The Truth about What Kind of Art Sells Best

Stop worrying and wondering about what kind of art sells best.

What Kind of Art Sells BestResearching to discover what the bestselling art subjects are wastes your time. More importantly, if you are using the information to slavishly mimic another artist, it can rob you of your creativity and dignity. That said, there are many reasons why artists might want to learn about what kind of art sells best.

Humans are curious creatures.

It is inevitable and unstoppable that human nature and curiosity will inspire artists to want to know about the best selling art subjects. If you are one who worries about this and spends time researching bestselling art data, then you need to ask yourself why.

What is your motivation to learn about what kind of art sells best? If it is just curiosity and a brief distraction, there probably is no harm. It might just be somewhat helpful. On the other hand, if you are obsessed about bestselling art categories, or think you need to know the answers to help you decide what kind of art to make, then, in my humble opinion, you have a problem.

What is your problem?

If your motivation is to know about what kind of art is selling best these days so you can make art just like it, this is not a smart idea for your art career. It quite likely means you may have acquired some practical art making skills, but are lacking in imagination, or don’t trust what you have.

If the art you currently produce is not selling well, you might find yourself using research to find bestselling art subjects. If that is the case, you may inadvertently overlook other reasons why your art is not selling.

Granted, it could be your subject matter or style does not appeal to buyers. In this case, changing things up will help. As the Chinese proverb says, “When business is bad, paint the counter.”

Asking the right question is paramount.

The question you need to ask before you quit your current style and subject matter is, “Have I done enough of the right kind of marketing to give my art exposure to my best prospects?” Is it that your art sucks, or that your marketing sucks? Only you can answer this question, and you need to be honest with yourself about it.

If your marketing sucks, you cannot fix poor art sales by changing what kind of art you make. You will still have the same problem of not having enough eyeballs from your best prospects on your work.

It is a simple equation; the only way to sell your art is showing it to lots of the right people.

Determine your problem, then take action.

If your art is stacking up in your studio, and your marketing is stuck in the wrong places, is unfocused, or not applied diligently and regularly, you have a marketing problem, not necessarily an art subject matter problem.

Let’s assume your marketing is sufficient, and your work is not selling. That is a compelling reason to recalibrate. Here are some aspects of your art creation selections to re-evaluate:

  • Subject matter.
  • Prices.
  • Color schemes.
  • Media.
  • Sizes.

When you have these things in harmony, you will have the greatest success. You can get by with some of them being not as correct as possible and still have measurable success, many artists do. Still, the more you are in the pocket with these, the better your results will be.

Some of these things are difficult to study easily. It takes time to fiddle with each of these important aspects of your art career. They are worth the effort to gain the wisdom.

This is where research can truly help you.

There is nothing wrong with having a bead on what other successful artists are doing with each of the above listed categories. Actually, you are encouraged to gain as much intel about these factors as possible. Bestselling artists usually make smart, informed decisions based on what is happening in the art business around them

If you try to learn about what kind of art sells best to fill in some blanks your art career knowledge base, you are on the right track. If you are using this research so you can make art just like what is selling best, it is likely you have put your creativity away, or just don’t trust it, or that you do not have any. In all cases such as these, you are aiming for second best, or worst.

Copying another artist’s work is quite often illegal copyright infringement.

This happens a lot, way too much, in fact. An artist will come up with a unique look or style and start enjoying conspicuous success with it. Soon, other artists take notice and start copying the style. Some copy so closely they are infringing on the copyrights of the original artist. Read Joshua Kaufman’s “Print-on-Demand and Copyright” article in the January issue of Art World News. You may be surprised to learn that what you think is borrowing is actually illegal use of another artist’s copyright.

Other artists may use the realization the original artist’s subject matter is hot and choose to make art to cash in on it, as well. This is why you see trends in subject pop up. Whether it is angels or pin-up girls, or poker and cigars, trends emerge and fall. There most often is a fine line between what some call “creative borrowing” and illegally copying. If you are not sure of where you stand, or are unaware, it will not hold up as a defense in lawsuit against you.

