Painting How To: Marketing Your Artwork

Except for the period of time following graduation from college when I was apprenticing, a short stint in the military, and another brief assignment with the federal government, I’ve always run my own business and been responsible for marketing my services… as an architect, energy consultant, college instructor, and… most recently… watercolor artist.  When I made the decision to become a professional artist, I realized I’d certainly have to do some marketing.

To become a professional artist, you need to do several things. First, you’ve got to believe in your ability to produce good work. This may require some reassurance from others, in particular… fellow artists.  But this won’t happen unless you’re actively working with them.  So you need to associate yourself with a local gallery, join some local artist associations, and devote some time to their activities (See discussion about “Serving on Art Associations).  Also, consider taking a sabbatical from your normal routine so you can really focus on your art.

watercolor boatyard, water color boat yard

Click Picture to Purchase: "Boatyard, Matthews, VA #1"

A number of years ago, I made the conscious decision to devote 3-4 months of time, exclusively to painting without any interruptions. I traveled East to stay with George Whiteside, a dear friend and former college roommate who is now deceased. He had a lovely old farm in the Delaware Valley. When I got there, I focused my efforts on creating art and composing music. I was able to paint as much as I wanted. I then traveled to Whitefish, Montana, for another month of watercolor painting. Once I had returned home, I continued my apprenticeship under Hisako Asano’s tutelage. But I also took examples of recent work to two artists whom I respected and asked them for their opinions about my work. Based on these counseling sessions, I decided to go for it… and scheduled my first solo exhibit in January 2003.

I also developed a five year business plan. One of my objectives was to earn a reasonable net income. Within three years I wanted to cover my expenses for painting supplies, mats and frames, membership dues, entry fees for exhibits, and half my travel costs. In addition to producing and selling original artwork, my plan was to sell reproductions of my artwork, perform demonstrations, conduct workshops, and teach. I also planned to write a book about my artwork.

I haven’t accomplished all these things, and the timeframes were unrealistic.  With respect to certain objectives, I’ve still got a way to go. But I haven’t given up. I’m still working and having fun. And for an artist at my age, that’s especially successful! I firmly believe you must set goals and keep your eyes on the prize. This is the only way to become a success!

First and foremost, you have to get your artwork out in front of people so they can see it! In the past nine years, I’ve had paintings in over 326 exhibits, 63 of which were solo venues. I’ve received over 68 various types of awards. But who’s counting, right?! As time goes by, I’ll become more selective where I exhibit my work, but for the time being I’ll show paintings and prints wherever I can!

watercolor of a basilica, basilica painting, watercolor art

Click Picture to Purchase: "Basilica at Capistrano Mission"

Gaining some recognition from your peers, as in any profession, was another one of my initial goals. There are various ways to accomplish this.  Obtaining signature membership in watercolor societies is one form of recognition. To accomplish this you must consistently submit entries to exhibitions sponsored by artist associations that offer signature membership.  A number of regional and national artist associations do so. But you have to be selective, since it’s impossible to go after them all. I decided to go after certain ones located where I lived and painted, ones in which I could therefore participate. Some were located where my wife and I travel to visit members of our respective families.

The Fall of 2006 I qualified for signature membership in the Montana Watercolor Society. A year later I became a juried Associate Member of Watercolor West. The Spring of 2008 I was made a signature membership of the New Mexico Watercolor Society. The Fall of 2008, I became a signature member of the Kentucky Watercolor Society. I’m generally satisfied with what I’ve accomplished at this point in time. But I’m always looking for various opportunities to exhibit my work, gain recognition, and expand my credentials.

There are other ways to get your artwork out in front of people. Initially, every artist needs to put together a brochure. It should include a bio, list of exhibits and awards, press clippings, and information about future demos and workshops.  The same info is on my website. By referring people to your website, you can minimize the number of brochures you need to have on hand.

Advertising in newspapers and art magazines is another way to publicize your work. Editors of artist association newsletters are always looking for stuff.  Try sending them an article you’ve written about your work! When your work is juried into an exhibit and you win some sort of award, let all of your art association newsletter editors know about it. They all have a column for such membership news.

One reason I began to journal about my artwork was that our local Torrance Artists’ Guild (TAG) needed some material for their newsletter, so I wrote a series of articles about painting watercolors. Following this, I expanded on these articles and refined them, mailing copies of what I had written to several colleagues for their feedback.  Then I added something about business matters, how I go about producing my paintings, and various illustrations of work I’ve done over the years. I circulated this about for additional comments before I did the final editing and put it on this website. Several chapters of this book have also appeared in the Montana Watercolor Society’s (MWS) newsletter. I suggest you write something about your work and send it to your local art association newsletter editor.  You never know what this might lead to!

