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Five Tips for Street Artists
Clouds -- pastel painting by Robert A. Sloan
Tip #1: Get Good Supplies
For doing street art, you need to set up with decent art supplies. Most of this section is geared toward using pastels on paper, the way I did when I was successful as a street artist in New Orleans. But you can use any medium that's portable and you can do a good recognizable artwork of a subject people like in a half hour or less. This includes Bob Ross style wet in wet oil painting, watercolor -- pan sets and waterbrushes are great for street art because it's a fast style, oil pastels, charcoal. Think bold though, your art should be visible from across the street. Pastels are perfect for that.
Use good pastel paper. Many street artists use Canson Mi-Tientes ecause it comes in sixty colors, it comes in six of the best medium-tone colors for loose pastel drawing in pads and three other assortments in letter size pads, it's relatively inexpensive and it has both a weave-texture side and a smooth side. The smooth side is preferred by most artists, but some like using the weave texture to create a "broken color" effect going lightly.
Sanded papers like the Wallis Pro that I used for Clouds are more for studio paintings that you want to be able to spend days on adding layer after layer. Wallis especially chews through pastels fast and you'll use them up and replace them more often, but it's incredible for studio painting. Colourfix is a bit gentler, comes in 20 colors and can be used for both purposes, but is pricy compared to Canson mi-Tientes.
Street sketches need to be done in half an hour -- the average patience of a tourist watching you create one or sitting for a portrait. But if you love the sanded surface and already do pastels, invest in some Colourfix pastel primer -- the pints run under $12 each and cover many, many sheets of watercolor paper before you use up your favorite color.
In either Colourfix primed watercolor paper or pastel papers, choose medium values. Gray, tan, pinkish gray, greens and browns are all good. The idea is to let the paper color become the background and fill large areas in the painting. You'll find out which colors you like best by trying out a variety of them. Some subjects work better on different colors. Use a foam brush to apply two coats of the primer to any brand of watercolor paper -- use Cold Press or Hot Press surface, never Rough -- and you have the inexpensive way to stock up on expensive Colourfix. If you use 100% rag watercolor paper it's the same quality.
I loved Moonstone in the Canson Mi-Tientes because it had a lovely speckled look and the rose-grey color was very flattering to anyone's skin tones. But some people actually look better on a dark green or a strong terra cotta color. Time and practice will let you choose the right surface for a particular subject. Having a palette of colored supports to pick from while you're out working on the street is more fun than always using the same gray.
Another very cost effective surface is archival mat board. Be sure to use the expensive, archival boards. Have them cut to size or if you sensibly buy a mat cutter, get the big full size board and cut it down. You can use all the lovely colors as things to paint on even if galleries prefer plain white or off-white mats for presentation, because they are a great pastel surface. You can also gesso them with Colourfix primer if you love that sanded surface, but be sure to gesso the back too if it warps. Experiment with that.
I used to get scrap mat board free from various French Quarter frame shops because they loved encouraging the artists. We'd sell our drawings and they'd go one block away to a frame shop to get it framed and shipped home. They would put out the scrap in big cardboard boxes next to a lamp post where all of us picked through for good colors, pieces large enough to work on and anything that looked fun. Half the time I didn't even have to buy mat board because I tended to work small.
IStart out with artist grade pastels if you possibly can. One of the best types to use are the "hard" pastels that come in long square sticks such as Color Conte sticks (usually only available in sets), Sanford NuPastel and Richeson hard pastels. These are hard only in relation to other pastels. They're often used for first layers in studio pastel painting because you can add more layers over them. They are as easy to blend and smudge as charcoal though, and they will mix well on the paper.
Color Conte are especially compact. Even the full range 48 color set comes in a small flat sturdy plastic box. It's lightweight and portable, while color Conte blend better than some of the other choices -- the specific colors in the sets are all good mixers so I can get a better range of combination colors faster with the color Conte set than my Nupastels. Don't be fooled by the super brights -- those combine beautifully to create rich neutrals and muted colors that look better than if you picked up a neutral stick to start. I could actually do street sketching well with a 12 color Color Conte set.
Color Conte also comes in a wood box assortment that would be excellent for street sketching, it has 36 of the color sticks and twelve of the regular Conte included plus three of the great Conte sketch pencils and it's in a similarly small, tidy wood box that's easy to carry and impressive when you set it out.
Pastel pencils aren't practical for street sketching unless you have a very linear style. I'd be able to manage with them but it'd take a lot of smudging to cover broad areas. Pan Pastels weren't around when I did the street gig, but I'd use them if I went back to it today -- they are very compact and easily organized, the sponges, painting knives and applicators don't take up much weight or room and they adapt well to color mixing and broad strokes if I use big sponges for everything but the details. I could get my set of 60, full range up till they just came out with 20 more deep darks, plus all my tools into a pretty lightweight bag for a street gig. So those may be useful, if you have them, go for it.
If you don't have much money, start off with a student grade set like Alphacolor, Blick Soft Pastels or Loew-Cornell. But as soon as you can, upgrade to Rembrandt or Color Conte or Nupastel. If you're going to be drawing literally on the sidewalk though, the Alphacolors, Blick or Loew Cornell ones would be great. Fluorescent colors fade rapidly but if it's washing off in the next rain you can use them lavishly.
One exception to the listed student grades at Blick. Yarka Soft Pastels are genuine mineral pigments hand rolled and are actually artist grade -- but the sets do not have the saturated bright colors that American artists prefer. So if you are doing portraits, consider grabbing a set of Yarkas to have lots of good light tints and earth tones. They have the same quality but you will need to supplement those with brights from brands with a similar texture like Art Spectrum or Rembrandt to have a full set. For portraits, you need, really need, lots of good earth tones and soft tints, so the Yarkas are grand for that.
