Art Fair Catastrophe 101: Advice from a Newbie


Yesterday I was a vendor in the 36th Annual Sun Prairie Taste of the Arts Fair. It was my very first experience as an exhibiting artist and I was incredibly nervous from the moment I dropped off my  application to exhibit. Can I really do this? Should I really do this? How much money am I going to have to spend to get a booth pulled together? Do I have enough art to display? And the real source of all my anxiety, Is my art good enough? 

When I received my artist packet in the mail, it contained a list of rules (including the requirement of having a 10lb. fire extinguisher in every booth), my booth assignment (#137) and a map of the layout. There are 140 booths total on the map. My location is adjacent to a drive that connects two parking lots. The city Chamber of Commerce is organizing the fair and they claim they've had 4-5000 attendees at this fair in recent years. I'm pretty sure their advertising budget was $28, because I saw ONE sign in town this week, and High school graduation was the night before, which means lots of grad parties on the same day as the fair. I'm feeling very skeptical about attendance but I don't want to be a pessimist, so I hope for the best.

Last week the weather people were having a really great time changing the forecast every 4 hours, from scattered rain, all-day thunderstorms, scattered sun, temps in the low 70's, temps in the mid 80's...seriously, how is a girl supposed to make critical decisions when she doesn't know if there will or will not be water pouring from the sky? On the afternoon before the fair, the forecast was actually looking pretty decent but they were saying there could still be some showers in the area during the load-in.

So, Friday afternoon I packed everything that couldn't get wet into my Explorer. That meant A LOT of stuff had to go in my car. Framed paintings were in a giant plastic bin and the canvas paintings were in another large bin, but there was no way I could put the lids on the bins, so they weren't weather-proof at all. I also had two large boxes of the pieces that were matted and in plastic envelope-y things, also not technically weather-proof, so add them to the car. By the time I added in the display materials (including a cool, antique wood ironing board) and other essentials, I had played a pretty decent game of Tetris to get it all in there. My plan was to load the trailer in the morning with the grid wall, tent weights, tent and table, and off I'd go. 6:30 a.m. arrival was my goal.

Up by 5:30, dressed, partially caffeinated and ready to load the trailer, I walked into the garage, pushed the button for the door to go up. It went up an inch and then back down. So I pushed it again. It went up an inch and then back down. Repeat. REpeat. REPEAT!!!! I go grab my husband, I'm starting to sweat a bit, he pushes the button and gets the same result. REPEAT. Oh. My. God. Is this really happening? We do the next logical thing, pull on that rope that hangs down from the opener, the one that's supposed to disengage the mechanical opener and let you lift the door manually. Simple. 

No it is not.

The door doesn't budge.

Now I'm in full hot-flash mode, husband is staring at the door with his hand under his chin. What. Is. Happening? "Looks like the spring is broken. That door is not going to open". 

Kill me now, please.

Son #2, who is up and ready to go, runs upstairs to get son #1 out of bed and we quickly and carefully empty my vehicle of it's content, but it all has to come out of the partially open passenger doors because the back hatch can't open without banging into the closed garage door. It is now past the time I was planning on arriving at the fair and I am quickly watching my set-up time go down the drain. We transfer all my crap to a smaller SUV that is thankfully parked on the other side of the broken garage door, along with the trailer that still has to be filled with stuff that is, you guessed it, in the garage. 


Truthfully, I'm pretty much losing my shit at this point. No one is moving as fast as I think they should be even though they are really moving as fast as they can. Not my best mom moment, not my best happily married moment, either. Thank the Universe I have very, very understandable family members who know me well enough...The other true bright spot in the story to this point is that it is NOT raining. If it had been, I think I might have headed straight back to bed.

So, we finally arrive at the park with a full trailer and a full (back-up) vehicle. There are lots of tents already going up, lots of hustle bustle, many very focused artists scurrying around. I find my spot in the grass, my art fair mentor and lifesaver, KJ, shows up on time and the five of us, somehow, get it all set up and ready with at least 12 minutes to spare. Miracle. 

The rest of the day is a bit of a hot, sticky blur. My lovely booth neighbors were VERY disappointed in the attendance and many artists barely made back the booth fee in sales, some didn't sell anything the whole day. I really felt bad for all of them. That was my worst fear, before I knew a garage door could break on your most important morning. As for my sales, I honestly did better than I expected, due entirely to the fact that I have some truly amazing friends who showed up to support me by purchasing art for their homes. If I only count the art I sold to complete strangers, I also didn't earn back my booth fee, but I most certainly earned the most in pure experience. Here is a list of the "what I learned":