In this day and age it’s also important to get something on the web.  I have stuff on the websites of a number of art associations. But eventually you’ve got to select a domain name and establish a website of your own (See further discussion on “Putting Together A Website”).

To do any of these things, you first have to put together a bio and an artist’s statement. Your bio should be no longer than one page. It should include a photo of yourself. And it should tell people about your art medium and subject matter, educational and professional background, experience as an artist, number and type of exhibits/awards, and your art association memberships.

An artist’s statement is somewhat different. It discusses how you paint and why, subjects that turn you on, and why you enjoy painting.  This is an opportunity for you to do some creative writing. I rewrite my artist’s statement every year or so, but certainly not as frequently as my bio.

You also need to provide a list of exhibits and awards (Exhibits 40 & 41).  This shouldn’t be more than a page or two, no matter how many exhibits you’ve participated in.  Nobody wants to read that much copy!  Select representative exhibits, listing them by order of the most recent. It may also make sense to provide an abbreviated list of exhibits by category: “solo”, “duo/trio” and “group” (See Exhibit 40).

Exhibit 40 - Abbreviated List of Exhibits

When planning a solo exhibit, let people know about it, especially venues where you want to exhibit your work.  Most artists send out postcard mailers with the image of one of the paintings in the exhibit.  Make sure there’s a complete and accurate return address (with zip code) on your postcard mailer.  This ensures return of incorrect or outdated addresses. Use this information to update your address list.

But in this day and age, that’s not enough.  Nor may it be the best way.  Emailing is probably more effective. It certainly costs less!  Set up email address lists for various audiences. Even if you mail postcards, email reminders are good follow-ups. They really help beef-up attendance at opening receptions.

And, of course, exploiting social networking websites like, for example, Facebook™ and LinkedIn™ can also be extremely helpful in getting your paintings “out there,” especially those that have received some critical acclaim (Exhibit 41).

Exhibit 41 – List of Awards

Consider also emailing announcements of solo exhibits. I’ve enclosed a flyer for a solo exhibit of mine which took place in Salt Lake City early in the year of 2010 (See Exhibit 42). I printed out copies of this flyer and distributed them all about the city prior to the opening reception.

Exhibit 42 - Flyer for Solo Exhibit

To maximize the potential number of paintings available for exhibits, I mat and frame paintings as soon as I complete them. I generally have over a hundred and fifty paintings on hand… at any time… for exhibits.  But there are many others out there, circulating around exhibits and galleries, or in-waiting at key locations.

From time to time, I’ll retire a matted painting or two from its frame, shrinkwrap and relegate it to the “bin”.  These paintings will no longer be wall-hung, but placed off to one side of the exhibit area in a bin, where people can still look at them. I’m able to remove and exchange paintings from frames by virtue of the system I’ve developed (see discussion on “Frames”).  I use four different sizes of frames for my paintings.  It’s easy to remove paintings from them. Since I use my own frames for exhibits, I don’t really want to sell them. That means I’d have to buy more frames.

I don’t make money on notecards. I consider them to be loss-leaders, advertisements, so-to-speak. But that’s not true for prints, particularly larger-size, high-resolution, digital images of one’s artwork. I arrange to have someone make reproductions of these images. The printing and paper are archival.  I always have such prints available at solo exhibits. And though I maintain a generous inventory of 7×10 prints, matted and framed, the number of full-size giclees is far less. The occasion for producing a full-size print is generally triggered by the sale of the original painting. Once someone has bought the original, a market is defined for a giclee print.

It’s paramount to have an excellent, properly sized, digital image of your original painting on hand before you release it, since it can often become difficult to retrieve the painting once it’s been sold so you can get it photographed.  It’s even more difficult to get the buyer to obtain a high quality digital image, even though you may agree to pay for photographing it!

I found it necessary to develop a list of all my artwork, going back to the time I first began painting as a youngster. (Except for those paintings I’ve sold or given away, I still have some watercolor and oil paintings, drawings and pastels I did many years ago).

The list of my artworks is arranged alphabetically and includes such information as the following:
● title of the painting
● name of the buyer/if sold
● actual size of the image
● day/month/year executed
● where located (if not sold)
● whether it has been sold
● whether it’s framed/matted
● price

I constantly up-date this list since I’m always referring to it. But since I found myself spending too much time on such matters, I finally had to get someone to help me organize/update this artwork inventory.

Douglas Stenhouse also wrote a book about watercolor painting.

“I decided to write about how I paint, not only to share my observations with others, but also, frankly, to do some self- examination. I wish I had done this earlier in my life! But then, how was I to know I’d benefit from doing so, certainly at a time when I had no aspirations of becoming a professional artist.” 

To learn more about Doug’s Watercolor Painting Book, click here. To purchase a signed copy, use the link below.


Douglas Simms Stenhouse, watercolor artist, transparent water color art, watercolor painter, painting with water colors