8 Ideas to Help Sell Paintings

From the 1980s into the mid-1990s, I made a point of visiting Capricorn Gallery in Bethesda, Maryland, every time I traveled to Washington, DC. The gallery was owned by Phil Desind, one of the greatest champions of realist drawings and paintings I ever met. The gallery looked like a junk shop with framed artwork stacked 20 deep against the walls, but Desind could always lay his hands on an outstanding work of art just delivered by a well-known artist or someone beginning his or her career. I could always count on leaving the gallery with a list of promising artists to profile in American Artist.

The first time any artist began exhibiting at Capricorn, Desind would give him or her the same speech he had been offering since the gallery opened in 1964. He told them what elements they might add to their drawings or paintings to make them easier to sell. “These are not necessarily the things that will make your artwork better or more important,” he would first say. “I’m just going to tell you what would make my job easier as a dealer. And remember, all a dealer can do is show someone your artwork and wait for them to fall in love with it. Once that happens, I just stand behind them, catch them while they are falling, and make sure they take out their checkbook or credit card as they are falling.”

I’m not sure I remember all the items on Desind’s list, and I’m hoping someone who reads this blog will have a clearer recollection. The first four observations on the following list are straight from Desind. The rest are pieces of advice I’ve heard from other dealers and artists.

  1. Minimum negative space. Desind used to say that collectors don’t want to see big open spaces in a painting. “They tell me a $5,000 painting was only worth $2,500 because half the landscape was a big empty sky,” he would explain.
  2. Shiny objects. Desind believed that people have a childlike attraction to shiny objects. “If you paint a still life and you put a copper pot, a silver tea set, a brass platter, or a crystal vase, I know it will be easier for me to sell,” he said. “People start out wanting to grab their mother’s shimmering earring or necklace, and they never outgrow that fascination with shiny objects.”
  3. Detail. Most of the drawings and paintings Desind collected for himself were filled with lots of photographically precise details. For that reason, he spoke more enthusiastically to customers about drawings and paintings that were packed with the tightest and most exacting representations of figures, objects, and landscapes. “You know what people say,” Desind would exclaim. “I can’t draw a stick figure. Well, the obvious implication is that if the average person is incapable of drawing or painting something they see in a gallery, then they are convinced it must be art.”
  4. Happy subjects. About the only time I heard Desind be really critical of an artist’s work is when he or she brought in a painting developed around themes of mortality, the seven deadly sins, the cruelty of war, the greed of politicians, or some other weighty subject. “People don’t want to hang those kinds of paintings in their homes or offices. The pictures would depress them all day long,” he said. “Put a skull in your painting if you want, but plan on owning it for the rest of your life.”
  5. Leave peripheral areas incomplete. Desind was not a big fan of artists who left portions of their pictures loosely drawn or painted. He was a mathematician by education, and he liked things to be precise. However, many dealers and artists tell me that collectors like to imagine what is going on in loosely painted sections of the pictures they buy. “In a way, I allow viewers to complete the paintings as they wish,” explained one successful artist.
  6. Listen to comments from viewers. Artists who exhibit in outdoor fairs and festivals find the conversations with buyers to be extremely helpful in understanding what makes one painting more saleable than another. For one thing, presentation is very important because works of art have to look like they are worth the price being charged. If a painting is poorly framed, matted, or shrink wrapped, it doesn’t look professional or ready to be placed in a home. The artists also learn that some subjects, styles, and sizes are more appealing to the general public. “I can paint a wide range of subjects and sizes,” explained one artist. “What I need to know is which of those is most appealing to people interested in collecting. I learn that by listening to comments from people who walk into my booth.”
  7. Maintain logical, consistent pricing that collectors can understand. Artists judge their own artwork in terms of aesthetic merit, but the average collector thinks paintings should be priced by the square inch. That is, a 9”-x-12” painting should cost one forth as much as an 18”-x-24” painting, no mater what the subject, style, or artistic merit. Furthermore, they expect that the 9”-x-12” painting will be roughly the same price in the Santa Fe gallery as it is in the Jackson Hole gallery that represents the same artist. You may not want to accept that situation, but you should consider it when trying to understand what makes people decide to acquire one of your pieces of artwork.
  8. Keep people engaged in your career. Most successful artists understand that their best customers are often the people who have already purchased a piece from them. Knowing that, they understand why it is important to send newsletters, e-mail blasts, gallery invitations, catalogues, and holiday cards to people who have either made a purchase or signed the guestbook at a gallery or outdoor show.

