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.

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About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of Dad was an Artist | A Survivor's Story and best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of ARTsala. 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. Connect with Jason on Facebook

52 Comments

  1. OY. This is an ongoing discussion with a few artists and writers in my milieu. My own personal struggle is what I call my Joan d’Arc syndrome: I am trying to HELP PEOPLE, dammit, by providing insights that they need to learn to accept. If I keep meeting them with what they think they like, they’ll never get the message and I will never find my destiny of dying by fire.

    The truth, I suspect, is that by finding bread and butter, we’re actually serving a different demographic than the one who seeks our message. Now we can look to restaurateurs for an example: how many diverse options can you offer on your menu and retain quality?

    1. When you go fishing, don’t you bait the hook with a worm? If you don’t catch a fish, would you then eat the worm yourself? Probably not, although you could. So you see,the pic you might call a fun throwaway, might whet their appetite for some bigger meal. Just call it a step in the stairway.

  2. Jason
    It’s funny you are writing on this topic today, this thought was going through my mind this past weekend. I have a series of sculpture I have been working on and plan on making a much smaller version that possibly can be my bread and butter. Thanks for your generous words.
    Best
    Jim Felice

  3. Those “bread and butter” pieces are very appealing to a lot of people, especially those who cannot afford my larger, regular works. Mine ended up being hearts. I dislike doing hearts, but one year I did some smaller pieces before valentines day at the request of a gallery owner. They were abstract, brightly colored, hearts. I sold out of them the first day of my three day demo at a gallery, so I started making more. Every year I would tell myself, I’m not going to make any more hearts, but I did it anyway, and they kept selling out. Depending on size they are usually between the $35 and $65 price range. I even had a collector purchase 6 of my hearts in various colors and sizes, making for a great day of sales. I don’t like the feeling of being a “commercial artist” but I still get the same pleasure seeing someone so excited about purchasing my art, regardless of what it is. So even though I prefer selling my larger, more creative pieces, I won’t stop making hearts. Now I’m trying to figure out something else appealing as an alternative to the hearts.

    1. My cardiologist has abstract heart paintings created by a local artist in her waiting room and her office. Some of them are in green , which is the color of the heart chakra.

    2. How about butterflies?
      I am happy to find that I am not the only one to dislike hearts 🙂 . I find them too commercial and overused, but… what are you gonna do. May be I should add hearts to my menu of outer space, dragons and dinosaurs, they are not too popular.

      1. I have often thought of this. My small work is nothing like my gallery work and sometimes I bristle when I post them for sale. I feel like an amatuer. I have resorted to doing pet portraits and wildlife images, not that there is anything wrong with that but I look at other artists who do them professionally and I feel deflated. I have done small landscapes as well but I don’t do large landscapes for the gallery. But..I need to eat and pay bills and gallery sales have sucked these last few years. So I toyed with using a psuedonym and even creating an instagram page just for those pieces but I am not sure if it is too late. I have signed so many with my real name.

    1. It is a fancy name called ‘Nome De Plume’ – ‘Pen Name’ for writers and probably ‘Nome De Brush’ for artists. . LOL. . I sell tons of art under my Brush Name on Ebay. Sometimes I produce 10 a day. and they all get sold quickly. That’s bread and butter plus marmalade right there. This is simple common sense and business savvy. Thanks Jason for bringing this up.

  4. I love this discussion. I’ve recently begun creating some small paintings, each from the same template, but painted in ways that make each unique. I’m actually finding it personally refreshing and fun. It is a nice break from my more involved paintings. Completing a piece in days, rather than months, provides a sweet change of pace, and nourishes my creativity.

  5. Hi Jason , now I’m confused. We had a lesson on consistency and now this article on developing a style that may sell quicker . As an emerging artist I find this confusing since I’m not in galleries yet which work do I move forward with in my presentations…. Help !
    I have both my signature works that are what I love but the are time consumers prepping my canvas and then I have my quick palette knife work .

    1. Hi Gloria – it’s not that you would be changing your style to create something that would sell more quickly, it’s that you might look for a format or size that would allow you to produce work in your current style but at a faster pace and a lower price point.

  6. This advice is excellent.

    I’ve been a publishing recording artist for nearly 20 years, but work in more avant-garde electronic genres, so I’ve never made much money. It’s never been about the money. A few years ago, as an experiment, I started releasing a different kind of sound under pseudonyms. While these recordings did next-to-nothing for a couple of years, in the past couple of years they’ve found an audience on the streaming services. This income has afforded me to profesionally pursue my fine art career. I continue to occasionally produce and release these kinds of sounds using pseudonyms. I appreciate that people enjoy listening to this kind of sound. While it’s not something I’d want to do all the time, it’s still fun to make a new batch of these sounds every so often and see them find an audience.

