Get a Grip on Why People Buy Art

You think you’re doing everything right to promote your art.
You’re getting into shows, shops, and exhibitions, you’re building your mailing list, and you have a solid Web presence. Still, the money isn’t coming.
It’s hard to keep going and to remain upbeat when your art isn’t selling.

David Hilton, You're Sure? (Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park). Oil on canvas
©2002 David Hilton, You're Sure? (Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park). Oil on canvas, 11 x 14 inches.

There are many reasons why some artists sell better than others. Let’s look at 6 of them.
1. Personal Tastes
You can’t force people to like something. Remember that the more people see your art, the more likely you are to hit upon someone who falls in love with it.
2. Trends and Styles
Trends don’t affect (or shouldn’t affect) most fine artists, but there are some forms of art that might sell better if they adapted to current styles. If you make clothing or jewelry, you want to follow InStyle magazine, retail catalogs, and subscribe to fashion blogs. If you create functional home ware, stay tuned to décor magazines, HGTV, and trendsetting blogs.
3. Price
If you aren’t selling art at your current prices, do some research. Look at artists at similar points in their careers whose quality of work is on par with yours. Maybe your prices are too high or (gasp!) too low.
4. Medium
Some people gravitate toward specific mediums. Don’t be offended when someone just isn’t into photography or prefers oil paintings to watercolors.
5. Personality
If you deal with the public, your personality could have more to do with your sales than you are willing to admit. Go out of your way to meet guests at your art opening. Aim to be positive and happy to see everyone who walks into your festival tent or open studio. Bottom line: be nice!
6. Work Ethic
Let’s face it. Some artists just work harder than others to get the word out about themselves and their art. If your art isn’t getting the attention you think it deserves, you must ask yourself if you did everything you could to promote your art.
FINAL WORD: Your art isn’t for everyone. Once you understand this, you’ll have an easier time finding the people who appreciate your work. The more people see your art, the more likely you are to hit upon someone who falls in love with it. Likewise, the more you get your art out into the world, the more you’ll be able to direct your marketing message to the people who were meant to see it.

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43 thoughts on “Get a Grip on Why People Buy Art”

  1. The “too low” concept is always hard to get your head around. But you’re so right! Several friends of mine have sold better when they raised their prices. The “be nice” advice is also very helpful. Seems obvious, but it’s surprising how many out door shows I’ve been at where the artist sits and reads a newspaper. For me it’s always a fine line as to when to STOP the friendly chat and let them get out their check book!

  2. Previewed comment:
    I’ve done my time as a national gallery director, while also carving out a fine art career as a painter. Turns out I was pretty good at sales– but painting is why I got into the business.
    Here are a few more reasons why people will close the deal and buy your art:
    1. I have one and you don’t.
    2. Mine is bigger than yours.
    3. It grabs my emotions and I connect.
    4. It really fills that space (over the sofa/in the foyer/guestroom/ etc)
    5. I can take a tax deduction and get some good PR
    6. I need a “get out of jail free” card with my (husband/wife/ girlfriend/etc).
    7. I want to support this artist
    My advice, when someone doesn’t purchase— just think– “Ok, NEXT. After all, this piece is not for everyone.”

  3. Roger K. Lawrence

    Ayson is doing a wonderful service to artists by raising this issue.
    I am a senior, and in a few months I will be attempting to sell my oil paintings after training in a classical realism atelier. I have some preconceived ideas about how to approach selling. I am anxious to hear about the experience of others. We often begin new things with preconceived ideas that take us nowhere. I plan start by focusing on Lynda Rorer’s item #3 above. It will appreciated if many artists share their experiences. I will do the same.

