How to Not be a Starving Artist: Part 3 -- Be Professional

In my first post in this series, I outlined three requirements for not being a starving artist. I said you need to be visible, open for business and professional.

As a quick review, being visible means sharing the fact that you are making and trying to sell art. People must know that you and your product exist! Your endeavor needs to be visible to the people that you regularly interact with – friends, family, coworkers (as appropriate), your kids’ friends’ parents, people at church, etc. You also need to be visible online and out in the real world at shows and events.

Being open for business means that you are properly set up from a legal perspective, you have developed your branding, you have determined and are confident in your prices and you are ready to make sales in person and online.

For this post, I have made a list of my top five components of being professional. Of course, I don’t get everything right every time, but this is what I strive for.

1.       Stick to your brand religiously

We talked a lot about branding in the last post. Even if you’re thinking you’re a fine artist and “What does a ‘brand’ have to do with me? That sounds super commercial. I’m not selling out…blah, blah, blah,” branding matters. Your brand is your reputation and what customers and potential customers expect of you, based on every interaction they have had with you, your art and your physical and digital content since they first became aware of you. It matters.

So, once you have defined your brand, you need to honor it.  

You should work toward having a branded version of the following items: website, business cards, stationery, mailing labels, PowerPoint (or other presentation software) template, packaging/shipping and certificates of authenticity.

In addition to visual brand consistency, you’ll want to make sure your art and your behavior is consistent with your brand.

If you paint landscapes in a certain style, like I do, don’t show up at your next event with a bunch of dog portraits collaged out of magazine clippings. Ok, so that is extreme, but I personally wouldn’t even show up with a bunch of beach scenes. That is not what my collectors and fans expect to see from me, and that’s just confusing. You don’t walk into Whole Foods and see a display of Cheetos and Fun Dips. If you did, you would be confused and you would begin to doubt everything Whole Foods has ever told you about who they are, what they sell and the role they want to play in your life.

Important: I am not saying you can never change, just think long and hard about trying to do more than one thing at once (after you’re set on a brand) and when you do want to introduce a new series of work, do so deliberately and with excitement. Take Teil Duncan (a young and wildly successful artist) for example: she releases her work in collections and has painted a range of subject matter. But each collection is only one subject (beach scenes, animals, girls in dresses) and all paintings are in her signature style.

You should also think about the type of products you sell and where you sell them and make sure that these choices are aligned with your brand. If you are a fine artist, do you reproduce your work? As high-quality prints only or also on iPhone cases, mugs and pillows? Do you sell only in galleries or also in coffee shops? Do you go only to fine art festivals or also the church bazaar? There isn’t one right answer, I’m just saying these are all reflections of your brand (reputation) and decisions worth thinking through. And, huge disclaimer, don’t let not having this all nailed down prevent you from starting.

2.       Get your mind right

If you are trying to sell art, you need to feel worthy and you need to be confident. You can’t go out there with work that came out of your heart and soul without guts and feeling like you’re damn worth it. You need to feel like your art is worth buying and that you are worth someone spending their money on.

Now, if you are really just starting out and learning your craft, then I’m not talking to you. If you are confident in your worth as a human being but recognize that you are in a learning phase and that your art is not ready to sell, that’s fine. You are probably right. But that phase can’t last forever.

If this is something you struggle with, there is no shortage of self-help books and podcasts out there.

I listen to a lot of podcasts while painting and driving and recommend the ones listed below. They aren’t self-help, per se, but they interview creative, successful people and the episodes tend to fire me up to get after it. Some episodes focus specifically on mindset.

Being Boss

The Chase Jarvis Show

Don’t Keep Your Day Job

Artists Helping Artists

The Tim Ferriss Show

I also recommend the book Daring Greatly by Brene Brown. Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic also has some good tidbits about not being precious about your art.

Think about dentists or carpenters or auto mechanics. When they have learned the trade and are competent in their jobs, I don’t imagine they wonder whether they should get paid for what they are doing. I don’t imagine they feel nervous to name a price or quote a project – they know they have a skill not everyone has and that completing a project takes their precious time and material resources, which are expensive. Artist is a profession just like anything else – I challenge you to think of it that way.

3.       Deliberately blend personal and professional

Social media has changed pretty much everything. Assuming you’re on social media (and you should be, a significant portion of my sales originate on social) you need to think about the professional you that exists on social and the personal you and how you mix them.

I have a personal Facebook account that I keep pretty private and that I don’t use all that much anyway. I have a Facebook page for my art business (that I also don’t use all that much). I only have one Instagram account and I use it to promote my business.

I always like to tell people, “In any industry, people like to buy from people they know, like and trust.” That is definitely true of art and social media helps people that may never meet you get to “know,” like and trust you. Social media is intimate. People want to know what you look like. They want to see the behind-the-scenes, they want to know your process and feel like they are a part of it. They want to know what inspires you and what challenges you. 

In general, I feel like they want to know you in ways that are relevant to the art you are creating. They may not care about your dog or the amazing pho you cooked all day yesterday (unless they are your actual friend in real life), but they might be interested to see what your first strokes on a painting look like and what your work space looks like. I am not saying you can never share a photo of your adorable pup, just remember that strangers are following you because they like your art.

The photos above are Instagram posts of mine. 1. Example of the "husband as laborer" category, 2. Example of the "where you work" category, 3. Example of the "inspiration" category, 4. Example of the "process and challenges" categories.