  7. I’ve had this discussion with myself for a few years now. I did find my bread and butter series (a few of them) and they are different from my preferred canvases in that each series is smaller canvases (the smaller the better the sales) and similar subject matter. I do get a little bored with painting the same things but I get unbored real quick when the money hits my bank account. I still paint the larger, from-the-heart things, mostly for myself and my kids. If somebody wants to buy them, that works. They also lead to commerce when a collector sees the larger work and commission me to paint that size.

  8. I’ve had several bread and butter series over my career as an artist– in fine art, ceramics, and commercial art. At a certain point, all my B&B’s have come to their natural endings, like veins of ore that has been tapped out. They have had different life spans– some very long, some much shorter. With some, I burned out with too much repetition and pressure. With others, there was enough variety to keep me interested.

    At this time, I’m ready to find a new B&B. Thanks for your article. It’s full of good ideas. One idea I’d like to add is be open to all possibilities when experimenting. Something you might not have considered may be good money, and take you to some interesting places. True that it may be a different demographic that buys it, but for me, remaining self employed has been my chief objective, because it has given me control over that one very valuable asset to an artist: my time.

  9. I just started a new format on 6 x 6 wood bases that are more abstract than my typical pieces. I’m liking creating them, I’m liking the looks of them and others are responding positively to them. Thought they would be good for a vendor fair I’ll be in in April. It remains to be seen if folks like them enough to buy them. I would love for them to become my bread and butter. I’ll keep you posted.

  10. Thanks, Jason, for the very helpful essay and also for your comment and clarification to Gloria. This is an issue that I have wrestled with quite a few times and discussed with others. My own solutions have been much as you suggest: smaller paintings that can have a lower price point. I have also taken up acrylics in addition to oils, given that acrylics dry so much faster and can be finished far more quickly.

  11. Hi Jason, thanks for the informative blog. I have been reading for a few years now and always find something worthwhile. I have decided that creating another line of artwork is preferable to cleaning bathrooms in order to be able to continue painting. It was actually over a period of time that I realized people loved the bold colours and the immediacy of the alcohol ink medium, and I couldn’t be happier. When I am selling at festivals I make sure to have divisions between the artwork that I do in acrylic and my works in alcohol ink, pointing this out so buyers are not confused. The inks are fast and easy to do and are created in smaller sizes compared to my acrylics. I find there are people who are looking for original art but can’t necessarily afford to buy a larger piece. It also acts as advertising for me when their friends come by for a visit- people I may not otherwise get to meet.

  12. Several years ago I participated in a 30-day painting challenge. The first year I was painting all different subjects, sizes, and on different surfaces. At the end of that year I looked at the other hundreds of participants to see they weren’t all over the board. The 2nd year I painted smaller objects, but still different subjects – ones I was interested in painting. The 3rd year I painted high-heel shoes on different backgrounds and for different occasions – now that was the smart move which speaks to this topic. 27 shoes in 30 days — not to bad for a B&B series.

  13. As a leaded glass artist, my work is different than most of your readers falling into the decorative arts. When I first started, over 40 years ago, I wanted to only take artistic commissions. I quickly learned the bread and butter jobs (cabinet inserts, beveled diamond windows, repairs) were paid for with perfectly good checks and would sustain my business between the creative projects. When my plate is too full and the lead time is too long, those bread and butter jobs are subbed out to good craftsmen friends. At the moment, my left hand is recovering from a tendon repair. The relationship with my friends will keep my business rolling until I have may hand back

  14. I sell $5 cards and $25 prints of my work. I also hit the jackpot two years ago when the Cubs won the World Series and I sold dozens of cards and prints of my painting of Wrigley Field. Most of my work has nothing to do with sports or Chicago and I have resisted spreading out in that direction. Still it was very eye opening to me and very satisfying.

  15. I hope this thought comes back to me when I have succeeded at producing a “consistent body of work” that galleries will want, then I can look for a “bread and butter” line of work. Trouble is I need the bread and butter to finance the paint and canvas en route to finding my real self……. arg, art is hard.

  16. The classic experiment with pottery students was to divide a class in half. One half was graded on one quality piece, which they had all semester to complete. The other half was graded simply by the number of pieces produced during the semester.

    At the end of the semester, the students who were being graded on number of pieces were also the students producing the best work.

    We learn to do by doing. Make a lot of art, become progressively better, sell more art.

  17. I have found that my own personal preference, which is monochromatic landscapes actually sell quite well, especially when people hear the story behind them (most of my pieces are based on a memory or event). While it took me a bit to find an art style that suited me, once I did people noticed a coherence in my art that had been lacking before and this seemed to actually increase sales.

