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How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time! Lessons from an Open Studio

I can't quite believe it’s only just over a year since I decided to make painting my full time job. I had just finished my access course at Malvern School of Art, which sparked such a desire to create, and confirmed that this was what I wanted to do. From July to December 2020 I sketched, experimented and painted with little direction but lots of energy. In January 2021 I wrote down my goals and a plan for the year and established a pretty intense work pattern. I set a target for the number of paintings I wanted to create by April, with a view to approaching galleries and had an aspirational sales target in mind. I established a plan for increasing my audience on social media and a weekly system to monitor my progress. Phew! Now I look back I feel exhausted .

By April I had to flex my plan. I didn’t have the quantity of work or the confidence to approach galleries, and with all the lock downs I accepted that the time wasn’t right. So what’s an artist to do? Paint! And paint some more. In June it was confirmed that Worcestershire Open Studios would go ahead in August, but despite having holidays, family time, kids to get to Uni and whilst I was undertaking two art courses - CVP (creative visionary programme) which is practically a full time job in itself and a residential, I committed to my first event.

Steadily I made my way through finishing work, framing, labelling, pricing and completely re-jigging my studio space to display everything the best way I could. There’s nothing like a deadline to focus my mind! I released my latest series, uploaded it on my website and sent out a newsletter launching it, all in time for August open studios.

Whilst twelve months is not long to have been painting full time, when I look back I see that the learning for me has been much greater than developing my painting practice. At times the learning curve has been perpendicular, particularly around the business and tech side, but it turns out that eating an elephant and developing an art career have a lot in common. Seeking out and taking advise from those who have travelled this road has been invaluable, and what I heard repeated was, just do what you need to do, when you need to do it - one bite at at time!

So this is what I recounted to the artists I met at my open studios who said ‘I’m so far off this’, ‘I don’t have a clue where to start’. My advise - just start and when you’re stuck, reach out to, what I have learned is a generous artist community, both virtual and in person. And if all else fails google it!

My Open Studios surpassed all my expectations and to be honest I was quite overwhelmed. So having come out the other side I thought it might be helpful to share some of the top tips that worked for me. Here’s my top 11 (well 10 is soo predictable):

  • Be ready! Put the work in before hand so you’re ready on the day because there won’t be time on the day to fanny about. There were times when it was non stop!

  • Get an able assistant. With the current situation around Covid I didn’t want to have too many folk in my studio space at one time, so having my Hubby meet and greet was great. Everyone was very respectful of space and wore masks, in part I think because I was wearing one. (I was glad that I had a few spare masks at the entrance and hand gel too). Having my hubby chat away to those waiting, took the pressure off me, so I could talk to viewers without feeling like I was rushing them through. He also made a great cup of the when I needed it!

  • Label everything - names of paintings are important and connect with people more than I realised. If it’s for sale, say how much and be clear - is it framed etc!

  • Put out your work in progress (WIP)- visitors were interested in how I make my work, and samples helped me chat more fluently about what I do and how I create my art. I also kept my tools and materials out so they could really get a sense of what goes on in my space.

  • Be prepared for people to want to buy your ‘unfinished work’. I was amazed how many visitors wanted to buy pieces that I had displayed as WIP. Some I didn’t feel able to sell, but other pieces just required some finishing, and it was a thrill to later deliver a completed and framed painting.

  • Get a card reader - I had no idea that I would be so busy and I’m pretty sure it would have been much more complicated without one. There are lots of models on the market but I opted for Sum-up - costing about £20 to buy, they charge a small amount per transaction. It was dead easy to set up and paid for itself many times over. A cautionary note from a friend however - try it out in advance. A hardware glitch can be pretty stressful on the day of the event!

  • Do your own advertising in addition to the event PR. I made an artist invitation and attached it to the event info and was amazed how many people came because they had either had it posted through their letter box, seen it in the village shops or seen it on our local Facebook page. I posted on the village FB page daily throughout the event, as some thought it was only a one day event. I also regularly updated What's app to friends, Instagram and my personal and business Facebook pages. To start with I kept thinking, folk are going to be sick of hearing from me, but after asking most visitors how they found me, I have no regrets. Folk are busy and a gentle reminder is often welcome.

  • Have a load of wrapping materials at the ready. I use tissue paper, recycled cardboard and pretty string to gift wrap each piece. Not just to protect, but to acknowledge that this is a special purchase. Buying art is a treat, so I wanted it to feel like that for my visitors. My hubby had to replenish my stocks as I'd underestimated how much I would use. I also hadn’t catered for the larger pieces, in part because I didn’t think they would sell! Which brings me to...….

  • Have faith that if you love your work, someone else will too. If they don’t love it, I wouldn’t want them to buy it. In fact I had a little notice up saying so. Putting my art in front of people was daunting but a great opportunity. Not just to sell it, but to make connections with people who share a common interest and love of art

  • Finally, go the extra mile! Visitors are guests and without exception I found them to be delightful, complimentary and interesting. In fact I found many of the questions stimulated self reflection and clarity in my own thinking. If they are buying my art, I tried to ensure they were sure about their purchase, were happy with the colour of the frame, for example and if I had an alternative, we tried it out. I also arranged to deliver pieces that needed finishing, and didn’t take payment until they had seen the finished painting and were happy with it. It’s my sincere hope that all my visitors will have had a positive experience in my studio and will be happy to return.

There has been so much to celebrate this weekend. I was thrilled to hear and see people connect with my art, who recognised and shared my inspiration and the emotion in my art work. But it has delivered so much more.

My community has grown - I met many of my neighbours for the first time. I met local artists who share my aspirations to grow their practice and businesses. I met generous art group leaders who were eagerly looking for new ways to develop their art. I saw friends see me in a different light and introduced my husband to a new world of creatives.

If you’re thinking about participating in a similar event, just go for it. It might just be fabulous!

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