M. Stephen Doherty

M. Stephen Doherty
The editor of Plein Air magazine at work

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Plein Air at the Grand Canyon: Sales

Evaluating Sales During the Recent Grand Canyon 
Celebration of Art

                                   First Prize Winner Cody DeLong
After looking carefully at the paintings on display in the Kolb Studio along the southern rim of the Grand Canyon, I came to some conclusions about sales of plein air paintings created during a week long event that was part of the Celebration of Art (September 11 - September 18, 2010). I reached these conclusions after considering why some paintings sold immediately, some were acquired during the run of the exhibition, and a few will probably not sell at all. 
I should explain these are my own conclusions and may not reflect the opinions of other participating artists, collectors, sponsors, or judges. I welcome comments from any of those folks, as well as from artists who have participated in similar events. 
The obvious point to be made is that when a plein air event is held at a location that is a landmark, historic site, national treasure, natural phenomenon, or source of local pride, patrons are most likely to buy paintings they feel accurately represent the place. Those can be works that range from tightly detailed presentations of the most emblematic scenes to paintings that capture the emotional, atmospheric, or personal aspects of the place. 
At the GCCA event, several artists challenged themselves to find scenes that were unexpected, personal, or interpretive. In general, those failed to sell. The most popular images were those that depicted the well known peeks in ways that captured the dramatic lighting, vast space, and geological phenomena of the canyon.
The next big factor influencing sales was pricing. The work that sold fastest was prices in the range of $5 - $8 per square inch, whereas the pieces that sold most slowly or not at all were priced in the $10 - $13 per square inch range (including frames). 
Let me quickly mention that I am not factoring in the artistic merits of the drawings and paintings exhibited in the Kolbe Studio because in every case the works created by the 28 participating artists was of a very high technical and aesthetic quality. If that hadn’t been the case, as so often happens in outdoor painting events, I would be the first to point out that poorly executed paintings are not likely to sell at any price, especially if they present the favored landmarks in an amateurish manner. 
In general, people who are actively looking to buy paintings are confident in their own judgements, but they can be influenced by the decisions of the judges. The four award winners in the GCCA event sold almost all of their paintings, in part because the judges’ decisions confirmed the positive opinions  people had about the artwork. 
Most of the artists who participated in the GCCA event live in the Southwest and are known for painting regional landscapes in general and the Grand Canyon in particular. Moreover, those artists are familiar to regional collectors because they participate in other plein air events, museum exhibitions, and gallery shows. The artists who traveled from California, New York, and Utah were less likely to be known. However, their paintings did lend variety and interest to the exhibition, and collectors responded to the fact those artists brought a different style and interpretation to the subject matter. 
A number of buyers at the GCCA event came specifically to add a painting to their collection by one of the better known artists such as Curt Walters, Merrill Mahaffey, and Bruce Aiken. That’s probably the reason the quick draw paintings by Gregory Hull and P.A. Nisbet sold for prices well above the average. Astute collectors knew they were getting a bargain even when they paid the highest prices in the live auction. 
Although most of the participating artists worked in oil, as is so often the case in plein air events, those who did drawings or painted in watercolor or acrylic sold works for comparable prices. 
It should be noted that the Grand Canyon event was extremely well organized and promoted, the artists were treated as the stars of the event, and the staff and board members were totally supportive of the celebration. In fact, a number of GCA board members helped sponsor the event and bought paintings. All of that contributed to the overall success of the event. 
It is also worth mentioning that last year many paintings sold after the opening weekend events, and the show will be hanging through Thanksgiving this year. The park expects as many as 10,000 visitors to view the exhibition in Kolbe Studio, especially during the Thanksgiving holiday when the number of park visitors is quite high. 


  1. So sorry I had to miss this year's event due to a death in the family. I heard it was even better than last year's show, that the artists themselves raised the competition to a new level. 89 paintings sold the first weekend, more than sold throughout the entire show last year.Congratulations to all of the participating artists!

  2. Steve, thanks for sharing your thoughts and observations. I can learn from your experiences. When I paint national parks, I need to capture the essence of the place - something that stirs the memory and emotions of those who love that setting.

    Not hard to do when I'm so stirred by it.
    Thanks so much - really interesting, so I shared the link on Twitter and Facebook. Hope you don't mind ;-)

  3. Oh, also excited that works in other mediums besides oil were sold in similar price ranges.

  4. Steve, thanks for the analysis. Helpful to hear others thoughts about participation in these type of events.

  5. Thank you for the article, Steve...informative!