Maria Brophy

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business of art / Pricing

Should you go into Debt to Sell Your Art?

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“Numbers don’t lie…”

The other day at lunch I met a jewelry maker.  She had her charms and chains and tools laid out on a table at an outdoor café, happily making wearable art in the Spanish charm of downtown San Clemente.

She was a fan of my husband Drew, and she asked if I could answer a question.

Is it okay to go into debt when you’re just getting started as an artist?”  She asked.

She said that her jewelry business was blowing up.  It used to be an effort to generate sales for her work.  Now her problem was that she was in high demand!  But this created two new challenges:

  1. She’s faced with the decision of hiring help
  2. She’s racked up $$$$ in credit card debt, and it’s growing as she continues to buy supplies.

When an artist gets to the point where they are selling more than they can handle, it’s exciting!  But it’s also distressing if you don’t pay attention to the profit you are REALLY making, and making sure the cash is flowing in quicker than it’s going out.

Then this lovely lady said to me, “I don’t have a business mind.”  (Oh, if I had a dime for every time an artist said that to me, I’d be in the Maldives right now….)

IT’S EASY TO THROW MONEY ON A CREDIT CARD TO KEEP YOUR THING GOING….it’s harder to do what you SHOULD do, and that is, to pay attention to the numbers on paper.  In other words, make sure that you are actually MAKING money, not LOSING money.

The debt starts out with $30 here, $50 there.  Then the orders for your art continue to come, and you have to order more supplies.  The next thing you know, you owe so much to your debtors that you go out of business, and you have to get a job that that you don’t love just to pay your Visa.  It’s a terrible road to go down!

I learned the hard way about charging supplies and day to day needs for business.  Without going into too much detail, I’ll just say that Drew and I recently paid off a huge debt that was on our backs since the turn of the century.  That debt came from throwing money on a credit card rather than making the best business decisions.

The mistake we made was focusing ONLY on the art and sales of it, and not paying attention to cash flow and profit.  (It could have put us out of the art business!)

The advice I gave the jewelry maker was this:

STOP:  Stop saying “I don’t have a business mind.”  No one is born with a business-mind gene!  If you can read, you can learn the basics of business.  Make a commitment to train your mind for business.

KEEP YOUR CASH FLOWING: Instead of putting your expenses on a credit card, ask yourself “How can I get the cash flowing in so I can cover my expenses without charging?”  One way is by getting a deposit up front from your customers.

Explain to your customer “I’m going to have put out money for supplies.  I’ll need a deposit.”  Most people will understand this and want to work with you.  Some won’t.  For wholesale sales to retailers, you could offer discounts for payment upfront or in 15 days.  You’ll have to get creative and find ways to keep that cash flowing.

MAKE PROFIT MANDATORY FOR EVERY PROJECT YOU DO:

An accountant once told me “Without a profit, you’ve got a hobby, not a business.  Numbers don’t lie.”

This is so basic, but many artists don’t pay attention to their profit.  They get caught up in the excitement of making the sale, getting new collectors, making people happy with their art.  And it’s great to be  getting all that attention and love.  But love doesn’t keep you in business.

And if you go out of business, your time creating art will diminish because you’ll have to do something else to pay the bills.

The quick and easy way to figure out your profit: For every project or sale, make a list of all your expenses, subtract from your gross sales, and the difference is your profit .

Make sure your list of expenses include:  The cost of your supplies, the cost of an assistant, the cost of gas for traveling and anything else associated with the making of the item(s).

Now, just for giggles, take your profit and divide it by the number of hours that you’ve spent making the art.

There’s your hourly rate, and this is the amount that you are actually earning (before taxes).

Sometimes that hourly rate is AN EYE OPENER You might find that you are making less than a factory worker in Cambodia. And then you’ll get real depressed.

DON’T DESPAIR if you find out that you’re making less than you intended. Thank yourself for figuring this out before you went any further.  Now, with this information, you can correct the situation.

