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Make Amazing Art, Be Authentic, Tell Your Stories and the Art Will Sell

by Clint Watson on 10/30/2009 9:33:19 AM

This article is by Clint Watson,  former art gallery owner/director/salesperson and founder of FineArtViews. You should follow Clint on Twitter here.

Back when I owned an art gallery and spent most of my time selling art, I stumbled upon a little "secret" I'll let you in on - I didn't really "sell" art, at least not in the way we think of a car salesperson "selling" you a car.  The truth is, I spent most of my time being a storyteller.

Here, let me illustrate what I mean, here were some of my stories that tended to "sell" artwork:

Authentic Stories "Sell" Art

There was the story about painter Richard Iams and the leopard.  You see, Richard sometimes painted wildlife and had arranged for a professional cat handler to "pose" a full-grown leopard, while Ricard took reference photographs.  Unfortunately, the leopard wasn't in a cooperative mood and somehow broke off her chain and in one leap of about 20 25 yards (I confess, I don't recall the actual distance, but like any good story it gets longer every time I tell it) was on top of Richard.  Fortunately, Richard is a tall, muscular guy and was not knocked off his feet, and narrowly averted being seriously harmed.  The handler later told him if he had fallen to the ground as many people would have....well.....he would have been seriosly hurt.

Here's another one about my friend, Kevin Macpherson.  Our gallery hosted a juried exhibition and we brought in respected artist CW Mundy as the judge.  CW had selected one of Kevin's paintings as the winning painting.  We all agreed it was a true masterpiece. Kevin was travelling in Europe at the time, so we couldn't easily call him, so we decided to email him.  However, none of us wanted winning to "go to Kevin's head."  Kevin had a tendency to give us all a hard time (all in fun), so we decided to give him a does of his own medicine.  We took a photo of CW, me and a couple other gallery people with Kevin's painting as we all held a sign that read "paint by numbers" and pointed at Kevin's painting.

Or there was the Chinese painter, Calvin Liang.  I used to rib him about his name.  "So is Calvin a traditional Chinese name that runs in your family?" I would ask him.  We all wondered if he was distantly related to Calvin Klein.  The truth is that Calvin's real name is "Ge" (pronounced similar to "Guh") and, when he immigrated to America, his friends told him it would be easier for him if he took an "American" name, so, while he stood in line at the immigration office, he and his friends went through a few different names, "John", "Ralph", "Mike" and someone said "Calvin" and it just seemed to fit.  The funny thing is, when you meet the guy, he does seem like a Calvin.  (As an aside, Calvin is one of the nicest guys you'd ever hope to meet).

Artists are "Social Objects"

If you've been paying attention, you'll notice that all these stories have something in common - they really don't have anything to do with art methods, awards, exhibitions and the like.  And yet, over and over, I noticed that people I talked with in my role as "salesperson" just weren't that interested in knowing what awards an artist had won, what exhibits he/she had been in, what magazines had run feature stories.....nope what they loved was hearing about how they guy almost got malled by a leopard.  I'm not being glib here.  I "sold" a lot of art this way.  

I suspect that is because art is, as Hugh MacLeod would say, a Social Object.  Actually, now that I think about it, it seems that in most cases it's not so much the art that's the "Social Object" as it is the artist.  

Consider this, an acquaintance walks into my house and sees one of my Kevin Macpherson paintings and says, "hey is that a Macpherson?"

"Why yes!" I reply proudly.

"I met Kevin last year at a workshop, man that guy is hilarious" My new friend says.

Bingo - we've just connected...and Kevin in the "Social Object" that connected us.

Now, I can really connect as I launch into my story, "Yeah, Kevin's a riot, hey did I ever tell you about the time we sent him a photo poking fun at his style, calling him a 'paint by numbers' guy......"

Telling Your Story Online

What I'm seeing now, as we move into an era where artists are "marketing" themselves online is that the most successful artists seem to be doing the same thing...being themselves, telling stories, being authentic.  In fact, it's more powerful than what I did because I was just some poor schmuck sharing the little tidbits I picked up here and there about the artists.  But online people can connect directly with the artist.  

To sell art online, what you need to to is be yourself, be authentic and tell stories.

Think about Hazel Dooney.  She's become the "poster child" as an artist who has been successful in abandoning the traditional gallery system and selling her art directly.  I love her blog.  But you know what it's about?  You guessed it - stories about her daily routine, her struggles, her thoughts.  We're all following as her story unfolds.  She's as authentic as they come and she's doing just fine.  

