Parting with your Art – Skinny Artist

Parting with your Art

If you love something you have to set it free (right?)

Question: When you sell a piece of your art/writing/music, do you feel. . .

(a) Elated — Yay! Let’s go grocery shopping

(b) A little sad to see it go, but that’s part of being a professional artist isn’t it?

(c) Racked with guilt and regret and then finding yourself frantically trying to recreate a copy of it for yourself!

The irony here is that we spend all this time trying to make a living from our art only to discover that we’ve become emotionally attached to our work and can’t let it go.

This is the working artist’s paradox that Christine Terpening brought up a little while ago on our Facebook page.  In the post, she was asking other artists how they deal with selling a piece of art after they have developed an emotional attachment to it.

One of these Artists aren’t like the others. . .

What I found most interesting from this discussion, however, was not how artists become attached to their work, but how this sense of loss and regret seemed to affect certain types of artists more than others.

I would have to think that this partly has to do with the physical interaction visual artists (painters, illustrators, potters, sculptors) have with their work.  By physically manipulating the clay and the paint day after day, I can understand how a visual artist could become more emotionally attached to the final piece.

Writers, musicians, and even photographers who work increasingly in the digital realm–just don’t seem to have this same level of physical interaction with their work. Our composition happens primarily in our mind (which we get to keep ;) ) and our work is then manipulated electronically into it’s final form.  This is partly why a copy of our book, song, or photograph means almost as much to us as the “original”.   Unlike a visual artist, we don’t feel the same need to hang on to the original because for us, it’s virtually indistinguishable from copies of the work.

This certainly doesn’t mean that non-visual artists somehow care less about the finished product, we just have the luxury of being able to have our work and sell it too.  Visual artists, on the other hand, know that an original work can never truly be replaced, which is why the decision to sell or not sell a particular piece can often be so difficult.

So to my visual artist friends . . .

How do you decide what to sell and what to keep?

When you do a commissioned  piece of work, you presumably have little choice but to eventually hand it off to it’s rightful owner (even if you may put it off for a little while) — but when it comes to your non-commissioned  work, how do you decide what you are going to sell and what you’re going to keep in your personal collection? Or do you simply let the marketplace decide for you?

So many of the artists I speak with, tell me that it’s the commissioned or promised pieces that are often the hardest to let go of. What is it about these commissioned pieces that makes them more susceptible to this type of emotional attachment. Is it just the lure of the forbidden fruit, or is there something else at work here?

Here’s what some of your fellow artists had to say:

Amy Lesser

I just did a blog post on some art I made for a 2008 art show. When the time came to part with it, I just couldn’t do it. It was as though part of my soul/personality was tied up in the artwork itself. I priced it at a silly high price, reasoning that if it *did* sell, then it was meant to.  . .  I think it is possible to part with one’s artwork. It has to be something we, as artists, decide beforehand–before our hands begin to touch the thing we are creating. And sometimes, even though we do this–sometimes the art is so personal that we are not yet ready to let it go. Other times, we are so critical of our own work, we cannot even bear to look at it. It appears ugly to us and beautiful to others. These are the things we can let go of, but sometimes these don’t even make it out of the house/studio. Or, a piece of art may take on a life of it’s own and shock and surprise us at it’s beauty. I think these are the specific ones that are difficult to let go of.

Artist Pete Hobden Pete Hobden

I don’t have a problem with this, for some reason. Once I’ve finished a painting. My attention goes almost immediately to my next one, even if I don’t yet know what it will be. Finished paintings become just paintings, which often allows you to see its strong and weak points more easily.

Christine Terpening

Christine Terpening

My husband and I were just laughing about overpricing art hoping it won’t sell. I just did that on my last one. I don’t have a problem selling portraits because they’re not my loved ones so I can take a photo of the finished work & ship it out…it’s my original works that I sometimes can’t bear to part with. They reflect my personality, they look great on my wall & I used my kids for models. Maybe it would help if I used some one elses kids but lets face it…mine are so damn good lookin’! They also work cheap.

Of course I can be swayed by money. If someone offered enough I’d certainly sell…If they are willing to pay high dollar you know that not only will your art hang in a prominent place in the home but obviously the buyer likes you & will tell everyone about you. If you know anyone like that please send them my way.

I do agree that time helps you disconnect with your work. Good wine ages before it sells. I’d like to know more about how Peter moves on so easily…Is it a gender issue? My husband loves what I do but has no problems getting rid of what I create. He looks at it as a sort of ‘pat on the back’ when someone wants to buy my work, as do I.

