Saturday, June 6, 2009

The art business waltz, lesson 10

Tonight s illustrations are again by Ivan Shiskin 1832-1898 and are courtesy

I will start the great reader critique about the middle of the coming week. I have a nice group of images from many readers. There is still time to e mail me yours at

I just can't seem to finish off this dance of commerce, A couple more good questions have come in that I will answer. I love it when people e- mail me questions or ask them in the comments page.
Several of you have asked questions about pricing, so I will begin there. I mentioned before that your art should be the same everywhere. That's real important ,and nowhere more important than when you are selling out of your studio. If it gets around that your work can always be had more cheaply, directly from you, few dealers will want to handle your art. Watch out for that.

Another question was; should I go up on my paintings in this economy? That depends on a lot of things. If your prices are ridiculously low, yes of course. I think it is partly a function of inventory, if your inventory is selling at a pace that makes you feel pressured to keep up, it may be time to go up.

Paintings that won't sell, are a percentage of your inventory and you will have to back them out of the equation when you track how fast your paintings are selling. They need to be replaced also, not just the ones you have sold. Ultimately the idea is to get your price to effort ratio to a point where it makes financial sense for you to spend your time painting. If you have a good job, or are married to a thoracic surgeon, that may not be important to you. But for many of us, painting has to pay because we need to make a living, or at least add to our incomes. It is a very reasonable expectation that if you work hard you should at least make pin money painting. Going fully professional is another matter though and I think I will discuss that later.

When you have developed an idea of how fast your paintings are selling and find that you are having trouble keeping up, you should go up. Don't go for the sky though, just take them up perhaps 10% and then stay there for a year or more. It is not very graceful backing down so be careful of going up on your prices too fast, if sales stall you may have a major problem.

A story I have seen myself is this. A young, or even a well established painter gets picked up by a New York gallery. They sit the artist down and say, our rent is 50, 00 dollars a month and we have to get big prices for things to make that work. They tell the artist "we love your art, and it should be selling for three times , or even ten times what you are getting now. The artist thinks, wow I have made it! My financial worries are over, I can buy my wife that diamond tennis bracelet she always wanted, and Ill get her a snowmobile and a bass boat too!

For a year or so things go swimmingly, the sales are happening and our artists wife is hooking the big ones up at the lake, everything is great. But then things slow down, way down, until the sales stop. What has happened is this. Every gallery has a group of customers who are likely to buy this artists work, some galleries have a longer list than others, but particularly at a high price point, that list can get exhausted and then its over. The gallery gets a new artist that the clients on the mailing list don't already have, the new kid in town. After a year or so of no sales, our artist is quietly dropped from the roster and now he has a big problem. He has been getting 12,000 dollars for his 8 by 10s. Where else other than in a high end gallery in New York is that going to happen? He can no longer get anything like that. When he drops his prices by the huge amount it is going to take to put him back in business in Squaresville, his customers are very disappointed that the artists 12000 dollar 8 by 10s are now bringing 950 dollars. There's a reputation damaging scenario.

So the moral of this story is keep your price increases within reason. If a dealer wants to take your prices to a stupendous level and you are not a very successful established artist, tell em no.
Its easier to go up then down, There may be other artists in your current price bracket who will have your sales if you go up too fast, so be careful and incremental.

There are artists who mass produce their art and sell it very cheaply. Some are very good, but most are hacks. You probably don't want to turn your painting time into frantic piecework. There are artists for whom what the actually want to make lends itself to that. But in general I recommend not to play at the bottom of the market as there is always someone who can make their art a little worse and sell it a little more cheaply. At that level in the market it is so much about price that quality totally goes out the window.

When I had my gallery in Rockport Massachusetts I would occasionally get a customer who would make an insultingly low offer on one of my fine paintings. I knew from long experience with these cats that if I agreed to their offer they would still walk away. The point was to strip me of my dignity for having the appalling nerve to present them with something they couldn't or most likely wouldn't afford. So I developed this line for skewering them, since they usually played this game to impress their wives or girlfriends with how tough they were at negotiation. The line was:


On occasion I actually got their girlfriends to laugh with them.
That sort of thing is one of the reasons I am not really suited to retail. I will do a a post sometime of all the outrages things I have had said to me or have inflicted on others in my gallery. Rockport was a tourist town that saw every different level of society, so you had to be thick skinned, and sometimes it was necessary to bark at em.

