Do you trade paintings?
Okay, before I answer, I have to cop to the fact that this one is going to exclude a lot of the general audience. I apologize. While this is a frequently asked question, it's one that is asked solely by other artists, so I guess this one is pretty much just for them.
Alright, my answer: Yes, I do trade paintings. But the conditions have to be right.
I'll tell you a story. The second Gen Con I ever attended (and the first one I ever showed at), I saw a couple of artists agree to a trade. This is how it went down: Artist A came over to Artist B's table, selected a piece from his wall, and they both walked back to Artist A's table to complete the trade. I didn't get to see the other half of the trade, but I did get to see Artist B walking back to his table staring down at the piece he'd gotten in return. His expression was one of deep regret and disappointment. It was clear what had happened. It was a bad trade.
I've heard it said that you should never accept a gift that eats. A bad trade is like this. Only it does not raid your refrigerator. It nibbles at your happiness. I have been in Artist B's shoes. I have felt the sting of a trade I was unhappy with. I followed through out of politeness, and I would take the whole thing back in a heartbeat. But I can't.
As a result, I have developed simple guidelines when it comes to trading paintings. Should you ever want to swap a painting or two, maybe they'll be helpful. Maybe not. Either way, here they are:
1. Be honest with yourself. This is the toughest one of the lot and it's first because it directly affects whether a trade is proposed to begin with. Unfortunately, it's also very hard to describe. Let me put it this way: I have a pretty good idea of who would be willing to trade paintings with me. It's kind of obvious. At the same time, I know that I'm not going to be able to walk up to Michael Whelan or Donato and get either of them to swap anything with me. I'm just not there yet. I may never be there. And that's cool. Like it or not, there are artists who may be out of your reach when it comes to trading. I can only urge you to accept it and move on. I assure you it's not the end of the world. If nothing else, use this knowlege as motivation to become good enough that they someday come to you.
2. The trade does not happen if either party is unhappy. The ideal result of a trade is that both parties are as happy or happier with the paintings they've traded as they would have been had the trade not occurred at all. Some are of the opinion that the goal is to feel as good about the piece you've gotten in the trade as you would have felt had you sold the piece you traded. However you measure it, both parties need to walk away satisfied. Anything less is a bad trade.
3. Check your ego at the door. In the event that you don't have anything that the other party is willing to trade for, be okay with that. It's not personal, and it's not a commentary on how good you are. It simply may be a matter of personal taste — after all, you don't know what color the furniture is in the room where they intend to hang the piece. Your work might clash with the drapes — who knows? It could also be about the subject matter. For example, I know a guy who will only trade for paintings of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He's willing to trade with me, I just don't happen to have any paintings of Leonardo hanging around. It may even be about extenuating circumstances beyond both your control, like your work not passing the "Spouse Test." I've lost several trades where the artist liked my work but their spouse didn't. It stinks, but that's just how some people roll. The take away is that you just have to accept that the trade isn't going to happen, and trust that it's not a slight... Unless it's explicitly stated otherwise, in which case you should probably get started on that blood feud.
4. Be honest, but don't be a jerk. Just as you should be cool with someone not wanting anything of yours, you should also be up front with them if the shoe is on the other foot. Sometimes you just don't see anything that floats your boat, and that's okay. The important thing is to just be honest and let them know that you don't want to follow through. Make up some excuse if you have to: someone offered to buy the piece they want to trade for, your spouse asked you to keep it, whatever — just don't follow through out of obligation. And whatever you do, don't put the reason for not wanting to trade on the other artist's shoulders. This is not the time to be critical of their work or to let them know that you really don't like them as a person. You'd think I wouldn't need to write that, but I've seen it happen.
As far as when to trade, I recommend doing so at shows or cons when both parties are present. In such cases, I usually make an overt offer to trade early in the show. It allows me to see if the other party is interested. If they are, I tend to make a mental note of three or four pieces I wouldn't mind having. In general, folks I know tend to wait until the show is almost over before actually making the trade, so as to give both parties a fair shake at selling their various wares. Then, it's all about hammering out a deal.
Some may be wondering why we wait. If both parties want to trade, isn't it best to go after the pieces they most want? Well, I suppose in certain cases this might be the route you go. For the most part, however, the business side of things tends to win out. We try and sell what we can so as to pay for the con, show, etc. There's always an economic aspect that must be met. That's why I always make a mental note of three or four pieces. Should one or two sell, I've still got work I'm interested in.
Rarer for me have been trades that have occurred via phone or email. These usually started out as casual comments that became trades unexpectedly. I've even had artists I admired and never before spoken to contact me for the express purpose of swapping paintings. These tend to be specific trades, or were situations where only four or five pieces were offered up in either direction. The only thing that can be worrisome in these cases is that you don't get a chance to look at the paintings themselves, but rather scans or photographs. You just have to trust that the work looks as good as the digital file being presented. So far, I have yet to be disappointed. No matter what, it's important to keep in mind that despite the circumstances being a little different, the guidelines still apply. No smiles, no swapping.
Now, I have one final note about the whole trading thing. It is a warning. Among the various folks willing to trade, there are a group out there that many artists would refer to as "Cherry Pickers." These are folks who will want to get their hands on the very best work you've ever done and only be willing to trade their lesser work in exchange. In the story I wrote above, Artist A was a Cherry Picker, and the whole scenario caused Artist B to swear off trades ever again. While I can't tell you what to do when dealing with these folks, I personally tend to shut down any proposed trade with them. Believe it or not, it's actually not personal. I understand the impulse to do that kind of thing — it's not too different from trying to buy something for the cheapest price possible, or attempting to have cake and eat it, too. It's a fundamental of human nature. My reason for not trading with Cherry Pickers is simply that I know that I won't be happy with the end result. I've already got three or four pieces sitting in my flat files that I wish I could take back and I think that's just about my limit.