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Creating Experiences and Telling Stories to Sell More Art

by Jason Horejs on April 15, 2013 · 32 comments

Several weeks ago, a couple walked into the gallery and headed straight for a wall of Guilloume’s work. I greeted the couple and learned they had been following Guilloume for some time and had been in the gallery earlier in the week to see what we had. They were now considering one of the bronze reliefs for their home in British Columbia.

Grouping of Guilloume's Work at Xanadu Gallery

We talked a bit about the work, and I stepped back to let the couple discuss the pieces.

After some back and forth, they decided on a piece in the front window, and I set about writing up the sale.

By coincidence, Guilloume happened to be en route to the gallery from La Quinta, CA, that very day. He was just passing through and would only be in the gallery for a few minutes, but I mentioned this to the buyers, and told them how much I would like for them to meet him. While I wasn’t sure exactly what time he would be arriving, I told them that I could call them when he showed up. The wife provided me with her cell phone number and they left for lunch.

About an hour later, the artist walked through the front door. We started making arrangements for the artwork he was dropping off and picking up, and I called the clients to let them know he had arrived.

When they showed up a few minutes later, I introduced them to Guilloume, who greeted them warmly. There were friendly handshakes and the couple told Guilloume they were very excited to have bought their first piece.

Guilloume thanked them, and then asked in his Colombian accent, “Can I tell you something very special about that piece?”

The couple eagerly assented and listened carefully as he told them his story about the sculpture. This is a copy of the written version he has created, but it’s the basic outline of what he told them.

“Stealing His Heart” is my sculptural interpretation of a recent photo taken of my wife and me. When I first looked at the photo, I was struck by the fact that I found my wife to be every bit as appealing and mesmerizing as the day I met her—perhaps even more so. I reflected on our initial meeting in our native Colombia and how I was swept up in love as she instantly stole my heart. What is so amazing to me is the fact that I have never gotten my heart back from her—it remains stolen to this day!

I am not referring to that “crazy love” that one experiences in the early stages of courtship. This is a mere illusion of love that gushes forth as we mistakenly assign all of the attributes that we desire in a mate to our new lover—while at the same time, unconsciously overlooking those traits that are less appealing.

Although we certainly experienced “crazy love” at first, as most couples do, our love has endured because that infatuation was soon fortified by more enduring relationship builders like appreciation, understanding, and mutual growth.

Guilloume has a great way of telling the story in a manner that doesn’t feel forced or contrived, and it was clear at the end of the story that the clients were thrilled with their purchase.

Before leaving I had Guilloume autograph and personalize a copy of his coffee table book, which we shipped along with the piece.

After the piece arrived I received the following email from the client:

 

Jason, you may remember me and my wife. We were in your gallery on March 26 and purchased the above noted sculpture piece by Guilloume.

I just wanted to pass along a short [note] to say the piece arrived today in good condition and is already hung in a special place and we both think it looks great.

We would like to thank you for your assistance and for arranging our meeting with the artist. This meeting will undoubtedly evoke a special memory that we can reflect upon each time we look at the sculpture.

PS: The autographed coffee table book was very nice touch and is much appreciated. Perhaps you could pass along our thanks, as well, to Guilloume the next time you see him.

 

"Stealing His Heart" Installed in Client's Home

Of course, it doesn’t always work out to provide this kind of experience for a collector, but whenever I have the chance, I will go out of my way to give collectors the opportunity to meet the artist.

This experience also demonstrates the value of telling stories about artwork. Guilloume writes narratives about most of his pieces. Not everyone cares about the stories, but it’s often the case that the story is the extra little push that encourages the collector to buy.

In my book, How to Sell Art, I encourage artists to tell stories about the inspiration for the piece, the experience creating the particular work, or even a story about where the artist’s interest in the subject matter comes from.

 

A patron’s initial response to your work is going to be raw and emotional. At a basic level, he will apprehend immediately whether or not he likes the work. If he does like the work, your job is to reinforce the positive connection, and to build the interest into an overwhelming, irresistible desire to buy.

Capturing the customer’s attention and imagination will imbue a sense of ownership in the piece, and nothing will engage the mind so well as a good story. Take him on a brief journey to unfold your interest in the subject matter, to elucidate the creation process, and to share your wonder at the miraculous result. Let your enthusiasm be contagious.