One cost effective way to kit up elegantly if you can afford about $100 plus another $50 or so for the extra colors and don't mind a big setup is the large Yarka wood box set. It's usually about $100 with 185 sticks -- and has duplicates of the most-used colors. Pull all the duplicates out and store them safely at home -- make sure the storage box is padded where they won't knock around, you'll want them later when you use up those colors. Yarka does know which ones run out fast.
Replace them in the box with the colors you wish Yarka included, chosen out of Rembrandt and Art Spectrum open stock. Then stain and varnish the wood box. This would be enough of a big range to work on some studio style paintings between customers -- the smaller Yarka sets alone would be enough for just sketch portraits. In fact, it's quite possible the big Yarka wood box set will stand alone for portraits, but you may have to use more muted colors for things like your clients' clothing and background elements. Your paintings would have a more soft, muted, old-fashioned look that may be very appealing.
That approach also means how many extra colors you add can be chosen over time, you don't need to buy all the extras at once. A good strong bright red or two is the most important left-out color, but you may want others. As time progresses you'll find out what they are -- and you will also have sold paintings done without them, so you'll have the budget to keep adding more. The box, once varnished, is a wonderfully permanent tool and looks very professional on your setup. Be sure to bring a folding table to set it out on, it's pretty large.
Do not lose the foam inserts laying on top of the sticks the way I did, I still need to replace mine.
Serious street pastelists in New Orleans sometimes hauled entire pastel studios including 525 color Sennelier wood box sets out to their spot on the fence in Jackson Square. They also pushed carts almost the size of small cars to haul all that out there and worked on studio paintings between customers. This is the extreme. This is something cool to build up towards, most of them actually built the super carts themselves and designed them for cabinets, drawers, cubbies, umbrella stands and hooks to put the lawn furniture in on it too.
This is great if you live in New Orleans and get an A license on Jackson Square where your display rack is the fence and you can afford to live across the street from your setup. If you're doing it anywhere else, it's important to keep your kit lightweight. Try to get everything into a backpack.
The cheapest easels are some of the most lightweight! They're called display easels. Sometimes they go on sale for only $10 or so. It's just a tripod with a ledge crossing two sticks and wing bolts holding it together, the legs extend, the whole thing breaks down to a bundle of sticks. I used that with a big masonite drawing board on it to hold my paper when I did my street sketching. But I would have done better if I'd bought a lightweight plein air aluminum easel that tilts a little forward.
This lets the pastel dust blow off the painting without rolling down it to get into areas of different colors. It wasn't a big problem, but a good plein air easel is a bit more sturdy anyway. Some of them come with a sling between the legs that you put rocks in to keep it from blowing away. Drop your lunch bag into the sling and you won't get blown off your spot.
French Easels are those gorgeous wooden sketchbox easels oil painters and other plein air painters use. They can be adapted to pastels because there's a special drawer with pastel boxes inside and a shelf that lays over the drawer to spread out more of your stuff. If you have the strength to carry a fully loaded 20 pound French Easel to your setup or usually get a ride out to your setup, these are elegant and wonderful. I would have problems lifting one and the aluminum equivalent is $500 so I never got one, but that's my disabilities. They were popular with some of the street artists I knew.
I had iron fences on the back of St. Louis Cathedral to hang my finished paintings and examples in New Orleans. But anywhere else, if I were working art fairs and things, I might need to create a dsplay rack or buy one. A cheap version is an extra display easel and a big piece of foam board mounted on it with the ledge pushed quite low about a foot from the ground so the whole board is at a comfortable viewing height. If you want to get fancy, cover the foam board with fabric like a black velveteen or a neutral color flannel. Pin your matted, finished art to the board.
What I wanted, and would buy if I ever went back to it, was the Testrite Display Wall, an aluminum stand with three or four wide shelves to hold matted or framed art. It's sturdy, works well indoors or outdoors, holds a lot of art and most of all, it's vertical. It's currently $140. It would have freed me from the fence and let me move around to better locations if I'd had the sense to buy it on my first month's profits, but I didn't. I would also get a wood or aluminum prints rack so that I could put more finished sketches and good matted prints shrink wrapped and set out for buyers to look through.
All this stuff is equally suited to working an art fair circuit. The neat thing about street art is that it's closely related to the art and craft fair style of selling and the same equipment is good for both. The difference in street art is that you're setting up outside an established event, paying a local license fee or none, and drawing from life while people watch instead of mostly selling things you've already finished.
Shrink wrap is important. So is matting. Get a mat cutter to save money. If you use precut mats, they cost more and you need to work to standard sizes. If you cut your own mats, you can do odd sizes or shapes easier and you have more variety, plus it costs a lot less to buy full size mat boards and cut them down. I used to use a Logan Compact mat cutter that cost about $80 at the time and I've seen it go for less on sale. I replaced it with the Logan Team System 2 rail and cutter, bought a straight cutting head for cutting the board up to go with the bevel head that came with the rail, and it works just as well as the more expensive ones.
Shrink wrap does not need the expensive machine. You buy a roll of it, slide your art inside, tape it more or less to tightness on the back and heat to shrink it drum-tight with a hair dryer. This seals the art and protects all finished works from rain. This is important outdoors! Those first drops can destroy half your stock. It won't stand up to staying out in the monsoon, but it'll protect everything long enough to do the Rain Drill and get them all inside or under an awning.
Another alternative is archival photo bags. You can get precut mats with backing boards and an archival bag in batches, if you work to standard sizes this can save you the trouble of mat cutting and still give a good presentation. They're good for mailing too. Use archival foam board for backing boards cut to the size of the mat.
If you use professional materials, you establish professionalism and you may get higher paid commissions for longer, more serious studio portraits and paintings.
If you do intend to work art fairs and if you take your street art to a park, another luxury item is an actual display pavilion like the EZ-Up ones -- this helps with the rain problem and also gives very good shade. I used to use a beach umbrella on a long stand. Shade is important for you because you may be in the sun all day. Wear a broad brimmed hat at least, and get the umbrella at least. Those seriously help. Some clamp to the easel, but you want a relatively heavy easel like a wooden French easel for this or it can pull the easel over and sail off across the street.
