If I Could Turn Back Time…Five Mistakes to Learn From

Heather Martin

While my jump from a steady full time job into the fine arts world wasn’t completely unplanned and impulsive, I must admit that I’ve mostly been flying by the seat of my pants. If you’re toeing the edge and about to take the leap, here are five things that I would change if I could turn back time. Do your future self a favor and take note!

Organize your Inventory Early - The Key to Your Future Self's Sanity

If you're painting on a regular basis, stop right now and start organizing! The game, "Find the Painting" gets real old after a while, and clients have a knack for asking for that ONE piece that fell into a black hole.

There’s a great selection of software to help with this, Artwork Archive being the first to come to mind. If you’re trying to cut down on extra costs, a simple google doc or excel sheet should suffice.

For now, my work is mostly organized by folders on my computer. I have a folder called “Monthly Paintings” and each month gets its own folder. All painting photos are titled with the date, name, medium and size. I also love color coding them to show their status (sold=red, available=green, listed on site=blue, on hold=orange, destroyed=purple) Be sure to back your work up to the cloud.

Take Better Photos

Let's talk about photos of your work. When I began, my photos were of terrible quality, and un(fortunately) many of the paintings sold, so I am left with crappy images to remember them by. Don't make this mistake.

(example of how awful my photos used to be)

Honestly, I’m still working on taking better photos, and it’s something that is evolving. Most of mine are shot with my iphone under midday natural light. The quality of their cameras is shockingly good, especially our new iphone 13 pro’s, but for some of my oil paintings I will use my Sony a6000. If you’re painting at the end of the day, be sure to take a photo the following day at a consistent time. Be careful taking photos in shade, as I notice a lot of people’s work ends up looking very cold and dark.

Crop them, make sure they are clean and unblemished. For extra credit, save a smaller web-friendly version for your personal websites and newsletters (around 800 pixels wide). This will help keep your site running quickly for those that aren’t as blessed with lightning fast internet speeds.

Start Prices Lower

I know, I know…pricing artwork is a HUGE headache, and no one wants to spend any more time thinking about it than we have to. Is it too much? Too little? While this depends on a lot of things, I recommend starting out on the lower end. It’s much easier to raise prices than it is to drop them. Lower priced work will move quicker too, which is important to keep your confidence up and spirits high.

However, don’t price them too low. Things to remember: Taxes, Shipping Costs, Materials, Your Time. This is especially important if you enter your work into art shows, or participate in painting events. Setting your prices too low not only shows that you don’t value your work and time, but may also negatively affect other artists’ prices. Don’t forget that many galleries and events can take up to 50%, so price accordingly.

While this aspect wasn’t a huge personal mistake, I wish that I was more strategic on the timing and price increase.

Buy Quality Materials

When Aaron’s Brothers went out of business, I made a beeline to the nearest one and bought carloads of frames. It was helpful, especially early on when I had solo shows, but many of them were left collecting dust and taking up an annoying amount of space.

Most of them have been cleared out (note: resale value for frames, even new, is abysmal), but I now try to be more mindful of my bulk purchases and invest in higher quality frames that don’t ding and break as easily. This doesn’t just go for frames though. I regret trying to cut corners with cheaper art supplies, or fugitive pigments. Most of the cheap items end up wasting time and space. While it stings to splurge, it is worth it in the long run.

Budget supplies are not all bad, and I realize we aren’t all swimming in cash. If you’re starting out and not sure what medium or brands you like, student grade materials can be an affordable way to dip your toes in. Some of my favorite frames are from IKEA and I often use them for shows that require a great number of pieces. Also, on certain occasions, the budget materials are just as good as more expensive versions. Just try to be mindful about your precious studio space, the longevity of your work, and test things out before you buy in bulk.

Standard Sizes Are Your Friends

Since we’re on the subject of frames, let’s discuss artwork sizing. This is especially important if you do plein air events and/or regularly frame and show your work. Some of the most efficient artists I know will work in just a few sizes, or even *gasp* a single size

Am I the smartest or most efficient? HECK NO, we are swimming in a house full of assorted cardboard boxes and frames to prove it. I hate how much I love painting in all different formats.

Just thinking of all the shipping box sizes and frames I’ve had to buy in bulk amounts makes me want to cry. At the very least, do yourself a favor and use standard sizes. This will also be a selling point, as customers can easily find their own frames and not need to spend a ton on custom framing. 

So there you have it. Hopefully you can take some of this to heart and learn from my mistakes. Basically, just treasure every inch of your studio/house space, because it will fill up quickly over time. Be selective of your materials, and how and where you store your work to ensure a little smoother sailing on this fantastic journey. Experienced painters out there, what things would you change? I'd love to hear!

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  • Well done, every point spot on-especially the torture of what/how to price your work.

    Jeff Koopman

  • Love, love, love!

    Carolyn Lord

  • Thank you for those great tips. I appreciate you taking the time to offer helpful and experienced advice.

    Kim Gravlee

  • These are all really solid points, Heather! I agree with all of them, from my own experience. :)

    Another free option I’d recommend for tracking inventory is Airtable, because the data is much easier to sort and reuse than in Google Sheets. You can get a starter account for free, and it’s pretty easy to use. It’s also useful for project management, and even social media posting, if you wanna get fancy! :)

    Love watching your art and business progress. Keep up the awesome work.

    Layil Umbralux

  • Do you cut your own matting to go with the frames? I’m looking at Goodwill and Value Village for frames, but often the matting needs to be different. Ty, (:-)


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