Making art that sells can be a difficult code to crack. Today I'm going to share with you how I've evolved as an artist, and the strategic decisions I've made when painting to build a successful full time art career with art that not only sells, but is also true to who I am.
Before I share my story (because it's kinda long) I want to get right to the moral of it which is:
What You Need to Do To Make Art That Sells
Creating artwork that sells is a process. If you don't know what your painting style is or how to build a collection then you must figure this out first in order to sell your art. Treat your art as if you were planting a vegetable garden.
If you were to plant a vegetable garden, you would plant many different vegetables such as tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, peas, carrots, cabbage, watermelon, and the list can go on and on. After a while you will soon realize you are pretty good at growing a few of the vegetables, and not so good at others.
So, what you do is stop growing the vegetables you are not good at growing.
You would also realize you really enjoy growing, lets say tomatoes, squash, and watermelon. So then you would only grow those vegetables, and get really good at growing just those three vegetables. In fact, you start to get noticed for growing those vegetables!
Over time and learning from your experiences from growing this garden you become the ultimate expert at growing watermelons. You put all your focus into growing just watermelons. People from all over want your watermelon, and want to learn from you how to grow watermelon.
Now apply the garden theory to your art.
Start by painting everything you like in mini collections of 3- 6 pieces to a collection. Show your artwork at art shows to get feedback from the public. Develop the collections that you enjoy painting the most, and get the most positive feedback from the public. Stop painting subject matter that doesn't appeal to the public or yourself.
Repeat this process as many times as it takes to define your own art style that you love, and your customers love too.
Now you know what to do. Here is my story of how I evolved over the years to create artwork that sells:
My Artwork In The Beginning
Above is a presentation of my artwork set up by one of my 8th grade teachers in Middle School
In the beginning didn't care about selling my art.
I painting everything I saw around me, and tried to master painting realisticly. I painted a lot of still life studies such as a bowl of fruit, baskets, dishes, and anything else I could get my hands on to set up on a table with a lamp shining down on one side to create shadows.
I also painted a lot from photographs. Most of these photos were landscapes, seascapes, animals, and birds.
I can still remember how nervous I was to paint all the different parts of my paintings for fear of ruining them. For example, I would agonize over how to paint rocks in a seascape with boats, or how to create the texture of bricks in the background to a potted flower, and how to paint trees off in the distance in a landscape. I was always concerned about mastering the different elements in my paintings that made up the background, middle ground, and foreground.
Some paintings I ruined by over painting them, and would completely start over from the beginning to try to paint again. I learned a lot from my mistakes.
In fact, I learned more from my mistakes than anything else!
Below is one of my earlier paintings I made of two Siamese cats. I was 12 yrs old when I made it. Painting was fun for me, and I wanted to learn everything there was to know about watercolors. I was lucky to have a great Aunt who taught me how to draw and paint.
Fun Fact: After my mom framed this painting I realized I forgot to paint whiskers! I was shocked and mortified, but didn't want to ruin the professional custom frame job my mom spent money on. So I left the cats without whiskers.
Below is my favorite painting I made as a teenager. I was only 13 yrs old, and was completely obsessed with painting ducks. These Wood Ducks would be something I would paint a lot over the next few years.
Throughout high school and college I painted all sorts of subject matter that really weren't related to one another, but were paint studies to improve my skills as a watercolorist.
During this time my great Aunt, along with a few other professional watercolorist, showed me how to sell my paintings in art shows and in galleries.
It was extremely exciting!
These early years of selling my art was more about exhibiting all my hard work and less about the paycheck. I also had the added benefit of not having a house payment, taxes, and a family to support. So there was no pressure to be business like. I focused on being a free spirited fine artist, and refining my communication skills with customers.
My Artwork After College
I continued set up still life compositions to improve my skills. The still life above was a study on how to paint with a monochromatic palette.
I also continued to paint life as I saw it around me. This door above was painted just after I graduated from college.
Growing up in Portland, Maine I saw a lot of boats, and watched other artist paint boats.
I thought I should also paint these boats too.
I preferred to paint birds though.
I would try to paint birds realistically and true to their surroundings. My painting palette was very earthy and sometimes dull. I didn't know how to change that quite yet because I still painted exactly what I saw from a photo or still life set up.
