Plein air landscape painting of String Lake in the Grand Tetons, by John Hughes

This dilemma seems to plague all artists at one time or another. Painting from the heart, or painting what sells? Is it possible to do both?

These are good questions and ones that we all individually have to grapple with from time to time. As I think about painting and my own history as a painter, I have found much gratification in the process itself. What could be more pleasing than finding the perfect spot to set up, with the perfect weather, perfect light, perfect mood, and a wonderful result in the form of a painting, which depicts your feelings about the site?

I think days like that are a big part of what I live for. But there were times that can I remember thinking that I needed to make a choice between artistic gratification and the almighty dollar. If you have participated in many plein air events you know the scenario, it goes something like this: You’re painting for the show and the location is one of those iconic areas, with mountains that cannot be ignored. As a matter of fact, between the mountains and the wildlife, these subjects just happen to be the main attraction for tourists and collectors alike. What’s an artist to do?

As I set out in the morning, the plan is to do something which tugs at my heartstrings, as well as painting one or two for the folks. Not a bad trade off considering that the mountains are spectacular, and that’s one of the reasons I’m here in the first place. But it sure is nice when the thing that gives me the most pleasure as a painter is the same thing that a collector recognizes and has an emotional connection to as well. In these situations my general plan is to stop and paint the first thing that grabs me, no matter what the subject. On occasion this has led me to paint such subjects as a few rocks in a stream, or even a culvert on the side of a dirt road. And there’s the rub – they’re not exactly subjects that everyone responds to.

I’m not saying that the iconic scene can’t do the same for my heart as well – it often does – but I also can’t say I like it when my heart is not in charge of the painting spot.

This scenario might also be one of any number of subjects. For example, one show I have done in the past has an abundance of farms in the area, and barns always seem to sell. You get the picture, and most likely you’ve experienced what I’m describing.

This dilemma is even more pronounced when you’re not the one making those decisions. I was recently reminded of a situation that happened some years ago, when I was passing by our kitchen table and saw my wife writing a thank-you note to a neighbor. One of the cards in the pile bore the image of a painting I did over a decade ago, which featured String Lake in the Grand Tetons. (See the painting above)

Memories started to flood into my mind about a funny incident associated with this piece. I believe it was a 24 x 30 oil, and I was delivering it to a gallery in Jackson Hole, which I was in at that time. The name of this gallery and its owner will go unidentified, due to the fact that I like this person and my aim is not to offend, but just to illustrate a point.

As I brought this painting, along with others into the gallery that morning, I was soundly rebuked for its content. To me, the subject represented the rocks and the shoreline in the immediate foreground, and that’s what attracted me to paint it in the first place. Therefore the background, including the Cathedral in the distance, were treated as supporting cast.

To the gallery owner, I had committed the unpardonable sin of cutting off the Tetons! He took me to brunch down the street and explained that one does not cut off the tops of those mountains in Jackson Hole and expect to make a sale. “No one will buy it,” were pretty much his words. He asked me not to leave it with the others, and to please pack it up on my way out of town.

I have to say I was a bit shocked, but I complied with his wishes. It has been my experience in the past, that when a gallery owner is not excited about a particular piece, no matter how good it is, it just sits there anyway. I was also thinking that I could just drop it off at my Park City Gallery as I traveled back to Salt Lake, so I wasn’t overly concerned.

The fun part came about four hours into my five-hour drive home. I received a call from the gallery owner telling me that when we were at the restaurant, some collector came in and saw that painting sitting on the floor and fell in love with it! He had called back later that day to purchase it also! (And, would I kindly ship it back to the gallery at my earliest convenience?) Yowza, I was like – Yes!!!! Uh huh!!! Take that! (After I hung up of course.)

That convinced me right then and there, that painting what I love is really what it’s all about. I didn’t go into landscape painting to become an illustrator, trying to fulfill the wishes of a corporate entity for their purposes instead of mine. Like most of you I’m sure, I paint for love and personal satisfaction, despite the need to sell in the real world. Trust me, I get that dilemma, and I certainly understand the pressures that galleries are under these days to stay afloat, with huge overheads weighing heavily on them.

So, to answer my own question, yes it’s possible to do both, while satisfying the galleries at the same time. Hold on to your vision and let your muse take you to places that other people only dream about, and would be more than willing to share in your dream with you.

Some of you can probably relate, and may have war stories of your own. You can comment on this article below, I would love to hear from you!

Until next time,

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John Hughes teaches landscape painting classes for Salt Lake Community College and the Scottsdale Artist School, along with private art workshops and classes. His work is represented by Montgomery Lee Fine Art (Utah) and Mountain Trails Gallery (Wyoming). Hughes is a member of the Plein Air Painters of Utah, Rocky Mountain Plein Air Painters, and the American Impressionist Society. John’s work and art advice has been featured in Plein Air magazine, Fibonacci Fine Arts Digest, 15 Bytes magazine, Outdoor Painter, and Artists on Art. His work was recently featured in the book "Painters of the Grand Tetons" by Donna and James Poulton. He now maintains a studio in Taylorsville Utah, where he resides with his wife Teresa, four children, and two grandchildren.


  1. Fortunately I live to paint and not the opposite. I’ll pass a request for a commission to another artist who paints to live, unless it’s something I am excited to do.
    I know how fortunate I am. I’m not good at marketing since I rather paint, but they do sell well enough to support my nearly full time ‘hobby/occupation’ and provide enough spending money each year.
    If you can, paint for yourself.

  2. A crude joke from years ago on the journey to being a prostitute: First you do it for your own pleasure, then for you friends. Finally you do it for the money. My opinion is if you simply paint/draw/sketch for your own pleasure, the money will come without selling yourself to the devil.

    If you always paint for yourself, it’s a passion. If you paint for what sells, it’s simply a job.

  3. If you paint what you love, it will show up in the painting. And, who cares if some one person does not approve of it because you are painting the joy of it and it translates well. Paint on, dear heart.

  4. Am still new enough that every painting teaches me something, especially if it is a subject I typically would not choose to paint. Once I get lost in the process, it’s all about solving problems and creating something beautiful.

  5. This is one of the most important dilemmas an artist must grapple with, and your story will no doubt put many artists back on the right track. I’m reminded of a quotation by the writer Cyril Connolly: “Better to write for yourself and have no public, than write for the public an have no self.”

  6. I painted deer (a doe, a deer, a female deer) in a small painting that one of my galleries said they couldn’t sell. So they sent me home with it, only to call a couple of days later, asking me to return it. A client saw it and wanted to buy it. Galleries do their best, but their vision can sometimes become a bit myopic.


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