by Anton Dybal April 27, 2021 20 min read
Let me begin by stating plainly: I am not an artist.
So what business do I have, you might say, writing a detailed blog post about how to create awesome artwork that sells?
While I can't create much artwork myself beyond the occasional mediocre doodle featuring spaceships or monsters, as the Founder of Next-Level Artwork, I can confidently say that I've spent far more time & energy than just about anybody you know doing the following things: Scouring the depths of the internet searching for talented artists & fantastic art pieces; commissioning art production & licensing existing artwork; and curating our company's artwork collection, then helping to design a website & marketing plan around it—in the process learning about what artwork does or doesn't sell best.
As both an avid purchaser of artwork, as well as a very careful observer of what does and doesn't sell, I believe I'm in a very solid and unique position to give you actionable insights on how to actually make more money from your artwork—insights that you simply won't hear or learn from somebody on the other side of the equation. At the same time, I'm also not some sheltered ivory-tower professor who's teaching you theory and hypotheticals that may or may not be battle-tested; I'm somebody who—every single day of his life—is deeply in the commercial trenches of the artwork industry, heavily involved in money exchanging hands during the successful purchase of artwork.
I believe that my background and experience in this field as founder of this company puts me in a very good position to tell you what, exactly, I (and others in my industry) look for—and avoid—when shopping for artwork to add to our collection, and when searching for talented artists to collaborate with.
What I'm going to do in this article is provide you with a rock-solid criteria and set of principles to follow that will help you to make more money from your artwork. This advice will be a blend of brainstorming tips, research ideas, artwork do's and don'ts, marketing & discoverability pointers, and the occasional hard—but necessary—cold slap in the face. Follow this advice, and I am very confident that you will simply have better luck making more money from your artwork.
With all of that said, let's jump into it.
One of the most common themes I see among winning artwork is that, fundamentally, it is simply based on an interesting idea.
"I shall paint a bowl of fruit."
Trust me, NOBODY needs to see another fruit bowl painting—nor do they want to.
Come up with an interesting concept as your starting point, and you're setting yourself up for success.
This doesn't necessarily mean you have to come up with some groundbreakingly clever, completely new idea that the world has never seen before. You can simply follow a certain trend you like, or model yourself off of something cool you saw. You don't have to win awards for originality. But simply use something interesting as your starting point, and you're on a solid footing.
At the same time, simply having a good idea isn't good enough. You have to pair this good idea with fantastic execution.
I can't tell you how many times, while browsing portfolios and shopping artwork, I saw a piece that was a really cool idea, but the execution just was not there. Like: "Man, this idea had a lot of potential, but you just didn't quite have the skills or you just didn't take the time to flesh this idea out and reach your full potential."
Take the time to fully and completely execute. If you need to make revisions, or take a step back and ask: "What can I do to take this to the next level? What could I improve here?", ask those questions, and make those improvements. If you're not getting as much out of an idea as you can, you're just not reaching your full potential as an artist.
I see a lot of artists whose portfolios are full of horrendously cluttered pieces. Like, each piece is trying to do 516 things at once: There are 12 different characters doing 6 different things in 8 different locations—it takes an entire evening of careful study to even figure out what is happening in this art piece!
The human mind prefers simplicity. Our brians like ease of understanding, and straight lines that take you from Point A to Point B.
An added benefit of this is that it'll probably save you tons of time creating your artwork! If you're having to painstakingly draw 15 different characters in a single art piece, that's a hell of a lot more work than focusing all your time & energy on just a few key characters—and giving everything you've got to make these few characters as good as you can make them.
I am of the opinion that the more you have going on in the piece, the lower the overall quality will be—because your time, attention, and energy is split between 15 different directions. It's the same with productivity in general, or the same with success in any area of life: Focus on a few key things, and do those few things very well, and you'll be better off than trying to do 30 things at once. Do too much at once and all you'll end up doing is a lot of things, poorly.
I know I know: How dare I besmirch your original ideas and your innovative concepts?
Look, I'm not saying your entire portfolio needs to just be the same old stuff that anybody else is doing, but at least do some working backwards from what people already like and are already searching for. Use tools like the Google Ads Keyword Planner to find out the monthly search volumes for Search Phrase A versus Search Phrase B or Search Phrase C. Then create some artwork accordingly.
At the very least, just think of this as a strategy to get people in the door—where they can then be exposed to the rest of your portfolio that may not necessarily be what they were looking for, or may not be something they'd even think to search for, but that they nonetheless might like.