Emily Clark

Emily Clark

I have never had a problem with this, and a lot of that comes out of my reasons for making art. Most of my art is very personal in subject matter- pieces based on old family photographs of my grandparents in the 1940’s and 50’s- but I would happily send every one of them out the door for almost any price (yes, I do need to pay the bills, but if someone really wants one of my pieces, I will do whatever it takes for them to get it.)

I have always seen my ability to make art as a gift, not to me alone, but a gift THROUGH me to others. While I get great personal pleasure out of doing my work, they do me no good once they are finished and are sitting around the studio. Yes, I have favorites, but I have great photos of them. Once the work is finished, the purpose of my work is to bring joy to someone else.

Julia Forsyth Julia Forsyth

I experience this too! Just today I picked up a painting from a Member’s Show that I promised to someone as a gift. I kept wondering how fast I could paint a similar one but keep the special original I got attached to. Part of mine is that it takes me so long to finish something. So maybe if my production gets much higher, I won’t want to keep it all.

Now it’s your turn. . .

  • Do you ever find yourself getting overly attached to your artistic creations?
  • Have you ever questioned whether a customer is “worthy” of a particular piece of art?
  • Have you ever had second-thoughts after talking with a potential buyer?
  • All of us, have our favorite pieces that we have done. Does it make any difference who you are selling one of these favorites too? Does it have to go to someone you know/like or is it simply another transaction?
  • Have you ever priced a work too high secretly hoping that it wouldn’t sell?
  • Have you ever regretted selling a piece of your work? Have you ever offered to buy one of these back?
  • Are there some pieces you would never consider selling for any amount of money? What separates these pieces from the rest?

Let’s hear it!

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Image courtesy of Stepheye

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About the Author

Writer, teacher, and head custodian of the Skinny Artist community. His book "Getting Creative: Developing Creative Habits that Work" is all about finding the time (and energy) to live a more creative life.

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(33) comments

Gwylym Owen

To sell or not to sell? that is the question ;-)

For me personally, getting to know people on a personal level makes it easier for me to sell them my artwork, although this isn’t always possible.

Recently I have noticed many companies have started providing a service whereby they take your original art and put it on a canvas (perhaps this could be a solution for some).

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    Drew

    I think you’re right Gwylym, in an ideal world we would love our customers and our customers would love us back. Unfortunately, as you mention, that’s not always possible especially in this day and age of online sales.

    I am curious, however, whether you (or anyone else out there) has ever turned down a sale because you either didn’t care for that person or you just didn’t want him or her to have a particular painting?

    C’mon you can tell us–No one actually reads this stuff anyway ;)

    Reply

I like to do a piece and move on to the next piece. Parting with my art does not bother me. I like to share it and love it when people buy it and they tell me what they like about the piece. There are special paintings that I realize are done and gone out of my hands. But I just have to recreate another artwork that equals the quality of that piece. Mainly I am happy when people want to buy my work.

Reply
    Drew

    Hi Judy!

    I think you have a great approach to this whole sentimentality thing by not dwelling on a particular piece and simply moving on to the next project. I think sometimes the more you dwell over a piece of work, the more you get wrapped up in the process. After all, it’s much harder to sit around and dwell on the past when you are working your tail off creating the future. . .

    Thanks again Judy for stopping by and sharing your thoughts with us!

    Reply

I always thought that my reluctance to part with a painting I’ve spent so much time on stemmed from the fact that usually my friends/family are the subjects of my paintings. I am elated when I finish a painting and I’m happy with it – esp a commission painting – because there’s a lot of pressure to do something wonderful since a collector is shelling out $$$ and my artistic reputation is on the line. However, even when it’s a commission painting with people I don’t know (the collector’s friends/family), I still feel like I’ve gotten to know them and it’s tough to let it go. But a nice commission check helps. :)

Sometimes I wonder if somehow the painting I just finished might be my last painting for whatever reason. I read something along that vein in Traveling Mercies by Anne LaMott and really related, even though Anne was talking about the experience of writing a novel.

Last reason for wanting to hold onto all the paintings I finish that I’m happy with – I love to check back on them as reference for how I painted a certain thing or what it looked like when two patterns combined. I need some Pete Hobden artistic detachment…

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    Drew

    It’s always great to hear from you Julia!

    I think it’s interesting that you mention the difference between creating a piece of art for friends and family and creating one for someone you don’t know. To me it seems that there might even be more pressure creating for friends and family because these are the people who are often the hardest to impress. After all, these are the ones who knew you growing up and long before you became this rich & talented professional artist.

