How to Not be a Starving Artist: Part 1

A lot of people ask me for advice about being an artist. Every time, I am floored that someone is asking me, but I can recognize that I have worked hard over the last several years, have learned a lot and have much to share. I have been fortunate to learn -- personally and online -- from generous artists who are farther along in their careers and it’s only decent that I help others who are a couple steps behind me. I have too much for one post, so this is one of three. This one is long and I only go over everything at a cursory level.

I have already shared my thoughts on setting prices. Read that post here.

First, if you say you want to sell you work, you need to actually, actively be trying to sell it.

To successfully do that, you need to do the following:

-        Be visible

-        Be open for business (post 2)

-        Be professional (post 3)

Today’s post focuses on the first category. I could (and might, eventually) talk at length about each of the sub-topics mentioned here, but this will give you a good overview.

Be Visible

This may seem obvious, but if you want people to buy your art, people need to know you have art to sell. This means sharing your art online, displaying it in the real world and talking about it proudly any chance you get.

 Be Visible Personally

You are your own salesperson. If you don’t like the idea of selling, you either need to find someone to represent you and sell your work for you, or give up on the idea of making money off of your art. That’s it. If you aren’t excited to sell it, or are shy to talk about it, how is anyone going to even find it to buy it? Sales doesn’t have to feel icky and I’m certainly not advocating for any icky sales practices.

Assuming you’re proud of and enthusiastic about your work, that will come through when you talk about it to others. That is appealing to buyers. I am not suggesting you brag, but when you are passionate and light up just talking about your recent painting, that energy can be compelling. I challenge you to think of a time in which someone being excited about his or her job has had a negative impact on you wanting to work with or do business with them.

Do you have a full-time job? If so, do your work friends know you have this passion you’re pursuing on the side? What about the other parents you sit with every Saturday at the kids’ soccer games? Do they know you just opened an Etsy shop? Your neighbors that you’ve known for ten years? Don’t keep your pursuits quiet. These are the people that are going to cheer you on and buy from you in the beginning. These people can tell their friends, these people will come to you when they have a special art-related request. To get your art career going, you need as many people as possible to know about you and what you’re doing. Don’t worry about whether your art is perfect yet (you’ll likely never feel it’s perfect); these people will grow with you and they’re excited you’re making time to do something you love.

Be Visible Online

 You don’t need to be on every social media platform under the sun. You just don’t. It would be a challenge to maintain all of them effectively. I only use Instagram and Facebook for my art. You do need to have a website and I highly recommend sending out a regular email.


Instagram is my favorite social media platform. I think it is an effective way to reach a large audience and to sell your work. Even though I have plenty to learn and there is no shortage of artists with much larger followings than me, I could talk at length about Instagram strategy. Today, I’m going to just touch on content.

I share several types of photos on Instagram: Finished paintings (both filling the whole frame and “staged” in a room), paintings in progress and studio details, inspiration photos, and photos of me -- sometimes in work environments and occasionally from my personal life.

Look, I love photographing all the crazy Jell-o salads in the deli of my small-town grocery and taking photos of the multi-colored bubbles on my windshield at the car wash (actual photos on my phone right now), but I don’t post these things. I don’t have pets, but I definitely wouldn’t post photos of them. If you are famous, people might care about all the minutia of your life, but if you are not famous, people are looking at your Instagram profile to figure out if they care about you. If they can’t figure out what your account is about from those first six or nine photos they see when they click to your profile, they are not going to care about you and they are definitely not going to follow you.

So, if you are wanting to build your following, make sure each photo looks good with the last (cohesive color scheme, content, etc.) so when someone clicks to view your profile, in a split second, they will be able to tell that you are an artist, what kind of work you do, and whether they like it. One photo of a painting, one photo of your cat, two photos of your baby, one of the snow in Houston and one of the beans you soaked yesterday (unless you are my actual friend in real life) doesn’t look like I want to follow you, it looks like a hot mess. That your photos should be good goes without saying.

How often to post? Who to follow? How to hashtag? Whether to pay for ads? Coming in a later post.


I like Facebook less than Instagram, but I still post on it. I have a lot of overlap in my audience, but not complete. Plenty of people only follow me on Facebook. I typically only post a few times a week on Facebook and have been known to lapse up to two weeks. This is not intentional, I just don’t get the same results on Facebook. I think the algorithm (the system that determines who/how many of your followers actually see what you post) is stricter and I find it difficult to get my content in front of people. So, perhaps this is laziness. See, I told you it’s hard to do a good job with multiple social media accounts.


You need to have a website. This is your “home base.” We have no control over social media platforms. What if Instagram decides tomorrow that you need to pay to show each post to your followers? What if next week there is a hot new platform and all the followers you’ve worked so hard to accumulate jump ship? Anyway, you control your website and you want to have a permanent place that people can come to to learn everything they want to know about you. Your website should also be able to handle sales. That means it can be working on your behalf 24/7. Nothing like waking up to sale that has happened overnight or while you were busy enjoying life! I use Squarespace and am pleased with it. You don’t need to know how to code; it’s very user-friendly and the templates look professional and modern. A lot of artists use Fine Art Studio Online (FASO). I have never tried using FASO, but I think many of the templates look dated, and they aren’t as easy for the visitor to use. I make these statements based on seven years working in digital advertising strategy with a heavy emphasis on user behavior, user expectations and user experience design.