But if everything you're doing is this super niche art style that nobody would even have the imagination to think to search for, it's very unlikely that they'll discover it in the first place. Which brings me to my next point...
I'm reminded of a Brian Tracy lecture that he gave to a group of dentists. There he was focused on giving them actionable advice to make more money as a dentist. At one point he said to the group: "How do you get more referrals? Be referable!"
In a similar vein, you might be asking yourself as an artist: "How do I get my artwork discovered?" My answer is: Be discoverable!
It's remarkable how many artists don't have the slightest idea of how to format webpages so as to be discoverable. They'll give their art piece a cryptic, one-word title like "Deviance" or "Neutralize"—and they have no description of the art piece whatsoever on the page!
How do you possibly expect people to find a website or art piece that contains absolutely no informative or descriptive keywords anywhere on the page? Are they just going to randomly type in some random URL and happen to stumble upon your webpage?
Simply put, search engines work by matching what is on the page, with what people are searching for. If all you have on the artwork webpage in question is an image file (even worse, titled something random like DP2389jk.jpeg), and a cryptic, one-word, mysterious-sounding art title that doesn't at all describe the piece, you'd be lucky if you had 10 people per month stumble upon that web page!
Learn the basis of SEO. Read a few books on the subject, and apply the principles on your art portfolio website, and any other site that you host your content on. Whether it's an art-sharing site like DeviantArt, or a stock-photo licensing site like AdobeStock or Shutterstock, all of these same SEO principles apply and will simply make it easier for your artwork to be found.
Some good books on the subject I would recommend are:
and Seo For Growth
(Please note that these are NOT affiliate links. I make no money from you purchasing these books. I have simply read them and found them to be helpful. So don't think I have some nefarious motives here recommending them to you.)
"But Anton, I'm an artist! I am not a marketer and I don't have time for all of this, 'search engine optimization', web design and marketing nonsense!"
Cold slap-in-the-face time: With that mindset, all you're ever likely to be is a starving artist—emphasis on the word starving—and not a financially successful one. Do you want to make a living from your artwork, or do you want to continue doing it on the side for the next 10 years while being forced to work a day-job that you hate?
It doesn't matter what industry you're in, or what your unique talents are: At the end of the day, ALL of us need to market our products or services. This applies to you as much as it does to me or any other product or company.
Read these books, read some more books on the subject, highlight them, go back through and read the highlights, actually apply all of the principles that you learn there (ALL of them -- don't just pick and choose the easy ones or the ones that sound fun), and I promise you that things will get so much easier for you.
Learn the importance of key SEO principles such as: Appropriately using header tags; conducting keyword research and knowing what words and phrases to use on your webpages; appropriate file-naming conventions & alt text usage; building up a backlink profile; consistent content production; and so on. After a few months of consistently applying these principles, you will have so much traffic flowing to your artwork that you'll be beating people off with a stick! Maybe that's an exaggeration, but I promise you, it will help.
FUN FACT on this point, by the way: The cryptic, mysterious, one-word titles that didn't at all describe the artwork? That's something my company did when we started out! Major facepalm, I know! You might notice, when browsing through our collection, that there are a lot of very straightforward, on-the-nose product titles: "OCTOPUS CONFRONTATION", "MONSTER ATTACKS TOWN", "GIANT DOOMSDAY ROBOT", and so on. That is no coincidence that these titles are so straightforward. The product titles, or article/post titles on websites, are usually formatted as H1 tags -- indicating very high importance to search engines.
So by pairing our product titles with the actual keywords people are going to be using when typing a search into Google, it will simply help with discoverability. If we titled it something vague like "DESERTION" or "HOPE"—yet it featured a huge octopus or giant robot—nobody in hell would think to use those words to find that particular thing, and even if they happened to land on the site using that search query, it would be so irrelevant to what they were likely for that they would just bounce anyway, indicating to search engines that they should push you further down the rankings. That's why principles such as these are so crucial to understand. It will be the same on your art website as it is on ours.
Sounds simple enough, right? Are you doing this though? If you find that one particular style of artwork gets shared a ton on social media, gets tons of favorites on DeviantArt, gets licensed way more frequently, I would strongly recommend doing more of what got you that winning result.
As an example of this, we have a few classy animal portraits on our website: "Dapper Velociraptor" and "Noblesnake: Classy Cobra." These are popular on our site, and the artist who created Noblesnake (Wison Hendrik) explicitly told me that this one was very popular on social media before we licensed it from him.
