Friday, September 10, 2010

Painting What Sells or Painting What You Love


What you choose to paint is usually regarded as a dichotomy. You either paint what sells, or you paint what you love.

It's easy to paint what sells. You can copy the style of a famous artist and do what they do. You can also just look into illustration/fine art annuals and figure out what people like. You can spend hours and hours practicing and drawing, and once you get your traditional classical realism down paint some dragons and monsters and barbarians with topless women and you're set.

It's not easy to paint what you love. You have to figure out what parts of your style are you, and what are habits that have been drilled into your brain by society, peers, schooling, or anything else that has led to your development as an artist. You also have to leave all that other stuff behind and do what you want. Sometimes you'll find commercial success right away, especially if what you love to paint also happens to be what sells. Other times, you'll have to find a niche audience that may be scattered across the globe. You'll probably have to spend years experimenting to even figure out what you love, then spend more years honing your craft before you ever get mainstream commercial success.

If you paint what sells, you'll probably end up hating your art and you'll be financially successful but most likely painting won't even be fun anymore. You'll be doing someone else's style, doing someone else's subject matter. When what's "in" changes, you'll find that your (borrowed) style is no longer as in-demand as it once was, and you'll have to start all over.

If you paint what you love, although jobs might be harder to find, and gallery shows might not come as readily, painting will be a total release from all the other crap you might have to put up with. When you paint what you love, you'll love painting enough to deal with loans, late fees, overdrafts, and budgeting between food and art supplies.

But life isn't a dichotomy. While it's true that there are subjects and styles that sell better than others, you can still paint what you love and be successful. Often times the love that you have for your paintings will translate onto your canvas. It becomes about finding your audience and giving your craft your all. Even if you are technically able to do a certain style, or a certain subject, if your heart isn't in it, you'll be unhappy.

When you're well-known and in-demand, people will ask to see more of what they've already seen before. Sure, styles and subjects might vary a bit, but people will want to see some continuity from your previous work. If all you have for previous work is stuff you don't like to paint, you'll be stuck painting more of the same. Even if it takes longer (which won't necessarily happen) to become more successful by painting what you love, when you finally reach that success you'll find that it's a lot more fulfilling and lucrative than just following the trends and doing what sells.

You can also figure out what your audience wants and still stay true to your own voice. Ask them! Put up a survey, ask your friends - what part of your art do they like the most? What would they want to see? Find out something that people will like, and then do your own twist on it - but only if you want to. If people say they want to see landscapes, and you hate landscapes, by all means pass. But if people say they want to see pirates and you actually like pirates, then you can paint them in whatever style suits you best.

Find the love in your work, whether its paintings, writing, acting, dancing, teaching, engineering, managing, selling, whatever. Find what you love do to and pursue it endlessly. And if you can figure out a way to make a living off doing just that, you'll be even better off. You'll find that no matter how long the journey, it will be an enjoyable and profitable one.