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by Peter Brown | 11th February 2021 | Advice and Tips
I’m often contacted by students who want to pick my brains for advice, tips and pointers. Recently, I answered a series of great questions from Collette Connell, an illustration student at UWE Bristol, and I thought I’d share my answers here too.

Do you have any advice on self-promotion?

The world has changed since I started flogging charcoal drawings and prints on street corners in Bath. Back then, this was a great way to start – getting under everyone’s noses day-in, day-out in a small city. So I made ground locally. And even now, being seen ‘doing it’ is hugely valuable. Being in the same place/area for a consistent period really pays. Very shortly you become ‘the bloke that…” and that’s a huge step towards someone eventually buying something. It also helps if you are not a grumpy git when they interrupt mid brushstroke.

Now, however, as we all know, social media is huge and has really come into its own for artists in the pandemic. If you have Instagram and want to start selling your work, I recommend participating in the #ArtistSupportPledge. It helped get loads of young artists off the ground this year.

A bit further down the line, when you can afford it, back this up with a good website. Many artists start with a simple ‘off the shelf’ site, which you can build yourself, but I think it’s important to aim for a site which has a good search facility. People have ideas about what they want/like and it’s good to narrow down options. 450 available works is too much to navigate, but ten images of ‘rain’ and ‘London’ is much easier. Also, the sooner you get a good site up which can last (they call it future proof), the sooner you can start building the archive of your life’s work. It sounds pompous but this is huge in my view. Your site is then the best point of information and material for people researching you.

The artists that have struggled in this pandemic are those with no online presence. Those with websites and a strong social media presence have benefited from people spending more time on the internet with more and more customers seemingly making the leap to buying art online.

How do you maintain that self-belief and confidence in your work?

I’m afraid I don’t! I live with imposter syndrome and constantly question whether I really am any good at all. However, I think this is something you have to live with. Confidence leads to arrogance and complacency and not moving forward.

But you do need belief in yourself, and for me, that comes down to working hard and knowing that I am getting as good as I possibly can within my limits. I would remind myself of this when droves of people would walk past me on a Saturday morning on Milsom Street loaded down with bags of over-priced clothes and not even looking at my drawings for £40 (Get over it, Pete!). Eventually, that drive and work ethic is what will power your career. As long as you’ve pushed yourself and are knackered at the end of the week, that’s all you can do.

How do you come across the galleries you work with and the clients you sell to?

It’s an accumulation of 27 years doing it, really.

The gallery system:

I was entering open exhibitions (the prestige ones: Jerwood Drawing Prize, Hunting Art Prize even John Moores Art Prize . . . never got in), RA Summer Exhibition, and then the slightly more accessible ones where you can get more success, both in getting accepted and selling. Those at the Mall Galleries, e.g. NEAC (by far the best!), RP, RBA, ROI, PS, etc. Getting into those shows and then eventually being elected to the societies helped. (I have joined too many though!) These are also good shop windows for galleries.

As for approaching galleries, they are run by people. And people come in all shapes and sizes: open-minded or otherwise, so I can’t give a one-size-fits-all approach. You just need to get your work in front of the owner. The one thing I would perhaps say is don’t rush. Get a really good body of work together that you can select from. Don’t let gatekeepers get you down: they can make you feel like shit because they get people asking all the time.

In my experience, dealers do listen to artists’ opinions so gaining respect from your peers is huge. And of course, it’s all a bit chicken and egg . . . Getting a bit known before finding someone to help you get known.

I was lucky. An artist bought one of my paintings from me on the street in Bath and then showed his gallery in London. They asked me to send three up for their Christmas show (they always start you in their big group exhibitions). I sent my best. I prayed. They sold because they were cheap! Then I was in a six-person show, then a three-person show, then a 2-person show . . . and finally after about four years, my very own solo show with Bill Patterson (now sadly deceased).

I stayed with W. H. Patterson for a couple of years until his wife decided to sell. With a track record of two solo shows, and half-way through preparing for another, I wrote to David Messum and I am still there. I said I was lucky, but this was after three or four years of drawing and painting Bath . . . being out there, day in, day out . . . You make your own luck.