Here is my question: Why hasn't he made 5 more just like this? Why is there only just the one, and he moved onto different projects?
If I hit upon a winning formula, I'd try to squeeze more out of it! You don't strike oil, fill up one barrel and then pack up your things and leave forever; you set up camp there and you squeeze every last drop out of that oil reservoir that you possibly can!
I'm not saying you need to be a one-trick pony who never moves onto different or possibly-greener pastures, but if something is working and winning, at least stick around for a bit and chew some grass. At the very least, have a few mouthfuls before you leave!
This is a famous saying popularized by the author Stephen King. What it basically means is: As the creators of art or writing or ideas of whatever it may be, we tend to be uniquely biased towards these things. We tend to think our own ideas and creations are amazing, and have difficulty parting ways with them.
I can tell you in entrepreneurship in particular, this idea is FATAL. You need to be very adaptable. You need to be willing to try something, look at the data, and nakedly accept whatever conclusion is in front of you. Becoming married to a certain philosophy, or way of doing things, can cripple you, box you in, and prevent you from growing and improving more than just about anything else. This is something I personally sometimes struggle with running this company, and it's something I see a lot of artists do, as well.
Maybe they have a particular art style that they think is cool, but nobody else seems to like it that much. Maybe they're persuaded that METHOD X or Y is what they're going to do to promote their artwork and make money—and they're convinced that if they just keep running into that wall, eventually they'll break through. Whatever form this takes in your particular case, you need to be able to identify when you're becoming detrimentally attached to old ideas or existing ways of doing things. Be adaptable, and be willing to drop things and try new approaches—whether we're talking about the creation of art itself, or the marketing & selling of this artwork.
This is another one of those tips that applies not just to artwork, but to high achievement in any area of life. You have to just continually keep raising the bar on yourself, and keep finding ways to step your game up and get more out of yourself.
I've seen artists whose portfolios, frankly, are trash—and it's BEEN trash for 8 consecutive years. 8 years of the same crummy artwork style where you see very little improvement.
On the other hand, I'll see artists whose portfolios start out looking terrible 8 years ago, but over time you've seen them steadily improve, until they reach the point where the artwork they're producing is so good that you're practically falling out of your chair when you see it.
What makes the difference here? Why does the one person steadily improve, while the other artist stagnates?
The answer is because one was simply hungrier than the other to improve. He read the books and he watched the How-To videos. He searched for the blog posts telling him how to step his game up. He's here right now as we speak, reading this very blog post, while the other guy's watching Netflix or playing videogames.
The artist that improves the most is the one that's hungriest to improve. He's the one that spends the most time deliberately trying to get better. He's the one that seeks out the criticism, asks for the brutal feedback, and scrutinizes his work while constantly asks himself: "How can I step my game up? How can I get more out of myself and take things to the next level? What can I do to reach my very fullest potential as an artist?"
A common theme I see among many outstanding art pieces is: The entire piece works together as a cohesive whole to convey one dominating feeling or vibe that it gives off. Let me give some examples.
This piece here by Daniel Karlsson? Every little part of the artwork is working together here to give off the spooky vibe of a creepy, dystopian landscape. The colors, the subjects, the perspective, the idea that was executed—all of it is working together to give the one singular vibe he was going for.
How about this piece here by Katie Hofgard? Again, everything is working together to convey what she's going for in this scene: The perspective that we view the rabbit from, his facial expression, the lightning in the background, the shadows in this piece—all of it works together to channel our mind in one, singular direction.
One last example, this one by Mark McGlashan. Again, *every aspect of this artwork* works together to put off one singular vibe: The dark clouds in the sky, the spooky rock formations, the tiny lamp on the fisherman's boat, the perspective that we view the scene from—all of these elements IN COMBINATION work together to make it an outstanding piece of art.
All of these different aspects of the art piece individually might not make it outstanding, but it's the *combination* of all of them together that makes it a great art piece. More than probably anything else, absolutely nailing this in your artwork will help to take it to that next level, and really give it that "WOW" factor.
Nobody wants to be the person who has boring artwork in their home.
I've found that a lot of the stuff I am just instinctively drawn to—and a lot of the stuff that sells—is the stuff that's very bold.
Remember, we live in the social media age where everybody has a microscopic attention span. People are used to being entertained by the most absolutely engaging content the Facebook or Instagram algorithms could possibly serve up to them.
