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 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

51 Comments

  1. I don’t have a bread and butter yet but I love the exploration of trying new things. I hope to find something like that soon because I’ve been juggling bills for too long. I haven’t found that edge of my comfort zone yet, so I can’t go outside it 🙂

  2. How long did these artists give a new line to develope sales? In my case, I only have the oppurtunity to participate in 2 or 3 shows/exhibits per year. I’m trying to build up sales on line but that is severely slow. Any info in this vein is appreciated.
    Sue

    any info

  3. I had to find a way to be able to sell a cheaper line. I came up with a few very sellable Designs
    Since My paintings are mainly en plein air oils and an occasional watercolour, I painted the much lower priced art in Acrylics signed with a pseudo name .
    When asked I explained by signing with a different name I could sell the paintings cheaper.
    The purchaser did not mind since they are decorative pieces on the wall mostly used only for a few years and not investment art

  4. Hi Jason, I knew an artist who called his quick work his “grocery paintings”. Probably because he had money to put food on the table by selling less expensive, time consuming work.

    Lately, I’ve been developing 2, very different bodies of work. The more contemporary style takes me far less time to paint, once I’ve created a good design, and it is a series. I’ve also gotten great feedback from artists and non-artists alike – as it’s unique and not something they see all the time. Like you say, bold and catchy.

    I’ve been thinking very seriously of using 2 websites and using different names. I already have 2 websites and could buy an additional domain name. I really have nothing to lose as long as I have the time to create the work.

    Furthermore, I’m excited about doing something a little different and faster. I’ve been painting traditionally for 25 years and not only am I getting a little bored with it, there’s a lot of work out there in that genre, and it’s difficult to get mine to stand out from the crowd.

    The new work stands out because there’s not much out there that’s just like it. It’s not weird or anything, and yes, it started out as an experiment. Like you said, sometimes a bit of play can lead to ideas that people will love.

    Thanks for writing this blog. We are essentially creative entrepreneurs, and it’s important to understand that we are running a business that we want and need to be lucrative enough to continue.

  5. Would the bread and butter work best the artist by being placed under a different name then – and a separate website even….?

    1. Hi Kassie, I don’t want to make assumptions about how Jason would answer your question, but my inderstanding is that a separate website wouldn’t be needed UNLESS the bread and butter work is significantly different from your known body of work.

  6. My bread and butter is diversification, starting from creation of fine art, then adding teaching, doing commissioned work, and finally, murals and creating smaller works of art sold directly to the public, which includes tourists. Each component is built up and maintained so that the activities all-together provide a consistent source of income throughout the year. Each of those activities was the result of exploring and trying new things. I discarded things that didn’t work, kept those that did.

  7. I am a ceramic artist and have had a functional line of work alongside of my sculptural work for many years. My customers cross over between the two and many of my biggest collectors are also drinking their coffee from one of my handmade mugs. The smaller pieces keep the cash flow going between larger sales. Over the years I have seen my skill set grow as I’ve put in those 10,000 hours working on both bodies of work. That wouldn’t have happened had I opted out of the smaller work in favor of a day job.

  8. Hey Jason, I live in a touristy type town, and have started doing some plein air studies of local landmarks. I then make these into a calendar and sell them (and the 9×12 originals) at a local shop. The small paintings sell, the calendars do also, and most of the folks who buy them are unaware of my “usual” studio paintings. I set aside a month to paint the images and I get paid all year from them. It beats waitressing tables…..and you do end up taking more risks and trying new things. These paintings are smaller, more colorful, looser brushwork and are studies. You could always use a “brush/pen” name if you are truly worried about your image.

  9. I never thought of it in those terms, but I guess my commissioned pet portraits are my bread and butter. Altho my gallery work sells for a lot more money, commissions makes up the bulk of my sales in a year…with no advertising expenses…all repeat business, referrals and social media!

