Selling art can be a real challenge, but the moment of the sale is exhilarating. Your artwork has just been, in a way, validated. The purchaser has said to you, “I think your work is good enough that I’m willing to part with my hard-earned money to acquire it.”
For many artists, however, the sales come far too infrequently. While sales are not the only measure of success for an artist, sales not only validate the work, they allow and encourage you to create more. There are many hurdles that get in the way of sales. The poor economy of the last several years has made the art market more competitive and art buyers more cautious. Many artists don’t get enough exposure for their work, and if buyers can’t see your work, they can’t buy it. Many of you have taken your marketing and sales into your own hands – showing your work in art festivals, participating in open studios, selling online, or in co-op galleries. You are having an opportunity to interact directly with your buyers.
I believe that having direct interaction with potential buyers can be a great experience and can help you better understand the art business and sales process. It also gives you the opportunity to get direct feedback about your work. Sales can be even sweeter when you are making them yourself, and the buyer will often enjoy the opportunity of dealing directly with the artist.
Unfortunately, many artists (perhaps yourself included) are not well prepared to go from creating art to selling it. Selling is a fine art in itself, and requires skill and practice. Some people are born salesmen, but others have to learn the skill. Even natural salespeople can always stand to sharpen their skills. For the next several posts, I would like to concentrate on several key areas of the selling process. I hope that by discussing key issues, I can help you become a better salesperson, and I hope the discussion around these posts will allow you to share what you’ve learned about the sales process or discuss challenges you’ve faced.
Even if you turn over most of the marketing and selling of your work, understanding the sales process will make you a better partner to your galleries or agents.
I want to begin this series by discussing one of the most common mistakes made in the art sales process.
Giving the Buyer an Easy Way Out
Many artists, and even some gallery salespeople, mistakenly think that the art sales process is a mysterious, and perhaps even devious way to trick people into buying something they’re not interested in. If this is your approach to selling, you will have limited success and unsatisfied buyers. I believe our work is much simpler: we are here to help people who feel a real connection to your art make it a part of their lives.
To this end, our job is one of facilitation, not convincing. We want to help buyers overcome any fears or doubts they might have about buying the art that they want.
Make no mistake, there is fear and doubt for the buyer. As buyers are considering whether or not to buy, they will be concerned about whether or not the art will fit naturally in to their home . They will be afraid that the price is too high, or whether they can afford the art. They will doubt their taste. In short, the buyer will have a fear of commitment.
All of these doubts, and many more, can come to a buyer in the critical moment they are deciding whether or not to make the purchase. In this critical moment, we should be doing everything in our power to reassure buyers the benefits outweigh the risks, and we should be asking for the sale.
Instead, what I often see (and I’ve been guilty of it myself many times) is our own fear sabotaging the sale.
As an art sales person or artist, we are afraid of many things ourselves. We are afraid that the potential buyer doesn’t actually like the work and will say “no” if we ask them for the sale. We are afraid that the work isn’t really that good. We are afraid we’ll say the wrong thing. In short, we’re afraid of rejection. Our fear of rejection, combined with our client’s fear of commitment, often leads us to do exactly the wrong thing at the critical moment.
Our fear of rejection, combined with our client’s fear of commitment, often leads us to do exactly the wrong thing at the critical moment.
An example. You have a client in your booth at an art festival. The potential buyer has shown real interest in a particular piece. You’ve shared the story of the creation of the piece. You’ve given them your background. You’ve learned about them. You’ve asked where they would place the art. You’ve done everything right to create the sales atmosphere. There is a heavy pause as you can tell that the client is contemplating the purchase. Your heart starts pounding because you know how close you are to the sale, and you say . . .
“Would you like a brochure of my work?”
The client smiles in relief, says “sure,” takes the brochure, and walks away, never to be seen again.
At that critical moment when the potential buyer was on the verge of making a commitment, you gave them an easy way out. They were wrestling with their inner voice, trying to convince themselves to take the plunge, and you offered them a way to procrastinate the commitment. Once the decision has been put off, the likelihood of getting them back to the commitment is almost nonexistent.
