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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40 Comments

  1. I’m still working out bread recipes. However, I have a wide medium-interest which breaks away from what I hope to be known for and those nooks and crannies hold some interesting ideas.
    But I have a question you might want to ask at a later point. As an established artist, how much time to you spend broadening your art experience with other artists’ works, and do you spend odd moments contemplating “art” in its broadest sense?

  2. Yes, in my very limited experience, I have found that certain pieces always sell in my home town. They are iconic images of this area, and are purchased for a number of reasons – personal use, graduation, wedding or other types of gifts.

  3. I live close to the beach in Florida, and found a niche in painting beach scenes in small sizes 12×12 and 11×14. It seems that vacationers like to take a reminder, a memory , home with them, and nearly everyone has a small space to hang it. They are easily packed up, fit in suitcases, and are not as expensive as my larger pieces. I love to paint big, but some galleries don’t want to fill one wall with one painting, plus they are hard to store. So my bread and butter paintings cater to the visitors.

  4. I make tiny (2″ x 3″ usually) realistic paintings with a matching tiny easel. I sell them at a high end ceramic establishment that has multiple locations. While they are not as quick to paint as I’d like, they sell like hot cakes and make a nice supplement to my fine art abstracts.

  5. Great question Jason, Sometimes my bread and butter is small paintings that I will do before a larger piece as the initial works are carefree and less time consuming. Other times, my bread and butter is as an art instructor which generates an income and can be very rewarding. I still do a few cards and prints but I limit them to only pieces I have sold or for charity sharing purposes as I still feel these can take away from the sales of originals. I look forward to hearing more ideas for bread and butter earnings!

  6. I’ve been discussing this very topic with a friend who just designed a website based on 8×8″ abstracts. https://www.nancyteague8x8.com/8x8s.html Something that really enhances the site is her photos of these little paintings in various settings. Very well presented!

    My own “bread & butter” has been 6×6″ scenics of a popular area of the local mountains, and 2 years ago it was custom designed coloring books. Someone keeps “moving our cheese”, so we have to pay attention!

  7. My scenes of Siesta Key Beach in Florida near where I live seem to sell easily. I would put them in the “travel art” category. Visitors want something to remind them of a favorite trip. Lately, I have been focused on other subjects, but I look forward to doing some plein air beach scenes after the snowbird season ends and the traffic is lighter.

  8. I’m still trying to figure that out. My passion is carving but my illustrations definitely get people’s attention. Being Native American I always find it difficult to know how to present myself, I love doing abstract and non-traditional art work and don’t want to be slotted as just a Native American artist. I don’t want to be pigeon-holed but at the same time I want to develop a following again. I started selling to galleries at age 12, under my grandfather’s guidance. Most of the pieces I sold then we’re very simple, quickly carved and always the same thing. When he died, I just couldn’t do that anymore because it was too painful, I eventually stopped carving altogether until a couple of years ago.

    When I went back to carving and selling work again, I didn’t want to go back to what I was doing as a kid but the galleries I had sold to then, wanted me to do the same thing I had done as a teen. It feels like going backwards and it’s still painful to carve the things my grandfather had me carve.

    I feel like I have to market myself as 2 distinct people: the fine artist that does all these experimental pieces and the artisan who does a few distinctive pieces over and over again.

    1. Perhaps the few carved pieces of traditional subjects could be your bread and butter, leaving you time to expand with more experimental work. Say, 40 percent of your time on bread and butter?

  9. My aim or ‘itch’ is to find some wildly unusual way to say or portray–‘something.’ Also I remember the comfortable feel of not thinking too hard: having an assignment or specific goal.
    Accordingly I began, on the side, a series of paintings (of barns) all the same size, from my own roadside photos, thinking to make a calendar. Mentioning this idea to anyone was quickly met with: “I want that calendar.”
    I saw that Lulu has a quick way to put such a thing together, for about $20 [I think] and instantly thought of profit–in this case, zero.
    However, this would be my first run at, well, visibility.
    So far I’m still pondering but on barn #8.

  10. I have found that having a few professional prints of my selected artwork available has contributed to the bread and butter, along with regular teaching workshops. These print sales seem to come in-between sales of my unique larger originals (which are one of a kind and I do not make prints of).
    Also, I have offered to hang large prints in certain businesses, including staging homes, which has brought about some sales. I believe doing this is good exposure and seems to encourage sales eventually (people saying things like “I’ve seen your work around and now would like to get a painting”). Small works at shows or in galleries also seem to go more readily. However, the sale of a one of a kind large Original Painting is the ultimate.

  11. I ignored this for some time, then tried simple oils with the wrong assumption they would fit a lesser budget. I didn’t care for doing them and although I sold a few my heart wasn’t in it. I don’t paint like that and never put them on my website.
    I have an artisan friend who sells at local and regional markets every weekend with a totally unrelated product. I did some graphite and colored pencil drawings she could bring and display with little effort (of course, I pay her). I was surprised how quickly they sold … enough in a couple good markets to equal a small original oil.
    I matted some and framed others (11 x 14, max) … birds, florals, butterflies, rustic, livestock, pets, wild animals … whatever whimsy occurred to me at the time. I drew on years of my own photo resources.
    The surprising part is how much I enjoy doing them. I can complete a detailed colored pencil drawing in hours verses days or weeks for a large oil painting. With less time invested I could offer them for far less. In short, they’re fun.

