Selling Your Art Work

Selling Your Art Work

2019 has been an interesting year and we are only in June! A few unexpected / unplanned opportunities presented themselves with surprising results (good and bad), so as Surrey Artists’ Open Studios draws to a close this seems like a good time to chat about the pros and cons of trying to make a living from handmade textiles and to reflect on what went well and not so well.

As some of you may know, I gave up the day job 18 months ago to focus on felt-making full time. I knew the first few years would be financially hard so I saved diligently before taking that leap into the unknown. I am really glad I did, it is really tough trying to earn a living from textile art.

Contemporary Textiles Fair

The major benefit of no longer working for an employer is that I can be very flexible and consider opportunities that previously would have required me to sacrifice some of my annual leave allowance. One such opportunity was the Contemporary Textiles Fair in Teddington. This is a well known (in the UK at least), annual event, that generally gets good write ups, this combined with a business mentor encouraging me to take my one-of-a-kind products and bespoke commissions to “high end” fairs meant I was less anxious than perhaps I should have been about covering the £220 stand fee.

While I enjoyed the show, it was incredibly well organised and I met lots of really lovely textile enthusiasts, I didn’t sell enough work to cover the stand fee, and when you factor in the 3 days I spent at the show and the fuel travelling back and forth each day I made quite a substantial loss. Sadly, most of the other artists sharing my aisle reported the same. That said, I know some artists have been attending this event for years and are happy with their sales but I do worry that CTF will not continue for much longer if so few of the exhibitors are making a profit. Perhaps I should adopt the view of the stall-holder opposite my stand, she felt the stand fee was a reasonable price for the exposure / marketing opportunity. Personally I think a magazine advert would be better use of my time and money, what do you think?

The 3x Rule

Personally I use the 3x rule to decide if a show is worth doing again, if my total sales are at least 3x the value of the table / stall fee + travel and accommodation costs (if applicable), I will look to repeat the same event. Those sales should include commissions from people who saw your work but contacted you after the event too.

If my takings are less than 2x the table fee, I have effectively given up all the time I spent making what I sold and the cost of the materials, not to mention the hours spent setting up and manning the event to the organisers for free. That may be acceptable if you are just selling as a hobby but if it is your main source of income, it is utterly unsustainable.

How do you decide if you will repeat a fair or event again? Have you taken part in a show where you had poor sales but still returned the following year? Did you fair any better?

How do you decide which fairs and events to take part in?

Local Exhibitions

In April I entered a piece into a local exhibition, up until now I have always shied away from exhibitions and galleries that charge a significant commission. In part because I worry that if I increase my prices to cover the commission no-one will part with that much money but also because if it doesn’t sell during the exhibition I feel obliged to keep it on sale at the inflated price. Galleries understandably don’t like it if you have similar (or the same piece) for sale in your own shop for half the price that they are charging. This means I will only consider entering pieces into exhibitions that are truly one-of–a-kind. AppART was a good choice for me, the exhibition site is less than 10 miles away and the commission fees were 35% plus a £10 hanging fee.

Tropical Reef by Teri Berry

I entered my Tropical Reef hanging that some of you might recognise from earlier posts, and it sold! 🙂 What’s more, the lady who bought it found me in the Open Studios brochure and paid me a visit, how lovely is that! 🙂

This is one event I will definitely apply to again next year, I am already percolating ideas for felt sculptures to submit.

Working Outside the Box

Sometimes opportunities present themselves where the WIIFM* isn’t immediately obvious or you do something for fun or charity not expecting any reward.

A good example of this is a local art group (Pirbright Art Club) I joined a few months ago, I enjoy painting and drawing and while I don’t think I am good enough to make a living from it (60% of what I paint goes in the recycling or is cut up to make greetings cards) it has become my hobby now my other hobby (felt-making) has become my day job 🙂

When I joined I thought I might make a few friends and pick up some painting tips but was asked if my felt dragons, could be included in a dragon-themed exhibition, I had no idea when I made them that this event was on the cards. How is that for serendipity in action?!

