Thursday, October 20, 2011

Overcome Sales Shyness

Some of the greatest artists I know struggle with the process of marketing and selling their work. Their quality is indisputable and their vision unique. Yet they approach sales with a mask of confidence over a yawning pit of shame and terror.

Sometimes that’s just shyness. The traits of being artistic and being good at sales aren’t the same at all. I doubt they’re even linked. They’re two separate aptitudes. Having a knack for either makes it easier to learn and more fun because you’re confident of good results.

Both of those competencies can be developed by learning the skills, even if you don’t start with much natural aptitude or don’t believe you have any. Not believing in real aptitudes is so common it’s like catching a cold. The professional who swallows her stage fright to give a good presentation will make sales as often as the equally good natural extrovert who shares her gallery.

I was lucky in this regard. I had some marketing skills before I had enough artistic skill to be that good. The level that real people handed me actual money for an artwork came early in my development. I was good at about two or three subjects - dragons, white rats and abstracted trees that looked like undersea tentacled forms. I was competent in one medium - technical pen drawing.

Even in those competencies I was nowhere near as good as I am now. My works were stiff, my compositions haphazard at best and my shadows went all over the place.

I sold a dragon for $1 standing in line to register at my first science fiction convention. I was drawing a dragon because I was bored. This other guy in line liked it and said “Can you do one of those on a button? How much do you want for it?”

I asked for a dollar. That was what buttons were selling for and he still had to pay another buck to the guy with the button machine to have it made up. I drew it and moved forward in line. I sold another one by the time I got to the registration desk.

I sold that because when a customer looked at my drawing and liked it, I answered off the cuff with what I thought was a reasonable price. I didn’t argue with him that my dragons weren’t good enough. I priced it like a cheap cartoon - because I had seen other artists doing off the cuff quick sketches that size for a dollar. That was back in 1975 or so, not 2011. Inflation might have made it a seven or eight dollar cartoon today, at least a five.

I sold some cat cartoons that were badly drawn but very funny because I got silly at the con and had funny ideas. A professional cartoonist told me decades later that it doesn’t matter if you can draw well as long as you can draw consistently and get funny ideas. Getting paid for cartoons made sense to me. I was laughing, I believed that anyone who paid me cash for the button would be getting real value.

When they wore it, people they didn’t know would stop to read the joke, laugh and get to know them. So I was selling real social value with those cartoons. I doubted they were good. I could easily see how much better the professional cartoonists were and knew I wanted to be able to draw that well someday. But I had also grasped the gut lesson that pro cartoonist told me - if someone is genuinely happy and waving real cash, the drawing is worth that money to them. If I don’t think it’s as good as they do, I should keep my mouth shut about what’s wrong with it, grin and take the money.

I didn’t know it but that was one of the core competencies for selling art in itself. So many artists are immensely self critical. Sometimes I think self criticism rises with skill - a beginner like I was will be whooping around the first time he can tell it’s a dragon. He’ll think it’s awesome, grin, celebrate it and gosh, that grin is infectious. Someone else wants to get that dragon and keep it, remember that moment of discovering a cool new artist. They pay well for something that’s real - the drawing’s social and emotional value.

It makes people happy.

Please, please remember that when you’re talking about your art. It really is work. Good craftsmanship goes into it. The longer you’ve painted and drawn, the more critical you are, the more you push yourself in your perfectionism, the more a non-artist is going to respond without beginning to understand all the technicalities that create that emotion.

You changed the world for the person who’s waving a check or a handful of cash or a plastic card. You made that buyer happy. You touched them in a personal way. You reminded them of some of the best things in themselves.

You gave them something real and good.

We artists are in that happy few modern professions where there are tangible results of our work. At least to ourselves there are real standards of that work and at least sometimes the market reflects them. We don’t always agree with the buyers on which piece is our best or whether our prices are right.

But when you sit down to work for a day, at the end of the day there are tangible results of your work. All of your skill and training is reflected in it. The buyer is not just paying you for the fifteen minutes it took to do that sketch. Or less. The buyer is paying for all the years and thousands of lousy sketches you went through to learn how to do it that well.

Imagine a classical Japanese sumi-e painter, a master. This small gentle Asian person with gray hair and beautifully wrinkled visage, the classical little Asian master, unrolls a sheet of soft rice paper on a clean white blotter, takes a dish with five values of carefully ground ink and a large soft brush that comes to a natural point like a mop. Sits looking at the paper for a moment.

Swish splash. In three strokes, a fish dives toward the river bottom past a reed. The entire painting took less than a minute. Maybe all of five minutes if you count the time the master stared at the empty paper or twenty minutes if it’s the top of the day and the master prepared with the meditation of grinding the ink.

Your breath is taken away by the beauty of that fish. Those three strokes are so elegant that the beauty is impossible to bear. You wish your hands could do that trick. You can feel the current of the spring the fish is swimming towards, you can follow the flick of its tail, your mind is at peace in a river that consists of blank paper.

The master crumples that beautiful piece and chucks it in the can. Then does it again, and again. The seventh of these beauties rates a stern nod. Then you’re finally allowed to write a four figure check for this piece. You have paid for the work of a master whose hour was worth over a thousand dollars.

You would have snatched the first one out of the master’s hands if you’d known what the master was about to do. You felt like crying over the trash can. Yet the master, who’s approaching eighty or ninety, has the same internal critic that you have when you rinse off a piece of Wallis Museum for the sixth time and use the ghosts of the previous paintings as a dry underpainting for a landscape that finally works.