Or look at Hugh MacLeod.  We've all watched as he's shared his unfolding life story for the past several years via his blog, We watched as he created cartoons on the back of business cards.  As he helped various companies develop their "global microbrands."  As he moved to west Texas.  As he launched into offering his art pieces for sale.  Again, Hugh is Hugh and that's the way it is and it works.  What he shares are stories about his life, not endless lists of awards, exhibits and accolades.  And people love his stories and purchase his art. In a neat twist, those people write him and share their stories about what they've done with his art.  They send him photographs.  And he shares their photos and stories on his blog and that makes people even more interested.  Yeah.  He's a Social Object.

Closer to home, one of our very own FASO customers, Brian Kleiwer decided to start sharing his stories with his followers via email.  He sold 82 paintings in about 100 days.  What Brian did is tell little stories about each one of the 100 paintings he created during that time.  Stories about where he was and what he was doing when he decided to paint a particular subject.  Stories about what he felt like and what he was thinking.  Even stories about what kind of music he listens to in his studio.  People wrote Brian and specifically shared with him that his conversational tone motivated them to buy the paintings. You. Should. Tell. Stories.

Artist, Linda Blondheim said, in a recent forum thread, "I have felt for a long time that some artists are on the wrong path in marketing. Most of the artists I know focus entirely on other artists and the artistic community. I think that is a mistake. 70% of my patrons are not artists, and they are not really involved in the art community. They instead,are involved in all of the things I love, like land and water conservation, history, nature, dogs, wildlife, cooking and foodie interests. I think many artists have a narrow viewpoint and a narrow interest...They would be surprised to find that many art buyers are buying because of the subject and interest in the artist because of non art related interests."

So I guess what I'm saying is that while there are always devils in the details, the basics of being successful with your art are, at least theoretically, simple:

The success formula is this: Make Amazing Art, Be Authentic, Tell Your Stories and the Art Will Sell.


Clint Watson
Software Craftsman and Art Fanatic

PS - Speaking of stories, I recall a night in Santa Fe where we polished off a couple of bottles of wine.  It was during the Oil Painters of America show, so several artists were there.....but we'll save this one for another time . . .


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Related Posts:

Share Your Stories

When was the Last Time You Called a Collector....on the PHONE?

Building Relationships with Your Collectors

Personal, Timely, and Relevant

Artist Brian Kliewer - A Case Study in Email Marketing

Art Marketing is Conversations

Art Marketing for Artists Who Want to Change the World

Topics: Art Business | Art Commentary | art marketing | Creativity and Inspiration 

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Maureen Sharkey
I am writing to tell you, Clint, how much I appreciate your articles (and of course for starting Fine Art Views).

I am an artist who looks forward to your newsletter everytime I open up my emails. Your info has helped organize in my head, how to go forward as a professional artist, and it gives me optimism and perspective.

I haven't been able to post my paintings on your site yet, because the series I'm working on isn't finished.

I want you to be rewarded by knowing that, as a serious artist, hoping to make it big someday soon, greatly appreciates you.

PS I didn't know you were so good looking! I had pictured you looking more like, well, just not so good looking.

Michelle Basic Hendry
This is the absolute truth. I enjoyed reading this post even more because of the stories!

As a collector, I love to hear the stories an artist has to tell about a painting. It increases the value of it to me, and may push me off the fence and get me to buy it. Sara Jane Doberstein travels to the Carolinas every year and loves to paint the blue crabs. She told me about how she got a crab or two from a restaurant and put them on the dock to compose paintings. When she was done, she couldn't bear to see them eaten and tossed them back in the ocean. One of those crab paintings is on my wall.

As an artist, the story can be inspiration. I paint old buildings, inside and out. Many are abandoned or derelict and the stories include both my discovery of the place and what I learn along the way about the building's history. I tell these stories on my blog (and website) and the press discovered them, resulting in a number of articles just this year alone. People love a good story. I get to share my passion. It's win/win.

Clint Watson
Maureen - It's amazing what a good photographer can do. Seriously, thanks for your kind words about FineArtViews.

Michelle - You're absolutely right - they funny thing is that sharing stories is just so *easy* - so much easier than other things people try to do to sell art.

