Art That Sells: Top Themes, Subjects, and Mediums for Best-Selling Art

Art That Sells: Top Themes, Subjects, and Mediums for Best-Selling Art

In this article we’ll explore the popular subjects and themes for art that sells, including sales in the world of fine art prints. Art That Sells: Top Themes, Subjects, and Mediums for Best-Selling Art

Best-Selling Painting Themes

  1. Traditional landscapes
  2. Local views
  3. Modern or semi-abstract landscapes
  4. Abstracts
  5. Dogs
  6. Figure studies (excluding nudes)
  7. Seascapes, harbours, and beach scenes
  8. Wildlife
  9. Impressionistic landscapes
  10. Nudes

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.

Paul Klee's abstract figure, Senecio (Head of a Man) (1922). Abstracts and figures are both types of art that sell well.
Paul Klee’s abstract figure, Senecio (Head of a Man) (1922). Abstracts and figures are both types of art that sell well. | Source

Art That Sells

Landscape Paintings

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.

Abstract Paintings

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.

Leonardo da Vinci's Salvator Mundi, c.1500, oil on walnut (framed), broke records when it sold for $450,312,500 at auction.
Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, c.1500, oil on walnut (framed), broke records when it sold for $450,312,500 at auction. | Source

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

  1. Limited-edition offset-litho prints
  2. Limited-edition giclée prints
  3. Open-edition offset-litho prints
  4. Oil and acrylic paintings
  5. Watercolours
  6. Artists’ original prints (e.g. etchings and engravings)
  7. 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?

See results

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:

I would take this discussion with a grain of salt. What do you think?

Read also: How to Become a Famous Artist

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