When it comes to selling wildlife art you have to be pragmatic and concentrate your efforts on making art with a proven chance of success.
That means starting with twelve wildlife subjects that sell.
So what sells?
Let’s begin with my personal list which, after 20 years selling wildlife art is a reliable guide.
Use this list as a starting guide and go from there. I’ve included many tips, gleaned along the way, to keep you from making the same costly mistakes I made. It’s only by trading hands-on with the public that I’ve gained so much experience and discovered what people really want.
You won’t find this information anywhere else. Read on.
Yeah I know, you may think it’s like stating the bleedin’ obvious but elephants are so popular that you could make a living selling jumbos alone. Forget the rest.
If your first 12 pictures were all elephants, it wouldn’t matter a jot. If the idea appeals to you, go for it.
Over the years I’ve drawn more elephants than anything else and that’s because they sell. If I want people to stop and look at my work, I will display an elephant picture center stage. I’ll place it slap-bang in the middle, it’s as simple as that.
I love elephants so doing too many isn’t an issue.
So who buys elephants?
Women mainly, many of whom are passionate collectors and will buy anything to do with elephants. Indeed, some are borderline obsessives.
Good news for wildlife artists! Not only are these fine women eager customers but their friends and family all know what to buy them too. It’s a win-win.
Men do buy elephants but more often than not, they’re buying a present for their ‘other half’ or maybe for mum. I see it all the time.
My bestselling print for the last 20 years is a drawing of an Asian elephant reassuring her calf. It’s called ‘Jumbo Family’.
It’s not my most accomplished drawing by a long way, nor my most detailed, and the shading is fairly basic, yet it’s the right subject with plenty of emotion. That’s what counts.
A standard mother and baby study, pulling the heartstrings wins every time.
There are no rights and wrongs in art, only integrity. It’s how you present yourself to the world that matters. It’s only cheating if you set out to deceive.
For most artisits, tracing is a means to an end, merely a shortcut to a desired result. In times past it was an indespensible part of the commercial artworld, less so now in the digital world where traditional skills aren’t needed.
So take my advice, prioritize elephants and ‘milk it’.
Who doesn’t love tigers? They are by far the most popular of all the big cats.
A quick look online and tigers will appear in any ‘wildlife art’ search. That’s because they sell.
You may be thinking ‘yeah same old stuff’, but honestly, can you really get fed up with tigers? I can’t, but then again I’ve seen them in the wild many times and there are few wildlife encounters to match.
You don’t have to find a wild tiger to make your artwork but you must give your subject an edge to make it stand out from the crowd.
When you visit a zoo, find out when the tigers are fed. Your subject needs to be alert to be of any interest. Arrive about 30 mins before feeding time to get the liveliest shots. No one wants to buy a bored, sleepy tiger.
A good example of how to transform a captive tiger into an interesting composition can be seen with ‘Tiger in the Grass.’
I saw this Sumatran tiger in London zoo many years ago. It had a face which said ‘Get lost I’ve got a headache’ and I knew it was the look I wanted.
Instead of a straight portrait, I decided to experiment with drawing the out-of-focus effect you get with a zoom lens and place it within the grass. Not only did this create an atmospheric scene, but it also allowed me to add foliage without having to think about scale and I didn’t need to worry about drawing native plants.
I turned a standard picture of a tiger into my bestselling tiger drawing and I gave it freedom in my own way.
Sometimes you have to think outside the box and get a little bit creative.
The more interesting option is to do what I’ve done, and go on safari and find wild tigers for yourself. You’ll probably come back with hundreds of frustratingly blurred and bleached reference photos but if you take as many shots as possible a few will be good enough to use, if only by a sheer fluke.
Plus you’ll return with great stories and as any salesman knows, a good story sells like nothing else.
So if you have ever dreamed of going on a tiger safari, you should think seriously about it. It’s far easier to arrange than you think. I’ve written an article showing you everything you need to know so you can do it yourself, and for the cheapest price. Check it out.
TOP TIP: There’s some confusion in the minds of the public about white tigers. Many people refer to them as ‘Snow Tigers’. White tigers are in fact, inbred Bengal Tigers and only exist in zoos. So when you’re asked for a ‘snow tiger’ show the customer a white one.
