He Uses Data to Boost His Art Sales

Full-time Engineer, James Mertke of San Jose, CA, shows us how he uses creative thinking and data to grow his art business.

Morning artrepreneurs! Welcome to another edition of the Stay Sketchy newsletter.

Please bear with us as we experiment with publishing the newsletter on different days of the week! This week’s is on Tuesday (duh), and you can expect next week’s on Tuedsay or Wednesday - just a head’s up!

This week we’ve got:

Courtesy of James Mertke

📸 Instagram: painting_with_james

🎁 Etsy: PaintingWithJames

When people think of engineers, they might think of someone creative.

After all, engineers are known to design things and think outside the box to solve unique problems.

But I think it’s fair to say that the line gets drawn at calling all engineers artistic.

Though not all engineers are artists, some certainly are. This happens to be the case for James Mertke who runs his own painting business, Painting with James.

James not only received a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, but he went on to get his master’s in it as well.

Diving so deeply into the world of math and science did little to squash James’s more artistic pursuits, however. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

James had always been painting since he was a little kid. He took a few art classes in high school, but he considers himself mostly self-taught. It wasn’t until he began pursuing a bachelor’s in engineering that his passion for painting grew into something more than just a hobby.

In college he began painting more frequently, and in the summer of 2021 he chose to do a “100 days of painting” challenge with the goal of painting something each day for 100 consecutive days.

James documented the journey on Instagram, and the “100 days of painting” quickly turned into “100 days of posting content” too. This was important in James’s growth as an artist as it instilled within him the discipline to paint often and share his work online just as much. James’s skills as a painter also improved during this time, and he carried the new habit into the following school year after completing his 100-day goal.

After realizing he now had over 100 original pieces of art taped to the walls of his bedroom, he decided he needed to start looking into some local art markets to help these paintings find new homes.

Little by little, James has learned how to grow his art business into a serious side hustle that he’s truly passionate about.

He still works as an engineer full-time, but occassionally some elements from the engineering world find their way into his artwork (see picture below).

James was great to talk to and shared a lot of valuable info on how artists, early in their career, can get started. Continue reading to check out these helpful insights!

Courtesy of James Mertke

Tips for Selling at Art Markets

Much like Renata Paton shared with us in an earlier edition of the newsletter, James had some valuable information to share regarding selling art in person at various fairs & markets.

  • Bring a range of products - not too big, but certainly not too small either. When James started, he only brought original paintings with him to his first few markets. This is pretty uncommon and forces customers to buy higher-priced items (if they’re willing to spend for an original piece to begin with). Because of this, James either didn’t get many sales or was forced to lower his prices. Looking back, he wishes he brought prints and other lower ticket items to some of those earlier art markets. James has had particular success (since then) selling post cards.

  • Make use of vertical space. Customers will rarely be drawn to a table where everything is laying flat and the art can’t be seen until they’re standing directly overhead looking down at it. Instead, bring displays that stand your artwork upright, allowing it to be viewed from a distance. Take whatever steps necessary to ensure you’re presenting your work in a way customers will find appealing.

  • Always bring a few original pieces. Even if market attendees aren’t planning on buying an original piece of art, they’ll almost cetainly be drawn to a table that’s featuring some. Sometimes, you can display a large original piece that likely won’t sell, just to get people over to your table and look at all the lower-cost items they’re more likely to buy. Having original work that you can answer questions about also lends you more credibilty in the eyes of the customer and backs up the work shown in the prints and other products on your table.

Courtesy of James Mertke

Don’t Be Afraid to Take Calculated Risks

For a long time, James only submitted applications to sell at art markets with relatively low entry fees.

When his first holiday season came around, he grew anxious about the prices of some of the more popular holiday markets he could apply to. This was because the entry fees were equivalent to what he’d make in an entire day selling at smaller markets up until that point.

He was concerned that if he didn’t at least break even, he was going to actually lose money - possibly hundreds of dollars.

To limit his downside risk, he decided to split the cost of the booth with another artist he met at a previous craft fair. Together, they each shared the space and only had to pay half the total entry fee after being accepted by the organization hosting the event.

