Bad News About How Artists Make Money Online

photo of an elderly woman holding money
photo of an elderly woman holding money

Lots of people make money around art, but not the way you think. Thing One and Thing Two.

But first, this Fox mug is not the bad news. There are lots of ways to make money with art online, and selling products with your art on them is one. When you get your art up on some mugs or t-shirts an’ ‘at (as we say in Pittsburgh), you can keep selling one painting forever.

Check out my mugs and metal prints at

Thing One: If it sounds too good to be true, it’s a duck.

When I left the 8-5 world, I was surprised that there are so many people making money around art online. So. Many. But some of the learning products pitched on social media are seriously misleading. A lot of the people selling courses and plans claim to be artists and claim that they went from being a starving artist to making $100K in their first month. Yeah, right. And they now claim they can teach you to make $100K a month. Sure, kid. Sure. Seven figures in your first year! Oh, boy! You’ve got to invest in yourself! You’ll make your investment back in the first quarter.

Here, take my money.

I took an inexpensive online course and the guy leading it was in his early 20s, claimed to be an artist, and even had a stack of large canvasses leaning against the wall behind him in view of his Zoom students. The paintings were facing the wall. They were props. They were not for sale or ready to go off to the gallery. What he was selling was his marketing course. That’s fine. But I didn’t appreciate that he said he’d learned the stuff as an artist. He had not created an art career for himself. I did not appreciate the hard sell calls that followed. I ended up blocking the dude from my phone. Most people who sell art marketing courses are smart enough not to push their potential customers off the ledge, but quite a few do it. Finesse wasn’t his forte.

And he’s a dime a dozen. There are so many people who are making money off of artists who just want to be artists.

Thing Two: Art is a white truffle confit.

The big thing I’ve heard again and again in online art marketing courses is that in order to sell stuff, you have to fill a need. Mm hm. Fill a need. Tell me who exactly needs a painting of an emu? Will a family fall into despair without this splash of cute on the wall? Tragically, no. Or for that matter, who needs a painting of the head of surgery at a major hospital? Will patients die because the hospital didn’t have his portrait done? No, they will not.

“But art is necessary for humanity’s wellbeing!” And yeah, I agree! Life would suck without art. But would we die without art? No. No. We really wouldn’t. We can live on bread and water for a long time. But we can go a lifetime without a white truffle confitte garnish when white truffles cost $4,000 a pound. I know actual humans who don’t have any intentional art in their homes, and they just keep on living without so much as an Elvis on black Velvet on the wall. Frank Lloyd Wright, the famous architect did not allow paintings to be hung on the walls of his homes. He designed the walls to make it nearly impossible. He wanted the walls themselves to be the artwork, and indeed they were. Of course, he did design the Gugenheim Museum with lots of walls intended for wall art, but in his houses, no paintings on the walls. His clients did indeed buy art, but those who hung it on the walls were not appreciated. They bought sculptures and … well, the people who owned Fallingwater hung a Diego Rivera in the guest quarters, so there were exceptions. And what do we know about exceptions? They make the rules.

So, why are art marketing gurus trying to convince us that we need to fill a need with our art? That instruction demonstrates that they do not understand their own niche. What we have to sell is something people want. And we have to make what they want appealing enough to them that they will buy it even if they don’t need it. For some people this is easy, but interestingly it’s less so since Covid. Covid kept us home, but it didn’t keep us home decorating. It kept us home hibernating. No one was coming over, so we were more worried with keeping an income than impressing the Joneses. Now we’re starting to get social again, so this is a prime time. But the economy is still a concern. People haven’t quite loosened up their purse strings.

What we need to do is to convince people that while they need carbohydrates and proteins to live, they deserve the occasional truffle, or even just a Hershey bar. They deserve a touch of luxury. A bite of pleasure. In fact, maybe they need it. People complain if they see a homeless person sipping from a Starbucks cup or a bottle in a paper bag because they shouldn’t be indulging in that. (Forget the fact that someone may have gifted them those beverages.) But experts in homelessness say that they need these indulgences. They can’t survive in despair without a tiny break. It is crude to speak of truffles and homelessness in one post, I recognize this. But here we are with some of the dark honesty that should come along with what we are doing as artists anyway. We need to be explorers into the depths of humanity, and humanity doesn’t start at a certain income level. Art is a scalable luxury.

If we’re going to get real about selling art, we need to get real about what art is to each of us. There are artists like Kehinde Wiley who have an audience who isn’t hung up on the cost of art. The way he markets (using a team of experts) is going to be different from how I market (all by myself), but neither of us is going to be successful trying to convince people that they need to buy our work. In fact, for Wiley, as for me, that approach would likely backfire big time. Wiley’s clientelle wouldn’t even understand it. “What are you trying to sell me?” they might say. “Do you assume I don’t have enough?” They have enough. His team has to hone in on what they want in addition to enough.

It’s the same for us little guys with a little tweak. We have to hone in on convincing our customers of the fact that they actually deserve something special. Sure, they have rent or a mortgage. Sure the car could break down and take a chunk out of savings at any moment. But what if they walked into their home and the first thing they saw was a colorful portrait of their dog that they love so much they melt? Well, they’d likely see the portrait right after the dog jumped on them and tried to lick their chin. And they deserve that kind of joy in their lives.

What we need to sell is the fact that people deserve pleasure and beauty in their lives. That’s what artists are selling.

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