There Is Much to Learn from the Most Successful Self-published Artists
Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing. – Salvador Dali
Traits and Attributes of Self-Published Artists
In endeavors where, one wishes to succeed and indeed exceed the experts who have come before them, studying the tools and techniques of the masters is the prescribed method of improvement. Learn everything you can about how they did it, and then do it better.
It is human nature to push for faster, stronger, more beautiful, and more consequential. We have intelligence, and we use it to strive to better our surroundings and ourselves. Studying successful self-published artists to discover what they have done to gain their triumphs is natural and logical.
When we study the careers of successful self-published artists, individual traits and common attributes become apparent. The list that follows is arguably not exclusive. Nevertheless, there is no argument in saying that each item is critical in successfully launching and sustaining a self-published art career:
- Art that resonates with a large group of collectors
- Personnel, usually a spouse, devoted family member or close friend
- Willingness to create art within a thematic range
Using the above points, evaluate whether you possess the qualities and capabilities outlined. If you match up in all categories, you are a prime candidate for a top-notch self-published art career. Conversely, if your honest evaluation finds you lacking in one or more of these critical areas, your climb to career success in the art-print market will potentially be more difficult. However, having an unusual abundance of one of the above attributes can be a great help in overcoming deficiencies in another.
Although the art business enjoys a certain glamorous quality, it is still a business. Your success is dependent on how well you run yours. While your business is one that depends on you tapping your creative well to make work worthy of the market, it also requires your involvement to treat it seriously and run it professionally. There may be rare cases in the early going where an artist remains isolated from the business aspects and is still successful, but tremendous odds are stacked against any who initially avoid participating in the business.
If you are following the advice from this course, you are performing self-assessment in many ways, not the least of which is talent. Unfortunately, many talented artists do not enjoy the commercial success of their less gifted contemporaries. This phenomenon extends beyond the visual arts. Why else would so many pretty faces with reed thin voices top pop charts? Why do some visual artists make fortunes despite critics dismissing them as hacks? The answer is that hitting the big time in any field takes more than talent. This is especially true in the arts, where tastes are subjective, and the level of sophistication of the mass consumer is low. This is not to shortchange talent, because if you lack that, your road will be rocky and improbable.
For some people, talent within themselves is hard to gauge. In the visual arts, talent is subjective, thus providing the opportunity for some artists with lesser ability to delude themselves into thinking their work is being received better than it is. Often this delusion comes from the best intentions of family and friends, who lack the critical facility or experience to give honest advice on artistic talent and thus spur the artist into believing their expertise is greater than it indeed is.
For some artists, whose aspirations are larger than their talent, it can be painful to come to the realization that they fall short in this category. All the same, if they draw an accurate bead on their ability, they are likely to avoid even further pain in the form of financial setbacks and career disappointments. The bottom line is to get critical opinions from qualified, but otherwise uninterested, parties.
In my career, I have seen artists with too little talent optimistically come into the gallery where I worked or into the booth of a publisher at a trade show. Each was hoping to find acceptance. Instead, what they typically found was polite rejection. If you find yourself in such situations and if you have the courage, you can ask for a quick appraisal with the caveat that you would genuinely appreciate an unvarnished estimation. Asking for honesty does not always work; some will dismiss you without critique, merely to be done with it. Regardless, it is still worth asking.
In specific areas, sports, for instance, it is harder to hide a lack of talent. If you cannot hit a curveball, you will not make it to the big leagues, no matter how good an athlete you are otherwise. Look at Michael Jordan, perhaps the best basketball player ever. He strived for two years hoping to ignite a second career in baseball after conquering basketball. Sadly, for Jordan, he learned the hard lesson that despite his extraordinary natural athletic gifts, hitting a major-league curveball is not easy – so much so that he gave up and went back to glory and more NBA titles.
What does that mean to you as an artist? That talent matters, but that you can make up for lack of it if in some areas if you can excel in other areas. This is not to say you can be bad and be successful, but there is plenty of evidence that some artists with less than stellar ability – whose work is far below museum quality – still make a great living.
Consider an artist in a niche; pet portraits, for example. While there may be those who have a higher talent at rendering their subjects most artistically, the lesser artist who has a more profound affinity for the animals he or she paints, and who may have a tireless outgoing networking capacity, may completely swamp the more talented artist in prints sold. This example proves there is more to success than just painting the picture. No one will argue that Andy Warhol was the most talented artist to pick up a paintbrush; instead, his genius was in his clever artistic concepts and in how skillfully he managed the social aspects of the art business, and this is what made him larger than life.
