Fine artist Bill Chisholm has managed to transition from a successful photography career to running his own art business selling his fine art paintings at galleries across the Northeast.
An initial interest in photography in college was a part-time gig for Chisholm, who assisted a photographer that specialized in actor’s headshots and fashion photography. Learning more and more about the art business, Chisholm realized he could build a career in commercial photography. Resting his laurels on constant referral work, Chisholm’s art business both sustained and fulfilled the artist, but an interest in painting sparked his decision to take his career in a new direction.
Chisholm decided to go back to school to develop new painting techniques, though the artist was particularly interested in classical painting. Studying with the Tom Ouellette Atelier and a variety of painters, such as Daniel Sprick and David Kassan, Chisholm, who in his photography career had purposely decided not to develop any one particular photographic style, decided to go another route with his paintings. Painting still-life images on oil and canvas, Chisholm mastered classical painting techniques and opted to create realist artworks that broke from a more conceptual, abstract tendency in contemporary art.
Early on, Chisholm recognized the value of finding his singular style and vision as a painter and focused on driving that vision home. Today, Chisholm works with scores of galleries across the Northeast, with a particular focus on galleries located in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Maine.
Artrepreneur sat down with Chisholm to get some insight into how he managed to transition from a successful run in commercial photography to fine art. Here, Chisholm shares his best strategies for landing gallery representation, and how he learned not to pay attention to his inner doubt.
Find Your Unique Vision as an Artist and Focus on Honing It
NM: You started out in photography by assisting a photographer in his studio. How did your art business progress from there?
Bill Chisholm: I rented a space while I was still in college and got a more elaborate one when I graduated. A lot of my business came through referrals – I got a lot of referrals from modeling agencies, and a lot of times the businesses or brands that worked with these agencies would ask for a recommendation for a photographer who could do X work in a particular style.
NM: Had you developed a signature style by that point?
Bill Chisholm: I hadn’t and I think that was my big mistake with my photography career. I never developed a signature style. I didn’t understand the value of it and didn’t know that it was something that people coveted. So my portfolio had a very wide range, it looked like the models had shot with four different people instead of one person. It wasn’t really giving the agencies the Bill Chisholm mark.
NM: How did that experience influence your work as a painter?
Bill Chisholm: I learned dramatically from the experience when I went into painting. With painting, I learned that no matter what I wanted to paint I would present a very specific portfolio to galleries.
NM: How did you first start selling your work and develop an art business?
Bill Chisholm: I was with a lover at the time and we co-owned a business selling products from the South of France. He was predominantly in charge of it. I started painting and we hung a few of them up because I was inspired a lot by the colors of fabrics from Provence. And one day someone came in and bought eight of them. And I had this ‘aha’ moment of realizing people like these and maybe I can make some money.
NM: How did sales progress from there?
Bill Chisholm: The next big thing I learned about was how to submit to galleries, and I had no awareness at all about all these art fairs that occur both indoors and outdoors. I had a friend who was painting full time, he would travel primarily in the Northeast in summer, and south for winter and he gave me a whole list of the shows. So I bought a display booth to show the work and I started doing shows on the road.
NM: How did you find the process of submitting to galleries compared to art fairs?
Bill Chisholm: Most people were not submitting through the internet then, you would drop by or send off. So I would send them off with a basic checklist – are they interested, not at all, or should I check back? And I always included return postage. Initially, that’s how I got into three different galleries.
Devise a Formula for Landing Gallery Representation
NM: Which strategies worked best for landing gallery representation?
Bill Chisholm: The other thing I learned early on once work came online was to trail the artists I was exhibiting with at galleries. I would look at the other artists at the galleries where I was selling, and I would see where else they were showing, and then I would submit to those galleries. I sort of followed the trail.
Whenever I submitted, I included about 20 slides and even that part I had to learn and make mistakes to truly be successful at it. As far as the choice, I tried to pick a range within my body of work that showed a variety of paint handling and accomplishment, and an overall feeling of images. It’s an intuitive choice, but the main thing was not including portraits in submission if I thought they wouldn’t want to sell that.
