Ask a Gallery Owner: Find out whether your painting needs a ‘surprise’ element to be successful!

In this video, I answer a question from a viewer about whether a painting needs to have a surprise element to be successful. I share my thoughts on this advice, and explain that while it can be helpful to have something that captures people’s attention, ultimately the most important thing is to pursue what you are excited about and find the collectors who will be excited about your work as well.

Do you have rules you use to help you select subject matter? Have questions you would like me to answer in future sessions? Leave a comment below!


About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of, and founder of the Art Business Academy. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business.


  1. glad you took this on, Jason, and for your succinct comment.
    If you put in a “surprise”, it’s not one to you as I see it. That makes the whole exercise less than authentoc in my mind.
    Authenticity is one attribute we work from usually. (At least most artists I know).
    If you as the artist are making the journey into building the image, there are all sorts of actions planned and impulsive that go into the process.
    When you are finished with the process and step back to survey the “real estate” so to speak, there are often those bits that have appeared seemingly from outside your actions. “Surprise!!”
    I live for those moments because that’s my measurement of “good and acceptable”.

    Thanks again fro all you do.

  2. Hi Jason

    Thank you for posing this question and your answer to it – which was basically to stick to your “vision” rather than looking for what song writers, trying to write “hit” songs, insist on as a necessity — “the hook”.

    Through the years, I’ve encountered so many people trying to promote (if they see themselves as teachers) or find and incorporate (if they are artists) what your questioner refers to as the “surprise” in an artwork- the magic bullet that makes the work a sure sell, that catapults the artist to instant fame, etc. There are other terms that one could use for this – mostly coming from the world of con – a gimmick, an angle, a trick, a kicker, a McGuffin, a “holler” (a moonshiner’s term). Or as Leonard Cohen so skillfully wrote – “He was looking for a card so high and wild, he would never have to deal another” (from the song Susanne)

    It doesn’t exist!!! – there are of course some wildly successful artists who seemed to skyrocket to fame, fortune, and renown almost immediately. But for most “now-considered-great” artists this was absolutely not so – For every Damian Hirst, or Jeff Koons there are 10 or maybe even a hundred great artists whose renown (and high dollar) sales came because of a constant commitment over a lifetime of making art, and yes, through doing that, may have reached a state or method or style that then suddenly gains them notoriety and sales – when Pollack moved from “standard” abstract works to his wildly captivating “dripped” and spattered works we now all know him for, I would say was such a moment – but this was an internally found epiphany, not the planned out result of a “sales strategy” – he found an avenue that excited him and plunged totally into it, he did not say “Oh if I just start doing this kind of stuff everyone’s going to go mad for it, so I’ll do it – in other words – it wasn’t a gimmick, it was a heartfelt pursuit.

    I think the art buying world as a whole generally sees a gimmick for just that and steers clear of it, even if unconsciously, or even if there was an initial – “rush of excitement” – Keane’s art (“big eyes”) was a gimmick – and there is no denying that a real lot of work was sold for a short while – but where is that art now? Peter Max certainly was/is wildly successful (in the early to mid 2010’s he was selling many tens of millions of dollars a year) – but what museums really have his works (and who will ever be able to sell a Peter Max for anywhere near what they paid for it)?? Basquiat, Pollack, deKoenig, Dali, Mondrian, Picasso, Haring didn’t pursue gimmicks- they pursued the development of their art, though it, in hindsight, may have resulted in wildly successful, groundbreaking, iconic styles

    And I can tell you from my experience that its almost impossible to know what someone else will see in an artwork that makes them buy it – I have had really “great” (in my opinion) artworks, ones that I’m positive were the result of all possible creative elements coming together in perfect balance, remain unsold for really long periods of time (including still unsold) – and I have had works of art that I made, that after making them, I felt were just “not quite right” somehow sell almost immediately. A few years ago, I had an artwork up in an online gallery, that I noticed, from time to time, when I edited or added new work to the portfolio, seemed to be “not up to my standards” – I couldn’t understand why I even bothered to put it up in the online portfolio in the first place – so I decided it had to go, but as usual, because I had so many other things to take care of, I didn’t get a chance to take down immediately I had made the decision to remove it – butI was going to wait couple of days before I got to it – well lucky for me – because the very next day after making the decision to remove it but before I actually did, someone bought a very large print of it.

    So, to sum up – my experience tells me, one should just follow one’s own internal path, and not try to find gimmicks to “surely” sell your work – they probably won’t work anyway!

  3. This is so true, it’s the same thing pharmaceutical companies are selling the Band-Aids but not looking at the true issue of the dis ease.
    Stay true to yourself, you are unique and only can express that! Gimmicks don’t work just like Band-Aids😊

  4. I don’t think you need a ‘surprise’ to attract a potential buyer. The work has to attract a person based on what is gravitating them to the image whether abstract, realism or impressionistic. You never can tell why someone is drawn to your art. I recently sold a painting that was of Radio City Music Hall. The people who bought it were New Yorkers who adore Radio City!

  5. Super helpful feedback, Jason!

    It’s interesting how common it is for artists to be told “what to do”, “how do do” and “why to do”, by people and so called, “professionals” of the trade.
    For example, when I was in college, I had a painting teacher say the most ridiculous thing to me about what it takes to succeed as an artist.
    During a group critique session, my painting teacher actually made fun of a horse-painting project that I did for a class assignment. His snide remark to me was “Aww! Look at the pretty horsie”, he said. “That’s what children paint, he explained, if you want to succeed as an artist, you need to grow up and paint grown-up subject matter…it’s a waste of time to paint horses”.
    Naively, I asked, “What is grown-up art?” The class laughed nervously at my comment, probably in my defense, which helped softened the blow. Still, I was shocked such foolish words would come from a professional. Initially, I took him seriously. But over the years, I knew he’s only human, like the rest of us. It’s just that this teacher (human), a detriment to good education, had a very opinionated narrative and belief about what success is. At the same time, some other bloke probably filled his head with a similar, negative story. The kind of negative story that we tell ourselves when filled with fear and doubt.

    The moral of the story is, I never let his judgment stop me from what I really wanted to paint: horses.
    Deep down, perhaps my becoming an equestrian artist was an act of rebellion, too. A nice way to give him the bird, if you know what I mean!

  6. Good talk, Jason. I agree it’s best to hold to your vision – even if that vision does contain a surprise element. I find I have to tell about 97% of viewers that there’s the ‘surprise element’ of poetry written into my paintings. I just wish I often had the opportunity to point that out to online judges, curators, gallerists, as you can’t see it except up close, and then only on a small painting that’s much the same size as the screen they’ll view it on – and know to look for it!

  7. Along with Jason’s very practical advice on many aspects of making and selling art, there is the one thing that is consistent in every article and answer…”Stay with your vision”.

    So, what kind of surprises can you consistently build into each piece made over the years? And wouldn’t that get to be either a bit boring or a bit nervewracking? And would you want the viewers to be always looking for the surprises? After all, that won’t charm them much, if at all, after a while of looking at the pieces on their walls.

  8. An unintentional “surprise” outlier in a display often can make a sale. One of my best examples that comes to mind is a painting I did titled “The Kenton”, named after the neighborhood it represents. Like most of my paintings it is a street scene, but I was forced to make some notable adjustments to my style due to the extremely wide panorama in this case so I could fit all the elements in. It came out all trippy looking, the original sold, and the image remains one of all time best selling prints and cards.

    My friend Anna paints landscapes, but brought a painting of her cat along to a show for fun, and it was her best selling print.

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