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.

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.

Live Your Best Artist's LIfe
Live Your Best Artist’s LIfe

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.

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 Guide to Art-related Careers
Learn about art-related Careers.

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

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.

The Guide to Art-related Careers
Learn about art-related Careers.

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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Art Buyers, Chris Davies

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    1. Hi Robin, thanks for your feedback. I’m really glad you enjoyed my article. Seeing the two artists at work really gave me something to think about, so I’m glad this experience has resonated with others 🙂

  1. Hi, interesting posted by Chris, it was a pleasure to meet him (I am the artist he met on the promenade of Santa Eularia, Ibiza).

    I completely agree with Chris’s point that selling art is very unpredictable. Often I watch people watching me at work. They may hang around for an hour and see I sell nothing in that time – they will walk away assuming I don’t make any money. An other time they may see me make a few Hundred Euros in 10 minutes and walk away thinking I am living the life of Riley travelling the World and getting rich.

    I have worked as an artist for over 10 years now. Previously I worked in advertising at a very high level for big name clients. I know all about selling and how to sell. Santa Eularia has proved not to be the place for me selling on the street. It is the wrong crowd – they are package holiday people wanting cheap and cheerful. I am an artist primarily, because I enjoy making the art. I put my skills into selling when I have to, but normally the work does actually sell itself.

    In Ten years I have travelled across Three continents and visited Hundreds of cities. Usually I hike from place to place (this is the most expensive, but most enjoyable way to travel). Every hotel room, meal, drink and cigarette, plus all the other essentials of life have been paid for from my work as an artist.

    What Chris didn’t spot was the number of business cards I collected whilst in Sanata Eularia for just a day and a half. I have to complete Three large murals in homes of very wealthy people. Whilst I struggled to sell a sketch on the day (I wasn’t really trying), I did actuially collect over €2,000 worth of work with potential for much more.

    Sadly, it is true that your skills as a sales-person are more important than your artistic talent if you want to make your art work financially. However, that is true of many professions – we live in a capitalist World and selling is what makes it tick.

    I really wouldn’t enjoy churning out mass produced stuff for selling cheaply. I don’t bother with prints because I don’t need to. Where is the fun in selling prints all day?

    You have to get noticed. Whether you put on a show in the performance sense (like the space art guy), or just work big, you will attract attention (sometimes unwanted attention from Police – different story for another day maybe).

    My method works very well for me. A clue: IT IS NOT WHAT YOU MAKE ON THE STREET THAT COUNTS – IT IS WHO YOU MEET!

    Thanks to Chris for the article and the mention. I see it has attracted a few extra visits to my blog. I work under the name of TheLostPhotographer on the streets. My blog also contains links to ‘warts and all’ versions of my adventures written from a very ‘personal’ perspective 😀

    Don’t want to be so cheeky as to post links here, but a quick Google will point you in the right direction if interested.

    All the best,


    1. Hey John, great to catch up with you again – it was a pleasure meeting you in Ibiza! As you so rightly say, it’s not always about the big sale on the day. The useful contacts you can make through getting out there and making art can often lead to all kinds of interesting and lucrative projects.
      I’m really glad to hear about your mural commissions – they sound fascinating and I’d love to hear more about them!
      In the meantime, thanks for your feedback on my article and I look forward to catching up with you again some day.
      Cheers 🙂

  2. Nicely presented and certainly provides food for thought. I live near a major East Coast beach resort, Ocean City, MD and see “boardwalk artists” doing exactly as you describe. There is frequently one doing spray paint art and selling it exactly as you describe. My task, now, is to apply something like this to my art photography. I am working on building a “brand package” with a “stylized” image of me with a camera and my “US Pictures dot com URL” to wear on a shirt, a cap and to hand out as business cards whenever I am out shooting. Any other ideas?