You'll also need at least one lawn chair for your client to sit in for the painting, preferably one for yourself too unless you really prefer to stand to draw. I needed to sit to draw because I've got those annoying disabilities and can't stay on my feet too long, some artists just set out a chair or two for their clients. I used to carry along a lightweight folding table to set out my supplies on. Think lightweight and easy to carry.
On everything, think lightweight and easy to carry. Depending on whether you have someone drive you to your setup in a car or have to walk some blocks, the less you have to haul, the easier and faster it is to set up and start drawing.
If there are iron fences up by the sidewalk where you stand, you can clip bungee cords to the fence between its bars, stretch till very taut, then clip matted art to the cords. This is what most of the New Orleans artists did.
I did pastels, and most of what I have described is for pastel sketch street art. But you can do it with oil pastels and the same pastel paper or oil pastel card or canvas boards, and if you do bold watercolors that can be seen from across the street, those or pen and watercolor are a good choice too.
Several artists I knew did street art with pen drawings they'd take a good long time to get perfect and detailed, architectural renderings and local landmarks or big floral sprays and other scenes and wildlife -- then get them printed on watercolor paper and hand color them to request from their clients. This variation is very cost effective for time and may open it up to you if you really can't draw that fast but love the idea of being able to paint in person and sell on the street. An advantage is that some hand colored prints can be done greeting card size or minis, matted and sold for less.
If you paint in watercolors, the whole kit is likely to be fairly small even if you like having a lot of colors or use tubes and a normal size palette (the big ones). That can all fit in a small backpack. Same display ideas for mounting and matting.
White mats look very professional. Galleries prefer them. I used to use colored mats, so did a lot of my friends, but I think we were doing that because we liked them and mat design was a hobby. The plain white mats actually helped sales more, people didn't have to worry about whether the mat color would clash with their décor.
Have business cards made up with your contact information. Or just design them and print them out on your printer, then cut them out or have them cut at a print shop. Include a good example of your art that looks good in thumbnail. Have brochures and flyers for any shows you're doing or galleries you're in. Some artists did promotional postcard sized cards too with good reproductions, these things all help you get the higher paying studio commissions and get you into galleries.
And you can do them at home on your printer with some good archival cardstock and a bit of design. Things are easier for artists than ever since a lot of these new inventions are great for a self-representing artist.
If you use good archival materials, both medium and support, then mat with archival mat board and backboard and use either shrink wrap or archival photo bags to protect your art, it's an investment in your future. The tourist who bought a portrait from you this week could be telling stories five years from now as it still hangs in their living room, about this wonderful painter they met. Their acquaintances will look you up by name.
But if it faded because you used dye-based student grade supplies and didn't use acid free archival art paper to work on, then the stories will be to avoid that artist like the plague and you lose out. It will come back to bite you if you don't think a little bit about preservation. If it yellowed on cheap paper or you used construction paper, they had to throw it out a year later and you never get those referrals.
So use the best you can afford. Happily though, people are so impressed by seeing real artists doing good recognizable art in person right before their eyes, that odds are you may be able to afford the best supplies in a very short time.
Caricaturists -- even cheaper on supplies, archival markers like Pitt Artist Pens and good quality acid free Bristol plus the matting and backboard, and you're good to go. You can even get away without the matting except for the examples that you're showing. Caricature famous people to show you can do it and then just sketch and sell, they'll get it framed later on.
Pay Your Taxes, Respect Local Law
Down in New Orleans, the city deals well with street artists because it's always had them. For a small annual license you can sell in any "B" spot throughout the French Quarter and other scenic areas -- there's a map of all the cool places to sit out and do street art. "A" licenses cost several hundred dollars a year, don't open up till one of the holders dies or retires, and it takes on average five years of patiently applying to get one. The "A" license holders get the "A" best traffic spots on famous Jackson Square. I'm not sure but they may even be juried to make sure only really good artists get the Jackson Square spots.
Many cities do not have this arrangement and do not know what to do with street artists. Some allow it and appreciate the income. You want the city or township to know that your work represents real tax revenue. New Orleans also made it easy because you got this little tax packet on the city taxes right with your "B" License and plenty of help in how to calculate it, charge sales tax and pay it monthly right up at City Hall. I always did.
Some places have laws against doing street art or street vending of any kind. They don't realize what a boon it is to tourism to have an arts district with plenty of street artists or what kind of a revenue that is for the city. So you might well be the first artist to introduce them to the concept. Do your research. Check it out at City Hall. Ask about it.
Find out if there are restricted areas or preferred areas. If there is absolutely no law on the books, find out what the city sales tax is and calculate it. Save out the tax money as you're selling and show up in person every month to pay it.
This will discourage the local police from coming by and telling you to move on, because they don't know if it's legal but think you're a scruffy vagrant or something. Street artists are not scruffy vagrants. Especially in an arts district, we're local color and a great city revenue. Be respectful and move on if they do that, then set up somewhere else. And check city hall. If it is legal, you can try to explain to the nice policeman but keep your temper and don't get rude while doing so.
Don't bribe the cops. Be friendly with them though. Smile at them, chat with them if they stop to look at your stuff on duty. The cops are also there to protect you from some random mugger knocking over your easel to grab your cash box.
Choose areas of good traffic near arts related businesses in luxury districts. One street artist in New York got tired of trying to break into exclusive galleries with his oil pastels. So he went out to the fanciest shops on Fifth Avenue, settled out near a lamp post (another impromptu display rack something like an iron fence, but holds fewer pieces), painted what was in front of him and moved on occasionally to paint a new sight.
