Your Art: Making Meaning v. Selling

A few years ago, I was a show artist–I went from art festival to art show, putting up a booth, selling my work, taking down the booth, driving to the next show. In between shows, I made more art to sell.

Johannes Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance

Johannes Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance

One night I was working on a piece and couldn’t decide on the design. The problem was not in what to do. I had several choices. One was artistically challenging, but expensive to do. Another was easy to produce, and a third was not particularly interesting, but I knew would sell quickly and to a wide range of clients. There was no doubt in my mind, I would chose the one that would sell quickly.

And suddenly I felt sick. I had become an artist to make meaning in my life. And the decision I had just made was not made to make meaning, it was made to make money. Nothing wrong with money, particularly if you have a family to support. But my creative decision hadn’t even paused in the meaning-making portion of my brain, it was made entirely through my wallet.

As quickly as I had felt sick, I felt empty. I began to work my way back to when the creative decisions helped me make meaning. It had been a very long time. And I felt torn. Surely, I thought, I can do both. Surely I don’t have to decide to be a commercial success or a real artist. That night, I could not answer the question. And the next season, I left the world of art festivals to think things over. I developed a business I cared about to generate income and I re-thought my art work.

Eventually, the answer came to me: The first step to making art is to make meaning. To work from that deep place where life takes meaning and then takes wings. Too many artists want to sell their work,  so they race into the marketplace to get ideas. “What can I make that will sell?” is a question that doesn’t make meaning, and too often, it doesn’t make a sale, either.

I started over in my art, choosing as a beginning a place that was meaningful to me. I worked forward again, and created work that was special to me. I felt whole again.

That revelation led me to start a creativity incubator. A place where you start making meaning and share your thoughts with others. Once you know who you are, you can start to discover who your audience is and how to approach them. We are always open, so come on over. There is a link on the right nav. bar that should take you there.

And if you are ready to tackle the business of art, a great resource is  Alyson Stanfield. She can help you find your footing on the path to selling your work–she’s an expert, flexible and nimble enough she to teach you how to approach your audience in many different ways.

Being an artist is not nearly as easy as most people think, but now you have at least two resources to help you along the way. Here’s another take on the same subject.

Quinn McDonald is a certified creativity coach and writer. She teaches people who can’t draw how to keep an art journal at

4 thoughts on “Your Art: Making Meaning v. Selling

  1. Hi,

    I am taking a break from college to get back into my creative zone. I have plenty of ideas on tecniques of multi media and found objects I want to use. Where to start is the question. I also want to sell my work. I want to start selling on Etzy to see how that works out. I don’t have any art work at this time to sell. I have some of my pictures on my walls. But I haven’t actually had time to sit down and arrange a studio and really get into it and be inspired. I have a associates degree in computer graphic design and multi media. I am working on my bachelors at svsu. I saw this web-site when I was looking up pictures for my art history class, and it really hit home. I would love to talk to anyone on this subject, just to get some insite and get to know some people out there who are doing the samse thing i am.

    Debbie Teenie

  2. Hi Quinn,

    I just came across this post via a new follower on Twitter. Though originally posted on 4/16 the timing of finding this post couldn’t be better.

    I too am dealing with the making art to sell versus making meaningful art scenario. I have decided to make this my year to make meaningful art and to start letting go of the production work. Yes, it has been the “bread and butter” of my business. However, it no longer holds meaning for me.

    I’m taking a leap and hope the net appears.


    • The theme is evergreen–I had that moment two years ago–every artist as it sometime–but only if they are lucky. If you are making meaning, you won’t need a safety net, because you will have made meaning. You might not meet your goal of selling a ginormous amount of “stuff”, but you will know why, and you will re-set your goals. Good for you. Please keep us up to date on your discoveries.

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