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The Truth about What Kind of Art Sells Best

Another excellent article from our friend and consultant, Barney Davey. Be sure you go to artmarketingnews.com and sign up for Barney’s newsletters!.

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


Researching to discover what the best selling 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.

1 Comment

  1. Beate Smock on June 1, 2016 at 12:39 am

    Outstanding article! I agree whole hardily with your assessment what makes up good art .
    Having painted for 20 years for a living raising our 3 children in the lifestyle we wanted I would just like to add: Research the market BEFORE you start producing. There is no reason to waste time, talent and material if you have no like minded paying customers on the horizon. Find YOUR original niche. Make some test pieces first.
    I am about to do something that has not been done before and as you can see I found your article researching my new endeavours to see what other people consider “good” art.

    Keep up the good writing.