  4. re: the too low thing…I discovered that certain styles were better at certain pricepoints, for example, my abstract expressionist works did not appeal to the bargain basement crowd, anything hyper-realist did, traditional subject like fruit in a bowl always sold at a fair market number (& sold well, too bad I was bored)…My newest work which is bigger (thank to this blog for that) & wild, is getting piles of attention priced finally at a number that I actually would like to receive (high), & I have been getting offers which are lower, but alot more than if I had started lower…(I am also trying a new paradigm I learned from a nearby pharmacy- a lower direct to collector via internet price (sight unseen), or a higher number for viewing in a viewing room in person with me (at a local private mailbox place which has a viewing room I can use, & I give them a one third cut if it sells there- but I handle the sale still…)

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Hmmm. Not sure I understand that, but I’d love to hear more about it and how it works out.

  5. I’ve found that making personal connections, whether through a common background (former profession, school to where I grew up in western Wisconsin) or even more importantly, the story behind that one particular artwork that has caught their eye is the difference between “OH! it’s beautiful” to “Hmm, where should I put it?”
    It has to be the right artwork for the right person (and more than one could want it), but the collector making the purchase is one where you talked WITH them and made a personal connection.
    It is never just a sale.
    And thanks to Linda Rorer for the wonderful concise list! I especially like 1 & 2 – brings back memories of the playground and my mother asking me if I’d jump off the bridge if all of my friends were…

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Josephine: Absolutely. As I said, your art isn’t for everyone. Each piece will find its own home.

  6. could run under personality, but I think it’s different: mindset. Mindset is the story that is running in your head as you sell (or don’t sell). Be careful what your inner voice is saying. You may have the best personality in the world, but if your head sharks are circling, it’s hard to be cheerful!

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Excellent point, Tammy. If you don’t believe in your art and your ability to be a success, no one else will.

  7. “Be nice” — I swear I was just commenting to a friend that one of our area’s most beloved jeweler’s business plan in two words is “be nice”. When you step into Mike Roger’s Precious Metal Arts shop in Boise you’re greeted expansively, introduced to other interesting folks and quite simply made to feel welcome. Sure makes me want to buy more from him.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Ain’t it the truth, Lynn. We love to buy from nice people. They make the world a better place–with their art and with their pleasant demeanor.

  8. When I read your list I immediately thought, message. What message does your art send and is it what you want to send? That’s emotions and connection, and it either grabs a buyer when they first see it or it doesn’t.

  9. You may not be selling if you are showing at the wrong art fairs or galleries. I tried doing art shows but hardly sold anything. Turns out my work sells better in a gallery setting. If you aren’t selling in one place, try a different venue for a while.

  10. Check into buying the book “You, Inc.: The Art of Selling Yourself” by Harry Beckwith. You will see that selling yourself (to gain trust), then product, and price last is something to learn about. As Amber mentions above, try different venues as each brings in a different clientele and age group. Also, try coming up with an opening line, one that is funny, that can start up a conversation and put the customer at ease.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Thanks for the recommendation, Debbie. I haven’t read that. Will add it to my ever-growing list.

  11. part of knowing what venue to sell in is knowing the client you are creating for. Knowing your client is the basis for all your marketing decisions. Of course if you’re brand new, you might need to spend some time figuring this out by researching who’s buying what you’re getting ready to sell. Saves a lot of time and frustration in the long run!

  12. Yes, the economy affects MOST of us. Middle, lower and upper middle income people are being much more cautious about purchases. But those who buy high end items are barely blinking. It’s always amusing in the gallery to try to guess who fits into which category. Often it’s quite surprising.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      One of the most amazing collectors I’ve ever met looked like a pauper. He bought in bulk and never unpacked anything. Going through his store room was unbelievable, but it was also very sad.

  13. This is very encouraging, and judging by the amount of replies this has received it obviously struck a chord with a lot of people. Thanks once again Alyson for another thought provoking article. Just wondering how you get your ‘personality’ through if you mainly promote / sell online?

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Oh, you can do that easily. With your About page, with your blog posts, with your tweets, with Facebook. You can also personalize your email more and aim at sending more individual emails than bulk emails.

    2. Alyson Stanfield

      For example, I think most people believe they know me pretty well by the time they meet me. But most of them know me from my newsletter and blog. It can be done.