Tigers appeal across the board. They are universally popular, not only between the sexes and age groups but across cultures too.
As usual, you will find a better response drawing a Mother with cubs but failing that consider tigers swimming or bathing. Whenever I do reflections I get far more interest.
Now I feel uncomfortable about this one. Not because monkeys shouldn’t be at number three on my list but because people ask for monkeys when they really mean apes.
To be more precise, when the public says monkeys they usually mean baby chimps, baby orangutans or silverback gorillas.
So far I’ve had little success with true monkeys.
So for the sake of an easy life, we’ll assume number three is about baby chimps.
While I’m at it, this is one of the few times I would urge caution before drawing the mother. I’d go as far as to suggest that adult chimps have an image problem, they tend to have rough and fairly unattractive faces.
Concentrate instead on the baby, and when you hear the ‘ooh’s’ and the ‘ahh’s’ you’ll know you’ve done a good job. Don’t hold back, target those maternal instincts and reap the rewards.
If there was one big surprise for me when I started, it was the popularity of giraffes.
I knew that I liked them, but as a wildlife buff, I didn’t know if the feeling was widespread. My first success with giraffes came about by serendipity.
I had so few wildlife photos to work from, that I had to make do with what I had. Believe me, they were all bloody awful.
One of the few pictures I could envisage was of a mother greeting her calf.
The photo was of a poorly focused, overexposed herd of giraffes, standing behind a chicken wire fence with a sign in the way. Other than that, it was fine.
There was no planning. I had no idea if people would buy giraffes, it was an unusual composition, and I was unaware that drawing mothers with young was the right format.
Now I know that giraffes sell, with or without a baby included. The public adores them.
One particularly successful composition that sold well, was of three heads grouped together like singers around a microphone.
It was a composite stitched together around the knowledge that sets of three seems to work better than two’s and four’s.
In hindsight my trio was so successful I shot myself in the foot by limiting the edition. If I’d made it an open edition it would still be selling to this day and I’d have made much more money. Oh well, you live and learn.
If I was to revisit this composition I’d be tempted to do it in a different way. Instead of three heads in one drawing, I’d draw them separately and sell them as a set of three. The profits would be much higher.
Lions are only second to tigers in the big cat league. Having said that all the big cats are popular.
Jags, leopards, and cheetahs all sell well, so do snow leopards and I get asked for black panthers, not that I have ever drawn one.
Lions appeal to different folk for different reasons. For some, Leo is their birth sign and for others, it’s the perfect picture for Dad. I call my most popular lion drawing ‘Head of the Family’ to tap into that market.
Some guys are looking for lion images to have as a tattoo. I’ve sold many lion portraits for that reason. Some guys return and show me the results. They vary I can tell you.
Then there’s a surprising sub-group. Some black guys go straight to my lion image when they see it. I think it represents the Lion of Judah which is an Ethiopian symbol and associated with Haile Selassie and the Rastafarians. Hence the interest.
Most people want to see a male lion when they make an inquiry. If you do only one lion picture, make sure it’s a male.
Lionesses do sell and I have drawn one lioness with her cub. It’s mainly bought by women for women and not for Dad.
Back to the monkey theme and we have orangutans, my favorite great ape.
I was in two minds about making this number 3 on the list instead of my baby chimp. Why? because formally I had a baby orangutan drawing which sold equally as well.
In some ways, I find drawing orangutans easier to draw than the other apes.
Not only are they expressive and human-like, but they’re also high-rise gymnasts and strike the most outrageous poses. They give you endless scope for picture ideas.
They are also the most accessible ape should you ever wish to see one in the wild. I’ve seen them many times, mostly in Sumatra and its very affordable.
It’s worth mentioning, all the great apes have one thing in common. They often look melancholy.
This can present the artist with a problem. No one wants misery on the wall.
You may well have to cheer the face-up. It doesn’t take much. A slight tweak will do the trick. You don’t have to Disney-fy anything.
Seriously consider it.
There is nothing more frustrating than losing a sale because your carefully drawn study, of a perfectly happy wild animal, is rejected just for looking sad.
