Is Selling Art Online Worth It? Can You Make Money?

Does selling online work? Title banner featuring an elephant drawing with a smartphone and art materials

If you’ve ever tried selling your art, beyond friends and family, you’ll know how hard it is, well listen up, the online world is even harder. It’s a tough nut to crack, so does selling art online worth it? Yes, it is, but I decided to examine why it’s so difficult.

Selling art online is difficult because it’s hard to get noticed. Competition is getting fiercer while free organic search traffic is diminishing, and algorithms are changing overnight. Social media eats your time for ever-diminishing returns.

Given the obstacles standing in your way, it’s a wonder why anyone bothers selling art online, yet it must work because online art sales have seen phenomenal growth.

The truth is, for the vast majority of independent artists, it’s nothing more than a side hustle, or perhaps I mean side-hassle?

Let’s find out what’s happening.

(I get commissions for purchases made through links in this post. However, I only promote products I like and recommend)

Where Do You Sell Your Art Online?

Before I say anything, you should have your own website. Preferably a WordPress site, with a fast theme, and a .com domain. This is how the vast majority of websites build their businesses. More about that later.

Selling art online is a numbers game. If more potential buyers see you, you’ll have more trade. It’s that simple. Your biggest barrier to making money as an artist is getting enough web traffic. You need eyeballs.

If I know anything from selling my art from my market pitch, over the last 20+ years, it’s the value of passing trade. 

I trade on a busy street with thousands of tourists passing by during the summer. A fraction of those people will stop to look at my work, and only a fraction of those will ever buy anything. Yet that’s enough trade to make a reasonable living.

Selling art made simple banner

It’s not free money by any means, but it works because there’s a tiny percentage of people are interested. I don’t know what percentage that is, but it figures that generally, I get more customers when the crowd increases.

More People = More Money

That being so, the internet opens up a global audience. According to Statista.com there are 5 billion active users of the internet worldwide (2022), and in theory, you only need a tiny slice of the cake to make a killing.

So how do you get traffic to your site? From your website or social media? Perhaps you think Etsy or Fine Art America will feed you thousands of paying customers? 

The cold hard truth is having an online presence means nothing in itself. It’s like opening a shop on an empty street. The expression ‘Build it and they will come’ does not apply to e-Commerce. Blindly opening an online shop is the equivalent of being in the corner of a back alley on the internet.

You must learn how to market yourself to the right people and that takes more time than you can ever imagine. If you’re marketing, you’re not making your art, and vice-versa. It’s a balance few artists get right. 

Check these: 25 Platforms for Artists to Sell Their Art Online and Make Money

You’ll need help to find the right direction. The options online are endless and overwhelming. Do you set up a Facebook business page? Open an Etsy shop? Join Tik-Tok? Where do you start? 

Be careful how far you go: What is Creative Burnout? And How to Recover Your Life

A pencil drawing of a jaguar by Kevin Hayler
‘Eye Contact’ A drawing by Kevin Hayler

However you play it, there are very few free shortcuts to gaining traffic. You will still have to promote your online presence, with or without your own website.

You’ll need to get your name out there as an expert and answer questions:

  • Join Facebook groups,
  • Answer Quora questions,
  • Join Reddit.

Opening an Etsy shop is not a passive solution, no one knows you exist until you engage. The same can be said for other 3rd party sites, such as Society6, and Redbubble. Having a listing is not enough you must promote the products.

One way or another you will have to post images of your best work and write searchable content.

SELLING ART ONLINE IS NOT EASY!

Web traffic is a long-term strategy and most people give up before it pays off. How many talented artists have thrown in the towel just before they saw some success? You must give it at least 6 months, preferably a year to gain traction.

You could start with managing your social media following. Take an Udemy course with Cat Coquillette

Social marketing top tips

Your Art Must Stand Out Online

What would you rather be, a bigger fish in a smaller pond or a smaller fish in a bigger pond? Going online makes you a minnow.

I think of myself as a competent illustrator. I’m not sure if I ever describe myself as an artist with any real conviction, but that’s beside the point. I’m confident until I go online.

Boy, I’m an ‘also ran’ on the web. Compared to some of these guys, I’m an amateur. It makes me wonder if there’s any point in doing what I do.

It’s so easy to fall into the trap of comparing yourself to the world’s best. We get the impression that good artists are ten-a-penny. In actual fact, they are rare.

The internet distorts our view of normal. Where once we might’ve stood out, now we pale by comparison. We aren’t even competing like-with-like. Digital art masquerading as paintings and drawings is making art appear ubiquitous. 

Artists are devalued. Customers expect more from us, in less time. 

