The 10 things I learnt from my first solo cafe exhibition

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When I was asked over a year ago if I wanted to exhibit my art in a local cafe for two months I said yes without really thinking through what it meant. When you've spent the last 7 years working on big community projects which result in hundreds of people taking to the streets wearing/ carrying/ becoming art putting up a few pictures in a cafe doesn't seem that hard at all.

Well, I now know this was very naive indeed. I've exhibited in lots of group shows before, but up until recently my paper based artwork has been very disparate and constantly changing. I knew I wanted to use this opportunity to create a new body of work that would help me to kick-start my dream of spending more time in my studio working, but I had NO IDEA how much work this would actually be. So I have complied a list of the 10 things I learnt from my first solo cafe exhibition, in the hopes that it will be of use to anyone else who is dipping their toes into exhibiting and selling work in a small, local show.

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1. Making art takes a really long time

Some people can work very quickly I know. But not me. I am a very, very slow worker, and I like to create things that contain a lot of detail. Therefore I should have started making my work for the exhibition in May when I found out about it, not in September! Although my papercuts really developed by working so intensely over 6 weeks I was also stressed out, up till 3am a lot, and I began to get repetitive strain injury in my hand, wrist and shoulder. Over the last year I've been working hard to change my relationship with my creativity which has tended to operate on the equation of stress + pressure = productivity. Although this is true in that I have created a lot in short periods of time when up against a deadline, it also leaves me burnt out and exhausted. Which of course results in weeks of avoiding work and feeling guilty with nothing being made at all. If I had  started earlier it would have been less stressful, and ultimately I would have enjoyed the whole process more which may have resulted in me making higher quality work. But this is all a matter of time management, which for me is such a complex issue I think one day it will get a special post all of its own.

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2. Framing your work is probably the most expensive part

I am very lucky as I have worked on and off as a part-time picture framer since 2009, so framing is something I can do myself. However despite knowing the cost that comes with framing things well, the total cost of materials and my time for framing a dozen papercuts was SO much more then I had imagined. Its very difficult when you are beginning to sell and exhibit your work, because you have no idea how well it will be received and if you will even sell anything. Now, as a picture framer I very much respect the craft and believe in paying skilled people to do good work rather then buying cheap, mass-produced frames that were made in bad working conditions. But I don't have a lot of excess money at the moment, and I know a lot of artists are in the same boat. In which case, buying some standard sized mass-produced frames and then improving these by liming them or painting them can be a good way of just getting your work out there. You can also buy fairly inexpensive mount cutters and make your own mounts, although it takes a surprisingly long time to get really good at cutting perfect corners. I'm still trying.

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3. It's really hard to make things look professional if they're rushed

So, it turns out designing business cards, promotional postcards and a website take a really long time. I've made dozens of Wordpress sites and blogs over the years, so I assumed I could do it really quickly. But I didn't leave the time to carefully think about the design I wanted associated with my work (this is technically called branding but I am still struggling with that word without feeling a wave of 'selling-out' panic). I used an image I felt was strong and worked ok, but then made a very simple design to go with this, all done in a morning because I had to get everything to the printer by 2pm if I wanted it to arrive before my preview (see aforementioned problems with time management). I do like my cards, but I have since thought of a much more beautiful design that I wish I had used. This will now have to wait until I get through all of the 200 remaining postcards and business cards I have left.

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4. Remember to leave time to document your work

Without a doubt this is the lesson I learnt the hardest way. I had originally planned to have everything finished two weeks before my show started and had made provisional arrangements to have my papercuts photographed and scanned by a professional photographer. However things beyond my control set my timetable back greatly (thank you chicken pox, flu and constantly evolving work briefs). I am lucky as I have a cheapish-but-ok set of studio lights and a tripod I use to make animations, and I've got a fair bit of photography experience, so I decided to just photograph my own work. Easy, right?

No. This was SO much harder then I imagined. My papercuts only use two colours so any inconsistency in the lighting was painfully obvious, and I couldn't get the picture square to save my life. I also left my camera on the wrong setting so the images were much smaller then I needed to make decent sized prints. But I (painfully) only discovered this after I had sold half the pictures. It was a bit of a fail.

You can only sell an original picture once so selling prints is a really crucial aspect of me making an income as an artist and building up a strong portfolio of work. In terms of mistakes this was a biggy. Next time I sell my work I plan to leave several weeks of extra time to avoid this happening again, and I'll get a professional photographer to do it for me until I feel confident I can produce images of an equally high quality. Lots of lovely people have shared their knowledge on this for free on the internet, and books like 'Art Inc.' by Lisa Congdon have proved of great help to me.

But you live and learn, and luckily I was able to get some rather nice A4 prints made. Which takes me on to my next learning experience....

