A Successful Artist Must Have Right Expectations

Dear Darrell,

First let me thank you for the wonderful series, The Basic Techniques of Oil Painting. I can’t believe I can actually paint.

I’m not perfect by any means and it does take me a lot longer than you to paint a scene, but as you say….yes I can oil paint. My family loves my paintings and everyone is asking me to give them a painting and some are showing me photos and wanting to paint them….. I’ve done three paintings now.

So I have a couple of questions …. How much should I charge for a painting? I’m retiring soon and would like to supplement my retirement income with selling paintings. I make just a little shy of 100K, so what’s the reality of me making some serious monies oil painting? What type of gallery should I look for? Is that the only way to sell paintings? And anything else you can think of that I should know about. I am so excited about painting and the prospect of finding a way to make money. Let me know as soon as you can the answers to the above? Jeff King.

Hi Jeff,

Just a couple of easy questions, eh Jeff? These are great questions and I think the best way to answer this is to first put out the national statistics and then understand what artists have to say about the topic and then talk about you specifically.

Just sixty days ago, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) released a report, Artists in the Workforce: 1990-2005. This is considered the first nationwide look at artists’ demographic and employment patterns for the 21st century.

Artists in the Workforce analyzes working artist trends, gathering new statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau to provide a comprehensive overview of this workforce segment, its maturation over the past 30 years, along with detailed information on specific artist occupations. I thought it would be well worth the effort to review some of the findings of this report.

The NEA reports the average income for an American artist is $34,800 — well below the average for professionals.
Fine Artists earn an average of $27.50 an hour when not selling their work through a gallery and $12.20 hourly selling through galleries.
Location plays heavily in how much an artist earns. Seattle tops the list at $60/hour average, followed by Los Angeles ($22.50), San Francisco ($20/hour), New York ($20/hour), Boston ($17.50/hour), Chicago ($15/hour),and Dallas ($13.50).
The NEA also found that the number of artists in the U.S. has nearly tripled since 1970.
San Francisco has the highest number of artists per capita, with Santa Fe in second place, while Los Angeles-Long Beach has the most artists overall (140,000), followed by New York (133,000).
The percentage of Hispanic, Asian, or American Indian artists grew from 9 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2005.
Artist experience contributes significantly to their income abilities. The average new artist with 1-5 years experience earned $13.20/hour, whereas 5-20 years experienced earned on averaage $19/hour and those with over 20 years experienced averaged $30/hour.

It doesn’t take much to figure that if the average artist is making $27.50/hour that they should be earning $57,200 annually. However, NEA’s study indicates that the average artist income is only $34,800 which, my opinion only, means that most artists are not employed full time.

This particular perspective is re-inforced through a very popular forum of artists, wildcat (wc) who in September, 2007 began a discussion on what it takes to become a successful artist. This is worth the 2-3 hours it takes to read all of the posts, but I’d like to bullet list what I consider some great information, findings and discoveries…..