So let’s say your art comes up on a search. Will the viewer look at your picture or the one next to it? How is the viewer discern which one is best from a thumbnail?

That’s a very real problem.

The easiest way to make social media images for the beginner is to use Canva. It’s free for most things, but there is a pro plan that makes life easier. If time is not on your side, pay a monthly fee, get the work done and cancel when you’re finished.

It’s a sad fact that some really good art will tank on the web, and be popular in real life. That’s because thumbnails are useless for viewing art.

I can draw an animal in a landscape and that will not register online at all. The same animal, drawn as a portrait will get seen. That means an artist who sells online, must tailor their art specifically for viewing on the web.

This will help: 12 Wildlife Art Bestsellers (Use These Subjects to Make Money)

You and I can be overlooked just because some rubbish looks good as a thumbnail! And there is only so much browsing a person will do. After a while, they’ll get disappointed and stop looking.

And then there’s the problem of load time. The chances are, your art is being viewed on a smartphone. You have a fraction of a second in the scroll to get a click. They won’t wait for it to load.

The highest resolution images can slow your site down. That presents a dilemma for an artist. Everyone wants high-quality photos of their original artwork to look great, yet the load times are critical.

So how much image quality are you prepared to lose to speed up your load time? If like me, your art is all about fine detail, it’s a big deal.

If you opt for an online marketplace you will get all the infrastructure supplied for you. It’s the easiest way to get an online art gallery and most sites cost very little. It’s a low-risk option and an easy way to get started.

You should read this post: What Kind of Art Sells Best? All The Secrets Revealed

Print-on-demand sites are even lower risk. They pay artists next to nothing for the rights to print their work on products with variable quality. The most important thing to realize, for you as the business owner, is they retain the email addresses of your buyers, and that matters.

Your email list is the foundation of your business.

Pencil drawing of a family of elephants by wildlife artist Kevin Hayler
‘Family Life’ by Kevin Hayler

Any retailer knows the money is in repeat trade. It’s your bread and butter. If you cannot cultivate a loyal following of art collectors, you lose. The POD platforms keep the emails because they know how valuable they are.

A notable exception, with a good reputation, is Printful.com. I was very happy with the quality when I made a sample order.

Don’t jump into offering a print-on-demand service in the dark, you’re unlikely to succeed. Get some tuition and learn the basics before you commit your time and effort.

Anyone reading my posts will see how many courses I’ve researched to find the most useful for my readers. This is one you should check out on Udemy It has great reviews and teaches about Printful and Printify.

Etsy Print on Demand masterclass
You can buy this course for keeps on Udemy

Using Social Media to Promote Your Art

It’s a sad fact that the days of free traffic from social media is coming to an end. Organic reach on Facebook and Instagram has tanked and Pinterest is heading the same way.

People tend to forget that social media platforms only serve themselves and the profits of their shareholders. They make money by keeping users on the platform, not by sending them away.

Marketers by contrast use social platforms specifically to drive traffic away. That’s a conflict of interest. The companies are now monetizing the marketers by making them pay for exposure. 

This trend is not likely to stop anytime soon.

Even Google is not immune, just think of how many paid ads appear at the top and bottom of a search page these days. You can scroll halfway down the page before the first organic result appears.

Read this and research: Social Media For Artists: The Best 13 Platforms for Creatives

The obvious solution, on the face of it, is to dip your hands in your pocket and pay for ads. Well, that’s not as easy as it sounds.

Facebook has the most advanced (and creepy) targeted advertising on the planet but unless you know your target market and ideal buying customer precisely, you will waste a lot of cash getting it wrong.

It’s not easy to sell an original work with a Facebook ad. It makes more sense to sell art prints, even so, for most artists, it’s money down the drain. Not only must you target the right people but construct an ad’ that converts well too. 

Is free marketing dead? No, but it’s getting harder and more time-consuming. These platforms are so difficult to use, that you end up paying others to help you figure it all out.

At the time of writing, I think Facebook and Instagram are not worth the time and effort involved. Pinterest is a better bet as they still have organic reach, but there’s a caveat.

Pinterest is changing almost daily as they commercialize their site and the ‘gurus’ are getting as confused as anyone else. Be warned I tried learning to use the platform. I bought a course, paid for a scheduler, tried for a year, and gave up with a sigh of relief.

Your Art Is at the Mercy of the Algorithms

I learned the hard way. I had a great side-line on eBay at the beginning. Looking back, my listings were primitive, but still, I earned £10,000 in my first year. That figure declined slowly after the initial peak, to a steady £5,000 per year bonus. eBay effectively paid for my trips abroad every year. 

Every year eBay added one annoying rule after another, but they were manageable and I adapted, until one day they hit me with a new algorithm and I was stuffed.