To increase profit you can:

  • Raise your prices (stop under charging for your work)
  • Lower costs
  • Sell a different item that takes less time to create
  • Market to a group of people who are willing to pay more for the same thing
  • Sell direct (instead of to retailers or galleries where you earn half of the sale price)
  • Use a different medium, venue, etc.  Get creative!

If you are an artist, the world needs your treasures!  I want you to be able to contribute your talent to the world.

So keep an eye on your profit, track every expense and your time as best you can, and KNOW how much you are really making.

Please, leave a comment below.  Let me know what challenges you’ve had to deal with on this topic, and if this has been helpful.

Maria  xxoo

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38 Comments Should you go into Debt to Sell Your Art?

  1. Deanna

    I’ve been following your blog for a year now and love your posts. 🙂 I’ve just started getting my work into some group shows and in the process I have noticed that there are so many artists that under value their work.

    I’ve been a designer and art director for over 16 years and along the way have learned under valuing your work and not figuring in costs only hurts you. I went through a bunch of lousy low paying freelance jobs to figure that out (some I still haven’t even been paid for).

    I’ve done a lot of research and tried to price my paintings somewhere in the middle, not too expensive.. but definitely not cheap.

    I haven’t sold an original yet, but I have a lot of people that want prints of my work.

    Do you think it’s OK to make prints of a painting and sell them, even before the original painting has sold?

    I’m just not sure if I would be shooting myself in the foot by doing it, or if it would be good business to get prints out before Christmas.

    Any thoughts?

    Thanks!

    Deanna
    http://adventuresindeannaville.blogspot.com/

    Reply
    1. Maria Brophy

      Deanna, thanks for the comment. And to answer your question: You should sell your prints, even if the original hasn’t sold yet. If people love your art and cannot afford the original, but they want the print, why not? It won’t hurt the value of the original, in my opinion.

      Get your prints before Christmas – the best time to sell art prints is in November & December!

      Let us know when they are available!

      Reply
  2. Emil koepcke

    I can’t begin to tell you how much your advise has helped me. All I can say is thank you for sharing.

    Reply
  3. Fi

    Yet another helpful and insightful post. On the topic of saving money, I can’t believe how many professional artists still buy their supplies from retail outlets. Art must be one of the only businesses where this is considered normal, instead of setting up wholesale accounts and buying in bulk.

    Reply
    1. Maria Brophy

      Fi, I agree – if you are a professional artist and selling your work, you should be getting your art supplies at a wholesale cost. We get many of our supplies from SLS Art Supplies at wholesale. Also, for Montana Spray paints, we go direct to them.

      Although, if you don’t plan ahead well enough, you end up just heading to the local art store at the last minute and then paying too much (we do this at times!).

      Where do you get your supplies at the best price? Any suggestions?

      Reply
  4. Dicapria

    Awesome post & great advice.
    Luckily Michael and I don’t use credit cards or have debt.
    and prices of materials are pretty fair.
    What do you think about spending money on big ads in big magazines?
    like $3000 in Juxtapoz? Do you think it would be worth the risk of hoping to get patrons through that?

    Reply
    1. Maria Brophy

      Dicapria: You and Michael Pukac have a great thing going – I’ll be posting a story about his art in the next week or so…

      With regards to spending money on advertising: My opinion is that there are better ways (free) to get magazine coverage. For an prolific artist like Pukac, that won’t be hard.

      Rather than spending money on ads, spend TIME getting media to write about Pukac. Magazines and newspapers are always looking for good content. There are many ways to get coverage.

      Consider doing this, before putting out thousands of dollars in ads.

      We did a campaign in Juxtapoz last year, and though it brought us a lot of sales of Drew’s DVD and paint pens, it didn’t sell any art for us…

      Reply
  5. Archan Mehta

    Maria,

    Nice post. Enjoyed reading it, as usual.

    Just out of curiosity: that snap looks familiar.

    Is it Aishwariya Rai of India?

    If memory serves, she is a model, movie star and won a beauty contest too.

    Let us readers know, please, at your convenience.

    I like to look at the photos and read your blog post. The two are complementary and not mutually exclusive, me thinks.

    Have you, suddenly, started taking a keen interest in the exotic?

