Why Your Art Doesn’t Sell and How to Solve the Problem

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Don’t give up, this will help

Ever wondered why some pile of talentless crap gets all the attention when the good art remains completely ignored? I’ll tell you why your art doesn’t sell.

Most people buy pictures, not art. There’s an important difference. The buyer is not invested in you, your talent, or your message. Your time and effort mean nothing to them. Why should it? They don’t know you and they won’t care about your art UNTIL they care about YOU!

This teaches you one important thing.

Art doesn’t sell itself!

It doesn’t seem right, does it? It’s not fair and there’s no justice. You won’t find merit instantly rewarded, not even in the artworld.

What are all these other guys doing that’s supposed to be so damn special? How the hell do they do it?

The answer is simple, they know how to tell a story.

They can neither draw nor paint very well, yet they still manage to sell their work and even get to teach what they don’t know! People actually pay them to paint badly.

But now you know what they are doing, it’s time to follow their lead and do it too.

A framed pencil drawing of wild African penguins from Boulders Beach by Kevin Hayler
‘Push and Shove’ A pencil drawing by Kevin Hayler

Art Doesn’t Sell Without a Good Story

Art doesn’t speak for itself, the artist does, and you sell your artwork by selling yourself. If you can tell a good story you are half-way home.

Selling your art is all about your backstory. People want to know about you and your journey. They are intrigued by the artist’s mystique, so give it to them. In the eyes of the public, you are an enigma. What you do and how you do it is a complete mystery.

“How on earth did you do that?”

Explain your work to people:

  • What gave you the idea?
  • Where do you begin?
  • Why did you choose the subject?
  • What materials did you use?
  • Where were you when you did it? 

People love to know what happens behind the scenes.

They have this romantic image of the starving artist slaving away in his studio, caught in a creative frenzy and working through the night to complete their masterpiece. I doubt many artists actually do that, I know I don’t.

Of course, this is between you and me but I’m more likely to do my stuff in front of the telly!

To make my story interesting, I talk about my travels. I talk about seeking new subjects in far off places and the wildlife I encountered along the way. My mission is my unique selling point.

When you learn to self-edit and cut the story short, you keep the audience with you.

I’ve only got to mention my travels looking for wildlife and selling my art and people get all misty-eyed. I can milk it for all it’s worth. Then if I just happen to mention that I also live on a boat, some people swoon.

I talk about my life and my work but I also ask questions. I want to know if my prospect and I have anything in common. The more we chat, the more I discover and the greater chance one of those threads will lead to a sale. 

This isn’t as manipulative as it sounds. All too often I get too engrossed in the conversation and forget that I’m supposed to be selling. It’s very easy to talk yourself out of a sale.

If I didn’t sell myself like this, all the customers would have to go on is the picture in front of them and that’s why you must give your artwork an evocative title and write a good caption.

Use Captions and Titles to Sell your Art

You cant rely on capturing peoples attention for more than a second or two so to maximize your chances of keeping your visitors engaged they need to have something short and pithy to read.

The title sets the mood, and the caption gives it context.

Do not dismiss this as trivial, its anything but. You must entice the viewer to spend as much time with your work as possible.

Your Picture Title

The title is like a headline. It needs to resonate with the viewer.

A framed pencil drawing of a proud lion by Kevin Hayler
‘Head of the Family’ a pencil drawing by Kevin Hayler

The best titles strike an emotional cord. If you can conjure up a turn of phrase or an idiom that both fits in with the picture and applies to the customer’s life in some way you will secure more sales.

Sometimes the right title will spring to mind straight away, but there are times when it takes forever.

Further Reading: How do Artists Title their Work?

Try not to rush yourself. Although a bland title is better than no title at all, it’s better to hold on until you have a lightbulb moment.

When I’m stumped, I will ask around for ideas. Most ‘helpful’ suggestions are sentimental goo but every now and then someone will come up with a gem and I’ll use it.

I keep an open ear for potential titles and if I hear something good I’ll jot it down for future use.

I’ll use alliterations without shame such as,

  • Cat in the Cool
  • Potted Palm and Puss
  • Bamboo Breakfast

And common idioms like,

  • Fingers and Thumbs
  • Best foot Forward
  • The High Life

And family references,

  • Father Figure
  • Jumbo Family
  • Siblings

The title should be short and sweet and roll off the tongue with a rhythm. I get people going through my whole portfolio just for the joy of reading them.

Your Picture Caption

The caption should also be brief and offer an insight or story concerning the work. A few lines will do. Write enough to engage the reader and possibly invite a follow-up question, but keep it short enough to encourage your browsers to read several pieces.

  • Don’t waffle. Edit down to the fewest words needed to make your point.
  • Avoid arty-farty jargon, it will only alienate people.
  • Use simple English, no fancy long words.

Keep it light but be careful with your jokes, we don’t all share the same sense of humor. This one works.

