Today, there are many online means of promoting and selling artwork,
and many collectors go online before they head to their nearest gallery.
by Daniel Grant
A decade ago people questioned whether anyone would buy art that
they had only seen over the internet—not in person. Now there are many
online means of promoting and selling artwork, and many collectors go
online before they head to their nearest gallery. Artists and their
work are accessible on their own websites or through links from the
websites of galleries, art organizations, and juried shows. Some
artists offer artwork for sale on eBay and Craigslist or through one of
the myriad mall sites (art-exchange.com, starvingartistsgallery.com, and originalartonline.com,
among others). Blogs and YouTube carry artists’ words and pictures.
Artists’ pages also show up on social networking sites such as MySpace,
Facebook, and LinkedIn.
Opportunities for exposure, promotion, and sales abound, but it is
still the rare artist who can point to the web as the source of the
bulk of his or her earnings. Louisiana painter Marcia Baldwin is one of
those artists. Earning a living from selling equine and floral
paintings on eBay since 2003, where she is known as M Baldwin with eBay
ID mbaldwinfineart, Baldwin was able to reach her personal sales goal
of $100,000 in 2005. “The key to selling on eBay is to keep producing,”
she says, noting that she paints one or two pictures a day, seven days
a week. In the course of a year, she sells as many as 500 paintings,
with prices averaging between $289 and $500.
Selling on eBay is not free, and the expenses add up to
approximately 40 percent of the gross, perhaps the same as the amount
an art gallery would take. The expenses include a 17 percent commission
on all sales, and $32 per artwork to list her paintings on the first
page of a search (a typical eBay search under the category of
“paintings” produces more than 100 pages and 10,000 offerings). PayPal,
the online secure payment system for credit-card purchases, takes
another three or four percent. There is also the cost of shipping the
paintings to buyers (custom boxes, packaging materials, FedEx Home
Delivery, and insurance), which averages $30 apiece.
Producing a lot and keeping the prices relatively low for an
audience that is bargain hunting is essential for artists using eBay.
“You learn how to make paintings quickly,” says Illinois painter Diane
Millsap, who creates four New Orleans-themed paintings a week and
generally sells between eight and 12 per month, averaging $400 to $500
per piece. Some of these bargain hunters purchase more than one of her
paintings and recommend her work to others. Print publishers also have
perused her offerings on eBay, which she says has led to
Artist websites present opportunities for sales to a far wider
audience, foregoing the percentage-charging middlemen in the
brick-and-mortar or online galleries. A website expands the artist’s
potential to reach all corners of the planet, but it doesn’t
necessarily lead to sales. Artists still struggle to figure out how to
make their site stand out from the billions of others.
The answer is search-engine optimization—how to be found by someone
looking for something online through a search engine such as Yahoo! or
Google. A search on, say, Google for the general category “landscape
painting” is apt to produce more than a million potentially relevant
websites, with 10 results per page. Web marketers note that it is rare
for anyone conducting a search to look past the fourth page, which
means that the overwhelming majority of sites won’t be visited. They
point to the use of unique and specific “keywords” as essential in
elevating a particular site’s standing from back in the pack to the
first few pages. When a website is created, certain keywords are
written into the site’s HTML code to identify the content of the site,
and these are also the terms that someone making a search would type
in. There are ways to shortcut the process: Companies may buy
advertisements on search engines (the ads appear on the page where the
search begins) whenever certain keywords are used, and some purchase
keywords so that their websites appear at the top of the list.
“Ads and buying keywords are a game for people with marketing
budgets, because it can get expensive,” says Chris Maher, a website
developer for artists. “It’s better to just incorporate good
keywords—the more specific the better.” Maher notes that landscape
painters might want to include the name of their studio, the town they
live in, the particular subjects of their paintings, and other unique
qualities of their work that might help browsers find their website
more quickly and easily.
The algorithms of search engines also tend to give precedence to web
pages that are linked to other high-traffic sites with similar
content—popularity begets more popularity. One artist who has put this
into practice is Linda Paul of Colorado. Paul has been making a living
exclusively from website sales of her giclée prints and painted tiles
since 2000, earning more than $200,000 in 2007. “I haven’t spent a cent
on search-engine optimization,” she says, but she has promoted links
from other websites to her own. “I’ve got 2,000 sites pointing to me
right now.” Among her techniques are reciprocal links with other
artists, writing blogs and articles on other sites, and promoting her
work to print media that have their own websites.
The bottom line
is that an increasing number of artwork sales are coming from the web.
Even sites that don’t elicit sales are creating valuable exposure. And
when you’re an artist, every little bit helps.