    Maybe your next post could be about that aspect of your life?

    Just a suggestion, that’s all. Have a nice day. Hang in there.

    Reply
    1. Maria Brophy

      Archan, thanks for the comment! And yes, I love the exotic, particularly anything that has Indian flair…

      Aishwarya Rai IS the lovely lady in the photo – you were right!

      Maybe I’ll write my next post about how Ganesha can motivate one to up-level their lives….

      Reply
  6. Dianne Poinski

    Wish I had read something like this 10 years ago. I used a line of credit to finance everything I needed to start selling at art festivals and of course I needed the best and brightest. In addition, show fees were usually due when no cash was coming in, so of course I had to use credit, thinking I would just pay it back when I did the show. It usually did not happen that way.

    I am happy to report I have not used credit for my business since December 31, 2008 and am slowly paying it down.

    Thanks for writing this – it may help someone else out there avoid the pain and shame I have experienced.

    Love your blog!

    Reply
  7. suzarita

    aloha maria, i just love hearing all your great advice, thank you!!!! When I went to college i majored in painting and minored in business for this reason exactly!!! My parents recommended if my business is in art i better know how to do the business side of my art and they were right! My plan was to start my own business with my art, which is exactly what I am in the process of doing…

    Reply
  8. Marie Kazalia

    I buy pigment dispersion in squeeze bottles and mix into mediums (acrylic mediums etc) to make my own paint. You can buy a bottle of pigment and a gallon of acrylic medium to make so much more paint at a lower cost than jars of premixed color. I have a gallon of gum arabic in my fridge and use the same pigments in gum arabic to make gouache and watercolor.
    Artists can learn to make their own paints. Spray paint may be a tough one though…

    BTW, I’m an American and I lived in India for a little over one year…

    Reply
  9. Franziska San Pedro

    Hi Maria,

    I wanted to suggest the same as Marie to start looking into where you can save money. I also use natural pigments for my oil paintings. I mix my gesso from chalk and rabbit skin glue and build my frames from recycled material. Just as an example. I am sure with other mediums you can save tons of money, too, if you start looking around and get educated on the internet.
    As always fabulous post and great comments, congrats to your readers 🙂

    Franziska San Pedro
    The Abstract Impressionist Artress

    Reply
  10. Lisa P

    Its no fun if you are barely making ends meet because of your growing market – its better to make something, sell something then use that money to buy more materials etc., rather than rack up a credit card bill. (I do not own a credit card – only a debit card as I will only use money that I do already have)

    For any artist, photographer, creative person – here is a good way of making a little extra with your product. When I do a dragonfly painting or take photos of my cats (see website for example) I then resize the pixels of the pic thru adobe deluxe – and go to http://www.vistaprint.com and make my own greeting cards.

    However there is a cheap trick I use that gets me 50 cards for under ,25c – 50c each depending on current offers on site. I only order the large postcards and then I manipulate my image on adobe photo deluxe so that the image takes half the card and I am able to write my Design name on the other side but upside down. Usually I wait till the free offer of 50 postcards and just pay about $13 AU for delivery and then I buy plain white envelopes in bulk for .05c each. The trickiest job is folding the postcards in half after scoring them down the middle.

    You can sell to family, friends, workmates, Ebay or to Galleries. You hold absolute control over your artwork.

    I give sets of cards away as gifts and everyone loves blank cards for any occassion.
    Of course there are other sites like Zazzle.com and cafepress.com where you can sell your images and hold entire control – altho Ive made very little money this way because I dont promote.

