Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Art and Business: Looking For Peace of Mind

"Figuration" by Jim Carpenter, Acrylic on Paper, 9.25" x 17" 

Push - Pull 

I find myself weighed down by the business of art. I describe my own creative process as a "push pull" between what is on the paper and what I am adding and subtracting. I might just as easily assign "push pull" to what "the business of art" does to my physical (and my spiritual) guts.

Perhaps it would be better to call this the "push pull" between making art and being in business, because that is really where the tension lies for me right now. And the tension is all of my own making. For me the most important thing really is making art, and getting better at it. 

A Push For Business

In 2012 I decided it was time to invest in some art business training. I had invested heavily in learning how to paint, and thought it was about time I learned something more about moving some of the paintings out of the studio. I found a great coach and became part of a community of artists who are striving to make their art a successful business. Many of them are quite successful at marketing and at selling their work. I have learned a lot of best practices and have implemented many of them, but my art is not paying for itself. 

Ironically, sales have actually taken a nose dive while my success rate of getting juried into national and international art competitions has climbed. What is that all about?  My last two exhibits have left me in debt, sales not coming anywhere close to covering the cost of framing, let alone the other smaller items. On the one hand, because the most recent show "Degrees of Separation" felt like an artistic benchmark to me, I don't regret the investment one bit. On the other hand, as far as "business" is concerned... well, I had just one sale. I am grateful for that sale, but let's be honest: I  cannot reasonably consider my art a "business" unless I want to add the word "failure" to my art making.  And I do not want to do that.

So maybe I just need to stop thinking about business and think again about why I make art.

The Pull of Art

I paint because I love the creative process, and the way I paint now always promises me discovery and surprise. I paint from an intuitive place, and the images that appear in my paintings arise from ... well, I honestly cannot tell you where they come from. I just see them in the chaos that I create on the paper. When I finish a painting I always think about how impossible it would have been for me to have imagined it in advance. I don't even know if I imagine it while I'm making it. Talk about mystery!  

I can only write about my paintings after they are done, because I don't know in advance what they will be.  That seems pretty odd even to me. Yes, I always know what I am doing - it is not like I am in a trance or anything - it is just that instinct takes over when I am working and only after it is finished do I attempt to add a layer of rationale on top of it. Am I trying to explain myself?

But no matter where these paintings come from, I have to attend to the phenomenon that some viewers are intrigued by them, some are brought to tears by them. So, when that happens fairly consistently, I trust that I must be doing something meaningful and that the paintings are successful, at least in the eyes and minds and hearts of some. And that feels good. And I am encouraged.

Nagging Business of Pushing and Pulling

And then the "art business" demon raises its ugly head and says: "You must be doing something wrong, because you are not selling."  Then I try to figure out why my paintings are not selling. The most disturbing reasons are those that come back to subject matter and medium.

I begin to wonder: Should I raise my prices or lower them? Should I move to a metropolitan area? Should I stop painting on paper and switch to canvas? Should I paint landscapes and flowers on canvas? Should I paint large abstracts in Pantone's most popular colors? Should I paint images of pears? Should I stop painting altogether?

See where this is going? Crazy, huh. 

There is nothing wrong with any of these questions. They are just a pain in the neck, a distraction from making art.

Who Really Knows? 

The correct answer to each of them depends on the person asking the question. One artist may decide to paint pears. Another may decide to switch to canvas. And any number of artists and coaches and teachers might offer me an answer to consider. But the truth is, I am the only one who can determine what kind of artist I will be, what kind of art I will make, and how much energy and money I want to invest in it.  I am the one who gets to determine what is satisfactory and what is not in terms of what art-making returns to me.

Unlike many of my friends, I don't have to depend on my art to pay the rent. And I keep forgetting that. I have the luxury of painting because I want to paint, not because I have to paint to put bread on the table. 

Answering Back: Recon-Figuration

When I retired from teaching and started painting full time 11 years ago, I never imagined that I would sign and frame a painting, let alone sell one.  And now it seems I need to find some of that innocence again. Because the truth is, I paint because I love the creative process. I paint on paper because I love paper. I paint with acrylic because it allows me a certain freedom of expression. I paint figures because... I see them in the paper.

I am putting a price on "Figuration" just in case someone sees it and loves it so much they absolutely must own it (something I learned to do in my art business class - put a price on it!). Free shipping to US and Canada. Just click on the price and see where it takes you!


  1. A brave post, welcome in so many ways …

  2. Thank you for writing this, Jim.

    I feel like reading my own inner voice in many ways. Like you, my art isn't paying for itself yet. Like you, I have asked myself all these questions. Like you, I have come to the same answers. And like you, fortunately, I don't rely on selling paintings to feed the kids and put a roof over our heads :)

    You're very brave to have put your heart and voice out here. And you write really well!