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5. Getting good prints made can take longer then you think

Now I had some acceptable images of my work I had to find somewhere to get them printed. I spent far too long getting overwhelmed by the options available on the internet with choices like c-type and giclee prints to confuse me (still a bit confused about this to be honest). I was too scared to order lots of prints online, mostly because I didn't feel confident about the quality of my images, but I no longer had the original artwork to send away to a printers for scanning. I felt a bit stuck, and so for the first month I gave up on prints.

Then as Christmas neared I decided to try again, and realised that I would be best using a local printers so I could actually go in and look at samples of paper without having to wait ages for them to be sent back and forth. I think I need to hold real things in my hands to understand them a lot of the time. This worked out as a really good solution for me, and within a week I finally had a box of prints to sell. I'm sure if I had got this all sorted earlier on I would have sold more though.

One last point of learning goes back to presentation. Once I had my prints I still had to make mounts, cut backboards, wrap them in cellophane, and generally make them look like something really nice people would want to buy. All of which took more time and money, which I will now know to allow for when I next sell work.

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6. Previews are really important

The cafe who showed my work organise a preview for every artist. They invite their mailing list, but ask the artist to put the work in to inviting their contacts and generating a bit of interest. As a community artist and project manager I have done this dozens of times, but when it came to my own work I felt really awkward and uncomfortable. 'It's only a little show in a little cafe in a little town', ' I don't want people to think I think its a big deal' and 'It'll only be my friends there and I don't want to push my work on them' were all quite loud voices of insecurity in my head. However I didn't want to let the cafe down, and I did want to sell some of my work. I ended up making a few posters and a Facebook event which said something along the lines of 'Hi, I've made show, there's a preview but don't worry if you can't be bothered! Love Ellie'.

I now know that previews are really important. Firstly, it doesn't matter how small the show, or venue, or town. This was my work, I should have been proud of it. If I think something is good enough to spend my time on it, frame it, and put it up for the world to see I shouldn't be shy about standing in front of it. It was an important step for me, and I really enjoyed the experience of talking to people even if it was a bit of a challenge. I struggle with this, but I think its ok to be confident about what you create. That's not arrogance, its just self-belief and its ok to believe in something you do if its your passion and (at least part of) your livelihood. There's a point when self-promotion becomes too much and gets pushy, but simply telling the world your work is up and giving them some cake as a thank you for coming isn't 'making a big deal out of nothing'.

Secondly I realised a lot of my friends actually wanted to come. They didn't see it as an annoying request I was making of them, they wanted to see my work and they wanted to support me. But what really surprised me was that some of them wanted to buy my work. Now, I do want to extend my network beyond the people I know obviously, but to have some of my friends choose to buy my artwork felt really special. If I hadn't invited them to see the exhibition I would have never experienced so much support and encouragement from the people whose opinions actually matter to me.

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7. Make more then you think you need

I made enough art to fill the two rooms, and this was a challenge. What I didn't expect to happen was for ALL that art to sell. This was obviously AMAZING but it meant I had to work really hard for weeks to replace the pictures people wanted to take immediately. I know lots of exhibitions don't work like this, but in a cafe in the run up to Christmas not making extra work was a bit foolish.

It worked out well as I have several framed papercuts now ready to be shown elsewhere, but it was quite tiring throughout the exhibition trying to replace the sold pictures in a rush. If I am honest I don't think I believed I would sell anything, so this was the real lesson for me here.

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8. Don't price your work too low

My priority was to cover my costs so I didn't end up making a loss, and as I've made clear I was quite insecure about this new body of work. So when it came to pricing my work I struggled. I didn't want to out-price the people visiting the cafe, I wanted to sell at least three pieces to cover the costs, and I have a deep rooted belief that art should be priced reasonably so its affordable to people who aren't really rich. But I think I need to plan a pricing structure which helps me to make a bit more money after costs while also keeping my work accessible.

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9. Respect your own work and its value

My art work is a part of me. It represents me, and I put a lot of time, thought and energy into it. So even if it isn't the most groundbreaking work, even if it isn't technically mind-blowing, and even if it isn't going to save the world I should still talk about it with respect. Otherwise I'm undermining myself, which is quite frankly pointless and counterproductive. This is a bit of a lesson I'm always trying to learn though, and I know I'm not alone in this.

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10. Selling work feel amazing!

Despite all the lessons that I learnt from my first solo show in a cafe, one thing has spurred me on, and that it how amazing it feels when someone buys your work. To know that people love it enough to spend their hard earned cash on it and want to have an image I made on their wall every day - that's an incredible feeling. To imagine that several of my pictures will be in the background of people's lives in their homes makes me feel so lucky, especially as its through doing something I love and enjoy.

And on that note I will leave this post, but I hope it will be of use to someone out there. I at least plan to refer to it next time I say 'Yes please!' to exhibition, and hopefully that way I won't make the same mistakes twice!

Eleanor ChaneyComment