This approach can really work. The New York fellow gets thousands of dollars per painting on large archival canvas boards done in artist grade oil pastels. So even if you specialize in portraits, set up where the scenery is. If you're the first one there, you are setting precedent for everyone else -- and if you're coming in to pay your taxes every month, you're telling the city it's a very good idea to encourage street artists and work out a way to handle licensing.
Licensing works very much in your favor. As soon as it's licensed, the city is hooked on the revenue and you will not be as likely to get voted out by someone who thinks street artists should all be chased off by the cops. This has happened in some areas. But once licensed, a city doesn't shut that down because they're cutting off their own revenue if they do.
You may be pioneering. Street artists do not actually create an atmosphere for crime to thrive. It's not a lowlife type of thing, it's something that attracts the upscale and intellectual. But it's also scary and different, and sometimes people think anyone not in the norm must be a crackhead or a gangster.
Don't set up in crime areas. They can't afford your art anyway and your real customers would not be down there looking to get a portrait of their kid or a local landmark.
On to the next tip: Location!
Tip #3: Location, location, location!
Even among the "B" setup spots in New Orleans, some spots got more traffic than others. Some were more comfortable or closer to places a lot of people walked. The whole French Quarter was colorful and pretty, full of tourists -- but I sold more when I had my setup visible on their way to major well-known attractions in a spot where it wouldn't halt traffic if they stopped to watch what I was doing.
The best "B" Spot was back of the St. Louis Cathedral. Tourists coming from their hotels to get to Jackson Square where the artists were would see a big iron fence with several artists out in front of their displays, and stop to look at our art before getting to the big league "A" license artists in the Square itself. Other good spots were up near the Riverwalk and along Bourbon Street a couple of times, but it had to be the right spot on Bourbon because I wanted art buyers, not drunks. If I was selling drinks, anywhere on Bourbon would've been good.
When I set up near historic famous buildings, I got plenty of interest too. Often I'd do that while sketching architecturals, because I was really out just doing the art but I had my stuff with me. People would stop and ask what I was doing, ask what it cost, maybe buy the painting off my easel while I was working on it. This is actually why I went out and got the license! My first street sale was unofficial and came because I was drawing something to bring around to galleries.
Look at where you live.
Something about it is famous to people from other places. There is a reason people go there on vacation, besides visiting family. Every town or city has landmarks. These are wonderful places to set up, and if you're not a people-artist, they are the Other Great Ever-Popular Subject.
The. simplest type of street art is unofficial. Sit in front of a landmark and draw it. Do it well. Do it on a busy weekend when lots of people are around to watch. When they ask, quote a price. Eventually put out a few finished pieces and a poster card with your usual prices per size and medium on it.
Art is priced by the size of the painting for the most part. Keep this in mind. If you are using those best quality artist grade materials, that's something to talk about with the clients during the patter. Explain to them the difference between Sennelier and Alphacolor. Talk about how the Canson Mi-Tientes tinted paper is acid free and won't yellow as if you were doing your art on a brown paper bag.
Paint the scenes that someone from a completely different part of the country expects to see on a postcard.
You can get ideas by looking at postcards from your city. Look in the bus terminal and various shops that have postcards. Riffle through them for subjects. If you're in the Southwest, you are in a place where most of the world thinks of it as brimming with artists. If you paint the landscapes in the desert, even if you're out in the middle of the city, those are what casual visitors will bring home with them because they visited New Mexico. This is why I used the cholla cactus for the art on this section.
If you're in the Midwest, then farm scenes, fields, big skies and historic architecture are good landmark things. Look at whether something famous happened in the town's history. Lincoln could be a good subject. If you do portraits in Illinois, then put Lincoln up as one of your example portraits.
This is both about where to set up and what to paint, because the two are connected. It is easier to draw from real things than a photo if you have any sketching skill. Unless you're actually at the exact stage of learning where you have to grid and measure the photo to get the proportions right, you'll get better results looking at real things. Life drawing is good for your artistic growth even if you are at that stage.
You can also pre-prepare if that is your stage of skill. Take reference photos and do the early part of your sketch, just block it in at home. Then go back out to the good location and start doing the color and details from life. But also sketch from life in charcoal. The day a charcoal sketch comes out well, someone will probably give you cash money for it.
They don't know you personally or know that lavender roses are your favorite flower or that ducks mean something special. What the tourists know is what they heard about your city from their friends and relatives and the movies. So choose subjects that are traditional and if at all possible, try to use a local style.
Find the subjects where your personal favorites are also part of the group of subjects people expect in that area.
If what you do is animals, then you may want to look into the dog shows, cat shows, horse shows and animal-related events rather than just doing street art in general. Setting up like for street art at a cat show, setting out portraits of a half dozen beautiful cats and sketching the champions for fun is going to get you some interest in commissioned portraits of champions. It's a variation on street art that doesn't take licensing or the full display kit, just portable materials and hanging around at the events often.
If your specialty is dogs though, you have one location in almost any town or city. Set up right near the entance of the Dog Park. Wherever people bring their dogs to play or get their walks, they are there because they love those dogs. If you do good dog portraits, you can set up with half a dozen good breed pictures and then while you're working on one dog, you can get one or more other dog owners queueing up to get their pooch drawn. This could be very lucrative if you're good at doing dogs and love doing dogs.
Horses and equine things, stables and any park that has riding stables are probably a good bet.
I don't know of anything but cat shows that'd be that specifically good for doing cats, but if I find a good feline venue I'll let you know. I'm the cat nut, but people don't take their cats down to the dog park, not if they love them. But I might have some success doing cat sketches near a grooming parlor. Businesses related to your subject are good for traffic.
You want traffic -- you want good traffic. People who have some spending money in their pockets, are out having a good time, hopefully not too drunk and not criminal. Weekends are better than weekdays for street art. A fair number of artists don't bother with it in the middle of the week and spend the week doing studio art or goofing off, then get out on Friday afternoons and hang during the day all day on Saturday and Sunday, then go back to their lives.