  18. I refuse to be what I perceive others to want me to be. Do I produce a lot of sales? No. I am considering having prints and cards made of my work, as people here don’t see art as an aesthetic investment . It is mostly friends and other artists who buy my work . I like working in series and I work now on a smaller scale for a lower price point.

  19. creating Art is a heavenly gift…..part of the blessing is appreciating other
    artists work [ Joy ]….enjoyed reading the comments….Portraits are my
    passion….quick sketch 30 to 60 mins. drew thousands in nightclubs [LA]
    also those days longing to create that most beautiful oil painting of a
    woman

  20. I spent many years next to Ancizar at the Alexandria Art Festival. A wonderful person. Please tell him hi.

    I paint for tourists since my studio is in a beach town so my bread and butter are beach scenes, turtles and pelicans along with endless paintings of a small historical church.

    In between I work on growth as an artist. My goals aren’t lofty and I feel satisfied. My business stays in the black which gives me comfort and flexibility.

  21. I grew up in the country before we were taken into the city. I have memories of my Mom’s flower gardens, and me beside my Mom helping to make flowers that we sold. When I watch westerns, I am reminded of what our home was like, no running water in the house, no electricity, no gas heating, no bathroom, no refrigeration. We had an icebox, and had ice when a man drove by to bring us a big block of ice. So all the antiques from my growing up days, that made our life livable, the memories of I treasure today, so they are going to find a place in my paintings, a series, among the garden of flowers that my Mom treasured. And I am planning to work on series of these memories for my paintings. My Dad always began a large garden of vegetables in the summer, and we also purchased vegetables from a farmer who brought his produce down our road in the back of a pickup truck. We hulled peas, snapped green beans, husked the corn, for canning, gathered our eggs from the hen house, and occasionally one of my Mom’s beloved chickens provided our meat for a meal. We also had fruit trees about the place, and sliced fresh tomatoes from the garden, best way to eat tomatoes…

  22. At the moment I am doing fridge art.. Working with unfinished coasters and then putting a magnet on the back…. Love our Saturday market and wanted something smaller to sell.
    Really enjoy your essays…..thanks.

  23. Yes, yes, yes! I’ve recently begun doing this after almost zero activity on my website, which showcases my larger, more expensive pieces, and it’s taken off like crazy. The way I look at it, is that it allows me to, yes, make more money, but, as you pointed out, to experiment more with things I wouldn’t normally do. I always take care to still make the presentation and packaging as professional as I can by sending a business card to my website and a certificate of authenticity along with the pieces to give it a more personal, professional touch. So glad to read your take on this subject!

  24. I’ve stumbled on to a particular design for “Little Birds” made out of clay. I can’t keep up with the demand for them! While they certainly aren’t “great art” or deeply philosophical, people seem to connect with them at a surprisingly intimate level when they cradle these simple little creations in their hands. I probably sell them for way less than they are worth, but I love to see how people respond when they pick them up, or when they order a half dozen of them to give to family and friends. I even had one person give them to a prayer group they were involved in as a way of building shared community. They actually take longer to make than they appear, but I can work on them in batches of 5 to 9 at a time. I still think they’re a little silly… but I can’t mistake the joy that they bring to people, and a bit of income to my budget.

  25. I’m in the midst of doing my own self imposed 30 paintings in 30 days project to get a jumpstart after a few failed larger paintings. My subject matter gor the padt 2 years has been figures engaged in their creative pursuit, i.e. musicians, sculptors, dancers in rehearsal, artists, etc., and I call my body of work the Pursuit of Excellence. The small daily quick studies I’m doing now are fresh and strong, and many people comment that they are my best work. So when I have my one artist show in September and approach galleries this year, we’ll see if these become my B&B. If not, I’m still learning from them and having a wonderful time. And now I see how fun and easy it could be to produce a large body of work for galleries.

  26. I decided to do this by accident, rather than design. I was looking to free up my work, which I felt was becoming too rigid. Using different techniques and energy in an abstact way I am creating my emotions and sensibility but in a new form and it has so far produced many favourable comments.

  27. Bread and butter is good if you’re fortunate enough to find it.

    I’ve had a fair amount of consistency with a certain motif small, medium and large. It’s something that I love and with practice started coming naturally.

    I have also been strongly encouraged by a gallery I’m with to paint a certain motif a lot. I was apprehensive at first but have embraced it and it has also becoming bread and butter thing.

    It’s good to follow your heart but it can be good to follow advice, too. You never know, there might be something you can grow into and love all the way to the bank.

