How to Make Original Work That Sells

Author & Illustrator: Gavin Gray Valentine · Editor: Darren Di Lieto · 31st August 2020

I often hear from artists that they want to make personal work, but people don’t buy it. Fan art has an advantage built in that original work does not, an emotional connection. When a customer sees their favorite character it makes it very easy for them to feel connected to the art and that connection gives them a reason to purchase. The good news is there are also many other ways we can make an emotional connection in our art.

Use Your Influences

Opinions about how Disney is manipulating our copyright laws aside, fan art is technically illegal. However, there is one way to create fan art that is perfectly legal, the public domain! It varies from country to country, but when the copyright expires on a piece of music, art or literature it becomes part of the public domain and copyright-free, and there is a treasure trove of content in the public domain that is ripe for the picking. As artists we can reimagine all kinds of stories that people have an emotional connection to, like fan art, and keep those stories alive for a new generation. In fact, here’s some of the best the public domain has to offer.

As an artist who only sells original work there’s a comment I hear from time to time that lets me know I’m on the right track – “This looks familiar, is this from a book or game?”. This lets me know that I’m infusing my work with my influences to a degree that others can recognize, but can’t place. In my previous article I discussed how to filter your influences through the keywords that represent who you are as an artist. This is exactly how I achieve this. I identify what about my influences engages me and I build that into my work. In order to do this we need to zoom out and look at the themes in our influences that we respond to. For example, The Legend of Zelda and Studio Ghibli have themes of creature design that connect to nature (this has its roots in Shintoism). This is something that I have an emotional connection to and strive to build it into my own work. Take some time to think critically about your influences and identify the themes that resonate with you.

There’s a symbiotic relationship between community and artist.

When you create art, whether intentional or not, you are communicating parts of your opinions, desires, and values. When people respond to your work they likely have some of those things in common with you. Building a community around your work starts with understanding yourself and the things that are most important to you. To find those things, look to your influences. What about that book makes it your favorite? Why is that your favorite movie? What about that one video game makes it special to you? Once you can answer these questions you can build those same themes into your work and begin to foster a meaningful connection with a community of like-minded people. These people will be happy to support what you do, because what you’re creating represents a part of them. There’s a symbiotic relationship between community and artist.

Building Blocks of Art and Storytelling

Once we understand what we want to say with our work, how do we go about saying it? There are nearly an infinite number of ways to communicate ideas visually and the way you communicate themes in your work is part of your style as an artist. However, there are universal visual communication concepts that we should always keep in mind. Line, color, shape, value, space, form, and texture are the visual elements that make up art. However, these are not just what make up our images, but what we use to communicate our ideas.

Many greater artists than myself have written wonderful books on these subjects, so instead of giving cursory advice about how to use these concepts I’ll give you a list of some of the best books on the subject.

Telling a Story

Visual storytelling is key to communicating emotion and we can use different techniques to communicate in our images. Understanding these techniques when creating images can enhance our ability to tell a story immensely. Let’s take a look at some of what I feel are the most important:

La Llorona – 16x20in Limited Edition Buy Me

Faces and Hands
Eyes are the window to the soul and are also the first thing a viewer sees in an image. This is the first place to begin when we’re looking to craft a visual message. Should the audience feel fear, love, comfort, confusion? Whatever the emotion is it should be reflected in at least one character in your scene and faces are the first place to look.

What if your character doesn’t have a face or their face is obscured? Hands are the next stop in terms of visual hierarchy. The actions of hands tell a story all on their own and can even let the viewer know the true intentions of a character. With a bit of planning we can tell an emotionally engaging story with only faces and hands, fingers crossed.

The Light Harvesters – Limited Edition Sold Out

Multiple Characters
When in doubt about how to communicate the personality of a character, place them in a scene with other characters. How do they interact? What are their motivations? This is a great exercise to explore an original character’s personality and help the audience develop an emotional connection by putting themselves in the shoes of your character.

In the age of the internet, there is a preconception that being prolific is key to building an audience. This has led to illustrators taking shortcuts in terms of creating images with engaging composition. Like master portrait painters of the past, single figure central composition is the path of least resistance to engaging the viewer and creating lots of work efficiently. However, this is not the only tool in our compositional toolbox and if telling an engaging story is your goal it might not be the right answer at all.

Depending on your goals as an artist and your sense of style, symbolism may be something to experiment with. As with color, symbols (or visual metaphors) can be used to communicate subconsciously with our audience. This might feel outside of your comfort zone, but it can be a very powerful tool for connecting emotionally.

When It All Comes Together

…sometimes the road is longer, but oftentimes it is much more fulfilling.

Creating original work that connects with your audience takes practice and lots of time, but it opens up a world of communication that others may never travel down. If you feel the urge to create original work, keep at it! Sometimes you won’t see results until you have a body of work that communicates a cohesive vision as a whole. In a world of speed painting, concept art, and Instagram posts it can feel like the wrong choice to spend weeks or even months on a piece. However, although the road is longer when you’re not taking shortcuts, oftentimes it is much more fulfilling.

Gavin Gray Valentine is an independent artist from Portland, Oregon. His work brings the whimsical and sometimes unsettling creatures of Elsewhere to life.

You can see his work at, follow him on instagram @gavin_gray_valentine or check out his Hireillo portfolio at

Read more…

  1. Crafting an Experience – Reading time: 8 minutes
  2. The Power of Perceived Value – 5 minutes, 30 seconds
  3. Defining Your Audience – 4 minutes, 38 seconds
  4. How to Make Original Work That Sells – 5 minutes, 48 seconds

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