Upon visiting Cody Kuehl’s new garage-based studio just north of Denver, it’s pretty easy to see where he draws some of his inspiration from for his work. His house and studio are situated right in the middle of horse ranches with prairie land to the east and the magnificent Rocky Mountains to the West. The Wild West doesn’t seem so long ago.
It quickly became clear to us after sitting down with Cody that he’s very generous with his time, loves helping others and puts effort into building a strong community of local artists who support one another. He’s never afraid to take both artistic and financial risks when needed and will do whatever it takes to build his business.
In our conversation, Cody shares:
- Why artists need to build risk tolerance and be smart with their money
- Why it’s essential for emerging artists to show their work and develop thick skin
- What his sales strategies are for festivals, conventions and shows
Can you give us an overview of your background in art and how you got to where you are?
I was doing some little paintings, like that little devil dude [points to painting in studio], that were just kind of mini-pop surreal paintings. And then in college I went on a trip to the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art and looked around and I was like, I think I need to do something more serious with this.
I started taking it more seriously and showed in Ft. Collins for a few years and then we moved down to Denver and saw some initial success and I kind of got hooked on showing in different places and built it from there.
Are you self-taught or did you take any art classes?
Self-taught, yeah. My art teacher in high school told me I’d get laughed out of art college. So I was like, Okay, fine, I guess I won’t go to art college. Which was actually good because I have a liberal arts degree to fall back on that I used for ten years while I built my art business.
Can you talk a little bit more about building your business while working? Because some artists have to juggle different day jobs with art on the side. So what did that look like for you?
I worked two 40-hour jobs ten years straight — I would work 8 hours during the day and 8 hours in the evening or on weekends — we didn’t have kids then, which helped. But there were a lot of years of just figuring out all the business side of the art stuff and waiting for the income to be sustainable enough.
Artists starting out are like, I don’t know why I’m not seeing more success. But I always say, Well, are you working it as a job or are you just tinkering? If you want to do it full time, then do it full time. Work part time if you have to, wait until the income comes from art.
I think the smartest thing I did was I separated my art business income from my work income. So every dollar that came into the Art of Cody Kuehl was to buy prints, to pay for festivals, to pay rent and to pay for whatever I needed to expand the business. I luckily never got to the point where my art income was zero and I was taking from my work income to do the art stuff because then it’s called a hobby. So that’s when it’s like, Okay, either you make better art or you need to make better decisions about your product or business decisions.
And so I used that segmented art income to build the business. I never leveraged anything against it, I never borrowed anything to do the art business. And I did not spend it on frivolous things. It was like, I need new paper prints, I need new canvas prints or I need to pay for gallery walls — I know it’s sacrosanct to pay to show your artwork, but I made good money for a lot of years doing that. You do whatever you have to do to build the business.
How did you structure your business — as an LLC, S-Corp or sole proprietorship?
I’m still a sole proprietor. I talked to a couple of people and they said it sounded like sole proprietor was the best for what I’m doing. And I have the business insurance for the liability side of the art stuff.
How did you learn the business side? And did you have a separate business account for banking?
Yeah, I have a separate checking account for all the art stuff.
Essentially my business strategy was to just do a bunch of stuff. It’s like that South Park episode where they collect underpants plus a question mark and that equals profit.
So there were a lot of questionable inputs I used to build my business. A lot of trial and error, honestly. And just getting out and meeting people.
I was really lucky, there was a gallery in Fort Collins called Gallery Underground. It was 2008 and I quit my job for the first time just to do art. I had no sales record, no real body of work to speak of, but it was like, I want to be an artist, you know? I was still 27, so my whole life was ahead of me. And Gallery Underground would just rent space and if you make a sale, you just take all the money. It was a great way to start looking at things like, How do I talk to customers? What kind of things do I want to carry that will sell? What’s my target market?
