"An art student must be a master from the beginning; that is, he must be master of such as he has. By being now master of such as he has there is promise that he will be master in the future." - Robert Henri
Greetings, adventurer! If you're reading this, you are one of the brave few who have taken the initiative to seize an opportunity to venture out into a brand new era of art. However, each opportunity comes with its requirements and demands. Are you up for the challenge? Do you have what it takes?
Many artists lack the basic skills and frameworks needed to stay afoot and adapt to rapid change. Despite their best efforts, they find themselves quickly overwhelmed by the difficulties of needing to navigate a rapidly evolving landscape. It can be easy to feel lost and hopeless in such a situation, but it doesn't have to be so difficult!
School has trained you to sit down, shut up, fit in, and obediently answer their questions. That won't work anymore. If you want to succeed in this new era, you'll need to learn how to stand up tall, speak up, make a difference and start asking better questions. This short guide aims to give you a few principles and frameworks that you can use to navigate a changing world.
“It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.” - Bilbo Baggins
People can't buy your artwork if they don't know it exists. There's no way of being successful as an artist if people don't know who you are or what you've done. And so, you have to communicate, using all the tools at your disposal, before you can get any interest that can then be turned into a sale. This section will present a few basic heuristics and frameworks that will help you navigate the complexity of sales and marketing as an artist.
Let's start with the most basic question, yet one that is seldom answered; Why do people buy NFTs at all? Well... for the same reason someone might buy a bright yellow power drill. If that doesn't make sense, let me explain. People buy a bright yellow power drill to make a hole in the wall. In other words, what people want isn't the power drill, but the hole it can make.
The bright yellow power drill is a means to an end.
Except, nobody really wants a hole in the wall. We can still dig deeper. What they really want is the shelf that will go on the wall. No... what they really want is how they'll feel when they see their workspace all tidy and uncluttered. The peace of mind and satisfaction that will come from knowing their workspace is all clean and in order.
Or perhaps, even the increase in status, and the feeling of admiration and connection they might receive when they show their fancy new workspace to their peers over social media.
People don't want the bright yellow power drill. Instead, they want peace of mind, safety, they want to feel respected. Feelings - that's what they're buying. A Bored Ape Yacht Club, a plastic anime figure, and a bright yellow power drill are all bought for very similar reasons.
People buy things for how things will make them feel. Desires for status, connection, and emotion. At its core, we sell feelings.
Let's quickly examine another fundamental part of the sale; currency. What is currency? Well, currency is tokenized value.
The development of currency is an important one - it's inconvenient to drag your cows and belongings around with you every time you want to make a trade. What if you only have a single cow, but you want to trade for something worth far less; e.g. a tiny fish?
And so we fractionalized and tokenized the value of the cow, to facilitate the human exchange of value. One cow is now worth 50 seashells. Tokenized value started to evolve. Seashells evolved into coins, coins to paper notes, and fast forward to today, we now have various currencies like Ethereum and FIAT cash.
But what is value? We can still benefit from taking a further step back. Value is an abstraction; the representation of the human desire and emotion within the value exchange.
Currency, therefore, is tokenized human emotion. We sell emotion, and we gain tokenized emotion in return.
At its core, selling is about a transference of emotion.
Food for thought: Is DeFi ( decentralized finance ) the infrastructure for the free flow and exchange of human emotion within a culture? What do high-friction, highly-centralized, corrupt money systems do to the emotional landscape within a culture?
The lesson here is simple and obvious; don't ever try to sell a person something that they do not want nor need. It's common to see a 3D artist trying to sell his 3D Pepe to an anime collector. Or, the anime artist shilling her art to a collector who has a taste for very different things. This isn't just horribly ineffective, it also signals selfishness and a clear lack of respect and empathy. When you try to sell your hair shampoo to bald men, you fail to recognize that collectors are human, too.
Other people have their own unique tastes, needs, and wants. Limited time, attention, and resources to spend. In treating them as nothing more than a money-bag, you objectify and de-humanize them.
Stop trying to sell to everyone - if you really are selling something that anyone could buy, you're likely selling toilet paper or some other cheap, everyday commodity that anyone would buy. Don't treat your art like toilet paper - start to treat your art, and others, with respect and empathy. Stop selling shampoo to bald men.
