Jerry Lebo, 2006
I got an email from Cynthia out in Utah yesterday, asking me to do a post about my experience selling my paintings on Ebay. So I thought I would give you my views and experience. I did a post on this topic back in July when I was just starting out selling on Ebay--so you might want to go back and read that one first, here is a link.
First, let me give you a quick history and why I chose to sell on Ebay—at the end I will come back to what I have learned.
Of course, I was naturally wary about putting my paintings on Ebay. After all, it is the world's "biggest yard sale" and is definitely a buyer’s market. I had sold many paintings to people in the past through direct sales and shows--and I was sure that I would not get prices similar to those. My price in a gallery for an 8x10 painting (10 years ago when I was painting full-time) was around $500--it seemed that I was not going to make that kind of money on Ebay. Also, with inflation, that is probably around $750 in today’s terms.
The first thing I did before putting my paintings up on Ebay was to read all that I could find out there on the web about the process and even bought a book on Ebay selling. Most of what I read was useless—but some was good. The bad advice I found were things like, "paint in bright colors", "make large abstract work", etc. Hey, I wanted to sell my paintings, not my soul. The first decision I made was that whatever approach I took on Ebay, I would simply paint what I wanted to paint and see if it sold—not adjust it in anyway.
I also wanted my art to fit with the premise of my blog, which is to make consistent progress in art through a daily practice—not flog out a painting per day (nothing against those guys—don’t send me nasty comments). I am not blogging to sell my paintings—I blog and paint for myself and my readers—not for money. I have a well-paying day job in order to get money.
Good advice I found on the web came from the USA news article, and another article forwarded by my friend Mitchell, about our former Randolph-Macon College classmate, Duane Keiser. Duane's logic for his painting-a-day approach was that there are buyers out there for small paintings that do not have access to galleries, or wouldn't go into one a buy a $3000 painting, but might buy a small painting. So, that got me thinking about how I would need to price my paintings and what size to paint.
Okay, so let’s start with price. I knew that I had to find a competitive point where I was willing to part with my paintings, but not give them away. I was humble enough to know that I was at least going to have to build a following before I put my prices up. Duane’s advice in this regard was good—of course, every artist thinks their art work is worth a lot—since it is a struggle to produce. It is my art, so the market should pay me! The fact is that the market doesn’t care. And if you look out there, with at least 20,000 paintings for sale on Ebay right now (go check), you will soon see that setting prices emotionally is a recipe for failure. Art is art—a commodity that people mainly purchase for decoration and to look at—and there is a lot of competition. The successful artist’s I know are able to separate the process of making art, from the commercial side of the business. These are two different worlds—and you better learn how to separate them if you want to be successful at selling. Success at painting is not the same as success at selling.
So, on pricing, I went back to square one. When I was a full-time artist in the late 1990s, I used to put a smaller painting, say, up to 8x10 up on the wall in a gallery for around $500. The gallery would take 50%--and I had to supply the framing and all the advertisement. That meant that I actually took home around $240 when that painting sold (no wonder I had to get a full time job)! I sold large paintings for more—and generally tried to keep the price proportional to size.
So I did the same math for Ebay. An 8x10 is 80 square inches, and $240 is roughly $3 a square inch. I decided, after trying different formats, that 6x6 paintings are a good size and format for my purposes. So, $3 per square inch is the equivalent of $108. Now, the advantage of Ebay is that I have control of the marketing, shipping, and framing decisions. I did not want to overcharge people for shipping, since I hate when people do this to me. So I estimated my cost and charged that amount, which is around $8. I offer a frame to my buyers at $10—at their choice. The frames I can build myself and keep the cost down, and people seem to appreciate them. I personally like to sell my paintings framed and ready to hang. It is sort of a hang-up of mine (hah!). The frames take about an ½ hour to build and cost me $5 each in materials—so not much profit—but a bit.
So I decided to put my first 6x6 paintings on Ebay for $99 (if I put in on for $108, the fees go up). I did this first back in July-August with the idea that if I can sell the frame with the painting—I would be roughly getting $3 a square inch. I used this as well for my overall pricing policy for all my paintings—direct sales--but add a set-up fee for commissions. $240 for a 8x10, $300 for a 10x10, and on up. The largest painting I have in my studio right now is 30x30 and its price is $2700.
So what is my experience after 3-4 months? In sum, I have sold around 12 paintings (I say “around”, since I have an order for two commissions and another in the works). Not counting orders, but actual sales, I have generated around $1800 in gross revenue with costs (materials, shipping, framing, etc.) of around$300—for a net profit of around $1500. Most of this was earned in the last two months, so I have cleared about $750 a month. This works out to be the same as a minimum wage job over the same two month period (assuming I have a bit of a tax advantage over a wage worker—since everything is deductible).
So what are the lessons I have learned and my recommendations to those who might want to start:
1. Understand the Market before you start. First, don’t start with high prices, start with small paintings. Buyers accept small paintings (in fact like them) more easily than high prices. Have a clear pricing policy that people understand. If you cannot answer in 5 seconds when somebody ask you how much a painting is, your pricing is too complicated. I have had many direct queries about other larger paintings, and I keep to my policy. Whatever you adopt, the pricing should be straightforward and understandable—and related to size, materials, and technique. Works on paper, for example, I price lower.
2. In early stages, the main benefits of selling on Ebay are not Monetary. You are not likely to get rich right off the bat with Ebay. It may happen over time—and it may not. I will let you know when it happens for me—but I think that it will be a combination of selling methods that are needed. With respect to Ebay, the main benefits I have seen have resulted from connecting with collectors and other buyers. I sold around 1-2 paintings a month when I was a full-time artist, but much of it were to “friends of friends” and people living in DC, or people that I knew indirectly somehow. Through Ebay, I have met people all over the country. This has been very rewarding. First, because when a complete stranger buys your work, you know they are buying because they like it. Also, you never know where sales to strangers will lead (see my post on Commissions). Of the sixteen people I have sold paintings to over the last several months, I only knew one previously.
3. Be Patient. It was nearly a month before my first sale on Ebay—and they were very slow for the first several months. In fact, they have been slow again lately, and I will likely sell as many paintings directly through blog contacts and commissions from people who know my work over the next several weeks—than through Ebay. I don’t think that means I should stop Ebay—it is just a natural evolution of the process.
4. Study other Artists and Market Trends. I think the tendency would be to think that when you are selling regularly on Ebay that you should raise your prices. But, in fact, I am thinking to the contrary. I am planning to use the funds I have earned from my sales to buy a small used etching press. I learned etching many years ago and I miss it—and would like to start again. I also think this would allow me to produce etchings which I could sell on Ebay or elsewhere for more accessible prices of around $25-30. I want more people to have access to my work, not less! This is consistent with what other artists have done. For example, there are two major art shows in DC right now, Turner and Hopper—both were etchers who used etchings to popularize their work. The value of their paintings rose when their popularity rose, not because they thought their work was suddenly worth more.
Anyway, that is my experience so far on Ebay. I will do another update down the road to let you know how it is going at around 6 months.
So, go to your studio and paint (or etch)—and then go out and find yourself some buyers. Not because you need the money, but because you need to meet people who value your art and will inspire you to make more.
All the best, sixtyminuteartist.