I always tell artists when they get started to just show your work, and when you show your work, show up to the show and talk to people. That’s the only way you’re going to get real, honest reactions. And you can watch people walk up to a piece and love it, but not buy it. There’s a whole smorgasbord of sales tactics and ways to sell art.
So you said in 2008 you actually did quit your full-time job and just tried to do art full-time. And then what happened?
Yeah, then I got a couple of other jobs again.
Okay, so that didn’t quite work out.
It didn’t work, yeah. The economy just went down the toilet and I was like, I feel like this is a bad time to be doing this. [Laughs]
So I think the big take away from that was like, until you have the income you need, you can’t— if you want to be an artist, you have to have a lot of ability to take risks. You have to be able to take financial risks and take artistic risks and be able to take a leap no matter what. But if you don’t have any money, you can’t enter into or go to festivals, you can’t rent a studio space, you can’t pay for a show, you can’t pay a jury fee, you can’t buy prints. If you don’t have any risk tolerance, then your reward tolerance is just in the gutter, you know?
I think having a full-time job or having a part-time job that can sustain you and then working your plan and showing art is the most important thing. The job that I was working the second go around, that gave me the autonomy to take risks that I wanted to take. But I know a lot of artists where it’s really tough for them to buy the inventory they need or to pony up the money for the show they want to show at.
There was a time when I was doing festivals in the mountains and the prints were around a buck a piece to make and my friend was like, Why don’t you just have a thousand of these? And I was like, Because that’d be a thousand dollars. And he’s like, Yeah, but it’s $20 a pop, that’s how many you should have. And I’m like, I only had $200 to spend on this, on top of the festival.
So you have originals, giclée numbered prints, open-edition canvas, custom work. How do you figure out what to offer and the prices for those different types of pieces?
I think the market kind of dictates some of the stuff. There’s a pretty average price of $20 to $40 for paper prints, and you can do bigger, nicer paper prints for $70 to $100.
But mostly it’s just what it sells for. After selling for ten years I know the small canvas prints I have sell for $85. I have a lot of people who are like, Oh, these are so cheap, you should raise the price. And I’m like, If it’s so cheap, you should buy it, man, if it’s such a deal. But I know what it sells best at and sometimes that’s not exactly what I want for it. There is the sweet spot where I can sell at volume.
For originals, I’ve had good luck selling the originals, so I’ve continued raising the prices and kind of found a good ballpark. So I think that’s part of getting out there, showing and not being afraid to just sell your artwork. There’s a very purist, artistic sense that, Oh, you have to put a big price tag on it to make a sale. And it’s like, yes and no. Sometimes making a sale is making a sale. Making $500 is $500, you know?
So that’s kind of where I started. I started on the lower end and just said, I have a 2×4-foot canvas, it’s $500 to $600. I was showing at Boxcar Gallery in one of their studios, seven or eight years ago, and I was like, I don’t know what it’s worth — if somebody will pay me, that’d be great. It’s worth nothing until somebody pays you the money.
How does your income break down from the different types of work you sell?
I think it’s 1/3 for original sales at galleries, 1/3 festivals and 1/3 commissions and then there’s some ancillary stuff.
It’s nice to have some diversification there so I’m not waiting for people to commission a painting every month or not just waiting for that one big festival to knock it out or not just waiting for a store or gallery to pay me or whatever. And there’s obviously stuff that has better margins than other stuff.
So from all the different things that you sell, from the original art to posters and accessories like T-shirts, what sells best?
It’s all pretty even, honestly. There’re things that I really like to sell, like the paper prints where the margins are huge. It’s like printing money. But I’ve also been really fortunate to have really good sales with some of the new original stuff too.
So yeah, I think it’s pretty much all the same, though obviously you have to sell way more $20 prints to get to one big original.
When you look at your different outlets for selling, are there some that stand out?
There are some tailored events that fit my style better. Cheesman Park Arts Fest has been great for me.
Denver Comic Con, Pop Culture Con now, has been great for me for all eight years I’ve done it. But I think it’s just numbers. Half of it’s just because they have 100,000 people there, you know? If you have 100,000 of any type of people, you’re going to have 10% that have money and 10% of those people will like your stuff.
