Does Selling Art Online Really Work? (What No One Wants to Tell You)

Does selling online work? Title banner featuring an elephant drawing with a smartphone and art materials

If you have ever tried selling your art to anyone outside of the immediate circle of your friends and family you will know how hard it is, and the online world is even harder. It’s a tough nut to crack so does selling art online really work? I decided to examine why it’s so difficult.

The problem with selling art online is standing out in the crowd and getting noticed. The competition is fierce. Organic search is getting harder and paid advertising is expensive. Social media sucks your time for diminishing returns. Algorithms change without notice and can kill your business. And posting art is expensive and insecure.

It’s a wonder why anyone bothers with it at all. Is it worth the effort? For some, it pays well but for the vast majority, it’s nothing more than a side hustle. Or do I mean side-hassle? Let’s find out.

Selling Art Online Is a Numbers Game So How Do You Get Traffic?

If I know anything from selling my art over the last 20+ years, it’s the value of passing trade. 

I trade on a busy street with thousands of tourists passing by during summer. A fraction of those people will stop to look at my work and a fraction of those will ever buy anything. 

Further Reading: Selling in Art Fairs (5 Tips You Can’t Afford to Ignore)

It’s not easy and I’m there right under their noses. It works because there’s a tiny percentage of people I attract. I don’t know what percentage that is, but it figures that I’ll get more customers when the crowd gets bigger.

More People = More Money

The internet opens up a world of possibilities, according to Statista.com there are 4.52 billion active users worldwide (2020), and in theory, you only need a tiny slice of the cake to make a killing.

So how do you get traffic to your site? Have you even got a website? Perhaps you think Etsy or Fine Art America will feed you thousands of paying customers? 

Having an online presence means nothing in itself. It’s like opening a shop on an empty street. The expression ‘Build it and they will come’ does not apply to e-commerce.

You must learn how to market yourself. That takes more time than you can ever imagine. If you’re marketing, you’re not making your art and vise-versa. It’s a balance few artists get right. 

You’ll need help to find the right direction. The options online are endless and overwhelming. Do you set up a Facebook business page? Open an Etsy shop? Join Tik-Tok? Where do you start? 

Inevitably you’ll buy a course or an e-book to get help, and you know what? There are so many courses, it’s overwhelming!

Further Reading: Creative Burnout – What It Is and How to Deal With It

I’ve bought too many books and too many courses and you know what? Honestly, most of them are crap.

Selling art online example 1. A framed pencil drawing of a jaguar by Kevin Hayler
‘Eye Contact’ A drawing by Kevin Hayler

However you play it, there are very few shortcuts to gaining traffic. Even without your own website, you will still have to promote your online presence. You’ll have to join Facebook groups, answer Quora questions, join Reddit. An Etsy shop is not passive, no one knows you exist until you engage.

One way or another you will have to post images and write content.

SELLING ART ONLINE IS NOT EASY!

Web traffic is a long term strategy and most people give up long before it pays off.

Your Artwork Must Stand Out When You’re Selling Art Online

What would you rather be, a bigger fish in a smaller pond or a smaller fish in a bigger pond? Going online makes you a small fish.

I think of myself as a competent illustrator. I’m not sure if I ever describe myself as an artist with any real conviction but that’s beside the point. I’m confident until I go online.

Boy, I’m an ‘also ran’ on the web. Compared to some of these guys, I’m an amateur. It makes me wonder if there’s any point in doing what I do.

It’s so easy to fall into the trap of comparing yourself to the world’s best. We get the impression that good artists are ten-a-penny. In actual fact, they are rare.

The internet distorts our view of normal. Where once we might’ve stood out, now we pale by comparison. We aren’t even competing like-with-like. Digital art masquerading as paintings and drawings is making art appear ubiquitous. 

Artists are de-valued. Customers expect more from us, in less time. 

So let’s say your art comes up on a search. Will the viewer look at your picture or the one next to it? How is the viewer to discern which is best from a thumbnail? That’s a very real problem.

Further Reading: How to Draw Pet Portraits for Money and Start a Business

It’s a sad fact that some really good art will tank on the web, and be popular in real life. That’s because thumbnails are useless for viewing art.

I can draw an animal in a landscape and that will not register online at all. The same animal, drawn as a portrait will get seen. That means an artist who sells online, must tailor their art specifically for viewing on the web.

You and I can be over-looked just because some rubbish looks good as a thumbnail! And there is only so much browsing a person will do. After a while they’ll get disappointed and stop looking.

