Last week an artist told me he was suffering. His sales were way off, and the steady income he had become used to had suddenly come to a stop. He also told me his galleries were not selling much of his work anymore.

I asked him what he thought the problem was, and he told me he is doing everything he can to generate income … more workshops, working on a book, working on a video, getting into more plein air events, doing an online mentoring program and an online school, and trying to schedule some gallery shows.

As I probed this with him, I asked which came first … all the activities or the slump in sales? His answer was no surprise. “I was doing really well and hardly had to do anything to sell paintings, but I wanted to make more money, so I started working on these other projects.” When I asked him if he was painting as much and sending as much to the galleries, he said, “Well, no. I don’t have as much time.”

This is going to sound absolutely counterintuitive, but less is more.

The disease many of us have is thinking we have reached a peak with our income and that therefore we need to start doing new things to bring in more money.

An example is my buddy Jim. Jim owns a coffee pot business. It’s a pretty big business. He has pots made in China with his brand, and he sells them on Amazon. He has made a lot of money, but when we last met, he told me he was getting out of the coffee pot business and getting into the vitamin business. 

Why? Pots had stopped selling as well, and he sees lots of people making a lot of money in vitamins. 

The grass is always greener. Someone else looks successful doing other things, yet we forget that when we do new things, there is a tremendous learning curve, time to understand it, and often it’s not naturally in our skill set. Someone else might be successful, but we don’t know how many decades of struggle they went through to get there, or how much money it cost them to start.

Any time you start chasing shiny objects, you suffer somewhere else. I should know. Success magazine called me the “Shiny Object King,” and it was not necessarily a compliment, though their point was that some shiny objects turned out to be better businesses than what I had.

As an artist selling art, you are a small business. All businesses have up and down cycles. Sometimes those downs are caused by the economy, sometimes they’re caused by a change in the industry or business, sometimes they’re impacted by events like the California fires or election fears. Sometimes we don’t know.

Something I do know: In Ecclesiastes it says there is a time to reap and a time to sow. I find that when business is off, we have to put the shiny objects aside and protect our core business. 

My friend Jim is giving up because he is in a down cycle and moving to something else, forgetting that startups are hard. I think that instead he needs to keep his head down and stay completely focused on solving the problem.

We all love to place blame. It’s a lot easier to place blame on other people, or other things or conditions. But my friend Jim is to blame for his own problem, as is the artist who got so distracted by shiny objects he failed to protect his core business. 

There are two issues with shiny objects. First, they are a distraction. Second, they send signals to the market. With social media, people know everything. This artist used to post paintings and thank customers for buying, but for the past year or two, all of his posts have been about his shiny objects. That’s sending a signal to his market that he’s bored with painting and has moved on to other things. I’ve been seeing this a lot lately.

There is no problem with wanting more income, but you want to start with this question…

If I focused more energy on my existing business, could I find a way to grow it to the level of income I want from all my other shiny objects? The answer is yes, and if you don’t know how, all you have to do is find out. There are plenty of experts out there to help.

What if, right now, you had every customer you’ve ever had?

Most people buy one painting from you. But what if 50 percent of the people who bought one painting from you bought one painting a year? Would that change your income? Of course.

The solution to every problem is found in a series of questions. If you ask great questions, and you try to come up with 50 answers for each question, and don’t just pick the first few easy answers, you’ll solve any problem.

The same day this artist told me that nothing is selling, his friends aren’t selling, and he thinks we’re in a bad economy, another friend told me he sold more art this year than any year in his career and that a lot of his friends were thriving too. Hmmm.

Lots of artists I know are coasting and in the danger zone. 

Some things to consider if things are not going as they should:

  1. Am I as focused as I should be?
  2. Am I doing all the things I have normally done to keep business strong?
  3. Am I too reliant on others for my income? Should I control it more?
  4. Am I being distracted by shiny objects?
  5. If I could pick only ONE thing to work on for the next two years and could not work on any other thing, what is that one thing?
  6. What questions should I be asking myself? (There are probably dozens.)
    1. How have things changed, and what do I need to be doing differently?
    2. Has my worked changed, and do people want it?
    3. Is my work still relevant? 
    4. Is my category of art still hot?
    5. What could I do to get income out of past buyers?
    6. Am I sending bad signals to the market?
    7. Am I willing to work as hard?

If or when you see things changing, get focused on solving the problem and keep your head down. A concentrated effort can make a huge difference toward solving any problem.