Getting Started: Help for Creatives

This is Beatrice Hammond‘s invaluable advice for aspiring professional artists.

How I started:

I graduated 2008 and lived with mum to keep living costs down, got some work framed and did a few local shows.

I started really small! The annual Milverton May Fair (a village street fair). I didn’t sell, but somebody took an interest in my work and told me about a bigger, more arts oriented show the Summer Art Garden, in Wiveliscombe. It was a fund raiser for the 10 Parishes Festival, a biannual arts festival where artists and galleries have exhibitions and open up their studios (it’s like Somerset Arts Weeks but more artist friendly because it cost £5, not £200! So in doing that show I got to hear about the 10 Parishes and decided to do that too).

At the Summer Art Garden I met Annie Phillips, working to promote artists in Somerset. She saw my work and invited me to join The Recessionists. We were really lucky there because she had financial backing so for a while that paid for us to put on shows and we were selling work at 30% commission. However, eventually it became clear it was a dead end and the promised big shows and opportunities didn’t appear and eventually the backer pulled out his funds so we folded.

In 2010 I moved into rented. The extra expense meant I had to get a job which also meant I had even less time to paint. I did some shows and fairs independently, but it was small stuff and in the end although I’d made enough to keep going I had no savings to show for it, limited resources (no van, display, print racks, cards or card stand and a very limited stock of prints) and was even running out of work to sell. I was pretty dispirited.

At the end of 2010 I felt pretty desperate and in a snap decision took up an equestrian working student position in Northamptonshire to escape from my life which I saw and a big-dead-end-mess that was never going to change! I did that job for 7 months living out of overdraft, until the money ran out and I had to come home with a whopping £1,500 owed to the bank, no income and two horses to care for! But I had a good time and had also done a couple of paintings while I was there, so at least I had a bit of new stock but it was hardly enough. I did another year and a half of crap horse jobs before realising that I was going nowhere and if I wanted to be an artist I had to prioritise painting and free myself up.

So in Jan 2012, after the working/equestrian interlude, I got back into painting and decided to go for it but with a different attitude to before based on my reflection of what hadn’t worked before and a clearer idea of what success would mean and how I can tell when what I am doing is slowly moving me nearer to it, even when it doesn’t feel like that or actually moving me further away from it, although things may appear to be going well (like when I was in The Recessionists).
What this taught me/Areas this flagged up:

1. I needed low living costs.

2. I needed to focus on art full time with only a few hours doing other part time jobs to ensure I never got behind/into debt paying for living costs.

3. I needed a regular guaranteed income to pay for living costs so I didn’t have to worry about going bust.

4. I needed to budget to make sure I stayed within my limited means and didn’t rack up more debt.

5. I needed to balance generating work and promoting myself (no point in getting great opportunities if I don’t have the work ready to pull them off, equally no point in working away in the basement and never showing anybody and wondering why I’m not yet famous!).

6. I needed to get proactive and more discriminating (i.e. stop things that aren’t working and find my own opportunities rather than ‘blowing in the wind’ relying on other people’s suggestions or for the odd thing to fall in my lap!)

How I resolved these things:

1. I went back to living at home (thought finding a flat with a suitable room to work in and getting housing benefit would also be an option)

2. I quit all my big jobs to focus full time on art. I only have a few extra jobs with low hours to supplement this.

I try to find ideas that are well paid for flexible hours so they never stop me doing shows etc. (also without needing qualifications/experience or commitment!). So I’ve gone for life modelling (min £10 per hour going up to £25 per hour for nude photography work, which is the best because you don’t have to sit still. Only problem is the life modelling can be physically tiring). I also signed up to a cleaning agency where I’ll get £10/hour and low numbers of hours a week, locally, within walking distance. You can sometimes get more than £10 too.

3. I got working tax credits – godsend! Between that and my part time/flexible hours I have a regular guaranteed income that covers my living costs (and sometimes there is leftovers to invest in my art too).

Working Tax Credits:
To qualify:
25 years +
working 25-35+ hrs/week (full time)
earning under £12,000 per year
doing work for which you are not being paid enough; are not being paid immediately but expect to get paid in the future (like making art); are being paid in kind (in services, rent, food etc).

