Drawing a Line in the Sand as an Artist

Eric Rhoads Artists Drawing a Line in the Sand Marketing

Years ago my wife asked a couple to spend a holiday weekend with us at the lake. When the power went down on Friday afternoon and we realized we’d blown out the breaker box, the husband, an electrician by trade, generously offered to fix it. So we went to the local hardware store to buy the parts. He pointed out what I needed, and I pulled the items off the shelf. I then watched as he grabbed a handful of screws out of a bin, said, “We’ll need these too,” and put them in his pocket. He winked at me and said, “I’ll see you in the car.”


I was mortified.


At the checkout counter, I told the clerk my “friend” stole a handful of screws that I estimated to be worth a dollar or two, but, to be sure, I gave her a twenty. I apologised and went to my car.


I was also fuming mad.


When I got in the car, I asked why he stole the screws, and he started whining about how the store didn’t need the money, that it was just a few pennies, that it was a big chain that was ripping off customers, and lots of other excuses.


I then did something I’ve never done before or since, because I’m not a confrontational kind of person.


I told him he was a common thief and that whether it was dimes, dollars, or thousands of dollars he was stealing, it was all the same to me. I said I don’t hang out with common thieves and that if he would steal from them, he would steal from me.


As I drove to our house, I told him I wouldn’t embarrass him in front of his wife and kids, but that I wanted him to go into the house and say that something came up and they needed to leave right away. I told him I would not tell his family that he was a thief, but he needed to be gone within an hour.

That was the last time I ever had contact with him or his family.


Everyone has to draw a line in the sand.


If someone is a thief, I write them out of my life. If someone betrays me, gossips about me wrongly, is two-faced or lies to me, I try to eliminate them from my life. That is my line in the sand.


Every artist has a line in the sand they must draw, but it’s not often as simple as it was for me in the case of my thieving acquaintance. If a gallery steals from you or doesn’t pay you, or if someone betrays you or lies to you it’s easy to draw a line in the sand and end the relationship.


But the line in the sand I’m talking about for you as an artist might not be quite so clear.


Where do you draw the line when it concerns “selling out” as an artist? It isn’t always about ethics. It’s about what works for you and your career.

For instance, I publish a couple of art magazines. Artists always want articles because those articles help their careers, and we love helping them when we can. But sometimes artists offer to buy ads if we will run an article about them. We always turn them down. That is the kind of line in the sand I’m talking about.


It’s not illegal, or even immoral, to sell ads in exchange for articles. A lot of magazines do it and are quite open about it. We’ve simply decided that our readers won’t trust our content as much if they believe someone might be featured who isn’t otherwise strong enough as an artist or who paid us to be there. It’s a choice we’ve made to maintain our credibility, and we’ve walked away from a lot of money because of it. It’s not easy, but for us, that’s the line we won’t cross.


As an artist, you also have choices you have to make that are not about what is illegal or immoral in themselves, but that will be very personal for you.


The best example I can think of concerns painting what sells.


Your gallery owner calls you and says, “Those little red barns you painted sold better than anything else you’ve painted. Can you send us more little red barns?”


If you’re sick of painting little red barns, or they don’t inspire you anymore, you’re then faced with whether or not you draw a line in the sand.


Will you paint more barns because they help the gallery?

Will you paint more barns because more paintings sold means establishing more collectors?

Will you paint more barns because selling more is validation that people like your work?

Will you paint more barns because you need the money?

Will you refuse to paint more barns?


Where is the line?


One friend who is a brilliant landscape painter and who was selling well decided she was sick of landscapes, so she started painting buildings and figures instead. Her gallery mounted a show, and nothing, I repeat nothing, in the show sold except the few remaining landscapes. Her career took a dive. She had branded herself as a landscape painter and couldn’t escape it. Her line in the sand was between not making a living or going back to painting landscapes. She opted out of landscapes, continued on her new path, and endured a two-year dip in her career until her other paintings caught on. But she was happy she made the decision because her heart was no longer in landscapes.


I applaud anyone who follows their heart. But I would not have criticized this artist if she’d decided to go back to painting landscapes, if that was what she felt she had to do.


Early in my career I was a wedding photographer. I did so many weddings that I got sick of weddings and swore I’d never do another, even if I had to starve. My soul could not take even one more wedding. I dropped it cold turkey and found a job doing something else. I drew a line in the sand. I still avoid weddings to this day when I can, and if I do go, I refuse to bring a camera. But someone else may have decided to forge ahead, to keep supporting themselves or for other reasons. Neither decision is immoral or unethical.


What is your line in the sand?


In my blogs I write mostly about marketing and the value of building your name and your brand, and increasing awareness of your work. I teach techniques you can use to speed up your sales and your progress as an artist, and I’ve watched hundreds of people change their lives and see their dreams come true.


Still, some people view the very act of marketing as crass, or even wrong. Some feel they want nothing to do with the business aspects of painting. I even know artists who refuse to sell their artwork to willing buyers, because they don’t want to have their artistic purity challenged by the act of making a sale.


