“Nothing is selling,” writes Ron Sanders of Fort Wayne, Indiana. “Last year I had my worst sales in years. What am I doing wrong?”
Ron is an accomplished painter. Ron gave me a list of what he thought were the problems — prices too high, quality needs improving, bad times in the market cycle, etc. At the same time he’s being juried into major shows, accepted for prestigious memberships, has a print contract and gallery representation. He prices his work by the square inch, and things are still lousy. Here’s what I told him:
I don’t think your prices are too high and I don’t think your quality is lacking. Paintings like The Soloist are really loaded with the right stuff. If I were digging for problems it would be that many of your paintings lack “distinction.” By that I mean they appear to be photographically derived without having a distinct feeling or style that sets them apart from the vast number of folks who copy photos. Secondly, your site is pretty darned wonderful. That may silently put off regular people — and dealers. Perhaps de-tune your site and take visitors right to your galleries and let your agents do the talking. You come off as an “artobusinessman” who will do what’s necessary in order to look good. My advice is don’t cater. Make your stuff a bit rarer. Also, your “square-inch thinking” may be part of the problem. In your quest for success you have taught yourself to paint well in a lot of genres: landscape, portrait, romantic, classical. This can appear insincere. Versatility, while commendable, is not necessarily in style. You might try following your true heart for a while if only to see what happens. Without worrying about what’s in style, I think you ought to scrabble deeper into the psychological values of the things you obviously love to paint. I’m totally curious to know what our colleagues might have to say.
PS: “I will paint for money any time.” (Winslow Homer) “Commerce is the great civilizer.” (Robert G. Ingersoll) “The market is the only critic.” (Walter Kirn) “Success is what sells.” (Andy Warhol) “Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment.” (Rumi) “Drink the greenness of the field.” (Mikhail Naimy)
The following are selected correspondence arising from the above and other letters. Thank you for writing.
by Elin Pendleton, Wildomar, CA, USA
Ron has a background doing illustrative work. Like most people with an illustrator background, he doesn’t have the connection to the public he craves to court. He’s been in a field where art directors separate the folks who do the work from the folks who purchase the work. So when he’s on his own, he looks at what is selling and duplicates that, because most illustrators are trained and honed to cater to a specific audience. And when the public is jaded with the subject then his work follows suit. He’s left with nothing but the knowledge that he can go forward once he knows what’s selling again. “No heart,” you said. A sad commentary on the field of illustration today and the cookie-cutter artists it generates.
Now here’s a contrary story to your message. I sell lots of paintings from my site. I paint from the heart and it shows in my work. Right now, I have 25 paintings listed and of those, five are already sold, and there are sales pending on three more. I keep my prices reasonable because I’m prolific. I also paint a variety of subjects, and read intently your message about that not being such a good thing. But in my case, my collectors (and they are repeat buyers!) know they can find the subjects they want, and ask to be notified when I “come around” to a familiar subject for their walls. The Internet has allowed a level playing field for most of us to present our art without the walls of a gallery around the works. But this is an asset only for those artists who paint what they know and love, and don’t follow the disguised muse that’s really only a false god of what’s selling. Poor Ron only exposes his focus on that muse.
Just a simplification
by Michelle George, Tuggeranong, Australia
I have a question for you Robert. Why do you think that a finely tuned website might turn off prospective clients? My first reaction to your advice to Ron to de-tune his website was annoyance. I felt as though the ‘de-tune’ would cater to the public’s view of artists to be somewhat Bohemian and sloppy and eccentric, and I find that stereotype mildly offensive. The thing that struck me with Ron’s website was that it is very “busy,” I really had to work to find what I wanted to see. The site pretty much overpowered his work. Perhaps a simplification rather than a de-tune would be in order. Having said all that… his work is spectacular!