If we all liked the same thing all the time, life would be boring.

You will find art print publishers all tend to follow their competitors. They have no choice. They are responding the requests of their volume buyers to get them some the latest fantastic looking art with angels as the subject matter. All, but the strongest trends have a shelf life. The buying public loses interest, just as they do with interior design, fashion and music.

Here is the stark truth about what kind of art sells best.

If your interest lies in wanting to make sure you include the colors that match contemporary decor trends, or you want to pay homage to certain trending subject matter, or that you are offering prices, sizes and media that the public wants, then bully for you. You are using research wisely.

If you are using your research to find top selling art so you can slavishly copy it, then that is a terrible thing. It is unhealthy for your career, probably dangerous for your reputation, ruinous for your self-esteem and hurtful for the artists you choose to copy.

No one can own a category, style, subject matter, or look.

It is true some art subject matters are so popular that many artists enjoy considerable success with it. For instance, the late Marty Bell had extraordinary success with a line of romantic cottages based on earlier works by English artists. Then the late Thomas Kinkade borrowed the subject matter and took it to unparalleled print sales success.

The California artist, George Sumner, reportedly is the father of the still popular “over and under” marine wildlife-painting genre. However, it was Robert Lyn Nelson, Wyland, and Christian Riese Lassen who benefited from employing the subject matter technique into their work. It takes a studied eye in many cases to identify which artist painted some images. Nevertheless, they all made millions working in the genre.

Here is my take on researching for what kind of art sells best.

You might be so smitten by the idea of painting cottages, whales or angels that you are compelled to make the subject the theme of your work. Surely, you will not be the first artist that has done so. Moreover, if you do, that is okay.

What I suggest is using the influence of those before you who have taken the genre to a new level. When the Rolling Stones covered the Robert Johnson blues masterpiece “Love in Vain”, they put in a country rock-tinged flavor to it and remade it into something unique to the band. The result was they created their own distinctive masterpiece.

If you choose to use your research to understand what kind of art sells best to imitate it in a way that confuses art buyers, which I strongly urge you not to do, then I suggest you do not publish your real name on the piece. That way, you keep the knockoff entirely phony from start to finish.

If the above describes you, and you are selling work that looks almost identical to the original artist’s work, then I suggest you look into using your skills in other ways. Try reading this recent post titled “20 Art-related Career Alternatives to a Full-time Art Career.” It just may be a better way to manage your artistic talents and regain your dignity.

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    • Neve Miller says

      From a creative perspective, yes, an artist should always make whatever it is that personally inspires the artist. The best results will be produced if the artist stays true to her/himself. Most artists want to have their work purchased and to know they’ve made a connection with humanity on some level. Otherwise, an artist really couldn’t call him/herself an artist. However, to be brutally honest, I think the selling success of an artist has much more to do with the tastes of financially secure patrons than with the endeavors of the artist. Let’s face it; most of the buying power is in the hands of men. There are not too many women going to shows or galleries (internet or otherwise) and purchasing artwork. Men do most of the purchasing. The artist who creates work based on the tastes of men will probably sell the most work. I think men prefer artwork that depicts nature and objects of scenery, trees, mountains, water, boats. I’ve been to many different shows, exhibitions, and galleries; works of art that represent landscapes seem to be the most popular selling items because it suits the tastes of men. Typically, females just go along with whatever males want. I am a figurative artist; I take a special delight in painting the working bodies of dancers. Unfortunately, it is very difficult for me to sell my work. I don’t think men want to look at a female hanging on a wall unless she is topless or totally naked. In addition, a painting of a female presents the man with the problem of having to deal with the psychology of the female image. Boats, trees, etc. are pretty objects, like females, that don’t talk back. They’re pretty scenes without the headache.