My listings sank.

I won’t bore you with all the nit-picking rules I had to comply with but I will share one that was particularly defeating.

A listing was penalized if too many people looked at it without buying. The algorithm demoted those items with a poor ratio of clicks to buyers. Try selling art without lots of people looking! 

In the end, I gave up. 

A proud lions head. A pencil drawing by wildlife artist Kevin Hayler
‘Head of the Family’ A drawing by Kevin Hayler

Etsy might be slightly better but it’s still no gold card to success. They make you jump through their own hoops.

UPDATE: Etsy has just hiked its fees from 5% to 6.5% and started to charge sellers with a $10,000 turnover (not profit) a further 12% compulsory offline marketing charge.

This will help you: Is Selling on Etsy Worth it? Pros and Cons for Art and Crafters

The lesson is, straightforward.

DO NOT PUT ALL YOUR EGGS IN ONE BASKET


Spread the risk and treat all 3rd party sites as a disaster waiting to happen. Cash in while you can and enjoy it, but don’t rely on the income. 

Use Etsy to your advantage with a realistic hat on. Follow this Udemy Course to get yourself set up with less fuss.

Etsy 101 - Set up a shop and promote it on Social media
If you prefer to learn by video try this course on Udemy

Packing and Shipping Your Art

The other issue with trading online that gets less attention than it should, is the problem with postage.

I’m in the UK but I doubt if things are much better elsewhere. The big couriers are multi-national so I suspect they behave the same everywhere.

You really can’t rely on couriers treating your parcel with care and respect. In my experience, a percentage of my post WILL go astray or get damaged.

And don’t kid yourself that putting a big red ‘FRAGILE’ sticker means anything.

Listen to this.

I took an A3 envelope, containing a print, into my local post office. It was rigid. I’d stiffened it by sandwiching my print with two pieces of thick card. Even the envelope was cardboard and I’d written ‘FRAGILE’ with a bold black marker pen.

The assistant stamped it, took the money and before I could cry ‘MERCY’, she karate chopped it in half to stuff in a bin behind her!

That’s the level you are dealing with.

Now I always send prints out rolled inside a postal tube. It’s the only way that works for me. I’d prefer to send them flat but it’s not safe enough. 

Problems with posting art. 3 postal tubes and a print waiting to be posted

I would never send glass. Anyone who sends a framed picture is taking one hell of a risk. I asked my framer what he does and he said that he sends frames with plexiglass (plastic) only. 

I have sent originals by post but never framed them. I mount them, wrap them in cellophane, and box them inside layers of polystyrene sheets. I pay for ‘recorded’ and ‘signed for’ delivery and buy insurance.

Let’s talk about insurance. Can you get art insured? Many companies won’t cover works of art. Personally, I haven’t found a private company willing to insure an original. They know they are likely to break it. I used to use the Royal Mail Service before it was semi-privatized so I’m not sure that’s still an option.

I do know that a small percentage of my post does not arrive. I send prints out. Now get this, the post office will compensate me, not for the loss of the sale, but only for the printing cost of the print!

A limited edition cannot be replaced. If it could it wouldn’t be limited would it? It means I can’t insure myself against incompetence, negligence, or theft, inside the company delivering it. I have to write it off as a loss..

All about limited prints: What Are Limited Edition Prints? 12 Things You’ve Got to Know

One last thing that inhibits my sales noticeably is sending mail to the USA. It’s not as simple as you might imagine.

Sending mail overseas can cost as much as the print itself, that’s one thing, but the time it takes to arrive is a joke.

Foreign parcels regularly get delayed going through U.S customs. They hold on to standard airmail for up to 3 weeks! I’m not kidding. Even tracked mail will take a week to arrive.

This is the age of instant delivery, customers do not want to wait. It’s a trade barrier. I’m denied full access to the biggest market.

I can’t speak for Americans sending work abroad, I guess it’s less of an issue. However, the point is still valid. Posting wall art is a nightmare.

If Selling Art Online Is Hard, What’s the Answer?

As always, it’s a compromise. Sell online but don’t rely on 3rd party platforms. Use them for some extra money but expect it to end at some point.

You are far better off using your time to drive traffic to your own website.

You must retain control

Making your own website is a steep learning curve if you start from scratch as I did. But it’s not rocket science, you’ll figure it out easily enough. I just followed Youtube tutorials.

Set up a WordPress website, it’s a free open-source platform used by the majority of sites on the web.

To get a more convenient class without all the searching around for different stuff, you could follow this class on Udemy.

You could build a website completely around your own online store but most successful artists leverage a blog to get extra traffic.