  12. Thank You, Jason. I needed the reminder to get mine on track. 🙂 It was difficult to break free from the larger paintings, and to bring myself to finish smaller works not quite in keeping with my normal beat. But they are turning out wonderful and I hope to have a number to present at once shortly.

  13. I think even if the idea turns you off as an artist, it’s worth remembering that not everyone can afford large, significant works of art. Such a person may love original art but thousands or even just hundreds of dollars may never be within their budget. If they have the opportunity to buy quality art, smaller or simpler maybe, they will still have pride of ownership and get joy from it. I paint large and find it hard to scale down or consider other subjects besides the figures that are my normal subjects (nudes) but I found I had to, to keep supplies in my studio and bills paid. And after recognizing that I found I didn’t dislike it. Somehow it gives me a fresh approach to my larger works.

  14. Love this post Jason… it’s truly helpful. I’ve developed a second style of works – bolder color and design – from my normal realistic work. I’ve been really torn over which kind of work to emphasize, but your suggestion here is to give up neither. That options sounds attractive. I’m not quite ready to abandon the style of work I’ve done for 25 years, and yet, I’m excited about moving in a different direction.

    I’ve been thinking that even while I’ve gained ability with my realistic/traditional work, I’m getting a little bored with it. The newer style is indeed faster, but even more important, I feel energized by it. It’s just hard to make a big change after so many years.
    What’s REALLY INTERESTING is that former buyers of my traditional work have said they like my newer style very much.

  15. As a leaded glass artist, there’s always some decorative custom glass that is bread and butter like cabinet panels and door lights using stock bevels. They are no brainer jobs, easy to design and execute, but eye candy in a home. Every panel of glass doesn’t have to be an art piece. Also, when I’m not overbooked, I’ll take repairs- again, it’s a service that is needed to keep a repairable window out of a landfill. I’d say the bread and butter work is about 1/2 of my business, which is fine. This is not a hobby and the bills need to be paid! When I have an order for something creative, I think I enjoy it even more cause it feels like play.

  16. I’m busy working out my bread in butter line, and test-driving it on Instagram. It needs to be something I like doing and that I would not be ashamed of my colleagues seeing.
    I think I am getting there with some palette knife still-life oil painting (from life) and I will know in a few months time. In the meantime, my Instagram friends love them!

  17. Yup…my bread and butter are my pet portraits in colored pencil and graphite. I’ve cultivated such a wonderful following that I am booked up till the end of summer. Two a month helps with my bills!!

  18. Thank you Jason for this bread and butter post. I have been thinking along these lines and clarifying an idea for it, and reading this post just flipped the switch to an imaginary neon sign reading “do this” to on. Thanks again!

  19. This was an interesting post that came at just the right time.I have been discussing this with several friends, the idea that some of my more quickly saleable work is much smaller and looks different from the other work in my practice, and we’ve been talking about whether its a good or bad thing. It’s a tough call, but I agree with the statement that given the choice of outside work or creating smaller items that seem to sell quickly, I’ll go for the latter every time. I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one struggling with this concept though.

  20. I am working at producing more of my bread and butter. The work happened by accident as I was testing the colors of paint I would use on larger velveteen pieces. Those experiments created miniature paintings, 3 x 5 , 4 x 6, and 5 x 7.

  21. I’ve wrestled with this question more than once and have no great answer yet. I’m fortunate that I can supplement my income teaching creative writing (I’m also a poet and essayist) which doesn’t infringe of my painting or leave me feeling I’ve compromised anything. At my last show, I included some of my early collages which are smaller and they did sell well even though I’m no longer doing them. I’m an abstract expressionist and find that smaller sizes are more work for me than bigger canvases – it’s just the nature of the thing. But I’ve been encouraged to do cards and I may do that. I also just got a commission to do the cover for a jazz anthology – my paintings are all connected to jazz. That might lead to a new line of work.

    Thanks for another good question, Jason, and a great discussion here.

  22. My bread and butter work has proven to be a subject; Palm trees. I discovered the demand for them accidentally, through experimentation as the article mentioned. They started as a small offering series (4” x 12”), but when I started painting larger versions I found they sold well too. It’s great to have some work that I can be confident will sell successfully, but I have to mix it up to keep myself interested in painting the same subject repeatedly. I vary the skies and experiment with new colors to keep the subject fresh for me. I currently spin out the Palms about every 4th or 5th painting so that I can benefit from regular sales without compromising my desire to explore other subjects in between “the bread and butter”.

  23. On a whim two years ago I introduced a few small matted pieces at a show. They were the fiber artist’s equivalent of sketches, looser in style and lower priced than my regular work. They were fast and fun to do. The reaction was good, I did more…now they are a full line in multiple price points and are avidly collected by my customers. The whim has turned into a very significant bread an butter part of my business.
    The little artworks garner me more income than any part time job could offer, and it is all my own original art. I am so happy to have added them to my line, don’t be afraid to try something out of your comfort zone!