It is also graduated, so if you earn £3,000 you get more than if you earn £6,000. You base it on last year’s profit or an estimation of this year’s profit and if that changes let them know so they can adjust it because at the end of the tax year if you earned more you may have to pay a bit back but equally if you earned less they will top you up (so it is good to slightly under estimate it to be safe!). Also, don’t be afraid of asking for the help: if you are keen and coherent they treat you so well and are very supportive.

4. Budgeting is important. I know how much I need per week/month as a basic rate to live on I try to think of everything: rent, food, phone, car, bills, insurances etc. plus a bit for having fun, that’s really important too!). This has to be covered by my guaranteed income (tax credits, benefits, odd work/part time etc…).

I am also now working towards clearing my overdraft and setting aside a few hundred pounds that I plan to NEVER TOUCH. This is in case something unexpected happens (or if I suddenly get a cool opportunity that I need some capital for: I know from experience that it sucks miss good opportunities because I can’t afford a few hundred pounds up front!).  I am also now trying not to live form overdraft. I want to keep my overdraft for absolute emergencies or for safe investments (when I need money now but know I can pay it back quickly with money that is coming in).

When I know the basics of living are covered I can then start spending any spare money on investing in my art.
I have to balance generating art (cost of materials etc.) with reserving enough to pay for the exhibitions at the end of it! Exhibitions can be expensive (you have to think about the fee, the private view (if it is one where you must put this on yourself), advertising and printing costs (again, check if the gallery do this or if it is down to you) and your own costs (printing business cards, postcards etc.) and anything else). This is why I mainly (at the moment) do events where all this is covered by the organisers (like art fairs and open art exhibitions) or group shows, where the expenses are divided.

The more I make from one exhibition the more I have ready to put into the next one and experience is slowly teaching me how much to go all out on a particular event and some of it is luck too. Sometimes I spend a lot on something that makes no money. If the expense was stock, then at least I have stock for the next show, but if it was on fees, travel etc. then it can be a major loss. So I always think ‘Can I do this and still have enough left or make enough through other work to pay for the next event if this one goes tits up?’

5. Generating vs. Promotion.
I go through phases where I focus for a while on building up stock, then I put some serious effort into advertising, sorting out websites/social media and networking and the work takes a back seat for a bit.

On average I put a lot more work into promotion now than I ever did before: probably far more than 50% of my time. As I get more successful I think this will change and give me more time to paint again, but at the beginning this is important.

I like to keep the ideas and events lining up so I have at least one event a month to work towards (thought some months there are more and sometimes there is nothing for a bit). This also motivates me to get stuff done to the deadlines. If I know a really good event is coming up where new people are going to see my work or there could be galleries scouting I pull out all the stops to get my work finished and photographed and to get new prints and cards produced etc.

6. When I started again this year I was having a serious rethink (and that has been on-going ever since)… The result is I am trying to be much more proactive and creative not only in my work but also in how to get it out there, adjusting to what works and what doesn’t and regularly re-evaluating my approach.

Here are some things to consider and keep track of:

Get your art into the right places: The trick is to be seen by the right audience (people who love YOUR art, want to buy it and have plenty of money). There is little point in doing hundreds of shows in places where your work doesn’t sell (you can’t keep doing the same thing each time and expect one day to get a different result: that’s hoping against the odds for a ‘lucky break’) but you also have to start where you are and work your way to where you want to be. Sticking to it is important: it takes time so hang on in there! Sometimes you get stuck for ages, then it flows, then stuck and so on, but over time you realise you are closer to where you want to be and more confident in the process.

If there is one thing I have learned it is that one thing leads to another. There have been shows where I have sold little or nothing but I have spoken to somebody who has told me about another show that has lead to something else and so on until out of the blue I have had a really successful show or a big sale.