    Do you think that there’s any truth to this?

    The thing that really struck me, however, is when you say that you “wonder if somehow the painting I just finished might be my last painting for whatever reason” — I think that this really is a universal fear among any creative professional.

    “What if this is it and the creative well has run dry?”
    “What if that was the best I can do?”
    “What if that last one was just a lucky fluke?”

    It’s not just a sense of lingering doubt, however, because there have been numerous artists such as J.D. Salinger, Harper Lee, Vanilla Ice (hee hee) who ended up paralyzing themselves creatively with the fear that their subsequent efforts couldn’t possibly live up to their previous work.

    These are the ones who turn into the “one-hit wonders” of the creative world and eventually show up on a VH-1 “Where are they now?” retrospective.

    Hmmm, I’m beginning to sense a new post topic coming on. . . . :D

    Reply
Drew

Artist Ethics 101:

Gwylym brought up the idea of selling (or keeping) artistic reproductions. And while again this is completely outside of my own realm of expertise, I thought that it did raises some interesting questions on its own. Maybe you can give me some thoughts on the accepted etiquette here. . .

For example, is it okay for an artist to create and keep a reproduction of a commissioned work?

Does “original artwork” mean that there are no copies of it anywhere, or does it simply mean that it is the original work?

How do you generally price reproductions in relation to the original work?

These don’t have to be definitive answers, but I am interested in your thoughts here :)

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    Gwylym Owen

    My parody of the famous Shakespeare quote in my earlier post was an attempt at irony. The subtext to the Scene in Hamlet in my opinion is about how we can sometimes think too much into a subject and end up coming up with extremes like “To be or not to be”. This type of thinking can be very restrictive and as you say;

    “numerous artists such as J.D. Salinger, Harper Lee, Vanilla Ice (hee hee) who ended up paralyzing themselves creatively with the fear that their subsequent efforts couldn’t possibly live up to their previous work.”

    This is another example of polar thinking, life rarely comes in shades of black and white. So based on this fact it becomes easier to see that maybe you will sell some of your art whilst other pieces that are maybe more personal etc. you will keep. Life is always a compromise in some way or the other, the trick is choosing which combination of compromises will lead you to happiness.

    On Reproductions I have to say that as long as a reproduction isn’t masquerading as the original, I see no problem what-so-ever. I actually found one of my favourite artists, after seeing forty of his reproduction prints in one of my Clients Business premises, if I hadn’t seen the prints then I wouldn’t have discovered him. Reproductions allow people who can’t afford original works, to still be able to appreciate and enjoy what the artist has created. It is of course commercial art and the original is obviously a million times better.

    I plead the fifth, or as we say in the UK, “No comment” regarding the refusal to sell, except to say that my heart usually rules my head. I was going to try to answer this but it flagged up so many other questions that would also need fleshing out and I have taken up enough space as it is. . .So I won’t.

    Reply

Drew, I’m honored at your use of my words when you are the creator of such great words yourself (: Now, I must try to create something to try and part with other than my children. (; Keep up the spectacular writing!

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    Drew

    Well they do say that children are a parent’s greatest work of art. If only there was a reliable pricing guide for that. . . . ;)

    Reply

I love my little paintings and wish I could hang them up, but I don’t think I would have a problem with parting with them. I was taught at a young age how fickle our love for objects can be, and through many “lets toss everything before she gets home” situations, i’ve already learned that it won’t kill me to lose something.

Now if only I could actually sell some of this because like you said, I’d love some groceries right about now.

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    Drew

    Hi Melissa!

    You gotta love the “lets toss everything before she gets home” anti-materialism parental training method. Of course, as someone who still has way too much unnecessary crap in my house, I could actually use someone to come in and help me find my zen minimalist happy place (burglars need not apply).

    Overall, it looks like you’re doing all the right things to get your name out there online. Just keep working and try to get involved in as many different artist communities as you can–before you know it, you’ll be selling art and rolling in groceries :P

    Reply

I have always been of two minds with my work: if I didn’t like it, I didn’t want anyone else to have it. And if I loved it, I wanted to keep it. These feelings were so strong for me that I actually changed my art major in college to printmaking so I could always have my own print. I now work primarily in digital so I can still have a print for myself!

Reply
    Drew

    Hi Felicia!

