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The Commercial Scene

Not everyone wishes to sell their work, certainly not the first 'masterpieces', and perhaps not even the paintings of later years that were achieved after so much pain and effort. They hang in the studio as touchstones, a guarantee of what the painter can or could do. Nonetheless, professionals have little choice in the matter, and serious amateurs enjoy the recognition and the supplementary income. How do you about about selling your paintings?

The first point to make is that art and commerce are not easy bedfellows. Artists strain every emotional sinew to ensure that each work is the very best they can achieve, but commerce works quite differently. It may very well be, as George Bernard Shaw remarked, that the true artist will let his wife starve, his children go barefoot, his mother drudge for his living at seventy, sooner than work at anything but his art, but galleries that adopted so egocentric a view would be bankrupt in a year, if they ever got started.

So, for artists who will always find this difficult to appreciate, selling your paintings is a business. It is a risky business, and calls for considerable flair in spotting what will sell, how it should be presented, and to which groups of likely purchasers. Artists who balk at the thirty percent plus that galleries charge should look at the outgoings. Gallery rental, overheads, salaries, catalogue printing costs — these are unavoidable, not to mention the prodigious quantities of champagne that guests can consume at the preview, sometimes without looking at a single work. And how much is sold at the exhibition? Everything in a few rare cases, but generally only 50%, and often much less. No one would be in the fine art business at all without strong nerves, a deep love of paintings, and an understanding bank manager.


Gallery owners do their sums. They have a notion of how an artist might sell, and what types of work will do best, but the acid test is always the exhibition, and what can be achieved in private deals afterwards. They go cautiously. Prospects look distinctly brighter with a CV that lists an education at recognized art colleges followed by significant exhibitions and commissions — not only because it backs their own judgment, but because this information is what prospective purchasers will look for in the catalogue. You may walk into a major gallery without an appointment, clutching some homemade slides of your work, and a battered folder of drawings, but it is most unlikely you'll get beyond the charming girl at the desk. Nor should you. Galleries are professional institutions, and expect a courteous letter of inquiry with a brief record of accomplishment.

Unless well known already, your first appearance in a gallery may well be limited to a few paintings at a mixed exhibition. If they don't sell, you may be given a second chance, but probably not a third. Even then, it's going to be long pull for the gallery to turn you into a star performer, and that heavy investment may be protected by an exclusivity clause. You have to sell through them. Even when the buyer comes through some other source, a recommendation from a friend of a friend, the gallery will expect its commission. You'd be advised to keep accurate accounts. Representation by a good gallery is not easily achieved, but can be lost overnight by a little stupidity that breaks the bond of trust.

And good galleries do more than sell your paintings. They help you produce the sort of work that does sell and will develop your talents further. Your success is their success, and that vested interest comes with an objectivity and knowledge that can only be acquired by being in the art market. Your work has to be presented as a desirable commodity, and one whose value will only appreciate in time. Hence their preference for younger artists, and their selection of a limited range in your output. Image is vital, and they will be writing the catalogue with an eye to the copy appearing in newspapers and art magazines.

If that sounds less than honest, you're still looking at things from the artist's perspective. Exhibitions are not the profession's stamp of approval, a sign that you have arrived, but only part of a recognized selling process. And the other work, which you think is good, but the gallery won't touch? Go carefully. The gallery may allow allow you to market the work through some other source, perhaps the Internet, or another gallery, but they will want first refusal, and be very unhappy with anything that damages the image that they have so carefully constructed. Talk matters through. You may be able to develop a new line of work altogether, with the promise of a one man show later, when the ideas have come to fruition and there is a decent body of work to chose from.

Local Shows

Representation at a London or New York gallery is the dream of many artists, but one rarely achieved, and perhaps never in one step. Most artists start by exhibiting locally, with colleagues in the local painting club or at the art college's annual show. And those exhibitions are not simply one step on the long journey to recognition, something for the eventual CV, but serve two vital purposes. In the first place they get your pieces hung with other work, which is essential if you're to see them objectively and learn from the experience. And in the second place, they extend your contacts with fellow artists. Networking is essential, and it is through being part of a community that opportunities arise. A show needs a few more exhibits? Your colleagues will let you know. The local newspaper wants a piece on local painters? Your friends will put your name forward. Once established, you may find yourself too busy for these concerns, but the beginning artist would be well advised to participate, even if privately critical of standards. Views change, and many good artists look back on early shows, when they were so convinced of their superior talents, to realize that it was only in fact through the kindness of more experienced colleagues that they were included at all.


