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Strategies: selling art online

By Paul Watson on .

I’m trying to alternate theory with practical examples, and it’s time for a practical example again, this time from my own practice in the world of visual art.

If you’re in the business of creating large pieces of artwork that cost more than the average person earns in a week then making your first sale is going to be difficult, whether online or in an exhibition. You’re asking people to spend a lot of money, to make a large commitment.

Making that sale online is even harder, because your potential customer is at a disadvantage:

It’s not impossible, but it’s difficult. But there are a number of ways you can make things easier.

I’ve had quite a few enquiries from potential customers in the US about buying my assemblages. All went well in the email exchange: they liked the artwork and were comfortable with the price I was asking, even with the weakness of the dollar making my work quite expensive for American customers. But when I calculated the shipping for these heavy, bulky pieces of artwork (they’re mounted on heavy wood for stability and measure, on average, 24″ x 18″) the sale went dead.

The problem was that trans-Atlantic shipping and insurance costs more than doubled my asking price for the work – and this was the sticking point at which I lost the sale every time. And unfortunately this wasn’t just the case for international orders – even domestic shipping put too much on the overall price.

On the other hand, I have lots of friends, acquaintances and complete strangers telling me that they liked my artwork, but the concept of buying it never entered their minds – in their minds they weren’t “the type of people who bought artwork”. They were struggling for cash, or making ends meet but certainly couldn’t afford to spend a three figure sum on a piece of artwork.

I was discouraged, but not completely. I’d obviously done some things right – I was presenting my artwork correctly, I was doing my promotion well enough to attract people who liked my artwork to my website, and the various areas for interaction on my site (the discussion forum, and ample opportunities to contact me by email) were a viable alternative for the experience of talking to the artist face-to-face at an exhibition.

Since I’ve frequently lived almost hand-to-mouth, I could completely empathise with people being put off (or just simply excluded) by the price of buying my artwork. I didn’t want to abandon my assemblage work, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t do something to complement it. I needed something that was very affordable, didn’t weigh a lot (so it didn’t incur huge shipping charges), and worked alongside my assemblages allowing me to try out new ideas which I probably wouldn’t have the time (or confidence) to attempt in a larger piece of work.

Obviously the heavy wood that the assemblages were built on would have to go. Paper would be too flimsy, so I looked around the art shops and found several packs of 9″ x 12″ Bockingford Board – meant for watercolours, but solid enough to stand a few layers of varnish and glue, and small enough to fit into a standard padded envelope.

I had an idea for some collages loosely based on the Principia Discordia (the “sacred text” of the Discordian religion written by Greg Hill and Kerry Thornley as a parody of organised religion). I got out my varnish, glue and collections of photographs, drawings, and found objects and set to work, soon finishing 6 collages on the Bockingford Board (incidentally finding I could experiment with ideas far more quickly and freely at this smaller scale.).

After creating the first six I packaged one up and took it along to the Post Office to get weighed and priced up – the shipping cost would be under £1 in the UK, around £1.50 to continental Europe, just over £2 to the US/Canada and nearly £3 to Australia.

After costing up the board and other materials (including the mailing envelope!), I came to a price of £12.50 (about $25 US at the current exchange rate) for a single collage including shipping to anywhere in the world. I would be selling the collages at only a £1 or so above cost price – not getting any real money for my time (but not losing any money on materials or shipping), but that fitted with my longer term plan. I had decided that just about anyone could afford £12.50 – it wasn’t a financial commitment that people had to weigh up: it could easily be an impulse buy – which opened up the possibility of selling my artwork to people who didn’t see themselves as “the type of people who bought artwork”.

And so my Principia Discordia series of collages was born.

There were a number of other decisions I made. I decided to sell sight-unseen: a risky strategy, but one that made it easy to use a basic PayPal ecommerce system – the customer ordered a collage and then I made it, with no need for me to quickly edit web-pages to show that a particular collage had been sold. I also included a certificate of authenticity which each collage, and recorded the name of the purchaser of each collage in the gallery. I set up a thread on my old discussion forum dedicated to the series, where potential customers could ask questions (and check on the progress of their collage). I emailed several websites and blogs which specialised in collages and a (surprisingly) large number agreed to repost my “press release” (now I understand that this blogging business can be hard work – when someone emails you to hand you a blogpost on a plate which is highly relevant to your blog’s subject area, then I can completely understand why so many kind people were happy to post my news on their blogs for me!)

So, how did it go? Well, it’s still going. I’ve sold 55 of the collages over a period of two-and-a-bit years. Many were sold to friends and regulars on my discussion forum (several of whom had not bought artwork before), but a large number were sold to complete strangers.

Stupidly, I failed to create a section in the PayPal order form where I asked how they had heard about my collages – I’ll fix that mistake next time. Most surprisingly (to me, at least) was that many people were buying multiple collages. One person ordered 10 collages!

What I’ve ended up with (apart from the money, and the great satisfaction of selling my artwork) is a number of benefits. I’ve found a way to experiment quickly and affordably with new artistic ideas which works in parallel with my larger assemblages. I’ve also now got a small-but-growing global email database of people who have paid for my artwork, who, having already invested a very small amount of money in my art, might be interested in doing so again – either another small purchase or, having had the positive experience of a safely completed financial transaction with an unknown artist, perhaps something slightly more expensive.

I’m considering a new series of artwork. It’ll still be small and lightweight, but probably slightly larger than the Principia Discordia collages, and each piece taking a bit more time and materials, maybe costing around £30 each. But this time I have a database of customers – people who have already bought my artwork – who I can notify as soon as I’m ready, which makes selling this new series just that bit easier.

I’m not proposing this strategy as the one true way of selling art online. It’s just one strategy that worked for me – I sold multiple pieces of artwork, gained a lot of traffic (visitors to my site, looking at my artwork), and I’ve got a list of customers from all over the world who have crossed the hardest threshold – they’ve made their first purchase from me. Now it’s time for me to build on that.