Something else to be wary of is this, you go into a gallery that shows your art and one of your paintings is "out on approval" or "just sold today" of course that does happen, but try to read the dealers body language and be very suspicious if it happens twice. If you hear that, go back to the gallery unannounced in about two weeks and surprise inspect em. If the dealer stammers that they haven't got the painting back yet or the client can't decide etc,what mat have happened is this. The dealer sold that painting three months ago, but because he was behind on his rent, instead of giving you your money, he paid some bills and now he has neither the money or your painting. It happens, so watch out for it.

The art business being s consignment business is a trust business like few others. If you are a dealer and I catch you lying to me, I have to pull my work, before you rip me off for my entire inventory. I won't lie to my dealers and I FIRE THEM FOR LYING TO ME.

One of you, ( who for the sake of privacy I will call Linda,) emailed me that he was having trouble finding a dealer who wanted to handle watercolors. I went on his web site and they were very nice. Unfortunately watercolors are not popular right now. They used to be huge until the 70's anyway. But something happened. Perhaps there were too many production watercolorists making tricky technique laden crap I don't know. Some of my friends who were fabulous water colorists have painted only in oils for years. But that's the deal, its unfair and Linda is not going to have an easy time getting around that. Over the years watercolors will return to favor, its just a fashion. Oil painting seems never to go out of style. Linda asked me what he ought to do, and I will suggest this. Paint in oil, if you can draw well. the change of medium won't be too hard. When a dealer takes your oils, get them to take a few watercolors also. There are a few people out there selling watercolors, but right now its like pushing a rope.


willek said...

Hey, stape. We are still out here and reading your every word. It is just very important and helpful information from a guy in the trenches who knows his where-with-all. A young man I took lessons from years ago talked about pricing this way: Work it out on an hourly rate or work it out by the square inch, or work it out on a market will bear, or work it out on a "rather have " basis. That is, would you rather have $100 or the picture? The picture. Would you rather have $500 or the picture? The picture. Would you rather have $2000 or the picture? The $2000!! And I price my things like this sometimes. This is a good way, though to amass a great collection of your own stuff. which I have. Along with stuff my wife and family wont let me part with. That jacks the price way up because of the havoc parting with one of these favorites would cause in the family.
Great job, Stape. Thanks so much.
The Shiskins are beautiful, I had not known of him.


Unknown said...

great post as usual. Love those Shiskins. "Morning in a Pine Forest" has always been a favorite of mine. I don't know the title of that last one, but man! what great light and feeling of outside in the forest!
I liked your 10% idea for raising prices. I've purposely kept mine pretty reasonable, mostly because I'm still relatively new at this, and I'd like to build a "collector base" if you want to call it that. In several instances though lately, I've sold out, or nearly sold out, at exhibits. I think it is time to go up a little, and 10% seems like a good place to start.
It's appalling sometimes for what prices tacky art sells, so I try not to compare too much - more power to them if they can get big bucks for lousy stuff.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I think all of those methods are good, the important thing is to be consistant. Wild variations in price frighten customers because it makes your pricing seem arbitrary.

Stapleton Kearns said...

If you are selling out, or nearly selling out your exhibits it is time to go up.
Tacky art sells better than good art, more people are tacky than good.

kev ferrara said...

I just wanted to pop in and say thanks. This is one of the great art blogs on the net.


Stapleton Kearns said...

Thank you so much.When people pop in and say things like that it feels worthwhile. I sit up late after each workday and put this thing out, all alone in my studio. I never actually SEE anybody read it.
I have tried to ask myself as I write each post, will this be useful to the artists who read it?
Writing the blog feels like sneaking into the park every night and leaving notes tacked to the trees for strangers to read in the morning when I am gone.

Stapleton Kearns said...


The point is, I think to get to make the art. If selling it in the fairs is working for you, great! I am glad to hear you are doing well with that. I have recommended on this blog that people give that a shot. I always enjoyed doing those.
Even if you do mostly outdoor fairs I would suggest you keep one gallery in order just to learn the system. I have some dealers I truly enjoy knowing.But don't let dealers pressure you into doing what you dislike, they work for you, you don't work for them.

Ullas KG said...

hey Stape, just amazing.. i am an amature artist (i have not sold anything yet) from india and there is so much of insights in your blog. just fantastic. i will post you my painting's link

ccreed50 said...

Blogging's hard work. Blogging well is harder still.

I read about some N.E. artists recruited away from their Boston reps by New York galleries. Sounds like they could live to regret it. It's not as if New York collectors can't find Boston. Unless Manhattenites are really that insular.

Thanks for giving us a peek under the hood.