When people ask for bears, they don’t mean any old bear. They mean polar or grizzly bears. Forget black bears, how do I know? Because I’ve drawn black bears on two occasions and had the same responses for both, ‘Got any grizzlies?’
When they say grizzlies they mean any brown bear, they don’t distinguish between them. Indeed if it wasn’t for my own integrity getting in the way, I could pass off my drawings as brown bears if I wanted to, I’d certainly sell more.
It comes back to that old conundrum faced by wildlife artists. As an enthusiast, you want to draw and paint the natural world in all its wonder, but the public only demands their favorite animals.
Bears aren’t so cuddly in adulthood and for sales success, I would urge you to pursue the mother with cub theme.
This is a case of doing what I say, not what I do. It’s only my mistakes that inform me. I get far more requests for bears than I get sales. It says I’m doing the right thing but in the wrong way.
I’m missing a trick and that trick is bear cubs. The problem is, I haven’t seen any cubs in real life to photograph them and I won’t use other people’s references.
If I was to choose between drawing either a grizzly or a polar bear, I’d draw the latter. For one thing, they’re slightly more popular, plus I think they are easier to draw, and let’s be honest, time is money.
I get asked for leopards quite often but when presented with a jaguar few can see the difference. Consequently my jaguars sell well but that could be because they’ve been bought in error.
Perhaps I should call this section ‘spotted cats’. As well as jaguars and leopards it includes cheetahs and snow leopards.
Each of the four spotted cats have certain characteristics worth exploring when you are composing your picture.
Jaguars love water so that gives you the chance to play around with reflections. (Note: Jaguar car owners tend to buy them too.)
Cheetahs have the most cat-like appearance with small heads, large eyes, and those beautiful black tears. Great cats for portraits. I’d also draw one running if I had the references.
Snow leopards have luxurious fur and that extraordinary tail. People love that tail.
And lastly, leopards like to climb which gives you scope to place them in a tree or on a rocky outcrop for more interesting compositions.
Those who love pandas, really love them and they go out of their way to buy anything panda related.
Many times I’ve chatted with a customer only to discover the lengths (and money) they’ve gone to just to see a panda in captivity, let alone a wild one.
I went to China to see my pandas but various zoos around the world have pandas these days. Before you set off on a mission it’s worth knowing that Pandas sleep much of the time.
Maximize your time by finding out when the pandas are fed. I had to get up at dawn in Chengdu breeding center to be in time to catch the action.
You can, in theory, visit some panda reserves in China but access is strictly controlled and your chances of an encounter are next to zero.
It’s far easier to sell to collectors than almost anyone else, it only takes a small tug to the heartstrings to get them excited. If adult pandas are adorable just think about the impact drawing a cub will have.
If you can, go for it.
Meerkats have retained their mass appeal despite being over- commercialized in recent years.
Most zoos have meerkats and you should have no problem finding models.
Having said that, they are often exhibited poorly, often in pit-like pens. Not so good for photography, not when you’re looking down on them.
They can also be a bit chubby and have thicker coats than you’d see in the wild. My meerkats are obviously captive bred.
I drew my first meerkat many years ago. It was overweight, sitting on a rock and the pose made me laugh. It was hard to sell because I heard the same thing said, over and over again, ‘I like them standing up”.
So you know what to do to maximize sales, draw a family with youngsters all on tip-toes.
My only bird on the list and my most popular avian subject.
Most people find penguins enchanting and for that reason, I always have a penguin print on open display whenever I’m selling.
They make people stop and comment which is great for opening a conversation and potentially making a sale.
Most zoos will have a penguin exhibit where you get all the photos you could ever wish for, but how much more interesting it would be to say you saw them in the wild.
My penguins were on Boulders Beach near Capetown. It’s a wonderful place, half nesting, and half public beach.
The penguins are quite relaxed and perfectly happy to have humans around.
On the face of it, finding penguins in Africa is counter-intuitive. What are they doing on a hot African beach? Go for a swim and you’ll find out; the water is bloody freezing.
To play safe, draw the penguins upright with their flippers raised. The public enjoys that comic little gentleman appearance.
The obsession some people have with wolves is a bit of a mystery to me. Wolves do, however, have a powerfully symbolic resonance for a lot of people. Many of my customers talk about paying to walk with wolves as profound moments in their lives. It says to me that wolves play a role in how some people see themselves.
