Saturday, October 12, 2013

Like driving an aircraft carrier

Have you ever driven an aircraft carrier? Me neither. But, I'll bet, out of my blog readership, somebody actually has. For the sake of metaphor here, lets assume our ship is about the weight of an anvil that size.

 If you want to make the aircraft carrier go, you step on the accelerator, and then in about an hour or so, the thing starts to move. Once you get it going though, it will ride along mightily over "old ocean's gray and melancholy waste" till you reach your destination. It takes a long time for that much mass to slow down, so if you want to stop in about an hour, you better hit the brakes now.

My job is lot like that. After I make the paintings, I put on a different hat. I am the owner of a micro business. A McDonalds is small business, I have more in common with a tradesman of the olden days, like a furniture maker. I am a cottage industry, a microbusiness. I make a small amount of expensive objects in a simple workshop, alone, I sell them to a small group of clients who  enjoy and can afford fine art. I work with dealers, clients, and a little promotion to sell the art and get it out into the world at a faster clip than the world is removing money from my pocket. If at the end of this month for instance, I have enough money to pay my bills and maybe buy a sofa, it is not because of what I did this month. The decisions and work that made that happen, were mostly made several months ago. If I am not in the black  the mistakes (or more likely misjudgements) were usually made months ago. If I go through a period where I am not hitting it and the pictures are not as good as they should be, several months from now that is going to show up on my ledger.

I am probably slower at production than lots of other artists, I discard at least half the paintings I start outside. I work on those I keep, sometimes only a few hours, or sometimes for weeks before they are ready to go out the door. Back in the early eighties when I was selling paintings for eighty five to one hundred and twenty five dollars, I tried to make one a day. I made and sold stacks of paintings, most of them very small. I had a tiny little art gallery in Rockport and didn't show many other places (there weren't many other places to show, in those days). I had more inventory then, but still sometimes I would be in a crises when that ran low. As  I have developed more expertise and a small following I have been able to raise my prices. I don't have a lot of inventory, I destroy my old paintings  that haven't sold, unless I really believe in them, or I see an obvious flaw that I can rework before sending them out again into the marketplace. I deal in newly made paintings, or at least paintings made over the last year or two. I  don't make carloads of art anymore. I make fewer, and far better considered paintings.

 If you are asking serious money for your art, a lot is going to be expected of you. There are many fine and tempting things that the limited number of art collectors in my price bracket might prefer to my latest daub.The paintings need to be as good as I can make them, my life actually depends on that. If I don't sell paintings I will eat snowballs this winter.They need to look like they are well worth buying at that price point.

Many single paintings can be finished and out the door quickly enough, and a request from a show for a single piece is sometimes easy to manage. But more commonly I need to deliver paintings in groups of six or so, because that is about the number a gallery needs to make a presentation. Less than that and a gallery is probably not stocked well enough to sell my art. Often that group of paintings need to be of a special sort or area, like South Carolina, or Maine. I have to travel to that area, make lots of paintings then return home and finish them, discarding the weaker or stymied efforts as I go. That's not something I can do quickly, it takes planning and lead time. And after all of that, it might be months before the paintings are sold, maybe a year or two sometimes. Unfortunately some will not sell, and the knackers must come to the farm. To add complexity to my inventory management, the Maine pictures cannot be sent to South Carolina if they remain unsold. Thankfully, if I am patient, there are few of those.
Often a gallery is seasonal and I might be stocking them in anticipation of a coming busy time a few months out.

So months out, I have to plan what I am going to make and where it is going to go. It is only sometimes possible to capitalize on a sudden opportunity. Most of the big deals and events are on the chart and planned for months in advance. I have to choose carefully which galleries I stock, because I can't do that many.  I can't be in all the shows that I would like, particularly not shows for which I must hold a painting long time prior. If I get invited to be in a show, the gallery will usually want an image a month or even several months before the show opens. I try to give them the best painting I can.Then I have to hold that picture until the show, not let one of my galleries have it. After the show,which might run a month, or several,whether the painting is sold or not, I am now about three months into the project. If it is sold the gallery will wait a month to pay me. That pushes the cycle on that piece out to four months.