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M. Stephen Doherty

About M. Stephen Doherty

I've been interested in art since I was a child,  and I was fortunate to be able to take Saturday art classes at the Cincinnati Art Museum from the time I was 9 years old until I finished high school. I majored in art at Knox College and graduated summa *** laude, Phi Beta Kappa (proving artists can use both sides of their brain!).  I then earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in printmaking from Cornell University; taught art in public schools, a community college, an adult education program, and a college; worked in the marketing department of a company that manufactured screen printing supplies; and was hired to be editor of American Artist in January, 1979.

Thomas S. Buecher introduced me to plein air painting and it immediately became a passion of mine because it got me outdoors and allowed me to continue learning when I traveled to judge art shows, attend conventions, give lectures, and interview artists. Over the years I've exhibited my paintings at Bryant Galleries in New Orleans, Trees Place Gallery on Cape Cod, and in a traveling exhibition titled From Sea to Shining Sea.

I've written 10 books on artists and art techniques and contibuted articles to magazines, websites, and exhibition catalogs. Now as I prepare for semi-retirement, I'm trying to hone my painting skills -- especially those related to painting portraits.

I've been very fortunate to have met thousands of talented artists who have enriched my life with their art, their friendship, and their advice. I am grateful to Jerry Hobbs and Susan Meyer who hired me in 1979, to the talented people who worked with me on the magazines, and to the artists and advertisers who supported American Artist, Watercolor, Workshop, and Drawing  magazines and the related websites.

I've also been blessed with a supportive, talented wife, Sara; a daughter, Clare, who works for an insurance agency; a son, Michael, who is a computer enginner in Austin; a son-in-law, Shawn, who can fix and carry anything; a granddaughter, Amanda, who has me wrapped around her finger; and my mother, Dotty, who has advised and encouraged me from the beginning.

21 thoughts on “8 Ideas to Help Sell Paintings

  1. Love your article. I love reading that there are collectors out there that fall in love with the characterics of realism; detail, shiny objects, areas that are not finished, etc. This is music to my ears! I will print this out for myself and whenever anyone tells me my work is “too tight” I will read this. Signed, an overly sensitive artist, Elayne Kuehler
    PS By the way do you have any advice as to how to develop a thicker skin. I am in dire need of it.

  2. I guess there needs to be a balance that will vary from artist to artist between painting what one needs to paint vs. what will be most likely to sell. Painting purely for the market is fatal in the long run.

    I find the “laundry” list above kind of sad, in a way. Creating art is more than ticking off the boxes for what a buyer is drawn to. On the other hand, the a priori assumption of the post is that the artist does want to sell, so one might as well know what a lot of the market is attracted to and see where there’s a fit..

    The advice I was given as an illustration major was to find something that you like to do lots of and then go out and find a market for it.

    I’ve priced by the square inch for years. It really simplifies things for everyone and I think its more professional to be consistent and not get caught up in “Oh, this one came out so good, I just can’t let it go for less than…… (2-3 times what something else of the same size would usually be).

    I will “round up” some for pieces that have gotten into national juried shows, because obviously that painting is a cut above.

    To figure out what my initial square inch cost would be, I combed the web for established artist’s sites that listed prices and also galleries. I got out show catalogs like the one for the OPA. Then I listed all the nationally known artists, along with artists who I know and calculated the price they get per square inch.

    I objectively evaluated my work based on the level I felt my workI had reached in relation to them, where I was in my career and what would give me a decent return and still pay a 40% gallery commission even though I have no gallery representation yet.

    I ran the numbers for square inch prices from $3 to around $8 and settled on a starting point.

  3. Valuable info, here. Thanks Steve.

    I appreciate the distinction right off about selling work, vs. doing good work. Art, artists & collectors are so varied, that there are always exceptions from the norm.

    Um…. Norm. It’s almost an insult, isn’t it? I’m not sure that I want to do “Normal” art, as in ordinary, lowest common denominator, ho-hum cookie-cutter stuff. But I really am optimistic that, like artists, collectors learn & grow as they go, refining their tastes to know the difference between Good & Mediocre.

  4. I find the comment about “not too much negative space” interesting. I suspect that paintings that appear to have too much negative space are in fact paintings that have balance (or “weight”) issues. In other words, if the negative space becomes overwhelming to a painting, then there isn’t a focal area of the painting that is strong enough to balance it. Negative space becomes positive space. A collector might not be able to explain that, but he/she feels like there’s “too much empty space.”

    I think this “don’t” is really a reminder to pay close attention to composition and get feedback from others.

