“Pears seem to be selling really well. I think I’ll paint some pears.”
“Susie Smith sells figures really well. I think I’ll paint some figures.”
“My gallery liked the blue painting really well. I’d better start painting more blue paintings.”
“Plein air paintings are hot. Maybe I should start painting landscapes.”
“Everyone likes dogs. I should start painting animal portraits.”
Chasing the illusive “what-will-sell-best painting” is a trap. A giant sinkhole trap. Most of us who sell our work have had a glimpse of this hole. The “pear line” is mine. When I was participating in Open Studios regularly I sold a lot of still lives. One year I thought, “Pears sell great, I’ll paint some more pears.” Guess what paintings didn’t sell?
Artists need to create what is authentic to them.
“How the heck do I do that?” you ask.
The best way to think of this challenge is, “What would I paint if no one would see it?” Create the piece that just hangs on your wall for you and no one else. Thinking of my work as solely mine is the best way I’ve found to work towards an authentic voice. Whenever I have painted a painting “just for me” it is the one that everyone wants; the one that I could sell ten of. Which, of course, is ironic, because once you begin to try and re-create a similar painting for sales purposes, you will be back at the edge of the infamous hole.
Now, this all sounds a bit like Catch-22 if you are, indeed, creating work that you sell. You are not just hanging these works in a sealed-up closet, you are trying to earn an income darn it. Here’s the “catch”: If you are truly interested in what you are creating you are not at the edge of the trap. In other words, if you are interested in creating the work regardless of if it will make you money, then you are on solid ground. You are remaining authentic. Let’s call it Catch-23.
This may all sound a bit controversial, and like I am describing “selling out,” but what I am speaking of is more subtle, and I don’t actually believe in selling out. If you need to paint an image in order to survive, then go for it. If you need to take a commission that you would rather not take, but it will pay your rent, which may not have been paid otherwise, for heaven’s sake take it and be grateful. Many people remain authentic while selling their art. Michelangelo did just that, and quite frankly, created some pretty nice commissions. The concept of “selling out” is for people who are not truly trying to make a living with their art, and for late night philosophy discussions in the dorm room. (OK, and maybe Jeff Koons, but that is his whole point! Selling out is actually his authentic voice!!! Uhmmm, and maybe the topic for a separate blog post.)
I’m describing authenticity while you are painting daily, developing your voice and your art and trying to decide what to paint. If you are painting pears because you love pears, great! Likewise with figures, blue paintings, plein air, etc. The point is to find what inspires and excites you and that energy is what people will perceive in your work. The ENERGY is what sells a painting. NOT the subject matter. It’s the difference between a nice, well-done, competent painting and one that jumps off the wall. The authenticity creates the energy, and visa versa. Catch-23. Finding what it is that inspires you can be, admittedly, easier said than done, which is why I often go back to the nice, big empty wall in my dining room. What do I want to see “just for me” on that wall today?
Find that wall in your home where you can imagine a painting that no one will see. Now go create that painting!