Art That Sells: Top Themes, Subjects, and Mediums for Best-Selling Art
Popular Art Genres, Themes, Subjects, and Mediums
What are the most popular themes and subjects of art that sells? Which mediums and genres of art sell best? Are smaller paintings more sellable than larger ones? And should these questions be important to an artist?
Most serious artists would probably not prioritize the monetization of their art, thinking their efforts should primarily reveal the "truth" about themselves or their subjects. However, to many artists who would like to make a little cash, it is of considerable interest. If your first priority is to sell the art you make, it's a smart idea to look at buying trends before you pick up your brush.
I am not saying that anyone should paint a subject simply to sell it, but of course it does happen. For example, an artist in a heavily touristed area may find that they can easily sell paintings of local scenes. These sales will help pay their bills whilst, on the side, they can paint in their own style and choose subjects that are more personal.
Are there certain colours that sell best? It has long been said that the use of the colour red helps sell a painting. There is a famous story of the English painter J.M.W Turner who added a splodge of red to a painting which was already hung for an exhibition at the Royal Society. Did he think it would make the painting more commercially successful or was it just a dramatic "finishing touch"?
In this article we'll explore the popular subjects and themes for art that sells, including sales in the world of fine art prints.
Best-Selling Painting Themes
- Traditional landscapes
- Local views
- Modern or semi-abstract landscapes
- Figure studies (excluding nudes)
- Seascapes, harbours, and beach scenes
- Impressionistic landscapes
This data was taken from a survey published in Art Business Today. If your favourite subject happens to be the most popular, you're sitting pretty. But realistically, if you paint really good nudes, you will have more success concentrating on your strengths than you would painting mediocre landscapes.
The list has many notable and surprising omissions. For example, why are dogs popular, but not cats or horses? In my art group, there are two ladies who take commissions for animal portraits and they seem to do more cats than dogs... but of course, my experience is anecdotal.
As I said, you shouldn't only worry about selling: You should also paint what you are happy painting. Still, a working artist may find it worthwhile to do a few commercial paintings to keep the wolf from the door.
Art That Sells
Many people think that landscape painting is the most quintessential kind of art. After all, landscape is universal: Everyone understands and appreciates a long view, so it's an easy choice for a buyer. People love to look at a beautiful vista and in that sense, buying a landscape is like buying a spectacular view. Not only that, but a landscape might work in any type of house or setting. Whether it's a seascape, cityscape, or moonscape; glacial, jungle, or mountaintop; intimate, aerial, or panoramic, a landscape is a natural, appealing choice for most art buyers.
Which types of landscapes sell best?
- Many artists tap into their local art scene simply by depicting the local scenery. Local scenes definitely appeal to buyers, for personal, historic, and nostalgic reasons. Local views, landmarks, events, or histories that are distinct and unique to a particular place sell well.
- Seascapes, harbours, and beach scenes sell particularly well, probably because of their association with holidays, vacations, and relaxation. Many who have beach homes choose to decorate those walls with beachy art, and many buy seascapes to remember their vacations.
- Modern or semi-abstract landscapes seem to sell particularly well. These days, the trend in décor is towards the minimal and modern, so it makes sense that tastes in art would follow suit. Impressionistic landscapes also have a wide appeal.
Like it or not, many people buy art to match their décor. This might explain, at least in part, why abstract paintings sell so well. Because if you put an abstract painting on a wall it might "read" simply as a colour, texture, or shape, this style appeals widely to those who want to create a unified "look" in their home decoration. Also, since abstraction usually has a nonrepresentational or symbolic approach, the viewer is free to interpret and ascribe meaning, and this freedom is another reason why abstract paintings sell.
Paintings of Dogs and Other Wildlife
People seem to love paintings of dogs almost as much as they love their dogs. I imagine that focusing on a popular breed of dog might be a very smart way of tapping into that canine's fan club. A dog is most often depicted in a domestic setting, looking directly at the viewer in an intimate regard. Wildlife and other animals, on the other hand, are usually shown in larger, wilder settings, from afar and in profile. So a painting of a dog most often evokes feelings of intimacy and friendship, while paintings of wildlife suggest untamed, undomesticated nature.
