Collective Wisdom: Finding your Bread and Butter

In speaking with a number of artists who have built financially successful careers, I have observed that many of them have stabilized and strengthened their art business by creating a line of work that sells quickly and consistently.  This line of work may or may not be in the artist’s main artistic focus, but, for whatever reason, this work seems to resonate with a wide range of buyers.

Sometimes this bread and butter work is smaller in size and sells at a lower price point. Sometimes there is something particularly bold or unusual about the work that captures the attention and imagination of potential buyers. I know several artists whose bread and butter artwork was born in experimentation; artwork that was created out of curiosity ends up becoming a big part of the artists’ regular income. Often the bread and butter work sells as quickly as the artist can produce it.

The popularity of “daily painter” sites points to the growing prevalence and appeal of this type of work.

Wall climbers by Ancizar Marin
Wall climbers by Ancizar Marin | We sell many of these wall climbers every month, often in sets of 3-5 or more.

While these creations may or may not be of  the same caliber as an artist’s regular work, there is real business value in having a line of work that generates more predictable cash flow. While it is always nice to have large sales of significant artwork, having smaller, frequent sales can help smooth over slower sales periods.

Finding Bread and Butter

So how do you discover your bread and butter? In looking at artists who are generating bread and butter sales, I’ve noticed that they do the following:

  1. Experiment. Many artists discovered their bread and butter by creating something new – by doing something outside of their normal comfort zone.
  2. Create something bold. Artwork that displays a bold use of color or strong textures – something that catches the eye, often sells quickly.
  3. Create something quickly. Often, work that is created quickly will capture some frenetic energy that speaks to
  4. Work in series. Many artists generate terrific sales by having a large series (sometimes hundreds of pieces) of similarly designed pieces.

The Risks of Bread and Butter Sales

I already know that some of my readers will bristle a bit at the idea of creating work purely from a commercial motivation. There are very real, and very valid arguments against creating this kind of easily saleable, broadly appealing

Darien Series by Linza
Darien Series by Linza | These bold 12″ x 12″ inch pieces really catch the eye. Clients often buy multiples for niches or halways.

artwork. Some artists see this kind of work as breaking with their artistic integrity. Others worry they will devalue their main body of work or dilute their artistic brand. I’m concerned that sometimes the quick sale can sate a buyer’s urge to purchase and prevent them from buying a more significant work.

While these are all valid concerns,  for artists who depend on art sales, these kind of sales can be the difference between making a living as an artist or not. Many artists have to support themselves with outside employment, and I would argue that given the choice between waiting tables or creating more commercial artwork, creating the quickly saleable artwork will do more to advance the artist’s career.

What is your Bread and Butter?

Have you created artwork that generates consistent and reliable sales? What’s different about that artwork from your normal work? How did you discover your bread and butter? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments 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 reddotblog.com, 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.

26 Comments

  1. Yes, I have found that I would rather have some bread and butter art than to get another job. I work in fiber. My main art is creating pictorial pieces with fabric and paint, which take a lot of time and have high price points. I have always had those images printed on small giftables as a way to keep money circulating regularly.

    About 8 years ago, just for fun, I took a class on printing silk with plants. It does scratch my gardening/outdoorsy itch and I’ve found a high demand for silk scarves printed in this way and it gives me a much more affordable price point in original art as each is unique. I could do nothing but scarves if I wanted but I’ve found I enjoy the variety of switching back and forth. The scarf printing is much more physical work than my pictorial pieces so it is nice to have the variety in that way too.

  2. I sell prints of my paintings @ $25 and cards at $5. This ends up being 90% of my sales for the year. I do sell a few originals ($99-599) each year but the market here is pretty saturated and the number of collectors with money is few. I still do shows with originals but they make up only 10% of my sales.

    1. Thanks for sharing of your success, Phil. This is such an interesting article for me. It is so very practical and supportive to read. I am wondering. How do you have your prints and cards made? I have always been curious to go that route.

  3. It changes through the decades.Starting with packages of cards, the hot market moved to 5×7 cards with mats, occasionally framed up to 8×10″. Reproduction prints of pencil drawings did well for many years. When I expanded from pencil to oil paint, hand-painted (not reproduced) Christmas ornaments had a good run. 6×6″ oil paintings of autumn leaves did well for a couple of years, which gave way to single fruits in bright colors. About 4 years ago, coloring books in great detail of local scenes took off like a rocket. Now I am in search of the next thing, all the while producing oil paintings of local scenery, accepting commissions for pencil drawings and oil paintings, painting murals, and teaching drawing lessons. Whatever it takes! (and the notecard packages continue to trickle along)

  4. Jason, thank you for this suggestion/reminder. I had painted small original works and sold them successfully at open studio and art fairs when I lived in Oregon, but discontinued them when my husband and I re-located to Arizona this past year. Since I don’t work outdoor festivals, anymore, I’ll try your approach from my website and social media. Wish me luck!