  14. I got some wonderful advice recently about how to sell that struck such a deep chord in me. Its, “Share, instead of sell”. It has helped me change my headspace, and it worked like a charm at the event I showed at right afterward. Its my new mantra.
    Angela, I loved your question. It made me think of Jon Lovitz’ Master Thesbian character and his catchphrase: “Get to Know Me!” Without the obnoxiousness, I think about that when I am working on my marketing. I have a website and a blog. I designed both, and when I write in my blog, its my thoughts and my personality that people see and ‘hear’ in what I write while they look at the artwork.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Jill, I’m guessing you got that from me since it’s a chapter in my book. It’s actually titled “Share, Don’t Sell.”

    2. Of course, and I got it separately from a friend who is a psychologist too! Great minds!

  15. And it never hurts to ask!! I love asking customers or stroller-by’s what captured their attention to a drawing, or what it may mean to them. You can quickly figure out who is into technique (and wants to talk materials) and who is into the emotion (they’ll tell you a personal story that relates to you art work).
    I’ve also started using online surveys to get a grasp of how a broader group of people use art in their every day lives. This has given me great insight into what they look for in art, what they expect from art, and how they use art in their everyday occurences.
    And yes, I’m totally okay with some people just not liking my art. I’ve never, to this day, taken it personally 🙂
    Pia Walker
    Drawing the divinity within

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Absolutely, Pia! Whenever someone tells me how amazing my workshop or class was, I always ask for specifics.

  16. Excellent points Alyson. In my experience, #5 is huge. I spent 2 days at an art festival next to an artist whose work we had previously purchased, and truly enjoyed. Then we met face to face. After listening to this person complain and whine about the entire event we regret having supported them in their career, and no longer appreciate the piece we own.
    Often times, people are buying not only art, but a relationship with an artist. Be professional, be authentic, and be nice.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Patricia: Isn’t that sad?! Oh, it really breaks my heart. The work has far less meaning to you now.

  17. Another great post on your blog, Alyson. I’ve been thinking about this exact topic the last couple of weeks. For emerging artists, it is hard to be patient and wait for the sales to begin. From my own experience, sales rush in just because you have been at some art fairs and put up a web site. It is a continuous process of keeping your artwork and name out there. Great additional comments from others to mull over and think about.

  18. What a great post, and great comments. I’ve always felt that just trying to be yourself, and be honest about your ideas and your work, is one of the best ways to sell it (and the best way to act about it).
    And with that in mind, I’d also say that #2 and #4 (Trends and Styles/Medium) have another meaning for the artist: they can be a drive for examination and possibly change. If you aren’t an abstract artist, for example, and you find that at a festival the abstracts seem to be selling, you don’t have to switch from what you do to abstracts, but it can be a great reason to re-examine why you create what you create and to question what about abstracts attracts people. You don’t have to incorporate anything you find into your work, but at the least it can give you a better insight into why you work the way you do – which in turn can help you sound even more authoratative about your work and its direction when you are talking about it with someone. If you aren’t a photographer, you don’t have to become one – but it could give you a chance to look at adding photography to your set of tools that you already use in creating. (For me it was computer art – I liked some of what was being created, and was being sold as illustrations in magazines, but I didn’t want to create that kind of art. I did learn how these artists use the software though, and it changed my whole approach to how I create an image that I then turn into a drawing or painting.)

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  21. Good points, and since I work in retail I agree, but I haven’t been able to figure out what styles, mediums or taste would sell. I have a eclectic style and I am happy to adjust sizes, price points, and anything else to make some sales but since they few people I have talked to just say they love my work I don’t know what to try. I do track the few prints and cards I sell to try to spot trends, not enough data for that yet. And your right it is discouraging, I am in a total slump now because of all the unsold art filling my house, and not wanting to spend money on another piece that wont sell

  22. Great tips! I personally have trouble with number 5. I tend to be a bit of a smart-ass and my sarcasm/sense of humor is often mistaken for ignorance or insensitivity. When interacting with the public and/or potential clients, I find it’s very important to keep things positive and dare I say generic. I save all the “good” stuff for the people who “get” me (as much as it kills me sometimes. 😉

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