Purple-gray hills are peeking over the tops of the trees of my very rough, unkempt, natural backyard, which is filled with gnarly live oak trees, prehistoric limestone rocks, sage-colored prickly pear cactus, and dusty orange and rich green cedar trees.
Sneezing wildly as I sit in the open air on the long, covered back porch, I can’t take it any longer and move inside. No, it’s not my cold; that’s gone. It’s the cedar, part of a well kept secret in Austin, Texas. It’s called “Cedar Fever,” and it’s an allergy most of us get it after living here three years or more. Usually it begins around Christmas and lasts until early spring.
Though I prefer to sit on the porch on Sunday mornings, listening to the sounds of birds, distant barking dogs, and the rustling of treetops, I’ve walked down the little path through the tall grasses with dried leaves crunching under my feet as I made my way to my little studio building.
My Little Studio in the Trees
The studio is a 12 x 16-foot building, with a porch of almost the same size, tin roof, and dark brown slatboards. I’ve got a fireplace on the porch for sitting out on cold days, though lately it’s been too cold, even with the fire. Last week we had a couple of rare 16-degree days — an opportune time for the heat to go out in our house and a chance to appreciate what we had.
I feel blessed with our little slice of paradise in the woods surrounding Austin (they call it a “green belt”). I started to say I also feel lucky, and there is some luck involved, but I think too many people hope to get lucky instead of making their own luck.
Is Luck on Your Side?
I hear about luck a lot. Probably every week some artist tells me that they’re having bad luck selling paintings — that they’ve had some years where they have been very lucky, and others where their luck has run out.
Perhaps there is an element of luck we all experience. I suppose if you put yourself out there enough times, you’ll have some good results and some bad. But it’s hard to raise a family or pay bills on luck alone.
The Cycles of Art Sales
Art sales do ebb and flow based on economic conditions. Dozens of artists pine for the good old days before 2008, when they couldn’t paint enough and their incomes were soaring. Then it dried up for most of them, and for many galleries. With the simultaneous growth of online shopping, it was the perfect storm.
There Is No Such Thing as Luck
Dan Kennedy, a marketing guru I follow, once said that there is no such thing as luck in business and that though some may accidentally do something right and have some success from time to time, great success is based on understanding the principles of great marketing. He points out numerous stories of those who flourished during recessions or the Great Depression, and that those who embrace good marketing essentials can succeed in any economy.
Though I believe he is right, it crossed my mind that it might not be true in the art world, because problem “boulders” roll downhill and crush those in the way. Before 2008, people were getting huge mortgages and houses they could not afford and money to fund furnishings and paintings. When that ended, the massive purchasing dried up.
When I asked Kennedy about this, he said most people had been riding a success wave and that because they had not employed the right marketing essentials, they were vulnerable once that wave ended. I suppose that wave was luck … just riding the wave of a great economy.
Surfing When There Are No Waves
A great marketer, therefore, isn’t someone who can just ride a wave when the world is flush with cash, when people walk in the door with wads of money to spend. It’s the person who knows how to employ strategy to succeed and how to be flush with cash even when times are their worst. Plus, those who understand great marketing essentials will make considerably more during a wave.
A couple of weeks ago, when I was in Santa Fe, the dealers there mentioned that business hasn’t been this good in years — and they had big smiles on their faces, which made me believe they were not blowing smoke. I’m hearing from some artists that things are getting much better, though many are still not seeing the success they want.
It’s hard to know what will happen with the U.S. economy, though all the indicators are looking very strong. It’s very possible that you, if you sell art (or anything else), may be able to surf a wave again.
Artists Ready for Anything
Yet if I can prepare artists (or others) to catch the wave when it’s strong, and to keep riding high when things are horrific, then I will have prepared them for anything. Because we all have to survive no matter what the economy is doing, and you should never have to be vulnerable again. You see, there are always people buying art, even when the economy is bad. There are just fewer of them, and it’s important to be one of the artists those few are buying.
A wise mentor, my dad (who turned 91 last week), reminds me constantly that you shouldn’t increase your lifestyle spending when times are good because you may need that cash when times change. But you should also use those times when you’re flush with cash to build your knowledge and awareness.
A War Chest for the Unexpected
It reminds me that artists who ride the wave will gain a great advantage by keeping a war chest of ad dollars that will help them capture art market spending when others are unable to do so. I once wrote about a gallery that was built during a recession because of this principle.
