Blog / 2017 / How Artists Decide What to Sell and What to Give Away

May 12, 2017


I can’t pay you, but I’ll make sure that everyone who comes to my house knows that you did the work.

It’s an old joke but a good one. Artists aren’t like professionals in any other field, because, unlike everyone else in the working world, you’re expected to give away the results of your labor, to toil for the promise of exposure.

Sometimes it seems like no one takes art-making seriously, but just because earning money as an artist is more complicated than being a plumber doesn’t mean it’s impossible. The difficulty lies in figuring out an acceptable business model, not in executing it. All you really need is a solid understanding of your paywall.

Recognizing your paywall

Every artist uses a paywall to make money. Each artist employs it in their own way, depending on the work they make and the way the artist wishes to interact with their audience, but all artists use it, even those who don’t know what a paywall is.

The best-known example of the paywall is the news media site that publishes the beginning of an article on the World Wide Web, but, if you want to read the full text, you must pay. This “partial share + toll booth” technique looks a little different for artists than it does for journalists, but the means for getting paid is basically the same. Artists don’t usually show half of a painting and ask for money before revealing the rest, but they do share certain formats of their art to promote their oeuvre, while withholding others for payment.

An obvious example of these different formats is in the way we distinguish between reproductions online and physical reproductions. Most artists give away images of their work on the internet, allowing the art to be viewed, enjoyed, and even saved, all for free, but that same work as a greeting card costs money. It’s one artwork, but two formats. The first, the online reproductions, are in the free zone outside the paywall, while the second format, the physical reproductions, are inside the paywall.

Justyne Fischer’s art
Justyne Fischer’s art

Intricacies of real-world paywalls

There’s never just one right place to build your paywall and plenty of artists challenge the “online = free” way of thinking. Justyne Fischer, a printmaker and art educator based in DC, chooses to watermark some of her images as a way to help Websurfers trace the art back to her site. This kind of tagging can be innocuous or over the top depending on how it’s done, but it’s always a paywall, because the viewer cannot enjoy the image without the overt marketing text getting in the way.

Holly Bass, a multidisciplinary performance and visual artist also based in DC, takes a different approach. She allows her online images to be freely saved, but she is careful about what she shares, publishing only low resolution versions of her images and short clips from her videos.

Also, instead of trying to make money from all physical reproductions of her work, Bass, like many artists, gives away postcards and other promotional materials. Though this deviates from the “prints = paying” logic, it still makes sense, because a physical reproduction freely given can be an excellent way to connect with your viewers and keep your work in their lives.

Holly Bass’ art
Holly Bass’ art

Your audience and your paywall

It’s your job to figure out when your fans need you to give away your art and when they are happy to pay for it. A good place to start decoding your audience’s needs is with a solid understanding of who your fans are in a financial sense. An artist’s audience always includes these four types:

  1. People who won’t pay.
  2. Your first reaction may be to write off this group entirely. Their refusal can certainly come across as rude, but a second look at the people who don’t pay may surprise you, because this group probably includes you, definitely includes me, and almost certainly includes everyone else as well.

    Many of us are online every day, looking at images, being inspired, and ignoring that artists are not being compensated for this use of their work. Also, we often enjoy art for free in the form of work presented at public venues. We may be paying for this art without knowing it when our tax money goes to community programs or grants, but we still have access to this art essentially for free.

    Additionally, Bass points out that the money which pays for these public displays sometimes fails to reach the artists. Institutions compensate the curators and designers who create the exhibitions and promote them, but the contributing artists are often asked to accept publicity in lieu of a fee. Organizations like Working Artists and the Greater Economy as well as artists like Bass are trying to shift the paradigm of payment via exposure that has served museums and similar venues so well, but in the meantime we, the people who don’t pay for art, benefit.

    The fact that we have access to free art is vital to our cultural health and, ultimately, to the health of all artists’ businesses. After all, a world in which every artwork is locked up behind a paywall isn’t just drab. It’s also a world in which no artist can even begin to make a living because, if art isn’t accessible, its value cannot be understood and almost no one will be moved to pay for it.