(RG note) I find that a personal, understated, unslick, unglossy approach is enough to connect people and make permanent friends.
by Theresa Bayer, Austin, TX, USA
When I visited your website, I noticed that the paintings marked “sold” were mainly your landscapes. With the figure paintings, the ones marked “sold” were the ones that told a story and had the most emotional content. All of the paintings marked “sold” had strong compositions. Your violinist is a knockout painting, and I’m sure it will find a good home someday! Simplify the website, nothing is harder to read than white type on black. Conversely, the easiest to read is black type on a cream background, followed by black type on a white background. The most painless way to simplify your website would be to start by changing the type color and background color first before you re-arrange. Then if you need to simplify further, cut out everything that isn’t essentially your art with less type and more images. People like simple websites. The fewer clicks the better. Show a big beautiful image first thing. After all, you’re an artist, and the first impression you want to make is… the art! I think it’s too bad that variety is out of style with the public (I have that same problem). Fewer categories would lessen the perception of “too much variety.” All your figure paintings are essentially romantic, so just put them all in the Romantic category. Besides, the word Romantic is good. It has emotional content. Regarding painting from photos; somehow you have to get beyond the photo. A photo happens in the space of one second in time. If you do a five-minute figure drawing of a live model, think of how many photos you’ve seen the equivalent of in just five minutes! So one way to help get “beyond the photo” is to take a lot of photos of that one subject, on the same day, in the same light, to help you perceive all the nuances and expressions you’d see if you were painting from life.
Give up the angst
by Shifra Stein, Kansas City, KS, USA
Ron Sanders is experiencing the angst of many artists who wait for the “right buyer.” The trick is to give up the angst and just paint for the health of it. I became an artist in 1996, after a debilitating bout of depression. Up to that point I had been a writer. During my recovery, I found that while I could not write, I was able to paint. Where this desire came from, I am not sure, but it became, for me, a passion, so fierce in its intensity, that it changed my life. I sold some work, but not enough, so I changed my style. I switched from watercolor and mixed media to oils and acrylics, thinking that would help. I made the switch because a gallery owner saw my paintings and thought they were oils. When he found out they weren’t, he dropped the selling price immediately. So I kept on painting in oils, sticking with gallery favorites such as landscapes, and scenics. These didn’t sell either. I was starting to feel sad and down. It finally dawned on me that I needed to return to my passion, and paint things that had meaning for me; that made me happy. So I returned to what I love best, my watercolor, masa paper, and mixed media, and I’m happy as a pig in the sunshine. I even redesigned a whole new website filled with my art and my workshops, and called it “Art For The Health Of It” based upon my belief that there is a deep connection between art and health. Making art you love can be good for you. I want my paintings to go where they are wanted. I am optimistic that my style will find a niche and buyers who want what I do best. I’ve stopped trying to paint “for the market” because the market is fickle, and my path is not always the way of the market, anyway. Maybe I’ll never get rich, never be famous, and never have my work in a museum. I feel that, to be happy one must live to paint, not paint to live. And that, I think, is what makes all the difference.
Follow your heart
by Judy Wood, Saskatoon, SK, Canada
I have learned from many years of marketing my art that once you think you have figured out what the public wants, it will change, so you might as well follow your heart rather than trying to second guess some nebulous potential art purchaser. You can’t please everyone so you might as well please yourself. On the few occasions when I have tried to modify my vision to accommodate a perceived market, the works don’t sell well anyway. If I am not working from my own passion and desire for my subject matter, and even my color palette, somehow it shows in the end result and buyers shy away from it. I don’t understand how this works I have just observed it to be so.
Cora Jane Glasser, NYC, NY, USA
I find it So Very Interesting; in the midst of “The Great Struggle” in the artist’s world to achieve business know-how, marketing techniques, and that whole ball of wax, we find someone who has mastered those techniques to a fault. Carried to its extreme, we see here that, in the end, it is about the art. How wonderful!
No pain, no gain
by Doran William Cannon, CA, USA
I appreciated Andy Warhol’s quote, that ‘Success is what sells.’ What a wonderfully self-effacing remark, as if the face Andy put on his art was its value. Yet, Andy Warhol was indeed one of the great 20th Century artists on the merit of his art alone. It’s a terrible aspect of our society that we place in the highest esteem those painters, writers, concert pianists, actors, and artistes of all kinds who are successful; and those who are not successful are called ‘failures’ and demoted to a dark pit. See Ron, Warhol was not right. Success may sell, but it can’t buy happiness. For Ron Sanders, Robert Genn’s analysis of your work may be right. If you did this or did that, it could get better. Maybe you need some sort of a breakthrough for your own self-evolution. No pain, no gain. For all the Ron Sanders in our world, all the Black youngsters who would be Kobe Bryant, and all those dreamers, yes, yes, in the words of John Lennon, you’re ‘not the only one.’ Yeahhh, you’re not the only one!