Here is a persuasive first step: If the piece of art is a landscape, talk about the setting in nature where the painting was created. The information satisfying the following questions will provide the fodder for your story:

  •  What drew you to the area?
  •  Had you been there before?
  •  How did you get there?
  •  Was the setting what you expected?
  •  How long did you stay?
  •  What most surprised you about the landscape of the area?
  •  What aspects of the landscape were you most interested in capturing in your painting?
  •  What most excites you about the painting?
  •  What response did you hope to elicit through the painting?

Similarly, if you have created a figurative sculpture, you could address the following interrogatories to create a narrative:

  •  Which gestures were you interested in capturing?
  •  What did you have to do to get the model to convey those gestures?
  •  What was the most difficult or challenging aspect of capturing the gestures?
  •  What most excites you about the piece you have created?
  •  To what should the viewer pay special attention?

What if you are an abstract painter? How much story can you extract from an abstract painting? Answer these questions and see where the story takes you:

  •  How much did you know about the piece before you began?
  •  What emotion was primarily driving the composition?
  •  What struggles did you face as you worked on the piece, and how did you overcome them?
  •  What surprised you about the way the piece came to-gether?
  •  What aspect or detail of the work most excites you?
  •  How does this piece fit into the narrative of the other pieces you are creating? Does it say something new? Does it build on a theme?

You get the idea. Asking yourself these kinds of questions in advance, and sharing the answers in an improvised narrative at the appropriate time, will help the client begin to engage more fully with your work. The personal touch of the creator is arguably the most efficacious tool, after the paint brush, in effectuating a sale.
Some would argue that your story might get in the way of the client formulating his own interpretation regarding the work, and that you might actually hinder his connecting to the piece. Is it possible to share too much information? Can the collector feel bombarded with all the relevant detail? I have never found this to be the case. A customer is going to bring his own story and exposition to the piece, no matter what you do; your chronicle only adds panache to the experience.

 

If you haven’t read How to Sell Art, you’ll find it on xanadugallery.com or amazon.com.

 

Do you try to create experiences for your collectors? Has telling stories helped you sell your art? Share your experiences or feedback about this post below in the comments.

 

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About 

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of ARTsala. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business.

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{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

kathryn April 15, 2013 at 2:45 pm

i tell stories about my drawings on my blog all the time, but have never written it up to give along with the piece of art…i just love that idea…thanks so much!!

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Donia April 15, 2013 at 4:51 pm

I paint both abstract and “emotional representational” pieces and although I generally agree with you, I have actually had the specificity of titles, place, and stories block a sale! Obviously with abstract work, different viewers can see different things in a piece as well as something completely different than what the artist “saw” when it was being created. I have found that too-specific titling (an aspect of the “storytelling” with an abstract work) has sometimes hurt my sales. I also paint a lot of oceans and landscapes from memory from my world travels and have had interested buyers turn away from a piece because they had initially assumed it was from someplace different than the “story” I shared with them… very frustrating. But I guess that comes with living somewhere like Hawaii where people tend to buy what I call “art souvenirs” which have never been something I’ve painted. So now when someone is looking at one of my generically numbered Ocean paintings, I try to keep my mouth shut because the ocean in the Cook Islands can be very similar to the ocean in Kauai!

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Camille Ronay April 15, 2013 at 5:12 pm

This article is dead on the money. I just got back from a workshop in Newfoundland, Edge of the Wedge, about creating EXPERIENCES. Travelers/collectors want to be able to experience something they can remember for a lifetime. You and your artist did exactly that. Well done!

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Catherine Case April 15, 2013 at 5:14 pm

Two cents. I admire the work of Guilloume, most likely because I am a fan of Giacometti (understatement… spending hours upon hours admiring his works, first-hand).

With regard to the work of Vincent van Gogh, I would highly recommend “A Walk Through the Wheatherfields, The Missing Journals of Vincent van Gogh” by Terrence James Coffman. It focuses on the notations of his brother, Theo. I would also like to suggest a short-read entitled “Do the Work” by Steven Pressfield (available via eBook or hardcover). Most inspirational for anyone in the creative field.

I would note to say Vincent’s ’bouts of depression and mental illness’ are an understatement. Live amongst the potato eaters, for god’s sake. What artist is willing to do that? Sunflowers and Starry Nights are novice known. “Eat your paint” and “Cut off your ear” (most likely via a bout with Gauguin) are incidences that keep my collegiate students awake during art history seminars.

I don’t mean to sound pessimistic, by any means. I will likely attend even without purchasing the book, having a rather in-depth knowledge of his life. Actually, I can’t wait! I absolutely LOVE the man, and am anxious to ingest every ounce of his life’s history that I can! One can never know too much!!!

