A still from the RPS merch page
As the title implies, this is a shameless plug. Over the summer, Roc Paint Sip launched a merch page with apparel designed featuring my artwork. I’ll have a link at the end of this post, because after all, what’s a plug without a direct way to buy stuff. As with any merchandise or swag, promotion is the principal intent. It can promote a business, highlight a brand or a band or anything else you have on hand. I promise that’s the last rhyme, this won’t read like a Dr. Suess book.
The whole process got me thinking about how fine artists utilize their art to promote themselves. For folks that don’t have the resources to purchase an original artwork at a 3–4-digit clip, prints, posters or maybe stationary for a fraction of the cost may be an affordable option. Over the last fifty years, artists can print their unique images on an assortment of products like coffee mugs, garments, and the like. As the technology has advanced so has the range of products available to create a marketplace of unique designs. For example, the process of sublimation printing is now available which uses heat and pressure to transfer a special ink to the material. This process allows for an image to be printed all over the surface area of a piece of clothing such as a tee shirt, instead of a conventional silk-screened image across a portion of the front or back of the shirt.
There is an entire industry dedicated to printing personalized images on customized products. Artwork can be printed on home décor products like curtains and pillow cases, or car accessories and of course anything wearable. Then these customized products can be sold online and available globally or locally in boutiques, or at art fairs and flea markets. Printed merchandise makes art accessible to those who couldn’t otherwise afford original artwork, and at the same time is advertisement for those that might be interested in buying original art. The profit goes directly to the artist with no middleman. With a small mark-up on a tee-shirt, there is a profit to be made on every shirt sold. Of course, it’s a fraction of the profitability of an original painting that would sell for a much higher value. However, the artist is in control of how and where their art is being sold, and is no longer at the mercy of a gallery, hoping like hell something sells only to wind up splitting the proceeds with the gallery.
So, let’s say a $500 painting hanging in a gallery for a month, is sold. The reality is if the painting sells at all, the gallery’s commission is somewhere around 50% of the selling price. That same artist could spend $200 on an inventory of affordable merch like tee shirts, hats, mugs, or posters and sets up shop at a local weekend pop up flea market along with original paintings for sale. They could make $500 in two days with proper profit margins. Now, I know you’re thinking, that’s barely breaking even by the time you factor in the initial investment, time, and space fees at that market. However, doing 2 or 3 fleas or fairs a month in conjunction with the online store, suddenly could become profitable. Plus, you just might find a buyer for that $500 original painting.
As an artist, now you control your narrative. You’re no longer a starving artist waiting and hoping for a gallery to accept you with the narrow possibility of a piece or two selling. Instead, you’re a bonified working artist and sudden fashion designer. This still may not be your only source of income, but you are indeed making money off your artwork. And if you chose to work even harder, it could become a fulltime job. Your art is now a business and not a hobby, isn’t that what you always wanted?
Let’s drill down on this a little more. For those that don’t know, art is a billion-dollar global industry, from paintings in modest little local galleries to 40-million-dollar Rothko’s. Think about all the funding from local municipalities and Federal grants that support artists and art organizations. Think about how major galleries and museums like the Museum of Modern Art or the Louve make millions every year selling merch from their collections. They are selling the same products that you would at the humble little art fair, like hand bags, garments, and anything else they could put an image on.
Just a couple of the thousands of "Starry Night" products that are out in the world
So, that got me thinking about the artists of the past and throughout history. What if they had a way to sell merch of their artwork? Vincent Van Gogh never could have imagined that his work would be worth billions and Starry Night would become arguably one of the most famous paintings in the history of the civilized world with the likes of the Mona Lisa and the Sistine Chapel. Having that image plastered on everything everywhere. People who know nothing about art, know Starry Night. The difference being both Michaelangelo and DaVinci were sponsored most often by very wealthy patrons and or the Roman Catholic Church, whereas Van Gogh painted in a life of obscurity where he never sold any of his work in his short but prolific life.
Imagine for a moment if Van Gogh had the chance to make postcards or handbills for the bars and taverns he frequented. What if he found a ceramicist to put his work on pottery or dishes? A frequent letter writer, what if he printed a line of stationary? Perhaps he could have hired a silk screener to print his work on textiles or a local printer to use his press to make calendars or posters. Suddenly, people are seeing his work, perhaps developing a taste for it, creating a popularity for his works, now catching the eye of rich patrons who want to purchase an original. No middleman, no gallery taking a cut of the commission. The whole trajectory of Van Gogh’s life would have been very different. He would no longer be a pauper living in shambles, instead, he’d be earning a modest living as a working artist. He would have created working relationships with other craftsmen and businesses to promote his art. He would have a feeling of worth instead of helplessness. His work ethic and tireless drive to paint would fuel the fire of a successful entrepreneur instead of the frustration of trying to get the attention of galleries. Imagine, suddenly, he saved a little scratch and could afford to go to Tahiti with his drinking buddy Gaugin. What kind of art would Vincent have painted there? Could you imagine the flowers, the landscapes, and the indigenous people he would have painted?
