You need a tough skin to put your soul on display and then watch quietly as people wander by and critique it.

So it probably shouldn't be surprising that people who can make a living selling their life's work at art festivals are taking the recession in stride.

"I think most artists are great optimists," said Nancy Barch of Media as she sat outside her booth at the Rittenhouse Square Fine Art Show yesterday.

Most artists, she said, have a compulsion to create that carries them through tough times. "You live through the bad years and you keep painting and you think next year you're going to sell," she said.

It poured rain on Friday, the first day of the three-day show, and Barch, who sells mixed media paintings at a wide range of prices, felt lucky to sell one piece. Some of her fellow artists sold nothing. The weather was much improved yesterday and a customer had already put something on hold by mid-morning.

"It's fantastic and quite an honor when people are willing to spend their money on you this year," Barch said.

Started by students in 1932, the Rittenhouse show is the oldest show of original art work in the country. In the early days, local artists hung unframed work from clothes lines. This year, the show drew 143 artists from 20 states and Canada.

Steve Oliver, the show's executive director, said yesterday that he was pleased with how sales were going, but that the gloomy economy had affected everyone. "Art is something that people don't have to have to exist," he said. "It just enhances their life if they do."

A sampling of artists said sales were down from a little to 50 percent. Some have compensated by showing smaller, more affordable pieces. Others are going to more shows like this and sending less work to galleries, where owners take a big cut. Artists are selling more paintings directly to customers through their Web sites. Carol Maguire, of Radnor, who paints still-life florals, is transferring her designs to less costly table linens made in India.

Barch said a show such as the one at Rittenhouse increases name recognition and exposes artists to corporate and city leaders who may buy later in the year. "Last year, we had Vic Damone strolling through here," she said.

Bob Richey, a 59-year-old artist from Warminister, has participated in the show for 31 years. A former engineer with the Navy, he used to have to take vacation days to do the show, but he now supports himself with his pastel landscapes.

This year, he brought more small, unframed pictures that he could price at $150, and he was pleased with how things were going yesterday. "I'm encouraged so far just because of the number of people who have gone in here and looked at my work," he said. He likes shows because he gets to meet customers and form the kind of connection that leads to repeat buying.

He's always optimistic he'll get his share of the business. Just when he thinks he'll never sell another picture, he said, "all of sudden a lot of good things will happen."

Given that art is not a necessity, William Cantwell, an artist who divides his year between Havertown and Florida, is pleased that sales haven't been worse this year. "I think people are finding it is something they need more than they thought they needed it."

Cantwell, 61, sells his work at about 27 outdoor festivals a year. When he isn't at the festivals, he's applying to go to them or creating his landscapes and colorful silkscreens of amply proportioned ladies on the beach. "I'm working all during the week every day," he said as he perched on his director's chair, a cup of coffee in hand. "It's really just my way of life. It's fun. I get lost in it. The hours pass by."

Asked if it's a hard life, he smiled in surprise. "Are you kidding?" he asked. "I keep waking up in a sweat thinking someday I'll have to get a job."

Contact staff writer Stacey Burling at 215-854-4944 or sburling@phillynews.com.