  10. Spot on, Jason. When you are a full time artist the need to expand your price range is a natural evolution. You never want to lower your prices just to sell. You just want to have smaller faster works in alignment with smaller budgets – like any other business. It’s a joy to see someone thrilled to own a small work of art, sometimes their first. This way the larger more expensive pieces can hold their value and you can continue to do what you love – making art.

  11. I think I know my bread and butter but it’s something I’ve been so ashamed to offer to sell considering people know my extremely detailed and time consuming pieces and these “possible” B&B works often take under 15 minutes but I’ve found all my followers love them and often have multiple offers to purchase. I suppose my concern is, could your “bread and butter” hinder your collectibility long term? If my quick sale is quite different from my usual art, how do I still keep my more expensive pieces relevant to my brand/style if they’re hardly cohesive… ?? Or is it possible to create a brand around artistic versatility? Hmmmm…..

  12. I haven’t hit upon any single type of painting that is popular enough to be called the bread and butter. Certainly back in the 1980’s and 1990’s, print sales provided that boost for me. For the last decade, the watercolour classes I teach have been my primary income. My theory is that baby boomers are acquiring less art but they LOVE to learn how to paint. The upside of teaching is that the demonstration paintings I make in class are usually good enough to add to my inventory. The downside of teaching classes is that it takes time that I could otherwise use to create more significant, larger pieces. I limit my teaching time to 6 weeks in spring and 6 weeks in the fall, so the rest of the year is open for travel and creativity.

  13. Do you think prints fall under the bread and butter category? I know so many artists that have a thriving business that began online and their bread and butter is in prints, not of all their paintings but a select few.

    1. I have this same question. When consistency is stressed, how does one successfully put out less expensive bread & butter pieces that are not consistent with our main body of work?

  14. I think I have found my bread and butter, but have yet to get it out in the world to see if this is, in fact, the truth. I showed it at a small local gallery and people loved these pieces, but I live in a small rural town where selling art is a challenge. Still, I’m curious as to whether my gut feelings about this new art are right. Time will tell, but only if I can wedge my foot in a door.

  15. My bread and butter are my romantic series of paintings and their prints. Each time one original artwork of the series sells, I make another one and keep it ready. This way I always have a stock of ready paintings as they are usually bought as gifts for the loved ones and are always in demand. I also keep experimenting with other techniques and subjects which gives me a variety of exposure. Thanks for your collective wisdom Jason and for all the valuable articles which help us artists:)

  16. My local landscapes are my B and B, but they are not fast or easy. I am currently one of 10 artists juried in to create work for the local airport gift shop. I work hard to follow guidelines on size and subject matter and as a result, I am the top selling artist there. Unfortunately I can’t rely on the income because every year you have to go through the jury process again and past popularity of is not taken into account… Sigh! However, even if I don’t get juried in this year, I’ve learned a lot about what tourists want and I can take the knowledge and look for other sales locations. My other work is nothing like my airport paintings, so I really like the idea of signing a different name.

  17. So interesting! A few years ago, I started painting colourful loose portraits of bears- a subject that’s always been close to my heart but very different from the more detailed figurative work that I love to explore. I belong to a Co-op in a mountain town that was the perfect venue to show these new pieces, and soon discovered that they resonated with many people. What started as an artist’s response to a spark of inspiration has turned into a series called Wild Things, with reproductions in cards and prints sold in shops and galleries across Canada. My bread and butter has taken up a lot of my plate now, and the challenge is to carve out time for the figurative and landscape work that I also love. It’s a fortunate dilemma to be in, and a great lesson to always follow the creative inspiration that comes knocking- you never know where it will lead.

  18. I’ve always relied on my product for my income, so my creative process has always been linked to that need. It’s difficult to break that pattern of behavior now that the necessity has lessened. Galleries can be part of that pattern when they expect a certain product and reject deviance. Maybe if one approaches in disguise along with an alias….
    As an artist, I feel that whatever I create is art. Economy of design can be a wondrous thing for both the artist and the client. Think of it as just another mysterious side of your multifaceted talent as a player in the game of art.