Say Any of These Things, and You Are Almost Sure to Kill the Sale
Offering a brochure is one sure way to put a damper on the sale, but there are many others. Any of the following will accomplish the same procrastination.
- “Would you like a photograph of this piece? I can include the dimensions and price of the artwork.”
- “Can I email you a photo of the piece?”
- “Would you like me to bring the artwork out to your home for you to see how it would look?”
- “Can I get you any other information about the artwork?”
- “Would you like a copy of my biography?”
- “Would you like to see other pieces like this one? Here’s my portfolio”
- “I have another piece you might like.”
- “Would you like me to place a hold on the piece while you think about it?”
Let me be clear, none of these phrases are evil in themselves. There are times when they would be exactly the right thing to say. The moment of decision is not one of those times. These phrases are all attempts to solve problems that the client may or may not have. By preemptively interjecting one of them, we are trying to skip the moment of possible rejection and go straight to a solution. Unfortunately, without asking for the sale first, we’re not solving a problem, we’re creating one.
Ask for the Close, Then Solve Any Problems
Instead of throwing out one of these solutions, it’s critical to ask for the sale and see what happens. Your client may indeed express a doubt about making the purchase, but now we can work on resolving an actual concern instead of guessing what the doubt might be and giving the client a procrastination inducing solution.
Today I simply want to encourage you to focus on avoiding the temptation to give your buyers an easy way out. It would be better not to say anything at all, than to give your buyers a ready excuse not to buy. The next time you are in a sales situation and you feel you are at that critical sales moment, I want you to be aware of your urge to delay the sale and to make a conscious effort to avoid giving in to the temptation. From personal experience, I can promise you that your sales will increase.
Have you Chased Away Art Buyers?
Have you been guilty of chasing away potential art buyers? What has happened when you gave your client an easy way out? Have you overcome the urge to give your clients an easy way out? How did you do it? Please share your experiences, thoughts and wisdom in the comments below.
Thank you, Jason, for this article, which comes just in a time where I think I am about to chasing away a buyer and I don´t really know how to deal with the situation yet … it was a woman (who is a friend at the same time) who wanted to buy a sculpture for her husbands office, but she didn´t think or ask about the pricing before … when she heard about the price she said, she cannot afford it … then two days later she texted me that she want to come back with her husband (who has more money than she does) to select and buy a sculpture together. I find myself in a big trouble because I have the big fear that she´s coming back out of a guilty conscience and not because of she really wants to buy something … I know that this inner attitude and fear of mine is not helpful and will probably have the energy to chase them away, but at the moment I cannot find the turning point …
What if, instead, you think of it as proof that she and her husband really want to own your work, and that’s why they are coming back to it. I don’t think people buy art that often out of guilt. Try to focus on the positive. You can’t control their motivations, but you can provide them the gift of getting to live with your work!
Wow Monika! I looked at your website and I think your work is amazing! I’m sure a sale is already in the works. They know the price range now. It would be more awkward to go look at it and not have the intention to buy, I would think. Confidence!
You are not in charge of their money. You are the artist. Ask if they have any questions about the sculpture, that is your area of expertise, answer those questions if asked. It is not polite to assume they cannot afford your art, so do not do that. If a couple comes together it is the strongest buying signal possible.
Over 45 years i have chased away innumerable buyers. it is a learning process how to sell art and it must be altered to each client. The more desperate i was the worse it would go!
Now when the resultant funds are just a side benefit i often get asked by clients if they can please purchase a piece as they know that many times i reserve the works out for exhibitions and never sell them at all.
This topic however brings up a memory of an artist who showed for years at the Calgary stampede art show. Being a fair open to hordes of people having 0 interest in art it can be tough. She sold every single painting every year within 2-3 hours of opening. She would relentlessly close throughout the conversation! Just amazing to watch her work a crowd of oil executives and have them smiling ear to ear as they wrote cheques for pieces that in some cases were still dripping wet.