On occasion, I share photos of me with my husband. He is a big part of my life (obviously) and also a huge mental, logistical and labor help in my business. Normally when I share photos of him, it’s either a big deal (like our fifth anniversary) or it’s him working his butt off to help me set up my tent at a festival, or because it’s something timely and I want to be part of a larger conversation on social (#optoutside over Thanksgiving weekend). Anyway, it is never, “Look how cute my husband is sitting on the couch. #weekendvibes.”

And then there’s politics/social movements…This is a tricky one. Traditionally, politics, religion and money aren’t good table manners. But, with social media, everyone’s opinion is a lot more “out there” and “important” than it used to be AND there is a lot going on in our country right now that many people feel compelled to take a stand on. Being a solopreneur is quite different than being a corporation. As a sole proprietor or single-member LLC, you don’t have shareholders or a board to answer to. If you say something offensive or that people disagree with, that is your own issue to work through. I choose to almost never post politically-charged things and when I do, it’s because I'm really fired up and very certain in my stance.

Two summers ago, after a spate of police killings, when all media outlets were awash with conversations about race relations, I posted a quote image with this, from John Steinbeck: “Try to understand men. If you understand each other, you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and almost always leads to love.” Not very incendiary (I don’t think). And, if for some reason this were to upset someone who saw it on my Instagram, fine. I would probably rather not have one of my paintings hanging in their home.

That is a good rule of thumb for me: Do I feel strongly enough about this subject that if someone un-follows me and doesn’t buy from me because of this post, it will be worth it?

4.       Treat it like a business

If you want to make money selling art and especially if you want it to be your full-time job, you need to treat it like a business. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but that means you don’t get to spend all of your time painting. You need to keep records of your inventory and sales, you need to spend time marketing (building and updating a website, running social media, writing and sending out press releases), researching festivals and galleries to show at, tracking expenses and paying taxes, writing proposals for projects and drafting contracts, photographing inspiration material, checking in on clients, learning how to use a new credit card processing device, packing up paintings to ship – the list is literally endless. Do you want this? If not, that’s fine, that just means you have a hobby.

If you are, in fact, running a business, you are probably not spending more than 50% of your time on the actual art. When I was doing more freelance work, I heard a general guideline: It takes 25% of your time to get the work (marketing, networking, writing proposals), 25% of the time to maintain/grow your skillset (I thought that was kind of high) and then with the remaining 50%, you actually do the work.

I don’t do a stellar job tracking my hours, but I would say a great week is when I spend close to 75% of my time painting.

Right now I am in production mode and not really looking to drum up additional work. I am trying to roughly follow this schedule:

  • 7:30-9 am: Do all my computer work – email, bookkeeping, picking photo options for commissions, writing this blog post, etc.
  • 9-11 am: Work out, shower, get ready for the day, maybe unload the dishwasher.
  • 11-5 pm: Paint

When you are treating your art endeavor like a business, that means you are in sales. Your whole objective is to sell [paintings]. Because if you are not selling them, you are not making money and for most people, that means you’ll have to go back to doing something else.  

So, given that we’ve agreed we’re all in sales, we need to get good at closing sales and nurturing relationships. I’m not trying to turn you into a used car salesman. I want you to be great at helping people. Help them see how your art will bring them joy/peace/inspiration/whatever role you art serves, help them figure out which size works over their fireplace, help them by reminding them with a nice follow-up email that they saw you at a festival and really liked your work but were in the process of repainting their living room, help them by offering to bring both pieces over so they can decide which one is best in the space, help them by offering layaway.

I am not aggressive about trying to make sales, I just try to make it as easy as possible for people to say “yes” to me. Maria Brophy is very aggressive (but still in a helpful way) about making sales. I highly recommend reading her book, Art, Money, Success.

5.       Deliver top-notch customer service

Delivering good customer service is part of treating your art like a business, but it’s so important that I wanted to separate it. I am splitting this section into three categories: communication, appreciation and helpfulness.

Communication

Frequent and clear communication is always important, but especially with high-dollar purchases and custom projects. I (try to) respond to all emails, calls and texts quickly and always am the one to initiate communication (to arrange shipping or delivery) after someone buys a painting through my website.

When I am working on a commission, I update the buyer frequently and offer to share progress updates. I am clear with them about what I am doing and set realistic expectations about timelines.

After selling a big painting, I often email to ask if the collector has hung the painting and if they are happy with it.

Appreciation

Even though I have now sold a lot of paintings, I am still thrilled with every sale and feel so honored that someone wants to hang my work in their home and pay me to pursue my dream. I try to convey this to them genuinely.

I include a thank you (on branded note cards, of course) with every painting sale and send holiday cards to my customers. I frequently deliver paintings to customers and when I do, it’s always without charge and at their convenience. For my top collectors, I sometimes offer a discount or even gift them paintings. I sell them frames at cost and don’t charge for my framing labor. I send calendars or note cards as gifts. I offer collectors first dibs on new series of paintings. I try to accommodate quick turn requests on commissions.

Helpfulness

There is some overlap here with the things I mentioned when talking about closing a sale. Whether buying their first piece of real art ever, or adding the fiftieth painting to their collection, buying a painting can be a big decision. People are often buying them for personal reasons or to give as a special gift or to hang in a particular place (or all of the above). They want to feel confident in their purchase.

I try to be patient as we talk through what they want – remember, collectors often aren’t artists and they don’t have the same vocabulary that you do. They may struggle to articulate what they want. They may change their mind. Of course, it is important to set boundaries so you don’t get abused and not compensated for endless revision requests, but try to be accommodating. You want them to love the painting. Help them pick the right size for the space, help them evaluate color and composition options, be familiar with your inventory so you can recommend a painting they might like.

Wrap-up

Alright, guys, that’s the end of this series for now. Thank you for reading!