Learn from what happens: NEVER be disheartened by low sales. Instead analyse what happened. Was it the right show in the right place to sell YOUR work? Should you try it again or move on? What did other people sell there? (i.e. if you only had large expensive pieces and the people that did well sold lots of small things, could you bring smaller pieces and add postcards/greetings cards to your stand?) It is a balance between adapting to fit what works without losing your artistic integrity: little adjustments may be ok but perhaps don’t go into landscapes when you really want to do portraits. Remember: you could get stuck there forever! Focus on your passion, and supplement it with things that make money quickly, not the other way around.

Network: I try to treat each event as an opportunity not only to sell but to learn. I look at how people do it, how they present their work, how they manage display boards/tables/print racks, how they talk to people, how they label/price their work. I also talk to other artists and art professionals (you can find out how they do it, how they built up their business, where they go to sell, to buy cheap materials, what other things they are planning, can they offer you anything, would they like to collaborate or share a space with you? Etc. Most people know how hard it is and are more than willing to share ideas and advice to help you.

I also joined an art group called SCAN (Somerset Contemporary Artist’s Network) which meets once a month and does exhibitions and is run by somebody who is older and much more experienced than me at how to keep up to date with what’s happening and is more than happy to share her knowledge. This kind of thing is invaluable: find good mentors, people who can tell you about opportunities that you would have missed because you don’t know the right people yet (or even don’t want to know them!).

Find things for yourself: I used to blow about in the wind, only knowing about things that basically fell into my lap (which wasn’t very rich pickings!). I now use the internet a lot to find out about local exhibitions, competitions, opportunities etc. and I keep talking to people. Tell people you know about opportunities you have found and they will keep you posted with things they have found. Plus you may be able to share transport, car/van space, display boards, print browsers etc. until you can afford or a set up to do everything for yourself.

Prints: I do limited edition prints for my really special pieces and unlimited runs for a few others. If you are limiting them, start with small runs (10, 25, 50 etc…). They look better when you are starting out. Also, you can learn what sells and you don’t end up with a print that you have a run of 100 to get through that just won’t sell if you give them away! Present them nicely. Wrap them in plastic for protection and have them mounted with the title, no. and signature on the mount or the information on a card on the back. If they are limited you need to keep track of the numbers or you could sell the same print twice (which is illegal) or miss a number (so you lose a sale). Experiment, find out what works (paper or canvas? Life-size or to scale? What colour mount? Single or double mount?).

Finally, sell proper prints (Giclée prints on acid free art paper etc.). Home print outs or poor quality prints will not last or look as nice.
Get a good relationship with a reliable printer. Have them keep your images in stock for reprints. See if you can get a discount for being a regular customer. Print a small amount of stock and reorder when you sell (never print big runs to start with, you will have massive printing costs and the stock may not sell). If something is very popular then you can start being bolder and getting bigger runs made.

To find out what sells before deciding which runs to do and how big to make them you can test the water with postcards and greetings cards. Officially you can’t sell postcards of a limited run, but most people do so it is up to you how you feel about this.
Systems: I have put some time into making a few systems that help me.

I have a table to keep track of my prints (especially the limited editions). It records the title, the size of the print run, the original size, what print sizes and prices I am selling them at, how many prints I have in stock and how many have already sold. Some people do a simple tally, for limited editions I actually list the numbers so there can be no mistake (e.g. Run: 50 Stock: 4,5,6 Sold: 1,2,3). I also code it a bit but this is probably a bit excessive (BF = box framed, F = framed, x:y = scale, C = canvas etc…).

I have a contacts/mailing list on my computer and phone split into three sections: 1. Buyers and clients 2. Artists, art professionals and other contacts 3. Galleries, curators and event organisers. I also have a list detailing art shows, events & competitions that I have earmarked for the future. Companies that sell cheap materials. Websites with useful advice and information and online galleries I might join (such as Etsy, Saatchi Online and a bunch of others too). I organise them so the information is easy to find and update and I update them every time something comes up. This means at events I write down people’s details and what they were interested in or useful things they told me and as soon as I get home I update my system. Also, when I have a show coming up it is dead easy to email out the invites because I just copy and paste my contacts lists and email everybody at once.