  3. First I am so glad I got a chance to read this article. I must choose the right location and make sure I market my style my art. Most of my art are very time consuming Most of the art that is created via micro pen average time is about an hour per 3″ x 5″ area. A Fine Art America this is a great way I can sell them as prints and have affordable artwork available for sell. Fine Art America gives me the opportunity to post my gallery on my own website on the

  4. A very interesting article both from the point of view of Chris and John, thank you for making me look at art sales from a new perspective. I look forward to further articles from you Chris.

    1. Hi Aisling and thanks so much for your feedback! John raised some really valid points and it was a pleasure to meet him. Above all else, I hope my article provided some useful information for artists everywhere. I hope to write more articles for this site in the very near future, so stay tuned for more updates. All the best 🙂

  5. I realize what I have to wrap my head around – and I have a hard time with it. It’s that the quick ‘spray space art’ makes it look so simple. I paint watercolors and it takes weeks to complete my work. To make a small, quick version and spend only minutes on it seems to undermine all my other more thoughtful and time consuming work which would of course be much more pricey. Would appreciate other thoughts on this.

    1. Hi Susan and thanks for your valuable feedback! I know exactly where you’re coming from and I totally understand why you wouldn’t want to undermine all the time and hard work that goes into your finished paintings. One way around this would be to produce speed-paintings or preparatory studies for your larger, more intricate works. This way, you’d still benefit from the sheer joy of painting, but you’d be producing something that’s both beneficial to you as an artist (since these studies will inform your main pieces) and saleable. For an example, take a look at Turner’s watercolours – for me, these are every bit as exciting as his major works.

  6. How much compromise is acceptable is the dilemma faced by most artists. Personally, I don’t enjoy selling prints – I enjoy the making of art. If I ever felt the enjoyment was gone I would look for another job. I would sooner shovel s*** for a living than over compromise my art.

    I know many ‘successful’ watercolour artists who sell work for Thousands at a time, but even they will admit that the subject and style is often compromised to increase sales potential. Even then, paintings can hang in galleries for years before they sell (and the galleries obviously take their 40% – 70% commission).

    You’re either in it for the money, or you just want to be an artist regardless and are prepared to make financial sacrifices, or you get very, very lucky!

    The article is about artists working on public streets. As I have said previously; it isn’t necessarily about selling on the street. I feel very fortunate that the art I enjoy creating is a popular seller. However, I was in Ibiza on a ‘working holiday’ essentially to make contacts. Some work was offered by hotels, restaurants, bars and a fabulous new beach club (that was great fun – not work at all really), but my success came from the many gallery owners I met in the street. Gallery owners from everywhere visit Ibiza on scouting missions. The island has a well established art trail – people can drop into artists studios for an informal meeting. For myself this approach is far better than paying for a stand at a trade show, or visiting galleries personally. I have sold Six pieces on the streets of Ibiza to gallery owners from Spain, France, Belgium and Germany. Work on view in Six different galleries. When each has sold the gallery proprietors will want more.

    I would guess that almost every artist will tell you some compromise is always involved, but the dilemma doesn’t have to be enjoyment V money. You have to find a balance you are happy with. Or, you continue as an amateur artist working for money in a different way. Nothing wrong with that – it is what 99.9% of practising artists do. Or, I guess you could try selling prints online (I think this is what this site is about?)

    All the best,

    John AKA TheLostPhotographer

    1. Hi John, great to hear from you again! I hope you had a good summer in Ibiza? I think you’ve raised some really interesting points here in response to Susan’s comment. As you say, being an artist is very much about finding the right balance between commercial concerns and your own sense of integrity. It’d be really interesting to hear how the ‘spray can space art’ guy feels – is he happy producing art to order or would he rather be putting his own personality into his work? Ultimately, it boils down to whatever makes you happy and fulfilled. And, if you’ve lost your sense of fun and enjoyment as an artist, perhaps it’s time to reassess why.
      Anyway, all the best for the future! Maybe see you again next summer?

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