      • says

        Neve, you have some strong, controversial opinions expressed here. I don’t have hard facts regarding the gender of who is buying original art, but I disagree with your thought that sales are driven by male decisions. I further disagree that most men won’t buy art with a female subject unless she is unclothed. Landscapes have the been the traditional bestselling subject because they are both representational and neutral. They are the easiest for buyers and viewers to understand. And, the bestselling among the landscape scenes invariably are the best art, the ones that are evocative without being provocative.

        • says

          Neve – I also have to disagree that it is primarily the male that decides on the art purchase. I do many art fairs, and most of the artists that sell alongside me will agree that the see that if the husband and wife disagree on the art (for the home they share), the wife always wins. A strong enough trend that I have only once seen that rule being broken, and never heard of another. The husband was buying something at my friend’s booth across from me and the wife was in my booth, watching the transaction and fuming! I wonder how long the husband was on the sofa. Note though this only applies to hetero couples; with same-sex couples, all bets are off.

          • says

            Thanks for your insights, Jeni. The reason so much art gets sold in resort destinations, think Palm Springs, Scottsdale, Maui, and La Jolla, and on cruise lines is that you have both partners on the scene in a relaxed environment where time and work pressures are not in play. It creates the perfect setting to make art sales. Every artist has different circumstances and generalities don’t apply to them. You have to be aware of the demographics you are encountering and adjust accordingly.

  1. says

    Great subject Barney. The same goes for colleagues that ‘slavishly copy’. There is no ‘true’ energy to absorb from the people around you.

    It leaves me uninspired to say the least.

  2. says

    “More importantly, if you are using the information (on what art is selling) to slavishly mimic another artist, it can rob you of your creativity and dignity.” You said this so well – and it definitely needs saying!!

  3. says

    I agree totally on not stealing other’s ideas, though it does help to know of areas that seem to be in demand and perhaps work what you do into that area. For example I notice that my peers who sell art that can hang outdoors do well here in the desert south west, leading me to consider including some pieces which, while I am not changing my style or subject, are completed in a way that will work outdoors.

  4. Christine Velez Stone says

    Makes sense to me…for me it is the illusive answer to the, questions. ..original verses reproduction? Investment or pleasure ? What size? How much? Value $

  5. says

    Igadz! If it’s smart to make art to match “contemporary decor trends” then call me a gleeful, blinking idiot. Making art to match decor, or look good over a couch is the same as composing music to sound good in an elevator or grocery store. That may be what sells, but so do McDonald’s hamburgers sell.

    Trying to make art to fit the category of what sells best is like trying to have the right kind of marketable epiphanies, or endeavoring to have the most fiscally lucrative scientific breakthrough. What kind of spiritual experience can make the most cool, hard cash? What kind of altruism pays back in the highest stacks of dollars.

    Deliberately making superficial art for consumers pretty much guarantees spending one’s life hashing out glib cliches in physical form. To paraphrase Socrates, “The unexamined art is now worth making”.

  6. says

    I think that an artist should have by his or her side someone in charge with the selling of the art works. The artist should focus only on doing the job in the best possible way, because doing it while thinking about the money will never be a good solution towards success.

  7. says

    While I admire the work’s of other artists and can appreciate the amount of time and effort that has gone into their work I try not to deliberately “copy” what they present to the public. To do so, in my opinion, is an infringement of their copyright and an insult to their talent.

    Personally, as a photographer, I produce work that I like, work that I feel best represents the situation or event, as I recall it. To do otherwise is to not be true to yourself as an artist. Hopefully others will respond to my work and feel inclined to purchase it. At least, I have been true to myself and the prospective customer.

  8. says

    Once again wise words from Barney. It is professional to study the competition and try to learn from them. There may be something in their style, use of light, handling of paint for example, that you might find helpful in maturing your art. The subject itself may facinate you. You may be able to see possibilities in the reshaping of the style or subject that will make it your own. But, jumping on the coat tails of others and deliberately trying to cash in on their hard work by simply copying what they do is just wrong.

