What Art Sells?

  • There are more than 132 million housing units in the U.S. Based on the average square footage and the average amount of wall space, a rough estimate is that that about six billion paintings, photographs and other decorative items are on display in homes.
  • Much of what we buy– the clothes we wear, the car we drive– is functional, but also reflects aspects of ourselves. Art is no different: It depicts things we like to see or feelings with which we sympathize or concepts that ring true. The art we buy is as much about who we are as it is about the artists who create it.
  • Sexes show stark differences in how they evaluate art (Michigan State University Marketing.)
    • Men seem to focus more on the artist’s background and authenticity. Men also evaluate how motivated and passionate the artist was/is.
    • Women pay more attention to the art, taking the artist’s authenticity into account, but a bigger factor was the artwork itself. “Women are more willing to go through a process of evaluating the artwork; men may say ‘This guy’s a great artist, so I’ll buy his art.’”
  • Estimates indicate that around 5% of the work featured in major permanent collections worldwide is by women. Example: The National Gallery in London contains more than 2,300 works; information in 2011 indicated that only 11 of the artists in that enormous collection are women.
  • There has never been a time when auction results for art made by women have equaled those of art made by men:
    • Georgia O’Keeffe’s Jimson Weed sold for $44.4 million at Sotheby’s in November 2014. But that is a rare sale.
    • Norman Rockwell’s Saying Grace went for $46 million.
    • Edward Hopper’s East Wind Over Weehawken went for $40.5 million.
  • The Art of Buying Art on a Budget.Collectors seek importance, eminence, and a dialogue with art history (a narrative not necessarily determined by either the artist or the consumer).
  • What do people buy?
    • Themes: animal portraits – your dog, cat, horse, exotic bird.
    • Jobs: dock workers, coal miners, studies by Norman Rockwell.
    • Locations: Popular home towns, i.e. San Francisco. Consistent bestsellers are images of exotic beach scenes in Tahiti.
    • Hobbies: Boaters (nautical scenes), hunters (duck and wildlife prints), fishing/streams


If you are using information to mimic other artists, this can rob you of your creativity and dignity.  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.

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.

As the Chinese proverb says,
“When business is bad, paint the counter.”

Asking the right questions.

“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?

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. Take action.

If your art is stacking up in your studio, 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, consider:

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

When you have these things in harmony, you will have the greatest success.

Success: Bestselling Artists

Tell-The-Truth-Mark-TwainConsider what other successful artists are doing with each of the above categories. Bestselling artists usually make smart, informed decisions based on what is happening in the art business around them

If you are using research so you can make art just like what is selling best, i.e. copying others, it is likely you have put your creativity away, or don’t trust it, or that you do not have any.

By copying works, you are aiming for second best, or worst.

Copying another artist’s work, whether it is a painting, a photograph, or an image from a calendar or magazine is illegal copyright infringement. What you consider “borrowing,” is illegal use of another artists’ copyright.

This happens too often these days:  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.

There 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.

The stark truth about what kind of art sells best.

If you must, use your research to decide to include colors that match contemporary decor trends, or pay homage to a trending subject matter, or offer prices, sizes and media that the public wants. That is using research wisely.

Using your research to find top selling art so you can slavishly copy it 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.

Some subject matters are so popular that many artists enjoy considerable success with it. The late Marty Bell had extraordinary success with a line of romantic cottages (image right) based on earlier works by English artists. Then the late Thomas Kinkade borrowed the subject matter and took it to unparalleled print sales success.

California artist George Sumner reportedly is the father of the still popular “over and under” marine wildlife-painting genre. However, Robert Lyn Nelson, Wyland and Christian Riese Lassen benefitted from employing ying 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.

Through his unique marine life paintings, sculptures, and photography, Wyland has inspired a generation about the importance of marine life and environmental conservation.

Research:  What kind of art sells best?

You might be so smitten by the idea of painting cottages, whales or angels and dragons that you are compelled to make the subject the theme of your work.

If you choose this direction, use the influence of those before you who have taken the genre to a new level. Still, create your 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.  There may be a better way to manage your artistic talents and regain your dignity.

Art-related careers

Create and Run a Successful Art Gallery.If you are not yet ready to move into a full-time art career, I hope you find considering some of these art-related careers as possible leads towards an ideal situation for yourself:

    • Picture framer
    • Art gallery owner or employee
    • Art restorer conservationist
    • Corporate art buyer
    • Art handler
    • Graphic designer
    • Illustrator
    • Web designer
    • Video game designer
    • Animation and cartooning
    • Museum curator
    • Museum technician
    • Art educator (who understands copyright laws)
    • Art marketing consultant
    • Ad agency art director
    • Art agent / business manager
    • Art dealer
    • Art photographer (easier said than done)
    • Giclee printer
    • Art tour guide



  • ArtBusiness.com
  • Art Marketing News
  • WetCanvas.com (Forums)


About DALSF2011

D. A. Levy is a media/marketing professional with 25+ years in traditional publishing, 30 years in ePublishing, including Mini kaleidoscope drawing. Web design, content development, editing, blogging with strong HTML/CSS/JS coding experience. Her photography has won awards, sold through galleries and gift shops, and taken her to 27 countries (www.DianneLevy.com). As Director of The Maritime Heritage Project she founded, built, researched and maintains that site, which has become one of the largest of its type in the world (www.MaritimeHeritage.org). It has been viewed from every country around the globe, receives more than 300,000 access per month, and is linked to by the California State Library, Bancroft Library, various Maritime Museums, PBS, Wikipedia, The Boston Herald, Merchant Marines, etc. Proven ability to build and optimize web pages to drive traffic for top level rankings on Alexa and Google.
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