Just think how many wolves you see on T-shirts. Why wolves?
When I drew some wolves, the customer feedback gave me a clue.
As a wildlife enthusiast, I think of wolves belonging in a pack. If I ever get to see a grey wolf in the wild, I’d be surprised if I saw one alone. I naturally drew a family.
TOP TIP: I discovered that the public prefers ‘lone wolves’.
It must symbolize self-reliance and the triumph of the individual and that’s the image they wish to project. My own image probably inferred running with the pack and consequently, was not on message.
On the other hand, I might be talking a load of old codswallop and they are just ‘cool’ predators.
The answer isn’t important, draw or paint single wolves as a time-honored howling cliche and you will sell more.
Here’s a BONUS for you
More Wildlife Subjects
There are many more animals that sell well. I’ll briefly cover a few more that I have direct experience of selling, plus some that get requested but I haven’t yet got round to drawing.
I sell quite a few zebras. There are people who love bold patterns and zebras are perfect for those with a minimalist black and white or monochrome interiors.
Grannies love owls. It’s a recurring theme. You pick up certain trends when selling and this is one of them. Perhaps it’s linked to their implied wisdom.
British buyers prefer Barn owls.
Rhinos are surprisingly popular. Not best sellers but there are definitely fans. My impressions are that rhinos are more popular with men.
Women tend to buy hippos. It’s another collectible. I did a hippo drawing with its mouth agape only to realize that people thought it was too boisterous. My next drawing will be a Pygmy hippo with a baby. Much softer.
It may be more popular in the UK than elsewhere but I have noted that people whose surname is Fox will often buy one – true.
Another British favorite but unlikely to appeal much beyond our shores.
Most people are referring to Eagles when they ask for birds of prey. Consequently, I drew a portrait of a bald eagle and you guessed it, I got it slightly wrong. People kept asking me for an eagle with its wings spread out! Now you know.
I drew a fawn with huge Bambi eyes and it was popular with kids, but that’s as far as it went. The real market is for stags; alfa males with a full set of antlers.
The public loves otters. That’s the easy bit. I drew mine splashing around in the water and I still get lots of compliments for my skills. Too clever by half, it seems. Apparently, the public can’t see them clearly enough. I think you’ll sell more by drawing them as full figures or as portraits.
You’d think they were a no brainer. Not so. I’ve had exactly the same problem selling my dolphins as I have with my otters. All those annoying ripples getting in the way! Just do a smiley dolphin underwater or one leaping in the air.
Often requested but I haven’t drawn them..
I’ve been selling for so long now, I can even tell you what kind of picture will sell best. Yes, it’s that predictable
And the winning formula is…
OK, there isn’t a magic bullet as such, but there’s certainly a pattern that holds true. What I can do is offer you some guidelines to point you in the right direction. I can’t offer guarantees, of course, no one can, but if you concentrate on a few important factors it will vastly increase your chances of success.
Mothers with Young
You can’t go far wrong. Put simply, the more heartstrings you can pull the easier it is to sell. Think intimacy, nurture, and family, that kind of stuff. I’m not suggesting that you dive into a sentimental goo-fest, far from it, but I am suggesting that emphasizing positive emotions is the way to go.
Keep it positive. Remember the picture will be hanging in someone’s home, not in an art gallery. People aren’t looking for profound statements or meaning. If an expression is melancholy, cheer it up a bit.
Keep it Simple
Simple compositions or portraits with plain backgrounds will be easier to reproduce. You’ll have more control over cropping your images to various commercial sizes.
Color Sells Better than Black and White
My work is black and white only because I’m colorblind.
Consider Color Carefully
Think about interior decor and color schemes. Strong and vibrant colors will appeal to fewer people. Buyers tend to go for harmony and avoid colors that clash.
The easier it is to frame, the easier it is to sell, so if you can make your prints fit into standard ready-made frames, you’re onto a winner.
Look into my Eyes
Lastly, portraits with direct eye contact have much more impact. Keep that in mind when you are composing your pictures. A slight readjustment of gaze towards the viewer can be the difference between a few getting a few compliments and a having a bestseller.
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