Creating Experiences and Telling Stories to Sell More Art

Several weeks ago, a couple walked into the gallery and headed straight for a wall of the artist Guilloume’s work. I greeted the couple and learned they had been following Guilloume for some time and had been in the gallery earlier in the week to see what we had. They were now considering one of the bronze reliefs for their home in British Columbia.

Grouping of Guilloume's Work on Display at Xanadu Gallery
Grouping of Guilloume’s Work on Display at Xanadu Gallery

After some back and forth, they decided on a piece in the front window, and I set about writing up the sale.

By coincidence, Guilloume happened to be en route to the gallery from La Quinta, CA, that very day. He was just passing through and would only be in the gallery for a few minutes, but I mentioned this to the buyers, and told them how much I would like for them to meet him. While I wasn’t sure exactly what time he would be arriving, I told them that I could call them when he showed up. The wife provided me with her cell phone number and they left for lunch.

About an hour later, the artist walked through the front door. We started making arrangements for the artwork he was dropping off and picking up, and I called the clients to let them know he had arrived.

When they showed up a few minutes later, I introduced them to Guilloume, who greeted them warmly. There were friendly handshakes and the couple told Guilloume they were very excited to have bought their first piece.

Guilloume thanked them, and then asked in his Colombian accent, “Can I tell you something very special about that piece?”

The couple eagerly assented and listened carefully as he told them his story about the sculpture. This is a copy of the written version he has created, but it’s the basic outline of what he told them.

“Stealing His Heart” is my sculptural interpretation of a recent photo taken of my wife and me. When I first looked at the photo, I was struck by the fact that I found my wife to be every bit as appealing and mesmerizing as the day I met her—perhaps even more so. I reflected on our initial meeting in our native Colombia and how I was swept up in love as she instantly stole my heart. What is so amazing to me is the fact that I have never gotten my heart back from her—it remains stolen to this day!

I am not referring to that “crazy love” that one experiences in the early stages of courtship. This is a mere illusion of love that gushes forth as we mistakenly assign all of the attributes that we desire in a mate to our new lover—while at the same time, unconsciously overlooking those traits that are less appealing.

Although we certainly experienced “crazy love” at first, as most couples do, our love has endured because that infatuation was soon fortified by more enduring relationship builders like appreciation, understanding, and mutual growth.

Guilloume has a great way of telling the story in a manner that doesn’t feel forced or contrived, and it was clear at the end of the story that the clients were thrilled with their purchase.

Before leaving I had Guilloume autograph and personalize a copy of his coffee table book, which we shipped along with the piece.

After the piece arrived I received the following email from the client:

 

Jason, you may remember me and my wife. We were in your gallery on March 26 and purchased the above noted sculpture piece by Guilloume.

I just wanted to pass along a short [note] to say the piece arrived today in good condition and is already hung in a special place and we both think it looks great.

We would like to thank you for your assistance and for arranging our meeting with the artist. This meeting will undoubtedly evoke a special memory that we can reflect upon each time we look at the sculpture.

PS: The autographed coffee table book was very nice touch and is much appreciated. Perhaps you could pass along our thanks, as well, to Guilloume the next time you see him.

 

"Stealing His Heart" Installed in Client's Home
“Stealing His Heart” Installed in Client’s Home

Of course, it doesn’t always work out to provide this kind of experience for a collector, but whenever I have the chance, I will go out of my way to give collectors the opportunity to meet the artist.

This experience also demonstrates the value of telling stories about artwork. Guilloume writes narratives about most of his pieces. Not everyone cares about the stories, but it’s often the case that the story is the extra little push that encourages the collector to buy.Of course, it doesn’t always work out to provide this kind of experience for a collector, but whenever I have the chance, I will go out of my way to give collectors the opportunity to meet the artist.

In my book, How to Sell Art, I encourage artists to tell stories about the inspiration for the piece, the experience creating the particular work, or even a story about where the artist’s interest in the subject matter comes from.

 

A patron’s initial response to your work is going to be raw and emotional. At a basic level, he will apprehend immediately whether or not he likes the work. If he does like the work, your job is to reinforce the positive connection, and to build the interest into an overwhelming, irresistible desire to buy.

Capturing the customer’s attention and imagination will imbue a sense of ownership in the piece, and nothing will engage the mind so well as a good story. Take him on a brief journey to unfold your interest in the subject matter, to elucidate the creation process, and to share your wonder at the miraculous result. Let your enthusiasm be contagious.

Here is a persuasive first step: If the piece of art is a landscape, talk about the setting in nature where the painting was created. The information satisfying the following questions will provide the fodder for your story:

  •  What drew you to the area?
  •  Had you been there before?
  •  How did you get there?
  •  Was the setting what you expected?
  •  How long did you stay?
  •  What most surprised you about the landscape of the area?
  •  What aspects of the landscape were you most interested in capturing in your painting?
  •  What most excites you about the painting?
  •  What response did you hope to elicit through the painting?

