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 a lot of people.
  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 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.

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.

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.

34 Comments

  1. I have considered this idea of a 2nd body of work that is bolder, faster to do, and lower priced than my usual work. I’ve even gotten around to creating some pieces. I have to admit that I’ve struggled with worrying about abandoning my original vision… that’s just an emotional worry.

    Alternatively, I do love selling my work. when someone buys my work, I get a huge shot of dopamine and it just plain feels good.

    Two bodies of work takes more time. I guess I just need to go ahead and try it out for size and see how I feel about it. I really can’t predict how’d I might feel if I were to sell a good amount of works that are faster (and sometimes fun) to produce.

    Thanks Jason for bringing up this topic. Something to consider (and try out).

  2. When I was getting my MFA in writing, the essayist Philip Lopate did a master class during which he recommended essentially the same thing — find something akin to your main work that you can “always do to make money.” He did movie reviews and also edited a now-classic anthology of essays. It’s good advice.

    1. My paintings of the Monhegan Lighthouse Keeper’s house have been reliable sellers at any size- from 10 x 10” to 36 x 48”. I would be bored to tears doing those all day long- I paint one of those to every 25 or 30 of subjects of my choice. Keeps some balance!

  3. Great article, Jason. Having a line of bread and butter work certainly didn’t hurt Raphael’s career. Like most Renaissance artists, his studio cranked out endless Madonna & Child paintings. I discovered one of my bread and butter images when I created a gift for a family member. Because I usually work in series, I created 3 variations. The other 2 sold immediately at my next art fair, so I made more!

  4. Absolutely agree that we all need bread and butter! I started experimenting with wildly colored abstract owls, cats and dogs in the middle of the pandemic ($300-$600 range) and as soon as I paint one, it sells.

    Not only do the sales, and commissions, of these small, whimsical works provide me with a steady income, selling paintings before the paint is dry is energizing!

    Upshot is that I’m reaching first time art collectors and gift givers who end up buying my higher priced art.

    A slightly different continuous income source comes from my books, like my Eye For Color system – which sells to other artists. In slow art-sales times, it’s really good to have a diversity of products that appeal to different audiences.

  5. My bread and butter is selling cards and prints made from my paintings. I can sell 20 prints @$25 before I can sell one original at $500. When I’m lucky I can do both and my popular pieces can sell forever and ever. This is how I was finally able to make money selling art and I still paint whatever I want to 1-phil-strang.pixels.com.

    1. I was so glad to see your comment, Phil. I do the same thing. I create art prints, giclees on canvas, notecards etc. of my most popular images. And because I create digitized files of my paintings I am able to also produce customized “accessories” for my clients including those who have commissioned me to paint an image for them. For example, I just finished a commissioned painting and the client ordered notecards and coffee mugs of the image. I realize the art “purists” will scoff at doing this however, the BIG plus is – more people see your work and as a result more sales occur.

  6. Bread and butter is good but I feel sometimes it overwhelms the vision and when things settle down from a season or a year of successful B&B, somewhere in there, finding you own voice again means hiding from the B&B. This past year I ended up working quite a bit on commissions. And channelling others visions takes time and imagination away from what I enjoy doing. Glad to have had it but I am a bit jealous of those who have a “covid” body of work. It’s always somethin’.

  7. I found my sellable and unique work by combining my previous career as a trade show exhibit designer with my love for oil painting. I found it difficult to get galleries interested in my usual body of work. It was professional quality, but more a standard style and not all that unique and memorable. When I combined my 3-D design experience with my oil painting experience, things started to take off. My second piece in this new style sold the day it was posted on Facebook and Instagram! I now have a gallery that even orders pieces from me in advance! I’m having to work harder to create enough work to go search for a second gallery that is higher-end. It’s a great problem to have!