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claudia April 15, 2013 at 5:46 pm

A wonderFULL post… a bit bittersweet for me, as a year ago I had stories and poetry to many of my works… until the website crashed and I lost everything. I have learned to always *back everything up* now… but still can not get myself to re-write everything. This is a reminder that I must.

Gracias!
Claudia
ClaudiaOlivos.com

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Paula Christen April 15, 2013 at 6:39 pm

So very true, Jason. Each piece I paint comes with a story that is found on my website, below the image, but as you pointed out, it is so much richer if the story is told in person by the artist. Sometimes I think the story becomes as valuable as the painting to the customer. They always tell it when they show the artwork to their friends. It is like getting two “originals” for the price of one.

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Kari April 16, 2013 at 5:43 am

Excellent post, Jason. As manager of a gallery in Utah, I have many examples of how telling stories enhanced my visitors’ experiences and in some cases led to sales. I’ve also been able to arrange meetings with artists, and that also has led to sales. Sometimes the story is not the artist’s but the one who is viewing the art. I hear wonderful stories from visitors who respond emotionally to the art, and I enjoy passing those stories along to the artists. They appreciate knowing how their work affects others.

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Peter Worsley April 16, 2013 at 6:40 am

I always write a story to go along with each of my paintings. As the years have gone by, I find that I am more comfortable in describing how the painting came about, as well as the story told in the painting. As a result, I often go back an enhance an exiting story. They will all be found on my website.

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Kevin Swallow April 16, 2013 at 7:19 am

I think collectors like hearing about the work. I often get sales from my studio by telling people more about the piece they’re interested in. I also find that it works the other way too. Asking people more about what draws them to the artwork or where they think they’ll hang it helps them visualize owning the piece. Also, I recently redesigned my website, swallowstudios.com, and have added short blurbs about each category to give viewers more background about my art.

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Sherrie April 16, 2013 at 7:24 am

Appreciate the story and the guide line prompt questions. I have written information about the place where a few of my photos were captured. This short synopsis is posted with my photography ( gallery/ public space setting ,) but is mostly historical or details about the space and not necessarily pertaining to the experience. I will try adding the personal experience. I do share that sort of thing when in person.

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Janice Dean April 16, 2013 at 7:31 am

I too have learned that clients enjoy a verbal experience to complement the visual one, which certainly makes sense, as we are engaging two (perhaps three, if accompanied by the auditory story-telling) of our senses. I once received two commissions for small botanicals after talking to the patron about my love for painting white-on-white flora as “challenge” paintings and showing her one of my “in-your-face” compositions, in which I portray the plant materials as though I were standing eyeball to eyeball with the specimens. She ordered two paintings in that mode: one blue Louisiana iris and the other, sweet bay magnolia blossoms. After she received them, she wrote a sweet thank-you note in which she remarked upon my personal stories being the basis of her commissions.

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Imelda Fagin April 16, 2013 at 9:21 am

Good advice and I will use it. But I also agree with the concerns of the last paragraph. On at least two occasions, my take on my art was at odds with what the buyer described. In one case, what I took to be a morality tale about stereotyped views of women was seen by the buyers as a cute painting to hang in their young daughter’s room! Needless to say, I did not share my views on the piece. Be subtle and read your buyer. You don’t want to destroy the meaning of the work for them.

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Nea Bisek April 16, 2013 at 11:08 am

This article is very poignant for me after exhibiting a series of work inspired by my young son who has severe autism. I decided to hang a written explanation and photograph I took of my son next to the work. My exhibit received much acclaim due not only to it’s aesthetics but to my story as well.

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Linda C Smith April 16, 2013 at 11:22 am

Wonderful post, full of great advice. My mosaic works are not about events or ‘times of life,’ but rather my emotional responses to Nature – guess I’ll have to find a way to translate that into words to accompany each piece.

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Sally Backey-Avant April 16, 2013 at 1:03 pm

Having read these thoughts regarding the ‘story’ of a painting it will encourage me to add this to my procedure of the work. An inspiration always, Jason.

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Valerie Borgal April 16, 2013 at 6:26 pm

At a reception at the Whistler House Museum I got into a conversation with a couple about one of my paintings on display. I told her about driving along route 32 in Maine and seeing this white picket fence with gorgeous delphinium behind it along with an array of flowers. I stopped and snap a photo. Later I painted it on a postcard size piece of watercolor paper. I named it Beauty Beyond. After talking awhile with them we went our separate ways and conversed with other people. Later, I learned that Beauty Beyond had sold. The couple had bought it. I went up to them and thanked them for purchasing the piece. The wife told me, ” I bought it because you took the time to talk with us.” That made an impression on me. Thanks, Jason, for all your great suggestions that help us be well rounded artists.