Similarly, if you have created a figurative sculpture, you could address the following interrogatories to create a narrative:

  •  Which gestures were you interested in capturing?
  •  What did you have to do to get the model to convey those gestures?
  •  What was the most difficult or challenging aspect of capturing the gestures?
  •  What most excites you about the piece you have created?
  •  To what should the viewer pay special attention?

What if you are an abstract painter? How much story can you extract from an abstract painting? Answer these questions and see where the story takes you:

  •  How much did you know about the piece before you began?
  •  What emotion was primarily driving the composition?
  •  What struggles did you face as you worked on the piece, and how did you overcome them?
  •  What surprised you about the way the piece came to-gether?
  •  What aspect or detail of the work most excites you?
  •  How does this piece fit into the narrative of the other pieces you are creating? Does it say something new? Does it build on a theme?

You get the idea. Asking yourself these kinds of questions in advance, and sharing the answers in an improvised narrative at the appropriate time, will help the client begin to engage more fully with your work. The personal touch of the creator is arguably the most efficacious tool, after the paint brush, in effectuating a sale.

Some would argue that your story might get in the way of the client formulating his own interpretation regarding the work, and that you might actually hinder his connecting to the piece. Is it possible to share too much information? Can the collector feel bombarded with all the relevant detail? I have never found this to be the case. A customer is going to bring his own story and exposition to the piece, no matter what you do; your chronicle only adds panache to the experience.

Has Telling Stories Helped you Sell Your Art?

Have you tried telling stories about your work? How have stories impacted your ability to sell your art? How do you tell your stories? Share your experiences and thoughts in the comments below.

About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of the Art Business Academy. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business.

32 Comments

  1. I create pastel paintings and charcoal drawings that could be considered “inexpensive” that is, buying my artwork is not a major purchase for most of my patrons. But there usually is a story connected with each piece and I always share it with the buyer – in person, if possible, or in a written thank you note when I have their name and have not met them. I feel a connection with each piece that I offer and that transfers to my collector. That aspect of selling art, to me, is at least as fun and rewarding as receiving the money from it.

  2. I would have to agree that creating an emotional connection between the buyer and the piece is a very important step. Not just the singular piece either. Telling personal stories has helped me create loyal followers and buyers in general. Even if the story is about a different piece of art! I was at a large exhibition recently and a couple that had just bought several pieces already, paused in front of one of mine. The husband was instantly a fan but the wife was hesitant. “But it looks to much like a photo. I want my guests to know it’s an original artwork”. I asked them a few questions before reveling I was in fact the artist and we chatted about why I paint the way I do and the subject. By the end they had spoken to the gallery owner who showed them a much larger piece of mine which they later came back to purchase. So it’s definitely well worth the effort!

  3. Hi Jason,
    Thanks for addressing this point. I’m a plein air pastel painter, and since I paint on location, there’s always a story! I began writing these stories about each painting several years ago, after talking to my friend Jim Nelson, a wonderful painter. I usually print a copy of each painting’s story and include it in an envelope affixed to the back of the painting’s support. My buyers tell me they love the added personal touch.

  4. Perfect timing to read this article. I am not as consistent as I’d like to be in writing about my art and the works of artists that I represent but my experience has been that the story of the art greatly enhances a collector’s personal interest and desire to purchase, especially when the story and art resonate with something they appreciate. Just yesterday it took me several hours to write and edit a blog post about a new painting which I completed over the weekend. I do wonder if sometimes I’ve written too much but figure the people who are aligned with this story will appreciate the details.
    Thank you Jason for sharing your experience and knowledge.

  5. I think sometimes this can be tricky, especially with abstract work. Often when someone likes a piece, they have their own idea of what it means. If it’s not about what they thought it was, it could turn them off or disappointed. Do you think it’s a good idea to ask if they would like to hear the story behind it first and how would you handle this via online?

  6. After following your ideas and advice for a few years now, I definitely agree it’s a good idea to add some interesting information to our artwork. One of my patrons now owns 27 of my originals (!) and adamantly agrees with this. As I currently have a 3-month solo exhibit in Santa Barbara, I made a point of adding an Artist Talk during the Sunday reception. Since this show is mostly flowers, I really wanted people to know my subject is deeper and more spiritual than mere ‘botanicals’. The talk was recorded, and everyone agrees it turned out well, so I even send it to interested gallery-owners and would-be patrons. Here it is: https://vimeo.com/170267813 Thank you Jason for all your help all the time!!

  7. Jason, the story of a painting recently came back to me from clients.

    Last Friday I posted a new painting on my Facebook page http://facebook.com/dorothyfaganartist with an invitation to suggest a title for it. Over the holiday weekend 18 wonderful suggestions filled my post. All are so perceptive and accurate reads on me as an artist, I have created a blog post with a poll to help me select the winning title for the painting.