  1. Park outside the garage. 
  2. Get up an hour earlier just to be sure (fill in the blank)
  3. Don't get frustrated when your booth neighbors use your spot to throw all of their crap before you arrive. It happens.
  4. Art Fair organizers should NOT LET PEOPLE DRIVE CARS THROUGH AN ART FAIR ALL DAY LONG. They make road block signs for a reason.
  5. Don't wear that cute skirt with the cute attachable purse-thing. You look really fat in it.
  6. Also, leggings are really hot. Temperature hot, I mean.
  7. Just say no to the straw cowboy hat. It doesn't look as good as it used to and it made you really hot and then your hair was icky.
  8. People are really, really nice.
  9. No one asks if you have a fire extinguisher in your booth.
  10. I have the most amazing friends in the world. Some even travelled a great distance to support me on a day when they certainly had other very important things on their minds.
  11. My art is good enough.
  12. I made smart purchases for my booth set-up that should last me until I decide I want to quit or do more.
  13. I really am a badass in the making.
  14. Listen to KJ when she tells you to eat, even if it is her juice that looks like the inside of a diaper. One street taco doesn't get you through an entire art fair day.
  15. The Square reader thing is smarter than I am. Thankfully.
  16. Zip ties.
  17. My family will never understand how much I love them.

Make Your Mark

So, one of the techniques that I believe can really elevate abstract art is the process of mark-making.

Getting the Hang of This-2.jpg

Mark-making is exactly what it sounds like, adding random marks, scratches, textures, anything that adds depth, interest and character to a painting. These marks typically hide out in the layers, sometimes barely there, but they are definitely doing an important job. A good example can be seen in a detail shot of my most recently completed piece, Getting the Hang of This:



Every artist that incorporates marks into their work has their own style. It's like a signature - you get to the point where your muscle memory takes over and the marks you make are yours alone, totally recognizable as a style belonging to that artist.

My mark making begins at the beginning - I cannot dive into a big, white space without first starting with marks. Even though I know these early marks will never be seen in the finished painting, they help guide the emotion of the piece. I always start with my Lyra graphite stick. It's water-soluble graphite and it's available in a couple different degrees. I prefer the 9B - it's really dark but also soft. I scribble with reckless abandon over my paper or canvas, give the surface a couple good squirts of water and let the drips happen. I also use a large paint brush to make random strokes all over.

Throughout the process of building layers of paint, letting the colors and shapes guide the composition, I often get stuck. Adding more marks at this point is a great way to break out of whatever trap I've set up. I sometimes break out the Derwent Inktense Blocks and use them in the same way as the Lyra stick. Scribble, using the flat side for a broad, bold stroke and using the corners to make sharp lines. Add a couple more sprays of water, brush it around or let it drip. It's lovely! Stabilo Woody Pencils are also great to use in the same manner and give a more subtle, but similar look.

To keep me moving forward when I get frustrated, I also pull out the handmade stamps and stencils and create more dimension in the composition with these and other household items. I have a few squares of drawer liner and rug-stay rubber that make fabulous texture when pressed into wet paint. If I feel myself struggling to stay loose, I will use scrapers and brayers to either add or remove paint. Because these give me less control than a brush or my fingers, it forces me to let go of the outcome just enough.


When I start to feel that the painting is close to being done, that's where the marks I make really get a chance to take center stage. I love to pull out the oil pastels and add dimensions with shading, small bright spots of color and emphasize the round shapes I've come to use in all of my pieces. I use a variety of brands of oil pastels, they are all great for different reasons, I even love a super cheap box of Crayola pastels. Some brands are more creamy than others, some don't blend as easily, but I've learned ways to make their qualities work for me.

Depending on the painting, one of the very last steps is to create borders and dots using the  FineLine Tip and either white or black Golden High Flow paint. The FineLine tool combined with the white High Flow paint is really a must-have if you want really thin, consistent white accents. Love those two together!

You could keep making marks until the end of time if you don't have any self-control! They are so much fun and can really change the look and feel of the painting. Give it a try, find some cool things from around your house to use as tools, stamps and stencils, and see if it works for you!

Day One

Welcome to my new blog!!

Launching has pretty much consumed my life for the last week and I am so happy it's finally live and running pretty smoothly! The first time I tried to play around with a template on Squarespace I really struggled and almost gave up. I have managed a blog on another platform, had an Etsy store for years and also sell my art on, so I felt like I had a decent amount of experience to get my website started, but I was getting so frustrated! After a couple days of dinking around looking at other web hosting options, I came back to Squarespace, found a different template that was much better suited to my needs and skill level, and the rest, they say, is history!

I'm not typically a goal-setter but I am a pretty good list maker. In my mind there is a difference between the two! I see list making as more of a "baby-step" approach. Setting goals seems way too "big picture" for my style. However, it's a new day here at Rebecca Dodson Art, and I'm going to try my best to keep a consistent work ethic which will include blogging here at least once a week, more if I'm having an unusually exciting week. I will blog mostly about my art making process, but I hope to also throw in some "human interest" type stuff when I have some. I really like to cook, so you will probably see some of that here, including recipes. And hopefully I can convince my family to be a part as well.

Thank you for stopping by! If you are interested in keeping up with what's going on in my world, please click below to stay connected. And please, do leave me your comments! I'd really love to get to know you!