Because this event was so well organized, it drew a huge crowd and James ended up doing very well.

It was then that he realized some of the higher-fee events are more expensive for a reason. Most are better organized, promoted to a larger audience, located in ideal parts of town, scheduled conveniently for the public, and much more.

As a side note, James mentioned that it’s a good idea to research a particular art market/event as much as you can before applying to sell as a vendor there. Many events will have their own Instagram/social media pages that will offer an inside look at what you can expect. Footage can sometimes even be found on YouTube after having been posted by artists that have sold at these art markets in previous years.

Learn From Your Sales Data & Use It to Inform Your Decsions in the Future

When we asked James if there was anything he wished he started doing sooner, he replied by saying he regrets not paying closer attention to his sales data earlier on.

James currently tracks how many art markets he goes to and how each piece performs at each event. He monitors online sales figures for his various products as well. If a print is doing well, he orders more of it. If it’s not doing so well, he begins to phase it out.

After noticing that the majority of his income came from events & markets last year, he chose to lean into in-person sales even more and has already sold at 16 events in the first 6 months of 2024 alone.

After each event, he has an opportunity to refine & review his sales data and determine if that particular event was good for him. If his art was particularly well-suited for a given market, he’ll make a note of that and return as a vendor the next time it occurs. If his sales weren’t very good, or the competition among similar artists was too high, he may choose to skip that event next year.

James also suggested artists break their sales data into as many categories as possible to get the most refined view of what’s going on with their business. Early on, James didn’t do this and it was hard for him to see, looking back, what pieces were performing well and through which sales channels.

This year, James is breaking his income down by direct sales, galleries, events, wholesale, and licensing - but he may add more categories if it paints a better picture of how his business is performing.

Connect with Local Businesses In Your Area

This insight has been shared a number of times already in some form or another, but it’s really so easy to take action on and can make a huge impact for artists just starting out.

When James learned that a cafe near his college worked with local artists, he wasted no time reaching out to the owner by email. After speaking with their head of marketing, they agreed that James could display some of his artwork in their shop - and even allow customers to purchase the pieces with no commission owed to the cafe owners.

Each time someone bought a piece, James would see the purchase in Venmo and know to return to the cafe to hang something new in its place.

Cafe patrons enjoyed seeing the art and James was making passive sales, so it was a win-win for everybody involved.

To this day, Voyager Cafe still periodically hosts James’s work, as well as asks him to come by for pop-up events where he’ll sell various products and artwork from a table in front of the store.

Opportunities like these are more readily available than people might think. Keep your eyes peeled for cafes & coffee shops that work to promote local artists in some way. The same goes for bars, restaurants, and even public libraries in some cases.

Sometimes, even if a small business hasn’t yet worked with any local artists, you can make a polite pitch to be the first.

Courtesy of James Mertke

  • When selling at an art market, bring a range of products. Also be sure to make good use of the vertical space in your booth (don’t just lay everything out flat on a table), and bring some original pieces to draw customers in.

  • Don’t be afraid to take calculated risks. Sometimes fronting a bigger entry fee for an art market can yield a much larger payday if you choose the correct event and the weather cooperates.

  • Learn from your sales data and allow it to inform future decisions you make about your business. Tracking how certain pieces in your portfolio perform can tell you what customers want more/less of.

  • Connect with local businesses in your area to see if they’d be willing to sponsor your work. Cafes & restaurants may be happy to display work from a local artist, and in some cases, even market it to their customers for you!

Additional Tidbits
  • James signed up for Faire which is an online wholesale marketplace for artists and small businesses looking to sell their products to retailers in bulk. Retailers can reach out to artists & brands they find interesting and offer to pay a discounted price for a much larger volume of product (prints, stickers, enamel pins, etc.) than individuals would otherwise be buying through an artists Etsy, for instance. The retailer then sells the product at a higher markup in their own store in order to achieve a profit. The goal is to price what you’re selling in a way that still earns you some profit too.