By contrast i once witnessed an artist who had a 15,000$ sale in hand with a client literally begging him to buy the work. He turned the sale down out of fear of having made enough money on one sale to feed him for a year. In this case i knew both parties and took over the process because for the buyer it represented a pocket change amount of money while the artist i knew to be virtually penniless despite being a really talented creator. That was the last time i invited the artist to attend personally but continued to sell his work successfully for years to the benefit of all. He could not bring himself to close a sale on anything.
Buyers want your art ask for the sale!!
Wonderful story and inspirational to those of us still hanging on the last vestiges of “sale-fear”.
I seem to be running up against “yes, it’s priced right but not in my price range” sales losses. I have offered the idea of a payment plan (based on personal experience of using one to buy a piece of art I wanted from a favorite artist) and that hasn’t worked. This too could be an easy out, no?
I have come across this a lot too, and the way I have dealt with it is by 1. making smaller works, which are more affordable for the family and friends who want to buy, but don’t have big budgets, and 2. continuing to promote my work via social media channels and applying for shows and awards. I believe my buyers are out there, they just haven’t seen my work yet.
Many people like to look at art and treat these venues as entertainment without any intention of buying. Sometimes that can change when they see something they really like. I don’t think there’s much you can do to sell someone a piece that they don’t have the money to buy. I have at times suggested commissioning a smaller piece with a lower price tag. Perhaps that is an option.
I think it is important as artists to assist one another when possible with sales. I was invited to a fellow artist gallery opening which was unfortunately not attended well. At first it was just me and the artist. He asked me which painting I liked the best knowing I was a fellow artist. I looked them all over and selected one entitled “Tokyo”. I told him that I was sure it would be the first to go. Within a few minutes a buyer walked in and looked over all the paintings. The artist pointed out that “Tokyo” was my favorite as the buyers were about to walk out the door. They hurried back over to the painting and not wanting to miss out on the opportunity to purchase it, snatched it off the wall and proclaimed “I will take it”. After the customer walked out with his new purchase me and the artist laughed about how I should show up at all his shows.
This is so true. I think we artist should work together. I love your story. People who have never bought art don’t know what to expect. Even $500 seems like a lot of money to shell out for a painting. I am struggling with finding the right clientele. People who can afford to buy art.
Not everyone knows they can purchase original pieces of art. We are competing with retail outlets like “hobby” stores who sell mass produced copies of art. Basically throw away art—when you’re tired of it it goes to the dumpster.
I’m learning. Thank you so much Jason for your blog. It’s very helpful.
Agreed. I both paint and do hand built pottery I have had people comment that my ceramic vessels are not « perfect. » of course they aren’t perfectly round — they’re made from slabs which I manipulate and attach by hand (I don’t use a potter’s wheel). I have to bite my tongue to refrain from telling them if they want perfectly round, they can get it a lot cheaper at Walmart. But one problem is the use if the term « art » to refer to mass produced works. It isn’t even « wall art, » a term which I think confuses people. I always refer to these works as wall decor.
I agree wholeheartedly! My latest experience with this still has my jaw on the floor. A friend saw a large painting at a small museum where a local group of artists were being shown together. She found out that I had seen the show as well and called to ask what I thought about the painting and did I know the artist? She was considering purchasing it…$27,000. Not a small sum! I didn’t know the artist but did some research, went back to the museum to see the work again, and told her that I thought the price was appropriate. My friend contacted the artist who invited both of us to her studio, was very gracious and did a little demonstration of how she works with encaustic. She knew she had a buyer and an advocate with her. After a bit of negotiation the painting was sold! A very exciting and memorable moment for all of us. And better yet, the artist didn’t have to split a commission with anyone. Win-win!
many galleries mark some works in a show sold so as to encourage sales o the remaining works. others will put talkers among the crowds to engage with the potential clients without seeming to be sales agents.
the seperate viewing room is also a technique that works well as you give them undivided attention in perfect light and sound conditions. Artists as a third party can give a hesitant client the confidence to buy as their viewpoint is considered as 3rd party.