by Bonnie Mincu, NYC, NY, USA
I grapple with the part about limiting Ron’s genre versatility. Personally, I find that after I’ve painted two or three landscapes, I need to take a break and do a still life. After a city painting I need to do country. After a figure/genre painting I crave landscape again. I recently found myself painting a market scene in a different style than I had done previously, without intending to do so, and I just let the painting come out as it wanted to. In other words, I need the variety to feel fresh. I never understood how successful painters could stand to get pegged in one genre and then paint the same kind of thing over and over again without a change of scenery. It sounds like being forced to stay in the same job for years. So, my point is, perhaps Mr. Sanders is practicing versatility for his own enjoyment rather than simply trying to please the market. Possibly the versatility itself is his way of following his true heart.
Ortrud K.Tyler, Oak Island, NC, USA
Ron has been painting a long time and yet he still wants to figure out how to please and sell to practically everyone who happens to see his work. Won’t work. You can’t crawl with one painting into the minds and hearts of thousands. You are lucky if it works with one. I looked at all his website work and thought he is everywhere. Who’s the real Sanders? We all want to sell as much work as possible, that by itself motivates quite nicely to keep on going, but there has to be the feeling left, that if nothing sells, we just paint for ourselves. First and foremost we love to paint and could do it no matter what. As painful as it is sometimes to look into yourself and look till you find the real you, one has to do it. Whatever the subject matter, whatever the medium whatever the technique, there has to be the “That is me” visible. Personally photographic realism is not the most appealing way of art. While I can admire the technical facility to do it, it never touches my heart, but I know that is a personal opinion. There are a vast number of people who consider buying art, that want every blade of grass accounted for. You want to compete with Mother Nature, go right ahead. She has you beat from the onset. Give people a chance to use their imagination, they might even enjoy it, and you will have contributed something constructive.
by David Oleski, West Chester, PA, USA
I can’t say that painting makes me happy, or that I love to paint. Anyone that witnesses my agitation and frustration in the final hour of a painting would wonder why I even bother. I find a certain rare satisfaction in accepting such a daunting challenge as what painting will always present. I nail a painting down as best as I can, scratch my name into the wet paint, and move on. Capturing the way I see a subject is more important than capturing the image of the subject, and I see it as a shortcoming when I’ve only been an illustrator, and not what I would consider to be a painter. I believe there exists a certain purity of intent in what I am doing, and I do believe that people can perceive that integrity and connect with it, and ultimately purchase my work because of it. It’s a great power to say you can deliver any kind of painting that a client would want; I think it’s a greater power to know what you really want to be doing, and stand by it.
by Ivan Kelly, Toledo, OR, USA
My comments about Ron’s work are quite biased in that I am an artist who likes to paint landscape from life as much as possible. Immediately I noticed a cold sameness about the landscapes with color and black shadow values that say clinically rendered from photographs. What I would like to see in each painting is an enveloping quality of light and mood that says something to me about the local atmosphere, time of day, weather and most importantly more feeling and passion from the artist for that particular subject. Of course that is all easy to say but these aims have provided me growth and enjoyment for many years and have recently come to realize that you need to have fun doing it otherwise there is little life and energy evident.
Tips on shows
by Lorna Dockstader, Calgary, AB, Canada
Last Saturday I had the most successful opening ever! Arriving at the gallery early I saw several people lined up in the front. This hadn’t occurred before and the whole thing struck me as quite funny. I found myself laughing so much I had to hide in the back until the gallery opened. Besides assembling a cohesive, high quality body of work, I did some research ahead of time. What are the color trends for 2002? What type of framing is working best right now? Did I email the new images to my email clients? I mailed out the invitations. How is my pricing? Does my bio need updating? How about a sheet with some color images of the show, for clients to pick up during the preview? Peoples’ framing and often color preferences are always changing-keep current, and be reminded of a most basic economic principle-a shortage of supply increases the demand. Clients can become totally overwhelmed if there are just too many pieces to choose from. I delivered twelve new pieces and nine sold in the first half-hour. Galleries work very hard on our behalf and we should do all we can to help them with the marketing process. Lastly, remember your definition of success doesn’t need to be compared to someone else.
