Artists – what are you selling?

Are you selling your work or is the customer buying it?
But more importantly (in my view) – what are you selling?

Yes, I know I have a reputation for being obscure sometimes, so let me explain by asking some more questions.

When you cost up a piece, especially if it’s an original, or something like the stained glass my partner in crime and I make, part of the price covers the materials used, and some more takes care of the time you spent making it. That’s mom-and-pop to most artists of course, and the mark of a good business-minded artist is how carefully and realistically they account for all their costs – electricity, rent, the other running costs of their studio and so on.

But there’s another element to pricing that’s overlooked more often than not – your standing in your field, and the years you’ve spent honing your craft, developing your ‘eye’ and acquiring the skills that elevate you above the hobbyists.

Time for a characteristic digression to illustrate what I’m getting at.

There’s a probably apocryphal story in industry concerning a factory owner who’s production line has broken down, and it’s costing him big money every hour it’s not churning out products.
The factory owner calls in the engineer who spends 10 minutes examining the control panel, opens the door and presses a button. Hooray – the production line cranks back into life and products begin piling up at the end of the line.

The engineer writes out a bill for his work: £10,000.
“What – for 10 minutes of your time?” yells the factory owner.
“Ok – I’ll give you an itemised bill” says the engineer.
£75 for pressing the button; £9925 for knowing which button to press.

And here, loyal fans, is the point – it’s not just how much time you put in to that piece you’re selling – it’s how much time you’ve put in to developing your skill. And how do you value that, when pricing up a piece, or negotiating with a gallery?
And how do you communicate that to prospective buyers, who may not have heard of you until now?

Back in the commercial world, branding is how companies seek to communicate the sometimes intangible values of their products and services.
What’s your brand as an artist, and how can you build it, reshape it, and communicate it?

The first step is to think about what it is you do, and how you do it.
Do you draw on inspiration from places or things, or natural phenomena?
Do you have a unique skill or approach that gives your work distinctiveness?
Is your work born out of challenges in your life, or times you’ve endured or enjoyed?

All of these combine to make you the artist you are. And if you add in your command of technique and training you’ve had, we can build a picture of why your work is the way it is.

Branding gurus (not that I’m one, or advocating you become one either) have a structured way of distilling the essence of a brand or a business and finding ways to promote those as values that consumers will respond to.
Applying  a simpler approach to our artist endeavours, it’s still possible to identify some key points that we should seek to get across in each of our communications, or ‘touches’ as marketing folk might say.

Some of the basics include always using a sign-off for press releases, emails, artist statements, websites pages, printed catalogue or gallery entries that centres on the uniqueness of your work as an extension of you, rather than the materials you used.
Instead of describing the brushstrokes, the brushes themselves, the gouache, the gesso, the hand-stretched canvases, you could instead cut it right back and say: This piece was created using a technique I have developed over 5 years involving a light box and a negative image print.

When you’re composing written content for brochures or your website, make the content about what the customer gets when they buy your work – the experience, the vision, the uniqueness, the clothing for their walls or windows,  the colour that makes their homes interesting places to be – not just the canvas and the frame.

When you meet people and they ask what you do – how about saying ‘I create pictures that capture the remarkable colours and textures of the earth’s  geology’ instead of ‘I paint stones using sable brushes and expensive paint’?

It’s easy to dismiss those artists who’ve found a popular niche that’s become recognisable, and stick to it. But they’re doing two admirable things – they’re managing to combine customer demand with expressive desire, and they’re creating a recognisable style – a brand.

Some quick bullets to point us in the right direction:

  • Make your descriptions of your work about the intangibles the customer gets
  • Make your website about how your experience has shaped the work, not just about how it was created
  • Avoid getting too personal about the work, put its presentation in the terms the potential buyer thinks about – where will it go, how will it look, what will it say about my choice, tastes and prefernces?
  • Think about what it is that makes your work unique and find ways to get those across when meeting people
  • Find opportunities to demonstrate your work, not just show it
  • Work with potential buyers to understand what they’re looking for,  and then sell the story of your work in terms the buyer has shared with you
  • Finally, find a narrative – a brand concept – brief, not too flowery, but not aloof either, that sells your hard-earned expertise; find places and ways to use it, consistently.

I always think of Vermeer in this context – the aspect of his work that we’re most likely to think of is his use of the camera obscura to achieve dramatic perspective effects. Maybe that was Vermeer’s brand concept.
What’s yours?

Feel free to leave a comment or get in touch via my website if you want to work on your brand concept and communicate your uniqueness!

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