This makes street art a good side income for people who spend their weekdays doing something else in an office or a shop -- at the very least it can keep you in top quality art supplies and close budget gaps without guilting you for dropping hundreds of dollars on a toy rather than the bills.
Working at night is tricky, unless you specialize in Impressionist night scenes and your city has an arts district with plenty of historic buildings and well-lit pretty cafes out at night.
Speaking of cafes, a variation on street art is to bring sketch materials but not the full setup, go into a good cafe, get coffee and sketch portraits there. If you can make an arrangement with the cafe owner that you get your table with a good view and customers get directed to you, this can help improve the atmosphere of an arts-themed or oriented cafe or coffeehouse. Always work this out with the owner of the place first, so that there are no ugly surprises like getting thrown out for doing business and distracting his customers.
Scheduled art fairs, Farmers' Markets, flea markets, the French Market, art in the park events and other scheduled events are great for street art. Just check out the event well in advance -- some of them it helps to book your table or booth or space a year in advance. These can be enough to support an artist if you've got a vehicle and can get around in a good area. Observe the rules of the event.
Folding tables and booth stuff are important if you start doing those events. It helps to have a professional setup, this will give an impression that you're professional and you're prospering, your art is valuable right now and lots of other people already bought some. If you can display a finished commission or two with SOLD on them, or even that gift painting you did for a relative with SOLD on it, that looks good. They don't have to know your mom bought it with X many hours of labor, exactly WHAT she paid to get those robins painted for her is none of their business!
Have plenty of small finished works prepared with mats, back board and shrink wrap or archival photo bags to do the art fairs. Many of them will not have anything for you to hang your art on. I've seen a lot of "art in the park" events where hundreds of paintings were propped up on trees. Anyone who'd brought a Stanrite Display Wall would have had a major advantage in visitors not having to bend way over to look at the framed art.
You may want to frame your pieces for the art show/craft fair circuit, especially the higher priced ones. Some artists work out arrangements with a framer. Others buy frames -- and a cheap way to get frames is to look in thrift shops for framed ugly prints. Throw away the junk print or just stash it in the back of a portfolio in case it turns out to be a vintage rarity or you want to use it for collaging, then clean up the frame if needed, replace the mat with a nice archival one and you have a good frame.
Mall kiosks are expensive, but I have seen people doing the pastel portraits street art thing in mall kiosks. They have to charge more because the rent is loony exorbitant, but the traffic is very high or used to be. Many people open businesses in malls and lose them a short time later because they can't keep up the rent. I would think of mall kiosks as a last resort if you can't find any better cheaper venues, because people in malls are not there usually looking for art, they want shoes and videogames and movies. An arts district will have more art buyers.
The mall artists who succeeded did very conventional "Cute" sorts of paintings -- cute puppies or kittens, florals, portraits of children. Sometimes very stylized. If you do that sort of thing then it may be a good venue for you, but I would check it out thoroughly before trying it because the investment is horrendous and you might lose your shirt or worse, your Senneliers.
Caricaturists can sometimes do well in malls though. It's funny and sometimes depends on the mall and the locality. In this economy though, I would look for less pricy venues first.
Flea markets are full of bargain hunters. So be very firm on pricing and don't be surprised if it doesn't pay well compared to other venues. The traffic ought to have some serious spending money and if their minds are on art and artistic things so much the better. Inexpensive jewelry does do very well in flea markets though. Caricaturists may do well in flea markets because the price is generally low and if the art is funny, people do buy on a whim with what they got from selling their junk.
Caricaturists can also do well at carnivals and things.
Serious artists can do well at state fairs or county fairs, where there are also art competitions. Talk to the people running the fair about what it would take to open a portrait booth. Talk to others who sell art at the fairs. Do some footwork before getting involved. But anything where you have seen people doing art on the spot and selling it is a very good sign -- because that means there is more business there for your art.
People were ten times more likely to buy my art when four or five or a dozen other artists all set up near me than if I was the first one out there. It sets an atmosphere. It creates a group phenomenon. Portraitist One gets a customer. The next interested visitor can either wait half an hour or look at the artists who aren't busy. If three or four or eight are busy, it can turn into a madhouse with everyone having one in progress and one or two waiting.
So other street artists are not, ever, really, competition.
The ones that are better than you will charge more. Unless you really never drew before, once a group is going someone in it is a lot less skilled and your art looks good by comparison. Really, you only ever get to be the Worst Beginner once. It's a very temporary state. The experienced artists will generally be friendly and give you advice and needed help with how to get the tax stuff sorted out -- that tip came from an old-timer on Jackson Square -- and everything else including what days to get out there, what local upcoming events bring lots of traffic and clients, what frame shops put out their scrap mat board for scrounging.
But you can break ground for the group by going out and doing it in a good high-traffic entertainment and arts district. There is one other good way to sell architectural paintings by location. Look for pretty businesses.
Paint the pretty business in the historic building. You may wind up selling the painting to the bakery, shop or coffeehouse because it's a good painting of the business. That's a specialty unto itself that many good artists have made an excellent living doing.
Paint Something Local and Beautiful, or People
#4: Paint Popular Subjects
Street art is not the place for depressed abstract ruminations on nihilism or experimental work unless your town is noted for that type of fine art. Seriously. People buying street art want something that's traditional, bold, visible across the street and a subject they personally love.
Nothing sells in street art like portraits. People are awed and impressed with a drawing of someone they know and love, done right in front of them by a live artist. That's magic. Getting the likeness is a matter of eye accuracy, general face shape, some three dimensional rounding and somewhat getting the mouth right. Get the hair blocked in more or less the right color as a solid mass or do it loosely, don't noodle over hair details.
Get the eyes right and you have the likeness. Get the facial proportions anywhere in the human-normal range and the eyes will give the likeness. General face shape is vaguely important too. So practice drawing people until you can get the proportions of features placed accurately and look at the details of a person's eyelid shape to get the eye likeness.
