Saturday, May 28, 2011

When my art was cheap

Blue Motif, Rockport, Massachusetts.

I think I will reminisce a little tonight. Hopefully it will be informative. I was speaking to a woman tonight who is selling lots of very inexpensive paintings. Her business model is to make small pictures and keep her costs low enough that everybody can afford to buy her art, and everybody does. I used to do that, I said. I don't think she knew that.

In 1983 I opened my first tiny art gallery in Rockport. Rockport was an old art colony on the water north of Boston. There were many artist owned galleries there and had been for many years. I would suppose their were about thirty then, and many more artists lived in town but didn't have commercial galleries. I split the rent on a tiny shop with a glassblower and her boyfriend. They made those little glass animals, what they did was actually called lampworking.
Laura in the play "The Glass Menagerie" collected them. My partners had done years of traveling from outdoor show to outdoor show in a big van and were hippie-gypsy's. When they turned on that big oxygen fed torch it made a lot of noise and lots of people came to watch and buy.

That meant traffic flow. we were on a very busy tourist street, about 10,000 people a day were visiting Bearskin Neck on a summer weekend. We saw a whole lot of em. I had the back half of the tiny shop. I painted it and built myself a little workbench-artists station into a nook in the wall. My whole operation was perhaps six feet square. I had a couple of sets of track lights and a stool to sit on. I could open my French easel up in my little work area and sit and paint all day as the people came and went. Often I would paint outside in the morning and watch the shop from after lunch till ten or eleven at night. As long as there were people on the street we were open, sometimes after midnight.

I made nothing but 8 by10's. I bought boxes of these little mass produced frames with horrid little linen liners chopped at the corners. About a quarter of the frames were damaged right out of the box, but they were so cheap it seemed worth it. I think one of my favorites was an 11 dollar unit. There were no mass produced closed corner frames then. I could hang quite a few on the walls of my tiny space.

I sold my paintings for 85 to 125 dollars a piece. Money bought a little more then, but that is still really, really cheap. I sold them like crazy. I think I sold about 130 that year. I didn't make very much compared to what most folks expect to live on, but I lived real cheap. I had a 300 dollar a month apartment next to the shop and I fixed my shoes with duct tape. I had no car, and could walk to the grocery store or hardware store.

The gallery was set up using the glassblowers tax number and she signed the lease naming us Earth and Fire galleries. I guess she thought that was appropriate for a business that used a torch on sand. I thought it was tacky, but since we didn't have a sign, it wasn't well known that that was our name. It was dated even then.

There was a payphone in the gallery, hanging on the wall. I guess the landlord had had problems with tenants running up phone bills and leaving. We seldom used it, and if someone wanted to buy a painting with a credit card, we had a grinder affair that impressed the information from their credit card onto a little stack of carbon paper and duplicate receipts. Once I had that done, I would run to a friends shop down the street and use their phone to call in the sale and get an approval number from the nice folks at MasterCard. I took the receipts to the bank myself, it wasn't till years later that the electronic gizmos that batch out your sales automatically to the bank appeared.

I remember sweating out whether I should charge 95 dollars or 115 dollars for a painting, and then changing the price tag the next day, afraid I was asking too much. People wanted them cheaper still of course. They would make lowball offers and always want a better deal. Usually I went for the cash. I always needed groceries or paint.

We had as boom box playing old Dylan most of the time and being in a beach town all summer was great. I talked to about a zillion people a week and that was interesting too. The little business actually worked, I sold enough painting to live very simply and I was living by my art. I had already done that for a few years then, but this was the first time I had a steady cash flow and and knew I had found a way to make a living painting. I was about 30 at this time and had been painting full time about ten years. I had atelier training behind me, which was scarce in those days, so I had some chops, and that helped a lot. I was well enough skilled to do paintings of a quality that people would buy.

I did almost none of the paintings from photographs, I started stuff outside and finished inside, or I made up seascapes, ( I did lots of those) and I worked in both an old timey Dutch style and impressionism. It really was a great training experience to actually paint to earn my supper. If I didn't sell, I didn't eat. That makes you very earnest in your painting, you want to make them as well as you can and get food!

35 comments:

Tim said...

Great post Stape, I'm happy to read this, as I am in a similar situation, and I'm sure many more are too. Some months are VERY narrow squeezes for rent and bills, but so far I have seemed to make it (with a little help from my parents now and then. Thanks for the food mom and use of the car with no gas requirements dad!)

We all know you must have a pic of one of those old paintings somewhere man! How did you handle all the competition mentally? Or where you the best of the bunch, different market segment etc?

I have a feeling one day Ill look back on these times, and I know they where the best. Except the book keeping.

Johan Derycke said...

I think it also helps to remain focussed on the bussiness side when it is needed.
I currently have a daytime job and paint in my own time. I recently sold a portrait drawing of a woman's dog for... zero Euros o.O
I don't know what it is with me but I see how happy a buyer is and I get all sentimental and I suddenly get all scared to charge them because I fear it will break their nice feelings about the painting or drawing.
Quite dumb, I must admit. Like that I will never even recover the costs of my materials, let alone get some extra earnings (I'm the poorest salesman on earth).
Perhaps I am subconciously influenced by knowing I have my earnings from my daytime job.
Time to change my attitude...

Anyway, thanks for posting this.
It's the rub in my face that I needed.

jake gumbleton said...

Wonderful post stape. Sounds like a brilliant life !

Main Loop said...

