Should you Teach your Art Skills in Public? (Pros and cons)

Artist Kevin Hayler at work in Brighton
I’m working through a hole in the cellophane.

Not everyone can see themselves teaching their art skills in front of the public, for understandable reasons, but there can be good reasons to try. As an artist and trader of 20 years plus, I’m well placed to present the pros and cons of this approach to selling.

Teaching your art skills serve a number of purposes but inevitably there are two sides to the coin,

On the Plus Side

  • It’s productive
  • Establishes your authority
  • Generates sales

On the Minus Side

  • You’re open to critical scrutiny
  • Your work may suffer
  • You must be entertaining

Let’s go over the good points and the bad so you can decide if demonstrating is right for you.
Read on.

The Case for Teaching your Art

I draw at work, by which I mean, while I’m selling. I get to produce new work and sell at the same time which brings me to perhaps the biggest benefit of doing both.

Being Productive

Do not underestimate the advantages of maximizing your time. Most artists either sell or make their artwork but seldom do both. This creates the productivity paradox.

If you’re making you aren’t selling and if you’re selling you aren’t creating.

You are in effect limiting your capacity to succeed in either direction. It would be far more efficient to make your work and sell at the same time, but can you do it?

My medium of choice is the humble pencil and I didn’t choose it by accident. I chose it not just because I’m colorblind, (I started out as a painter) but because it is portable.

All you need is a pencil and paper and in theory, you can make money anywhere. I realized that truth when I hitched through New Zealand and Australia. I funded my travels simply by drawing hostels and doing portraits.

Carrying just a pencil case allows me to set up quickly and stop and start at will. There is no mess, no paint drying, and I can easily work outdoors. There are many advantages.

I’ve done the same with pen and ink.

My aim is simply to attract the public and entice them to come over to see what I’m doing. At the same time, I can get on with my drawing.

A family of elephants. A pencil drawing by Kevin Hayler
‘Family Life’ a pencil drawing by Kevin Hayler

I concentrate in small bursts at a time but in reality, I’m keeping a sneaky eye on what’s happening around me and any display of interest.

Make no mistake, I want to be interrupted. I’m waiting for a question.

Drawing in public is the sales hook.

Establishing Your Authority

It’s a sad fact that some people are suspicious. Some think I’m a cheat and just a fake pretending to be the master of my own work.

It’s tiresome more than hurtful but the doubt persists none the less. Drawing in full view of the public goes some way to alleviating that fear.

Not only do I reveal the tricks of the trade, stuff only a competent artist would know, but I demonstrate one or two techniques at the same time. My expertise is easy to prove.

For those folk with a passion for the subject matter more than the drawing tips, I can share their enthusiasm with my own genuine knowledge of the natural world and of traveling around the world.

I know what I’m talking about and I can back-up everything I say with confidence.

My interest shines through and like anyone talking about their pet subjects, I become more intrigued by my customers’ experiences and more animated in my response and this is very attractive to people.

One word of caution, don’t get so carried away with your chat that you forget your primary purpose for being there. I’ve lost so many sales by enjoying the chat and not closing the sale!

Your aim is to establish your authority in your areas of expertise, to gain trust and to build a rapport which subsequently leads to a sale – hopefully.

Generating More Sales

In order to cash in on your demo’, you will have to sell your art in a particular way.

You mustn’t be too eager nor too occupied. Ideally, you must cultivate an air of attentive indifference.

I want people to notice of me and take an interest. I do this by sitting with my back to the public which admittedly, is a risky strategy. I do it to tempt people to stop and look over my shoulder.

When someone approaches to see what I’m doing, I glance over my shoulder, say ‘hi’ and I resume my drawing straight away. I don’t turn fully around, it would freak the onlooker out.

I make no real eye contact.

If there’s a child looking and assuming the parent is close by I will ask if they want to have a closer look.

‘Come and see how I do it’

I’m hoping for a question, If none is forthcoming I will offer up an explanation anyway.

At the demo’s end, I will gauge the reaction and point out that the other pictures in my display were made in the same way.

It’s a neat segue to encourage my audience to browse.

A pack of timber wolves. A framed pencil drawing by Kevin Hayler
‘The Pack’ a pencil drawing by Kevin Hayler

At this point, I have completely changed the dynamic from a guy engrossed in his artwork, to a busy stand of interested and engaged ‘customers’.

Not everyone will buy something of course but as every trader knows, people attract more people and that encourages more sales.

Teaching is easier when standing up and if there is sudden sale you can break off seamlessly.

I sit on a high stool as I work. It allows me to rise quickly to the task.

I like to stand, it gives me more control. I can maneuver and shift my space to suit the situation. A low seat creates a poor impression. It looks lazy and makes me feel submissive.

My demo is borderline gimmickry. I show my ‘students’ a few tips with an eraser. My favorite ploy is to show people my battery eraser. The whirring, spinning sound makes people pay attention and then I make a nifty series of lines, dots, and squiggles to my drawing.

It’s like a revelation to people, especially children.

My actual working method is very slow so a quick demo is all I can do. My real speed of progress is like watching paint dry.

Top Tip: Try offering a few tips and keep your demos brief. Attention spans are short, and you must get your message across clearly, concisely and with pace.

Don’t ‘um’ and ‘er’. No long words, no jargon, and no long-winded phrases.
Keep it short and keep it snappy. I say variations of the following:

  • ‘Do you see the shine in its eye? I use a battery-eraser. Just dot it, like this’
  • ‘See the highlights on the fur, you don’t draw it in, you lift it out, watch’
  • ‘Have you ever wondered how you get those tiny white lines? Look, here’s how I do it – simple.’