  8. It is good if your bread and butter work is a reflection of your more serious work as well. A person may come in and not be able to purchase one of your more accomplished / or pricier works, however a small study or something is a good introduction to them. I have had clients come into my gallery who purchased a study or something, by a particular artist, and returned years later when they were in a better place financially, to purchased something more substantial by the same artist.

  9. I just happened upon “bread and butter “ work recently and will be presenting it to a gallery today! Keeping my fingers crossed it will have the appeal i’m hoping for. It’s taken years for me to find something like this that I feel I can stay interested in and produce a lot of variety of the same concept. Selling anything keeps my momentum going!

  10. I began doing daily sketches of my surroundings which I titled my Sketching Diary. The best of these sketches became source material for larger works. I sell both the small, 7×5”, diary sketches and the larger pieces. The benefit of the sketching diary is that I get the exercise of daily drawing and I can experiment with new compositions for my larger work. The small work sells sporadically and the larger pieces move fairly well, as well.

  11. I don’t really have a bread and butter product, but I did discover a quick and easy way of making and selling lots of pieces. I cast a lot of small bronzes using the lost wax method, which means I have lots of small rubber molds lying around. I’ve used some of them to cast figurative soap, which seems to be pretty popular. I can make twenty pieces in an afternoon, sell them for a few dollars apiece. People seem to like them- I’ve gotten a comment, ‘Hey these soaps are so nice! You should cast them into bronze!’

  12. I have been thinking along these lines as well, lately. I’ve had some requests for prints or giclees of my larger works but I can’t wrap my mind around selling a digital image of a hand painted piece. I’ve been thinking that some “production” type pieces done in a large series and numbered might work for me. Most of my main work is very large. These would be quick, and I’ve thought I might even create a stencil for the main block in structure to save time. The final product wound be hand painted and much more desirable than a print in my opinion.

  13. Because of my price range (1,500-6,000) I found that having poster printed keeps my style in tack and expose me to a larger client base that can enjoy my true style and not a speeded up version of something else.

  14. Artists who put their nose up to this smart attitude prefer working at a job they hate to pay for their so-called integrity with their art? Pffff… who is selling “their soul”?
    My bread and butter are prints on canvas on my website. That way I can paint what makes me happy at my own pace.

  15. Thanks Jason,
    great article and discussion.
    In my recent solo exhibition I decided to paint a selection of smaller works. I have always loved painting large but with the current situation I wondered if the price of large works might be prohibitive at the moment.
    I am so pleased that I decided to pivot and try something new. I found a new passion for painting small works. It was so much fun and a new style emerged which was quite a revelation. They all sold along with a few larger works but the small works were such a huge success I am considering just having an exhibition solely of small paintings for my next solo in December.
    Yes we artists need bread and butter and a cashflow to keep working but sometimes thinking outside the square can open up something new and unexpected.
    Thanks for your great articles. I always look forward to receiving and reading them,
    Regards
    Kathy Karas (Australia)

  16. When I worked as an exhibit designer for the Historical Society we had lots of endless meetings and in an effort to stay conscious I would draw caricatures of my co-workers on my used paper coffee cup. After awhile people wanted to buy them and before I knew it, I was making these things and showing them in galleries. It’s funny that the stuff one just dashes off quickly becomes such a commodity.

    1. I was in the computer business, and they’re addicted to meetings.. in order to stay sane, and awake, I began doing ink abstracts on the cardboard back of my yellow pad.. in several years I had hundreds of these backs, which I tossed in a box. Now that I’m retired, they’re an inexhaustible archive of scannable, interesting 3D ink abstracts.

  17. I keep plenty of mini panels on hand. When I finish a major piece and have left-over paint, I grab a mini panel and do a snippet of the large piece … maybe just one tree, or one of the bushes on a meadow. It takes about 15 minutes, uses up left over paint and gives me “entry level” or “gift priced” paintings to offer on my web site and to my galleries. I think of these “entry level” pieces as offering new collectors an opportunity to own my work at a price that might result in an impulse purchase or gift purchase. My galleries love them. I give them the option of using them as a bargaining tool … they can offer them for free to collectors that love to bargain or are having a hard time actually saying yes. They can also just sell them.