Ninety percent of all artists earn less than $1,000 per year.
Eight percent of all artists earn less than $5,000 per year.
Two percent of all artists are in the enviable position to earn a sustainable income.
It is best not to quit your day job until your success with art is already exceeding your earnings of your day job, and then it would be plain lunacy not to pursue it fulltime.
Galleries owe the artist nothing…even though many artists feel they’re doing the gallery some kind of favor in producing the art that sells for them. Many artists fall into some kind of luck, a niche that begins to work.
Galleries find a formula of acquiring collectors that is working for them and are not likely to part with precious walls space and deviate from their collectors’ requirements that impacts the formula they know sells well. As an artist, as long as you contribute to their formulae, they want you. And they take 40% to 60% of the selling price.
Several artists noted they did anywhere from 18 to 30 pieces of work annually and their paintings sold very quickly
(Darrell’s note) If the average artist produces 30 pieces of original work annually and earns $34,800 annually, than the average price of a painting produced by an experienced, successful artist should be $1,044.
Sitting down and taking a hard look at what one needs to survive as a full-time artist will help make the decisions as to whether or not to work full or part-time at another job to supplement your artist income.
Pricing artwork is a matter of using your day time job hourly rate plus your overhead multiplied by the number of hours you’ve invested in producing your painting. If you’re working at a job paying $50/hour and it takes 3 hours to produce a work, than your artwork needs to sell for $150 plus overhead.
The more successful artists reported that they found our “niche” and worked it. They’re not fabulously wealthy, but support ourselves exclusively through art. They’re “niche” just happened to be a little more commercial than some. They then used the recognition and their collector base to pursue additional styles and types of art.
It was suggested that most artists pursue a style of painting they like and then try to market the finished product instead of trying to figure out what sells and producing works that meet those needs.
People need to see your passion and joy in your artwork, no matter if its meeting the market requirements or your own personal passion. If all they see is the dollar signs, your work will show it as well as through your attitude. You must genuinely want to paint and have passion in your painting and collectors must see this.
What sets the work of some artists apart from others, is the viewer and potential buyer can sense the joy, the passion in the works making. Excellence is not an accident, and you don’t polish your skills and sacrifice penniless for years not having a passion for it. That sense of it seems by many (collectors especially) to be presumed and understood.
Many artists shared that to make it as a professional artist, they needed to live very simply. Get the kids through college, take care of your health, plan wisely for retirement, make sure your spouse is on board with you as an artist, paint in the time you do have, begin to get your work into juried shows, and work your way up the ladder. Then ease into it, downsize the house, the cars, the vacations, the daily Starbucks (or whatever), and test the waters gradually.
There is nothing wrong with simply painting because you love it, or in supporting it with a day job. You make art because you ARE an artist. You have to express creatively.
Business acumen is important. Set up your business plan, stick to it (and be prepared to change on the fly), and enjoy painting.
Life is a gift. Making art is a gift to us as artists, giving us a connection to see our world anew and its beauty. Artists develop eyes that see and see more deeply. Celebrate life…each stroke of paint, each touch upon the canvas , and say a prayer for to keep the joy you first experienced as an artist fresh and never forgotten.
Art is meant to be seen, appreciated.

What are the specific factors affecting pricing …. Well, according to the WC forum,

Different regions of the country have different local economies. The artist will struggle along with the local economies. For example an artist in the textile regions of the South or industrial regions of the Mid-West, will not do as well as an artist in a heavily traveled vacation spot or a thriving city.
Figure out how much you need to be able to produce at what price to live as you’d like. Is it viable?
Are you an experienced entrepreneur? The Working Artist who’s never run a business before is at a disadvantage since they must learn to price their artwork to cover all business overhead.
Selling your art depends on your ability to make business contacts, getting representation, and effort to create a sellable product.
Unless you are in demand, you will have to be practical about your art. Don’t be afraid to create something that appeals to the mass public. I’ve come across a lot of artists that feel it’s beneath them to do that. You can still create more controversial art, but if you are unknown, chances are it will be more difficult to sell.
A realistic artist needs to weigh and balance money-making possibilities, including creating some mass-appeal artwork, to creating the art they love. Which will earn you the most for the time? Which will be easiest for you? Which will or will not take energy away from the artwork you really want to be making? This all leads to the point that many many artists do more than just go into the studio and paint. Basically, there’s nothing wrong with having other work, be it art-related or not. Just be careful to balance things so your artwork stays the primary activity that you wanted so much to do.
Post some of your work on great forums like WC and others and get feedback from successfull working artist to determine if you are marketable. I dont know of your skill level, but there is no better feeling than having a successful artist make truely great comments on your work; and critiques are the BEST advise you will ever recieve. They wont be able to tell you how much or if you will sell the piece, but its a critical need.
Several artist noted their experiences in selling their works at art fairs; They quit putting prices on any of their work. It was as if some folks could not linger and take the art in if they walked near a piece that caught their eye and saw the price. They’d quickly take off as if some fancy talking car salesman was about to corner them. These exhibitors would wait for those few that would ask me “how much?” When a couple would walk up and inquire as to the cost of a particular piece. You tell them, they don’t bat an eye…pull out their credit card or check book and purchase one while discussing maybe buying two. Wonderful when you come across a collector looking for a particular kind of work, and such investing from their angle includes the feeling they are supporting that artist as well allowing them to make more such works.
There is a unique selling strategy in how works need to be priced for each type of marketing venue. Understand what works with each is the key to moving lots of paintings.

