I’m living my dream. After years of living other dreams (singer, novelist) I’m now living my original dream. To make a living as a painter. I always imagined this would require a gallery, but, as it turns out, it doesn’t.
I started painting faces in my room as a young teenager. 11 x 17″ watercolor self-portraits in the mirror. Over the years, I showed them to special people in my life, but then, when color laser copying became viable, I showed them in a limited way at events I sang at with my voice and guitar rock duo.
What was more important than being technically incredible was the emotion on the faces. My face. My emotions.
My parents were both painters and I picked up a lot from them in terms of composition and technique, but neither of them painted people. All of this is uniquely complicated in the way that every teenager feels overwhelmed by their relationships as they emerge from childhood. I went to art school for a while, but I was so keen to leave home that I opted for a full time job in a newspaper production department and painted in my spare time. Life unfurled for the next 40 years, twisting and turning in ways that I had not expected! Releasing albums and touring with my band. Which brings us to now.
“I’ve sold 900 $100 USD paintings (11 x 14″) online in 4 years.” – Jean Smith
I don’t have a million followers, but of the ones I do have really appreciate being able to buy good art for an affordable price. I have 2667 friends on FaceBook, 815 followers on Twitter and 1161 followers on Instagram.
It certainly helps that I am in a band that has a reputation for creating work that intends to create progressive social change, but I’d say most of my customers didn’t know my band before they started collecting my paintings.
Dealing with elderly parents and housing issues while painting almost every day has resulted in me revealing what is going on in my personal life. This came easily enough to me because I’m a writer and a public person. I would say that allowing people to know me is part of the appeal for a buyer of work online.
The housing issue I’m facing isn’t unique. As the economy changes and drives artists away from urban centers cities become less culturally vital. This is very unfortunate, yet it holds potential for structuring life in places that are conducive to creativity that doesn’t necessarily rely on external stimuli. Often where there is peace and quiet, there is less pressure to earn the astronomical amounts that city-living requires. Maybe lowering overhead results in being able to quit a part-time joe job.
The possibility that I may have to leave my rental unit and find a place in uncharted territory in western Canada has become something of a group project, which is perfect, because once I’m set up I don’t want to sit alone in some small town where I don’t know anyone. I want artists (painters, film makers, writers, musicians) from all over to come and stay for free while they work on projects that intend to change the world.
Friend me on FaceBook to see paintings first. It would be great if you mentioned seeing this article.
Below this example – my most recent painting – are tips for selling paintings online
1. I paint and post new work almost every day (4 years in January, 2020).
2. The work has always been good, but is advancing by leaps and bounds.
3. The price is low at $100 USD (11 x 14″) and has never gone up.
4. I ship for a flat rate of $15 that includes tracking and insurance.
5. The theme is consistent: emotions on women’s faces.
6. My personal stories allow customers to know me.
7. I emailed one pitch and got lucky when the Jealous Curator posted my paintings saying: “First, oh my word I love these portraits so, so, so much. Second, Canadian rocker turned painter Jean Smith sells these paintings on Facebook for $100 a pop. WHAT? Yes, true story.” This promotion tripled sales (to 50) that month before settling at about twice what they were before.
8. I track my sales by month and post how many have sold (which has been a gradual increase aiming for 30 a month) to create engagement in the process.
9. Once I was earning more than I needed I created a goal for what I intend to do with the money from sales above my expenses.
10. My paintings are inherently collectable (size, price, theme) and I encourage owning more than one by creating a repeating post called “There’s something about these three together.”
11. I always show the painting again when it sells and say where it’s going and sometimes to whom.
12. I maintain albums of currently available, all paintings, SOLD, various themes (astronauts, scuba divers, aviators, angry women in rock, ruff collars) that allow viewers to engage in ways that suit their viewing proclivities.
13. I post new work around the same time every day.
I have gone out to community events like Art Walks and Car Free Days, but this didn’t really pay off in an way as far as sales. I’m on the left. Met some very nice people though!
I’ve tried a bit of what I can glean about SEO (following bits of random advice including adding the phrase “contemporary portrait painting” to my blog posts), but it hasn’t changed anything noticeably. I try to let go of ideas that aren’t working (direct emails to interior designers) and stick with what does work. Paint every day and post on FaceBook. Some people tell me to raise my prices, but I think I’d just sell fewer paintings. I like the pace of painting every day and selling about half of what I do. I’m working on increasing that, but as I’m doing this alone, I need to make sure I keep painting, and then there’s the packaging and shipping. All very time consuming.
There are elements that would be difficult for anyone else to re-create, such as being in a band that has put out records and toured a lot (mostly in the 80s and 90s) as well as having an existing ease with revealing my personal life due to having done a ton of interviews over the years. I imagine that a painter could use social media to let people get to know themselves, but there’s also something to be said for being private and mysterious. I probably don’t need to tell you that cultivating an image of some sort might be helpful.
My band Mecca Normal rocking out at a literary event at the library.
Fantastic display by one of my customers, an interior designer in Ontario.