  18. There’s a song,”But I still haven’t found ..what I’m lookin’ for “. I do have 10″x10” cradled board mixed media pieces. I do them as a series. Lower price point. They do fairly well. I just had some art cards printed up as well. I will test out those, and some black and white book plates at the local crafts fair in November. I enjoy doing monoprints and fabric collage, so I will add that to my table. Also possible Christmas stockings made with fabric collage. Although it isn’t what I usually do, I enjoy the playfulness of fabric collage and if it’s utilitarian, so be it. Fun to play with colours, textures and bits and bobs.

  19. A business I had before beginning to paint again was re-creating an artist’s work on stone or slate. It made another income stream for the artist and gave people access to quality art in their home when they may have been unable to afford the original or perhaps had no where to place a large painting. Now that my paintings are being recognized more, I’m considering the same thing for my art.

  20. Jason, we had a conversation about this very topic during your critique of my work recently. My bread and butter actually developed before my passion work. As an elementary teacher, I painted murals during the school breaks and transitioned to full time artist when it became clear that I could make just as much or more with my art. The oil work I was already doing then began to gain more traction as I had more time to develop it.

    During the critique, you asked me how the two compared, and I didn’t know how to answer you at the time. Having given this more thought, I now know how to answer that. My fine artwork comes out of my own vision and the murals start with the client’s vision. While I make much more from the murals (for now), the oil painting is much more satisfying to my soul. And I think it has EVERYthing to do with who gets to decide what I paint.

    A few of my mural clients are now actively following my fine artwork through my weekly newsletter and on Instagram. And because I got to know their tastes while in their homes for a mural, I can point them to fine artworks that would fit right in.

    1. I also discovered my bread and butter through my passion for nature before I discovered my passion for art. Though I had been sculpting since early childhood, my main bread and butter was in science: I studied hummingbirds for 40 years and sculpted on the side. The fact that I didn’t have to rely on sculpture to support me freed me to carve whatever I wanted and to shoot for the highest quality I could produce. Now at 80 years old, I’m still committed to make the finest sculptures I can before I die.

  21. I have a collection of pen and ink drawings,
    aside from my paintings. I have turned the
    pen and ink minimal line drawings into
    cards. I sold a lot of those but it was more lucrative to enlarge the drawings to 8×10 and charge more for each one.
    It helps towards b and butter and it’s gratifying that people like my style.
    Thank you for your interesting article.

  22. I draw cartoons along with my paintings. The paintings I do are quite detailed and to relax I do cartoons and sell cards and prints of them. I also paint Christmas Ornaments which sell between $25 to 35.00. I do those while watching tv in the evening. I don’t make a lot of money, but I don’t want to spend all my time doing these, they are my side job. I’ve been told art is art, but to me one is my job and the other is entertainment.

  23. I’m attracted to the moment: things that are only around for a few days or minutes. I also embrace my hometown. My favorite subjects are my county fair, local landscapes, and (I’m getting into) genre, especially worked from my own photosketches. And I’ve been wanting to get bigger, favoring the 16×20″. What’s sold since I finally got a bit of gallery space? 8×10″ and 9×12″ songbirds and cuddling cats–neither of which came from my photosketches or even local.

    From the gallery owner’s description, both went to fans of the works I take to my county fair, wanting just a little piece of me, I guess.

  24. I started oil painting in 7th grade and painted plein air fairly large 20”x 24”. I retired from teaching first and second grade 6 years ago and started selling every Sunday at the Santa Barbara Arts and Crafts Show. I started painting smaller and smaller. I now paint minis on tiny easels and sell every week. When I paint a larger painting ( now 16”x 20”) I paint several minis and other small sizes of the same painting at the same time. This show can only have original work, no prints. Artbytanda.com I have a harder time working on and fixing my website. 😆

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