Passion on the page
by Sheila Parsons, Conway, AK, USA
Ron’s work is extremely well done, but is lacking in that personal spark that differentiates it from many other painters in that genre. I think we make a mistake when we paint to sell. I paint that which is very interesting to me, for whatever reason, I believe that passion for the subject gets on the page somehow. I urge my students to paint what matters to them and then in spite of lack of certain skills that energy will be there. I have from time to time, thought (when bills were piling up) hmmmm porches are selling well, I’ll do some porches… those paintings done for that reason are still in “the world’s largest collection of Sheila Parsons paintings (in my studio).
by Dominic Piperata, San Luis Obispo, CA, USA
Your reference to the artist’s leanings toward being an ‘artobusinessman’ is correct. I believe that today’s artist needs professional representation, e.g. galleries and/or a dealer, but he also needs to take responsibility for the presentation of his work end-to-end. It’s much better to control every word that is being said about himself than to have a website with a myriad of links to places that are not directly connected to the process of him selling his art.
Success for professional artists is often based on how many visual impressions are made to potential buyers. My experience has also been that there are no overnight successes in the art world; rather, success or the propensity for it is more likely to be a game of numbers. For example, if 1000 potential buyers need to have physical contact with a given piece of Mr. Sanders’ work for it to be likely to sell, and he has 50 paintings in circulation, then 50,000 visual impressions need to be made to sell all the paintings.
If we substitute the word ‘qualified’ for ‘potential’ in the above equation, then the number of visual impressions required, could be either tripled to 150,000 or halved to 15,000, depending on Mr. Sanders’ ability to carefully arrange gallery representation in the right zip codes and to astutely price his work to match the demographic he has chosen to sell to.
At the end of the day, however, many, many visual impressions must be made to reach the buyers. The artist needs representation by established galleries who have a clientele likely to buy his style of painting. If he has 25 galleries doing a decent job of representing him, he should make a very good living, provided that his painting style and ability to produce allow him to keep these galleries adequately supplied. I know several artists with representation at this level, whose paintings average $1500 at retail, who are making in excess of $200,000 per year.
There is a common thread among these artists, in that they all understand the importance of promotional materials to those who represent them. If Mr. Sanders is interested in gallery representation it can best be achieved by a professionally organized initial presentation to the gallery, and the expressed willingness to provide promotional materials that the gallery can use to promote him.
There are several forms that these materials can take; I favor the 4-page, single-fold color flyer, printed on a single 11×17-inch sheet, and also the museum-type color catalogue. Both are designed to cast the artist in the best possible light. The flyer contains a combination of photographs and concise written word, profiling the artist, clearly explaining his style, and most importantly, comparing him favorably to other recognizable artists. 11×17 flyers have proven to have more home ‘shelf-life’ than single sheet handouts.
The museum-type catalogue takes the process a step further. Generally, these contain 24 images, photos on the right-hand page, associated details on the left-hand page. An essay at the front end, written by a curator or other expert, and the artist’s biography or curriculum vitae at the rear. These are printed on heavy, glossy stock, color image on the cover, with a generic title like “Robert Sanders, Recent Paintings.” Very clean and academic in look and feel. This look is crucial.
The power of the catalogue is in the essay, and in the feel of the paper, not so much in pictorial content. An essay written by a museum curator, describing Mr. Sanders’ style and comparing it to Allegorical or Mannerist painting for example, might very well turn the tide for the gallery. We all know that galleries sell the most of what they feel comfortable selling. The less the artist leaves to chance, in terms of promotional materials and descriptives, the more in control he will be of his sales success. By taking the responsibility for interpretation and explanation out of the gallery’s hands, the artist is assured that the same presentation is made about his work in every gallery where it is shown.