Petunia – the Flowery Sea Dragon
Bunsen – the Flame-throwing Dragon

No sales came from this exhibition but I did gain some more exposure, it was free to enter and Bunsen and Petunia had a fun day out together 🙂

Open Studio Events

I wrote a post on hosting an open studio event last year, I will not repeat the tips from that post but you can read it here if you are interested. This year I tried some new approaches, in particular, studio trails.

This is where a group of artists who live geographically close to each other (the closer the better, walking distance is ideal but not always possible) get together to create a trail map. They then encourage their visitors to visit the other studios on the map, including yours, a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” sort of arrangement.

While the trail worked to some extent, I had about a dozen visitors who said they were following the trail, I think the biggest benefit is from networking with other local artists rather than an increase in visitor numbers. This is already starting to present teaching and exhibition opportunities that I would not have been aware of without my new network of fellow artists.

I offered a few teaching sessions during the days when my studio space was closed to the public, strangely everyone wanted to make a nuno-felted scarf on the same day, I could have filled this class several times over but only had space for 2 students. Sarah and Pene were the quickest to book their spots and both did remarkably well with what is quite an advanced technique, Sarah had never made felt before!

Sarah chose a geometric pattern
Close up of the gorgeous colours in Sarah’s scarf
While Pene was inspired by the jewel-like colours in a Tiffany lampshade

Of course Bunsen and Petunia stole the show, although only one gentleman was brave enough to try Bunsen on while Petunia kept a watchful eye on her friend from the windowsill….

This was only my second year of taking part in Open Studios and it was even more successful this year; this event is definitely going in the diary for next summer!

What is your experience of selling face to face? Do you have any tips to share? How do you choose which fairs and events to take part in?

It’s only 6 months to Christmas…… 😉

*WIIFM – What’s in it for me?

21 thoughts on “Selling Your Art Work

  1. I love your art work and I’m pleased that you have been able to give up paid employment in order to focus on it. But isn’t it a shame that money holds us to ransom like this. Years ago I gave up employment to sell hand made soap, not art I know, but I too did the rounds of craft fairs and markets. I ended up working very long hours for what was less than part time pay. I suspect selling art is even more precarious than that was. I ended up making more money from teaching soap making than actually selling it. I only once did a very expensive fair like you mentioned, it was a waste of money, but lots of people thought I was making money because it raised my profile somewhat… which may have attracted more students. The bottom line was that It was impossible to actually make a living doing what I was.. I was lucky to have a husband who earned well and didn’t mind that I didn’t.

    1. Thank you Jane, it is sad that most of us have to choose what we do for a living based on what we will earn. As a friend once said, if you do something you love you will never work another day your whole life. While there is some truth in that, I spend about 70% of my time doing what I love but trying to make a living from it means doing a fair amount of less enjoyable admin along side the felt-making, like tax returns, marketing and promoting myself (both of which I am far too “English” to be any good at!) .

      You make a good point about teaching, that is what keeps my bank balance in the black too which just further underlines how those who share techniques they learned in workshops are literally taking food out of the mouths of those who taught them, but that is a whole other rant! 🙂

  2. Tropical Reef is beautiful and you deserved the sale!

    Making a living from just selling artwork is difficult – it’s usually necessary to diversify e.g. teaching, selling prints, selling tutorials etc.

    Getting out and about is worthwhile, not only for your sanity when you’re working for yourself, but for the opportunities that appear where you least expect to find them.

    Fairs are an expensive gamble – the cost may be better put to use in advertising in the right place.

    Your new hobby sounds like fun!

  3. Thank you ladies, that is a good point about selling prints, it is on my to-do list for this year along with writing a new tutorial and applying to a local Guild of Crafts(wo)men. Are you offering giclee prints of your work? If you do, can you recommend a printer?