    I love the “Heads-you-don’t-want-it” and “Tails-I-get-to-keep-it” sales methodology you’ve got going on there :)

    I certainly don’t think you’re alone here. From a lot of the feedback that I’ve gotten so far, it sounds like most artists are willing to sell, but at the same time, they would also love to have some type of reproduction of the work for themselves not only for emotional reasons, but also as Julia mentioned above, to “check back on them as reference for how I painted a certain thing”.

    If this is the case, I can’t help but wonder if extensively documenting both the final piece as well as the work in progress (photos, video, sketches, etc…) would help an emotionally attached artist let go of a piece more easily?

    Reply

I get attached…fall in love, so to speak, with the watercolors that flow from my hand and brush. Always have been this way with my creations (paintings, poetry, short stories). My work is so personal and emotion based…. telling a story through pigment and words. Each “story” a piece of me, my soul… and so yes, sometimes it’s hard to part with such a labor of love.

But… I consider it the highest honor when someone loves my work enough to want it close at hand, to see it every day so that they can feel whatever it is my art makes them feel. That gives me great comfort and makes the parting a beautiful thing, rather than a loss.

~Shell
@shellartistree

Reply
    Drew

    Hi Shell!

    I think that’s a beautiful way to look at it. Sharing a piece of your soul with another kindred spirit who saw something in your work that spoke to her directly. That’s all we can hope for as artists.

    Reply

Coming late to the party… Hi!

a) Yay! Let’s go shopping!

I’m female, I’m in love with my paintings for as long as it takes to start another (between 1 and 10 days), then I’m in love with the new one for all of a day, etc.

I can’t kick them out of the nest quickly enough.

I was cured of the emotional attachement when a painting I thought to be my best ever suddenly started to look so flat and boring next to my new ones. What had I been *thinking*?! *That* one?

I’m thinking of saving some of the ‘good enough to sell’ work from each year. At least one from each year. Two reasons: to have a record of development, and, to have a ‘pension insurance’ to sell when I can’t paint anymore.

A lot of passion goes into my work, but, when somebody loves it and wants it, it is indeed an honour, and my mission is to spread some colour and light into people’s lives, so the joy is even greater for that when a change of ownership is made.

You could say I paint for those who love my work. It is the process of painting that is my joy, and if a painting reflects or in some manner contains that joy, lightening the spirit of the viewer in their home, then I’m filled with elation over having followed my mission. The actual painting lives on, and I hope it continues to do its ‘magic’ and brightening the world for more people.

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    Drew

    Hi Charlie, welcome to the party :)

    First of all let me say that I love the whole get-rid-of-it-while-you-still-like-it perspective. I know for me personally there is certainly no shortage of my previous work that now induces cringing when I go back and look at it again. I think this naturally reflects our growth as an artist. We don’t always recognize how much we have matured as an artist unless we’re actually confronted with our previous work.

    I also really like your idea of saving several pieces each year as a type of artistic scrapbook and a record of your development. I think that someday it would make a great career retrospective exhibition as well.

    Kudos to you also for recognizing the overall value of the process versus focusing exclusively on the final work itself. Far too many artists/writers/musicians simply judge themselves on the final product and they forget to enjoy the creative process along the way.

    Tack!

    Reply

Sorry for posting immediately again, a comment to Felicia Kramer: Agree absolutely with your artist’s integrity, to not sell work one is not happy with! Or at least happy enough with.

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I say sell the art, you can always make more.
Hang on to some to be able to check your progress through the years.
I am big on getting as much art out in the population as I can , while I can.
I take a picture of the work, that is sold. I vist it that way.
Each to their own.
Cheers and ART,
BobRagland/NSA

Reply
    Drew

    Thanks Bob for stopping by and sharing your thoughts with us!

    I do think it’s a good idea to take a picture or somehow document each piece that you create so that you will be able to go back and revisit it and see the progress you have made.

    I enjoyed seeing the artwork on your site — Keep creating (and selling!)

    Reply

I just had a show (my very first!) where I sold 6 paintings, one of which I had included in the show as a filler. I didn’t plan on selling it, it was one of my favorites scenes of the countryside around St. Andrews (scotland) and I had over-priced it. And someone bought it! My husband could see the panic in my eyes and had to tell me, several times, you can paint it again, that’s what you do, you are an artist. Still….AAARGH!

Reply
    Drew

    Hi Priya!

    First of all, congratulations on your recent show–that sounds awesome :)

    I do think it’s a rule (Priya’s Law perhaps) that the one painting you really don’t want to sell and overprice will inevitably be the first one out the door. On the other hand, the more reasonably priced work will be haggled about by low-balling high-maintenance customers.

