Back in the early days I traveled with a full set of art supplies and made money along the way. So how did I do it, and how can you sell your art and travel the world?
Sit down in busy places like hostels, cafes, or shopping streets and draw or paint in full view of passers-by. Ideally ‘finish’ an existing project. Have plenty of work with you available for sale and engage in conversation. In the developing world concentrate your efforts on selling to fellow tourists. Make small, light work that can be transported home easily.
This is how I did it in more detail. Read on.
How did we all cope before the internet? In many ways, it was far better. No pre-booking, just getting on a bus and looking for a guest house. No research, no planning, just spontaneity, and a dream.
In the 1980s my first ‘adventure’ was to fly to America with a portfolio of paintings to sell my art to galleries. I just turned up uninvited and unannounced and I sold the lot!
That was followed by taking commissions from ex-pats in Egypt, selling wildlife art on the beaches of Kenya, and drawing youth hostels in NZ and Australia.
My aim was to subsidize my trips, indeed I was so poor, it effectively paid for my trips. I journeyed through East Africa with only £300 ($400) in my pocket. Even in the 80s that was nothing.
Yes, the modern world means you can blog your way around the world but there is nothing like being with people, making your art, and selling in person. I started by flying to America.
Selling Art in America, My First Attempt at World Travel
My idea was simple. I’d buy a one-way ticket to Miami, sell my portfolio, make loads of lolly and take America by storm.
Sometimes naivety is your best friend.
It was only as I sat there on the plane, questioning my sanity, that I began to consider the wisdom of my idea. I had hardly any money, no ticket home, and most of my paintings were of British landscapes! What could possibly go wrong?
I wouldn’t get past immigration these days but luckily things were more relaxed back in the 80s and I was allowed in.
I landed in Miami and headed for Fort Lauderdale with a portfolio, one set of ‘smart’ clothes, and an English accent on my side. Luckily Americans seem to think Brits are posher and brainier than we really are, so all I had to do was talk ‘proper’ and I was in.
I sold 6 landscapes for cash and buoyed with success I headed for Palm Beach. If Fort Lauderdale was rich, Palm Beach was in another league, even the fire hydrants were chrome plated.
The galleries were far more elitist but even here I managed to sell a drawing. It was a quick sketch I’d knocked up as a portfolio filler and I still remember the price, $150. Not bad in 1987.
Back in Miami and flush with some extra cash, I met a guy who told me about a discounted flight to Yucatan in Mexico, and off we went. I had no intention of backpacking as such, but what the hell.
I traveled down to Belize, through Guatemala and up the west coast of Mexico and re-entered the United States in California.
I’d lugged my portfolio around with me all that time and now I had to sell some more or I was stuck.
I had no luck in Los Angeles but I heard about a town up north called Carmel which was rich and full of galleries.
I sold the lot. WooHoo!
With that cash, I made my way back across the States to New York and home.
Selling Art to Expats in Egypt, Travel in the Developing World
America was supposed to be about selling my art but it had opened my eyes to travel. All I could think about was getting away.
I got a temporary job, to get some quick money, and went to stay with a mate who was teaching English in Cairo.
I took my art kit and found a market doing commissions and selling art to ex-pats. Even in the developing world, there is money if you look in the right places.
I realized that ex-pats are often paid western wages but living for peanuts They have money to burn. That was an eye-opener.
My mind kept ticking over with possibilities and when I returned to England I saved up for a one-way ticket to Kenya.
Selling Art to Tourists in Kenya. Real Adventure Travel
In the 80s they called Nairobi, ‘Nairobbery’ and I discovered why soon enough. I was mugged on my first day. It’s a long story but the mugger got caught and banged to rights, and far from putting me off, I was on a high. This was a real adventure.
I had £300 in my pocket, a box of 200 pastels, and no ticket home, but first things first, I’d hitch into Meru National Park.
As I sat atop Leopard Rock overlooking the ramshackle chalets, now a luxury lodge, I had to pinch myself that I was really looking out over the wild African bush. I’d already been ticked off for hitching into the park, now I was told off for climbing the rock too, apparently, the clue was in the name.. OOOPS.
Never mind all that, this was what I’d always dreamed about and for a fiver a night I was as happy as Larry.
