Selling Out

By Carolyn Edlund

If you want to create art that speaks from your soul, art for art’s sake, that expresses your observations, feelings, visions, and dreams, go right ahead. You won’t have to worry if it appeals to the marketplace.  There is a great place for this type of work in the art world.  I applaud these artists, and enjoy their work.

Courtesy April Metternich

If you want to sell art and make a living at it, you must realize that your work then becomes a product which is tailored to your audience. I’ve seen discussions in online groups where some artists are horrified that they would need to change or “compromise” their work in any way. They rail against the almighty dollar as cheapening their artistic expression. They feel that would be “selling out”.

Ann Rea, in her wonderful blog “Artists Who Thrive” expresses it this way:

If you want to sell your art, ultimately it’s not about you. It has to be about the unique value you offer to a specific target market.

Get clear on what it is you want to accomplish, and you won’t be disappointed if you get something different as a result.  If you want to make art, make art.  If you want to make art to sell, make art geared to appeal to buyers. It’s a choice. Both are valid.

April Metternich is a designer, illustrator, photographer, author and craftsperson. See more about her work here.


  1. I think this is a dilemma that many artists face but in some ways it’s a false dilemma because finding business solutions can call for just as much creativity as making art does.

    Those poppies are gorgeous, by the way!

  2. That’s true. Is the Sistine Chapel ceiling any less of a masterpiece because it was created for the Roman Catholic Church as a paying customer?

  3. Disagree with the idea “If you want to sell your art, ultimately it’s not about you” or that “becomes a product which is tailored to your audience” .
    There are many artists that create what they want to create…and sell it.
    When a painter creates a work of art there is only one original AND only one person can own it. One person out of the billions of people on earth. Can one “sell out” if only one person can buy/own the work of art?

    When asked if I think a particular painting will ever sell, I answer the painting is just waiting for the right person to come along.

    It is not a matter of creating “art geared to appeal to buyers”, but rather about making good art.
    If the art is good then it will find a buyer.
    If selling art was not about creating good art, then every artist would be making and selling copies of Thomas “the painter of light” Kinkade works or other artist that is popular at the moment.
    If an artist allows customers to commission the creation of an artwork, then that is a different story and market. Taking commissions is taking an order to create what the customer wants. Then I would be more in agreement that this type of artist is “selling out”.

  4. If you want to be successful, find something that works and stay with it, refine it, expand it, define it, exploit it, but above all be consistent. If you need to try something new and different: Just do not do it. Your current work pays your bills.

    Conversely, if you are not getting the sales you need, you need to find out why. Is the look just not commercially viable, or is the work not strong enough in a market where collectors have overwhelming choices? It could be you have: the concept, the technical ability, but lack the creative verve to make it compelling enough. That may be a harsh assessment, but if it is accurate, wouldn’t you want to know? You have no chance to fix the problem if you cannot pinpoint what it is.

    It is always fun to be creative and expressive. But, that is not what being successful as an artist is about. To gain enduring commercial success, you have to tap into your collectors in a persuasive way, or your art just will not work.

    The ability to convincingly connect to your patrons is something every successful artist has to do. They need to get to people in a way that touches them and makes them want to buy into their creativity. Whether instinctively or by design, they know who it is they are painting for.

  5. Charles and Meltemi,

    Thanks for your comments, gentlemen! I know this is a “hot button” issue which usually starts a good discussion. I posted this topic on a LinkedIn group a while back and it garnered 322 comments and a heated debate, until the moderator got sick of the subject and relegated it to the “jobs” section of the group.

    I agree that many artists sell what they want to create – and that’s perfect! But many artists also find that some of their work sells better than other pieces, and they go in the direction of the more commercially viable work, because they need to derive income from it. Is that not gearing work toward one’s marketplace?

    Perhaps if art is good, it will “find a buyer”. Or maybe not. But a body of good art deliberately created for an understood and chosen audience will sell better and faster. Art and business is not always a comfortable marriage.