The iris color is what people will describe, but all irises and pupils pretty much look the same. It's how much of that little circle gets shaped and cut off by the eyelid that makes it Her Eyes specifically, and where she's looking. Eye likeness is also eye expression.
Put in a shiny little white catchlight dot right on the edge of the pupil where it's darkness, whether you see it or not. This trick draws attention to the eyes and away from a host of other flaws like getting the chin wrong.
Mouths are flexible. Get it a little too wide and they're just smiling wider. Likeness on the mouth is looser and more intuitive.
Other popular subjects include Historic Landmarks, especially local pretty historic architecture. Monuments and famous places count too.
My painting is a little watercolor of Mt. Petit Jean, painted right after a trip up to Mt. Petit Jean State Park. If I did it in pastels it'd be a good street painting, in fact I could mat and sell that anywhere in the surrounding area if I set up because Mt. Petit Jean is a famous local beautiful place. Happily my part of Arkansas is full of beautiful landscapes and painters who love them. The more of a local art scene there is, the more likely you will be successful.
Look at what other people are painting.
If you see a lot of painters doing decorative florals and fruit still lifes, those sell well in the area, so if you like them, put yours out.
If you see a lot of big-eyed kids and waifish puppies with exaggerated features, if "Cute" is popular in your area and you like doing cute things, then go with the "Cute" style. This goes well in malls as well as out in arts districts, though it's not always taken seriously as fine art.
A few abstracts do all right for street art, some painters have made a go of that. Hugo Montera started a style of his own using spray paint on poster boards. He would light the spray and use another can as a torch in order to bake the enamel and make it run, then use old records, ripped cardboard and other found objects as masks to create airbrush-looking outer space scenes with planets and nebulas and moonscapes. These sold like hotcakes.
He taught some apprentices and I've seen the Montera style in New Orleans and other places for decades now. Don't try the flamethrower thing without being taught by an existing master of the style, it can blow up in our face. But it sold well as street art because it combined beautiful recognizable outer space scenes as cool as any movie poster, especially swirly blue-and-white Earthlike planets from space, with a flame performance not too far from a fire-eater's gig.
Down in New Orleans, one style of landscape was wonderfully popular. It was the Swamp Scene. Paint the Bayou with cypresses, lots of dripping Spanish Moss and an egret flying through it and you have the traditional Swamp Painting. People did these in pastels, watercolor, acrylics, oils, and sometimes in acrylics on roof slates.
So if you have an interesting type of painting that can be completed in a half hour to an hour and it relates to something the locality's famous for, then go for it. In Tennessee, Race horses might be very popular in an area with a good famous racetrack. Sports paintings and sports celebrities might go if there's a famous sports event locally.
But local scenes that show the prettiest aspects of the area in traditional styles are the other big seller besides people themselves. Most regions have some natural beauty. You can find it if you look beyond the cliché and look at the real things -- those bayous are beautiful and mysterious and if you do a Swamp Painting like all the rest, it still isn't. It carries how you feel about the bayou.
I've always wanted to do one, I'm still working on that. I refuse to just buy one from another painter and try to copy the techniques, it's a personal goal to do a good Swamp Painting from my own experience. I might get down there on vacation sometime and try for one plein air.
Scenes in the French Quarter sold like crazy. But in other areas I've seen people selling historic architecture too. Up in the Midwest, people who paint just the corner of a gingerbread Victorian with a pigeon roosting in the fancywork will get the same kind of attention. You don't have to do the whole thing in extreme detail, and you should have a good grasp of linear perspective to do architecturals.
If you want to do the whole thing in exquisite detail, get the perspective right in a pencil sketch. Pencil in all the details. Take your time on that, use good Bristol or illustration board and get it just perfect. Lightly shade it but not too much, just to indicate where the shadows go.
Then ink it, get that printed on watercolor paper and start painting the prints, it's a very effective style and also suitable to scale down to small cards.
Old barns and houses on country roads are popular all over the country, especially if the area has a lot of pretty trees and wildflowers. Think of your Thomas Kincade scenes. If you can do recognizable small rural churches, those sell. Anything that has a bit of a sentimental streak is probably going to ring true if you paint it well.
That's the key to why this is also great art -- it's great art when it is. A great artist can take a conventional subject like someone's eight year old girl or a rural church and do a painting that has power, majesty, enduring artistic quality -- and would work well as an abstract if you blurred your eyes and looked at it in a little 50-pixel thumbnail. That's where a lot of the difference between the fine art and the fun art falls.
But you can make a living long before you're skilled enough that your fine-art renderings get into galleries, because an average tourist is not a gallery director or museum curator who will be that critical of your composition, abstract principles, connection to known artistic schools and so on. If you do roses that look like roses and a kid that its parents can recognize, those will sell.
Also, especially in hard times, people like art that cheers them up. Strong color is good, or strong values so the painting has some drama. Subjects that are pleasant and personal, that make people happy and bring up good memories of the place, that's what sells in street art. To you it was an interesting old hotel with a cool shape. To the buyer it might be where he met the woman he married 40 years ago and he excitedly points out which window was their room that night she stayed up all night telling her life story after the party.
Art buyers bring their own lives to the street artists. They have their own associations with place and anything that speaks of place or depicts someone they love is going to appeal to them. If your style looks like what people think of as Southwest Art and it's a desert painting, it's not just about the Southwest. It's about studying Southwest art in their sophomore year and realizing that Southwest Art was important, yours is a prized original, a piece of art history, because you were really there in the Southwest and painted it from the real desert.
It can be a lot of things but it's about who they are. If you look at the things that actually make you happy, you may find you have something in common with them and that there is a fair amount of overlap between your favorite things and your buyers' favorite things. A lot of artists did paintings of jazz musicians in New Orleans and did them in crazy blue or red or orange lighting, like the insides of bars in stage lighting. Fun to do, a chance to fool around with Phtalo Blue and Cadmiums... and also a happy memory to someone who's a jazz lover in a completely different way than it was to the artist.