  5. I believe it’s possible, and desirable, to have several different “income streams”, and I agree it’s not “bad” to step outside our comfort zone. Challenging ourselves keeps our work from becoming stale and stolid. It’s what I see a lot of younger artists doing right now, and it works really well for them. I used to worry about my different “streams” (jewelry tends to outsell bigger works) but then my collectors said they could still identify my work, by design, color, etc. That made me realize we can “sing songs in different genres”, but our voice is still our own.

  6. A year and a half ago, my daughter suggested I paint watercolors of single leaves. When I did four, working quickly, no background, I sold them before they were finished. I’ve painted 16, sold 14, at under half the price of my usual 11×15 paintings. I’m working on three more at the moment. I hadn’t thought of them that way, but they definitely qualify as “bread and butter “. I stopped when I got tired of them, but got back when I realized they’re my best sellers!

  7. Whenever I do a show, my art reproductions (5×7 prints and greeting cards) are always the hottest sellers. And for a while there I was creating small polymer clay sculptures of birds (mostly crows) that sold very well online. Problems with the polymer clay forced me to stop production of the crow sculptures, but I’ve had good results with an air-dry paperclay material, so the plan is to start it up again with the new medium. Also, the paperclay takes gesso and acrylic paint beautifully, which opens up further creative possibilities. Hooray, art is fun again!

  8. I have just starting to figure this out ( my bread & butter work) after a long and spotty career as an abstract painter. A few years ago, I started adding wallpaper into my work. This eventually ended up creating collages made with predominantly wallpaper. What I found is the bread and butter has to do not only with my new and unique technique but, the subjects of the collages. People seem to make associations with subjects from the real world, a skull, a bird, a butterfly etc. I choose to make smaller pieces with recognizable subjects and make more abstracted or challenging work in larger pieces for my shows. http://www.katenorrisart.com

  9. If an artist feels this approach adds another dimension to their abilities and that this does not break with their artistic integrity, I see good value in doing this. My papier maché animals are like that. The only problem is that they are not a terribly quick to make and retail for around $90 so that financially it is not quite as sensible to spend a lot of time making lots of them . However, what I find is that it can develop a client’s interest in what else you do and the client can end up being a good patron. It hasn’t happened a lot, but it has happened enough that I value what Jason is suggesting and still indulge in making papier maché animals ( and honestly I also enjoy both making and showing them, but they can be time consuming). .

  10. I do animal sculptures and paintings. My bread-and-butter item is little vultures perched on Devil’s claw seed pods, which hang on the wall. I can cast the vultures in urethane, so they’re not too time consuming. They sell for under $20.
    I really think the main reason they’re such good sellers for me is that they make people laugh. I have done any number of silly animal sculptures, and the funny ones always sell well.
    They don’t build my collector base much, though.

  11. This article worries me in a sense because I don’t want to go the card and print route. I want to go the big item customer collector route. This is my year to get sales going so we will see if my style of paintings can cut the mustard!

    Fingers Crossed,
    Charisse

    1. Thank you Charisse! I was reading the replies, and had been able to relate to many points, but felt I had 0 to add, until I read your reply. My creations make impasto look tame, so anything short of 3-D printing will make any other print process unrealistic. That said, I know that I don’t know every reproduction system out there… I believe I may be wise to at least consider doing some quicker B&B pieces, and a viable venue.

  12. Funny that this article is out now. I’m struggling with cutting off my bread and butter this year. I sell $25 prints and $45 framed prints that I make a living on. My art is usually given as a gift item, so they sell well in boutiques and gift shops.

    This is my year to work on more originals and get them out there! The bread and butter is great, but after a while, I’d like to be selling some larger and more substantial pieces. (However, it sure beats working in an office for someone else!)

  13. I’m just getting started with B+B pieces but have no idea how to market them online. I’ve only done galleries so far. Fortunately for me my B+B ones are in conformity with my high quality ones. They came about from experimenting. How does one market online? I’m not computer intelligent in that way. Also my website which I’ve posted has lots of flaws so I am redoing it once I have a substantial number of new B+B works to post on it. My website just has all the decades with many styles I’ve painted in on it. Some of Jason Horejs’s advice makes a lot of sense to me.

  14. My bread and butter sales are my books (and classes): mainly my color wheel system, but also how-to books on specific art techniques. Interestingly I make more consistent sales to other artists, which evens out the sporadic sales of my artwork to collectors.

  15. This is very timely.
    My daughter is adept at making hand-crafted notecards with some success. (It is a very popular trend in our area.) Many have found it lucrative but with so many people doing it, making a niche for oneself has become a necessity.
    We are considering making small prints of some of my digital work that can be incorporated in her work.
    I’m quite interested in seeing how this might play out.
    For a starving artist, a bit of “bread and butter” could be quite welcomed.