There's an old tale that the best salesman can sell ice to an Eskimo. While this may be true, this manipulation is not sustainable. Your audience isn’t there for you or your art - they're only there because they've been manipulated. They're often gone the next day because they never cared about you or the work, to begin with. More importantly, such manipulation is selfish, greedy, and lacks integrity.
Learn to be yourself. Never manipulate nor pretend to be something else. That way the people you attract are there for you, rather than some façade you have to maintain.
"Say what you have to say, not what you ought. Any truth is better than make believe." - Henry David Thoreau
The opposite of a selfish mass-marketing approach is to use empathy to understand who your work is really for. Stop looking to get your work seen by the largest possible audience and instead ask; "What is my smallest viable audience? What is the smallest market I can survive on?"
Unless you can first accept that your work will not be for a majority, you will not be able to find the freedom to connect with those the work is really for - these are two sides of the same coin.
The goal is not more followers. The goal is to start by connecting with the people your work is for. Seek genuine human connection, not an indifferent, large following.
Seek to capture more hearts, not more eyes.
Often, you don't need thousands or millions of followers to succeed. You just need to connect with the right people - the people your work is for. Ignore everyone else. Find your minimum viable audience.
Seeking to understand your minimum viable audience goes a very long way.
Old but gold - this essay by Kevin Kelly titled ‘1000 true fans’ has helped creatives for over a decade make a living by teaching them to focus on the concept of a ‘minimum viable audience’.
"I am not interested in art as a means of making a living, but I am interested in art as a means of living a life." - Robert Henri
It is important to never mix the worth of your art with how much it sells for - these things are SEPARATE. Amid a busy, noisy marketplace it can be easy to lose sight of what is important, and instead be distracted by the flashiest, most salient things; the sales and numbers.
When distracted from what's important, it's easy to self-doubt and wonder if your art sucks when it doesn't make a sale or earn as much as other art you see - and in your frustration, you start to make compromises with your art.
Over the long run, the need for monetary validation will only hurt the artistic process and prevent you from doing your best work. To do your best work, you need to separate the selling from the art. If you mix the two, both will suffer. Keep business as business, and keep art as art. Taking the middle road is often the quickest path to mediocrity as an artist.
Besides, judging art by how heavily it is monetized is nothing short of ridiculous. When a friend makes you a gift of artwork, is it 'bad, worthless art' because it has not been monetized? It is often the opposite; a priceless, valuable artistic gesture. I can listen to Shunsuke Sato direct the most beautiful interpretation of Vivaldi's 'Winter' for free, yet it is one of the most masterful, beautiful things on the internet. These things are SEPARATE.
"Value creation transcends sales and exchange." - Michael Schrage
An uncountable number of factors can and will influence the sale; most don’t even have anything to do with the artistic content. Sometimes, you might not have connected with the right audience yet. Sometimes, the people who want to buy your art may all just be out fishing, or they might have missed the announcement completely. Heck, sometimes they don't even care about the art; they might be trying to buy clout, status, or a very good excuse to slide into your DMs - because of your cute smile.
Generally, the most valuable artwork will be sold as an investment asset or a symbol of status; these things often have nothing to do with the artistic merit of the individual pieces. ( It helps to understand that you're not even selling the artwork anyways. Often, what's up for sale is a form of artificial digital scarcity - the artist’s digital signature. )
Of course, there is no doubt that there you can draw correlations between the artwork and the sale. When you consistently stay "on-brand", follow trends, and make art that appeals more widely to collectors, you will likely increase the prospects of a sale. But be warned - the middle road is a highway to mediocrity. The cart should never be placed in front of the horse, and the means should never become the end. You should use your tools and opportunities - not become the tool of your tools. Yet, a majority of artists have trained themselves to suppress their artistic impulses to fit into more widely acceptable boxes.
If you compromise too often, you'll start to wish that people start paying every time your art makes them smile. Compromise too often, and before long you will no longer stop to admire the flowers and bloom of the present moment, undermining the very wonder for life that makes you an artist.