    They say that copying is the highest form of flattery. Perhaps it is. But when an art gallery won’t show your art, because they already have an artist on their books who has copied your style, its hard to feel flattered.

  9. says

    It is not the subject matter… it is the execution that distinguishes what sells and what doesn’t . As an example… a recent exhibit of pet paintings very quickly brought out the artist who could capture and express the personality within the portrait and those who were still at the level of a likeness. And that difference… is a difference that counts in the marketplace.

  10. says

    Excellent article and I am so glad you addressed this issue, Mr. Barney. Years ago I worked in a frame shop that featured a popular regional artist who sold lots of her reproductions. Little did I realize how influenced I was by her style that as an artist one day I began to imitate hers. Subconsciously I think I believed that my style and art sucked. At a small local show two of my watercolor landscapes that were framed the same way blew over when the wind picked up. The one I had painted in the style of the popular regional artist shattered to pieces and actually damaged the painting itself. The one I painted in my own style and inspiration remained intact and barely got scratched on the frame. Was it a sign? Don’t know, but it was a lesson learned and I was never so happy to shred and burn the impostor painting from someone else’s style, never to go back there again.

  11. says

    Having a name in the art world is a very important part of being a success, commercially or otherwise. First and foremost you need to have the goods to back up your name, but the rest is all about marketing and promotion. Social media and the blogsphere are two of the best ways to promote your art, and to do so in a way that you are comfortable with. Get yourself a Facebook page, separate from your private one, where you can connect with admirers, share news, share snippets of your latest work, upcoming events and the like. Alongside this, a blog is another great way to help market yourself and connect with your audience. Particularly helpful are blogs that document your artistic process, your thoughts and struggles as you create new work – this helps the audience connect with your work, and can be a very good lead in for sales.

    Involving yourself in the community is a good way to bring your name into the public arena, so if you can, give an artwork in a charity event, or to a local school; this will put your name in a positive light, and most likely garner media attention also. If you have a flair for writing, write to newspapers or art publications, or even write a guest blog for an art website. The point is to get your name out there, and get people interested in what you do and what you have to say.

    If marketing and promotion are really not your thing, hiring an assistant for a day per week, or even going on elance or a comparable site and hiring a virtual assistant can be a great way to accomplish your marketing and promotional needs, without having to do it all yourself.

  12. says

    I’ve always believed that following your own passion is doing your best art. Someone else’s passion will look false when you try to copy it. I tell my students to look at the successful artists and copy their MARKETING tactics, not their artwork! Even better, if you can find a successful artist whose work resembles your own and study his/her marketing tactics, you can learn a lot.

  13. constance lowery says

    I am a photographer trying to sell prints on-line. I am with a print-on-demand web site. Not doing so well. Any suggestions?

    • says

      Thanks for commenting. Sorry you are not doing well on your POD site. Are you doing any marketing to drive traffic to your pages on the site? If not, or very little, that is the cause. The POD sites are too large to expect you will get lots of sales just by listing your work on them. If you are getting traffic to the site, but not making sales, then you need to look at your pricing. Is it competitive with similar prints? If it is, then you should look at your work. Are making sales of your images elsewhere, or have you chosen something that may have interest and beauty, but still has limited market appeal. The real litmus test for all artists does my art sell well when exposed to enough of the right people? If not, you may need to examine the art you are making to learn if it has true commercial appeal. If it does appeal, and you have traffic, you may need to look for another POD site where you can do better. Start with the traffic. Get working on building your own list of potential collectors and then use it to drive traffic to where they can order your prints. Some sites offer pdf downloads of sell sheets you can use to print and promote your work. If you have a niche, then get copies of sell sheets and be where your best prospects are. It is a process. If your art is not selling, it is up to you to figure out why. When you land on what is working, keep mining and strategizing to expand your line while continuing to market to your best buyer demographics. Good luck and keep pushing.

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