You may remember Michael’s interview about how he got his art business going. Here he is, almost exactly two years later, sharing how things are going. If this doesn’t inspire you to keep going and push through your barriers, I don’t know what will.
This is my first ever guest blog post – I am very excited about the opportunity to write it, especially here on the The Abundant Artist. It is also quite an interesting revelation to find myself writing about being a successful artist, when not too long ago I would have laughed in the face of anyone who said I could be just that. Yet, nonetheless, here I am.
I received an email not too long ago from a fellow artist who had come across my website and felt compelled to write me asking me for advice on how to proceed in her journey as an artist. It was a strange email to get, because I remember sending out those exact same emails to artists that inspired me.
Sometimes I asked technical questions about features on their website, sometimes I was reaching out for a few esteem-boosting words of encouragement – but maybe in the end what I was seeking was evidence that there really was a person on the other end of what I was seeing as “successful” – proof that it could be done.
So, what advice did I now have to offer this woman who had found herself where I stood not that long ago?
What could I condense about my own journey that might be useful? Certainly I could tell her about the importance of an efficient and well designed website, a newsletter, or social media (I think all this would be better left to Cory to sort out for you). I could steer her toward seeking venues, maybe art festivals and craft fairs. What I decided to tell her was something a bit simpler. Persistence.
I have recently come across a TED talk that resonated with me. A researcher named Breneé Brown spoke about shame and vulnerability. I urge you to watch it if you haven’t. [EDIT from Cory: I saw Brene Brown speak on this same topic in 2012. She truly is wonderful.]
Her talk is not specific to selling art, or even artists specifically – but what she said I think is at the heart of what my advice to any artist or creative seeking success would be. She refers to it as “Showing up in your life.”
What “Showing up in your life” means to me
- Registering for a table at an art festival
- calling a restaurant where you saw art hanging to see if you can put your work there
- calling or walking into a gallery
- sending out a newsletter
- writing a blog post
- showing up at the art festival you registered for
Each and every one of these things gripped me (and still do) with fear and discomfort. Each was plagued with a worry that my art wasn’t good enough, that I didn’t belong, that the gallery would laugh me out the door.
I found, however, that my fear was always larger than life. I would go to art festivals and would meet great people, refine my ability to talk about my own art, and lo and behold….sell art.
I would send out a newsletter and rather than watching my inbox fill up with unsubscribe notices, I get genuine responses from people that are interested, or new traffic to my website or Facebook page, and sometimes even …art sales.
What I found is that your art, and the success of you as an artist, rely entirely on you creating that success. In order to sell art, you have to put it in front of people. Without the opportunity for them to buy it, they simply cannot buy it. And that means putting yourself out there. Hang your work on any wall that will accept it, seek out the walls to hang it on (even digital ones). Create a website, create a newsletter….send out newsletters (it doesn’t do you any good to sit on a list of email addresses), write blog posts.
When I was told that I should write and maintain a blog I was mortified. “What would I say? I don’t have anything important to say.”
Buying art is a big investment for someone to make, and becomes much easier when it is connected to a person that they are interested in and engaged with. I guarantee you that you will find people are genuinely interested in what you as an artist have to say about your work, why you created it, what you were thinking about, why you chose the colors you chose. It is terrifying to put yourself out there, I know, but you’ve gotta do it!
For me, my success has been hard earned. I have worked very hard to build a mailing list a few names at a time. I have sent out countless emails to venues of all sorts asking for an opportunity to show my work.
I have shown up with rickety card tables and less-than-square business cards printed at home at art festivals and craft fairs.
I have had to learn a lot about what it is to build a website, to market myself online, to create a Facebook fan page, and many more. I have certainly by no means mastered all of these things, but…I keep at it.
I paint, post, and show every chance I get. It can be a challenge, especially while trying to juggle everything else in life. I have a job, I am a full time student, and I am a member of the National Guard…I am busy. But, what do I tell people when they ask me what I do? My reply is always: “I am an artist.” I have earned the right to say that through sheer force, effort and determination – with a little bit of “fake it ’til you make it” mixed in.
So, my words of wisdom would be simply to do it, keep at it, be persistent…take on fear, self-doubt, and vulnerability squarely… hang your work, open that gallery door, send out your emails. You are an artist; you have every right to think of yourself as one! Believe in yourself – if you don’t, who will?
When I first started trying to become an artist, to try to live off my creativity and think of my art as more than just a hobby; my apprehension and my attitude toward my own work showed in the way I presented myself. I priced my pieces low – selling 18×24 canvases for $150.
I remember putting up my work at an opening night and being approached by a woman from a local art and entertainment blog, she wanted to interview me. I agreed and gave the worst possible interview – I told her about how I couldn’t really consider myself an artist, how I was “an amateur at best” and basically critiqued myself right out of credibility. It took a friend standing over my shoulder eavesdropping to point out what I had done. I was doing everything wrong. I didn’t believe in myself and it showed.
Over the course of time, I slowly changed that perspective. I began giving myself the credit I deserved, and it began to show in the decisions I made. I became fearless in asking to show my work anywhere I saw work hanging. I applied to legitimate art shows and venues, and began pricing my work in such a way that showed its value, and my understanding of its value. My mailing list grew from the twelve family and friends that I felt comfortable sending it to – to several hundred strong. I have a growing list of venues that I show in, and that are always excited to see me come back. I most recently have been published in a major local business journal (Charlotte Business Journal), highlighting local artists. I also just completed a large commission, selling a piece for several thousand dollars. This month alone, I have had 4 commissioned pieces and a number of sales right “off the wall.” I have actually made a bigger salary this month than my wife who is a veterinarian.
I still to this day have to take a deep breath in the parking lot before opening my trunk and pulling paintings out when I show up at a new venue, or when I have sold a commissioned piece and am showing up to give it to them for the first time. I recently sold the biggest (both in price and dimensions) piece I have ever done. The price tag on it scared the #$%^ out of me, because I felt it implied a certain value that I had to create.
What I had overlooked in that terrifying moment of pulling into the man’s driveway with a painting in the backseat was that he had bought my work. He saw me as an artist. He loved the piece, and it became one of the more affirming moments in my artistic career.
So, There you go. Get out there and show up in your career as an artist. Take yourself seriously, be persistent, and don’t let fear hold you back!
Michael Whitlark is an artist living in Charlotte, North Carolina (USA). You can find out more about him at MichaelWhitlark.com.