  24. Bread and butter pieces can become a horror! 8 or so years ago I started producing Meditation Bowls, made of Ky White Pine with a Blue Sap Stain. They have an almost ethereal look to them. The bowl comes with a small card to introduce the buyer to using the bowl as a “calming” or meditation piece. It is a small bowl that naturally fits into the palm of your hand, about 3″ in diameter.

    The Meditation bowls sell very well, and each year I raise the price, and they still go out the door. And to be very honest, I am not happy doing them. They are so repetitive and I am just bored doing them.

    Why did I start making them? I was experimenting with what would/could sell. These did/do sell. My advice, be careful with your ‘bread and butter’ items. Then again, 8 years ago they were fun to do.

  25. What timing. I have been considering dropping my smallest (6” x 6”) resin paintings. They were my B&B last year, but they’re not as easy to make as the larger pieces. So, I’ve been considering not even bringing them to the first couple of festivals this Spring to see if I could sell more of the larger size pieces instead. Now you have me wondering if I should even bother with that kind of research. (A bird in the hand, and all that…) Thanks for making me take a good, hard look at this, Jason.

  26. I have to say that I never found my bread and butter works. I tried many times but there was no pattern in my sales that I could discern. So I’ve been one of those artists that had great exhibitions and poor exhibitions. That has meant of course good times and some really challenging times. Especially recently. So if in the work you do there is a chance for some bread and butter I say think about it seriously. Its a lot better then when there are no sales and few jobs around.

  27. Hi Jason,
    I really appreciated your ideas re. bread and butter. I love doing large paintings
    ex 30 x 40 or 36 x 48 but they take me a lot of time and I have realized to increase production I need to intersperse them with smaller paintings ex 10 x10. At present I am working on a large forest painting 40 x 30 and a small still life of a flower 10 x 10.
    Santana

  28. I started selling my work at a local art show about a year ago. My average size piece was 16×20” . I noticed the photographers could sell their work very cheaply so I started painting mini paintings about 2 1/2 x 3 1/2” . I base these on my larger works so while I’m painting I’ll do 2 or 3 minis at the same time. Visitors can by an original oil painting for $25. I’ve sold paintings to visitors from China, Europe and many states. I finally created a website. http://www.artbytanda.com

  29. I have recently begun to paint classic cars at £1,000 a pop for by bread & butter sales on 20″ x 16″ canvasses. I have received huge amounts of local press exposure & sales of all of my very varied Artworks are rocketing…

  30. When I was doing festivals, the common wisdom was to have a selection of smaller, low-priced items in addition to the regular work. So I did that. But it was tough seeing people consistently choose the low-priced stuff when they really wanted the larger work. So I stopped offering the small stuff. Now I know that when they buy a piece , they’re doing it because they love it. Much more gratifying for all of us. I’m thinking of developing a bread and butter line that’s not in my usual medium…something completely different. I do like the bread with the butter on it.

  31. I sell cards and prints of my paintings. I had painted the entrance to Wrigley Field four years ago and when they won the World Series in 2016, I sold more copies of that then all my other paintings combined. It bought the groceries for several months.

  32. I used to do large pen and ink pointillism drawings but in between each drawing I would do these small art card (2.5 x 3.5) pieces just to get my creative energy going. I listed a few on my website just for the fun of it and they ended up selling. Since then I’ve pretty much switched to doing mostly these small drawings, doing larger pieces maybe once or twice a year. I was a bit bummed about it at first because that wasn’t what I had envisioned for the direction of my work but now that I’m working smaller I can really focus on doing a good job in a shorter time span which allows for me to sell more pieces more often.

  33. Thank you for clarifying this aspect of the art business for me. My work focuses in abstract-expressionist faces, figures and masks. Over the past few months, my bread & butter pieces have been more decorative in nature and mostly flowers. While sales of these pieces been very good, I generally feel so guilty when I do them. These article, I believe will ease my mind set since now I know it’s “OK” to do. Thanks again, great article.

  34. Thank you again – this clarifies something as I do two bodies of work. One sells so incredibly well and is definitely bread and butter and the other is much different and a totally different medium. When I focus on the bread and butter I feel that I was selling out and now it isn’t that -it was an uh ha moment. I used to sell small pieces on agate and yes it was totally bread and butter but it was so miniature and my eyesight isn’t what it used to be that I had to focus on something else… I am just blessed that I have something else to go to. I have had many people try to copy my old bread and butter items but can’t – just makes me smile when people think – I can do that.

  35. Although I love doing larger paintings, the small ones do pay
    the exspences of the show. However, it’s hard to know year after year what the buyers will like this year. It’s just a shot in the dark.

  36. So how does one go about creating “bread and butter”? I have two friends whose fine art practice has been longterm and consistent. They now produce exquisite, mature abstract art, one in printmaking, one in painting. Because of life limitations, neither has marketed the work, as they have invested all their limited free time in maintaining their artistic development. And here they are, 20 years later, with an exceptional body of work and no market. What’s worse, their resumes, once international or national in scope, are out of date along with their knowledge of modern marketing. What steps should they take?

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