NM: How do you determine whether you want to join a gallery?
Bill Chisholm: I ask them some basic questions: how often do you want me to call you? What happens if I get a call from a client? If I need a piece for an exhibition can I pull it? Just asking these questions can save a lot of headaches.
NM: What are some of your tips for choosing what to include in a gallery submission?
Bill Chisholm: Each gallery has a different model. When you look at most galleries today, they are packaging artists with a specific look. They’re trying to make a clear distinction for their audience, so when they’re clients come in, it’s very clear what they’re trying to sell. In the classical realist tradition, there are a lot that will show you a full range of what they do. The more contemporary the gallery the less often one would see that happen – so I try and keep that in mind when determining what to send them.
NM: How do you overcome the fear and feelings associated with rejection when seeking gallery representation?
Bill Chisholm: We should talk about that word because I think a lot about this idea of rejection. I think great training for every artist who wants to work with galleries would be to spend three months auditioning for roles. Actors deal with this constantly. And they don’t take it personally because you just can’t. When it’s right, it clicks. Sometimes it might be that the work is lacking, but a lot of times it’s just not the right fit. We’re very spoiled: it’s never been easier to find and submit to galleries. Now, so much of this is online, you can go to their website or Facebook page and see photos from their exhibits and get a sense of who’s seeing the work and get a much broader scope. If we change our brains about what it means to go after a gallery and accept rejection, then we can be a lot more successful.
NM: What are some common missteps and how have you managed them?
Bill Chisholm: When submitting one of the mistakes I made was that I submitted images that were very strong, but I didn’t have those paintings available or I couldn’t create them in a time frame that the gallery wanted them by.
I tend to be extremely clear with my communication with galleries because you have to be careful that you’re not committing to things that you don’t have time for. You want to let your enthusiasm sell the work so you have to be cautious. It’s about knowing where you are with your work and being able to make the commitments.
NM: What kind of role have your collectors played in your success?
Bill Chisholm: If I could do anything differently it would be to have continued those existing relationships all along. Sending a hand written thank you note goes a long long way these days. I have done it but not regularly enough. I have always had a rather hands-off policy, mainly because I don’t want to force a sale. I like to know people are genuinely interested in buying another work first. However, my way was to let them know through e-mail, social media, and being at shows. For my existing clients I continue the relationships but for the galleries, I have been very hands-off because I want to respect their existing relationships with the collector.
Apply Clarity of Vision to Your Art Business
NM: How do you manage your art business? What’s your overall vision for commercial success?
Bill Chisholm: I think the people who I have seen be successful at this have a clear mind and vision. They think about how will they go about their art business. It evolves but there are a lot of well-known painters whose work sells from $10,000 to $40,000 and they’re still out there leading workshops. That sustains them. Others create a lot of work and hustle from gallery to gallery. But I think the more skills we have the better.
NM: What are some of those art business skill sets and how should artists use them?
Bill Chisholm: Painting is only a part of commercial success in an art business. It’s one thing to do the work but most of us have to wear many different hats. Constantly update your website, figure out your accounting. Making sure I track all my expenses, mileage, hotels; there’s quite a range of things we have to do to make a living, and unfortunately, a lot of people only look at painting as their work.
Luckily, the more regularly we do these things the easier it becomes. These platforms are changing quickly and these platforms are getting easier to use, doing a website now is easier, making an online sale is much easier, resizing images is easier, but the regularity is the most important part.
NM: How do you balance creativity with the commercial needs of your business?
Bill Chisholm: As artists, I think it’s important to keep asking, what do we want to paint versus what do we want to sell. I think if we’re going to keep growing we have to ask that question. It’s very difficult for a living artist to get a museum exhibition, and even more so for realist paintings.
There’s always the commercial pressure from galleries to paint what they can sell, and it is our job to keep asking this question. Most of us don’t embark on becoming fine artists to make oodles of money. I think it’s a love affair, and keeping that alive is hard work. Painting something because it makes you money can fizzle that spark.
To learn more about Bill Chisholm, check out his Orangenius profile.