Fellow creatives, is it ever okay to be a sellout?

Like most people in these challenging times, my husband and I have been struggling financially. I only work part-time and I’m looking for extra ways to make some cash. Finding a second job outside the home is out of the question due to schedules and childcare costs, so my best bet is finding some side gigs.

I recently published a post declaring my renewed love of art, and I’ve been spending a lot of time painting – both at work and at home. (I work for an arts program.) I have painted several flowers and people have been encouraging me to sell them. 

The thing is, I prefer to paint weird, creepy things – you know, trees with eyeballs. When I first became interested in art, I never thought about selling anything. I wanted to tell my story. To me, art is about expression and experimentation, not painting something pretty so it will sell. 

But now I am motivated by money and I’ve spent the last week painting flowers. 

My husband seems a little disturbed by it – he told me so tonight on the way to pick up our daughter from daycare. He even mentioned the term “sellout”.He suggested that I continue being weird and maybe that will sell as well. 

I have fun painting flowers but it has no meaning to me. It’s not very personal. That’s not what art is to me. But on the other hand, people around me think they will sell. 

What do you think? Do I paint some meaningless flowers to make some money? Or do I stay true to myself and keep my paintings creepy and weird?

On a side note – all of my paintings are finger paintings. I have muscle tremors in my hands from a medication I take and using a paintbrush feels impossible. When I press my fingers directly on the canvas, I feel I have a little more control. It seems like a disadvantage but a couple of people have suggested it might be an interesting selling point.

Interesting? Maybe. Painting with shaky fingers has some serious limitations but I am proud of myself for painting anyway. 


  1. dangerousbeans says

    Maybe sell them on commission? If someone wants one they can contact you and you can do it for them?

    That’s the approach i take with my knives; I’ll do commissions for people if they want a specific thing, but generally i just do what i think looks cool. although knives are probably quite different to eyeball trees

  2. JM says

    Doing art you don’t really care about to make a living isn’t selling out. It’s selling out when you do art to promote an idea you personally oppose or advertise a candidate you wouldn’t vote for. In the grey area between those two it depends on where you want to draw the line and how desperate you are for money.

  3. says

    There’s nothing wrong with working on commission, as long as you don’t paint anything blatantly wrong, hateful, dishonest or bigoted, like maybe insulting racist caricatures of black people for rich Trump fans. You’re painting pictures for money, not writing political editorials or religious tracts.

    So yeah, go ahead and paint something that you know will sell, or has already sold, by day, then paint what you want in the evening. Who knows — maybe some of the people who liked what they paid you for, could go on to notice and like what you painted on your own steam.

    Also, if you advertize for business on the Web, you can show whatever you want to show, paid or unpaid, and that will get both sets of work noticed.

  4. says

    dangerousbeans: How about making knives with eyeballs in the handles? Gordon Ramsey might want to have them in his kitchen. If not him, then maybe Ramsey Bolton…

  5. sonofrojblake says

    To expand on previous, as I’m no longer on my phone…
    You gotta eat. If your art lets you eat, yay for you. If, in order to eat, SOME of your art has to compromise – that’s the world.
    “Selling out”, in my eyes, is what happens when an artist who has “made it” – whatever your definition of that is – stops doing what allowed them to make it in the first place, and starts doing radically different, perhaps more mainstream stuff in bald pursuit of more money than they need.
    If you make art appealing to environmentalists and don’t make any money, then as far as I’m concerned you could paint an oil rig if it’ll pay the bills. If you make art appealing to environmentalists, become a millionaire, then sign a sponsorship deal with Shell – sellout.

  6. Katydid says

    I agree with the commission idea. If someone wanted to pay you to paint a picture of a flower, it’s no different than your job that pays you to show up and help people with their painting. It’s not selling out. You might offer things like a painted bouquet of flowers for Valentine’s day, for example. Or something cute for a baby’s birth or someone’s wedding anniversary. At one elementary school craft fair, I bought a set of notecards with pictures made by a student.

    You have a creative gift. People have expressed interest in your gift. Why not find a way to help your family with it? Decide ahead of time what you will and won’t do (e.g. bouquet of flowers: okay. Hateful political stuff: not okay) and how much of it you’re willing to do (5 hours/week? 10 hours/week?) and let people know!

  7. atomjz says

    Don’t ever let anyone guilt you for this. The concept of “selling out” was invented by the rich and/or privileged: those who have never worried about going hungry or missing rent or going into debt. By someone asking a less-than-rich person to forego all job options that aren’t 100% morally upstanding, they are effectively asking that person and their dependents to just commit suicide. That’s the reality. Most people don’t have the luxury of choosing not to sell out, and I will never, ever, ask someone to sacrifice their lives for an ideal; the continuation of you and your loved one’s lives is the highest moral calling, and it supersedes all others. Truly, we should be idealists at heart, striving to change the world to protect the environment and all humans, but I will never begrudge someone who performs a somewhat ethically sketchy job in the name of *literally keeping themself and their children alive*.

    You do what you have to do keep food on the table for yourself and your family. There is nothing more axiomatic than this in the entire universe, period. Help the world and live by your ideals if you can, but that is strictly if you feel you can afford to.

  8. lanir says

    I think there are two different definitions of being a “sell out” and it’s important to know which one you’re talking about.

    The first is when the artist feels bad about what they’re doing but they feel like they’re kind of stuck for it. For some reason staying within their comfort zone or even near it just doesn’t feel like an option and they do creative work that does not feel very good to make. Whenever you can avoid this one it’s a really good idea to do so. This is the sort of thing that strangles creativity so you probably can’t manage to do it very well for very long.

    Your husband may be concerned that this is the sort of situation you’re getting into with painting flowers. That doing this will slowly smother your joy in painting.

    The second is when a fan is saying the artist sold out. This is entirely different. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the artist, actually. The fan simply has a perception of what they think of the artist’s creative works and when the artist does something that is different enough from that perception, the fan believes the artist has sold out. Lots of people think this about famous creative people. They imagine that they’re recognizing the artist fall into circumstances like the definition above, but they could simply be wrong.

    This sounds like it might be closer to the flower painting situation. It’s still fun to do but you don’t consider the results to be comparable to your personal style of creepy art then that doesn’t really sound like a problem. If you notice it stops being interesting or fun to do then right about there is probably a good stopping point. It’s no good making money doing something you love but in a way that kills your joy in it. I feel like if people are in a bad situation they can manage to compromise on this sometimes, a little bit, but it’s just not something you can sustain. I think trying to do that is actively bad for anyone’s mental health.

  9. says

    I have personally always understood the term “sellout” as applying to someone who does something contrary to their stated moral/artistic principles in order to get surplus money they do not actually need to survive. Like a successful YouTuber who makes SciEd videos about climate change suddenly taking sponsorship from fossil fuel companies to tout the advantages of natural gas because they get slightly more money from it. Or if PZ suddenly started to take money from Ken Ham in order to promote creationism.
    Making artwork that you still like doing and that sells is not being a sellout, it is being sensible. I have accepted commissions for knives that I would not make on my own accord. I still liked to make them and I still have made them pretty and original.

  10. Roeland de Bruijn says

    i have worked as a professional photographer. looked down upon by artsy types for shooting weddings. never felt the need to defend myself, even though it is considered to be the lowliest of photography. it paid for food and housing, and allowed me ample time to go out and shoot what i wanted to shoot, just not during the weekends,…

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