This painting below of a vase was painted one day out of boredom, and you know what? Its also boring to look at!
What was I thinking?
It's not very imaginative at all.
Fun Fact: This boring painting also hangs in my house today, lol. I look at it and wished I put a flower in the vase or something! I literally painted wallpaper! This was done after moving into my first apartment with my husband, and we had no extra spending money. We would sometime play pass with a tennis ball in our living room for fun to pass the time.
(Holy crap was I board to paint wallpaper, and play pass with a tennis ball!)
After college I took on a lot of commission work from customers. I would paint a lot of pet portraits similar to these pugs below. The work was ok, but I was never emotionally invested into these paintings because it was not something that originally came from me, but rather someone else. I found it difficult to paint something I wasn't emotionally connected to.
Painting Fall leaves is something I started to do in college when I was 19 yrs old, and still paint today! Leaves are colorful, unique, and have found a place in my current Nature Collection.
My Artwork After I Had Kids
I took a couple of years off from selling my paintings at shows after having my first two daughters. During this time I was an art teacher for a junior high school. After having my third daughter (I have four daughters total), and realizing my whole teaching paycheck would go to daycare, I decided to resign from teaching to stay at home with my girls, and paint full time.
My husband said, "Sure why not? Give it a year, and if it doesn't work out you can always to back to teaching."
This was an exciting and extremely scary time for me!!!
Now I wanted to take selling my art to the next level and make it my full time career, and I only had one year to do it in. Yikes!
I knew I had to stop painting everything, and start painting a united body of work that would define me as an artist, but what would that be?
Well, I just had a bunch of babies, and thought hey I should paint for nurseries!
Here are a few of the paintings I made for babies and small children:
Above is one of my first attempts to paint for children and it's not imaginative at all! I painted my own teddy bear in a chair. It's a still life painting, and it's boring!
This 1st attempt is a failure!
My 2nd attempt is not much better below of another stuff animal I painted in my house- lol. Fail!
Coming up with original designs was hard at first!
This jungle painting below was my 1st successful creation for a kids room. It sold like hot cakes at art shows.
So, I paint several collections of nursery animals. I sold the original paintings and prints that I made myself at art shows and online.
I also found success at recreating my own designs for nursery rhymes.
Eventually got better at creating fun and original whimsical designs for children.
Fun Fact: During this time of creating a cohesive body of artwork, I also tried out several different logos for myself. Oodles of Doodles and TML Creations were two of my earlier names before settling on Tracy Lizotte Studios. Picking a logo was harder then figuring out what to paint!
I also tried to paint inspirational quotes during this time.
This painting below was a big fat FAILURE!
Wow, what was I thinking when I painted this bed? BORING!
In fact, I have dozens and dozens of paintings tucked away in my studio because they were not well received by the public when I presented them at my art shows. I learn quickly to take down the art that customers ignored, and to move on to something new.
Art shows were invaluable to me when it came to customer research. They were a source of immediate and direct feedback! I got to watch how each person who entered my booth reacted to each painting, and even got to asks them questions on what they liked and disliked. If I sold a painting or a print I knew I was on to something!
My Artwork For Licensing
Right about the same time I started painting for children, I also signed a licensing contract with Painted Planet. They were a licensing agency that represented around 20 artists. I gave them my portfolio to license my artwork out to companies who would put my art on their products. My favorite company to work with was Elizabeth's Studios who put my paintings on quilting fabric.
Below is one of my designs for Custom Decor. They used this hummingbird design for a welcome mat.
Here is what that same design looked like on a garden flag:
My designs were well liked in the retail industry and I got a lot of contracts.
I found the commercial industry to be high pressure. Every company I worked with wanted work for free, and wanted it yesterday. I also found it frustrating that most companies just copied from one another. They were not very imaginative with their design. They were all too afraid to try something new, so everything on products aways looked the same to me.
Working with Development Solutions Global above was a turning point for me! I learned the importance of painting collections with my watercolors. That's when I started by building my Nursery Animal collection. People liked them but I didn't feel fulfilled inside. I was struggling to like these paintings myself.