The essential point is, if you have talent, you can learn technique and make a go of it. If you lack expertise, your ambition and business sense will need to be off the charts to get there. Taking an honest, brutal assessment of your own talent is often hard to do. Nevertheless, it can help you adjust to what you need to do on the side of imagery, content, and style. Do not take on more than you can handle; it will only add to your frustration. The sports cliché is, “Staying within yourself.”
Making Art that Resonates with a Large Group of Collectors
If you can see the fish, and they are not biting, then you need to switch bait. Simply, buyers must like your art. It may seem obvious, and I hope that it was for you before reading it here. Possessing the knowledge that you are painting for the approval of others is proof to yourself that you are conceptually on board with what it takes to make steady sales in the art print market. Yes, of course, you are painting for yourself too. What needs to happen is an alignment of your artistic vision and your collectors’ desires.
The point of your art business is not making art. Your business is about supplying collectors, dealers, and gallery owners with art that they want. Not surprisingly, dealers enjoy developing collectors who will come back and buy more art like what they first bought. If you are doing well in landscapes and then switch to painting trains, good luck. Your collector and dealer bases have now moved back to square one.
Thomas Kinkade built a $100 million-dollar business around painting cottages, nostalgic scenes of homes and beautiful romantic vignettes. Before his death, I imagine some days when he sat to paint cottage number … (pick one), that it required great discipline to do the work that is more a chore than a labor of love at times. This is a personal impression because although I sold his company advertising and booth space for years, I did not know him well.
Regardless of whether you admired the man for his success or vilify him for it, he became the most successful limited-edition artist of all time. Whatever his talent or motivation, he personified the three D’s (Desire, Discipline, Details.) He continued to stay at the easel and crank out the product. When not traveling, he put in eight hours every day at the easel. Kinkade succeeded by having first found a subject matter and style with an enormous compelling appeal to a large group of collectors and then relentlessly continuing to – in a manner of speaking – feed the beast.
Kinkade rarely received credit for creating a vast number of art collectors, including many among them who had never set foot in a gallery before finding him. Inarguably, some of his collectors grew in sophistication and ultimately sought more sophisticated art – maybe yours.
Compare the art of P. Buckley Moss and her nostalgic scenes, with Wyland and his ocean art, and you will note that each built their business selling to different kinds of collectors by finding a theme and style that resonated with them. They then continued to layer on more of the same, year after year.
These are but three of countless self-published artists who have created success by developing a subject matter with a look and style that collectors enjoy. These artists create ongoing success by continuing to supply their collectors with more of the same. You will need to consider how you can emulate developing a look and style of painting for your own business. It is a critical component of the whole picture.
Repetition is the mother of all skill. – Tony Robbins
Willingness to Create Art Within a Thematic Range
We discussed this attribute earlier when I mentioned Thomas Kinkade’s discipline in sticking to what made him successful. Still, even with his success, it is easy to see that he yearned for acceptance in other ways. For example, he created a line of plein-air images that are, in my estimation, a refreshing departure from (and better than) his cottages and nostalgic work. Nonetheless, his collectors were not wild for the stuff. Although it gave him a creative outlet besides his cottages, I believe that if he were trying to become a multi-millionaire based on his plein-air style, he would be up the proverbial creek without a paintbrush or paddle.
The reality, which can be a cruel taskmaster for some artists – even multi-millionaire artists – is that if they are going to continue to feed the beast, they must continue to paint in a style and thematic range that is comfortable to their collector base.
The same is true of other artists. Imagine the sublime blues-recording artist Eric Clapton attempting to switch gears and create a collector base with a rap album. The more success you enjoy, the more people in your supply chain you have depending on you to continue to paint those cottages or what have you. You’ve got employees, dealers, printers and even magazine and tradeshow reps (as was formerly the position of yours truly), hoping and pulling for you, encouraging you to continue with zest to create and market art that sells at ever increasing speed and prices.