Figures and Nudes
There is a frisson of connection when a viewer looks at a painting of another person. Portraits or studies, abstract or impressionistic, people will always enjoy looking at other people. Although the trend is shifting towards clothed rather than unclothed figures, there is still (and probably always will be) a market for nudes.
What Medium of Art Sells Best?
The survey also researched what the best-selling media were. Not surprisingly, prints sell more than original paintings, as they are cheaper.
Price is a major consideration for many people. And of course many prints are sold as decorative items, to be changed with the colour scheme.
7 Mediums of Art That Sell
- Limited-edition offset-litho prints
- Limited-edition giclée prints
- Open-edition offset-litho prints
- Oil and acrylic paintings
- Artists' original prints (e.g. etchings and engravings)
- Open-edition giclée prints
I must admit to being unsure what relevance this list has, except that it confirms the fact that limited-edition prints sell better than open-edition prints where more copies can always be produced. Art buyers are attracted by the idea of a controlled supply.
It is a little deflating for me as I would count pastels and watercolour as my main media. Should this change, I ask myself? I do wonder which media are favoured by buyers who collect as an investment. Or is this a silly question in this day and age?
What Sells Better: Original Art or Prints?
- Prints usually sell better than original works, because they are less expensive.
- Limited-edition prints are the most popular. When the artists put a limit on how many prints they will make (100, for example) and number each print (x/100, for example), this attracts buyers who want to feel like they're getting the best of both worlds: Something that is somewhat original but less expensive than an original, still "small-batch" and not entirely mass-produced
What Size Painting Sells the Best
Most artists say that they sell more small paintings. The general consensus is that working on smaller canvases is a commercially savvy tact to take since smaller pieces are generally priced lower than larger ones, and so not only will they appeal to buyers for monetary reasons, but also because they take up less room on a wall, can be placed in smaller areas, and make less of a visual impact (and therefore require less of an aesthetic commitment) than large-scale works.
However, the gains of selling more smaller paintings might be equal to the gains of selling fewer larger paintings. In other words, an artist only has to sell one large painting for $1,000 to make the same amount as if they sold ten smaller paintings for $100 each, so take this into consideration when choosing your scale.
Many commercially successful artist straddle the line by painting in a variety of sizes to appeal to a wider audience.
Do small paintings really sell better than large ones?
In general, it's easier to sell a smaller work for the reasons explained above. A lower-priced and smaller painting might appeal more to an impulse buyer or someone who's a bit intimidated and hesitant to commit to a larger work.
But since smaller paintings are also generally priced lower, working on a smaller scale is not necessarily more lucrative in the end. Some artists who work on a smaller scale intentionally create paintings that are related thematically or stylistically to one another, since this encourages customers to buy more than one and arrange groups of paintings instead of stand-alones.
Another ancillary benefit of working on a smaller scale is that the paintings will take up less storage space if they don't sell right away.
Should I always charge more for a larger painting?
In general, since they cost more in materials and might take more time, most artists ask more for larger pieces. But sometimes, size doesn't count the most. The time, skill, and talent that goes into any painting should also play a part in its pricing.
Some savvy artists wait to gauge a painting's affect on the audience before they give it a price tag. If viewers react very strongly to a certain piece, perhaps that should affect its price more than simply the size of its canvas.
What about you?
What size of artwork do you sell most often?
Where Do People Buy Art?
Brick-and-mortar galleries used to be the gatekeepers of the art world: If you couldn't get into a gallery, you couldn't really sell. But today, with the internet and so many other more casual venues, galleries no longer have the same influence. Not only that, but most galleries now conduct a large percentage of their sales online or via mobile apps. Etsy, DeviantArt, and Zazzle are just a few of the sites that facilitate sales for artists and help cut out the middle man.
What Colour Paintings Sell Best?
There have been no reputable studies conducted on this subject, there are some interesting random anecdotes:
- Brett Gorvy (co-head of contemporary art at Christie’s International) said that red was the most desirable and sought-after colour in art, followed by white, blue, yellow, green, and black.
- Due to a recent upsurge of art buyers in the Asian markets, experts at Sotheby’s agreed and added that paintings that feature the colour red would enjoy an uptick in attention and estimation for this reason.
- On the other hand, other experts claim that red's reign is coming to an end, and predict that blue will be the art world's next favourite colour.