The Turning Point In My Artwork
From painting nursery designs I discovered I really enjoyed the bright colors and using my imagination to invent new designs, but I really really missed the layers of paint, and the challenge of creating realistic details in my artwork!
So, I started to paint more realistic to please myself.
I had one rule for painting - It had to be FUN! It had to make me smile, and I had to use my imagination more to make that happen.
The painting above was inspired by one of my daughters who drew all over the walls in our new house just days after we moved in with a big black sharpie marker! I tried to put a fun twist on the moment by creating this watercolor.
I then went on to paint more colorful and whimsical watercolors of my girls with lots of details.
This made me happy, and made others smile.
This painting below was based on a photo I took of my girls washing up for dinner. I decided to give the moment a timeless feel by painting it completely in Sepia tones. It was the first painting of many more to come in this style, and they all can be found in my Vintage Children Collection. I thought these paintings were sweet, and that also made me smile.
My Vintage Children Collection went on to be a big hit as a stationary line with Development Solutions Global. Unfortunately, it's now discontinued. That was another hard realization I learned about the commercial world. There was a high turnover rate with designs from season to season.
Around the same time I started to paint my daughters, I also started to paint funny animals in great detail.
This plump little chipmunk below was the first funny animal I painted. I was embarrassed to show him at art shows.
Come to find out he was a HUGE hit! Wow, I was shocked! I thought people would think I was stupid for painting something so silly, but instead I discovered they liked my sense of humor! Now this really made me smile!
I went on to paint more funny animals including my Crazy Cat Collection. I decided to paint the chipmunk again in my cat collection, and this time he gets the acorn but finds himself in another predicament.
There was one more subject matter I was very passionate about painting.
Birds. I LOVE to paint birds.
I came up with a grid like format to paint an entire collection of birds at once! I love the idea of having a collection that can be mixed and matched, but also fit together to make one master design.
This concept really REALLY made me smile!
Fun Fact: I was driving home from a horse auction in Michigan with my husband when the idea of the bird tree hit me late at night! I drew up a sketch of my vision on a wrinkle piece of paper on my leg in the truck so I wouldn't forget my inspiration. I immediately started working on it when we got home.
This was also my first experience of combined digital art with my hand painted watercolors. I used the tools in Photoshop on my Cintiq Wacom tablet to fuse all the paintings from my Bird Tree Collection together to create one master print of the collection. It took me a while to figure out how to do this, but was well worth the effort!
Creating tree themed collections stuck.
I now have several more tree collections that can be found in my Print Shop!
Remember the Pugs I painted early in this post?
Well, here in my latest Pug painting below called Brain Freeze. Notice the brighter colors, and the fun composition.
I will never paint a boring pet portrait ever again! In fact, I will never paint a dull or boring painting again.
What I Have Learned About My Artwork
I now have been painting for a very long time. Decades! Here is what I learned about myself:
- I love to create lots of details and lots of layers in my paintings while trying to paint realistically.
- I love using a brighter color palette then I was traditionally taught.
- I love to come up with original design concepts that are unique to me.
- I can't paint just one subject matter so creating one rule (making art that makes me smile) unites all my collections, and helps me edit out ideas that don't fall under my rule. For example: I no longer paint landscapes, seascapes, or still life watercolors.
In the beginning I had NO CLUE! No clue what to paint. No clue, how to sell. No clue what I even liked or what made me special. I learned it's a process, and it's best to embrace the process.
Developing and defining my art style would never have been possible if it wasn't for two things:
1. The feedback I got from the public in person at all my art shows.
2. The urgent need to make money to pay my bills after getting married and starting a family.
I never would have known what to change in my paintings if it wasn't for the feedback I received by the public, and using their comments along with my passion for painting as guides for creating artwork that would sell. I also kept painting even after many failed attempts at selling because I had to make money for my family.
There was no time to feel sad or discourage!
In fact failure was unacceptable!
I just kept moving forward and learned from everything I did, especially from my failures. It all helped me to discover my own voice in my artwork, which led to confidence, and that confidence was needed to become a professional with the right attitude to run a business.
Phew, that's a lot! That's my story.
If you are still with me I'm impressed, and would love to hear your comments below!
Thank you so much for visiting my site, and if you're an artist I hope my story inspires you to create:)