But … all the cash in the world is of no value to those who don’t know how to use the essential tools of marketing. It seems to me that we are doing a lovely job of training thousands of highly accomplished artists in schools and ateliers today, yet few, if any, are teaching marketing essentials. Frankly, few professions have the vision to teach these business essentials. Even doctors get great training but stumble when they try to go out on their own because no one ever teaches them how to run a business. Artists who are selling art are running a business, though few like to admit that. Anyone who is self-employed in any craft is running a business.
My Struggle to Learn Marketing
Some people think that marketing comes naturally to me, and that I have a “talent” for marketing, but that isn’t true. I struggled for years because I misunderstood marketing and had to learn it by trial and error. And I didn’t like it; I would rather have been doing something else. Though I had some great mentors in marketing, it was not until I flicked the switch in my head that I finally told myself I had to master the art of marketing or I’d never eat consistently. Once I made that decision to begin a lifetime of getting better at marketing, I started to see a shift in my income. It was a slight shift in the beginning, but it grew over time, the better I got and the more things built on themselves.
‘Can I Help Artists with Marketing?’ I Wondered
Frankly, I had all this knowledge from decades of good and bad experience that I was putting to use for my own business. Then one day I was speaking with some artists who asked me for advice, and they told me I should be teaching artists, which frankly had never crossed my mind. I decided to try it and made a presentation at a small art event that was met with good reviews.
Then, when I launched the Plein Air Convention, I thought it might be a nice add-on for artists, but the convention already had all of the time scheduled. So I added it at 6:30 in the morning, thinking that only a few serious people who wanted to learn marketing would show up. I was blown away by the interest when most of the people at the convention showed up, and I’ve been doing Art Marketing Boot Camp since then.
Watching People Thrive
Because of the success so many artists are having as a result of attending the classes or watching the videos, I’m now encouraged that any artist can become a world-renowned brand — or at least big enough and well known enough that they dominate sales in top shows and get sought after by top galleries. Or, for those who don’t want that but just want to add an extra $1,000 a month, that too is possible. I’m trying to teach principles so artists can live their dreams and, most importantly, have consistent income even when times are bad.
How Do I Start?
The question I get most is, “Eric, I want to market, but where do I begin?” The very first thing is to have a strategy before you implement any tactics. Most people think that if they buy an ad, or do some posts on Instagram, that will build their career. But that’s like getting in the car and driving, hoping you’ll show up somewhere interesting.
Start with a Yellow Pad
The absolute first step is to define exactly, in detail, what you want your life to look like. You start with your must-have essentials, like how much to pay your bills and meet your monthly needs. And then start your dreaming process: where you want to be in two years, five years, 10 years, and for the rest of your life. This then helps you define your strategy, and from the strategy, you create specific tactics. It’s important to know the difference between strategy and tactics.
Frankly, whether you’re an artist or anything else, this is an essential first step. You have to define your life before you start shooting arrows at random targets — that won’t get you to where you want to be.
Which Kind of Artist Are You?
There are two kinds of artists … those who paint for pleasure and only for themselves, and those who sell their artwork or someday hope to. It doesn’t matter if the art is representational, abstract, installation art, photography, or selling potholders or handmade aprons on Etsy. It’s all art, and if the intent is to sell it, artists would serve themselves well to learn some of the core essentials of marketing. There are lots of people who teach it, myself included, and lots of styles and ideas, and any study of marketing and sales will benefit anyone who wants to sell something.
Prevailing Over Depression
The other essential is your mindset. Most of us tend to have a pack mentality, which means we believe what others are telling us. If all the artists out there tell us business is bad, nothing is selling, the world of art is coming to an end, we tend to believe it. A young man named Kellogg heard all of those things as he was starting his new company when the Great Depression hit. Had he listened and given up, his family would not be reaping the rewards of decades of dominance in the cereal category. You have to be an independent thinker and believe there is always someone who will buy your art, no matter how grim things look. With that mindset, you won’t stop trying. Though it won’t be as easy as when you’re riding a wave, and though you do have to work harder during lean times, you will prevail. But the time to learn about marketing is before things get bad.
It’s Horrible. No, It’s Wonderful
In just the last two weeks I’ve talked to several artists. Some of them told me how awful business is, how they are not selling, how they are having trouble surviving, and how every artist they know is experiencing the same thing. Others I spoke to in the same week told me that their art sales are booming, that it’s better than it’s ever been, even better than before 2008, and that all their friends are experiencing the same thing.
The optimists were not artists who were “better.” Almost everyone who told me one or the other of these things was a high-quality artist, and some were in the same styles or genres of art and the same regions.