  28. My bread and butter works are actually small studies that will become larger works. If I like the small study, I call them “minis”, I then create a large more detailed or planned painting and I sell the mini. The small studies are all consistent in size and presentation. To reduce cost for the buyer AND for me I mount them on black wooden boxes – cradled boxes that I spray black. When displayed en masse they have the effect of a larger piece too. The minis do have that energy and spontaneity that Jason mentioned above and since I would be painting them anyway before I paint a larger piece, I am not changing my style or neglecting what I do best. I am just doing it smaller. I live in a town with lots of visitors and tourists, and they sell well with that population especially. Some people become “collectors” of the minis, and often times they are given as gifts. The original purchaser may already be a collector of my larger works.

  29. Hi Jason, about year ago I painted 74 miniature 4″ x 6″ oils for a book project and I did not really try to market them. They are definitely different art work yet to learn how people might like to collect. Thanks for a great idea. Best to you

    Jim Springett wildlife painter

  30. oh god.. help us.. another round of jump on the bandwagon… compete for the lowest run of the ladder marketing strategy that leads to tons of mediocre art.

  31. I agree with your comments about the bread and butter pieces. I had one of my gallery managers suggest that I do some small and skinny paintings for some of the collectors that she had and enjoyed some of the paintings I was doing. She indicated that these folks often had limited wall space so they were not buying some of the larger pieces. the 6″ x 12″ paintings quickly became a bread and butter piece of artwork that were quick and enjoyable to do.

  32. Great post! I believe there is room in this world for both: “fine” art and “commercial bread and butter” art and both can be created by the same artist and in some cases from the same pieces. My recent series is oil applied directly on navigational chart paper where I leave part of the paper untouched to show through the nautical seascapes, sunsets, sailing, etc. One painting won “show favorite” at a group gallery exhibit but didn’t sell. “Not everyone can enjoy an original oil painting from a gallery but a $30 iPhone case of the painting is pretty cool,” shared my millennial kids. Who knew there are shower curtains as well. As long as someone enjoys my pieces – I’m happy and if I can pay the bills with selling – I’m ecstatic! Stay curious, Lisa

  33. I’ve had a Collectibles collection on my website for a while now. These are smaller paintings that are $100 or less. The smaller ones do tend to sell much more quickly than my larger ones. I also find them really relaxing and enjoyable to paint.

  34. My Goats of Roan series (primarily portraits of goats) began in 2008 and continues strong through today. It truly is my bread and butter and the cornerstone of my business. Each year I add 1-3 images to the collection and retire an equal number.

    I don’t know where I would be without this series. I addition to sales, its led to magazine covers, articles, and numerous galleries picking up my work which includes other images I create.

  35. Most of my work is figurative, street scenes, beach scenes, everyday life, often with an edge. I am a big sports fan though and have found my bread and butter in paintings of ASU football. The series of paintings I have done have been very popular with the fan base. I have 2 limited editions that are over half sold out of editions of fifty just in the past year or so, the prints go for $300-$400 a copy. I have also sold a number of the original pieces. This has allowed me to keep doing shows and creating my other line of work and selling that as well. It is working out pretty well, last year and half have been very busy.

  36. I paint cars, trains and old buildings, primarily. I do a lot of very small work. They cost little to frame, easy to transport, and you can display a lot of them. Buyers love them and most of them , and nearly all of them sell, eventually. It is important to mix them with larger work in your display, so buyers know you do more than miniatures.

  37. Very interesting thread on a good topic. I have found my bread and butter to be side teaching what students want to learn. Also, I am working hard to bring down my price point to make my work accessible to smaller budgets. Its a struggle to factor in your overhead, the print costs, etc. the expenses of packing and wrapping and shipping, etc. But I am determined to try to pin point that sweet spot. It is a very long and tedious process to get to that point. But I am hoping at the end point….I will have success I can be happy with. All of the above discussions are very interesting to me. Thank you all.

  38. It is absolutely good advice, in my estimation, for artists to create work that is at a different levels of sell-ability. I know for me, I have a type of work that has been known to sell quickly, but it is not “the” work I am wanting to hang my shingle with. It is still my work, but it does have a completely different aesthetic, cost effective materials and is something I can create much quicker than my “serious” works. I think it is quite intelligent to diversify (if one is capable and willing) in order to create cash flow and interest. Many who have purchased these “quicker, looser works” are interested in the affordability that I simply cannot offer with the works that require more focus, time and more expensive materials. I will mention a 3rd level of paintings that I personally provide and that is the commissioned work I do. I realize commissions are difficult and can be trying at times, but those for me, truly have been my “bread and butter.” That whole, bird in the hand trick, really does make sense. So, if you don’t want to deal with the commission thing as an artist, I think the encouraging words in this article should be met with great consideration.

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