting via digital images. That way there are no nasty surprises when the painting is delivered.
The biggest painting I have produced was 3′ x 32′ and hangs in JP Morgan Chase corporate offices here in Dallas, TX. The latest large painting was 5′ x 9′ and is in a local hospital. I had to build a slant wall in my studio to accommodate that one.
Jock River, Dawn
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2005.
That includes Don Campbell who wrote, “A gallery in Seattle, Washington, had a painting that someone was interested in. When that person came back, after thinking it over, the check book was pulled out and the price was mentioned. The gallery owner said oh it’s not $20,000, it’s $2,000. At that point, the check book was closed and the painting was not purchased.”
And also Leo Bolta who wrote, “The Dalmatian jumping up and kissing a girl wearing a spotted dress sounds delightful. Any chance that you have an image of that painting available to view on line?”
(RG note) Thanks, Leo. I wish I did. That dealer evaporated and so did my connection. Sorry no photo either.