  5. I think one thing that should be on this list, is does the artwork have soul. Does it speak authentically to the viewer? I have stood in front of a Chardin at the art Institute and felt the years vanish, it was if the artist spoke to me across the ages and what he said resonated with me. When a viewer has that reaction to your work they will fall in love with it and buy it, if they can. I have found i can’t sell a piece to someone who doesn’t feel it, but a piece will sell itself if the viewer connects with it. Obviuosly one can’t put that in a list of things that sell paintings as it is an intangible, but it is the very intangibilty that sometimes hooks a buyer.

  6. Elayne, when I figure out how to develop a thick skin, I’ll be happy to share that infomration. I think one of the ways gallery owners earn their commission is by listening to all the stupid and insulting things people say about an artist’s work.

    sfox: yes, it is sad that this list exists, but when it is tough to sell original artwork we have to think about what motivates people to collect.

  7. This is a very important subject to me, not only as an artist, but as a professional Interior Designer. I feel that there is a gap in how to introduce original art to my clients: should I refer to then as average home owners? Mainly because they do not know where or how to start the search. Any suggestions? Karlene


    As an Interior Designer I cannot assume that my clients know how to purchase original art or that they enjoy the experience of searching or collecting. I have concluded that there is a gap in the marketing of art. There are homeowners who want art on their walls, but they do not know where to begin their search. It takes time to develop likes and dislikes, but there needs to be a modality created that presents the wide range of art available. I need to have this printed catalog or online resource as I present design solutions to my client’s custom home design.

    I am also a fine artist. I paint in an impasto technique whether as a still life; figurative study, or a landscape. I have reached a level where my work is shown in three major gift Galleries: Vonda’s Gift Gallery in Fresno, CA; Rollf’s Framing Gallery in Fresno, CA; and the Pierre Deux Shoppe in Carmel, CA. Most of the work accepted in these sites is of a still life/floral genre. Almost all of the pieces are delivered framed. I do know that these art pieces can enhance the interior spaces of the home environment. Each of these shops sought my work as an enhancement of their store layouts or vignettes.

    I can remember one of my first art teachers telling me to stop thinking like an Interior Designer. Today, I think as an artist when I paint, but I am able to think like an Interior Designer when I place art work in a home. I don’t always suggest my own work, but I have developed a mantra of “please buy original art.”

    Ryan/Interiors in Mind 2

    “Please search for a style of art that you enjoy.” I do feel that there is a patina and a spirit of each artist’s style that “original”” art can convey. Most of all—there are emerging artists as well as experienced artists who have work available that is not that costly when figured as a percentage of what else is spent as finishes and furnishings in a custom home design.

    I do not want to undermine giclee prints or reproductions of the great Masters. But, there is a wealth of beautiful art being produced today. I am personally in awe of the talent present in the art world. The major problem is that there are gaps in the art/marketing arena. Yes, there are collectors who are savvy, who read the art journals, and who know how to approach Galleries and discern their purchases. But, there are many home owners need art for their home. They are usually not aware of the resources in their locale. Consumers often try to use eBay or get online, but the search ends in frustration

    Often, the budget is diminished by the end of a job, but I try to plan for the accessories and art pieces in the beginning design concept. I suggest that the home owner develop a new vision and look and listen to what is around them that could establish their “taste” or “style” as they approach the search for art. I am an advocate of the “original art” mantra.

    I suggest an insert to the American Artist Magazine on a quarterly basis that lists art work with a photo: medium, size, price, and information as to how to purchase by website or email addresses. I know that I would present this to each of my clients as we commence the discovery stage of the custom design process.

  9. hi folks, i am joseph anthony pearson, a painter in new orleans and a new memeber to the American Artist Community and this article on 8 ideas to help sell paintings is usefull in helping to price my work

  10. sdoherty wrote re: 8 Ideas to Help Sell Paintings
    on 06-08-2009 9:42 AM

    “I think one of the ways gallery owners earn their commission is by listening to all the stupid and insulting things people say about an artist’s work.”


  11. Really? Are we all destined to stoop to this ‘make shiny things for average people’ level? Here’s my version:

    1) create images that are wonderful and interesting to you – put your heart into it, and have some fun. Express yourself, don’t just mimic others

    2) use the wealth of online tools available to you, to go find the handful of people who relate to your vision. Don’t try to please all art lovers or critics, gallery owners, or other artists. Somebody out there appreciates your work, and there are more ways than ever to find and connect with that person.

    3) Take all ‘expert’ advice with a grain of salt. Only you know how to be you.

    Remember – you don’t need to please everybody, you just have to please a few people really really well, especially yourself.