Simply put, your artwork needs to be able to "stop the scroll", as it's often put in marketing circles. A boring fruit bowl just isn't gonna cut it. A standard farm landscape will put people to sleep on social media. Unless you're looking to decorate a retirement home, in today's age, your artwork needs to be bold.
If you can make people say "WOW!" with your artwork, they will throw their credit cards at you all day long. And if it makes them say wow, it'll probably make their friends say wow—meaning they'll come back to you and they'll buy some more of it. Nobody's going to rush over to their computer screen to buy more unremarkable artwork that nobody cared enough to comment on.
As the saying goes, "Be so good they can't ignore you!"
This is a principle I learned from Brian Tracy, in his classic Singapore lecture.
No matter how hard we work or how much we prepare, a lot of the things we try just simply won't work. That art piece you thought was going to crush, might end up putting people to sleep. The one you thought wasn't all that great, might have people falling over themselves to share it and compliment it.
While I'm usually pretty good at picking winners, I will sometimes see this on our website as well: Sometimes, a piece that I thought was going to sell like hotcakes doesn't really do all that well, while another one that I wasn't particular crazy about sells way more than I expected. Sometimes, you just don't know what other people's preferences are.
With that in mind, volume is your best friend! As Tony Robbins once said, "Massive action is the cure-all!"
Brian Tracy, in that lecture, gives the analogy of a dartboard: Imagine you have a bunch of darts, and you start throwing them at a dart board. What will eventually happen? He points out there that even if you're an idiot, eventually you'll hit the bullseye! If we knew that for every 10 darts we threw, one would hit a bullseye, what would be the rational thing to do? Throw as many darts as we can, as quickly as we can!
That's what you need to do with your artwork: Throw more darts! Try more things! Increase the volume and increase your output! The more you produce, the more likely you'll be to eventually hit upon a winner—which you can then learn from to further replicate going forward.
I've got news for you: People like things that are funny. Look at the posts that get the most engagement on social media, and probably half of them are hilarious. Whether we're talking about memes, YouTube videos, or TikTok videos, funny is money!
While it's obviously not the only path to succeeding at an artist, it's definitely something that will stop the scroll and get people sharing & engaging. I have personally found, just in my own home, that the funny artwork pieces are the ones people love and comment on the most.
I have "Dapper Velociraptor" in my living room, and people just absolutely love that piece. I have some other old posters in my home that are dinosaur infographics, and while I think they're cool, people rarely comment on them. But the funny ones? They ALWAYS have something to say about them.
Despite what they say, people care about the opinions of others. If doing X gets them more social approval, people are likely to do more of it. Me adding funny artwork to my home—which jives with my personality and preferences anyway—gets people to like my space more. Naturally I'll probably add more like it going forward.
Again, not saying you need to be a one-trick pony, but experiment with some funny stuff, and watch your engagement rates skyrocket.
One common theme I see among the artwork pieces that really make me say "WOW"? Their realism game is on POINT.
Let's look at some examples:
Absolutely outstanding levels of realism in these pieces. I believe this really helps with taking that "WOW!" factor to a 10 out of 10.
Now I should point out, this isn't completely essential for producing a great piece of artwork. There are some solid ones that simply don't have high levels of realism—and are even, in fact, quite simple: Pieces like "Giant Doomsday Robot" or "Alien & UFO Invasion."
But again, the pieces that really make me just about fall out of my chair? The ones that are so good that I want to go run outside and start shaking people in the street? Almost all of them have very high levels of realism. Work on improving your skills in this area, because it will definitely pay off. Easier said than done, of course, but I never said my advice in this post would be easy!
These two, I think, really go hand-in-hand. Take the time to study the artwork you really like, that does really well, that sells like hotcake and blows up on social media, and ask yourself: What recurring elements do I see here? Are there common themes, or design approaches, that I could model and replicate in my own work?
Let me give some examples here.
One thing you'll see in many winning landscape pieces? Steep hills on both sides with a lower, central valley. I'm not sure what it is about that particular configuration that our brain likes so much, but for whatever reason, we just find it aesthetically pleasing. See the following examples, where they're all landscape scenes that feature this same recurring pattern:
I am not some art genius who read a textbook or studied at Juliard. How did I figure this common pattern out? I simply looked at a few landscape pieces that really stood out to me as remarkable, and asked myself: What do they have in common? If I just looked at one, I'm not sure I would have identified. It's the contrasting and comparison of several pieces that makes the patterns jump out at you. Running simple comparisons like this, of stylistically similar pieces, can very quickly help you to spot winning features—no art degree or evening paint-classes needed.