I had a natural extrovert personality, so I sold all my mistakes. I never filled trash cans with the first five or six tries. If someone waved cash at me for something I thought stank, hey, I took the money and smiled. I’m not going to wreck their good mood or argue with them that I think it stinks even if I botched some of the cross hatching with shaky lines and had to cover an ink blot with a dark patch that turned into mottled stripes on the dragon’s back.

When I dance and I fall down, I turn the fall into floor moves. Sometimes that makes the dance better than it would have been if I wasn’t a cripple and didn’t fall down while dancing.

I got in the habit of saving botches on the spot if somebody was watching and wanted it. I pretended I meant to do that. I drew this cat cartoon at that very first con, the cat washing its paw, the kitchen trashed, paw prints everywhere from spilled ketchup and stuff. Caption: “I meant to do that.”

It’s the theme of my art marketing.

It’s been validated by something wonderful that happened in the past few years.

When I moved to Arkansas in 2008, I had to pack up all my stuff. That included going through old stuff. I flipped through old sketchbooks and boxes of drawings from 2004 and 2005. I looked at my DeviantART account.

I found some paintings and drawings that I thought were botches when I did them. Some of them were. Some had obvious flaws that frustrated me.

Others, the “botch” was a principle I hadn’t understood at the time. The wobbly line worked because a hard clean line would have been less powerful. The composition on one of them had a better balance than the nit picking realism iris I did in 2005 that I thought was so perfect - that one looked stiff.

Sometimes the buyer who liked a piece of my work better than I did was right.

It wasn’t always that they were ignorant of art and I was the skilled artist who knew where it went wrong. Sometimes I got it right and didn’t know it. Just like all the raw beginners I’ve taught, my hands learned the trick before I did. I could do that again today and only realize it later on when I’m older and better.

I still get self conscious when I paint loose. Sometimes I’ll think I got too sloppy in a piece. I’ll post it on WetCanvas to thunderous appreciation from artists so much better than I am that I worship at their feet. They enthusiastically tell me why it’s an improvement instead of a mistake with exactly the feeling I tell a beginner that a person’s forehead really is that big, they got it right. That’s okay.

No matter how good I get, there are always beginners learning something I understand well enough to explain and masters who take my breath away. It’s true for all those masters too. Every time there’s a cool workshop or class, they’re the ones cheering and flocking to it, sometimes traveling thousands of miles.

Someday I’ll be able to do the elderly Asian master trick of swish splash, there’s your fish in three strokes. Of course being me, that’ll probably be a portrait of my cat painted just by throwing his points on the page. He’ll come to life pouncing or sleeping or washing himself in a minimum of strokes.

I’ve been trying that since 2004 and now master artists comment on some of my pastels “Your strokes are so concise and expressive.” Everything I learn comes back through my hands after I’ve forgotten the words. That happens to you too. It happens to anyone who creates.

Once you’ve painted something, separate yourself from the work. Accept its value as the precious thing it is. You used the best materials - that is a good decision in two regards.

One, it justifies the reasonable good prices you put on your work. That’s giving good value to your buyer. When you use artist grade supplies, it’s not going to rot and turn brown next year, cheating them out of the beauty they purchased.

Two, it justifies your good market prices to yourself.

You’re making treasure when you paint.

No matter what medium you use, no matter what techniques, you studied for years and practiced for years with or without formal schooling. You understand what you’re doing and you do your best every time. You are crafting something that is well made in every technical sense that you understand. It is unique. Only you could have made it.

Give the same subject and supplies to a dozen artists and every one of them will do it in a different way. That’s a great way to do a themed exhibit too - give all of the artists one model or one scene and then exhibit everyone’s work together in a show. That combination is always exciting, seeing all the different views at once.

Like handwriting, the better you draw and paint, the clearer your unique vision and personality becomes to the viewer. You may be too used to it and forget the powerful impact it has on viewers. Maybe you had a muddy passage or you had to crop half of it off to create a better composition. Don’t be afraid of the floor moves, do what you need to in order to save your mistake.

My master, pastelist Charlotte Herczfeld got a great idea recently. She started cutting up failed pastel paintings and laminating strips of them into bookmarks. She was surprised and delighted at how beautiful the bright little random strips of color and texture looked as abstract accidents.

That’s a world class floor move.

Nothing you do is worthless. The ugliest page in your sketchbook could be on auction at Christie’s as a collectible, priceless because you scribbled your signature and a grocery list over part of it. Not to mention what collectors would pay for that first grade tempera painting where you flunked because you didn’t want to do a stick figure and drew trees that weren’t lollipops. Or did copy the stylized symbols the teacher insisted on in the proper assigned colors and shapes to get good marks. Whichever.

I did mutant sea anemones instead of the lollipop trees at that age and I was lucky. More of my teachers were impressed than appalled, I got called as a talented prodigy.

Maybe that’s what gave me the confidence to grin and tell the buyer “Sure, I’ll do it for a buck,” and draw the dragon in the registration line.

If you got punished for coloring flowers with metallic gold and silver instead, or for drawing rounded figures instead of stick figures, you’re fighting your past. You can still learn the value of your work by looking at the “botches” of artists you admire. Remember that yours may be better than you think they are.

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