I would take this discussion with a grain of salt. What do you think?
What do you think?
What colour of art sells best, in your experience?
My Latest Sales
I am pleased to announce that in a recent exhibition with my art group, I managed to achieve another sale. I sell less in this way than on eBay, but the difference in achievable price makes the number of sales immaterial. In other words, I can generally charge more for my work when it's displayed in an actual, physical space than I can when I simply show it online.
I recently sold two pastel paintings: the landscape is on a very rough paper (hence the texture) and the abstract is on card. I create a texture in my pastel paintings by building up the painting in layers so that early layers show through in the finished piece.
A Little About Me
Luckily (I suppose) my favourite subject is landscape painting, which I love. I have painted other genres but landscapes, especially semi-abstract landscapes, are what keep me painting.
I did join a group some years back to develop my portraiture and figure painting but it never really grabbed me, so I have stuck with landscapes.
I have sold art via eBay in the past but decided to pull off this site because the auction system did not give me the return I wanted. I could sell, but at give-away prices. I prefer to actually give my art away than to be in that situation.
I am trying Zazzle at the moment, a print-on-demand site which means I can make money by selling products with my images on them.
What Should I Paint Today?
We have looked at themes, size, colour, media, and successful deceased artists that sell well. These ideas are interesting, but do they really matter?
As with any endeavour, success can depend on many factors. For instance in the case of a painting, is it being marketed to the right person/people?
How to take marketing and context into consideration:
- If in a gallery, does it fit in with the likes and needs of the patrons of the establishment?
- Private buyers, commercial buyers, and interior decorators and designers will all have different requirements and views about the type of art they are looking for.
- The disposable income or budgets of the buyers will affect how they look at the prices and hence the commercial viability of a painting.
We must be clear about who is buying what. Consider this analysis:
- Museums and private collectors will be quite a small market for higher-priced artwork.
- Commercial concerns use art to decorate offices and public areas. This is a medium-sized market.
- A home market, which tends to purchase low-priced and copies of originals, is the largest market for art.
Maybe we should aim for the high-priced / collectors' market, but realistically it may prove more profitable to consider selling copies (maybe a limited edition) or trying to increase income from an artwork by publishing the art in various formats such as greeting cards.
Print on demand (POD) websites such as Zazzle are a useful tool here. If an artist is to make enough money to live from their art, they must treat it like a business. Volume is one aspect of any business which must be addressed.
A man who works with his hands is a laborer; a man who works with his hands and his mind is a craftsman; but a man who works with his hands and his brain and his heart is an artist.— St. Thomas Aquinas
What Sells Art
Art is about communicating with the viewer in order to inspire moods, thoughts, or feelings. However, we artists often forget that art that sells often recreates something from the viewer's past or triggers some memory.
This may be a landscape that triggers memories of a great holiday, for example. I can personally attest that this was the reason for many of my sales. Some paintings I sold were of actual places, and others simply evoked memories of a place. Some were made up from my own head, simply composed to create a great image, but they reminded the buyers of a place they knew.
Abstracts however, are often bought for their colour to match with a room's décor. I remember my first abstract sale. I was told that its colours were exactly what the buyer was looking for. Hardly what I expected, but I still spent the money for that sale. I did not have these particular requirements in mind when I painted it but that does not counter the reason for the sale.
So the advice is still the same, paint what you want to and enjoy it.
Something to Remember When Painting
Whatever you are painting, do it as well as you can in the genre and style that you choose. Paint what inspires you!
Paint it for yourself and put your heart into the work. Simply by doing this you will find that a better artwork will result.
All paintings featured in this article, unless stated otherwise, are by the author. All rights are reserved and they should not be copied or otherwise used without my express permission.
Questions & Answers
I don't paint, I use graphite only. Is this hindering my sales perhaps? Do I need to paint pieces to satisfy the need in the art business?
Graphite (pencil ?) is certainly a smaller, perhaps more specialized genre. I would say that you should create in whatever media suits you best. However, you may find the potential market is more limited. Have you tried illustrations for books? Not a market I have any experience of myself though, but googling may help to find potential avenues to sales. Painting in other media may help to get your name out there and become more commercially successful.Helpful 34