    Suddenly I find myself with an interactive discussion with people I’ve never met about my painting ~ and they have gifted me insights about myself as an artist I never dreamed of. Any artist could do this … here’s the blog post http://wp.me/p3jWM1-TR

  8. Great post Jason!
    What a wonderful story of connection with Art/ Artist/ Collector/ Dealer.
    It’s a terrific reminder for artists to ponder story element for ourselves, also.
    We often may be caught up in the non-verbal process of our work. It’s important to remember clients may desire story element to bring the piece to life. Sharing this information/stories for our dealers/ representatives is necessary too. Thank you! d

  9. What a great article, thank you so much Jason. Most of my abstract paintings have a little mention on the back as to what inspired it. It is very brief and will usually be something along the lines of : “Inspired by the colors of the ocean off the Big Island” or “Inspired by a grove of rainbow eucalyptus on the Hamakua coast”. When I show customers my wall in the gallery, I tell them briefly how much the volcanic landscape influence my choice of color and texture. I agree with you that the more a collector knows, the more likely a sale will transpire. I love all the questions you included in this article and I will definitely use them to think about and talk about my art.

  10. I can personally attest to the emotional connection to a piece of work being a vital part of a purchase. My boyfriend and I have just started doing art fairs and at our very first show, each and every photo that was bought was attributed to an emotional connection the buyer had to the piece – either by the story they read about it (supplied by each framed image), or a memory the piece evoked in them. Art will bring out feelings in you every time you see it. Supplying a potential buyer with a story to go with the piece oftentimes is the deciding factor we’ve found. It was a pleasant surprise for us!

  11. I create wood containers from trees that have already fallen, whether do to disease, man or Nature. I enclose a card with each container that tells where the wood came from and something about that particular piece of wood. I try to maintain the outer shape of the wood as it was in Nature. If someone purchases one of my containers from me personally, I always tell them more about it. They really enjoy hearing about the piece of wood that now has a new history.

  12. I think it can work both ways. As a gallery owner, I am often in the gallery and when I see people looking at my work I try to give them a little background. Most times it does help. Unfortunately it can also kill a sale. I am a photographer and shoot a lot of landscapes. And since I travel a lot my photos can be from many different places. The gallery is in Minnesota and during the winter months I may feature winter scenes. I remember losing at least two sales when people found out that I had taken the photo in Colorado rather than Minnesota. It may just be a twisted old tree in the middle of a snowy field but they want it to be a Minnesota tree and not a Colorado tree!

  13. I write stories with each of my paintings. In 2015 my paintings were in a solo exhibit as they are now in a solo exhibit. Each time I have written stories which are placed next to the painting. The viewers love the stories and stop and read each one. Usual comments are that the stories draws them into the paintings.

  14. I think this was very helpful thank you. I had to be pushed to start writing a blog about my artwork each week on my website, but there is genuine interest in what I paint, how I paint, the colours I use and the thoughts behind each piece. This in turn has encouraged me to continue with the blog, so yes, stories do help. But keep them short I have also learned!

  15. Jason, this is, without question, my very favorite posting from you. You have no idea how powerful this is to me. Thank you a million times over ~

  16. Bless you Jason. You are so earnest and sincere. Most of my art has the same quality so your post feels like a comfort. About creating stories and experiences around the art, I couldn’t agree more. I recently had two events in my studio – a preview party for the gallery staff and publicists for my new solo show, and a group of almost 20 seniors from Seattle’s most upscale retirement community (They bought a bunch of my paintings 10 years ago and wanted to visit again – in a huge bus!). I talked a lot then we all went to the gallery of a guided tour. Photos were taken and posted on Facebook Got a $3K sale from that even before the painting was done. Total retail sales from the whole thing = $10K. Lots of other sales too (red dots multiply). Special events and opportunities to connect with the artist are extra helpful these days.

  17. A painting I sold at a show had a story (as do most). When the customer told me she really liked the painting and that it reminded her of California, I told her that it was in deed a painting from LaJolla, California. I told her about my time on the coast, the surfer that I had taken a picture of as he was sitting on his surf board, watching the sun go down, etc. She bought the painting without hesitation. The customer said she had fond memories of California as she used to live there. She said she knew exactly where she was going to place the painting. I was a happy artist in that someone was going to enjoy the painting as much as I had creating it.

  18. I assume and hope every gallery does this.
    In the absence of an informed and enthusiastic sales staff note cards explaining the piece is imperative. It is frustrating visiting galleries and no one has a clue why the artist created the piece, from where, inspiration, etc. One needs context when all you see is title and price, if that. Our art is so much more than that!
    I tried to convince one gallery of doing so and was informed that “display and retail continuity” were more important. That contributed to me leaving after six months.
    Another complaint; small labels that can hardly be read. The demographic that normally can afford higher priced art work is often older and has to lean over and squint to read the label. The narrative should be visible two feet away. I’ve never heard a soul complain text was too large.
    The whole point is a knowledgeable patron can make a definitive choice. Indecision will kill a sale.

