Going pro – tips for artists on making the leap!

All artists, from painters to potters, have an obstacle to overcome which most professions do not.  There are LOTS of people out there doing what you do, for fun, and they’re happy not to get paid for it.

So, how do you make that leap from amateur artist to professional and, not to beat around the bush here, start making a living from your art?

Like all professions, art has a training period, where you hone your craft.  You do this either officially, by studying, or unofficially, by doing what you do for nothing or just to cover your costs.  This is a time-honoured way for you to make your mistakes and do your learning in front of a small audience, without the pressure of having to deliver to a paying client.
Eventually, though, if you want to live the dream and make enough to pay your bills from your art, there comes a time when you need to start charging more than just pocket money.

That’s when a lot of makers realise that, not only are the competing with newcomers, but also with old-timers who are doing it ‘for fun’.  You wouldn’t get this is law, or brain surgery, or car mechanics for that matter, but you do get it in art and craft (and all the other arts).  That’s just the way it is.
We remember having a conversation with local maker Donna of Junkitlove, whose art we sell here at The Art House.  You can see some of her gorgeous ‘Yoni’ creations here:-

Donna described the difficulty of being at a craft fair, charging a fair price for her craft, also what she needs to pay her bills.  On the stall next to her was a ‘hobby’ crafter who was only needing to cover their costs, with similar quality work.  
So how do you persuade buyers to choose you, with your higher prices, over the hobbyist next to you?  The answer is to put some space between you and those who aren’t in it professionally.
Over the years of selling crafts here at The Art House, we’ve made some observations about those who are selling enough to make decent cash, and those who are not, here are some top tips on taking your art to the ‘pro’ leagues:-
1)  Act like a Pro.  It seems obvious but:  arrive on time for hanging exhibitions or for setting up craft markets!  Follow the instructions you are given by galleries and communicate in a professional way.  Post off items to your customers on time and answer your emails.  

Most importantly, deliver quality art consistently.  Make sure your work is fit for purpose, use good quality materials, ensure it will last and is finished and presented well.  Bargain shop canvasses and pre-made craft sets may keep your costs down, but they make your work look amateur and cheap and nobody will want to pay a good price for that!

Just a little extra quality will give you a serious edge over the beginners and hobbyists in your field and is worth the extra time and investment.
2) Understand and embrace that you are in business. Yes, you love your work and yes, your creative integrity is vital – but if you want to make a living, you’ll need a business head too.   Do some reading and research not just on your creative practice but on the more down-to-earth, commercial skills you need.  There are lots of good resources and ecourses online, we’d recommend Leonie Dawson as one good place to check out, especially if you are planning to sell online.

3) Have a conversation with your audience.  Talk about and not just your work, but about what others in your field are doing, venues you sell at, festivals, exhibitions and fairs where they can find you.  Not only will this get more people along to events where you are exhibiting, it will set you apart in the eyes of the venue and potential buyers.  Sharing work by other reputable makers sets you as part of a community of artists and builds goodwill.

To start with, use the friendship groups you already have – don’t be afraid to ask friends and family to support you, they are your best first buyers!

4) You’ll need a website (or even an etsy or folksy shop to start with).  You’ll also need to use facebook, twitter, have a blog, get business cards, use proper receipts and invoices.  Don’t even think about skipping this bit!  There are free or very low cost websites out there, so it needn’t break the bank, but if you want to play with the pros you will need these tools.

5) Appearances are important!  The successful makers we work with have brilliant and original ways of displaying their work, not just an old tablecloth on a table and a few cardboard signs.  

Work on a look that says who you are, what your work is about, and whist complements your pieces.  Price clearly, and have your name visible on stalls or price tags.  If you are framing work, do it well – nearly everyone uses cheap, mass produced frames from a large superstore we shall not name here.  If you do something different your work will immediately stand out, so be more imaginative than the others.  Give your beautiful creations the background they deserve.