  19. I’m so grateful for this topic! I have been struggling with the fact that several paintings I created “just for fun” and that are nothing like my main focus, have sold with ease, albeit at a low price point. I didn’t want to keep doing them for all those reason you listed – taking away from my main work, the low price, etc, but I really enjoy painting them and I’m so happy they sell! My question is, how do we include them in our websites, when we’ve been taught to keep the focus tight?

  20. I work with a graphic artist to create 12 X 18 posters from some of my whimsical paintings, like my Cirque Du Poulet series. They fit a standard size frame, sell like crazy and I always have something to donate that doesn’t break my bank

  21. Hi Jason i agree with you about ‘cheaper’ ranges. I set up an artists gallery, we had originals and prints so we thought we had the cheaper range covered but clients kept asking if we did cards. So we started producing cards some original (I would paint in watercolour just for fun -my ‘real’ work being in oil or acrylic ) and some prints. In time we found clients would loiter longer and start to become interested in the artists work whose cards they purchased -as a result we had regular card sales giving a small amount of income plus sales of original pieces. A win-win situation! On two separate occasions I had a clients walk in saying they had bought cards from an artist 2 years previously and now they could afford it they wanted an original!

  22. Hi Jason,
    I think you’re right on the money. My bread & butter work happened purely by accident, was outside my comfort zone at the time; people tell me it’s bold and original, it’s a running series, I’ve got it down to a system, and I’m barely keeping up with demand.
    It’s also different from the work that emanates from a more soulful place. I’ve struggled with the integrity of doing the commercial work (all commissions at this point, although I have my first solo exhibition of this series coming up in the fall) and am concerned about brand confusion.
    But I can’t deny that I want to sell! I’ve landed on being satisfied that the work is of a very high standard, and am now leaning into developing this series from a place of equal artistic integrity and inspiration as my other work.
    So maybe I’ll reach that elusive balance, or at least not feel I’m compromising or selling out. I’m learning to allow room for both – most weeks I can allocate time to the commercial work and attending to the work that comes from a deeper place.
    Thank you for your thoughts & observations – very helpful as I work through this reality in my own work.

  23. I love this idea for several reasons! I think people are intrigued by the artistic process and something along the lines of a painting a day would garner a lot of interest, especially if you have a fb page or instagram site for your art. I see this as something that would help with my larger, longer term work because a daily practice of making a fast painting observed from life can’t help but infuse my slower art with some of that quick energy. Doing this exercise improves your art, shares your process with the world and, as you said, gives people opportunity to buy just made art at a low price point. I think one could do a lot with this idea!

  24. Very good point as usual Jason.
    Let’s face it, what works for some artists might not work for others. Don’t put down others saying they are selling out because they are painting something that sells even though is not what they usually do. We don’t know what hardships are facing in life.

    My solution is to pant different sizes, of what I usually do, so there is a painting for every budget. So in this way you can keep your CONSISTENCY.
    I did eight 6″ x 6″ raven’s paintings before Christmas and six sold in just a week.
    The thing is, the gallery was kind of saying …well…but we make more money with the larger ones. But I will do more anyway, perhaps 10 x10 this time.
    So paint what you usually like but smaller. …if your gallery likes it.

  25. I am finding that the pet portraits I offer have been becoming a bread and butter revenue for me – not quite there yet, but gaining momentum! I started off by donating them through silent auctions at my child’s high school and it is building and expanding from there.

  26. I hate the idea of creating any of my work with the idea about how well it will sell, there is already so much junk out there that sells. However, I created some work that has sold well and it is done faster than my serious work, so it has a lower price point. I am glad I found it and love doing it, but I would never do it just to sell it if I did not love it.