  19. I’ve always found at gallery openings that approaching a prospective buyer who is looking at my work with the story about the work makes them look at the piece differently and has often made the sale. I tell them I am the artist and ask if they’d like to hear about how the piece came about.. It is fairly easy to see if they want to hear the story and then I can leave them to look at the piece or ask questions.

  20. I’ve definitely found the buyers of my work love the stories and anecdotes of how the piece came about. 50% of what I create is commissioned by the client, in which case, we create the story as a team. I try to make it as memorable as I can for them. They, in turn, enjoy telling the stories when they are entertaining and showing off what we created together. I find the stories that invoke laughter are the most memorable and seemingly enjoyable.

  21. A good story does it for me almost every time, from the nuthatch I realized was stealing my almonds from my pack to the ground squirrel who ran through my paint to steal the muffin on my pochade box. Even when there’s nothing much to say, I can still relate the fragrance of the cliff roses and call of the piñon jays while painting on the South Rim. I’ve fancied attaching a few such sentences to the backs of paintings and just may do that for my upcoming collectors’ evening at my home. Thanks, Jason, for all your help and advice. It’s always spot on!

  22. Hi Jason! I create narrative jewelry so can relate to your post! When doing art shows and gallery events, I do my best to connect the individual to the piece they seem interested in. My tags have the name of the piece as well as the components. My question is, if I were to write the story about the piece, how would you suggest I attach it if it was being sold in a gallery without my presence? Thanks for the insightful and thought provoking post!

  23. My husband took a picture of me at my last show pointing out details of a mixed media piece. I was busy, engaged, explaining, etc, but when I saw the image later, I was surprised to see how their bodies were leaning in, they were moving closer to see the detail that I must have been describing. It was a reinforcement that at least Some people respond to the interaction. Some aren’t ready for the contact, maybe afraid they may be pushed for a purchase commitment. It’s a dance. Sometimes you have a partner, sometimes, not:) Enjoyed your article. Laura aka hastypearl

  24. Thank you for this article. It is, as always, very timely. I am an abstract watercolorist and although all of my pieces have stories, I have been reluctant to share them as I do want the viewer to be able to interpret for themselves. I have now decided to expand the stories even more and include them with the pieces online and in person. I am also reading your book and love it! Thanks for the encouragement and just plain useful information.

  25. I was attending a reception in which one of my watercolors had been juried into the show. Mingling among those attending, I found myself in conversation about my piece of art. I told the couple where I got the idea and why it attracted me, how I stopped my car and took photos that I would later use to do some paintings. When the conversation ended I moved around the room only to return to my painting displaying a RED DOT – SOLD!
    Later the wife said to me, ” Do you know why we purchased your painting?” I can’t remember if I gave an answer but she continued and said, “You talked to us.” A simple conversation brought on the sale.

  26. Great point there! An artwork is supposed to invoke emotions in the buyer years from the point of sale – and who better to convey the story, other than the artist her/himself!

  27. A story is always important, but I’ve also found that sometimes hearing the clients story as to why they were drawn to a piece is just as important. Ex. I had completed a local landscape that a couple was showing a lot of interest. I asked questions as to what about that piece drew them in. I learned that the spot had a special meaning in their relationship, which was similar to my story. I shared that my husband and I had taken a visit to this site as well and that we were in such awe that we quietly sat to enjoy the view and take in the smells and sounds of nature surrounding us. They smiled and ended up buying that original and bought a second piece (a reproduction) of the same area. I really enjoy the client contact!

  28. Thank you Jason! I think everyone of my photographs have an emotional connection and story to tell. As an artist, I feel it is important to communicate that information to my galleries & buyers.

  29. Thank you Jason – I love this post.
    I had woman purchase one of my 6′ Sequoia prints and send me this heartbreaking but lovely note:
    Thanks for getting back to me. I bought a Giant Sequoia painting from you at the Red Bud Festival in Three Rivers. My husband, Patrick, had just passed away a few weeks before and when you told me the location of the trees in the painting I had to have it. The following weekend my father in law and a close friend went up to the Giant Forest to spread Patrick’s ashes. We found the exact trees and what a lovely resting spot for Patrick. You see, he was a botanist at Sequoia National Park and loved studying plants. Your painting hangs in my living room and reminds me of that special trek. I just wanted you to know what an important role your art plays in other people’s lives. Thank you soooo much, Christine!!!
    This is where her husbands ashes lie http://www.joycollier.com/?product=two-giants-with-fallen-sequoia-on-big-trees-trail-sequoia-national-park

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