There are three things your art needs to be in order to have the best chance at commercial success. And their order of importance is probably opposite to what you’d think.
BE ORIGINAL (but not too much)
When we ask ‘What is the one key attribute of commercially successful art?’, a fair number of people will immediately say ‘originality’.
Those people are wrong.
If you walk into a stationery store, you will see myriads of thoroughly similar products vying for your attention. There will be kittens. There will be bows. There will be birdies, bright saturated colors, and polka dots. Walk into a few fashion stores and you’ll easily find overlapping elements – some warm-toned florals, some bold geometrics, some pastels. Some stripes. What at first seems like an absolute panoply of diversity and difference in truth boils down to subtly updated variants of very familiar motifs. No matter how fervently the fashion industry tries to convince you that this spring’s trends are all-new, fresh, and far superior to last year’s, it’s highly doubtful that they will feature patterns inspired by anatomy textbook illustrations or mining machinery silhouettes. It’s probably still gonna be stripes and florals.
This is why artists who follow their own muse and make something that diverges from the norm – i.e. something truly original – mostly have a hard time reaching wider commercial success. If they are good, they may instead manage to build devoted niche fan base over time, but they will certainly face their fair share of rejection from regular commercial outlets. If they are very good – and very lucky – they will start a whole new trend and the rest of us will get to wade in their wake for a while.
And this is natural. The one thing people respond to on a core level is familiarity. It’s partly a subconscious reaction – like that song on the radio that you start enthusiastically singing along to before you realize ‘wait a minute, I don’t even like that song.’ But your brain went ‘Yay, we know this one!!!’ and for a minute there you confused familiarity with liking. Experiments have shown that if you dye food into unexpected colors, people have a hard time eating it. The taste is the same, but meat just isn’t supposed to be purple, dammit! The unfamiliar weirds us out. Even those of us who fancy themselves adventurous are mostly moderately so – when ordering out in a restaurant you might reach for the chicken breast in apricot sauce instead of just having it grilled, but you’re unlikely to ask for braised tarantulas. (Also June is not a good month to eat those).
Standing out from the crowd is still important – you just don’t want to stand out all the way up to the stratosphere. I’d say aiming for art that is 80% in line with what everyone else in your particular field is doing at the moment and 20% of your own personal touch is a good fit to ensure people find you refreshing, but not bewildering.
BE ON BRAND
This one took me a long while to fully grasp. I always thought that having a diverse portfolio can only be a strength. And it is – as long as you’re working for other people. Having a diverse set of skills means you can easily meet the expectations of many different clients. But if you’re trying to create a name for yourself and build a portfolio of work to sell – whether you’re selling it outright or through various Print on Demand sites – every piece you make needs to be around 50% just like every other piece you make. ‘That makes no sense!’ I hear you exclaim. ‘Why would people want to see me do the same thing over and over?’ Well, we go back to the familiarity thing. But even more important than that – you need brand recognition. When someone glances at an artwork in passing, they need to think ‘hey, I know that style! That’s Celandine!’ Next time they come across some of your work somewhere, they need to go ‘Hey, isn’t that Celandine again? Man, her work is really cool.’ And the next time, and the one after that.
A standard piece of industry wisdom says that a person will not buy from you until they have seen your work in various places at least seven times. That’s how long it takes to build that connection, to develop the familiarity with the style to the point where someone is willing to commit to a purchase. (Naturally this is not a fixed rule – but you can feel it working within your own life too. Most of us will flirt with a pricier item of clothing a few times before we decide to go and buy it – you’ll see it in a shop window once but not have time to stop, then you’ll see a similar thing being worn by someone on the street, then you’ll go try it but not be sure you want it… and then you’ll finally cave. This way of buying things ensures less buyer’s remorse than impulse buying, which should be reserved to candy bars and bubble gum at the supermarket checkout till). Since people will increasingly love your work the more they are exposed to it, you need to make sure they know when they’re being exposed to it.
This does not mean that you have to draw slight variations of the same thing in the same style for as long as you live. But try to make smaller changes which naturally grow out of your existing style, rather than sharp cuts and dramatic changes of subject, style and color scheme. Try to make things in groups and series, every piece of art somehow magically looks better when it’s surrounded by a few more similarly styled pieces. A home decor magazine once gave me advice I’ll never forget – ‘One small ugly lamp is ugly. But three small ugly lamps grouped together – that’s kind of pretty.’
Any time I post a piece on my Society6 page that is radically different than the others (and I am actually very prone to these radical experiments), it tanks. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that I made it badly – it just means that my audience, who has gathered around my page united by a love of a detailed organic style with natural motifs, doesn’t quite know what to do with a typography piece I throw out, or a tribal pattern, or a geometric experiment. It’s not necessarily that they don’t like these things, it’s just not what they’re there for.
BE ON TREND
This is the one – the holy grail. My main piece of advice. The other two you can stretch to a point, but this one will save you.
When I say ‘be on trend’, I don’t necessarily mean you need to invest a ton of time in trend research, buy all the latest trend reports, explore predictions for upcoming themes and color palettes, or any such stuff. What I primarily mean is look at what sells, compare your work to what sells, and make sure the gap is not too large. This can be a gap in quality (work harder to improve your skills), a gap in style and subject matter (see above – be less original), or a lack of understanding for the client’s preferences. A piece can be stunning and really well made, but just fundamentally wrong for the industry you’re trying to get into.
I learned this the hard way when I flirted with the idea of getting into the quilting market. Then I realized I am just not selling the right thing to the right people. Yes, it’s a pattern, yes, it has flowers on it, and no – it will never be a good quilting pattern. There are too many details, too many colors, the scales are way too large and I have no collections. This sounds like nitpicking and frippery, but it isn’t – it’s the essence.
Being on trend for your market means understanding the people who buy from you. Artists often think of their work as closely linked to their own personality – which is natural, because those links are there. But in order to understand how to sell your art, you need to get used to imagining a whole new set of links – the one between your work and the personality and lifestyle of your customers. When your work is sold, your own personality is no longer part of that equation. People will not buy your art because of the meaning you wanted to weave into it. People will buy your art for the way it speaks to them. Their emotional response to your work will be radically different from yours. The more empathy you have for your buyers, the better you can predict that response, and the better your work will sell.
Go and check your portfolio right now – where do you think you are in terms of these three factors? What could you change to improve on them?