How to sell art (lessons from the Big Eyes movie)


A weekend artist, who secretly supports himself with a real estate job because he can’t make a full-time living with his paintings, meets a divorcee and hobby painter with a unique style. They try selling cheap at weekend markets.

They can’t get into the art galleries because they’re only looking for modern, abstract stuff. So he rents out the walls of a bar to display his paintings (been there, done that).

That’s a flop as well, until he gets drunk and picks a fight with the bar owner. The altercation between two grown men fighting over some sappy paintings is enough to make the papers, which brings in new traffic.

He and his wife are both signing their paintings using his last name, KEANE, so people are assuming he is painting both the Parisian cityscapes and the little sad kids with big eyes. At first he tries to explain that his wife painted those, but when a bigshot reporter shows interest in him, he refrains from setting him straight.

She paints the paintings, and he goes out and sells them in the clubs. But she soon finds out he’s taking all the credit and saying he painted them. She accuses him, and he says, “It’s not about ego. I don’t care if a monkey painted them, I just want to share them with the world. Would you rather have your children hanging in someone’s living room or stacked in a closet somewhere?”

Just then, and important buyer walks in and shows interest. He asks who the artist is… her husband gives her time to respond but she freezes. So he steps in and chats up the buyer.


He starts upping the game by donating paintings to the mayor, international ambassadors, actresses… always related to some noble cause like “peace” or “children of the world.”

He goes on television and tells a convincing, heart-touching story of why he paints the lost children with the big eyes (he traveled Europe after the war and remembers the children fighting over scraps of garbage…).

The television appearance makes him famous, and the gallery is flooded with ‘looky-loos’ – people who can’t actually afford to buy a painting but are snatching up the posters, so he starts charging for the posters and they sell quickly.

“It got me thinking,” he says,

“Would you rather sell one $500 painting or a million cheaply reproduced posters?”

The success continues. They buy a big house. He keeps looking for opportunities. He contacts the World Fair and fixes up the “unveiling of his masterpiece” (which he forces his wife to paint). They are publishing a coffee table book.

But then a critique slashes the work apart in the Times, calling it “appalling” and “grotesque.”

Keane finds the critique at a party and yells at him in front of everybody.

“Who wrote this shit! Just because people like my work, that means automatically it’s bad?”

“No, but it doesn’t make it art, either. Art should elevate, not pander.”

“You’re a critique because you can’t create! You don’t know what it’s like to put your emotions out there!”

“What emotions? Your artwork is hackwork.”

241A0E2A00000578-2875240-image-a-2_1418757839098Keane grabs a fork and tries to stab the guy in the eye.

They remove the painting from the World’s Fair display.

He gets drunk again and yells at his wife.

“You crossed over from sentimentality to Kitsch. You like making me look bad. You enjoy people laughing at me.”

He accidentally sets the house on fire, and she and her daughter run off to Hawaii.

She asks for a divorce and he gives it to her, under the condition that she paints 100 more paintings for him to sell. She accepts… but changes her mind and signs her own name. (She’s joined a new church that encourages honesty in all things).

Then she tells the truth on radio, he denies it, and she sues him. In court, the judge decides the only way to prove who made the paintings is to have them both paint one in front of everybody. She wins.

Lessons learned

We can almost interpret this story as the battle between our creative selves, and the public, narcissistic, ego-fueled madman we need to become in order to sell our paintings.

If you don’t have an agent, a marketer, a gallery representative, then you need to sell your own art. To do that, you need to:

1. Know who you are and why you paint

What’s your story, your motivation. What does your art mean? You MUST have an answer. When I was doing exhibitions, I did surrealism and would refer people to obscure quotes by Magritte about the mystery of art.

My painting is visible images which conceal nothing; they evoke mystery and, indeed, when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question, “What does that mean?” It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable.

But people want you to give them answers. They need answers they can understand, appreciate and agree with – they need answers that inspire them, so they feel that, in supporting you, they are in some way improving the world by backing a noble cause (not just spending money for crap to hang on their wall).

2. Give free art to important people

Whenever you can, whenever someone is coming into town or there is an event. Single someone famous out, or an organization you appreciate, and give them a painting. Then write a press release about it. Add pictures. You can also donate art to causes, put it up in trendy coffee shops or bars. Your paintings are the best marketing you have; that’s what you need to trade for publicity.

3. Your art is as valuable as you say it is

Convince other people that it’s worth a lot of money by making connections and getting in the media often. How much is a painting worth? If you’re unknown, start with $500 to $1000. Charge the prices you’d like to earn.

4. Make prints and posters

Sell thousands of them for $10 to $25 each. Higher priced paintings will can work to make your prints seem like a good deal.

5. Find what people like and give it to them

Many people will argue that “real art doesn’t pander.” On the other hand, Keane sold a lot of paintings and made a lot of money; so much money that other artists starting copying the big eye style. An easy way to stay obscure and poor is to never consider the market and only paint what you like (that can also lead to genius and super-success, but the odds are much, much worse).

Mostly, paint what you like and you’ll attract people just like you who ‘get’ your paintings. But if you find one type of painting is selling much faster than your others, paint more of those.

6. Ignore the critics

I’ll tell you a secret, almost every great artist in history was considered a hack, a fool or an amateur when they started painting. (Well… that’s not true, most were trained in classical realism and were applauded because they excelled in skill and merit – not until the Vienna Circle and the modernist movement did art become divorced from quality, and artists began eschewing realism and proportionality, did people begin to wonder what the fuck they were doing to their canvases).

But my point is: paint, paint, paint. Show and try to sell. Create a powerful story that enriches your art with meaning. Become an ego-crazed maniac bent on world domination (or marry one). Success in art is 1/2 skill, which can improved with constant practice, and 1/2 boldness, which can also be developed with repeated acts of courageous daring.

Just for fun, here’s some of the stuff I made for my last exhibition.

how to sell art

About Derek Murphy

I help authors and artists turn their passions into full-time businesses, make a bigger impact, and blaze a luminous trail of creative independence. Right now I'm in Taiwan finishing a PHD in Literature, writing several books, and managing a handful of online businesses. Find me

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