Making 2018 Soar
Since we’re still early in the year, there is ample time to impact your success in 2018 and beyond. Start with your mindset, move to your needs, then start to focus on your dreams, and define what you want the rest of your life to look like … whether you’re young or old. Then study like a madman … others who know marketing can save you decades of experimentation and pain. A few hours invested to watch a video or read a book once in a while can help you take control.
I’ve Changed My Mind
When I was a younger man, I used to think that if you dream it, it will come true. Though I still believe mindset is the most important starting point, I have realized that the ship doesn’t move unless you put coal in the furnace, and unless you learn to steer it, it will just drift and you’ll go in whatever directions the waves push you. You have to have a destination and a chart to get you there, and you have to always be prepared for course correction in the times you get off course.
Jumping in Head First
In the last five years I’ve seen a massive change in my own life because I immersed myself in new learning in the areas I felt I needed to master in order to accomplish my dreams (most of which are not financial in themselves but require money to accomplish, such as the museum I want to build). You can become a master at anything with about two years of intense study.
Five years ago I started buying every course I could get my hands on or could afford. I started reading every book I could find on the subjects I wanted to master. I read four books over the Christmas break, and usually about two or three a month. I listen to probably 20 podcasts in most months, and I attend probably three or four educational events a year. Though I’d rather sit around and hope that things will happen, and though I’d rather not spend money I often can’t afford to spend, and time I can’t afford to spend, I know the necessity of immersion when I want to learn and master new things.
I don’t want to be so presumptions as to tell you what you need to learn, or what is important for you in your life. Only you know those answers. But I do know a lot of people who know what they want but don’t know how to get there, who get frozen with fear.
Little Bitty Steps
Big goals are overwhelming. Tony Robbins would say to start small. Rather than saying “I need to lose 30 pounds,” set a smaller, less overwhelming goal, like “I’m going to take a walk every day.” This is true for all goals. Rather than saying you want to be known at the level of a famous artist like Joe McGurl, which would be overwhelming to consider, start out by telling yourself “I’m going to study one hour a week.” Then do something like read a book, watch a video, or paint one extra hour.
Repetition Not Only Sells Products, It Sells Your Brain
I honestly can’t say that you or I will become exactly what we dream. But I can say that if you shoot for it, you and I will get further ahead than we are now, and any progress is better than no progress. I do believe that if you tell yourself something over and over, you will start out doubting it, then will begin doubting it less and start seeing indicators that it might be possible, and if you keep telling yourself it’s going to happen, your subconscious mind starts leading you in that direction. I have found this to be true in my own life, and I know lots of others who tell me it’s happened to them.
Woohoo! I Get to Buy Something Cool!
The greatest satisfaction of my entire life, other than my family, has been coaching artists, teaching them the principles of marketing, and seeing their lives change. Just a week or so ago I sent out a note about an artist who followed something I created and exceeded her annual goals because of it, and bought a new truck. When I called her she told me, “I did not believe it would work, but I was desperate to make something work and thought, what do I have to lose?”
Are You Sick Enough to Make Changes Yet?
I want you to have exactly the life you imagine, and I have belief in you, no matter how horrible your circumstances were when you grew up or what they are now. I know that when things get bad enough and you get sick enough of those circumstances, and when you decide to change your story and move in a new direction, you will get there. The only thing it requires is determination to start down a new path, strong desire to get to where you really want to be, a strong, motivating reason that the new life you dream of will accomplish something important in your eyes, and taking action, which involves learning and taking some baby steps every day.
Not only do I want you to live your passion, your dream, I want you to be ready to ride this coming big wave, and to be able to thrive when the wave ends and economic downturns occur. Because it’s as predictable as the sunset.
What is one baby step you will take toward defining your dreams?
What one thing can you do today … right now … to move you in the right direction?
What one little thing can you do every day for just five minutes that will move you toward your dream?
What is one thing you can watch or read to help move you forward?
Baby steps, my friends. Baby steps. Because babies grow into adults and do great things, and I know that is deep inside of you.
I’m here to help, if I can.
PS: A couple of months back I wrote about the pressure I was getting from my family to get a dog. Yesterday we adopted Tucker, an 11-year-old terrier who is cute as a button and had to leave his home because he did not get along with a new baby. Our family is filled with joy over this new family member. I’ve posted some pictures on my Facebook page if you scroll down a bit. Though I’m restricted by Facebook by the number of friends I’m allowed, you can still follow me (I hope you will).