When it's time to do art, do art. When it's time to sell, sell. Learn to separate the two. Set yourself free from the need to produce specific outcomes that fit neatly into a pre-conceived box, and have fun with the process. When you're done, you can look back on what you've made and only then, start to think about how you might sell it.
If you really insist on having something to count, count the smiles you make, and the number of lives you have meaningfully impacted and inspired.
"If one is a painter this purest freedom must exist at the time of painting." - Robert Henri
No, it isn't time. Nor is it energy, connections, or your lack of money and resources. Beneath all the constraints facing your career that you can list, lies an even more fundamental constraint. It's you.
BETTER is not something you wish for, it's something you become. Who you are got you here, and unless you change how you are, you'll always feel the same way and have what you've got. You can start to change all things for the better once you start to change yourself for the better.
Better ambitions have to do with the development of character and ability, rather than seeking further wealth, status or fame. After all, you are at the root of all 'your' constraints. Imagine for a moment how much more might change in your life if you were tremendously more skilled, disciplined, patient, and focused.
All the opportunity in the world is of little use if you cannot leverage the opportunities available to you, and in a world where people are becoming increasingly distracted and addicted, a skilled and focused individual starts to become increasingly rare and valuable and can make disproportionate amounts of opportunity. Skill is far rarer than talent - skill is earned.
At the start, just try to be the best. While it's unlikely that you'll become the next Michelangelo, you can certainly become the best within your niche, and the best at what you do. The magic trick with great, purposeful ambitions is that even when you fail at your ambitious goal, it's very hard to fail completely.
Learn to work harder on yourself than you do on your job. After all, everything else is a reflection of who you are. Learn to aim at what is meaningful, rather than what is expedient. Do these, and often everything else will naturally fall into place. It can be very easy to overcomplicate things, but there’s a simple solution;"Be so good they can't ignore you"
Here's a fool-proof, roadmap for all artists to follow... there isn't one! If there was a map to follow, there would be no art. Artists make CHANGE, and real change only happens outside the map. To be an artist is to navigate without a map.
The search for a guaranteed, safe and predictable map to follow is the end of possibility, not the beginning of it. The moment you find the courage to embrace the unknown, let things happen, and explore uncharted territory, is the moment possibility begins. The act of creativity is unpredictable, messy, and often chaotic - that's the whole point!
Paradoxically, competition is always at extreme levels when looking for a safe, guaranteed recipe to follow - because that's what everyone else is doing too. An entire society of people trained to fit into boxes, follow orders, and walk along the same old safe, predictable paths. Besides, in a rapidly changing landscape, the boxes are outdated the next day; the riskiest thing you can do is look for guaranteed, predictable routes to follow.
What's rare is initiative. People with the initiative to embrace possibility and risk failure, not more office workers who repeat the same "Ten-step recipe to success". We need people with courage... real artists. The risk of failure is something to seek, not something to avoid. Of course you're not sure it's going to work; It's new, different, and unpredictable! The risk of failure should be an encouraging sign that you're doing something that most wouldn't dare attempt.
We're tired of seeing the same old predictable answers - show us something interesting, fresh, new, different! Unless you can first find the courage to walk away from the crowd, you will NEVER find the freedom to be your best self - they are the same thing.
Here's an important lesson from biology; the human niche... is the ability to swap niches! Yet, everyone does the exact opposite. We take the opposite to an extreme and confine the rich, infinite possibility of life, into the same old movie-projection boxes; finding a fixed, stable, and safe career then retiring after a few decades of promotions and following instructions.
Stop searching for boxes. Instead, be like water. Drop the need for an answer and instead pick a direction. Each artist should step to the beat of the music they hear, however far away it may be!
"Each genius differs only from the mass in that he has found freedom for his greatness; the greatness is everywhere, in every man, in every child. What our civilization is busy doing, mainly, is smothering greatness." - Robert Henri
“You know that I have always thought it idiotic the way painters live alone. You always lose by being isolated.” - Vincent Van Gogh
You really can't accomplish anything alone. We all rely on others; the people who keep the internet and electricity running, the people who invented and developed language ( so that you could read this ), your entire line of biologically successful ancestors. Humans are social beings.