For some artists, this is not a burden, but a joy. There are those who just enjoy creating images in the same vein, who are not bored with yet another marine wildlife painting or Impressionistic landscape and so on. To those, I salute you for your ability; you should be relieved not to carry the weight of feeling penned in by circumstances and success. To those of you who feel the weight and succeed despite it, may the blessings of your success help lift you and otherwise make your life so sweet that you carry your weight without grudge or gripe.
The adage “it takes money to make money” is as valid in the art print business as it is anywhere else. This is where having the intangible of luck can play a crucial part in the development of your business. That is, if you already have money, you can self-finance. If you have access to someone who believes in you and who has money, you are also in luck. If like most people, having excess funds available to throw at a somewhat risky business venture such as art print publishing is not a reality for you, you need to be creative in a whole new way – and that would be in raising money.
The number one reason small business startups fail is lack of adequate funding to keep them afloat while they find footing and develop a client base. It is the same, maybe even more so, for self-published artists. Brilliance is not required, because among all the attributes and traits that cause would-be self-published artists to fail (or to not even try), lack of financing is the number-one reason. It is the all-time killer of small business startups.
In my How to Profit from the Art Print Market book, I remarked that almost all readers would be better candidates for seeking a publisher than for self-publishing, with inadequate financing as the reason. I went on to say, “I am not in the business of dashing hopes, but I would rather be known for that and save some of you from problems you never imagined possible – and for laying out the truth of what you might be considering – than for cheerleading you into financial ruin. Having a garage full of unsold paper, crushing debt and broken optimism is a much harsher reality than admitting you don’t have sufficient funds to get started self-publishing.”
In the years since I published the book, things have changed beyond the imagination of all involved, then or now – not only in the art print business but in the world of business and communication in general. Things we considered reliable, bedrock marketing vehicles and stuff we took for granted, such as tradeshows and trade magazines, have disappeared or been marginalized to mere shells of their former selves. Now you are faced with new challenges, but also new opportunities.
Given the current market conditions, I have revised my thinking and advice. That is, rather than start searching for a publisher, I believe most artists can do as well – or even better – financially if they work on selling their art directly. Despite the challenges that exist today, there are many opportunities for artists to manage their careers. With the advent and acceptance of the digital fine art print format and ecommerce, artists can find ways to get to market as never before. When you sell for yourself, you need to move much less product to generate the same income than you would with a publisher.
Regarding financing, there are no tricks to tell you. Artists who are already successful hardly ever discuss their early financing adventures, so anecdotes about how they did it are rare and not readily available. Some may have had luck with wealthy family members, but reality says more found luck in the residue of hard work. In the early stages, they built their businesses little by little and then continued to invest earnings back into the market.
A lucky few might have hit it right with a look that defined a trend or created one and caught fire from inception; but hoping for, or trying to plan for, similar results to build your career would be as wise a buying lottery tickets to fund your retirement. It is much better to heed Aesop’s Fable about the hare and the tortoise when it comes to strategizing for your career.
There is an abundance of successful, self-published artists who are not well known outside their dealer and collector base. They are not media stars or publicity hounds, yet they have fabulous careers and enjoy great incomes from their art. You do not find them advertised in trade journals or mentioned in consumer magazines. Nevertheless, they have managed to build successful ongoing careers in the print market. Most are mining some niche where they have created a following and where they do not have to rely on establishing a vast dealer network to sell their art.
Sometimes I think they have the better of it, just as I think of those fine actors who work the stage – not on Broadway, but at the better Repertory Theatres found in large cities across the country. They are well paid, and they get to practice their craft to the best of their ability and travel to new towns where they reside for a time and enjoy obscurity rather than fame. Fame these days comes with a steeper price than ever, as the plethora of celebrity-driven news attests.
In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with an art career out of the limelight. The same is true for symphony musicians and others in the arts. It is good work if you can get it and sustain it. Think of a competent, well-paid major league ballplayer: one who is both respected by his teammates and who avoids the hot lights of publicity. He takes pleasure playing the game, but he still enjoys a degree of anonymity better-known players gave up long ago.
Anecdotally, many unheralded yet successful self-published artists started slowly and then steadily grew their business. They started out at local shows, hustling like everyone else, getting attention in any way they could to make sales. Then they moved on to regional shows and juried affairs, all the while improving their art and marketing skills and studying the moves of those they admired, especially those already enjoying self-published success. At some point, they amassed enough money to leverage marketing and publicity to their advantage.