What do you do when a customer asks if they can take a photo of your painting that they are interested in? Or worse, just whips out their phone and snaps one. Jason, what is your take on that? Thanks
We’re happy to have people snap photos. We’ve made a lot of sales to people who’ve taken photos. We still do everything we can to help them make a purchase, or to get their info so we can follow up.
I have certainly done the…Would like a brochure?… I am a people pleaser and a bit timid to push the customer. I’m lucky that my work does sell well, but I have missed SO many potential sales because I was afraid to be a little more aggressive. Luckily my partner, who is English, (which people love his accent) has been such an asset in my booth. He is more chatty than me with people and a bit fearless in his approach. This has helped us to be kind of a team.
Just wanted to say beautiful work Debra! Unique and all the best ways!
I worked in retail for awhile. I attended a workshop on selling techniques.
It was the usual business of “3 steps to qualifying the customer” followed by “5 ways to make the customer a buyer” etc. At least the bagels and lunch was good.
And then in the mid-afternoon doldrum, “Selling with the close in mind.”
It was a dynamic presentation as I remember but I was too numb to grasp most of it. The big takeaway was this.
Every encounter in an establishment that is first and foremost a commercial venue, is a selling opportunity. It’s fundamental.
Art galleries might be less harsh, but that purpose is still why the door is open and the lights are on and it’s pretty much the expectation of people walking in, that they will see something they really really like.
I can’t put put this all together, but I know it’s a basic premise.
I agree with all of your points on what will kill a sale other than the one asking to bring the work into their home. If they agree to that, you are well on your way to a sale. I have brought work into clients homes many times, and I can’t think of one when I walked out without making the sale. I also think it is a reassuring to the buyers, being able to see it in their home before pulling the trigger on the purchase. Love the discussion Jason.
I also have had the experience of allowing the buyer to take the work home to see if it “fits in”. It has always resulted in a sale except for one time. It was her husband who had not been at the studio and therefore had not seen the work, and he is known to be somewhat tight fisted. The festive atmosphere was gone as was the ambiance of my studio. I should have closed to his wife who loved the work! Now that piece hangs on the wall of my home, and I love it right where it is. It is a monoprint and not suitable for my gallery in any event.
I’ve just sold a painting through a gallery’s online event. Due to covid-19, we (artists) don’t need to drop off our paintings to gallery in advance but to be picked up by the gallery staff to the buyers. In my case, the buyer came to pick up in person, probably due to short of staff. When we met (the first time), I just gave the buyer my painting with my business card and said “thank you.” I didn’t socialize because both of us were wearing masks. Should I take this opportunity to socialize more, introduce more about my work or even promote my artworks?
Generally that silence while the client is looking at the piece… after the talk of where to put it, the color, the how it’s created, the love they have for the work… after all of that is out of the way, it seems it’s generally they want some sort of break on the price. At art fairs it has become very common. I have pieces in the 2000 to 5000 range (ceramics). I never used to come down on my pricing but as my work has become more expensive, the time and money invested in being at the show etc., I now negotiate more. It doesn’t have to be much off. Someone told my partner Charles… “I never pay full price” and he gave them 50.00 off and said “So you didn’t pay full price” and the guy was happy.
I wonder how much negotiation is in galleries? How much do other artists feel this is what will sometimes hold back a sale and that in a lot of cases, the client feels too awkward to ask for a discount.
I lost a sale of a piece in my one woman show. I told her she could pay when the show came down but before that she decided she didn’t have room for it in her house – already had too much art. I should have accepted pay when she first wanted the piece.
Always a good and informative read Jason. I’m thinking of a number of group pottery sales I’ve participated in where other artists were amazed that I managed to “sell” their pieces. Seems that new artists are almost embarrassed to ask for a sale. Once they became more confident in their work I just had to convince them to have fun with it and and just ask them how they would like it wrapped?