    1. Hi Lucy! I like your use of the word "yet"! It's good to know that I'm not in this on my own! :-)

  3. Ive been painting and making a living off my art in some way ( commercial art, teaching art, selling my art etc) for over 35 years. I was intrigued by your post because it is so ingrained in we artists to like the painting part and hate the business part. But we have to wear both hats. Like it or not.
    The painting you posted is good, and the price is more than reasonable. Maybe its 'how' you are promoting your work, or 'where' you are showing it, or 'how it is framed' or any of a hundred reasons it didnt sell. I am an artist who also runs/owns an artist run gallery. Ive also belonged to a number of artists coop galleries in the past, still belong to one. Its all about getting the right person to see your art, to connect with it, then they HAVE to buy it because their brain wont let go of the image. My work sells, not every day, but enough to make it more than worth while for me to pick up my brush each day. But the business side is also important, artists have to become good business owners, and take it seriously. There is no fairy gallery owner out there anymore that will tell you just go paint and we will do the rest and make you a fortune. If you have anything you would like to discuss about this, Im more then happy to mentor. You are, as you admit, very fortunate to not have to rely on your art sales for your rent. But it sounds like you are looking to art sales for 'justification or validation' of your art. Dont do that! Paint what you connect with, what moves, you, and let the tail (sales) follow the dog. That will create your strongest art. Then switch hats every so often and figure out where you belong in the art market. And congratulations on the one sale! One is a decent start to an art career!! cheers Lin Souliere www.dragonflyridge.ca

    1. Hi Lin, Thank you for your response! I have been so focused on the business aspect of it that... well, it just got depressing! And writing this post has really been somewhat liberating and I affirming exactly what you are saying here - "paint what you connect with" -

      I think trying to figure out where I belong in the art market has been - well - I've been spending so much time fretting over trying to find the market - and assuming that there isn't one for my work - I think the discovery, finding the place, might be a more organic process than I have been allowing for.

      Thanks for the good word -


  4. For heaven's sake - Keep painting!

    1. Well said! I shall do exactly that!
      Thanks, Sheila!


  5. Jim your work is some of the most interesting I have seen. You are also a good writer and express what you are doing with the paint and how you feel about it very well. This is a winning combination. I would suggest you try to get some articles into art mags, print or digital. My observation is that name recognition can be as big a factor in sales as quality of work. The quality is there because you follow your passion to paint what you feel like painting. Articles in mags like Artist, International Artist, Watercolor, (they also have competitions ) might bring some traffic to your site and interest from galleries. Look at all the followers you have here and on google+! This is good stuff!
    I don't know how you still feel about teaching but, I think there would be people willing to take a workshop of yours just to see how you do your process. I would. If you still like to teach that might also be an avenue to sales and income from your art. If you want to get your feet wet try Santa Fe and Reitz Union Craft Center. I haven't taken many workshops but I did take a 3 day with Tony Couch years ago. There were about 20 people in class at 300.00 each. Of course some of that goes to the venue but he also had a stack of unmounted watercolors that he sold several of to the students Robert Genn has info on workshops going on and so does Cheap Joes catalog ( and probably site) if you want to see who, where and what is happening in that field.
    The only other suggestion I would make is to paint some smaller pieces and see if they sell. It's not lowering your price but it is making more affordable art. Some people just don't have the wall space.
    I moved away from watercolors to acrylics on canvas just because framing under glass was such a huge problem and expense.
    I'd be interested to hear what your mentors told you.
    Some successful artists I watch are Robert Genn https://www.facebook.com/pages/Robert-Genn/110429710577, and Tina Mammoser https://www.facebook.com/tina.mammoser?fref=ts
    Message me if you want to talk more.

    1. Hi Peter,
      First, I want to thank you for your encouraging words. It means a lot to hear these words from you. I really like your idea about writing articles for art mags - I had not thought of that, but what a good solid idea! I will definitely look into it.
      Regarding teaching - I LOVE to teach - and have been a teacher most of my life. I just haven't taught visual art... yet. I have considered it - I have even put together brief outlines of what I would teach and how. I just haven't been sure that I'd get any students or find a place to do the teaching.
      I have taken a number of workshops - and especially like going to Springmaid Watermedia workshops at Myrtle Beach. I assume you are referring to adult/community ed for Santa Fe?

      I do have a number of smaller pieces - and I am also in two online venues - Zatista and Saatchi
      Two of my small pieces have sol on Zatista, so I have some hope for that.

      It is the same old story regarding painting on paper - it's expensive - but I like to paint on paper. I have mounted some paintings on canvas and on wood.

      Thanks for your suggestions. They are all good!


  6. Sometimes the business of art is just simply "too much business". What I mean by that is people can sense when you are trying to "sell them". Even online. It's quite uncanny! I like that idea to just put a price on it. Oftentimes my sales come from just doing that, and doing my art, and not "selling" (but not being squeamish about its value either!). Keep painting and best of luck!

  7. Thank you Keena! I hear Beyonce singing "Put a price on it"... ;-) And I agree with you - the hard sell is a turn off for me too.

  8. Jim yes I was referring to Santa Fe adult ed. You just submit a class description and if they like it they put it in the flyer. They find the class rooms and the students If it doesn't fill they cancel the class Painless. Same at uf craft center.
    With regards to the hard sell its definitely passé The new paradigm is everyone is your friend and you are letting them buy your stuff. There are two pages I follow on fb that talk about selling on social media. Amy portisfield and Social media examiner. Both have great podcast about "marketing" They are both rabbit holes to tons of other info. You can spend your life studying this stuff.

  9. I know - about "you can spend your life studying this stuff" - at some point you have to stop reading and start doing. I especially liked your note suggesting a "newsletter" - that's what I'm going to work on next. Do you know Alyson Stanfield? She's an amazing art biz coach - wrote the book "I'd Rather Be In the Studio" - the newsletter is one thing she recommends - and she has a lot of information on how to get it going. I've just not jumped on it yet. I think your comment is probably the one that hit me at the right time... I'm at the tipping point, I guess! - Thanks for all your help, Peter!