“Longing” captures my goal of giving enough details to let someone tell their own story to the image and add their idea of what’s happening and populate the painting with their world. –Cody Kuehl
What about selling tactics when you’re at those events? What have you found over the years to work best?
You’ve got to have a professional display. But then you have to balance that with not spending all your money on a display, because you can do that — you can spend an infinite amount of money on display materials.
Amanda Vela-Charbonneau, who I work with, she’s really big on having light. You have to have as much light as you can put on your stuff as you can. The more, the better. So, well lit.
And I think everybody needs to find their own sales strategy. You need to be able to talk about your work, to create a rapport with people and you need to be able to give people space.
My usual sales strategy is, Hi, how’re you doing? And then I kind of gaze around for a while and then it’s like, Let me know if you have any questions. And, you know, you have your drawing going or whatever. So you’re engaging them but they’re still like a frightened deer at that point. They don’t want to talk to anybody. Then a lot of times they’ll ask you a question, they’ll talk to you about your stuff and I’ll say, Why don’t you come closer and see it?
You can tell if people are interested, first of all, and you can give them space to talk about it if they want to make a purchase. A lot of times you have a husband and wife where they’ll say to each other, You like this or not?
And then to be able to let people walk away without feeling guilty is huge, I think. I know so many artists who would rather complain and say, I just talked to them for 20 minutes and they didn’t buy anything. And I say, Well, they’re not required to. Just because they like your work doesn’t mean they have to buy it, you know?
That goes back to that idea of being able to take risks and having some risk tolerance. If you go from show to show and your business is dependent on every show being a knockout or the best show you’ve ever had just to make rent, you don’t have a business and you’re in tough shape. That’s tough to do when you’re like, Oh god, I need a sandwich, please buy this or I can’t let you out of my booth. [Laughter]
How about a sweet spot for a number of conventions or traveling to different shows a year?
I’m trying to do less and less all the time. I think getting into those is a great way to show your art and to have an audience that is brought to you by a promoter. So whenever I do one of those events, sometimes I’ll be like, Hey, I’m here. You pay that promoter to do the promotion. It’s that promoter’s job to get buyers to my artwork, you know? So when they’re like, You should invite all your friends to this and run the social media ads, it’s like, No, no, that’s your job. I’m going to promote my gallery openings and the stuff that I’m doing on my own.
So I’m trying to get back to maybe one a month. Which is still quite a bit.
How many galleries are you showing in?
I have a couple of small spots, but Gallery 1505 is probably the best for original work in Denver for me. I have a little studio in Saratoga, Wyoming. I have some small print work in Steamboat.
I have some different stores, like the I Heart Denver Store. Those guys crush it, I love them. Just, you know, results. And because some of those places are not what some artists consider “pure” places to show and sell art, they say, Are you worried that’s going to affect your career? I used to worry about that. There are some very traditional gallery spaces that I show in and some non-traditional, retail stuff. But I think for artists, it’s important to consider all of it. There’s this sense that if you show in a retail Colorado store that you’re not a “real” artist and the top-tier galleries won’t look at you. But I’ll tell you what, the galleries aren’t looking at me anyway and I have bills to pay, you know? I’m not in it for this purist sense of what you think art is. I like making what I want to make and making my own decisions.
So how did you find and get into some of those traditional and non-traditional outlets?
The owner of Gallery 1505, she’s a jeweler and she was like, Oh, I’m starting this gallery, do you want to show with me? And we’ve had this great relationship where she sells my work and makes a bunch of money off of it.
I did the I Heart Denver Store because I did a show that was in Southwest Plaza [mall] and Samuel [Schimek] came by and said, Well, let’s try some prints.
I had a studio at Boxcar and their traffic was down for first Fridays and I said, What if I just rent this whole thing from you guys? And I kind of did it because I personally like renting wall space. Because I have faith that my artwork will sell and I’d rather take all the profits from that and just pay wall rent if it’s a place where I know I can sell.