Pie in the sky? Yes. Would it diminish the integrity of the art? Perhaps. I’m pretty sure that any artist doesn’t make art for the money, however, having people appreciate their creative endeavors by purchasing their work in whatever form, whether it hangs on a wall or is worn on your back, is just as gratifying to the artist’s soul as their wallet.
A few of any number of the Picasso products that exist
A piece of furniture featuring Three Musicians
By Pablo Picasso
For comparison, take someone with a bigger ego and far shrewder attitude, like Picasso. He too was so prolific and had monumental success selling his work which was shown all over the world. What if he decided to market his work so that everyone had access to it without the sophisticated elitism? What if he spent some of his earnings on starting a brand based on his art working with textile mills, furniture manufacturers, and screen printers to produce a wide variety of items to create, in essence, Picasso Inc. Pick an artist, any artist, and give them the ability to manage their own financial gain without agents and galleries to control how their art is consumed. Again, I know historically speaking, artists were at the mercy of the technology and manufacturing methods available.
It doesn’t escape me that artists are focused on the intellectual and cultural significance of their work, or the overall integrity of their creative inspirations. But, don’t think for one minute that an artist doesn’t want to be paid for those heady endeavors, more so than if they had curried favor of a stuffy art critic.
A Perfect Retreat
By Thomas Kinkade
Maison Mountain Lake
By Thomas KinKade
Some modern contemporaries built financial empires by parlaying their art into a cornucopia of products. The irony is, their art is trite but the imagery is something that people want to own. Take for example Thomas Kinkade, the self-proclaimed “Painter of Light.” You’ve seen his work, particularly around Christmas time, it’s the overly sappy landscapes of country cottages with dense soupy pastel-colored skies. He made an entire catalog (I use that term lightly) that somehow struck a chord with the consumer’s collective consciousness. Everything from greeting cards and holiday decorations to collector plates and door mats. You name it, and there’s a product with Thomas Kinkade’s completely mundane art on it. To further his commercial success, Thomas Kinkade Inc. partnered with the likes of other equally nauseating franchises such as Disney and Harry Potter to generate millions a year in sales. Let’s not forget that there’s collectors of his original art with pieces selling for five figures at auctions.
A Bob Ross costume for your dog
Bob Ross Chia Pet
Another artist that has been converted into a global corporation is Bob Ross. Generic landscapes done in 30 minutes over an eleven-year span and 400 TV episodes. Starting as a TV program on PBS in Muncie, Indianna, it soon got a firm groundswell of viewers that led to the national syndication of The Joy of Painting. Monetizing the popularity of Bob Ross was easy, starting with a line of art supplies that pandered to people who were encouraged to paint along as they watched the 30-minute episode.
Ross was worth about 10 million dollars before he succumbed to cancer in 1995. Bob Ross Inc. (BRI) was later acquired by Annete Kowalski and her daughter Joan after a lengthy and ugly court battle with Ross’s two sons. Then the floodgates opened on Bob Ross merchandise. Everything from Halloween costumes and breath mints to Chia pets and novelty tees, with none of the proceeds going to the Ross family. Kowalski is now sitting on a cash cow (with a perm) worth over 30 million dollars and growing. To add insult to injury, the first painting Bob Ross did for PBS sold for 9.85 million dollars by the Minneapolis Museum of Modern Artifacts. BRI, under Joan Kowalski’s leadership, owns over 1100 paintings that are stashed away in a vault in an undisclosed location. The number of actual paintings owned by Kowalski is likely three times that since Ross would paint three paintings for each episode, one for reference, one during taping, and one that would be used to catalog work. The Smithsonian Museum did receive a couple of Ross’s paintings that were donated by Kowalski. The remaining paintings are kept under wraps by Kowalski and BRI and are released one or two at a time per year for auction.
These days artists can create products at price points to get themselves noticed as they try to promote their original art. And yes, art is business, big business. So, creating something like an online merch marketplace is like creating a startup within a startup. I’m just saying it’s easier now, more than ever, for an artist to market themselves.
In the end, as artists, we desire at the very least exposure and at best to profit from our art. So, I invite you to have a look around my merch page, no pressure. The next time you have an opportunity to go to an art festival or flea market, check out the local artists and what they have to offer. With the holiday season fast approaching, look to sites like Etsy that support unique gifts from a wide variety of artists and craftspeople. Seek out local artists, they’re everywhere. Patronize their talents and wares. It’s the mere definition of supporting the arts in your community. Anyone who sets out to be an artist isn’t usually looking for fame or fortune, and if they are, they’re going to be sadly disappointed. Not to sound corny, but it is a calling. It’s a search for relatability of human emotion and self-expression. It’s attempting to isolate beauty if only for a moment, it’s giving a voice to the deepest parts of our thoughts and feelings. Isn’t that a just cause worthy enough of a drive-by my merch page?