  16. Years ago, I attended a workshop on steam bent laminations. The presenter related a story about a friend of his, who on a whim, made some articulated 2″ human figures, which sold out immediately at his next show. He made more, sold Moreland went on to make an entire family creating return sales. While he didn’t really enjoy these, they provided the income to do the work he wanted to do. If you can’t pay the bills, nothing else matters. As I look at the objects I produce, when someone won’t buy a more expensive piece, they will spring for a smaller, less expensive piece.

  17. Hi Jason,
    I generally agree with this theory. About 11 years ago I decided to make a major departure from my traditional work and strike out in a new direction. Things didn’t happen overnight and the technique took a while to come to life, but eventually sales picked up and galleries began to be interested in representing me. I’m not sure if I agree that an artist’s work should be separated into two categories, one better than the other. My sense is, if your work isn’t selling (and that is important to you) you need to change or modify your approach. Maybe, as you said, it needs to become bolder and more edgy or perhaps your subject matter is getting stale. I think collectors and galleries are interested in work that challenges an artist and not work that seems to be within the artist’s “comfort zone”. In the end, I would not advise and artist to develop a “Bread and Butter” body of work in order to have something more marketable and at a lower price. My advice is “damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead”. Break some rules, make some mistakes and find that voice inside you that is unlike any other. That voice is there, you just need the courage to find it. Make your “Bread and Butter” the main course.

  18. Years ago I fell in with a nation level design firm. Most of the projects were in the New England area. Over time I made connections with other designers and design firms, and now have a direct connection with a national restaurant corporation. I started out mostly with murals but the whole industry has moved more towards stand alone paintings. This “bread and butter” work is really a parallel career. But, what has been most important is that I’ve kept my hand in designing and painting full time. Granted, this isn’t for everyone but it can be a great way to bring in another income stream. And, moreover, I’ve found that my fine art work has actually improved over time due to this more commercial activity.

  19. As a practicing intl artist for 45 years, as well as a publisher/gallerist/frame shops owner etc.,, there is much to be said for bread and butter. Eating is a necessity of life even for artists. i still do small pieces for that purpose which are fun and light. also do the large scale masterworks for the serious private/corporate and govt/museum collectors. however have found no detriment to doing the small stuff. even the major collectors will buy it just for fun. Great way to test out techniques as studies, if they do not work throw them out. dollar store has unlimited amounts of small low cost canvases that can in a few minutes or hours become a meal on the table!!

  20. OMG! Just had a conversation with group of artists about this idea. I make smaller mixed media work that I call my “boutique” work. It is good for gallery shops and downtown Main Street shops. I look at it as work that has my voice and hand, but it’s like a nibble instead of a whole meal. The places I sell this work is where people come to buy this kind of work. It can often funnel buyers to purchase more substantial larger work in the gallery or at shows. Not comparing myself to high-end fashion designer, but… we all know that major designers have their runway collections and the line they create for “Target”. I do whole series of small works with a freedom for experimenting…. or just pushing out the boundaries of the larger work. Sometimes the small work gives me fresh inspiration for the larger work. I support the idea of “bread and butter” work for those of us that need to have an income stream as a working artist.

  21. I have a section on my website called Collectibles where I offer original paintings for $100 and under. Offering these smaller paintings is a good way to help potential buyers start an art collection. I really enjoy working on these small paintings and put almost as much time into them as some of the larger ones. I find it impossible to complete a painting a day. The only way I’ve been able to do that is with ACEO’s. I wish there was more interest in ACEO’s like there used to be because I really like doing those.

  22. Jason, this is an idea that is not new, of course. But I”m glad you brought it up. I talked to one of my gallery owners about those smaller works that the gallery really does not have room for, or the time to spend on marketing them. It is good to have a few small works and a variety of sizes of all my work. They had no problem with me having an Etsy shop for my studies, experimental work, plein air and older small pieces that I have taken out of frames. I sell them mainly when I post new work on the site. I have people that follow me there and have purchased over several years off and on. It is fun to give new life to these non-gallery pieces. I also re-purpose vintage jewelry as my hobby when I need a break from a painting. I sell them on the Etsy site as well. It is nice to have what I call “my walking around money!” I have recently decided to put gallery priced work on the site that have come out of frames. Or those pieces that have been to each of my galleries and has not found it’s rightful owner yet. None of those have sold yet, but I do expect to sell some eventually.

  23. “Bread and Butter” pieces Amy enable you to make the pieces you really want to, but may not bring in the revenue. Also, I have several smaller $900 – $1600 bronzes by artists who I would prefer to have $20,000 – $80,000 pieces by, but that isn’t going to happen, but they have provided me a way to still have them in my collection.

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