There are examples self-published artists who started out working for an established publisher, but who, for reasons too different and numerous to mention, used their success and reputation to go on and start their own operations. The results are as varied as the reasons they left the relative security of working for publishers. Those with many of the traits and attributes outlined at the beginning of this article have done well. Those who bolted without good business skills and a plan, or without financing or proper support (and so forth), have struggled – and some have outright failed, only to end up back with a publisher.
To make it in self-publishing, you need to have money already (lucky you), be able to borrow it, or you need to be able to grow into a position of having a cash flow to pay for your publishing business. I do not know of other ways to do it. Some combination or permutation of these three methods is possible, but you must have access to cash to get your self-publishing business off the ground.
Personnel, Usually a Spouse, Devoted Family Member, or Close Friend
Here again, we are talking about the luck of the draw. If your spouse has a career he or she enjoys, lacks management and marketing skills, or is up to his or her ears running a household with three kids or similar, and if your sister, brother, best friend, and other candidates are likewise involved, I’m sorry: you drew a bad lot on this attribute. Your hill to the top of the successful self-published artist heap is going to be steeper to climb.
There are numerous examples of successful self-published artists who had the good fortune to have someone who believed in them 100% on their side. Equally important was that these supporters were often capable of helping them in the critical areas of marketing and management. Lacking this asset is as lethal to a self-published art career as any other attribute except a lack of financing. Moreover, in studying successful self-published art careers, I have found that having these two attributes is always in the mix.
Hard as you might try, it is near impossible to pull off doing all the work yourself. How are you alone going to create the images, raise the money, market the work, and manage the business? This is not to say it is impossible, but it is rare.
Any artist who has succeeded solely on their own has vast left-and-right-brain capabilities and is highly organized and keenly competitive, along with being an ambitious and talented painter with an eye for what collectors want. He or she would be equally adept at handling marketing, sales, promotion, and management duties while still finding time for a life, much less sleep. This is a tall order indeed.
“Monomaniac on a mission” is the apropos quote I borrow from Tom Peters, from his bestselling business book, co-authored with Bob Waterman, In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best Run Companies. It best describes many of those whose support helped drive the success of the art industry’s most well-known self-published artists.
A prime example is the spouse of P. Buckley Moss. Moss has derived much of her success from the driven marketing leadership of her husband. The duo worked as hard as any self-published artist team ever has at building their business through their dealer network. The success they have enjoyed as a result is tremendous. The notable 20th-century impressionist Richard Thompson had his son and daughter-in-law as his business partners. This is another example of the built-in marketing management attribute.
The late Marty Bell and her husband, Steve, built a fabulous business around her art. It included a devoted collector society, something she shares with P. Buckley Moss. When Thomas Kinkade looked for an idea to express his artistic talent and build an art print career, he emulated Marty Bell’s romantic cottage theme that she had successfully created years earlier. He, like Bell, Moss, and others, used his images to build a loyal fan base – or “collector society,” as many publishers call them.
You cannot find a better example of a superb result from collaboration than that of P. Buckley Moss and her devoted spouse. The effect of their collaboration was that she was featured on the cover of Parade, the Sunday supplement delivered to tens of millions of households each weekend. The story had her with numerous other people listed on the cover with picture, occupation, and annual income. It is a feature Parade has done from time to time called, “What People Earn.”
In the article, readers found a thumbnail headshot of P. Buckley Moss among dozens of pictures of millionaire basketball players and everyday folks, such as police officers, librarians, truck drivers, and schoolteachers. Each had their annual salary listed below their names, and under Pat’s was the amount of $600,000. Considering this story ran in the mid-1990s, the income was notable – and still is today – especially for a painter known for nostalgia work, Amish children, country life, and geese.
We will never know if this was her personal income or if it included that of her husband. I guess that it was not inclusive of his salary, which would flow to her in other ways – and nor does it matter. Either way, 20 years later, it is a higher figure than many reading this book can imagine as a personal income. To earn a half-million-plus annually is to truly be in clover.
The point is that there are artists making lots of money out there, and most of them have trusted partners, often family members, who are instrumental in growing and supporting their businesses. It is difficult to recruit a willing person with the right qualifications if you do not already know one, mainly because of the likelihood they will need to work on the promises of things to come, with little or no income at the outset.