So I kind of built that initial iteration into a model where I could show and artists could also rent an 8-foot section of the wall for $150 per month. We told the artists, You just give me the rent, you make the art and take the profits. And we’d have 1,000 people through on a First Friday. So it was definitely counter to the gallery model. What we found is we had a lot of artists who wanted to rent for a month but then would be like, I didn’t sell anything! But that endeavor built this whole network of other artists and artists that I’ve reconvened with to do other projects.
So it’s really just getting out. Get out, meet as many people as you can, work with as many people as you can and don’t be afraid to get the door shut in your face.
We’ve found that a lot of artists get to where they are because of their relationships. So do you have any tips on nurturing relationships? What kinds of things do you do to keep your relationships going and stay in touch?
With some artists I knew, I just sent an email and said, Hey, let’s get brunch. And that turned into, How do we do stuff together? So it was just continuing the conversation with people.
I think a lot of people really focus on going to all these people’s shows, but that’s kind of like going to people’s weddings, I think. They don’t see you, they can’t talk to you, they’re super busy. It’s not an intentional conversation that you have at those things. It’s just, Oh, that guy came to my show.
So usually when I want to have conversations with artists, I want to sit down and be like, What are you working on? What am I working on? Where are you showing? Where am I showing? What works for you? What doesn’t work? And that’s so much more valuable than being like, Dude, nice work.
It’s good to go to shows, I’m not saying don’t do that. But I’ve had so much more luck with that initial crew because we just try to support each other, we’ll do events together and it’s easier to set up and we’ll sit and talk for the whole day, you know? Like at Comic Con, I had Amanda who was like, Hey, I need somebody to hang out with, do you want to just throw your stuff up in a corner on my booth?
There’s a lot to be said about just being generous with your time. If I see artists coming up, I’m like, Hey, I’ll consult with you for free, I’ll buy you lunch and you can ask me anything. Because they might be more talented than me, they might be more successful than me, they might bring me up later.
“Church Bell.” This and “Flush” are two of the early ones that are still some of my most popular images. I think they encapsulate how powerful the Western genre is with storytelling. With just a few small details, people can populate a whole story right in the middle of the action. –Cody Kuehl
So in general, what does your marketing strategy look like?
Essentially it’s just social media and any of the shows that I do.
Okay, and what does your social media strategy look like?
Just when I finish new work, I post it. [Laughs] I’m terrible at it, so bad.
I’ve gotten a little better trying to post my best content all the time instead of a lot of content, and I think that’s probably counter to what all the social media people would say, is you should post every other day or something, right? I don’t know.
It seems to vary by person, it’s pretty all over the board.
As much as I’m out there and talking to people, that’s probably more intensive marketing than I could do online, ever. I talked to 10,000 people this weekend. Gave out 500 business cards. It’s a pretty intensive marketing strategy.
Do you have a follow-up strategy with all these people?
No, I’m terrible at that too. [Laughter]
I have a few clients I stay in touch with. I’ve been honestly really spoiled. I’ve had great luck with selling some of my new originals. I had a streak last year where every original would sell the month or the day or the week that it went up.
When you say when “it went up,” is that on your website, on Instagram, on all your platforms?
A lot were at Gallery 1505. They have a really high-end clientele there with Sushi Den [restaurant] being right next door. Katherine does a great job staying open for the evening hours there and it’s just people walking in, seeing it and having the money.
What are some of your biggest successes?
Just being super lucky, I think. My style is in a little niche that’s coming into vogue, a more illustration-based style with the rise of comics and stuff again. It’s just the right time, right place, right style kind of thing, in a lot of ways.
It’s hard work but I haven’t done anything besides just paint my stuff. I can’t say that I’ve done anything that is way out of the box success-wise, you know?