While large groups and communities fill important societal roles, small groups work far better for effective human communication and connection. For most of history, we evolved and adapted to live in smaller groups, helping and supporting each other. Physiological and psychological limits place effective groups at a size limit of around 150 individuals. Beyond that size, group dynamics often start to shift and change in many ways. The smaller the better!
Make friends! Make friends with people who want the best for you, not people who wish to drag you down to their level, nor people who want to do nothing but shield you from heartache and disappointment. Not everyone wishes to improve, so don't sacrifice yourself by staying in unhealthy relationships. Instead, go off and associate with people whose lives would be improved if they saw your life improve. Friends that will support you and energize you. When you're surrounded by respected peers, you're more likely to do the work you set out to do.
As you engage with others, make stuff you love, and talk about the things you love, you'll start to attract similar people. Often, you WILL need to go out of your way to deliberately connect with people and make friends - after all, most of us artists tend to lean more towards the introverted side of the spectrum.
At the end of the day, while making more sales may be nice, the real treasure to be found is in the friends and memories you make along the way.
ps - Yakiniku and Sukiyaki taste much better when shared with friends you love.
"The One Piece is the friends and memories you make along the way" - This tiny corner of the internet
"Enjoy yourself as much as you can" - Vincent Van Gogh
What is the point of a song? Is it to reach the end of the song? If that were the case, the best pieces of music would be the shortest pieces, and we would all be listening to music that played as quickly as possible. The long and slow pieces of music would be the worst pieces of music.
The point of a dance is not to reach a destination, it is the experience of the dance itself. So why should we treat our art any differently? What is the point of art, if you do not care for the process or experience of art? There are far easier, more lucrative things that you could be doing with your time.
We like to give ourselves the job of a factory worker. After all, we were trained to work this way; to obsess over results, quotas, and destinations. But in doing so, we start to forget the very reason we became an artist in the first place; for the process and experience of art... because it was fun. The point of the music, is the music.
Music records are exactly that; records. They are the record of an experience; The dance of the pianist's fingers on the piano keys. Similarly, your artwork is nothing more than the inevitable outcome of the process of art.
Good results are an inevitable consequence of a good process. However, an obsession with outcomes at the expense of the process, will over time destroy both the work and joy that you find in art until one day you find yourself no longer enjoying art. Focus on the experience, and the outcome will solve itself.
Enjoy your work! If you don't, it’s likely others won't enjoy it either. If we are going to move an audience, we need to be moved ourselves first; you cannot give what you do not have! Pretend you are singing or dancing a picture.
"In order to paint a picture with some life in it, one has to be alive oneself" - Vincent Van Gogh
"WAGMI" is a common phrase in the culture - a seemingly positive, encouraging sentiment. ( We're all going to make it! ) Yet, to the artist, it is a toxic one. Beneath WAGMI lies a subtle implication; you haven't made it yet. Someday, somewhere, you'll make it - but not yet! So keep waiting for that fairytale destination. A destination where all your worries and struggles will cease, and all will be glitter and gold.
And so, you look to the future. "When I have 10 times more followers, or perhaps after 20 more paintings. One day, I’ll start to enjoy art. Someday, somewhere, but not now." In waiting for the music to end, you miss the music entirely. There never was any magical destination. Your artwork is nothing but the inevitable record of a life lived, of the process of art.
You've already made it. You are where you are supposed to be already. Stop waiting and looking for something else, and start to experience the process of art. Life does not magically start one day - it will only ever happen here and now, today. A detachment from the experience is a detachment from life itself. Miss it, and you will have missed life.
The goal is not making art, the goal is living life! Through the dance of art, you deepen your understanding and connection to life and others around you. Stop living with such waste and hurry of life, stop waiting - you'll miss the music!
"After all, the goal is not making art. It is living a life. Those who live their lives will leave the stuff that is really art. Art is a result. It is the trace of those who have led their lives." - Robert Henri
Special thanks to Peter Han, one of my first art teachers, who taught me that art should always be immensely fun. I’d also like to thank Shinjurou for answering all my questions on how to use mirror.xyz and Sau for assisting me in creating the featured artwork.
Disclaimer; while the principles are more timeless, I have used some examples, which can grow outdated;