    Hope this helps someone – Id be happy to explain further but dont have my own website – only my cats have their twitter one. So I guess you could message me if u needed,
    http://www.twitter.com/laughingsiamese

    Maria I simply love your site and drank everything in,
    As a Papier Mache artist of quirky animals here in Australia I intend to lessen my real job and do more of my dream job. Thanks for all your advice.
    Cheers
    Lisa P

    Reply
  11. Alma jo

    Since we no longer have cc i now use a prepaid one with funds set aside for buying what i need. i wait for sales and use coupons when i can. yes i still buy from stores but its for a small amount that would not justfy paying postage. loved this article and am always looking for more info that i can use to further my art. Even tho i do oil aintings i do make jewlery that sells real well at shows, usually will cover the cost of the show then some. almajo

    Reply
  12. Carmen Brunson

    This is right on the money! Anyone, artist or not, should keep in mind that it is will take up to 5 years to earn an “income” when starting a new business. My best advice is to have a business plan. Sure it is flattering to get sales! However, every dime you make in the beginning will be turned back into the business. For a creative business, you have to keep in mind that “YOU” are the one turns the buck. When an artist is not creating, he is not making any money. I wish I had read this advice a few years ago when I started. However, when I started my art business, it just happened, as I am sure a lot of creative businesses do. But, hind sight is 20/20.

    For a creative business I could not stress enough:
    -Have a business plan
    -Start small, Growing too fast is not always to your advantage.
    -Pay cash, and if you must use credit pay off every month.
    -Allow yourself some creative time so that you do not burn out.
    -Do not take on more than you can handle, just because you are flattered that you are making sales. You will die if you do this.
    -Explore avenues for reproduction. So that you are not creating the same art over and over.
    -Market your work.
    -Have a website. I have a website, but I also use Etsy. Using Etsy has increased traffic to my personal website.

    Maria thanks for posting. I enjoy all the information that you share here on your blog!

    XOXO~ Carmen b.

    Reply
  13. Lori Woodward

    Maria,

    I’ve “been there, done that” in overspending. I do have a business mind, but am apt to not write down my expenses and income, so my husband and I hold a short meeting every Weds evening to enter my weekly expenses and income into a spreadsheet.

    So each week, I have a visual record of how much true profit I’ve made for the year, and it keeps me from overspending. When the profit margin gets low, it’s time to curb my spending habits and put more time into producing work that will bring income.

    thanks for this post. It’s so easy to lose track of what we spend on our credit card. Good reminder, Maria!

    Reply
  14. WUTA Renee

    YES YES YES to buying supplies in bulk and wholesale. Another way to augment your supplies – often other artists are getting out of the business – buy from them only what you love and are hoping to use and that is close to or better than wholesale price. AND buy in person unless you already know what you are buying and have actually touched the materials before – this goes for anything that the buyer would touch as well as raw materials or tools that you will use. Crummy pliers photograph as beautifully as excellent ones, this goes for canvas, brushes, beads, textiles…
    AND make trips to local discount stores and head straight to their arts supply departments to see what NOT to buy. Even if you can get these things at wholesale prices – your customers can see what is available out there – why would you work with what is being marketed as cheap and easy ? Do this before you go to your wholesale suppliers – you might be surprised where some of this stuff comes from.

    Reply
  15. Bryant

    What is the best way of making prints of your paintings? Is putting them on canvas, or thinner paper better?

    Thanks,

    Bryant

    Reply
    1. Maria Brophy

      Bryant, thanks for the question. The type of paper you print on depends on your market. Giclee on can as prints are beautiful, but cost much more than paper prints. I recommend you look up Barney Davey, who is an expert in the print market for artists. Do a Google search and find his blog. Thanks!

      Reply
  16. Lisa P

    Hi Bryant
    If you are looking to print posters I have had some great photos printed through vistaprint.com and if I get a free poster offer then I only pay for the delivery T, I found the print paper to be good quality and I think you had the option for a bit extra to choose a thicker paper – the only job is to frame them and I go to discount shops and pick up picture frames and take out the print and put in my own or I find frames at secondhand shops and garage sales that look like new. Works for me!

    Reply
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  20. Steve Witt

    Another great article about art and $’s. We are currently doing our accounting each month. So far so good. Our most consistent profit is in teaching. Painting sales are less predictable. I don’t know how artists make it on sales alone.

    Reply
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  23. Stacey Kinder

    I am currently growing a mural painting business fresh out of art school. These articles and information that you have so generously and openly provided are SO helpful and beneficial to me! Thank you so much for your time, insight and advice! All the best to you and your family!!

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