6) Find your voice – a big difference between professionals and amateurs is that pros will have found a style that works for them and stick to it.  You can always launch new collections, or branch out, but be careful to avoid being ‘bitty’ in your creations.  A clear, strong style speaks volumes and lends work the unique, personal touch that people who buy handmade want to see.

7) Have a strong ‘brand’ identity – either a name for your creations, or use your own name.  Use this consistently and make it clear how you want to be known.  Remember also that you’re working in a visual field so make sure all your public faces have a clearly recognisable look.  Design a logo, use a consistent font and make sure your visual marketing is gorgeous to look at and relates to the look of your work.  Treat this design process as a creative project and you’ll even enjoy it!  Take lovely photos of your creations and share them widely (don’t forget to add your web address to all photos though, so people know where to look for more!).  

8) Write an artist’s statement about who you are, what drives your work, what inspires you.  Include a few personal details but not too many, mention where your work stands in relation to others in your field.  Mention unique selling points – is it recycled, what special materials do you use, what specific processes to make the work?  

If you are face-to-face with your audience, talk to them about you, your pieces, the value of handmade work – and focus on how much THEY will enjoy owning one!  Be proud of who you are.

9) Don’t be afraid to use photos of yourself on your website, blog and facebook.  People love to know the face behind the work, so don’t be shy.  If you are exhibiting in a gallery, get to the opening event and chat to potential buyers – if your audience can put an identity to your work, they are FAR more likely to buy it.

10) Price yourself properly.  You don’t want to be priced out of the reach of people who would buy from you, but if you’ve created a quality piece it’s worth charging a decent amount for it.

Take a look at what similar makers are charging as a guide.  Be businesslike about this – work out your materials costs first and, if you are making a lot of pieces to sell (say, for a craft fair or a solo show) then price them as if you were going to sell, say, twenty percent or so of them (you won’t always sell all your stock).

Work out where your ‘break even’ point is and ensure you get to that as quickly as you can, so that it’s not costing you money to be a maker.

A small note – working out your hourly rate as a maker may dishearten you, so add a little realism to the mix.  A good place to start for pricing work is to count ALL your outlay (but not your time) – materials, travel, framing – and double it.  Once you are established, your prices can go up.  You will also get quicker at making your pieces as you make more of them, which helps!

10) Do your homework.  Look at websites you like, people who are doing well and analyse why they’re successful.  Not so that you can copy their designs, as that would be pointless (and unethical!) but so that you can learn from their sales methods. 

Example time!

A very successful maker is Katwise – her site includes many photos of her wearing her own creations, as well as of her amazing house, colourful bus and her artwork.  Her gorgeous coats, jumpers and cardigans are made from recycled wool and sell for between £80 and £400+.  She’s also now selling the instructions for how to make one, as demand has exceeded her ability to supply.  Talk about a dream situation, huh?!

Katwise is so successful her pieces sell out within 5 minutes of being listed online, every month, so she’s certainly doing something right!

Her pieces are very, very beautiful and this is a big part of her appeal, of course.  They are also quite unusual and have a unique, consistent look – although there are similar styles out there, most people who like her pieces will recognise one on the street.   Most importantly, and this is what we think is a big key to her success, she’s sharing a whole ethos and lifestyle with her work.

She also shares her process, so that people can see how much love and work goes into each piece.

People who buy her pieces aren’t just getting an object, they’re getting a piece of the dream life she leads.  Be aware that this is what people are REALLY buying when they buy handmade, and make sure they’re getting that from you.  Understanding what your customer really wants, and delivering it to them, is the secret to success in any enterprise.

Most of all, building a reputation and making a living takes TIME, so whatever you do, start right away.  We do hope some of these tips help and wish you happy and successful creating!

About arthousesouthampton

The Art House is a not-for-profit café, gallery and arts venue in the centre of Southampton. We are a place you can meet new people, meet up with friends or just come in by yourself. Our licensed café offers delicious organic lunches, Fairtrade tea and homemade cake. We also have a busy programme of events, workshops, and art exhibitions, a clothing and crafts boutique and lots more. Most of our crew are volunteers and you might even want to apply to join them. Come along and enjoy our unique, community run space.
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