Printing has never been less expensive than it is today, and printing technologies, including direct-from-digital sources allow artists to make very low runs of catalogues. I know artists whose works retail in the $5000 bracket, who were struggling several years ago, and who now print four of the 24-image museum catalogues per year. They sell every single painting too, because the buyers love to show their friends the catalogue and their painting included in it. The bottom line is that no reader ever assumes that the catalogue is self-printed — it appears to be a publication from a museum or other institution.
There is another aspect with the catalogues that is worth discussing. They should always be printed in the ‘perfect bound’ format, meaning glued, with a spine, never saddle-stitch stapled. You have to put a title on the spine; this is very important. Not many artists realize that most all museums have a catalogue library. As a public institution, they accept submitted catalogues regularly. Every single catalogue in fact, as long as it is perfect bound so that the titles can be read end-on on the shelf. The important factor here is that if an artist submits a catalogue to a prominent art museum, an acceptance letter is always generated from a curator there, on the museum’s letterhead. A few letters from well-known institutions thanking the artist for his catalogue really help to make an initial gallery presentation much stronger.
If I was advising Mr. Sanders on his business, I would recommend that he find one or two credentialed (Ph.D.) professional art writers or moonlighting museum curators and pay them to produce essays about him. He should also consider the catalogue format I discussed above; if there ever was a ‘stealth’ promotional tool, this is it. He should also find a designer to produce a brochure of some kind, and he should make sure that his target galleries know he is willing to provide the brochures to them. He can print the brochures for less than fifteen cents each in quantities of 25,000. That means he can give 1000 brochures to each of 25 galleries, for less than $150 per gallery. The promotional power this represents is prodigious, and even more importantly it gives the artist parity with better established, more successful artists represented by the gallery.
I believe that Robert Sanders should also decide if he is going to continue to compete for sales with his gallery representatives, or instead to hand that job over to them and become their promotional associate. It would seem that he would be better served by concentrating on producing the best work of his career, providing promotional materials that he has personally vetted, and letting the professional art dealers do what they do best, sell his work.
His website would be far more effective as an ancillary informational site that the galleries would feel inclined to refer clients to. In my opinion, he would have a much better opportunity to achieve representation in top level galleries if his website only displayed examples of his work, provided a platform to discuss his work, contained several academic essays, a biography and the obligatory links to the galleries that represent him.
I believe that the thorniest part of his path is related to his style itself. As you pointed out, it’s obvious that he is using a photographic base for his work. Often, artists who work from photographs forget that there is an art to art, that in many cases what is not there, or hinted to be there, is just as important as what is actually there. The camera is completely democratic — it records everything, whereas the eye and the brain see in a more hierarchical sense. The skilled artist who works from photographs has to know what elements are unneeded, and what new elements to add in. I believe that Robert Sanders could benefit greatly by spending some studio time with an artist friend who works in a looser, less organized style. He could concentrate on reducing certain details in favor of added emotional elements.
That said, I should point out that the past twenty years of my experience leads me to believe that there is a buyer somewhere for every single artwork created. Knowing your market, matching your art in price and style correctly to that market, and knowing how to best make sense to the market about why your art is important are the three most critical aspects. And, in today’s art world, more than ever before, much of the artist’s potential for success is predicated on having the right things written about him.
Priced by the ruler
by Moncy Barbour, Lynchburg, VA, USA
I am sorry but I am not a very vocal critic of art lest it be of my own or if I was to teach, and even then I would allow the artist to be themselves and question their mistakes in my eye only to let them still answer in their own eye. But as for pricing a work, building a painting is not building a house to be priced by the ruler, but to be priced from the artist heart. You do have to start out cheaper than you end up, look at my Jim Morrison painting for $600.00, if Andy Warhol had painted it, the painting would sell for $50,000.00 when he was yet alive. Make your paintings rare not by painting a few but by your price.
Throw the camera out
by Michael Swanson, Brantford, ON, Canada
I believe that the impressionists, facing the newly invented camera set out if consciously or not, to inject character into their work, after all if you can mechanically capture a likeness, why bother painting it. Popular tastes change over time but a well executed “implied” image will always kick the viewer’s brain into gear, it will never get boring. My next advice is to throw the camera out for a while, try painting from videos and memory. One last thing, think long and hard about how to approach the subject, look for that unique approach. Remember, creativity sets artists apart from the rest of the world.