Robert Rodriguez Jr
You are so right about this - I always tell other photographers that to this date, and hundreds of sales, not one buyer of a photograph of mine has ever asked a technical question about the work, or how I captured the image. They were interested in the story behind the image, or my motivations for what I do.

Thanks for your insight!

Carol Berry
I loved this article! All my paintings have had a story to tell, in one way or another. And I have noticed during shows when a visitor to the gallery has stopped to visit with me, what they have wanted to hear about was me! Not so much "why" I painted a particular piece or what inspired me to do so but more about just plain old me. I hade a 30 minute conversation with a visitor at the last big show we had and we talked about each other and how our past had been so much alike. That guy probably now knows more about me than the other artists in the gallery! And I really enjoyed the visit we had too.

Lori Woodward
Clint, one of your most engaging articles. Thanks for setting us on the right track.

Yep, Kevin is hilarious and friendly. At the same time, he's a master painter. He can be appreciated on so many levels.

Sharon Weaver
This one really hit home. From now on, I intend to incorporate stories into every blog and newsletter I write. It is sometimes easy to get into a selling mode and just want to list the upcoming events, not really scratching the surface. Gotta go farther.

Karen Winters
This is definitely true.

I've been a documentary writer and producer almost as long as I've been an artist, and the essence of both is storytelling.

The more observational skills you can bring to your painting experience, the more you'll have to talk about later with potential collectors. Even people you meet when plein air painting can become part of the story. Sharpen your interviewing skills, learn to be a more effective listener (and collector of facts) and it will bring many rewards. I know it has worked for me.

Clint Watson
Lori - Thanks.

Sharon - yep, gotta keep pushing further outside the comfort zone.

Karen - I agree about observational skills, I would assume most painters have great visual observational skills but the stories require observing the "whole experience".

Karen Winters
Exactly, Clint. We observe with all our senses, not just our eyes.

robin zebley
Clint, you know, I am one of those outgoing artist! I can't HELP but be chatty and I think that's really been a key to commissions. MOst of my first time portrait commission clients are buying their first piece of original work, period. I think they feel they know me from my natural tone of voice and some of the uneasiness about buying online is erased. When I was starting out 8 years ago, I was told my website was "hokey" because it was written in first person. I ignored them. It works for me.

Lori Woodward
The art world is not as stuffy as it once was. Talking in first person seems to help our collectors to feel more like we're approachable.

Good job!

Mike Ogle
via with facebook
I have just started showing me paintings on a website.

Joann Wells Greenbaum
Stories are a passion for me, and my paintings definitely tell a story about me and about how others also resonate with the story. I don't think of myself as a funny person, yet my art comes out as very whimsical, so this expresses a part of myself that I can't say in words.
Often my paintings are an inner journal about my life, sometimes a mystery even to me until the painting is done and I have some time to reflect on why I painted it.
Thanks for sharing this topic, is there anyone who does not like a story?

It's like the The J. Peterman Company....they sell clothing online with drawings of all the clothing. There are no photographs of the clothing. Seems like a hard sell no? Instead of photographs they tell a story for each piece of clothing. Here's one for a women's shirt.....

The Muse

She discovered Paris at the height of La Belle Époque.

Down the Boulevard de Clichy to the Moulin Rouge.

She entered wearing this blouse just as Van Gogh was leaving.

He decided to stay.

Toulouse Lautrec was there too, sipping what he sips and sketching it all.

She came to watch the cancan.

And to dance herself.

That's why the blouse.

The flutter cape in lieu of sleeves afforded her the freedom to move.

And move well.

Lautrec painted three pictures of her that evening (much to Jane Avril's dismay). Funny how a blouse can do that.
Silk Rosette Blouse

Silk Rosette Blouse (No. 2551) made of the softest of silk with a hint of spandex (for fit).The V neckline is both front and back. Same for the equally charmant self-fabric rosettes. Left side zipper lets you slip in and out when time is of the essence.

Discovered at a boutique on Rue Jacob. The name escapes me.

Luckily the blouse did not.

Women's sizes: XS, S, M, L, XL. Imported.

Colors: Black.

Autumn Fesperman
I have to agree! I was telling fellow studio artists about my cupcake painting Nancy dropped her cupcake she was eating and I stopped her to snap a photo of the dropped cupcake, as it had landed just so perfectly sideways. Guess which single painting sold that night to one on our group.....Nancy's dropped red velvet cupcake!

Thanks very much Clint.


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