What’s a Painter Doing Selling Bowls at a Farmers’ Market?

By Susan Holland in Art Business Advice > General Art Advice

Why would someone whose passion is painting in oils and watercolors be setting up a booth once a week in a local Farmers’ Market, and dragging out carved bowls?

In short. . . to make money!

But there’s much more to it than that. Sometimes you get an opportunity that you just shouldn’t refuse. Here’s the longer story:

A year or so ago I found myself a nice pile of rejected wood carvings. Originally they were destined for a commercial market, but the ones I picked up were let go for reason of poor color or irregularities or damage.

Could I use these things? “YES” said I. And so I have a stockpile of lovely wood things with slight defects which I get to play with and re-sell at a booth in a small town near where I live.

Yes, reworking these objects is indeed an interruption in my painting schedule, and building a small business takes an immense amount of effort especially at first.

But I had a pile of wood things AND a willing backer to get me off the ground. How could I say no to such a great opportunity?

Over time, a small wood shop grew in the corner of my studio, along with a large display of decorated vessels. Decorating bowls isn’t THAT far removed from my graphic work, since many of them are now incised, colored, reshaped, studded with metal inlays, and redesigned into something much different from their original selves.

All of this work makes a bit of summer money for me. . . but that’s not the only benefit I received by saying “yes” to this opportunity.

Much more valuable than the little bag of bucks I take home is the crash course in marketing and customer interaction that I get over a summer’s worth of sales.

Just manning a booth and seeing the way that people approach, or respond, to your display, is educational in itself. What brings in the most traffic? What seems to discourage people from coming into your area? What do they handle and ask about? And what kind of information keeps them engaged?

There’s a real “cause and effect” lesson to be learned from personal interaction with the general public.

I’ve also developed a better understanding of, and philosophy towards business, as I’ve experienced the ups and downs of personal sales! I’ve learned about percentages, and I don’t mean figuring out the tax on each item. What I mean is that if I sell very little one week, the same wares the next week will suddenly get grabbed up in bunches! Sometimes the people who buy are the same ones who looked and did not buy the week before.

In other words, if you’re experiencing a lack of sales, it may not be the fault of the product. This is a serious lesson to be learned about any kind of non-consumable goods, which includes art of all kinds. These days, with less disposable income in people’s pockets, there will be more hesitation before purchases are made. And people may even have to “save up” from their weekly earnings to afford something they really want.

So how does this apply to paintings, and art?

People interested in buying a painting want it to be a part of their everyday surroundings. It’s not something that is here today and gone tomorrow.

They will need to think about how it will look on their wall over time, and whether it is the best use of that wall, or whether something else would please them more, for longer.

Most fine art collectors want more than just objects of décor. They want quality. The painting is something that likely will go with them when they move from one house to the other. They will very likely not buy at first glance.

I have a favorite customer at the Farmer’s Market. This fellow comes with his overalls and his satchel, and browses nearly every time he comes to my booth. He handles the smooth wood and admires the work done on them. And he moves away toward the fruit stands and the bird houses. And then he comes back and scoops up a nice bowl and pays cash for it. He has bought hundreds of dollars worth of wooden bowls over the summer.

Painters and other artists who don’t experience point-of-sale interactions with customers miss seeing the reality that galleries are familiar with.

Gallery owners understand the ebb and flow of purchases. They know they have to be resilient when sales ebb. This is why they charge artists commissions for every sale. They set up their booths, as it were, every day, and some days no one buys.

Whether anyone buys or not, they still have to pay for the space, the heat, the lights, the advertising, and the staff to run their store. So some days are losing days. But they know that people who come in “just to browse” will come back if the product is appealing, and eventually some of them will buy. So finally the artist and the gallery owner get paid for their work and expenditures.

As a painter selling bowls at a Farmer’s Market, I’ve become better at knowing what to say to shoppers. I’ve also learned to listen to what they have to say about my work. . . these kinds of comments are amazingly instructive.

If you want to know what appeals to prospective art buyers, you need to watch them approach, and walk away. You need to hear what they say about your work, first hand. Sometimes you won’t like it, but every once in a while you’ll get a compliment that propels your work into a wonderful new place.

That’s why I’m at the Farmers’ Market every week.

Could it be time for you to take on a new challenge? What opportunities do you have, just around the corner?


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