What this means is that in my art business, this month is mostly determined by what I was doing about three months ago, and I am today working toward sales that I hope will happen several months in the future. Although there are the pleasant surprises when a gallery calls and a sale has been made suddenly or a client e-mails me ready to buy a painting, most of the time it is like driving an aircraft carrier. If I want to be making money several months from now the efforts have to begin now.


Canton, Mississippi

Gee, I hope you all know I am doing a workshop in Mississippi real soon, October 18th 19th and 20th, if you want to come and paint the beautiful street scenes of historic Canton with me go here to sign up!
I have taught this one before and it is a splendid place to paint. Canton is not too far from Jackson, which has a major airport. Below is a demo I did last time I was there. In the evenings I will lecture from my laptop over dinner, I am rolling out  new and improved versions of my evening presentations.

Durham, North Carolina

I am teaching a workshop in Durham, on November 1-3,  Here is the link to that. 
 I like being in the South, Its a lot different than New England, ( I have become such a New Englander) but I have been in the South many times and I always enjoy the southern culture, food, architecture and history. Late fall should be a lovely time to paint in North Carolina.


Anonymous said...

Got a lot from this post, as it helps me to see how my business really works. It's all so true. The paintings I'm selling now were painted during the last couple of years.

I've pulled some out of storage and re-worked sufficiently to show. This career requires patience, continuous growth and delayed gratification. Stape, your words here make this clear and easy to remember.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks Lori! Good to hear from you.

Kessie said...

It must simply be the career of any kind of artist. I've been studying the business of writing and selling books, and it's the same way. The book has to be your very best, and you won't get any returns off it for months, maybe years. But the more books you get out there, the better they all do--assuming it's quality work to begin with.

Art: the aircraft carrier career.

Bill Guffey said...

You know you're always welcome to stop in the Bluegrass State on your travels, Stape.

Gail Hayton said...

Found your blog back in August and have been studying them ever since. Always learn something new. Was thrilled to see a new post. I paint miniature landscapes and have seasonal galleries. I agree with everything you said. This time of year I am planning for May of next year. Not always easy to predict so far in advance. Hope to take one of your workshops next year. Thanks for all your wonderful posts.

Deborah Paris said...

So true! I call it "the Pipeline". I keep a studio log and can directly track the number of pieces I paint, how many I send out each month to how many I sell in the future.

David J. Teter said...

It is the scary side of the business that most don't realize, especially those not in the business like non-artists.
We are doing the work first and may or may not get paid for it, months later.
And as you have said, you may be painting holiday or winter snowscapes in the summer.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the insight to your business, Stape.

That's the one thing I enjoy more about your blog: You publish real information about the daily ins and outs of being a professional and running a business!

(Of course, the other thing I love about your blog is all the downloading of the knowledge behind making your products!


I don't know that you'll ever get paid back for what you do here. BUt you have my thanks. said... everyday but never know when ya gonna be paid. It's the artist way.

Philip Koch said...

Stape- well put.

You got me thinking about what an odd lifestyle artists have. And there have been thousands of painters who went down the same path before us, all of whom would nod their heads reading this last post (assuming they could grasp what an aircraft carrier was).

I visited Winslow Homer's studio in Maine a couple weeks ago. Nice place and not extravagant though it had a great water view. I remember Homer writing a line to someone complaining that he didn't know why he bothered to send paintings to his New York gallery "because they never sell anything" (!).

Marsha Hamby Savage said...

This was interesting ... and you put words to the insight into what an artist must do to keep going. I have not thought in these exact terms, and appreciate you have done so! You have given me the words to counteract some discussions about living an easy life of an artist. If they only knew, right?