This is where the simplicity starts to fall apart. Your art blog will only get discovered by having great SEO and good marketing. Either way, it will take a long time to get anywhere.

The quickest way to get eyes on your art is to use Youtube. I’m not an expert but all my research has led me consistently to the same answer.

Promote Your Site

Youtube is the 2nd biggest search engine after Google and who owns Youtube? Google does. Youtube is still growing, and the algorithm still works in your favor.

There is no advantage gained by being a big player. All YouTubers are equal and have the same chances to rank, and as far as art is concerned, art tutorials and demos are no-brainers really.

And Youtube videos are progressively seen at the top of Google searches. That means you can leapfrog to the top of the first page of Google without owning an established authority site.

Youtube videos, combined with a blog, combined with a mailing list, is the classic way to make money online as an artist.

You set up a website with an online gallery and a blog. You research the questions people ask online and answer them fully. You make a Youtube video answering the same question and link both. Your video is more likely to rank quickly and that will boost your blog rankings.

You can monetize your video with ads (after 1000 subscribers) and drive traffic to your website or platform, to buy your products. Your products can be your art and digital downloads, in the form of prints, ebooks, and/or an online course.

If you haven’t got your own products you can promote others via affiliate links.

Your blog can have ads, affiliate links, and products. It can also offer giveaways to gain subscribers to your email list. You email your list to inform them of any new art you are selling, amazing offers you’ve discovered, and to announce your new videos and blog posts. It only requires an email.

It sounds simple but I don’t want to downplay the amount of hard work involved.

There is one GIANT problem with this business plan that must be addressed. You must determine who your audience is before you can serve them.

There is a big difference between art lovers and art makers. That’s two different art markets. The former appreciates your art, the latter appreciates the process, and both want something different from you.

Artists don’t buy art, not enough to matter. They buy knowledge. Your collectors buy the art and to some extent the romantic lifestyle. They don’t want to know how to mix paint. It can be very difficult to serve both audiences.

You can segment your mailing lists and talk to each group separately or you can decide to concentrate on one group. To be honest, it’s easier to serve the artists. In other words, are you going to be an artist or an art teacher?

There is Another Solution

You could combine your online sales with offline sales. Sell your own work in the real world, from a simple market stand, honestly it’s so much easier. 

Read this for selling advice: How to Sell More Art: 10 Selling Tips For Artists

You’ll meet your real customers, get to know them and find out what they really want. It’s a great way to carry out meaningful market research.

Forget friends and family, they love you so they love your art. That’s not research. Strangers are less forgiving. As long as you can adapt your approach and tailor your type of art to their needs, your art will sell.

There’s more to market trading and art fairs for sure, but at least it’s tangible. You’re going out to work and coming home with some profit and a few commissions. 

I’ve been trading this way for years. It’s seasonal work, the trade is in the holiday seasons, and you can use the time in between to make your art, or if you’re like me, you can make art while you’re trading.

If you are very clever, and a multi-tasker, you could make your videos at the same time too.

Is it Worth Selling Art Online? Final Thoughts

I’ve endeavored to write about the realities of having an online business, warts and all. What I wanted to avoid is being an over-enthusiastic happy-clappy, filling you with false expectations that selling art online solves all your problems. It’s certainly not the easy option some sites imply.

You can sell original paintings online from your own website or on sites like Saatchi Art, but it’s far easier to sell and ship art prints.

You can make and sell your own prints and make good profits, or you can use more popular platforms like Redbubble, Society6, and Fine Art America that take care of all the work for you. They pay you a small commission to use your images.

And now there’s the new kid on the block, namely digital downloads. There are sellers on Etsy making a killing selling art printables. They no longer sell physical prints, just digital files. The customer pays for the download and prints the art at home or in a local print shop.

It’s almost cost-free, with only a listing and transaction fee to think about.

Imagine having no printing costs, no storage, and no shipping worries. You can be anywhere and sell anywhere, to anyone in the world. I haven’t tried it yet but watch this space. This could be a good option.

In this modern age, you must have a website for your own business so you may as well take full advantage of it.

You can set up a free online gallery with the Woocommerce plugin and sell your own artwork, set your own asking price, and build your own customer base. All from your own website running alongside your terrestrial business.

Go for it.


If you like the way I draw and want to try things for yourself, this is my basic kit:


If you want an alternative to Amazon, check out ARTEZA art supplies or BLICK

If you’re serious about making money, I’ll show you how to do it. I’ve been trading from a market pitch for over 20 years and this stuff works.

Selling art made simple digital guide for starting a small art business

If You Want to Sell Your Art

Check this out!l

Psst…it’s only $12.99!


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Does selling art online work? Elephant drawing and mobile phone image for Pinterest