  6. You write: “…find that some of their work sells better than other pieces, and they go in the direction of the more commercially viable work”
    You are assuming the market is leading the artist rather than the artist leading the market.
    How do you know that the art the market likes is not also the art the artist likes to create?
    You write: “…good art deliberately created for an understood and chosen audience ”
    How does an artist do that?
    Survey the color of the audience’s couches to see what colors of paints to use?
    Could you tell an artist what to paint that will sell to a particular audience?

    • Charles,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments! Here’s a great example of tailoring art to a market, and it is what painter Ann Rea is doing – so you will understand where she is coming from, and why I agree with her.
      Ann paints fabulous scenes of vineyards in California, and is marketing to an upscale audience who appreciates fine wine, and fine art. I cannot speak for her, but I did interview her, and you can read her own words in the link under “Ann Rea” in my article. She is creating a market, through her business strategies, which did not exist before, and is actually termed a “blue ocean strategy”. She understands exactly who she is appealing to, and why. She has a business plan in place and is in control of the process. Her work is deliberate and well-thought out for the audience she is cultivating.

      Although all artists are different, what I advocate is that artists understand why they are doing what they are doing. That they have a plan, gain knowledge on business practices, and how to market themselves and their work. Knowledge is power. Understanding the buyers is incredibly important to any businessperson.

      If you are appealing to a corporate market, for example, (and it looks like you are!) you have an understanding of what they are buying from you. Most likely you would not be creating shocking, obscene or politically charged art for this type of customer. Art consultants who sell to the corporate market often work with artists who want to create work for this niche, and have excellent suggestions for them – click “corporate interiors” in my tag cloud to see several articles on that.

  7. There is a market for all types of art, it is up to the artist to find it. You need to be happy with what your doing and not have to worry about changing to what everyone else wants. Art is the image of your heart and soul, there is no harm in trying new things but if you are looking to make money you should stick to what you know, its not an easy business to get into but as long as you work hard in promoting yourself, you time will come.

  8. This selling of art what the customers/market wants is probably more applicable to the gallery or other retail venue.

    Galleries, for sure, only carry what sells. They try new artists hoping to find a new one that will sell. If the art does not sell, then out the artist goes (or paintings relegated to the gallery storeroom in case someone makes an inquiry)!
    Say the gallery gets a new artist whose art does sell. But that usually only lasts for a season or two. Why? Because for the most part the gallery customer base is the same people month after month.
    Once their customer base has been to the gallery several times and seen the particular works of art by an artist, then those that wanted the art bought it and those that didn’t never will.
    Time for new art and artists!

    This method of business then effects if an artist paints more of the same type of art.
    If the gallery asks for more of paintings like painting “X”, the artist may make it or not create it. (If not, bye-bye artist – the gallery wants art that sells.)

    The bottom line being that in any particular market area only so many people will want any particular style or type or subject of painting.
    So even though an artist may get requests to make similar art (and the artist creates that art), those requests for the same style or theme art only last for a while unless the artist is continually finding totally new markets to sell their art.
    (Hence the logic of Thomas Kinkade and his business model of continually building new art showrooms in all the major malls across America – always looking for new markets for his same art. And then all the markets were tapped, the demand for his art dried up and I believe he went bankrupt.)

  9. I agree with Charles. It’s less about doing art for a particular market than it is about promoting the art you do – the art that makes you, the artist, different from all the rest. It’s too much like allowing the market inform your creative spirit, your voice, your content. I just won’t do it. But, I will seek out different venues and different methods to promote my work – this is made all the more complicated by the web – but also provides a much larger audience among whom you’re certain to find fans.

  10. An artist must find his voice. Operative word, His/Her OWN Unique voice FIRST. Curators look for original art. Isn’t that what art is about? A new and different way of seeing things?? One needs to remember that there are many levels of artists, galleries, consumer tastes, and proper venues for your work. I create the work first then find the market, galleries, contacts, influentials that will connect to the art I am creating. In a previous life I was a creative director for many years in a galaxy far, far away. Be all you can be. A diamond is forever – territory.
    Original Art needs to find its market, outlets, champions, etc. just like the pundits that create traditional landscapes, representationalism, flowers, and the usual art that we have already seen.

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