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After seven years of selling my original oil paintings at art festivals, I would love to share some of my experiences with new and aspiring artists. Art festivals are the perfect way to take your art career into your own hands, gradually building your collector base until you can support yourself entirely on your fine art sales.
I am a big believer in gradient rises to success, the small early triumphs building a firm base to stand upon later. With art festivals you may take advantage of small gradient changes to your lifestyle, until you are a full-time artist and fully confident in your ability to sell enough work every month to support you and your family. The more festivals you do every year, and the more pieces of art you sell, the better and more confident you get as an artist, and the more resources you have to re-invest into your career. Working with art galleries, placing advertisements for your work, putting on solo shows, and other means of furthering your career come naturally as you advance forward.
I decided I would become a full time artist about eight years ago. I had been painting in oils since I was ten years old, and had worked in a mural studio as a teenager, but I was never taught how to make a living as a fine artist. I would like to share my experiences with you now, hoping to inspire you to take the first steps towards becoming a full-time artist.
My first step was to decide to paint one painting every week. While holding a full time job and rock climbing in my spare time, I still created the time to paint every week. I instinctively knew that painting diligently was most direct way I could start my career. By the end of 2006, I had painted 50 paintings during that year. I began advertising my work through Craigslist and earned a few small commissions. Also through Craigslist, I found a call for artists at a local church (image left), and from there another artist told me about an art festival over in Boulder City. I was able to submit a late application and I did my first art festival at Art in the Park, October, 2006.
Driving my cadmium orange 1970 pickup truck, and armed with about $500-worth of metal gridwall paneling and a pop-up tent, I set up my first art festival, knowing little of what to expect. My work was smaller then; my largest painting measuring 36x24. I sold several pieces at the show, which was very heartening, and the passerbysí responses to my work was encouraging. With the $500 booth fee and $500 of equipment purchased, I was able to double my investment in painting sales. I learned a lot in two days about how viewers reacted to the presentation of the work, as well as the work itself.
The most valuable things I learned at the show, however, were from my fellow artists. Artists at the shows have always been eager to help me and offer me advice and resources on what has worked and hasnít worked for them. I am indebted to my first neighbor for introducing me to the Art Fair Sourcebook. This book seemed to me overly expensive at the time, but what it has saved me in show fees and travel expenses has more than paid for itself. I still buy a new copy every few years to keep up-to-date with the latest show statistics. The Art Fair Sourcebook gives a detailed breakdown of every major art festival in America, including application deadlines, show fees, commission rates, contact information, demographics of buyers, range of art shown, and, most importantly, the average sales of the artists. This book allows you to determine ahead of time which festivals will match your art niche.
Through the Sourcebook and by talking to my new artist friends, I discovered several show promoters who were recommended for beginning artists. I realized that there was a whole world of professional artists here who all held their careers in their own hands and sold their work directly to their collectors. I was of course intrigued and set about to sign up for my next shows.
In 2007 I participated in four or five art festivals, upgrading from my old pickup truck to using my momís minivan when I did a show, hauling the seats out of the back each time and storing my supplies in the garage or in a storage unit. By 2010 I was starting to travel further to go to festivals, driving as far as Los Angeles to Las Vegas. I had a painting delivery to make in Vegas for some oversized paintings, and I decided to take the money I was going to make from the paintings and bought an old (cadmium yellow, this time) Ford 350 cargo van with nearly 100,000 miles on it. I put almost another 100,000 on it before I sold it a few years later. It was one of the best investments I ever made, since I was suddenly able to store all my festival supplies permanently in my van and I stopped forgetting key things like a chair, or my tarps. This van also allowed me to eventually make the jump from gridwall to Propanels, the professional carpeted panels that are used in displays. These panels are seven feet long and it's ideal to use a cargo van to transport them around.
Selling your work at festivals isn't always a happy weekend on the green grass in the park. Aside from difficult setup conditions, snide comments from passerbys, rickety ladders, and setting up at 5am on frozen ground, there is the one worst enemy to art festival artists, the enemy we all dread and whisper about in hushed voices - The Weather. Palm Springs weather 2012.Rumors spread like wildfire through the artist network at a festival at the slightest hint of winds over 20 mph, as we all madly check accuweather for hourly updates and debate on wind direction and cloud formations. Facing sudden, unexpected winds blowing 140 mph through Palm Springs, with Texas tornadoes and monsoon season, we protect our work the best we can with hundreds of pounds of weights, cross-braces, dog ties, rebar pounded three feet into the ground, sand bags, concrete-filled PVC pipe, ratchets and rope. The rain is the milder enemy, easily confronted with a vinyl tent (such as Trimline or Showoff) and vinyl sidewalls. Our worst fear is The Wind. Every artist has their stories of canopies lifting twenty feet in the air, of human bodies being lifted off their feet, of propanels carousing through the air and landing in palm trees. The worst wind storm I ever experienced was in Palm Springs, spring 2012: every single tree in the park was torn up by the roots (one tree falling on a van parked two feet away from me, where I was crouched trying to hide from all the blowing glass), trailers blew over, propanels did indeed fly through the air, and every single pop-up tent was destroyed. The next day, when a few of us artists struggled our bent and dusty gear out of our vans and set up again for Sunday, sans our tents, we saw that there was only one tent left standing from the day before, and that was a Showoff canopy. While the artist's entire collection of pottery had been blown away and destroyed, his tent had outlasted all of our weakly popups. Needless to say I bought my own Showoff a week later. There are other ways to outlast the wind, even if you don't have a two-thousand-dollar tent. One artist told me in confidence, his voice low behind his hand, that he always carries a battery-powered hammer drill with him, and when the winds pick up he starts bolting his canopy into the pavement.
There are so many stories and advices I could give on this subject, but the bottom line is that you CAN control your own art career, and art festivals are a fantastic way to do it. Meeting your customers in person and developing relationships that last for years will give you the bedrock you need to expand further. And the best way to learn how to do art festivals is just to do them. You will learn the most about what works and what doesn't by trying a few dozen festivals and then seeing where you are at. I am still tweaking my display and improving my setup. I just upgraded my Sprinter van to the new Ram Promaster and spent an entire week building the interior in carpeted plywood to handle all those annoying problems I had with my last van. I did thirty festivals in 2013, and I enjoyed every one of them. There is something very satisfying about mocking up your very own mobile art gallery. I wish you the very best success, and my email doors are always open if you need help getting started.