Cows can sell well. Farm scenes sell well. People who live in cities sometimes miss the country. Anything that has a legend or mythos about it, that's part of what people think of in relation to place, can become a good subject for your street art.
If you specialize, two things happen. Your referred clients see paintings that are similar to the cool one they liked on their brother-in-law's wall. You the artist get much, much better at weathered wood or cypress trees in mud or little kids in sunlight. So out of the traditional subjects that sell in the area, focus on a type of work that genuinely fascinates you. The more you do it, the better you'll get and the more you'll do well.
Street Art Is Performance
Street art isn't for the shy.
If you're uncomfortable with someone looking over your shoulder while you draw, or don't know what to say when someone compliments your art, either work on overcoming that shyness or think about marketing your art in some other way. Online art selling does not take meeting people in person, drawing them or their favorite things from life and keeping up a lively patter while doing so. There are other ways to get a side income in from your artwork when you reach the minimal level of competence where what you drew looks like what you drew it from to someone who's not an artist. When people can tell it's a horse, you're ready to sell.
When you're capable of smiling and relaxing while people watch you draw, talking about your work with confidence and enjoy hearing their ideas and suggestions about it, that's when you're ready to become a street artist.
It's a performance. You're doing magic. You are doing the oldest, deepest, truest type of stage magic ever done.
There in front of you is a flat piece of paper or board, it's blank, nothing's on it and there's nothing special about it. You move these colored sticks or that brush around and color explodes out from your hands. Stroke by stroke, something real comes to pass until your piece of paper is a window into the world inside your mind. The person in the portrait looks back out and makes eye contact with you and everyone around you.
That hits gut instinct and yes, there is an artistic trick for achieving it. This has to do with perspective and eye positioning, as well as the catchlight. Most artists learn it by intuition, because it's powerful enough to affect the artist too.
The position of the iris and pupil in the eye is focused on something. The eyes in the portrait look dead if they stare straight forward evenly. So they turn just a hair inward -- not even a full line width, but they are moved over till they are focused making eye contact with the artist. The catchlight, that little white dot over the edge where pupil meets iris, makes them look shiny and wet compared to the dry matte skin and hair and background. So the catchlight makes them look alive.
The image's eyes are focused at a comfortable viewing distance from the painting. Eye contact is emotional, fiddle with it till the eyes look "lively" to you and you have it. They are focused on your eyes. But they are also focused on anyone else's eyes looking at the painting and very often seem to follow you as you move from side to side. It's a trick -- but a very powerful one. You know when you get it right because the picture seems to come to life.
That is the magic that always draws them in.
On a landscape, it's getting the perspective right and enough atmospheric perspective so the image turns into a window looking out on a scene with depth. Linear perspective is startling. Even in a line sketch it can turn a scene into something vividly real -- and once again, the artist is a magician creating a reality out of nothing but his or her imagination and good observation.
If you paint something right in front of them, like the sitter or the building across the street, the magic is that you can do it accurately. If you paint something that isn't right in front of them and it looks "Real" in any number of ways, and is recognizable, it's still that magic. You just turned a world that was sorta boring and dull and full of trouble and hassle into a world that has something beautiful in it that didn't exist before -- and isn't going to fade or go away or change.
Your roses don't fade in November. Your puppies never grow up to be annoying barking dogs. Your landscapes don't get plowed over for parking lots. When you paint beauty it lingers, and it becomes something that the art buyer can bring home to make their lives a little more pleasant. It makes something from nothing. It's special and real.
So is the buyer. Your art buyer is going to feel like a Medici Duke or a prominent Carnegie, supporting the arts. Rather than resenting paying you, they feel as if they've done a public service by making sure you go on painting. People like feeling a part of it, and patrons are a part of art too. So they're very cool people, they have an eye for art, they saw your talent. You're cool because you threw caution to the winds and became an artist instead of a tax preparer or someone waiting tables (although waiters in five star restaurants have their own glamour and their own performance, don't think I am knocking waiters!).
You and the buyer are part of a long tradition stretching back throughout history.
Yes, you are good enough to do it. If you can draw well enough that they can tell what you did and they like what you did well enough some of them give you cash money -- that is it, that's the secret handshake and the magic wand of talent, the fairy godmother has blessed you with Talent. So don't deny it and don't be embarrassed at the compliments.
Do it for a while and you will understand that you'll get twenty compliments per sale anyway, because it doesn't cost them anything to say they like it and you really did cheer them up. Of course the better you get, the easier it is for you to see your technical flaws, drool at that old painter two spaces down on the fence who never, ever, ever manages to get a blotched cheek or inaccurate chin or mess up the background that bad -- so relax. It means you're getting really good. Don't admit those flaws to the buyers.
Fix them and dramatically change your mind on what you're fixing, don't even call it fixing a mistake unless they pointed out the mistake. There's good patter. Part of it I learned from every cat I've ever known. "I meant to do that." Along with "Oh, the line's too wide now but you'll see, when I shade the chin it'll come smaller." Then fix it and smile.
To get people to look nice, position them in 3/4 view or at a slight angle but mostly full face, with the sun on one side or the other. Side lighting flatters any face. They will look good. Tons better than their drivers license photo or what they look like under greenish fluorescent light in the bathroom mirror. You don't have time for the kind of micro-realism that will pick up every blackhead on their nose and every crenelation of every wrinkle. Especially in pastels, you're working with lines and areas of color that are maybe the width of your little finger.
So when you get it brutally accurate to every funny or ugly thing about their features, they will exclaim how flattering it is -- all because you gave them good lighting and couldn't do it in the exaggerated detail that an unflattering photo gives. I would just say "Nope, I was being brutally honest, I always just paint what I see. You just look nice today, ma'am."