The gentleman who originated the financial rewards question on the WC forum summarized his feelings at the conclusion of the posts as follows:

” I must say, and this will be my final word on this thread’s subject as I I’ve come to some conclusions that I am comfortable with, about the original question.

The art must come first.

Its a gift really. And what drives us to create? It can’t be quantified and it can’t be ignored. For the artist, it’s a passion. The best work comes from a place that can’t really be defined and is conducted through a process that is, at its best, executed in an almost unconscious manner. After all, when your painting, and lost in it, where does the time go and where are we, but in a place that is really, really, nice. It’s our own world..

So the entire discussion about income expectations, or any financial reward, is really secondary when you consider the big picture. I suppose it’s o.k. to ask the questions, as I have. But the answer is really much simpler and is as basic as breathing.

If the money comes, great. If not – so be it.

While many of the posts tried to state this, I really didn’t want to hear it. But it is the truth.

Art is more than one can describe and it should be devoured, enjoyed, lived and breathed fully. That if you have an ounce of talent or a pound of passion, it’s a blessing in either case.

So, I’m putting the money last and counting my blessings for every day that I wake up and still have the ability and desire to put brush to canvas, and that’s all I really have to say other than how grateful I am for all those who helped answer my question.”

One very well known artist, Robert Bateman recently published his biography. At 77, he is a Canadian national treasure and one of the most succesful print artists ever. He sold his first painting when he was in his mid-thirties. For over ten years he continued with his job teaching high school until he was 46. And over the past 30 years Mr. Bateman has done quite well. This highly successful artist struggled until well into his middle age and then it took another ten years between his first sale and coming to live solely on his art. It was his niche that was key to his success and I’ll talk more about that later.

I have just a few more comments to make about the average artist and then I’ll address my remarks to you Jeff. I hope this bigger picture will set a proper framework for my answers.

I’ve been reading the book, Selling Art Without Galleries by Daniel Grant. This book makes some important observation about being an artist

Nobody paints simply to have a studio filled with paintings. Art is a form of expression, and artists, like everyone else want their voices to be heard.
Every artist would just love for their paintings to be in high demand, all exhibitions sold out, a string of galleries clamoring for their work, rave reviews written about their work by leading art journals and magazines, museums clamoring to collect their works, radio and television appearances, the public awareness heightened to the artist, and making scads and scads of money. The reality is that for most of us, something less will have to be acceptable.
We must set realistic expectations for ourselves as artists, where we are, where we want to be and then broaden our expectations as we achieve new levels of success. As we achieve, we begin to see the possibilities at a higher level.
The averaage artist produces 18+ new works annually
The average artist conducts one exhibition every year or two.

So Jeff,

What does this have to do with your questions and you…?

First, you have to set your level of expectations.

I’d classify artists into four categories:

Student (Skills/Talent development).
New Artist 1-5 years experience
Artist (5-20 years experience)
Old Artist 20 or nore years experience

As a student, I encourage them to initially exchange materials for their paintings. A brush and a canvas for a painting, a tube of paint and a canvas for a painting and so forth.

As you develop your skill sets and start to work and create paintings, then spend the next five years finding your niche. Discover this and it’ll be the key to success for all your years.

We have a complete line of teaching videos for six or seven niches.

How much should you charge….? It doesn’t matter as a student since you’re primary objective is practice, practice, practice. Whatever your able to charge will go a long ways to offsetting the cost of your materials.

I hope this helps with your questions and I believe I’ll post soon on developing one’s niches and another article on galleries.