And then there’s the problem of load time. The chances are, your art is being viewed on a smartphone. You have a fraction of a second in the scroll to get a click. They won’t wait for it to load.

The highest resolution images can slow your site down. That presents a dilemma for an artist. Everyone wants their own artwork to look great and load times are critical for both google and the viewer. So how much image quality are you prepared to lose to speed up your load time? If like me, your art is all about the fine detail, it’s a big deal.

If you opt for an online gallery you will get all the infrastructure supplied for you. It’s the easiest way to get online and most sites cost very little. It’s a low-risk option and usually for low rewards.

Further Reading: What Kind of Art Sells Best? The Secrets Revealed

Print-on-demand sites are even lower risk. And pay the artist next to nothing for questionable quality products and to add insult to injury, retain the email addresses. Most sites do not allow you to have the email of your own customer and that matters.

Selling art online example 2. A framed pencil drawing of a family of elephants by Kevin Hayler
‘Family Life’ A drawing by Kevin Hayler (SOLD OUT)

Any retailer knows that the money is in repeat trade. It’s your bread and butter. If you cannot cultivate a loyal following you lose. The platforms keep the emails because they know how valuable they are.

A notable exception, with a good reputation, is Printful.com

Organic Reach on Social Media Is Dying

It’s a sad fact that the days of free traffic from social media is coming to an end. Organic reach on Facebook and Instagram has tanked and Pinterest is heading the same way.

People tend to forget that social media platforms only serve themselves and the profits of their shareholders. They make money by keeping users on the platform, not by sending them away.

Marketers by contrast use social platforms specifically to drive traffic away. That’s a conflict of interest. The companies are now monetizing the marketers by making them pay for exposure. 

This trend is not likely to stop anytime soon.

Even Google is not immune, just think of how many paid ads appear at the top of a search page these days. You can scroll half way down the page before the first organic result appears.

The obvious solution, on the face of it, is to dip your hands in your pocket and pay for ads. Well, that’s not as easy as it sounds.

Facebook has the most advanced (and creepy) targeted advertising on the planet but unless you know your ideal buying customer precisely you will waste a lot of cash finding them.

It’s not easy to sell an original piece of art with a Facebook ad. It makes more sense selling prints, even so, for most artists, it’s money down the drain. Not only must you target the right people but construct an ad’ that converts well too. 

Is free marketing dead? No, but it’s getting harder and more time-consuming. These platforms are so difficult to use,  that you end up paying others to help you figure it all out.

At the time of writing, I think Facebook and Instagram are not worth the time and effort involved. Pinterest is a better bet as they still have good organic reach, but there’s a caveat.

Pinterest is changing almost daily as they commercialize their site and the ‘gurus’ are getting as confused as anyone else. Be warned I tried learning to use the platform myself and in the end, I spent so much time getting nowhere, I bought another course and paid for a scheduler, so it’s hardly free.

UPDATE: I’ve subsequently eased back from Pinterest. It’s freed up my time and I’m breathing a sigh of relief.

WARNING: Your Art Is at the Mercy of the Algorithms of Doom

I learned the hard way. I had a great side-line on eBay at the beginning. My listings were primitive but still, I earned £10,000 in the first year. It declined slowly after that initial peak, to a steady £5,000 per year bonus. Ebay effectively paid for my trips abroad every year. 

Every year they added one annoying rule after another but they were manageable. I adapted until one day…

…DOOMSDAY

They hit me with a new algorithm and I was stuffed. My listings sank.

I won’t bore you with all the nit-picking rules I had to comply with but I will share one that was particularly defeating.

A listing was penalized if too many people looked at it without buying. The algorithm demoted those items with a poor ratio of clicks to buyers. Try selling art without lots of people looking! 

In the end, I gave up. 

Selling art online example 3. A proud lions head. A framed pencil drawing by Kevin Hayler
‘Head of the Family’ A drawing by Kevin Hayler

Etsy might be slightly better but it’s still no gold card to success. They make you jump through their own hoops.

The lesson is, 

DO NOT PUT ALL YOUR EGGS IN ONE BASKET

Spread the risk and treat all 3rd party sites as a disaster waiting to happen. Cash in while you can and enjoy it but don’t rely on the income. 

Posting Art Makes Selling Art a Bloody Nightmare

The other issue with trading online that gets less attention than it should, is the problem with postage.

I’m in the UK but I doubt if things are much better elsewhere. The big couriers are multi-national so I suspect they behave the same everywhere.