I also have a file on my computer where I save useful information like printing costs for various companies I have used, cheap art supplies, useful information etc. I have a list of galleries/events/competitions etc that I have earmarked as things I may want to enter in the future or things I want to work towards or places that may take my type of art. I also have a physical file to do the same thing with flyers, business cards, leaflets etc.

I also have a separate work email address and I organise the inbox into folders such as: Business (correspondence with clients, sales etc…), Exhibitions and Events (info about coming shows, fliers, forms, correspondence with galleries etc.), Subscriptions (online art magazines, information etc.), Technical support (information about techniques, materials, suppliers etc.) and so on. This can help you find things quickly but you have to keep up to date organising it and clearing out your inbox!

Website: I realised that having a good website is really important it you need to find a system so you can keep your website up to date easily (if you have to recode your website every time you want to add your latest painting to your gallery you are probably going to get behind! I am lucky in that my brother is helping me to design a new website and make a content management system so I can add things to it easily and run a shop. If you don’t know somebody who can help you there are alternatives.

You can use something like WordPress (look for free gallery templates, there are lots online just hunt around until you find one you like). This limits you as to using and adapting yourself to existing designs but you don’t have to worry about coding or designing, you just select your options and upload your work and content. There are other free online web designing systems and services too, research it until you find something that suits you.

Social Media: I finally stopped resisting this! I haven’t yet got myself set up but I am planning to link my website to various social media: a facebook page for my art where I can show new work and put details about coming events, a twitter account, a linkdin account and a blog. I decided that the blog would be about my art but also anybody I like and galleries I like, and anything else I find interesting that is vaguely relevant. This will make it cover a broad range of subjects, increasing the number of people who find/like/follow it and therefore have a chance of seeing my work too (there will be clear links to my website, facebook page etc.). Also link your pages to other artists and groups and ask them if they are happy to link back. The more you update things online and the more links there are the more chance people have of finding you. Also these things bump you up on the google search and the higher you appear in search results the more traffic your pages will get.

I recently met somebody who knew an artist who solely makes a living through facebook. They have a thousand followers and make enough sales that they never have to go through to hassle of exhibiting. They just keep all their work stored at home and post things off when they sell and they make a decent living! That was the clincher for me.

Prices: consider your prices carefully and keep them simple (no £599.50 please! Just make it £600) and keep them consistent across all the shows you do. +/- 10% max is the rule to stay safe, some people just keep them the same everywhere they go and there is a lot to be said for that. This means consider in advance if your prices give you enough profit after your costs and minus the maximum commission you might end up paying (average for galleries is 30-40%). It is no good doing an art fair with no commission and selling your stuff off cheaply if the following week those people see you selling in a gallery for many times that prices (even worse if it happens the other way around! In fact, you can get a very bad rep if you do that). If you sell cheap to family/friends or you decide to do a deal keep it quiet and tell them to be discrete!

Some people like to go direct to the artist to buy so they can get it cheaper because there is no commission (they pay a bit less but the artist actually gets a bit more). This is fine, unless they have seen a piece for sale in a gallery and want you to take it out of the gallery and do a private sale so they can get it cheaper and cut out the gallery. In these circumstances they can either pay full price or wait until the show is over and come to you then (but they run the risk of somebody else buying it before the show ends).

As you get into bigger/better venues or get a name for yourself you can raise your wall price but you don’t want to go too high to fast, find you are overpriced and have to drop your prices a lot to stay in business (I say that as one who has done that myself, so don’t worry if it happens, sometimes if the market is slow, as it is right now, you have to sell things cheaply to keep going).

Bear in mind the more people under-price themselves the harder it becomes for anybody to sell at a decent price as buyers get used to seeing ridiculously cheap art and thinking that people charging more are extorting them! It is better for everybody if we are realistic but brave: take a deep breath and ask for the price you want, the price your work is worth bearing in mind the money, time, energy and experience that went into making it. Value what you do: that is very important. If somebody really wants it that much they will pay for it and if people aren’t buying you just aren’t showing your work to the right people yet, in which case you need to put effort into finding a more suitable way to get it out there it or a different place to show it off.

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