  • Etsy is a great place to start for beginners, but James is hoping to set up his own online store sometime soon. This is, in part, because when people buy his art through Etsy, and someone asks where the item was purchased, the reply is likely to be, “I got it on Etsy” and not “I got it from James Mertke” or “from Painting with James.” This may not be a big deal for some artists, but word of mouth and name recognition can be a great way to get more sales, and selling on Etsy may make that a little more difficult.

  • James has been posting to Instagram every single day for about 2 years now. Even if he’s not painting every day of the week, he’s sure to generate a few pieces of content for each piece of artwork he creates. This is a common trend with all of the previous artists we’ve interviewed. Consistency and regularly sharing your work continues to be an important part of running an art business.

James’s Tech Stack
Why Email Beats Social Media ✉️

Imagine a scenario where the social media account you spent years growing gets hacked.

Maybe it gets suspended on accident, or Instagram changes their algorithm and begins suppressing your content.

In many cases, completely losing access to a social following can be devastating for artists and creators.

Letting the success of your art business be determined exclusively by the whims of social media companies implies huge risk.

The best way to counter this risk, is to create a mailing list of your followers’ email addresses, and to reach out to them occasionally in an email newsletter.

Email newsletters are a professional means of mass communication to your most loyal customers and fans.

Better yet, there is no way for someone to take your mailing list away from you. No algorithm changes will prevent you from communicating directly with these followers of yours.

In this sense you truly own your audience’s attention, whereas on social media, you’re only borrowing their attention (which can be lost at any time).

Email marketing can also drive sales far more effectively than social media can. It’s way easier to sell new art by letting your mailing list know about a new product drop than it is to announce it somewhere on Instagram and hope people rush to your link in bio to buy.

Fortunately, you can start your own mailing list & make your own newsletter on Beehiiv for free - and not for a limited amount of time, but free forever.

If you DO, however, want to take advantage of one of their payed tiers that offer more features, the button below will give you 20% off your first 3 months with Beehiiv after a complimentary 30-day free trial.

Whether you want to send your newsletter weekly, monthly, quarterly, or even just a couple times per year, adding this one feature to your business might be the lowest-effort, highest-return change you ever make!

Creating Mockups in Adobe Illustrator

Showcasing your artwork on product mockups is essential for graphic designers and artists hoping to secure licensing deals with brands.

We’ve talked about the importance of learning this skill in previous editions of the newsletter, but we can’t stress enough how valuable learning to create a good mockup can be.

Adobe Illustrator now has a feature called Mockup (Beta) that makes this process as quick & easy as possible. Where it would have taken hours to create a custom mockup on Photoshop or some other image processing software, the Mockup (Beta) tool will generate an extremely high-quality mockup of your artwork on any surface in seconds.

The video above is a quick 2.5 minute tutorial, but if you want an even faster look at how to use this tool, check out Michael Fugoso’s video on Instagram, here.

Art Business News (that’s not gonna put you to sleep 😴)
  • Is $25,000 enough?🤔 - A new survey shows that the majority of artists living in New York are earning less than $25,000 per year. Most respondents indicated their work was in the visual arts, with other top categories being music, followed by theater. $25,000 per year works out to about $12/hour for a standard 40-hour work week. If you’re making more than this as an artist, it means you’re already out-earning the majority of artists in one of the most famous cities on the planet.

  • Harry Potter and the $1.9M Book Cover🪄 - The original watercolor painting for the first Harry Potter book, the Philosopher’s Stone from 1997, sold at a Sotheby’s auction for $1.9 million. Harry himself had quite the inheritance stored away in a vault at Gringotts Wizarding Bank, but I’m sure even he would gawk at such a number.

Thanks for checking out another edition of Stay Sketchy. Catch you next week! ✌️

If you have any comments or suggestions on how to improve this newsletter, please let us know by commenting below.

As an Amazon Associate and affiliate of various partnership programs, the owner of this publication may receive commissions to linked products or services in this newsletter at no additional expense to the reader.

Join the conversation

or to participate.