    1. Sorry but it’s on our to-do list too – so we haven’t a clue about printer.

  4. Hi Terry, I Love your work. I have been doing arts & crafts shows and festivals during the summer to sell my homegrown, handmade alpaca products for many years (started around 2006). As far as shows, I try to do only juried shows as that guarantees that there will be no one else there selling the same thing as me. (less competition). I have learned through the years which shows are good and which ones are not. My rule of thumb is give the show three years before quitting for many reasons. One, is finding your market, that is the big one. The other is some years the economy is not as good and people will be just looking and not spending. Also if it is a new show, then it might take time for them to draw the crowds in. How I judge if a show is good or not, even if I have not sold much of my wares is watching the crowd and looking to see if they are carrying bags or items that they purchased. If I don’t see a lot of that, I analyze if it is due to weather (most shows I do are in an outdoor venue) or the economy at this time? I also know that shows are definitely a good marketing venue for me. I always have business cards to pass out. For example after the last show that I did, my visits to my web page sky rockets. I have an online store and blog on my webpage which helps with after sales and orders. I do special orders for people too. Start collecting their emails and do regular newsletters, that also informs them where you will be in upcoming shows and if you have a website, to drive them there to maybe use an exclusive coupon that they received for being a part of your email list. Yes teaching also helps, but doing free online tutorials that you can sell the kits (they purchase kit, then get link to the free tutorial) is another good income producer. My $$ all go back into the ranch and alpacas. My husband & I still work in the IT world on a part-time basis (mostly remote work), but we plan on retiring from that work in the next couple of years. Then our only income will be from the ranch and alpacas. And as a rule of thumb, when starting any new business it can take 3-5 years before making any profit. Good luck! Liz

    1. Thank you Liz, you raise some excellent points, only selecting juried shows is a good idea although not 100% fool-proof (CTF was juried), I like your idea of crowd-watching for full bags of shopping, although I might find it a bit depressing if everyone passing me by had burgeoning bags, perhaps that would indicate the show clientele are not MY clientele?
      You also a very fair point that most businesses take several years to gain enough of a following to turn a profit, everyone starting out should be prepared to not only make any money but to make a loss in the first few years.
      Good luck for the future and your retirement plans 🙂

  5. I agree it can be difficult to find the right shows. I do juried shows too. Otherwise you always end up with Tupperware ladies and grannies that knit mitts for $4 a pair mixed in. If I could teach every weekend I could make a living. It is important to have some small inexpensive items people can buy. They may like your work but not have the money to buy something bigger. Cards are good for that. I end up buying cards of friends work because I can’t afford the real thing. Don’t underestimate what you are worth and what people will pay . Sometimes putting the price up sells more. It’s perceived value. The galleries know what they are doing. It is hard to make a living but then it’s hard to make a living working a regular job sometimes. Give it time.

    1. I have signed up to some of those shows too, it is sad, but I now avoid any fairs that are run in the name of charity, they seem to attract a host of commercial traders selling imported rubbish and crafters selling their work for less than they must have paid for the materials. If I want to support a charity I just make a cash donation instead and save myself the grief of manning a table that will not sell anything.
      You raise some excellent points to, having a range of prices really does help, do include so “hero” pieces as Kim from Flextiles calls them, very high quality and more expensive pieces, people will love them but if they can’t afford the price tag feel like they are getting a bargain with one of your mid-range priced pieces. I saw this happen several times during open studios.
      Human psychology is interesting isn’t it? You are absolutely right, some people actively avoid buying the cheapest versions of an item as they perceive them to be poor quality. I am told this is especially true of online purchases.