Direct:

I sold direct locally, simply by repetitive footfall. Eventually, you are ‘the bloke who does those charcoal drawings of Bath’. I also did the odd house portrait (not pets though). Commissions are always bread and butter and it’s all painting and learning.

But you don’t have to offer works for sale on the street. You just need to be seen, talk to people, take their details if they express an interest in buying. Then after a while, you just get a venue. My first was the first floor of a pub on George Street where I held my first oil painting exhibition in one evening.

“No, they are not for sale now, but I will be selling them at some stage” is tantalising!

The other thing that gets ‘em going is the thought that they do sell or that people want them . . . ‘red-dot’ fever!

A lot of people do a hybrid of selling direct and using galleries. My advice though is to keep the market price as the market price. You do not want people to brag about going direct and paying half. Make sure you get and keep everyone’s details. People who buy a print for £12 in 2021 may very well come back for a big oil painting in the future.

Are you advised on pricing your work, or do you decide this yourself?

That’s the good thing about the galleries, particularly those that can command good prices like Messum’s. They set the price and you go ‘Gulp! Really?’ And then you are up a level (if they sell). Then that becomes the price for a ‘A.N. Other’. You can apologise for it but ’that’s the price the gallery set’. You will lose some sales but in the long run . . .

But you can do it yourself. Ken Howard used to add 10% a year. That gets you up there quicker than you think and no one gets shocked off at a sudden hike.

What should one look for in a gallery? Is looking for a gallery to exhibit in a good place to start as a fine artist?

Galleries are good. They give you a rubber stamp. They make you feel like you’ve arrived, and they provide more and different types of exposure. I can remember having a couple of charcoal drawings in a gallery window in Bath and I used to go for a ‘glory run’ drive-by in the evenings . . . ’That’s me!’

Do you have any tricks in staying comfortable whilst painting in the elements?

Layers. I have terrible circulation but am rarely cold after I have got properly dressed . . .

• Legs: Long johns, jeans, salopettes, thick socks, walking boots
• Body: High-zip-neck thermal vest, second thermal vest, shirt, jumper, warm ski-jacket-type-thing
• Head: I do wear a balaclava sometimes, and also a woolly hat. I have one of those furry ones with the ears at the mo
• Hands: Massive thick waterproof gloves. One stays on the left pallet hand and maybe a lighter one for the painting hand which comes off and on. In these gloves, you put hand warmers. Usually, my hands get too hot.

Tuck everything in. Seal in the heat and watch the neck. Balaclava and a high-neck thermal vest help here, or a scarf.

At the moment, I’m painting in snow and I have two pairs of boots. If I am near the van, I leave the ignition running for a bit with heaters on and boots on the dashboard. When my toes get too cold, I put the roasty-toasty boots on and buy myself a complete second go at the painting.

In a nutshell, you do not have to feel cold. If you do, sort it for next time.

The wet is tricky. I use an umbrella a bit now for the easel. It clamps on to the easel but only keeps the canvas dry. So, premix colours if you can and try to keep only the essential out in the rain exposed, not all your brushes for instance. Do it in spurts. Return for a warm and a dry somewhere.

In Summary . . .

It is hard for me to give the definitive answer on how to go about things, but if it is anything, I’d say it is the work. If the work is honest; if it’s yours and not a copy; if it’s done well; the rest eventually should fall into place as long as people see it. If you can do those two things at the same time. Work a lot, in front of people in public. In terms of making a living or getting known, everyone walks down the street . . . some have taste, some have a bit of money.

Finally, good luck! Follow your heart, work your socks off, and hopefully it will work. If you can pay the rent doing what you love, you are doing brilliantly.

You may have to do some grim commissions along the way but selling buys you time to do what you love and also commissions get you to do things you may not have done normally. (Some do need avoiding though!) We all have bad days, but every now and then we have a good one. Selling is important but not the reason you do it. Take heart from sales, but don’t confuse that with judgement of your work. Likewise, not selling. Good drawing is not necessarily rewarded with money. Look at others’ work. Be jealous of their talent and let it drive yours.