This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. She's blogged since 2002 about the business side--and the spiritual inside--of art. She says, "I share my experiences so you won't have to make ALL the same mistakes I did...." For ten years, Luann also wrote a column ("Craft Matters") for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explored the funnier side of her life in craft. She's a double-juried member of the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (fiber & art jewelry). Her work has appeared in books, magazines and newspapers across the country and she is a published writer.
Hint: This is a question you DON’T have to answer!
We continue our series on how to respond to difficult questions and comments from our visitors and potential collectors.
Today’s queasy question (ah! Alliteration!) is, “How long did it take you to make that?”
Let me tell you what NOT to say: “Two hours!”
True story. In a video created for a new open studio tour, the videographer asked this question of an artist who was finishing a large painting in their studio. A VERY large painting, in the neighborhood of 10x8 FEET. As they finished up with freely broad paint strokes, they glibly said, “Oh, about two hours.”
The work was priced at over $5,000. You do the math.
And frankly, most of us hate this question because of just that—we assume the asker wants to find out how much we make an hour. Or even worse, whether the work is worth the hefty price we’re asking for it.
Another true story: Many, many, many artists, when asked this simple question, respond with something along the lines of, “It took me 30 years to learn how to do this!”
So between excruciating naivete’, and exquisite irony, how do we respond?
First, let’s take a step away from our first assumption—that someone wants to know how much we make an hour, and whether the piece is worth that.
Bruce Baker turned the question back onto the asker. With lightness and sincerity, he said, “So many people ask me that question! Why do you want to know?”
And here was the heartbreaking response he got: “All my life I’ve dreamed of being an artist. I’ve always wanted to make something creative like this, and I just wondered how much time it takes....”
So what we might have interpreted as a challenging question (“Is your work really worth what I’d have to pay for it??”) turns out to be the wistful yearning of someone who deeply admires what we’re doing, and wishes they had the skill, the commitment, the chops, to BE LIKE YOU.
If we respond with sarcasm, frustration, anger, pointed humor, we may actually crush the dreams of someone who is so inspired by our work, they’ve actually reached out to connect with us.
And in return, we smacked them down in our defensiveness.
You can also now see the smack of the remark, “It’s taken me 30 years to make this!”
Of course, that may not be the real reason behind EVERYONE’S inquiry. But it’s a good place to start on how to respond!
Here’s what’s worked for me:
First, I say, “That’s a really good question!”
(No matter how many times WE’VE heard it, it IS a good question. It’s new to the person asking it. And this small courtesy sets a lovely path for us to proceed down, with them eagerly joining us on our way.)
In my case, I explain the many, many, many steps it takes for me to actually make the layered block of polymer that is the foundation of the faux ivory technique—over 30 steps in all.
I start with asking, “I always ask people if they are familiar with puff pastry or samurai sword making, and usually everybody says “yes!” to one or the other.” A tiny joke that usually offends no one, and appeals to most.)
The actual process is similar—a simple one that creates hundreds of very fine layers--but time-consuming. (Simple—but not EASY.)
At the end, I say, “And THEN I start to make my animal....” There is almost always a little gasp of amazement here... (From them, not me.)
Then I explain the shaping, the marking, the texturing, (all with special little tools) the baking, the sanding, the sanding, the sanding, the scrimshaw technique, the polishing.
Then there is the story behind the marks, the handprint made with stamp I created of my own handprint, and how it “didn’t look right” so I actually use a needle to prick the clay and fill in the handprint until it looks smudged, like a real handprint….all the dozens, hundreds of tiny details that add up to the artifact looking exactly right to me.
Yep, even my handprints have gotten better over the years. I don't know why, but people gasp when I tell them that each tiny dot is a needle prick I made to get it to look just right. (My special talent: Needle pricking.)
Most people are fascinated by this story, right down to the beads I use to make an artifact into a piece of jewelry (gemstones, antique trade beads, my own handmade beads); the meaning of the markings; how my customers have added to the stories behind my work; encouraging people to touch and pick up the pieces, to feel them for themselves.
Notice I never actually say how long it takes me to make them?
Because that isn’t really what people are asking.
Yes, they are asking for validation for my prices, which aren’t cheap. But in the end, what they learn from my “answer” is...
I have a vision.
I have a story.
I have a process that is time-consuming, and has evolved over time.
I have integrity, and skill, and an exquisite eye for detail.
My work does have value, though it may only be in the eye of the beholder. But that is for THEM to ultimately decide, isn’t it?
The woman who said it took her two hours to paint that canvas mural? I would have said something along the lines of, how she came to create this kind of work. How she decided her subject matter. What her aesthetic was based on. (I actually loved her work, which may seem ‘simplistic’, but is actually playful, exuberant, and intriguing.) The challenges of creating very large work, including the huge canvas, the support structure for it, how she enlarges a design (I know from experience that “going bigger” is more than just “making it bigger”....) The actual painting might only be two hours. But the planning, the design, the execution, the finished presentation, might consume many hours, even days.
After all, she doesn’t make four in one day, does she?
So between two hours, and 30 years, how would YOU frame what it takes to create the work you do?
What are ways YOU can present the time involved in making YOUR work?
What are the things you pay exquisite attention to, that add value to what you do?
What is the story only YOU can tell, to connect your audience to the work you make?
Okay, dish! Share YOUR favorite responses to this question! Or suggest one, now that you have a different lens to view it through.
Remember: Courtesy. Kindness. Furthering your values and vision. No jibes or jokes.
Just the beauty of your authentic, steadfast, creative heart.
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