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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.”
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.