I get gasps just by entertaining people with a few tricks of the trade.

It’s all a performance but it gets me and my stall noticed and that’s what it’s all about.

A male orangutan portrait. A pencil drawingg by Kevin Hayler
‘Enigmatic Ape’ a pencil drawing by Kevin Hayler

The Case against Teaching your Art

Not everyone is cut out to teach or be the center of attention so let’s explore a few of the drawbacks of presenting your skills to the public.

You’re Open To Critical Scrutiny

It’s the scariest thought of all – being criticized in public and JUDGED!

Like it or not, there is a small section of the community unable to contain themselves,

  • “Don’t you ever do anything else?”
  • “They’d be quite good if they were in color”
  • “I shared a cell with a guy who could draw like that”

Some people will have no time for you or your art from the very outset and for some reason they want you to know about it.

It’s the price you pay for being in the public domain.

There’s all manner of people out there, from the pompous to the profane and you must hone your people skills to deal with them.

Others will put you down, not in spite but with a blunt disregard for your feelings.

As I write, it was only yesterday that I was showing my art to a couple when the chap asked about the original. I replied that it was reserved for one of my regular buyers for £500.

He was aghast..

“What!! £500 for that?”

It was so over the top, I laughed but I still sold them 2 prints.

If there’s a bonus when it comes to unkind put-downs, it’s the positive backlash I get from by-standers annoyed by such bad manners. Some people are so keen to demonstrate their disapproval they make a purchase.

It’s the law of unintended consequences.

Perhaps ‘comedians’ and show-offs are the most tiresome. You get to be the butt of their humor or worse still their advice.

  • You’ve missed a bit
  • It doesn’t look anything like me
  • They’ll be worth money when you’re dead

It’s the same old crap said over and over. Very few remarks are original or funny. I deal with it the only rational way I can. It goes in one ear and out the other.

Your Work Can Suffer

I don’t kid myself that I’m pushing any boundaries when it comes to making my art in public. If anything it stifles creativity.

I play it safe. Who wants to experiment when the act of making the art is part of the sales ploy?

I can’t afford to go wrong. I’m not going to invest all my time and effort on a wing and a prayer. I need results.

Knew styles, techniques, and subjects are all risks that I’m seldom willing to take. Not only for commercial reasons but because of the potentially negative reaction of passers-by.

And as for making a statement or metaphors, forget it.

One of the reasons some people think I’m a fraud is because they never see me start the drawing. It’s true, I rarely start the drawing in situ with a blank sheet of paper.

If I did they would witness me drawing a grid, then spend time drawing the outline. Wouldn’t that be riveting?

I learned early on how limited attention spans can be, and don’t kid yourself that it’s because of the internet age, it’s always been that way, at least in my experience. And it’s not confined to the young, older people console themselves with that myth.

It makes perfect sense to start your work at home and quickly get something on paper for people to see. I like to have the outline, some rough shading, and the eyes are drawn perfectly before it goes on show as my ‘work in progress’.

I start the drawing at home

The public wants to see results, not the process. Any demo’ must be brief. A summary of your skills is all that’s required.

If you make the mistake of thinking that your casual observer wants to know anything more than just the highlights you risk boring them rigid. By the same token, allowing the keen amateur to know everything risks boring yourself rigid. Be warned.

I’m seeking approval and positive feedback and that’s achieved by confidence and knowing what I’m doing, not by cutting loose and expressing myself.

It’s frustrating, a drawback and a compromise.

You Must Be Entertaining

Like so many artists, I’m quite introverted and if I appear otherwise it’s only because I’ve learned some good sales patter. I’m confident only when I’m in my comfort zone.

You may think that entertaining could easily be described as a positive reason to demonstrate your art skills and I don’t disagree but it depends on your personality type.

I’m naturally low key and my energy levels vary wildly from day to day. There are days when just the thought of talking to anyone is an effort, but it’s got to be done.

Every day I sit down and draw even if sometimes I feel like a performing monkey.

My job is to sell my prints by encouraging engagement whether I feel like it or not and I cant pick and choose who takes an interest.

There’s a mixed bunch of people out there and let’s face it, not everyone has a full deck of cards!

Nor does everyone have the sensitivity to appreciate what you are trying to do.
Some people lack the basic social skills you’d expect and some cultures have very different rules about body space.

Sometimes a stranger’s head will appear over my shoulder to inspect my work and be within kissing distance! Yuk… and then there are the touchers.

Some guys want to give you an encouraging pat on the back with a hearty,

“Keep up the good work!”

Almost without fail, it makes me jump. What possesses people to do that while anyone is drawing is beyond me.

Perhaps the strangest example of having my space invaded was when a hobbyist came over to watch me draw and suddenly took the pencil out of my hand, while I was drawing! She wanted to see what grade of pencil I was using. I was speechless. It was so bizarre I had to laugh.

Perhaps the most alarming and regular hazard I face is the tendency for some people to touch my work. Presumably, the logic must be if it smudges it must be real!

It’s such a common problem that now I cover everything in plastic to prevent disaster.

It’s the price you have to pay for turning your back to the audience.

All that said, being informative is a highly effective sales hook. Delivering your message with brevity and with good humor is both entertaining and educational and works wonders with kids.

When I’m upbeat it’s good fun. My jokes work, I can be cheeky and my timing is spot-on.

When I’m downbeat my timing is awful, I stutter and fluff my lines. Such is life.

Conclusion

The main purpose of demonstrating your skill is to prove your authenticity and use it as a device to sell yourself and subsequently your art. If you can entertain in the process, all the better.

Is it right for you? Only you can judge but now you have a better understanding of the perils and pitfalls to help you make the right decision.


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