Top Ten Subjects for Art That Sells
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? 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. I have heard it said that such artists may be better off doing some other kind of work to pay the bills, but I would not subscribe to this belief at all.
Are there certain colors 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 color, 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 Media Sell 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.
Here is the list:
- Limited edition offset-litho prints
- Limited edition giclee prints
- Open edition offset-litho prints
- Oil and acrylic paintings
- Artists' original prints (e.g. etchings, engravings)
- Open edition giclee prints
I must admit to being unsure what relevance this list has. Except it confirms that limited edition prints sell more than open edition prints, where more copies can always be produced.
You are unlikely to change your media based on this sort of information. It is a little deflating for me as I would count pastels and watercolour as my main media, but they have traditionally been reserved for sketches rather than finished works.
Can 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?
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.
I guess it is a landscape. But I also sold this abstract landscape, which surprised me as our small and local exhibitions usually attract the more conservative art lovers.
Both are pastel paintings, the landscape on a very rough paper (hence the texture) and the abstract on card.
I also create a texture in my pastel paintings by building up the painting in layers so that early layers show through in the finished painting.
How to Approach a New Painting
It is usually the case that an artist goes through a number of steps before starting a painting. If your only consideration is painting what you think will sell, this does not preclude you.
- Look at and understand what you are about to paint. What is it that you want to say about the subject.
- Sketch or draw a number of thumbnails to develop the composition of the piece.
- Use different tonal schemes. Which fits your objective best?
- Try landscape and portrait formats. Which fits your intended subject best?
- Think about how the main subject sits in the frame. Do not draw or paint an edge to coincide with the edge of the canvas or ground. How will you size the main element. Does it need cropping to make it interesting?
- Make sure that you know what you are trying to achieve, so that you will know when you are finished. There is nothing worse than an overworked painting.
Follow this approach. There are intermediate steps but these will go a long way to ensuring an interesting and sellable work of art.
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 landscape paintings.
I have sold art via Ebay in the past but decided to pull off this site as I did not think that the auction system provided the sort of return that I wanted. I could sell (mainly landscapes and semi-abstract landscapes) but at give-away prices. I find I prefer to 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.
Best-Selling Artists (Deceased) of Prints
The same article also compared the top 10 best-selling deceased artists to the best-selling subjects. At the top of the list was Lowry, whose paintings are hardly "traditional landscapes," though they could be classified in a pinch as "local views."
Of course there are many artists painting traditional landscapes, and only one Lowry. This is bound to upset the statistics!
Mainly for interest and for your enlightenment the top selling "print artists" are:
The survey was conducted by Art Business Today on behalf of The Fine Art Trade Guild. More than 800 galleries across the UK were asked to name their best-selling prints in 2003.
I do not believe that it will have changed that much since then since all the best-selling prints are from artists most active early in the last century or before.
These of course will be different in other markets, but they do show the types of art that people like to see, even if only buying prints.
As an Artist, Would You Be Swayed by the Popular Themes Listed?
I have given my personal views above. I don't think that I would be swayed by this list of popular selling themes. But then I do not rely on my art for an income, or really expect to make any income at all.
I am in a happy position of painting purely for pleasure. However, I understand why an artist would be swayed by this list and any information leading to the possibility of a future sale. I would be interested in your views. Do you need to sell your art? Is it an important part of your income? And in this event, do you paint to sell or paint to please yourself?
Something to Remember When Painting
"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
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.
What Should I Paint Today?
We have looked at themes, media and successful deceased artists that sell well. The later two are simply interesting but does the first 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?
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. So is the idea of painting to a theme really as clear cut as it seems?
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 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.
What Sells Art
Art is about communicating with the viewer in order to create some feelings within them. However, we artists often forget that for the art to sell, it must usually recreate something from the viewer's past or trigger some memory. (Thanks to PatL for reminding me.)
This may be a landscape with memories of a great holiday, for example. I can vouch for this as the reason for many sales. Some sales were showing actual places e.g. the lodgings of Prisoner Number 6 in Portmeirion (remember the original TV program, The Prisoner) and others were bought because of memories of the actual place.
Others were made up from my own head, simply composed to create a great image, but they reminded the buyers of a place they knew. This was the case for the image here. Painted from my imagination, it reminded a buyer of a place near their home. They actually sent me a photo and I would never have connected the two images. It's obviously a very personal thing.
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 the 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.
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 13