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George Fishman April 16, 2013 at 7:11 pm

QR code technology – free and readily-accessible – can be a valuable way to deliver a recorded audio commentary by the artist /curator/gallerist that a visitor can listen to (if no one is available to chat) and take home in their phone or tablet. Just record the audio in a smart phone or inexpensive digital recorder or on the computer, host to Soundcloud or archive.org or another service and use google or bitly to create the code. First time takes a bit, but then it’s pretty easy.

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Linda Rossin April 16, 2013 at 9:27 pm

When a gallery or show is kind enough to share a buyer’s contact information I always send a personal note of thanks to that collector with a photograph of their piece on the cover of the card. The note is not just a thank you, it also includes a short story about their painting and/or what brought me to paint it. In return I receive many replies thanking ME for the additional information about their piece and how much more connected they feel knowing more about it, and about me, the artist. I have many repeat customers because, I believe, this little bit of extra effort makes collectors feel special.

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MaryAnn Free Smith April 17, 2013 at 4:15 am

Thanks. When buyers have picked up their painting from my studio, I show them the drawings or other conceptual work that help me generate the painting. Often they want these items along with a written note or “story” about the piece.

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Victoria Storey April 17, 2013 at 4:59 am

I met Guilloume many years ago in Santa Fey NM. He told my husband and I the inspiration for his sculptors was the love of his life, his wife. We purchased his book and he signed it for us. Last summer I purchased your book “How to Sell Art”. I am a member and on the board of the Central New York Art Guild. Last weekend we had a lovely show and sale which was very well attended. Next to each of my paintings I had a typed written card explaining the inspiration of my painting . As viewers looked at my paintings and read the explanation for each piece I engaged them in conversation. It was a wonderful feeling to connect with many people and have them feel the excitement of my creations. One lovely couple purchased my three paintings “Morning Bliss”. They are 16×20″ canvases (without frames) and they hang together as one painting. The next day I sent out a thank you note card, (a print of one of my paintings),and also told them about a upcoming show in their area that they might enjoy.
I believe that the connection I made with the collector really helped sell my art and I thank you for the advice!
Gratefully,
Victoria Storey

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John S. Kjome April 21, 2013 at 4:38 pm

This past Wednesday I had the pleasure of delivering a commissioned inlayed slate topped coffee table to a couple of collectors in nearby Wisconsin. I had, a few days prior, been reading Jason’s blog on ‘…Telling Stories to Sell More Art’ so I was prepared to share my story about my work. Prior to bringing my work into their home, my gracious clients gave my daughter and me a grand tour and to my surprise I recognised a work by Guilloume hanging on the bathroom wall.

In my excitement I asked if they had met the artist. The response was “yes, and we have another of his works in our home in Phoenix”. Surprised again, I asked if they had purchased from Xanadu…and they said they had! They seemed impressed by my recognition of the artist and even the gallery that represented his work. Serendipity at work…

I had a surprise for my clients too. I had created a second table to bring along and was able to offer choice…(a good way to be sure they would be happy with their purchase). The table now commands the center of attention in their livingroom and I believe the ‘white glove’ delivery and my sincere recognition of their collection of furnishings and furniture will leave a positive lasting impression that will enhance their appreciation of my artform.

Of course, as is my nature, I rambled on and on about how I had selected materials and how the photos of their home had influenced my designs and my hopes that they would ‘feel’ this table was a collaboration of their intentions mixed with my artistic and technical abilities. In this world of mass production there is clearly a need for genuine caring human interaction mixed with the beauty and imperfection of an artisan’s heart and hands.

Thank You Jason,
John from Clearfork Stoneworks

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Jason Horejs April 23, 2013 at 8:52 am

Great story John – thanks for sharing. The art world is a small place!

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Marsha Hamby Savage April 23, 2013 at 5:18 am

Jason, I enjoyed reading this article and all the responses from the readers. I believe this is so important “most of the time.” I do know there are times as one response mentioned … be careful and listen to the viewer or client. They might have their own story… but I am always willing to share with them my story if I feel it is appropriate. I also have little paragraphs with each painting on my website.

I had a one-person show a couple of years ago with over 100 paintings and with as many of them as possible, I had hanging next to it a printed version of the sketch or thumbnail and a little paragraph. I saw something someone else had spoken of doing similar and felt it would also work for me ( I am rather “wordy!”). It helped viewers to stop longer in front of the painting while reading about it or viewing the sketch. I am still the highest attended opening at that venue and highest selling at the opening … and I believe it is because of the stories.