You can do it with other styles of artwork, and again, common patterns very quickly emerge—especially if you pair it with some good, foundational knowledge of artwork & design principles. Once again, let's try it out here by looking at a few pieces, these that don't have a central focal point that's right in the middle of the piece. How can we make a piece of artwork like this work and still look good? Let's find out by finding a few examples of such a piece that stand out to us, and asking what they have in common.
Despite the fact that there is no dominating focal point right in the center, these pieces visually, just work, and look good. How do they make it work? By providing good balance in the piece between the main subject(s), and other content or subjects. In "Soviet Bear Soldier," for example, the bear isn't smack dab in the middle of the piece, but off to the side. This works, because the piece is balanced by the fighter jets at top, and the Russian buildings near the bottom. These work to fill that empty space that would've otherwise been there, so it looks good despite being off-center.
"Exoplanet Apocalypse"? Again, the astronaut isn't smack dab in the center, but instead down at the bottom. It works because the planet in the background up top provides balance. Same concept with "Showdown: Man vs. Dragon", where the dragon and the building are on the one side, and the guy on the horse is on the other.
Other times we'll see the Rule of Threes at play to make this work—which again becomes much more clear when you look at several such pieces that share this format, instead of just looking at the one and trying to figure it out from that alone.
Both great examples of the Rule of Threes being applied—where even though the focal points aren't in the center, their positioning in the piece makes it still look good.
Another winning design principle that can be spotted—that's also an art fundamental? The usage of a very powerful perspective. Some examples:
Also feature very powerful, strong perspectives—that make the artwork much more impactful than it would be if they were looked at from a sloppy, less interesting angle. And notice also in these pieces that the perspectives here also work to form a part of the cohesive whole of the artwork, getting back to what I mentioned earlier. In "Steampunk Dinosaur Chase" for example, the perspective of the scene makes it feel like a high-speed, swashbuckling car chase that's barreling right towards us. If we viewed this scene from a side profile, I just don't think it would work as well as it does here.
"T-Rex vs. Triceratops"? The perspective makes it look like, the T-rex is whipping around, in motion, ready for battle, while the perspective of the Triceratops dinosaurs makes them look like they're ready to charge forward.
And in "Nightmare Anglerfish", the way the enormous, scary anglerfish is coming right towards us? It just makes it feel that much more intimidating, almost like WE need to get out of the way. It also allows you to look directly down the mouth of the anglerfish, catching a glimpse of the terrifying, black void that the fisherman is about to be swallowed into. You wouldn't get that same effect from a side profile.
The perspectives in these pieces aren't just powerful, but they're clearly thoughtful perspectives, as well—with the viewing angle of the scene being one of many complimentary aspects that makes the whole scene work together to put off the overall vibe the artist was going for.
And last but not least...
If you're a jerk who's very difficult to work with, I'm just gonna find some other artist to do business with. Why would I work with someone who's rude or giving me a very hard time? There are plenty of other talented artists who will treat me with respect.
Sometimes when working on a licensing agreement, artists will request modifications to this or that section—and 90% of the time I'm perfectly fine with it and totally accommodating. Sometimes, however, I've had artists who will just fire back with this rude, nasty e-mail where they flay me for taking advantage of artists, being disrespectful of their work, etc—but then when I ask them what the specific problems are that they have with the license agreement, it's just like one or two minor things that I'm happy to slightly modify or re-word for the sake of clarity.
These are people who otherwise could have done business with me, but seeing how difficult they clearly were to work with, I just noped on outta there and shut the door on that. Why put myself through the agony of doing business with a difficult, rude, abrasive person when there are plenty of other nice artists who are a pleasure to work with?
To close out this piece with one final tip: Don't be a jerk!
Whatever stage you're at in your artwork career, I hope you found this advice here helpful & valuable. Thanks for reading, now get out there and kick some metaphorical artwork butt!
Anton Dybal is the Founder of Next-Level Artwork, a company dedicated to selling outstanding posters & canvas wall art. When he's not working on the business, he can be found reading, exercising, or plotting world domination.
We're not going to ask you to sign up for anything. We just want to say, thanks for your visit today!
—The Next-Level Artwork Team