It is a harsh reality to realize that launching a full-fledged art-publishing business is near impossible to do alone. So, if you have that marketing maven, that “Monomaniac on a mission” targeted or recruited, then you are blessed. You have filled a crucial component of the successful self-publishing-needs matrix.
If you lack ambition how are you going to succeed? The answer is you won’t. No joke; it is that simple. Either you possess ambition, just as you may possess artistic talent, or you don’t. Ambition is not a technique you can study to improve upon. It’s either there, or it’s not. It’s an innate trait, built into your DNA. Yes, we all have it to some extent, but you know what I am talking about: the burning desire to enjoy success and be somebody, come hell or high water. You can teach yourself to ratchet it up, but you must have something to start.
Ambition and competitiveness are close allies in success. I believe that selfishness is an attribute that contributes to success; I also think it is a component of ambition. The previously mentioned Michael Jordan is a case in point. Like all pro ball players, he spent decades traveling around the country, for six months at a time, to play ball – and then he spent more time to tend to public appearances and promotional activities, all because he is driven. Mark Twain spent enormous amounts of time away from his family in his writing studio or traveling, either to speak or for other reasons. How many top visual artists obsess on their work spending copious time in the studio? Too many to count or list.
I think most average people cannot fully understand how driven the most elite performers, artists or athletes are, and what they do to succeed. Likewise, it may be difficult for the achievers to realize the depth of their desire or understand how it makes them different. Read this story about basketball great, Kobe Bryant, 16 Examples of Kobe Bryant’s Insane Work Ethic. Talk about driven.
There are numerous examples of artists and other high achievers who had to sacrifice something to make their goals. Consider the career of P. Buckley Moss. She made about 100 one-person gallery shows, annually, for decades. There are tremendous sacrifices in adhering to such a demanding schedule. Not surprisingly, she learned to paint on airplanes to best use her time.
Ambition, like talent, comes from different depths in each of us. If you are fortunate enough to understand your own, you can use that knowledge to help harness your success, or at least accurately gauge how far you can or want to go with it.
Let’s look back once more at Michael Jordan because his achievements are legendary. He is a fierce competitor who would never accept defeat without giving it his all, whether playing a “friendly” game of ping-pong or a card game in the locker room. His desire to win and to be the best inspired his teammates to be better than they would have been on their own. Those attributes combine into leadership, both personal and organizationally. As the driving force in your business, your competitiveness, ambition, and leadership abilities will make a huge difference in your success.
When deciding whether to self-publish or seek a publisher, or to be a full-time, part-time, or amateur painter, there is no shame in making an honest evaluation and concluding you do not have the fire in the belly to go through the gyrations to gain all the sales and success you wish for. Fortunately, you get to define what success is for you. As such, avoiding obsessive, driven levels of achievement is perfectly okay.
When I sold advertising in the days of thick, robust issues of DECOR magazine, I had one artist who advertised infrequently. When he did, he invariably pulled the best reader response of any ad in the publication. After noting this occur for some time, I visited him and encouraged him to embrace his success and advertise monthly and really push his sales envelope.
He explained to me that having the ability was not a good enough reason for him to do it. He already knew he could have substantially greater sales by being more visible, but he didn’t want the headaches that went with it. That is more staff, more shipping, more printing, more this and that. Go figure, because I had others advertising with me at that time who would have done anything to get his results. If they had the chance, they would have eagerly pursued every possible sales opportunity open to them. Sadly, many were just getting by and could not afford the advertising I envisioned for this artist. Life’s twists are strange, cruel, and hard to comprehend at times.
If you are not as driven, passionate, and ambitious about success with your art career as you are about creating your art (if not more so), then reaching the top as a self-published artist is likely not your cup of tea. It requires drive and much personal leadership to succeed as an art entrepreneur, and ambition is a crucial ingredient in that success.
Do yourself an enormous favor, because it is vitally important for your choice of career path. Be honest with yourself regarding your depth of ambition as you contemplate your career as a self-published artist. If your actions and deep desires do not match your wishes, your self-publishing dreams are in jeopardy.
Assess your situation. If you are content with how things are, there is no reason to drive yourself crazy striving for something that will not make you happier. On the other hand, if you feel that fire in your belly, then fuel it and work to take your career to points others only dream about. Either way, if you achieve a level of self-contentment, then you are in the best possible position to enjoy your career.