I have printed out your listing above and will be discussing using this to help sales at our “Round Table Business” meeting this next month. And, I will point them all in your direction for more good information and your book!

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Marshall April 23, 2013 at 8:50 am

Thank you so much for this article. You have validated my belief that the power of a story can bring the emotions
front and center. It helps the collector connect to the artist in a personal way and give special meaning to the work thus elevating it’s perceived value. All that we do should be to that end.

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Patrice April 24, 2013 at 7:52 am

This is to Donia, who has encountered problems with being specific in titling and subject: I think you can do both! Jason is so right about this. I, too, am an abstract painter, and I give each piece a title that is somewhat reflective of the visual result, rather than tying it to anything that would divert the buyer from their own experience. You can also tell the story of how the piece came to be without specifying the location or subject… for example, you can talk about what moved you to do a piece reflective of the ocean – the power of the waves; or the glint of ripples in the sun; or whatever emotion drove you and still not name which body of water inspired you. People really do want to know what motivated you more than anything. Whenever I’ve been present with a buyer that has asked me about the piece, I talk about the positive emotions that drove me, the joy/surprise I experienced as the final painting emerged — and they purchase the painting right after the discussion. Now they “know” you – it’s like buying from a friend!

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Donna Elliott April 24, 2013 at 10:16 pm

Just want to compliment you on this excellent advice. I really need to redo my website. My problem is getting enough time to do it. I took several months off from painting in order to create it in the first place but now I am in a co-op gallery where I need to refresh my paintings every other month. In addition I enter quite a few local shows every year and get my work juried into most of them. I do not have any help from my husband whi is crippled and on dialysis 3 days a week so must care for many other things around the house that he used to help with. I don’t know how people keep up with e-mails, blogs, tweets, and updated websites as well as producing new work. I much prefer to paint, but know I should be doing these other things as well. Any suggestions would be more than welcome.

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Tina Mammoser April 25, 2013 at 3:36 am

I love his story so much! Lovely. I’ve been fortunate that my work has a story that’s naturally evolved with it, so my story keeps growing. And people love to hear about the places in my paintings, though I’m careful to ask them first what story they have for it and then see if I can help add to that story. With the abstract paintings sometimes people don’t want to know exactly what was in my head in case it ruins their own interpretation.

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Joseph Bennett April 29, 2013 at 7:36 am

Agreed. People want to be entertained, and in most cases respond to “getting in the head” of the artist. This has led to many art sales for myself and others. Thanks for the great reminder, Jason!

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Donia April 29, 2013 at 4:06 pm

To Patrice who was kind enough to reply to my original response: I agree with what you said – and that was sort of my point: that I have to be careful to tell more non-specific “stories” and “details” because of the nature of my paintings and the art market where I live! best wishes with your work :-)

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Jason Horejs May 17, 2013 at 11:04 am

I received this email from Rob about this post and he gave me permission to post it.

I read with great interest your blog posting regarding the importance of a narrative to accompany a piece of art.I believe you are correct about this and a couple of years ago, I sold a major piece because of a narrative. It was, however, the customers’narrative! They were looking at the piece and asked its title. I responded, “Sound of Ice”. Their heads snapped toward each other and I knew at that moment that a sale was possible. As it turned out, they had recently returned from a trip to Alaska and had camped for several days in a cove where, due to the tides, chunks of sea ice were marooned on the sand each morning. My piece, with its lucky title, reminded them of this experience.

I’m including a link to my blog, which I’ve been keeping updated since 2009. It is a great resource for showing how I work for people who express an interest in my process. In addition, it shows my newest piece made of a beautiful translucent orange alabaster. Another advantage of blogging is that I have a written and visual record of all my pieces and their process. I would encourage every artist to assiduously keep a blog.

Rob Reed’s sculpture blog

Best,
Rob Reed

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K Wayne Thornley July 25, 2013 at 5:10 am

One of the best posts I have read on “telling your story.” And, for those of you who haven’t, Jason’s book “Starving to Success” is a must read. Thanks Jason.
kwaynethornleyart.weebly.com

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Lauran Childs November 8, 2013 at 7:08 am

Thank you for your article, I wrote my first story about why I created a painting – ‘Healing in Theta’ yesterday and I found your site because I was interested to see if other artists found this a useful practice.

Guilloume is wonderfully articulate, it sounds like his buyers were very lucky to meet him! I’m looking forward to perusing your site and am signing up for your newsletter.

Best,

Lauran Childs.
English Pop Artist in Miami

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