We’ve had some great sales and last year I did a mural for Naked Grouse Whisky on Larimer and 21st in Denver, on Star Bar. That was an artistic success. My artistic successes are where I feel the most accomplished, where I’m like, That was a big project and I did it. It wasn’t about how much money I made.
So being lucky enough to be in a place where I can do my art full time is a success, it’s a win.
Yes, it is a win, it’s a huge win.
Yeah. And then I always tell people I just want to make better art. And if I do that, I consider that a success.
And then on the flipside, what were some struggles or things that maybe people don’t see behind the scenes that are a challenge?
I think I learned the hard way on a lot of stuff. I’d just try a bunch of things and a lot didn’t work out. I had a lot of events that just kind of bombed and I probably worked harder than I needed to instead of targeting things in a more specific way.
Like I did this Bro Show. It was so bad. It was at the Denver Merchandise Mart and it didn’t even go through the end of the hours. It was supposed to be, like, all these “things men,” you know? So I thought, That fits my art. I actually broke even on it. A $500 booth fee.
But you know, there are a lot of things I look back on and I’m like, Man, why did you do that? That is dumb. So you have to be fairly tactical. I’m very risk tolerant on that spectrum and I think it’s because I built it so that my art was just a side job, that I didn’t depend on any of that income. So I was like, There’s money in the account, I can do it, and that has led to some successes and some failures.
“Riding Into Town” was initially based on a historical photo of Leadville. I have been going to some of the local old western towns to get some photos, as well. It’s been an interesting experiment to have the actual topography of a place and then imagine the characters in that world.
All of the three-layer ones originated from my use of a cell-shaded approach in my painting. There was a moment when I was thinking that these were so similar to an animation approach, that why not make it super literal. –Cody Kuehl
So we touched a little bit on your hopes and dreams for the future, but what are you looking forward to next?
To build the business to where it’s self-sustaining to some degree. And then the next step is to say, How do I do bigger things? How do I do better things? How do I improve as an artist? To start weaning away from the festival side a little bit and start creating more art.
I found myself at the Rio Grande Balloon Fiesta Show last year in October and I’d just done a whole year of shows. I got there and I only had one painting that I finished for that show — one original and four of the Plexiglas mini-originals. I hadn’t really given myself the space to really bloom or really show my best self. Essentially I was spread too thin and I had all my best work in galleries and other places and then I drove to Albuquerque to do what? Show one painting that might sell and a bunch of print work?
I think changing my business model towards, show up, but show up huge, show up with my “A” Game every time, really give people a great first experience. When somebody sees my work the first time, just to be blown away.
So I think that’s the next step and I have all these ideas for my next show at Valkarie of big, grandiose cutouts and 3D stuff. It’s going to be fun.
Anything you’d like to add or advice for other artists?
Just don’t, just don’t. I don’t need any more competition from artists, just quit. Everybody else quit and get out of here. Quit being better than me in your 20s. [Laughter]
I’m just kidding. I think it’s all about building a thick skin and talking to people. Building a thick skin and not being worried if somebody walks away. And then find a community and just make better art all the time. You only have one person to compete against and that’s you. I can get in the same mindset as any other artist where I can scroll through Instagram and be like, I’m the worst artist in the world, apparently. Because you see all this other stuff and you’re like, Geez, there are so many people just killing it. But what you need to do is scroll through your old stuff and say, Yeah, I am killing it, I’m getting better. I have only one person to beat and that’s me.
Interview edited for length, content and clarity. Artist’s work (images, audio and/or video) courtesy of the artist. All other photographs by Kim Olson.
- Amanda Vela-Charbonneau
- Boxcar Gallery
- Cheesman Park Arts Fest
- Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art
- Denver Pop Culture Con
- Gallery 1505
- I Heart Denver Store
- Naked Grouse Whisky
- Rio Grande Arts & Crafts Festival: Balloon Fiesta Show
- South Park – Collect Underpants ? Profit
- Star Bar
- Sushi Den
- Valkarie Gallery & Studio