  27. Jason, as usual, you offer your insights whilst considering both sides of the proverbial coin (or, in this case, paper.) When I first began reading, I did, indeed, “bristle”. However, I’ve learned over these past years (reading your offerings) not to “judge” before finishing the article. I read through, and found myself smiling at the thought of doing what you propose. Because the fact is, my pieces take a LOT of time (I work primarily in graphite, which can be both painstaking and time-consuming). I have, only recently, begun to play with watercolor paints, but not at all in the “traditional” styles. When friends see these pieces, they are always urging me to include them on my site. I feel they’re so elementary as to seem childish. Apparently, though, it is exactly that feeling that people respond to. Art is funny that way, don’t you think? Anyway, I wanted to thank you for your always helpful insights and for leading me ever onward to my own “bread and butter”. MAHALO!

  28. Hi, Jason,

    My bread and butter are local landscapes of Virginia, mostly the Blue Ridge mountains, sunsets, water reflections, blooming orchards. I sell them well in a couple of local galleries. Many of them are done plein air but I have painted from good reference photos taken by myself. The main thing is a subject matter and a good composition. I can use any colors I want. I have developed my own palette knife technique and use colors in my own way. I am a fast painter and can produce an oil painting of a medium or small size almost every day. I love to experiment and just started painting pet portraits mainly to hone my drawing skills. I also work in dry and oil pastels, but do this largely for myself, as people rarely buy pastels. I came to think that what I do to sell us now a bit different from what I want to do as an artist. It is like two different directions. The reason is that if I want to make a living I need to paint what sells better and faster. I don’t know if this has affected the quality of my work, but I noticed that if I work in series, every day, plein air or from photos, my works get better and get more positive feedback.

  29. Hi Jason,

    Thank you for sharing your “bread-and-butter” blog. My “b & b” paintings are part of a Series. The Series includes much smaller paintings (12″ x 12″ ) than my larger works (50″ x 50″) on stretched – canvas”.

    I discovered the idea for the “b & b” Series after one SOLD during the Open Reception at an Art Exhibition in St. Louis. The theme of the Art Exhibition was “SERENDIPITY”; and, my painting fit the theme perfectly — since it was truly “serendipitous” — an accidental discovery.

    It was “an accidental discovery” because of the way it came about. — I created it by “brushing excess paint off my paintbrush” onto art-paper on a second easel — next to the main easel, where I was working on a larger canvas.

    As a long-time ENVIRONMENTALIST , I try NOT to “waste-paint-down-the-drain”; instead, I place the excess brush-paint onto high-quality art paper on a second easel. I usually like the “serendipitous” result and add the painting to my Series of “b & b” works.

    Lee Pierce

  30. In 2008 I heard about a 10-year Botany project that was going to take place each summer on the open balds (treeless areas on the tops of mountains) at elevations of 5,700-5,800. The project was to determine how to use a herd of Angora goats to keep the invasive plant species from encroaching upon the balds.
    Out of curiosity I hiked the Appalachian Trail to Jane Bald and made a few images. I printed a two and put them in my wife’s quilting room. A few days later she pointed at one and said “he makes me smile”.
    I thought that he made me smile too and put them in a couple of galleries. And they sold.
    Every year since then I’ve made another goat portrait or two. People collect the series or at least groupings. One thing that helped this occur was that in 2012 I began making them on small canvas wraps.
    They are by far my best selling images – definitely my Bread and Butter. I think the key is that they make people smile.

  31. as a textile artist, i still struggle with folks balking at prices i put on quilts for the wall. whenever this really annoys me, i reach for 6×6″ canvasses and experiment with dye, paint and different stitches, creating a series of up to ten pieces. bread and butter? oh, yes…i also take watercolor paper, add color and stitch, then cut it into smaller pieces, creating my “5 buck” art for children to purchase.

