Best Practices for Setting Up and Selling Your Art at Conventions
In case you don’t know me, my name is Sam Flegal, and I’m a con artist. By this I mean I sell my art at conventions and have been doing so since 2009. I do between 15 to 25 shows a year. I’ve seen a lot, and learned a lot about doing conventions as an artist. As a member of PACT, I’ve been asked to share some of the things I’ve learned.
For the purpose of this article, I’m going to assume that you’re a genre artist with an interest in setting up a booth and selling your art at conventions. That said, before you plan on selling your art at a convention, you should go to a convention or two as an attendee. The best starting experience you can get is to go to cons and check out how other artists and vendors have tackled the problem of set up, signage, and sales. Take notes and photos (with permission) of the things you like and think work well, in addition to the things you’d rather avoid.
Once you’ve gotten a few conventions under your belt, you should be ready to jump in! The first thing to evaluate is how will you sell your art, and at what price. Prints and originals are the most common, but merchandise with your art on it can work well, too. Regardless of what you plan to sell, you will want to make sure to have a sign with the price clearly displayed. If you are going to sell originals, having each piece labeled with a printed price tag is also key. Remember, handwritten signage and prices make people think of a yard sale, where stuff is cheap and all prices are negotiable. There’s a reason every major store in America has printed price tags and signs. It works! Take the extra effort to add value to your appearance at a convention.
The next step is to consider how you plan to display your merchandise and set up your booth. It’s important to have something behind you; otherwise, your booth will look empty. The easiest method is to purchase a banner and banner stand. Make sure your name, website, and best piece of art all appear on your banner. Most conventions provide you with a 6-8 ft. table, but often do NOT provide a tablecloth. A black sheet is a cost-effective way to have your own tablecloth. In order to display your art, get a few small easels for the pieces you want to feature, and a small bin to hold your other prints. Once you’ve gotten everything, practice setting it all up at home before the show. Best to avoid surprises on site!
The last couple of things you’ll need, at a bare minimum, are business cards and a portfolio. Make sure your business cards have your name and contact info. I like to put a painting on the back. I also like to have a leave behind piece to give to Art Directors and other folks who might give you a job. I print my portfolio in little books for this purpose.
When deciding what prints to bring, there is a lot to consider. Just because a painting is a favorite of yours or even loved by your Art Director doesn’t mean it will sell at cons. Deciding what prints to sell is something every artist struggles with. Unfortunately, the best way to learn is to get out and do it. In order to start you’ll need to have prints. There is no easy answer, but I can offer some basic advice.
My recommendation is to pick 6-10 of your favorite portfolio pieces and have prints made. Doing ten prints of each should be a good start (you shouldn’t have to invest too much, and hopefully won’t get stuck with lots of extra prints). After you do a few shows and see what sells, you will better know what prints you need to bring more of. I recommend sticking to standard frame sizes for your art. 11”x17” and 12” x16” are the most popular sizes. A good starting price is $15. You will also want bags and backing boards for your prints.
Now it’s time to go to the convention! One item that will help a lot is a hand truck. You can get a small one for about $25 at the hardware store, but I strongly recommend investing in the larger sturdier hand truck at around $80. It’s not uncommon for a convention’s loading zone to be far away from your booth. Save yourself the trouble and heartache of lugging art precariously through a show, only to drop some prints (or an original) and damage it all because you got the small hand truck.
Once you’re all set up with your nice looking booth, great merchandise, and proper signage you’ll find that the hard work is far from over. The reality of conventions is that you have just set up a sales booth and you are its main employee. It’s up to you to sell your own work; just having a booth is not enough. I’ve seen amazingly talented artists fail because they did not engage the customers. In contrast, I’ve seen average artists sell a ton of art all because they hustled on the sales floor.
At conventions there is a ton of cool stuff competing for the attendees’ time and attention. You are competing with games, toys, and attractive people in cool costumes, at the very least! The best practice I’ve found is saying “Hi” and acknowledging everyone who passes your booth. My sister helps me at some cons, and she is amazing at engaging people. I’ve seen her go from complimenting an attendee’s purse to selling a print in no time flat!
Once you’ve gotten their attention, the next thing is to steer the conversation to your art. A great way to do this is to say your name and tell them, “I am the artist.” The typical response you will get is, “You drew all these pictures?” From there you can say, “Yes” and ask them which one they like. Keep the conversation about your art as much as possible.
Finally, one of the toughest things is to ask for the sale. “Can I bag that up for you?” “Did you want that print you liked so much?” “Which print are you getting today?” It’s hard, but it works. Over time, you will develop your own sales style. When you’re getting started the most important thing is to have fun. If you look like you’re having a good time then people will approach you. If you sit down, arms crossed, looking pissed because you’re not selling stuff, people will avoid you.
Good luck! Hopefully I’ll see you at the next convention!
Sam has been a freelance Illustrator since 2009. Working for both book covers and hobby games, Sam’s preferred medium is oil paint. In addition to his art Sam also does between 15 and 25 conventions every year. This has become a major part of his business and provides both a platform to meet fans and collectors, but also a great opportunity to peruse the art that Sam loves to make, which currently includes Sam's deep love for Norse Mythology.
Sam is putting on a four day workshop that focuses on the business of art and sales. The faculty includes Justin Gerard, Annie Stegg Gerard, Sean Andrew Murray, Peter Mohrbacher, and Kelly McKernan. It will be held in Nashville, TN, November 5th-8th, 2015.
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