As usual your posts about sales remind me of important details that make or break a sale. I am retired now and art is my main focus; but I was a professional sales person in the health insurance field for 10 yrs & then owned a Interior Design business for many more. Its good for me to learn from you the particulars of selling art and to be reminded of all the pitfalls that are easy to make. I did my first studio tour last fall and kindof amazed myself how I just slipped back into “ sales mode”. I also realized how out of practice I was. If you don’t use it, you lose it. Several times I said the wrong thing & ran folks off. Chastised myself & its not the best feeling.
You teach me of all the nuances that are needed in the art business. Thank you. I have no problem talking with folks, asking & answering questions. I am still pretty good at reading body language which I think gives you important unspoken clues to know when to walk away & when they are genuinely interested.
Asking for a close is no issue either. I taught myself to handle rejection by reminding myself its just a numbers game. My philosophy helped me survive in a competitive sales world. I figured out of 100 contacts, maybe 5% would be genuinely interested. Out of the 5% maybe only 2% would be ready to buy. Those are probably totally inaccurate figures but what it did was motivate me. I made a game of it, a mental countdown of rejections, I’d think 97 more, 96 more etc., each time checking one more off & one more closer. I never made to zero, usually never made it to 75. My point is, the absolute worst thing they can say is “no”. You just try to keep focused on that 5% out there that are genuinely interested & follow up with them. When you think of it as a numbers game, its easier to not take it so personally. Art is personal cause its an extension of yourself but its also totally subjective. Only a certain percentage of folks will love your art and thats ok. Just part of that numbers game. So be nice to everyone that stops to look at your art cause they all could be a future buyer & always be consciously looking out for your 5% who are your bread & butter. .
Jason are a wonderful teacher & I appreciate it & I learn from other artists experiences too. Its really helped me along this artist journey
Over the years, I have learned this little technique: after talking about my art styles, the piece(s) in question, and asked where the work might be installed, I tell the person I will step away slightly to give them some space to contemplate the work more closely. I watch their body posture and faces and can tell if this is a true sale possibility or “just browsing.” When I see body language with intensity, I’ll step back up and ask if they would like to take the piece with them. 4:5 times this works.
Nope. I did not learn this on my own — a photographer friend, who makes a living with his art, taught me this.
Pay attention to body language!
I have brochures for my pet portrait commissions, and I thought they would actually help to sell my work. Now I am not as sure. Maybe I could follow-up after handing out the brochure. I am open to suggestions. These would most likely not be the type of paintings that would sell in a gallery.
When the potential buyer is thinking about, he who blinks first loses. I’ve learned to stay silenced for the duration. It may be uncomfortable but blinking first is the mistake to avoid.
Yep! Been there, done that.
I paint murals as well as fine artworks and I run into this scenario regularly.
You wrote something like this a couple of years ago. I took it to heart and started looking my potential client in the eyes and telling them how excited I was to do their mural project and then asking for that privilege straight out. It did indeed increase my close rate so that I am now fulfilling one in every three quotes I give.
It’s a little harder to do with the bird-themed oil paintings, because I am more connected to them emotionally…, but I’m learning.
About half of my work starts in plein air. Most of it is finished in the studio where I make the decision whether it’s a painting or a sketch for a later painting. When I put a painting up for sale, I try to have it signed and varnished. The problem is when you’re out painting and someone asks “do you sell your work?” It may be an easy answer but…. If they’re looking at what you’re currently painting, it’s wet. It’s difficult to sell wet paintings. They can be ruined easily by mishandling. Obviously they aren’t varnished or otherwise protected. Telling the client “I’d be happy to complete it, varnish and get it ready for you” is certainly one of those sentences that give them an easy way to walk away. With that said though, I have sold right off of the easel. I had to develop a guide that I could give them on how to take care of it, varnish it and even recommend the best type of frame for it. Ideally, I should have a few paintings of the scene or area that are ready with me but who would think that far ahead 🙂