Great post, very relevant to us younger fine artists.

What was the next step from here? How did you get beyond this stage

Eden Compton said...

Sounds idyllic! I love Rockport though I think it would be hard to live like that now! You have to park 5 miles away just to get into town in the summer. Great post - Thanks Stapleton.

Charles Valsechi said...

Really enjoy hearing about beginnings. I will be graduating from school soon and will be in a similar boat.

How do you see the art situation now? Being that more people have better art training.

mariandioguardi.com said...

I started by selling works as well and I was very happy with that until I wanted more from my paintings. That meant larger and more challenging work than the two little pieces of fruit on a table that i was doing. I keep myself happy by doing a variety of sizes as the piece moves me to do

I found that the audience and client base grows and changes with the work. But given that , there is a lot of misconceptions about making your living as an artist. In one survey that I saw,60% of visual artist make 0 to 10k per year selling their art.

barbara b. land of boz said...

Great post Stape. Wicked nice indeed, you are in your element when you reach deeply into your early years. These appear to be fond memories. Thank you for sharing.....have a good weekend.

willek said...

I really like painting small. Banging out little stuff is fun and suited to my temperament. But it is a blind canyon, so to speak. Sooner or later you have to get big.

Dale Cook said...

I enjoyed reading your post. And am also curious about "what happened next".

Tim said...

Oh yea, maybe that could be a future post "How to talk about and make sales of your work without sounding like a used car-salesman or being completely nonchalant about what you made and when there is no other art up on the walls but your own."

I mean the usual goes, be honest (but not too honest!), be friendly, don't be overly modest, and DON'T question peoples belief that you somehow where born with this thing called "talent" They seem to WANT you to be bestowed with skills they imagine they could never attain, even though the truth is the exact opposite.

I often find that when people find out that I am indeed the artist, something changes in them and the way they act in the gallery. I dont know what, but I feel I would have an easier time making sales if I was representing other peoples art.
I think you have made posts like that before actually, Ill delve in tot he Stape-chives.

Kevin Mizner said...

Fun post, Stape. I sold my first (horrid) painting for eight dollars because I thought five dollars wasn't enough, and I didn't dare ask for ten.

Philip Koch said...

I always love reading Stape's posts about his earlly years, especially his days in Rockport. One can tell this was a vivid time in his life- it shows in how well he convey's the feeling the place had for him. I can just picture myself there as I read.

billspaintingmn said...

Stape! It helps to read this!
Back in the 70's I also gave it a go at selling my art. And I did!
I didn't have a gallery, but would show at them. Also did many group shows and one man shows. I would paint while displaying, and that helped.
It was tuff at best, but the experience was real.
Once my children were born,(in the 80's) I needed to make more money.
I became a sign painter. I thought it was odd that people would pay the same for their name & number as they would for a small painting.
I continued to do paintings, and sold them here and there, but mostly painted for the enjoyment.

Then I started gilding. I loved it and still do! So now I can do several things professionally, and
need to move forward.
Commissions don't require the same legals as retail, so I do that instead.

randy said...

Great post. I really enjoyed reading it. I am trying to do the same thing. I spent most my life believing I could not do it until I just woke up one morning and believed in myself.

Moose said...

Interesting, Stape! Do you ever run into old paintings of yours? Any from this tiny era, where everything was 8 x 10 and inexpensive? I sometimes wonder what happens to the art work of tourist area artists... particularly in beach towns.

Rick said...

Malcolm Gladwell's great book "Outliers" talks about the 10,000 hour rule. It takes not only training but 10,000 hours of concerted practice to be truly expert at anything. He uses the Beatles' experience in Hamburg as one example. So... all of these little pics added to your atelier training ....

Stapleton Kearns said...

Tim;
I may have a few old photos, I will look.OK, my wife will have to be asked.
..............Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Johan Derycke;
You must have a day job, sell the first 100 paintings for whatever you can get, then go up.
................Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

jake gumbleton;
It does seem cool in the retelling.
..............Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Main Loop;
I will write about that.
...........Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Eden; Yes, things have changed.
................Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Charles Valsechi.
I could write a post about that too. Rocport was a pretty fast track when I go there. So I don't think much has changed.
..................Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Marian;
People who self identify as artists sell under ten thousand a year. People who live by their art need to do far better than that.
...................Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

barbara b. land of boz;
Thank you dear!
............Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

willek,
Why? Bernard Corey never did.
.............Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Dale Cook;
I continued the story tonight.
......tape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Tim;
I will try to remember to write about that.
..........Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Kevin Mizner;
It is all relative isn't it?
................Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Philip Koch;
Thanks Philip;
More on the Rockport shop tonight.
...............Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

billspaintingmn;
The world need gilders. Keep wetting that bole.
...............Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

randy;
Good luck with that. Some people can do it. Maybe you can.
................Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Moose;
I never see them. Some were good, some were awful. All were sincere.
....................Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Rick;
I do loo on these as my grad student years. The pressure to survive really sharpened your skills.
.......Stape

As I See It - Art said...

You do very well painting with words as well! It's a charming story.
I can relate to so many of these posts. I have finished raising my kids (technically) and returned to painting. It is tempting to sell pieces very cheaply at first just to pump up my ego. I have to stop myself and ask "Is there any other work I would discount so shamelessly? Would I spend hours of my time & money to clean or mow for someone then cut my price in half just because they REEEAALLY LIKE it?" "uuuhh, NO." If they like it that much - I should probably charge more....