They always look better in front of you than the bathroom mirror. Honest. Try it. Look in the bathroom mirror -- then take a little phone cam shot of yourself with low resolution in good sun with side lighting in a good mood. Surprise. You look better than you do in the bathroom mirror. Sketch that in pastel and hang it by the bathroom mirror to remind yourself you don't really look that bad when you go out.
Your view of historic landmarks can be simplified and should be. You don't need to put in the phone lines unless you want to and think they add to it. You definitely don't need every bit of trash in the wire basket, or that old newspaper, or that junk piled up, or that ugly car parked in front of the steps, in fact you can move a tree out of the way so the facade is easier to see. Or put one in if it looks too stark. Get it recognizable -- not precise, you aren't doing it by photography. You have judgment.
Sunsets, waterfalls, all the spectacular displays of nature are good subjects for street art. They're things people remember and care about, but don't remember that accurately unless they're artists. They saw it on vacation and what they really remember is how it felt making out with that kid they were in love with and being fifteen, or being eight and going fishing with their dad.
You can look at the lake and be fascinated with the cool distortion that happens to reflections when the wind riffles some of the lake but not all of it. That's your thing. Theirs is that they remember skinny dipping.
So what you're doing when you create the lake on a canvas or a piece of paper is opening a sight to their eyes that's beautiful in itself. You are creating something wonderful that has real and enduring value -- this little painting they bought on vacation could be worth thousands or millions someday when you're famous. So act like someone who might be famous someday. Enjoy it. Revel in it.
I sold the most when I was happy to be there and happier to be painting than doing anything else in the world. When I was thrilled to blazes that I didn't have to get up early on Monday mornings and wear Business Casual and take a bus to an office. I could wear whatever I wanted and I was proud of my paint-splattered jeans. I often wore the jeans I used to do oil paintings in, which had the brush cleaning swipes in Alizarin and Ultramarine and skin tones all over them wherever I could reach.
Dress comfortably. Don't dress up too much. For one thing, pastels are messy and for another, you want to be physically comfortable to be out there all day. But wear clothes that you really like, favorite clothing. Wear a broad brimmed hat or use an umbrella. I did both, had a pretty cool straw fedora that I liked a lot. I never did quite have the nerve to buy the little beret that you see in a zillion movies and cartoons, but a lot of the "A" license fellows did.
I think that if I ever do it again though, I will. It's part of what people expect, like a white coat on a doctor, it's something to take a little pride in and enjoy to the hilt. No one would have laughed at me for wearing it if I had bought a beret.
The main thing to learn to do is get used to making friendly conversation while drawing. Especially when they first sit down. Once in a while if they start fidgeting, it helps to describe what I'm doing -- mention that I'm doing their mouth, so they can relax and move their hands. Or that I'm done with their mouth so they can relax, now I'm working on the hair. Everyone's patter is different. Some artists are more verbal than others. But you need to be able to socialize while they decide to get a painting and be able to smile and relax and accept compliments graciously to be able to do it.
That and don't get self conscious when they watch you do it. This takes some practice but you can ease into it by drawing in groups with friends. Generally people who can't draw aren't going to be that critical. They'll watch and see what happens. If they do mention a mistake either it's a glaring one that needs fixing -- or half the time something that you're doing in preparation and you can tell them "No, I'm just doing the hill behind the tree first, I can draw the tree right over it. See?" Pastels are like that, very forgiving. You can put light over dark with them.
Most of the time they just want to see the little miracle of a flat piece of blank paper turn into a piece of genuine art, and watch your hands move to create it. Sharing that experience is half of the street art gig in itself -- and it's often why some very celebrated painters go on doing street art and keep their "A" licenses in the Big Easy long after they could have retired and stuck to galleries and museum commissions.
If you enjoy doing it, you are set for life. You can do it anywhere with any materials at hand and you will never, ever, be broke again as long as you can still see and move your hands with a drawing implement. A burnt matchstick is enough once you know how to sketch. I've always viewed street art as my one great backup, the thing I could do if I lost everything else or failed at everything else, because if you draw what other people like to see in a painting, you have reached them in the heart and they'll pay for it even when times are hard.
Especially when times are hard, they may buy it because it's something real they can cheer themselves up with. During the Depression, people loved big musicals, happy stories, comedies with happy endings, things that were fun or beautiful rather than grim reminders of dark realism. It's a luxury, but a type of luxury that's a release from a lot of other worries... and for them it's a very good investment. They'll still have it on their wall to remember the trip for decades and enjoy it for the rest of their lives.
For pricing, check out local artists. Look at people whose skills are comparable to yours who are using similar materials and styles. Don't underprice yourself. It's best to pick a price range that's neither highest nor lowest, so that price isn't even the major factor involved in who they choose to stop by. Art is usually priced by size. The bigger it is, the more expensive and the longer it takes to finish usually. So set your price schedule more by size and medium. If you want to offer something lower priced, a good choice is pastel drawings or monochrome charcoal/white or conte/white on a tinted ground. I sold quite a few of the charcoal/white drawings when things got tight, but someone else would always want color.
Also I would charge more for additional subjects within the same picture. This is reasonable, putting in a second person is almost as much work even though you are doing the first one smaller to fit the second one in. One big family stopped and paid me a lot to do 14 people on a half sheet of Canson Mi-Tientes one afternoon. I was at it all afternoon and it was almost like a party, they were all grouped together fidgeting and talking and I'd tell them who I was working on so that person would hold still to pose while the kid on the end giggled. I had fun with them. They have a family keepsake that's going to last a lot longer than a snapshot of all of them together on their reunion.
There's some of the value in your painting and why to use archival materials. Their photos may not last that long, but your drawing will possibly get handed on to great grandkids.
So don't underprice and don't ever run yourself down. You are good enough, your art is good enough, your life is worth living and it really is a lot of fun being an artist. Go for it!