The Internet has greatly extended the artist's ability to put his work before the public, and to do so more cheaply. The search engines will show the immense range of work that is now offered, some rather amateurish but other work that has flair and conviction. The leading 'bricks and mortar' galleries in particular show excellent work in a very professional manner. Some pros and cons:

Selling through an Internet Gallery

By selling through an Internet gallery you are still part of the gallery system, though one with more flexible requirements. Web hosting space is cheap, and commissions tend therefore to be lower. Much depends on what the gallery will do. Some will handle everything. You provide slides of your paintings, which are then reformatted for inclusion on the website. The gallery contacts you when a sale is made, and you ship the actual painting to them. Everything else — insurance, invoicing, handling payment and shipping to the customer — is done for you. At the other extreme lie galleries that simply provide you web space, where your work will appear with other paintings, and gain credence to the extent that the gallery is well visited and well presented. There is no easy answer, but it's worth remembering to:

1. Do your homework, short-listing galleries that represent work of your type and quality.

2. Check and compare the services, terms and commissions. The Internet is a competitive place, and you generally get what you pay for, so be wary of a gallery with terms greatly out of line with others.

3. Ensure that the website looks professional, and that its selling mechanism works seamlessly.

4. Email the gallery, and go elsewhere if you do not receive a prompt and candid reply to these questions:

how long have they been in business?

how many unique visitors does the site receive each month?

how many artists and paintings do they feature?

what is the professional standing of their 'best' artists?

how many paintings do they sell, on average, each month?

Selling through your Own Website

If you plan to avoid the gallery's commission by selling direct to the public, these are the steps you'll go through:

1. Build the site, which must look professional. You can employ a web design company, or purchase the software and create the site yourself. Though there's hardly an excuse these days, given cheap and simple-to-use programs, plus pre-designed templates, the great majority of homegrown sites still don't inspire much confidence.

2. Purchase your own domain

3. Find a web hosting company that provides a cheap and reliable service with proper security, and the web statistics for you to tweak the design in response to customer behavior.

4. Market the site effectively, i.e.:

build the site about a distinctive theme

design individual pages to be friendly to the search engines

provide valuable content that will keep visitors returning

craft text around popular keywords that face little competition from other sites

submit to the search engines/directories in an approved manner

pay to be listed in Yahoo, Looksmart and the pay-per-click search engines/directories

5. Add some ecommerce payment mechanism if you are taking orders directly over the Internet. Otherwise you'll need a wallet system like PayPal, possibly with an escrow service.

A tall order? It is. You might do better to start with an online gallery, and progress as results indicate. Otherwise, consider online auctions.

Using Online Auctions

A third approach is through the online auction sites, of the which the best, and the best known, is probably eBay. You need to:

1. Register with the online auction company, e.g. eBay.

2. Register with Paypal.

3. Register with Auctionwatch.

4. Photograph your work and upload the images in optimally-sized jpeg form.

5. Enter the details of your work at eBay and Auctionwatch. Include title, keywords, starting bid and reserve price.

That's it! The reference below adds some advice.


Your best information sources are gallery owners and the experiences of fellow artists, but here are some useful books and Internet resources:

1. Nurture Art. A non-profit (NY) organization dedicated to helping artists become full-time, self-supporting professionals.

2. Art Advice. Gallery services for artists and collectors: commercial but has free articles on career development.

3. Sell Your Art at Online Auctions. An unabashed account of selling instant art through online auctions. Takes you through the essential steps.

4. Ecommerce Digest. A very full guide to all aspects of ecommerce business and marketing. Their downloadable e-book ( US$37.50 ) provides 3,000 hand-picked references and comes with a 30 day guarantee.

5. Make Your Net Auction Sell. An extension of Ken Evoy's popular (and successful) guide to ensuring your site sells effectively. An easy style that conveys a lot of sensible advice. US$29.95 for a 300 page downloadable ebook.

6. The Artist's Handbook for Photographing Their Own Artwork by John White. Crown Publications. 1994.

7. Fine Art Publicity: The Complete Guide for Galleries and Artists by Susan Abbot and Barbara Webb. Art World Publishers. 1991.

Illustration: La Lavendou by Nicolas de Stael. 1952. National Museum of Modern Art. Paris. A triadic color scheme with similar degrees of purity and tonal values: the rhymic arrangements of the slabs of color create the composition.

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