  32. Omg
    Bread & butter
    I wanted to buy a pair of shoes…
    Well my mom said u want something go sell a painting… & I did
    I was 10 years old
    I live by that
    Still to this day
    I stand outside and paint right on the street
    Where ever I am
    People love watching
    Sometimes people even want to buy something & that’s my gig
    And I get ask to paint all kinds of things
    It works for me
    I’m happy & bubly & colorful & exciting
    Not every day or every street works but when u find your own gig…
    Omg it’s amazing!!!!!
    Dreams do come true
    Be yourself
    Love what u do
    Push yourself
    Go for it

  33. I love this topic, Jason. I’ve found that I love doing pet portraits, which I only used to do as commissions. I set up a shop on Etsy and now sell prints of some of those portraits as well as doing others that just please me and making prints of those too. Along with those, I do larger oil landscapes which I sometimes sell but which I now also make as prints, especially of scenes from areas that are tourist locations that I have visited but are far from my home. I’m able to reach people all over the country that way.
    I’ve also done consistently well with prints, originals, and notecards of paintings of a well loved landmark on the waterfront of a park in Larchmont, NY. I love that park so am happy to visit it and paint it again and again.
    I decided years ago that my interest in more than one subject area and my sometimes heavy involvement with family issues might prevent me from high income and great fame, but didn’t stop me from earning a living as an artist over the past 30 years if I was flexible in my outlook.

  34. Yes, I’ve entered into this category. I had a recent one person exhibit at a popular local café and mounted medium sized abstracts and my small daily paintings. The daily paintings were warm up work done when I had those life getting in the way of my art periods. Even a week away from my larger work seems to require making small still life or florals to “get back into the grove”. Anyway, the small paintings sold and although admired, the abstracts were left! It clearly spoke to me and I’m in process of taking my small paintings to high end gift shops for marketing. My plan is to focus on the small pieces during the week and on my larger minimalist landscapes in cold wax on weekends for a while until I have accumulated a stock of the small paintings. And, I do sign the small works with just my initials, while I use my first initial and entire last name on the larger pieces…I could not fit my full name on the smaller ones. This means having two sets of business cards too for me (it is fun watching which one patrons take actually). While the small works are less expensive people seem to purchase several to make groupings or give away to friends. It is not a gold mine but nice to pick up that bit of extra cash.

  35. I started out creating a series of dog sculptures. Very popular. I eventually moved on to a series of more human-like figures, much more challenging to me, but, alas, not as popular as the dogs. I have toyed with the idea of going back to dogs, and after reading this, have decided I will use the dogs as my “bread-and-butter” work, but continue with my other stuff as well. thanks!

  36. I have always had a variety of items ,starting with $15 reproductions. Small framed paintings have been good sellers. When the market is off , lower price point items are far easier to move.

  37. B & B. Interesting idea. Yes, I have several Bread and Butter projects. In January, I painted 30 pet portraits in 30 days, and have sold 28! I also accepted many commissions as a result of that 30in30. And I find that teaching small classes is quite lucrative, as well. I use social media to promote my work.

    We all know how busy we can be with all the activities of promoting, posting, packaging, shipping, shopping for more supplies. Just finding the time to actually paint can be a challenge. I usually end up in the studio in the evening and often paint until 2 or 3 AM. Now, if I could only make time to clean my studio. Maybe next week.

  38. First of all I would like to thank you for the amazing blog that I discovered a few days ago. To settle my incomes I have created a line of T-shirt paints. It take like thirty minutes to paint on one shirt what compare to my artwork is nothing. What I do on T-shirt is a very basic design and African symbols with flamboyant colors. However my paintings is about my immediate environment (Douala-Cameroon), urban life with crisis, beauties, realities,… It’s actually the only work that I normally sign up with my artist name Rostand Pokam.
    How did I discovered the bread and butter is a very funny story. Artist always get their clothes dirty with painting and it’s very hard to remove it. Then i told myself ‘why don’t i just make it beautiful, attractive and unique. Not only for fun but to help me paying my bills?’ Those T-shirts are not an hobby but my business.
    And it’s actually easier to sell de T-shirt than to sell painting. Because it’s cheap, small and wearable( per month I can sell 40T-shirts and only 2-4paintings)
    About signature I think that to produce paintings of another style faster as everything being able to soil the value general of my work. Can be actually the experiences of some and others on two signatures is possible.

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