I think it’s important to understand that any of these decisions is perfectly acceptable.


It’s acceptable to market yourself and your art. It’s just as acceptable to wait, doing no marketing and hoping your work will be discovered and sell organically. It’s rare, but it does happen.


Most great artists who have accomplished some level of success are also brilliant marketers, though they handle it in such tasteful and subtle ways that it’s usually not recognized as marketing. Frankly, that’s the best way to market, if you can finesse the style. Other older, established artists did the bulk of their marketing long ago, when a lot of us weren’t around to see it, and we assume they never stooped so low as to self-market (or that they never needed to). Some were those rare cases who were genuinely discovered by collectors or a gallery, with no marketing at all.


Some are willing to market their careers and find it perfectly acceptable, while others won’t cross that line because they find it objectionable.

There is no right or wrong here. This is not an ethical issue. It’s a personal issue.


That is the most important take away: These are your decisions. If you need to paint more red barns to sell paintings so you can pay the rent, it’s not ethically wrong to do it (though it’s not a good idea to create the same painting again and again). If you still love painting red barns, so much the better — there is absolutely no reason not to paint something that satisfies you just because buyers want more of it.


Ultimately you have to search your soul for what works for you, what inspires you, and what is over the line for you.


I know a lot of famous artists who painted what their galleries wanted for a lot of years until their names and careers were established, and now they won’t do anything unless they want to do it. I know others who have always painted only what they want to paint. No one should judge you for the decision you make. As my dad always says, “You never know why someone does something until you’ve walked in their moccasins.”

Careers are delicate things. There is nothing that can overcome hard work, putting in the time to learn and grow and develop your career. But once that heavy lifting is done, that’s when you need to decide where you should draw your line in the sand.

By |2017-10-05T16:00:23+00:00September 28th, 2015|Ethics|21 Comments

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  1. Charlie Hunter September 28, 2015 at 8:24 pm - Reply

    If someone needs a little red barn painted, I’m happy to oblige*. Great post, Eric!
    *except it may not turn out red.

  2. John P. Weiss September 28, 2015 at 8:43 pm - Reply

    Great advice. These days, there’s a lot of competition. I believe artists who want to sell their work and get noticed must have a good website, leverage social media and work hard to brand and craft excellent work. Marketing is certainly important. Also, I admire artists who have the courage to grow and even lose sales but stay true to their artistic souls.

  3. cindy wilbur September 28, 2015 at 9:13 pm - Reply

    glad you touched on this eric. I know i do have boundaries or lines in the sand for most aspects of my personal life. I am a forgiving and non judgmental person (or try to be) i figure they are on their path.. however.. i may not want them on MY path. thus do not become in my inner circle. With Art, which is a huge part of my life , I too have lines i won’t cross… a past gallery i was in.. i once heard the owner (as i was in the back unpacking some new work, say to someone who happened to be looking at my work… I heard him actually telling lies about things i never was in, and awards i never got..!!!!!!!!!!! Long story short.. i am not in that gallery anymore, nor is he in business either. he sold a ton for me too but i did not like that at all! I would rather have less sales than sales that involved untrue things….. thing was.. i did have awards and other things that he could have said.. but he never cared to really know the truth.. just what he thought would sell that painting, no thank you.. (also, i learned from a person who bought one of my paintings… wrote me later , after the gallery closed.. and called his painting a name i never named a painting…. my painting was Honfluer harbor….and HE renamed it something to do with portofino…….. So glad to not be associated with that gallery any more.

  4. Lori Landis September 28, 2015 at 9:28 pm - Reply

    Some of the decisions that I made were not in the sand so to speak but literally physically not able to it right. So I didn’t do landscapes because they wouldn’t have a correct perspective. There is also a sense of artists using less quality materials thinking why spend the money, no one will know but in the long run You do know. Collectors pay good money and need to feel they are getting a good material product. Lots of decisions come into play as an artist. I had a gallery want me to very similar abstracts but I’m trying to move forward. A friend paints the same all the time because of the money aspect. She is trying to live her life the best way she knows and so am I. We are all striving to be the creative artist, God wants us to be.

  5. Lori woodward September 28, 2015 at 10:46 pm - Reply

    Good post Eric. Much food for thought.

  6. Linda Eades Blackburn September 28, 2015 at 11:24 pm - Reply

    Well said Eric. To thine on self be true…. If you need to paint those red barns in order to buy the supplies that will allow you to paint what you want, then do that in good conscience. But the important thing is to work toward doing what makes you grow as an artist and a person.

  7. Lori Putnam September 29, 2015 at 12:16 am - Reply

    This is great advise for certain. I have long admired artists who chose what to paint and then it sold anyway. I am doing my best to follow in their footsteps. Very early in my career, you know that flat-broke-outta-luck period, I had a gallery want several of basically the same painting. I left that gallery. It was important to be true to myself. My marketing savvy has always been better used in someone else’s project. It’s difficult to market ME. Thankfully others have helped me do it. But it is still difficult. Now Charlie Hunter? I could market HIM all day long!