‘I’m constantly amazed when people assume that I must be meditating while I work. There’s a myth going around that artwork is in some way relaxing. Well I’m sorry but let me put the record straight. This drawing took me three weeks and did my bleedin’ head in.’

I know which caption is being read as soon as I hear a laugh.

It’s not enough to have a stand-alone piece of artwork. People want a brief background to explain what they’re seeing and to know something about the artist and this takes me on to my next tip.

Write a Good Bio and Intrigue your Reader

I have my Bio prominently displayed in center stage and on the last page of each portfolio.

It’s a condensed summary of my life and written as a journey; from factory worker to world-traveling wildlife artist. It’s constructed to intrigue the reader.

I include some shortcomings as obstacles I overcame, such as being self-taught, broke, and colorblind.

It invites comments and questions and reads well.

“So that’s why you do black and white!”

I include only the briefest outline, presented as a story. No one wants to know the boring detail. They don’t want to know how many kids you’ve got or where you were born. Sorry, but they don’t.

Further Reading: How to Write an Artists Bio People Want to Read

A framed pencil drawing of a leopard emerging from the dark by Kevin Hayler
‘Leopard Rock’ a pencil drawing by Kevin Hayler

If you can construct a transformative life journey and present it as a narrative you will win the audience over. Think about it in 3 simple steps,

1 Your Dreams 2 Your Hurdles 3 Your Success

Include a picture of yourself. I have a photo of me hiking in Ethiopia and I watch as people take a peek to see if it’s really me. That gives me the chance to comment.

“Yes it is me, I was 10 years younger and better looking”

It’s an ice breaker.

One last point, don’t make the font too small. Older people need reading glasses and if they can read without them they are more likely to linger.

So now you know the importance of communicating, lets round things off by talking about ego.

Have the Right Business Attitude

Successful artists know how to promote themselves. They reach out, network, and follow-through.

They work hard, meet deadlines, turn up on time and they’re true to their word. You know what I mean… NORMAL stuff.

It’s the stuff that should be taken for granted but sadly it’s often lacking with creatives.

Being unreliable and letting people down means you lose money, quite apart from being disrespectful.

Who needs it?

Yet many artists seem to think they are a world apart from the constraints and limitations of the commercial world. Why is that I wonder?

It’s their Ego!

Too many artists have a self-centered approach to the world combined with an identity that relies solely on being seen as an artist. It’s a fragile house of cards.

They need constant praise and approval to prop up their self-belief. They seek reassurance and compliments and cannot face criticism in any form. A critique is seen as a direct attack on them personally and not just a subjective opinion about their picture.

A framed pencil drawing of a tiger lying in the forest by Kevin Hayler
‘Daybreak’ a pencil drawing by Kevin Hayler

Many artists have been brought up being told how amazing they are, deserved or otherwise, and it comes as quite a shock when the outside world doesn’t agree.

My point is, nobody but your friends and family really care about your art!

The lives of strangers are not centered around an unknown artist, why should they be?

We are bombarded by imagery everywhere to the point of overload and you and I just make pictures. SO WHAT? The public couldn’t care less.

It’s all too easy to react defensively,

“Don’t these idiots realize? Are they too dumb to get it?”

All pretty pointless angst, so you have to change tack.

When you present your art for sale it must meet a need,

  • As a gift
  • To fill a bare wall
  • To fit a frame.

It might be more accurate to swap the word ‘need’ for the word ‘want’ because art is very much a discretionary buy. No one really ‘needs’ it.

In order to supply their demands, you must stop thinking about yourself and your desires and concentrate on the wishes of your prospective customers.

Talk to them, listen, and meet them at least halfway, and you will make more sales.

Life is about compromise so why should art be any different?

You can argue the opposite as much as you like but the reality is, the customer has all the money and all the choices.

It’s not about you, it’s about them. So what do you do? Well for a start:

  • If your art is an awkward size then change it.
  • If the colors are too strong, tone them down.
  • If your art is too sad, lighten it up a bit.

Selling art is not about selling out. Don’t be precious about it.

If all you want to do is make and create statements with clever metaphors then don’t expect the world to beat a path to your door.

When I started my ‘career’, my gallery owner would tell me what she found easiest to sell. It was like having an insiders brief, I could use it to focus my efforts productively.

What happened? Within a year of leaving the factory, I was earning a living.

Working artists want their art on the walls. In homes, offices, hotels, you name it.

Don’t kid yourself that you will be famous, its a pipe-dream. You might as well play the lottery. Concentrate instead on making a living. If you manage to make and sell your own art full- time, you’re a success.

Create dreams for others to enjoy but be realistic about your own.

Conclusion

Why doesn’t your art sell? Because they don’t care about you. Care about them and they will care about you in return. It’s reciprocal.

  • Try giving, not just taking.
  • Make others feel good.
  • Sell the story and the romance.
  • Learn to listen.
  • And don’t forget to smile.

When you make the shift from pleasing yourself to pleasing others you will find much more satisfaction and the sales will follow.

If you need your ego massaged there’s no better recipe.


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