  3. People who donate.
  4. People who give money to artists without looking for anything in return deserve special recognition. Their contributions recognize the importance of keeping art free, while also acknowledging that artists must be compensated

    Still, many artists are uneasy about accepting gifts. Art may truly be priceless, but a donation-based business model brings it a little too close charity for some. Bass has confronted the awkwardness of donations head-on in her performance piece Moneymaker, which requires viewers to pay cash in order for each segment to continue. This fearless investigation of art and compensation has clearly served Bass well, as she has run multiple successful crowdfunding campaigns. Bass notes that soliciting and accepting donations is hard work, requiring you to hone your message and be very present for your audience. She also acknowledges that crowdfunding can be easier than asking for dollars directly and that many art lovers prefer to support a specific project.

    However it’s done, making room for donors to give is something that every artist can explore. Donations make it possible to put more formats of your art in the free zone where they can reach a wider audience.

  5. People who browse before buying.
  6. Most of us are used to seeing what we’re buying before deciding to make the purchase, and potential art patrons are no different. If you are still having trouble cuddling up to the notion that art should be mostly free, the browsers might convince you to create special formats of your work that exist outside of your paywall. You’re probably already doing it by sharing your art freely online, so the fun is in discovering new ways of showing your art to the people who like to see before they spend.

  7. People who buy.
  8. Buyers clearly respect the work that goes into art-making and their existence is a balm to every artist’s soul. Of course, while artists are busy adoring these patrons and bemoaning the fact that there aren’t more of them, it’s easy to forget that these buyers are sometimes browsers or donors and maybe even people who don’t pay. In other words, a buyer may be acquiescing to your paywall in this instance, but it’s only because you have repeatedly invited them to enjoy your work without paying for it.

Art education and making a living as an artist

Whether an artist considers herself a teacher or not, a large portion of every creativevs output takes the form of art education because teaching and marketing overlap. Some artists use blogs to show their audience their process, nurturing relationships with regular posts that may not make money directly but instead foster interest in the paid formats of their work. Other creatives share their art by giving artist talks or speaking at schools. Whenever artists teach about their work or art in general, they’re selling art as worthwhile, as something that can be practiced and enjoyed by all.

Of course, just because art education is a kind of marketing doesn’t mean it must always be free. Fischer teaches high school art, meaning she clearly keeps much of the art education that she does behind a paywall. Meanwhile, the painter Bob Ross, whose big-haired and bighearted tenure on the Public Broadcasting Service began in the 1980s, put a good deal of his teaching in the free zone. The “happy trees” painter provided his popular Joy of Painting program to PBS free of charge because he originally conceived of it as an advertisement for his local painting classes. In other words, while Ross kept his in-person classes along with the instructional videos and books that he eventually published behind his paywall, the on-air teaching—the bulk of his art education and the stuff that made him famous—could be enjoyed for free.

Neither of these methods for making it work as an artist who educates is better than the other. The artists’ choices reflect their access, the technology of the time, and their preferences, and, though their approaches are different, the result is the same. They use their paywall in a way that gets the job done.

The original giveaway

While variable paywalls might make sense for teaching and reproductions, you might think a hard line could be drawn for original artworks. Artists should always be paid for the objects they make with their own hands, right? The answer, as with everything to do with paywalls, is a resounding “maybe.”

Like many artists, Fischer occasionally gives away her art and this generosity in no way damages the value of her work when she sells it. Meanwhile, Bass’ career requires a different approach. As an established performance artist who has only recently moved into the realm of object-making, Bass charges for originals and is working to make these sales a larger part of her income.

Wherever you build your paywall, it will be right for you, and, if it’s not, you can always move it. You don’t need to have every aspect of your business model mapped out before you begin. You just need to remember that making a career as an artist isn’t about making money on each interaction.

Society may view art as priceless but it also puts plenty of pressure on artists, questioning them mercilessly about their work in a way that it would never question a plumber. In this environment, it can be difficult to keep up your confidence, but, when you truly know your worth, you also know that sometimes the best way to make money is to share freely.


This article was originally published in Professional Artist magazine, which I don’t write for anymore.

Maybe this post made you think of something you want to share with me? Or perhaps you have a question about my art? I’d love to hear from you!


To receive an email every time I publish a new article or video, sign up for my special mailing list.


If you enjoyed this post, Ko-fi allows you to donate. Every dollar you give is worth a bajillion to me!