  8. Louise Treacy September 29, 2015 at 4:35 am - Reply

    Lots of food for thought there.
    THANK YOU Eric.

  9. Tina Steele Lindsey September 29, 2015 at 8:41 am - Reply

    Excellent, excellent article.

  10. John Caggiano September 29, 2015 at 11:22 am - Reply

    Good advice and a good read, Eric. Certainly, a good follow up to the “Celebrity” blog. And Charlie, I’ll take your red barn anyday…Even if it is sienna.

  11. Mitchell Neto September 29, 2015 at 11:26 am - Reply

    Your insights are always greatly appreciated! As those who know me understand, I am inspired by a great many of the wonderful things life has to offer. This, of course, makes it difficult for folks to identify my art with a particular genre since I am enamored with all classic forms of art. I know this is not good for establishing my “brand” which now is primarily landscape. Do you think it is possible that by producing a wide range of work i.e. landscape, seascape, figurative, architecture etc. I might establish a brand that is more “diverse”. My passion is not to be confined by expectations – I want to surprise my viewers at every show with something new and different. So I climb the mountain to ask my favorite Guru of marketing…Are there many classical, successful, artists who have taken this approach?

  12. Marian Fortunati September 29, 2015 at 6:22 pm - Reply

    I think each of us needs to paint what fills our soul and challenges our abilities.
    I admire the work of so many talented artist…– all different styles and genres… There’s room for all of us to grow and even shine…

  13. Georgia mansur September 30, 2015 at 11:06 am - Reply

    Integrity is always worth the cost.

  14. Dottie Leatherwood October 2, 2015 at 7:12 am - Reply

    Good questions and a great blog post. Just like creating art is not a one size fits all approach, neither is marketing and promotion. I would add to not be too quick to draw a line in the sand. Sometimes we cut off our nose to spite our face. 🙂

  15. Catherine October 3, 2015 at 7:20 pm - Reply

    Great thoughts – reminds me of type casting actors. It can be a very fine line to draw with much to consider in the drawing.

  16. Carolyn Carradine October 4, 2015 at 7:35 am - Reply

    Wonderful blog and it applies to so much more than art. We’re on our way driving across country painting as we go but mostly just having fun on our way to Maine. Yesterday we finally dragged our paints out of the car to paint a red bridge of Madison County. As we were painting a young man proposed to his beloved. They had carved their initials in the bridge in 2011 when they first met, he had come back and carved “Marry Me?” And then took her there We heard her screams when they walked in to find their initials. They saw Chris painting the bridge and offered to buy it. She still had tears in her eyes. He spent a bit more time finishing it as we talked to them and then gave it to them. They were over the moon. Sometimes a gift of the heart means more than the money he could have gotten for this painting

  17. Ralph Grady James October 5, 2015 at 7:28 am - Reply

    I agree – thank you!

  18. Bernice Smith October 6, 2015 at 1:54 pm - Reply

    I also agree that this applies to life, not just art! I was in advertising most of my career but got so tired of it and all the deadlines that go along with it that all I want to do is paint. In a group situation, I am great at marketing a show or pulling people into my art groups but as for myself, I lack interest in my own marketing. Sometimes I sell and sometimes not but finally I can do pretty much what I want and love it! I get offers to freelance or do promotion but my heart is not in it…I found what I am looking for. We are lucky to have this art bug.
    Great article! Thanks Bernice

  19. Bill Davidson October 10, 2015 at 11:04 pm - Reply

    This is a great blog, because ALL JUDGMENT IS WRONG, I read comments on Facebook where people are critical of others ways, we have no right to judge, just be true to ourselves, personally I don’t like to post too much on social media as I don’t think people should or want to know about my personal life or everything I do and I know awesome artists with huge careers that are not even on FB . Working on skills is a huge priority for many artists, I can see how replacing your earnest artistic work you are meant to do when displaced by chasing,popularity and fame is probably not wise , but to sit in judgment of anyone’s path is not a proper course .We each have our lines , we need to respect that each has a different path and a different line

  20. Sergio Roffo October 13, 2015 at 10:44 am - Reply

    Great article Eric. Enjoyed reading it. It must’ve been very difficult to ask your friend to leave the cottage.
    He probably will never steal again. You helped him out.

  21. Daniel Brauer October 14, 2015 at 2:15 pm - Reply

    I’m Danny Brauer. You can find me on Facebook. Tree of Life Danny Brauer art.
    I just started being a full-time artist after a nasty divorce. I quit my career and started painting and drawing portraits of legends and icons. I’ve lived in tents “indawoodz”. Taking my art to the beach to sell, I spent nights huddled behind buildings.
    Much of my works have been stolen. The only way I can take it is as a back handed compliment.
    After a few years, I somehow made it out of “indawoodz”.
    Check out my videos on You Tube;
    Homeless artist living in the woods

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