  6. Thanks for the provocative post Teri! It’s bringing out some great information for people who are in the same boat or thinking about it. I am planning on starting this process in March of 2020. Since I own a gallery currently, I think I will be looking for gallery representation. Yes, they take a percentage, but your prices should already be high enough to include that percentage. That way the gallery is doing all the work for you that you don’t like to do. My plan is to find 4-5 galleries in the northwest US and keep them stocked with my work. Hopefully, between that and teaching, I will be able to make some money. I think that craft shows are so much hard work for unpredictable outcomes. I will have to up my game on the online selling too. Lots of work, right? 🙂

    1. Thank you Ruth, yes I think many people underestimate just how much time and effort goes into selling online, it takes me about an hour for each product, you have to photograph it, edit the photos, write the listing, research keywords etc. Then another 20-30 mins to package it for shipping…. before you know it you have spent all week doing admin and not made anything new!

      I suspect you are right, I need to increase the prices of some of my work but I do wonder if anyone will really pay £120-150 for a scarf? I think there are some items in my inventory that will never be commercially viable in a gallery, perhaps it is time to rethink what I make…?

    2. My friends who make scarves are rethinking their commercial viability. People don’t want to pay over $100 US. So instead, they make them into wall art which sells much better.

    3. I am having similar thoughts, that perhaps I should focus more on wall art rather than wearable art, as you say people are prepared to pay 3-4 times as much for a piece that will take a similar amount of time to make.

  7. Congratulations Teri for living your dream and selling your tropical piece! As Lyn mentioned, your second hobby will be useful for your felt business. Although, I think you have a great sense of design and color. Since I don’t sell, I’m not much help. But I think it’s a matter of finding the right market and buyer. I’m sure you’ll do well! Best to you and your business!

  8. Great post, Teri. Congrats on taking the leap to full-time fibre artist! Sadly I know all about how fickle markets can be, and so haven’t done any in a really long time. They gave me high anxiety, so I felt super exhausted at the end of the day and the next few after.
    It’s definitely not easy making a profit from fibre arts in the UK (especially in this current economy) but things do grow with time. You’ll need a good funnel system and definitely get yourself a mailing list to keep your buyers in the loop. Admin is not a fun thing but that’s the price for being independent 🙂 Best of lucks!

    1. Thank you Leonor, I am thinking I should restrict the fairs I attend to those just before Christmas, my low to mid range pieces usually sell quite well there but you are so right, they are utterly exhausting, setting up taking down, manning your stall all day and the drive to and from the show all take their physical and emotional toll on you and your home relationships.
      Would you be happy to share what you mean by a “funnel system”? And which funnel elements you have tried which worked / didn’t work for you?

  9. Your interesting post has really highlighted the challenge so many of us face.
    Decades ago I tried the selling route, textile art didn’t have the same cachet as painted art (and that hasn’t changed much) but it was teaching that kept my balance in the black….just. Sadly the effort and the ‘just’ took it’s toll and meant it was back to being employed.
    Now retired, I am aiming to try again….so thank you to everyone for your thoughts, experiences and useful information.
    Terri – I’m sure with such excellent advice from all and your enthusiastic efforts you will succeed at living the dream.

    1. Thank you Antje, unfortunately textile art still seems to be viewed as “women’s work” and undervalued as a consequence, to me that is unjust on so many levels I don’t know where to start 🙁 I was also saddened to read that you felt you had to return to paid employment but if it is any consolation I know many artists (even those in the more traditional arts of painting and sculpture) who have part-time jobs to supplement their income.
      One of the most wonderful things about working in textile art is the generous and supportive community we have and as everyone has so aptly demonstrated in the responses to my post. We are rich in so many other ways 🙂
      Good luck with your creative endeavours now that retirement will afford you some time to spend how you would like, not doing what your employer tells you to do! 🙂

  10. Interesting read, thanks for sharing, I’m a travelling artist looking for ways to sell my art online and trying to do markets, trying to workout what I can make and sell whilst on the road

    1. Thank you. Creating while travelling much add a whole new level of restrictions on you, I am fortunate to have a whole room full of wools and fabrics to choose from when I start a new project, I imagine you must be limited to what you can carry with you? That said, I know some will argue that restricting your materials will boost creativity….

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