You really can’t rely on couriers treating your parcel with care and respect. In my experience, a percentage of my post WILL go astray or get damaged.

And don’t kid yourself that putting a big red ‘FRAGILE’ sticker means anything.

Listen to this.

I took an A3 envelope, containing a print, into my local post office. It was rigid. I’d stiffened it by sandwiching my print with two pieces of thick card. Even the envelope was cardboard and I’d written ‘FRAGILE’ with a bold black marker pen.

The assistant stamped it, took the money and before I could cry ‘MERCY’, she karate chopped it in half to stuff in a bin behind her!

That’s the level you are dealing with.

Now I always send prints out rolled inside a postal tube. It’s the only way that works for me. I’d prefer to send them flat but it’s not safe enough. 

Problems with posting art. 3 postal tubes and a print waiting to be posted

I would never send glass. Anyone who sends a framed picture is taking one hell of a risk. I asked my framer what he does and he said that he sends frames with plexiglass (plastic) only. 

I have sent originals by post but never framed. I mount them, wrap them in cellophane, and box them inside layers of polystyrene sheets. I pay for ‘recorded’ and ‘signed for’ delivery and buy insurance.

Further Reading: A Quick Guide to Framing on a Budget (Info Without The Fluff)

Let’s talk about insurance. Can you get art insured? Many companies won’t cover works of art. Personally I haven’t found a private company willing to insure an original. They know they are likely to break it. I used to use the Royal Mail Service before it was semi-privatized so I’m not sure that’s still an option.

I do know that a small percentage of my post does not arrive. I send prints out. Now get this, the post office will compensate me, not for the loss of the sale, but only for the printing cost of the print!

A limited-edition cannot be replaced. If it could it wouldn’t be limited would it? It means I can’t insure myself against the incompetence, negligence, or theft, inside the company delivering it. I have to write it off as a loss.

One last thing that inhibits my sales noticeably is sending mail to the USA. It’s not as straight forward as you might imagine.

Sending mail overseas can cost as much as the print itself, that’s one thing, but the time it takes to arrive is a joke.

Foreign parcels regularly get delayed going through the U.S customs. They hold on to standard airmail for up to 3 weeks! I’m not kidding. Even tracked mail will take a week to arrive.

This is the age of instant delivery, customers do not want to wait. It’s a trade barrier. I’m denied full access to the biggest market.

I can’t speak for Americans sending work abroad, I guess it’s less of an issue. However, the point is still valid. Posting artwork, even prints, is a nightmare.

If Selling Art Online Is Hard, What’s the Answer?

As always, it’s a compromise. Sell online but don’t rely on 3rd party platforms. Use them but expect for it to end at some point.

You are far better off using your time to drive traffic to your own website. You remain in control. It’s still hard work and a steep learning curve if you start from scratch as I did. But it’s not rocket science, you’ll figure it out.

Set up a WordPress website, it’s a free open-source platform used by the majority of sites on the web. I just followed youtube tutorials to get me going. 

I followed the free step-by-step guides by Ferdy Korpershoek

You can then incorporate an e-commerce shop using Woocommerce, another major, free open-source platform, and post your artwork.

You could build a site completely around your shop but most artists leverage a blog to get extra traffic organically. 

This is where the simplicity starts to fall apart. Your blogs will only get discovered by having great SEO and marketing. Either way, it will take time to get anywhere.

The quickest way to get eyes on your art is to use Pinterest and Youtube. I’m not an expert on either but all my research has led me consistently to the same answer.

Pinterest is tailing off for many people but it’s still valuable and Youtube is still taking off, especially Youtube ‘Shorts’ (2020). 

I’m beginning with Pinterest now and it has directed people to my site already and I’ve only used it for a few weeks. Youtube scares me and so far I’ve procrastinated. 

Tutorials and demos are no-brainers really.

That’s online, but you should combine your online presence with offline sales. Sell in the real world, from a market stand, honestly it’s so much easier. 

You will meet your real customers, get to know them and find out what they really like. It’s the best way, by far, to carry out any meaningful market research.

Forget friends and family they love you so they love your art. That’s not research. Strangers are less forgiving and as long as you can adapt your approach and tailor your art to their needs, your art will sell.

There’s more to market trading for sure, but at least it’s tangible. You are going out to work and coming home with some profit, a few commissions, and if you keep a ‘comments’ book handy, some more names for your email list. 

Hand-Written Testimonial as authentic proof of happy customers

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Does selling art online work? Elephant drawing and mobile phone image for Pinterest