What Makes People Buy Your Art?

What really makes people buy your work?

Artist John Colley at work in Santa Eulalia, Ibiza

Artist John Colley at work in Santa Eulalia, Ibiza

It’s an age-old question, “What makes people buy your art?’

Editor’s Note: Guest post author, Chris Davies, offers a unique a perspective from a unique locale on the reasons behind art buyers’ motivation.

Finding out how to sell your art is an essential milestone for any artist, yet so many of us struggle to find the magic formula and target the right audience. It took a chance meeting with two very different artists to provide some valuable insight, writes Chris Davies.

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I was on vacation in the Balearic island of Ibiza recently. While there, I’d planned to relax, enjoy the vibrant nightlife, get a tan without looking like a lobster and hopefully catch the Joan Miro exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art d’Eivissa. I certainly wasn’t looking for any insights as to how to sell your art.

However, while taking a stroll down the promenade in Santa Eulalia one day, I came across two artists hard at work as the Mediterranean sun beat down. Both were clearly experienced in their fields, both were attracting interest from passers-by and both were getting good feedback. Yet only one of them was selling their work. And doing so in serious quantities. I began to wonder why this was, and what – if anything – other artists could learn from their experiences.

Example spray can art

The first artist had positioned himself on a corner where the promenade opened up onto a plaza with a fountain in the center – a busy spot with great footfall for any street artist.

He was producing spray paint space art – a popular style of street art you may have seen elsewhere. To create each brightly-colored lunar landscape, he’d take a sheet of glossy A3 paper, and then use a variety of shades to build up textures and shapes before wiping some of the paint off with a newspaper. Then, he’d take some cardboard stencils and a paper plate and spray around these to add the finishing touches to his work. Each one took around 15 minutes to produce and could be yours for 15 Euros or 20 Euros for two.

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Throughout the afternoon and early evening, huge crowds gathered round the artist and money changed hands briskly as people parted with their vacation funds in exchange for a piece of their own spray paint space art. Customers of all ages could be seen happily strolling down the promenade with their new purchase, which had been neatly packaged for them to take away without risk of the paint smudging.

The creator of these paintings had clearly got his timing and technique down to a fine art. Based on what I saw, he could probably easily earn 200 Euros for a few hours’ work. Low production costs and plenty of buyers must have added up to clear profit and he was clearly onto a winner.

The next artist had also chosen a perfect place in which to work. He’d set up right in front of one of the promenade’s many lively bars and had rolled out a large sheet of paper, upon which he’d begun sketching a panoramic view of the scene before him. Working with pencils and marker pens, he steadily produced a stylized, yet accurate representation of Santa Eulalia – just the sort of work you’d think people might buy to remind themselves of their vacation.

Unlike the spray can artist, this wasn’t a piece of work which could be completed in 15 minutes. This was a work in progress, to which new elements had been added each time I strolled past.

Artist John Colley

John Colley with his promenade drawing and recent painting

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After giving him some Euros to show my appreciation, I got chatting with the artist. After recognizing my accent, he introduced himself as John and said he was from Birmingham, UK – my nearest city. We spoke for a while in the afternoon sun, with him telling me about his blog and how he’d spent most of his life travelling the world and settling in Granada before deciding to catch the ferry to Ibiza for the summer months. While we were talking, an elderly Spanish lady stopped to talk to us. Although my grasp of the language is limited at best, her frequent exclamation of the word “Bueno” suggested she liked the drawing.

John had also created a painting recently, which reminded me in some ways of Van Gogh’s Café Terrace at Night. It was on sale alongside the current panorama he was busy working on. We talked about composition and he explained how he’d recently started using geometric shapes of flat color to draw the eye in and make the whole painting pop. As we shook hands, I wished him all the best and told him I was sure he’d sell his work on this busy promenade.

As it turns out, I was mistaken. Although John’s finished piece had a price tag of just 40 Euros and would have looked great on anyone’s wall, no-one wanted to buy it. During the next few days, I stopped by to say hello, saw the collection of coins people had thrown down, and walked away in bemusement. Why was the spray can artist making 200 Euros quickly, when just a short distance away, one artist was struggling to afford his accommodation for the night?

As many creatives will testify, learning how to sell your art can be a mystifying and frustrating experience. What works well at one show can fall flat at another – seemingly for unfathomable reasons. If only there were some kind of special formula, some key ingredient that would turn favorable comments into sales.

The more I thought about it, the more I began to see why crowds of people regularly gathered around the spray can guy, eager to own a piece of his space art. The secret? It was the strong performance aspect of his work, which was broken down into bite-sized chunks with each new painting. In short, it created a real buzz around what he was doing. It meant anyone wanting to buy his work was just 20 minutes away from being the proud owner of what they’d just witnessed being created.

In some ways, it’s the same formula used by street caricature artists. It’s a 10-15 minute slot where the general public gets to see the creative process firsthand and gets to own a piece of it if they wish. It’s the ownership of a piece of art which, although it doesn’t claim to have any deep emotional meaning, will nevertheless remind them of happy times – all in one quick, affordable package.

Is It Time To Rethink Why People Buy Your Art?

So what can other artists learn from this? Should we abandon our deep, meaningful soul-searching efforts and concentrate on spraying around paper plates instead? Not just yet. What we can do in the meantime, however, is think about how to make our work as accessible and engaging as possible to would-be buyers.

How can we do this? What struck me most about the two artists working in Ibiza was the immediacy of what they were doing. Thanks to his tried and tested techniques, the spray can guy could work quickly and deliver reliable, consistent results. Anyone wishing to buy one of his paintings knew they were going to get a lunar landscape that looked as good as the last one. It was a no-risk deal.

John, on the other hand, was employing a more drawn-out approach. Rather than making a quick sell, his work was about watching the composition develop over several hours or even days. By its very nature, this is not work that can be produced quickly and taken home in the time between your evening meal and your next cocktail. It’s work you have to stay with to appreciate.

That’s not to say John doesn’t ever sell his work. He told me about a guy in Paris who’d followed his blog, read his regular updates and commissioned him to the tune of 2,000 Euros. Success comes, but it isn’t always a speedy process.

To get those all-important quick sales, it’s worth looking at ways to make your work appeal to people in the most direct and affordable way possible. If your work is usually the result of months spent toiling over a canvas, getting prints done of the original can be an excellent way to shift units. Most people aren’t in a position to pay hundreds for an original piece, but give them a nicely framed, cost-effective version of the same thing and they’ll be more likely to consider it.

Look at your social media channels and your website. If you don’t have them already, create short videos of your creative process and keep your blog regularly updated. Give people a story they can identify with and follow along with. Engage with your audience. Create a buzz around your work like the spray can guys and caricaturists do. In a fast-moving world, it’s the immediate, affordable items people seem to want.

Of course, there’s always a chance an affluent customer will approach you one day and buy all your original work. But until that day comes, it might be worth looking at building your brand (that’s where your version of the ‘performance’ aspect comes in), creating multiple, highly affordable versions of your work, and generating those all-important ‘bread and butter’ sales that enable you to continue. Whether you want to sell your art online or at galleries, there’s much to be learned from those two artists working on the promenade in Ibiza.

Chris Davies Bio

Guest blogger, Chris Davies, is a member of the team at Pencil Kings – a Vancouver-based online art tutorials and community resource that aims to make learning accessible and affordable to all. With a background in fine art and journalism, Chris likes to combine his passion for all things visual with writing about topics he hopes others will find useful and interesting. You can follow him on Twitter @Christoff3000 and G+chrisdavies3000


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