Selling your art: “Your colours are the wrong shape”

Selling your art
Tony Hancock gives up his day job to become an artist. He's a lot of enthusiasm, but little talent, and critics dislike his work. Nevertheless, he impresses a talented artist.
The REbel Tony Hancock

Selling your art

At some point everyone who has ever painted or drawn a picture will ask the question “How do you go about selling your art?” You know your pictures are good, your family and friends tell you they are – and you start to wonder whether you could sell the odd painting, drawing or photograph, maybe even supplement your pocket money, salary, pension or welfare. From there it is but a small step to imagining you are earning a living from art and, maybe, perhaps, even eventually becoming a famous artist!
Probably one of the best films for any artist is the comedy “The Rebel” with Tony Hancock. Tackling every artistic cliché in the book, and cutting artist, public, and galleries down to size. he struggles through the gamut of disdain and admiration that every artist will experience in his attempts to be eventually be “discovered”

Tony Hancock

So how does one go about selling pictures and and ultimately making a living from being an artist?

Selling your art in galleries

As musicians have to perform so artists have to exhibit, and the misconception is that this has to be through a gallery. Unfortunately this is easier said than done. Galleries work on different systems and levels but have one thing in common: they all exist to make money! The majority of galleries are not owned or run by artists, may know little about art, and will not hesitate to shatter your delusions of genius at the first opportunity. Art is a business and at the higher end dealers and gallery owners are not dissimilar to stockbrokers (or indeed, dare I say it: pimps!). They have a list of clients and collectors whom they jealously cultivate. They only take work that they know they can sell. The most prestigious galleries will collect a “stable” of artists, often straight out of art school. This they will slowly build until it can be harvested most profitably. Many of these artists will receive an allowance; contracting to provide enough work for a series of exhibitions from which they will receive none of the proceeds but might just propel some of them to the next level.

Cork street in London – centre of London art market

The backing of a top gallery can in turn ramp up the price of a fashionable artist’s paintings almost regardless of the artistic merit of the work involved. Approaching one of these galleries with a tatty portfolio of grotty little daubs is not advised for those with low self esteem!

Selling your art; Group or solo

Group or solo exhibitions in rented galleries or venues only really work if the gallery has a decent mailing list or regular flow of visitors. By the time rental, commission of around 25%, cost of transportation and hanging, postage and the inevitable private view are taken into account the artist will probably be out of pocket. Can look good on a CV though.


The Premiere for the exhibiting artist. At your first private view expect some measure of success! Around a third of the people you invite will turn up – most, if not all of these, will be friends, family and colleagues. In some cases someone will buy something. Copious amounts of (artist supplied) cheap wine will be consumed, nibbles will be trodden into the carpet and glasses will be broken. The rest of the exhibition will be a complete anti-climax as the general public, who don’t know you, are indifferent to your work and won’t be
getting any free wine, stay away in their droves. And for subsequent exhibitions It only gets worse as PV fatique sets in and friends, family and colleagues tire of the novelty of your artistic endeavours and rediscover their TV sets.


Most people, to quote the well known phrase; “know nothing about art but know what they like”. Unfortunately, when it comes to art very few people have the confidence to rely entirely on their own judgement; and so what they actually like can very easily be moulded by what they perceive to be the superior knowledge of gallery owners. All people are extremely wary of looking foolish – and buying the wrong piece of art can be as agonising to the art buyer as buying the wrong trainers is to a peer pressured teenager. The gallery system gives the public the cultural safety net of knowledgeable advice delivered in a reassuringly highbrow environment and at a satisfyingly painful price.. If a Picasso painting were to turn up at a local boot fare at a tiny percentage of its real value nobody would touch it with a barge pole – a Picasso forgery on the other hand, underwritten by the learned opinion of experts, would be snapped up! The approval of a major gallery can make or break an artist, sometimes both in, short order.
At the lower end of the scale there are many galleries (many simply glorified gift shops) that will accept a few pieces of work on “sale or return” but usually at a rate of commission that ranges from 40% to 50% or even 60%. The artist is still responsible for framing etc and has little control of how or where the work is displayed.


Selling your art at open exhibitions and competitions is supposedly another opportunity to leapfrog the art school to gallery scramble. The concept is simple. Your artwork is better than anyone else’s: You get accepted, win an award, do not pass GO and collect instant fame or at least gain a few brownie points on your CV. These exhibitions usually have an entry fee, and then, if you get in, a hanging fee, and then, if you sell, commission at around 33%. Most are situated in big towns and so may well involve considerable time and cost transporting work, attending the private view, etc, and of course you still have to get the work back if it doesn’t sell. VAT is added to the commission and generally speaking the best strategy is to enter limited edition prints which will spawn red dots like a plague if you are lucky.
The granddaddy of these beauty contests is the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Unfortunately, the model from which many a provincial art society takes its lead.


A far more amenable way to enter the arena with your potential masterpieces is the local art society. These have a loyal and hardworking following, are organised with military precision and have a modest subscription, There is probably not a corner of Britain that isn’t covered by at least two of these societies! All have an annual exhibition, which unfortunately usually straddles the same bank holiday in August – causing some problems for the serial exhibitionist. Commission is usually a modest 20% and sales and standards are surprisingly high.


A different approach to selling your art from expecting the public to come to see you is to stalk them in their natural habitat. In the same way a trawler chases shoals of fish the artist can cast a net over the smaller waters of such venues as wine bars, restaurants, hotel lounges, or even train stations. A surprisingly large number of these venues have wall space begging to be used, have neither the time or inclination to buy or organise work to display, and are indeed grateful when asked. They are however, businesses and aggressively selling your pictures or massaging your ego are not their priorities. As long as you are professional, your work well presented and you do not impede the real business of the venue you can expect to pay a nominal 10% – 25% commission, get a free meal or drink or two, and probably sell a couple of pieces of work. Most of these venues actively encourage a small private view although at this point you might find it hard to press gang your PV weary mailing list and may be lucky to achieve an attendance in double figures! Presentation and organisation is the most important criteria for the artist in these exhibitions – it may sound like heresy but the quality of the work is almost irrelevant!


In a large cosmopolitan city it is possible to build up a circuit of venues and have exhibitions running concurrently all year round – 15/20 pieces of work – 4 weeks per exhibition.
Unless you are particularly prolific the only way of doing this comfortably is with a large portfolio of limited edition prints. For the public this will also build up the perception that you are a successful artist as they may come across your work in several different venues during the year and will slowly become familiar with your style.


Finally we come to the media by which we are communicating! Artists have been pinning their hopes on the internet for the last 20 years as the means of marketing art to the whole world. Individual artist’s web sites have proliferated and art directories and online galleries have been swamped with what, lets face it, is a dismal representation of all forms of visual art. While artists may complain about the arbitrary and often baffling decisions of selection panels and the ignominy of collecting work with a big friendly chalk X on the back, can this indiscriminate wallpapering of the planet with amateur art be progress? On the positive side
the internet and especially image searches do throw up art unexpectedly, which is in conclusion, my answer to the initial question: how do I sell my art? Display it where people are not looking for art! A picture discovered whilst you were looking for something else is one you will always enjoy!

Leave a ReplyCancel reply