To fund my travels further I had to head for the beach to make some money and I took the sleeper train to Mombasa and went south to Diani Beach and a campsite/hostel owned by an old colonial called Dan Trench.
He was a miserable old git and the only time I saw him laugh was when I lost my moneybelt down the long-drop toilet. He walked off and returned with a fishing rod!
I settled in and stayed 2 months painting wildlife from postcards (my own camera was crap).
I’d do 90% of the picture beforehand and finish it off in the cafe of the neighboring hotel and wait for curious tourists to come over for a look. It worked a treat and I sold enough paintings to fund a trip to Uganda.
I’m so glad I saw Africa at that time. Without regaling you with endless travel tales, it was still ‘old’ Africa in many ways and I saw glimpses of a world that has all but disappeared.
Selling Art to Locals in New Zealand. Easy Travel
After a 2nd African visit, I turned my attention to Australia and New Zealand.
The plane ticket cost a fortune so somehow I had to eke out my spending money. I began my trip in New Zealand and ended up in a small town up north called Russell.
It was situated in the Bay of Islands and I stumbled upon a wonderful little hostel run by a friendly ex-pat alcoholic.
I hadn’t planned on staying more than a few days but, as it turned out, I stayed for 3 weeks.
I decided to sit down and draw the hostel, in pen and ink, and hoped that someone might like to buy it as a souvenir. That’s when I found out that the owner loved art and had been an art student in his youth.
He loved it and I traded the drawing for one week’s accommodation.
He asked me to draw the view from the other side and traded me for another week.
The owner was well known in the local pub and he took the picture down to show his mates. He returned with a bunch of commissions from friends.
I could’ve stayed longer but I was young and restless and now I knew how to make some extra money.
Everywhere I stayed I sat down and drew the hostel. If the owner didn’t trade it, a backpacker would be sure to buy it. Plus I supplemented my income with portraits and local views.
Useful Budget Travel Sites:
The backpacker world is a captive market and far from being broke (like me), many backpackers are minted. I left New Zealand with the same amount of cash in my pocket as when I arrived.
Selling Art in Australia and the Backpacker Scene
Australia was more difficult. The country is bigger and brasher and not so easy to navigate without a car.
I landed Sydney and hit on the idea of approaching the Youth Hostel Association to see if they needed any illustrations of their hostels. As luck would have it, they did.
They had half a dozen premises that looked too ugly as photos and drawings would be much better. They paid me a fixed sum per drawing with travel expenses. Woo Hoo.
I got to see some backwaters I wouldn’t have seen otherwise and it kickstarted my hop up the coast.
I followed the same formula that worked so well in NZ and hitched all the way (bar one bus) to Darwin.
One of my proudest moments was being offered a ride by some other tourists and we started to talk about working in Oz. They then brought up a story they’d heard about a guy who was traveling around Oz drawing hostels. They were talking about me!
This is only a fraction of what happened on those early trips. I went on to travel extensively, especially in India.
I switched from selling art as I traveled, to selling art at home to fund my travels. A big difference, and as it turned out more financially rewarding.
Although traveling with very little money played a big role in my adventures, it was always hand-to-mouth and very tiring.
I realized that I would be better off earning money at home and saving up for a trip, but how to do that with art? I found the answer in New Zealand.
When I was in Russell there was a small gallery situated near the jetty and he was selling prints of his drawings. I saw the tourists arrive every day and this guy was doing well.
His drawings were of NZ landmarks, they were OK, not bad but nothing special. His ace card was adding color. He sold his B/W prints for NZ$7 and his hand-tinted prints for NZ$20 each.
All he did was sit outside his shop, at his easel, with one half-completed work on display. It was effectively a prop, used to attract customers. I don’t recall him ever painting. I later discovered that he paid art students $5 per print to color them for him.
He sold just the prints. Not even framed. It was so simple.
I returned home burning with new ideas. I could do something like that, why not? It took some years but eventually, I got there…. but that’s another story.
Has this article has given you food for thought? If so you might like to enjoy these:
- 9 Selling Skills for Artists who Want to Sell More Art (Are you missing sales?)
- How do Artists get Commissions Quickly? (It’s easy but scary)
- How to Draw Pet Portraits for Money and Start a Business
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