    Welcome to the mysteries of the marketplace!

    Reply

I agree with a lot of what Charlie describes: love it until I paint another. I’m pretty much over the whole, “ooooooh I can’t bear to part with it” feeling just because I love the work. I’m a believer of ‘pass it on’.

However, I’ve sometimes wanted to keep pieces that marked a turning point for me in style, technique, or concept. Those I like to keep to remind myself what direction I’m moving.

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    Drew

    Hi Tracy!

    It’s interesting because the more I think about this issue, I can’t help wondering if this whole “can’t-bear-to-part-with-it” is a personality thing or more of a maturity of an artist thing? (not that I’m calling you “mature” ;) )

    Maybe it’s just the experience that comes from years of creating and then letting go of the work, knowing that another creation is just around the corner. Maybe it all goes back to that confidence thing that Julia was talking about earlier–knowing that inspiration will find your again. Or maybe it’s just the fact that some of us are natural “hoarders” and we can’t bear to part with something that’s become a part of us. . . . (coming soon to A&E “Artist Hoarders”)

    I am curious, however, about how you can tell if a particular work is a “turning point” for you without the benefit of hindsight. Even though I have definitely seen my own writing style change and evolve throughout the years, I’m not sure that I could have recognized that change at the time. Are you generally able to tell right away?

    Reply

      Not a real dissection of progress or growth. Just a gut feeling of, “ooooo never did that before and I like it!”.

      Reply

Most paintings I am perfectly happy to sell, I love to set them free and see them delivered to people who love them. I have good photographs, I am usually happy to leave it at that. Luckily my friends often buy my favorite pieces, so I know I can visit them! Often the ones that I’m not happy with are the ones that sell the best so it works out well for all- I am an appalling judge of my own artwork.

There are a couple of paintings that I may never be able to part with, or only to the right collector for the right price. they cost me blood, sweat and tears and are a part of me, I won’t part with them for someone who doesn’t feel them strongly.

commissions are usually less of an issue for me, I never find myself getting as emotionally invested in them so I’m never quite as satisfied or worried about giving them up!

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    Drew

    Hi Jennie!

    It is always nice to have friends (or at least people you like) purchase your work so you can have “visitation rights” :)

    I find it interesting how as creators, we’re so often “appalling judges” of our own work. I wonder if this is because it’s so difficult to step back and judge our work objectively, or simply the fact that everyone likes different things?

    It does seem that most visual artists whom I talk with have some type of internal “Not for Sale” list except for the right buyer at the right price. My question for you is, how do you assess the right buyer? How can you tell if a particular buyer is right for a particular piece? Is there an actual process or is this more of a gut feeling kind of thing?

    Great stuff!

    Reply

The road to becoming an artist is littered with souvenirs, all artworks you created, they deserve a good home and not that dusty pile of ‘artworks’ that otherwise mock & halt your artistic development. Let’s not be anal-retentive about it either; if you can’t sell them for yourself, donate them [with a target sales price] to your favourite charity.

Reply
    Drew

    Thanks for stopping by Phil and sharing your comments with us!

    I love this image of the artistic road littered with souvenirs :) I also agree with you that collecting your old work just for the sake of possessing it does seem a bit counter-productive for a professional artist.

    The idea that your old artworks sit there in a dusty pile and and mocking you and halting your artistic development also has a great deal of truth to it. To me creativity is all about keeping that creative energy moving.

    Create and release.

    Create and release.

    When you stop the releasing part, it eventually slows down the creation process as well. Things become stagnant and new ideas are harder to find. In the end, creation is still a process and part of that process is letting go of the old in order to be able to create the new.

    Thanks again!

    Reply

      Melt: ahhh, that dusty pile of has-beens mocking me. Like the idea of donating to charity instead of taking up shelf space.
      Drew: never thought about it, but so agree with the ‘create and release’ cycle, and without one or the other the process comes to a halt. “… letting go of the old in order to be able to create the new.” is so true in art and life in general.

      Reply

It’s also important to protect your investment!! Having your artwork authenticated by professionals is an incredibly important step if you want to be successful in the art market. If you need any help on this please visit monetexperts.com. Have a great day!

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Elijah Woyee

I would like for you to sell my arts that I have been collecting since 1986. They are all
original oil on canvas. I have more than 200.00 pieces in my collections. They are all priceless. Inspection welcome.

Reply
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