Cash the checks anyway
The “secret” that I see — it’s not the good art (my opinion of skilled art) but the recognizable and or different art — usually the simplest and not the most skilled- that stand out. Does it stand out from big dollars the artist or sponsor spent advertising to get the name recognizable and thus the art accepted? The primary one I think of is RC Gorman. His women are no comparison artistically and skill-wise to Mr. Sanders,’ but you recognize instantly whose art they are. Big time name recognition, all the same theme, it has been so fun to see the improvement in the style and quality from say 1982 to recent years — but every piece is recognizable as his. I can’t say that with many current landscapes or still lifes, but a few are distinctively recognizable to me for the themes: Slaughter’s bluebonnets — a Texas theme, Windburg’s “misty” Texas country scenes, and a few Grand Canyon styles. But doesn’t Gorman think, “I am sick of painting this same old woman over and over?” But he loves cashing the checks anyway!
A path for myself
by Dan Gray, BC, Canada
Same problem, very slow sales, gallery rejections, seeing weaker painters getting ahead, dropped out of FCA (after being in 22 years) as it was either pastels or dues, but I am working the same, on a path for myself, no workshops, no new mediums, no new subjects. I know where I belong. The best thing of last year was introducing my friend Joe Plaskett (mid ’80s) to my friend Sid Barron, another artist the same age. At another show no sales but standing in a gallery surrounded by my pastels another artist of that generation told me gossip about a friend of his ‘Pablo Picasso.’ You can’t buy those things. My whole career has been a stubborn one, everyone thinks they know what would be best for me, but I think I should just try and turn out good painting.
Outsells his galleries
On marketing, with respect, I disagree in part. My ex-spouse is a specialized representational painter with a distinct style, classically schooled in art. As with Mr. Sanders, he holds the view that the ability to draw is crucial to a painter. He is highly successful because he is also a shrewd and assertive businessman, marketing by mail, networking, the net, and having his own shows or booths at “salon” shows at which he insists on representing himself. He is excellent at it. He can outsell his galleries. It’s not for everyone, but if an artist is also a good retail marketer and retail salesman, why not be all?
Career in illustration
by Nicole B. Rudderham, NS, Canada
I looked at all the Ron Sanders paintings on-line and felt that what you do is very technical. I would say its more illustration than a painting that someone would buy for their home, unless it was a commissioned portrait piece. I could see you being much more popular entering the commercial retail market than fine art. Like illustrating retail goods for maybe fine jewelry stores or china and also the housing manufacturing level. I hope you have better luck in the future.
Be an artist in training
by Sandy Sandy, Tabernacle, NJ, USA
Last year was probably “the worst” as far as sales for many of us, and I think you have a grip on the reality of our current economic situation. So don’t feel bad Ron, it’s not just you. Maybe as Robert has so eloquently expressed though, “you ought to scrabble deeper into the psychological values.” There is a fine line between illustration and fine art. What sets apart a romance-novel book jacket illustration from a fine art painting? I have found from my own experience of coming from an illustration background, that people do like details, but they can get far more excited about a piece when something is left out, portrayed in a non-photographic manner and is more spontaneous. When something is only hinted at, and the door is left open to their own imagination, you can involve their heart. I disagree with Robert about the versatility issue. I have several different categories of subject matter and they all sell equally well. I usually sell better than most artists at shows, because I’ve got “something for everyone” and this diversity keeps me fresh, enthused and evolving. Don’t try so much to control the art, let it control you. I am “an artist in training” and I am willing to make mistakes and learn from them. I would suggest reading the collected writings of Robert Henri in The Art Spirit. Consider this from Charles Hawthorne, Hawthorne on Painting, “Be humble about it. Paint the color tones as they come against each other, and make them sing, vibrate. Don’t ask me to look at those self-satisfied, pretty things.”
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 Faith Puleston of Germany who wrote, “He’s a duplicator not an innovator. He’s a follower of fashion, but he needn’t be. With his skills he could take on the challenge of reinventing himself. A sort of artistic heart surgery.”
And also Helen Lystra who wrote, “I believe it was Alex Powers who said, ‘If it’s too real it loses the magic’ and that’s what I see when I look at his work — a perfect likeness but no magic.”