Just as I said you control your website, you also control your email list. This is super important. With a website, you are just hoping people come to you. With email, you go to them. Email may not seem sexy and it’s certainly not new – in terms of digital marketing tools – but it’s a workhorse. And it’s personal. It’s not really a big deal to like a page on Facebook or a profile on Instagram, but to give someone your email – well, that’s almost like giving out your phone number. When someone gives you his or her email address, you know he or she is very interested. Treat your email list like gold. Set expectations about how often people will hear from you and what they can expect to receive, and then do what you told them you would do. Of course, if people give you their email address, they expect to hear from you, but even if you’re not quite ready to start sending emails, don’t wait to start collecting addresses. I send a “newsletter” once a month and then if I have an event, I often send an invite to people in the area. I use MailChimp to send my emails and it’s free for the number that I send. It’s a fantastic tool and I recommend it.

Be Visible in the Real World

 Your digital efforts need to be supported by showing your work out in the world. In my experience, my digital and real world efforts are both essential. People that first find me online will then come out to my events to see my paintings in person and meet me. People that stumble upon my work at events then start following me online.

Some people will buy art online even if they’ve never seen your work in person but understandably, many people are hesitant to do this. If someone has seen your work in person, but not a particular piece, familiarity with your quality of work is often enough for them to feel confident purchasing online.

Art/Craft Fairs/Festivals

Festivals are a LOT of work. But I love them. The whole point is to talk to as many people as possible, so if that’s not your thing, think about that before signing up for one. I am not on the festival circuit; I don’t think I have the energy for that, nor do I have the desire to be on the road every weekend. I try to do an event approximately every other month. The biggest one I do is the Festival of the Arts in Oklahoma City, which is huge. Six days, 750,000 attendees…huge. On the smaller end of the spectrum, for example, I hosted an opening for a new painting collection at a coffee & gelato shop near my house this summer. It was just a few hours on one evening. Events like both of these are super important for showing your work and meeting people. I can’t tell you how many opportunities have come my way from the people I have met at events. Plus they are amazing for getting feedback.

A quick Google search of “art festival tips” or something similar will return all sorts of advice, check lists, etc., for participating in festivals. I definitely recommend spending an hour or so reading up before your first one. If you are participating in a bigger festival, you may be able to find online reviews of it from other artists.

I wrote a detailed review/how-to of my most recent festival set-up here.

Restaurants & Coffee Shops

I have had a lot of shows at restaurants and coffee shops. I have sold some art, but not a lot. In general, I think the more exposure the better. Even when I don’t sell pieces, I do often hear, “Oh, I saw your art at such and such…” There is some stat about people needing to be exposed to a product seven times before being ready to buy. One advantage of these type of shows is that they are typically pretty easy to line up and they give you a place to send potential clients if you don’t have your own studio or gallery. A woman recently contacted me asking where she could see my paintings. I had seven hanging at a coffee shop; I sent her there and she picked one out. Maria Brophy generally recommends against hanging your art in venues like this. There are the dangers of grease and steam, splashes and spills, people not paying attention and being careless, etc. And, of course, it’s not exactly prestigious to hang your art in a coffee shop (normally), but I am trying to sell paintings and I tend to think: the more people that see my work, the better.

Nontraditional Venues

This is where I throw prestige and “the way things are done” out the window. I try to balance having my work in places where people are going to buy art and places where people actually go. Think about it: People visiting a gallery might have a high propensity to buy, but how often do people go into a gallery?

A friend of mine recently hung her paintings at a rowing studio. People were sweating it out on the erg machines for an hour, just staring at her paintings, getting used to how they felt and what they looked like. She said she had to take new paintings there almost every week because she sold so many.

My town doesn’t have much in the way of art galleries, so I called the local furniture store and asked if they would consider hanging my art on the walls. Furniture and art seemed like a natural pair to me. After walking into a jewelry store and seeing their bare walls, I called them to see if they might like to borrow some pretty paintings. I sold one during First Friday and the owner’s wife is now one of my most loyal collectors. I also called the city’s visitor welcome center and approached the regional development alliance. Galleries aren’t the only option. Sometimes you just need to get creative and pick up the phone.


These resources have been very valuable to me.

I highly recommend these books:

Steal Like an Artist

Show Your Work

Art Money Success

These podcasts:

Artists Helping Artists – There are seven years’ worth in the library. Get listening.

Being Boss

Steps I decided to take in 2015, the year I decided to attack this dream.

There is so much more I have to share! But that’s it for now. If you don’t want to miss the next update, sign up for my email list. Hope this was helpful!