One of the issues I'm facing as I move away from commissioned work to offering finished pieces of my choosing is deciding what subject to paint or draw next. For years I've relied on clients sending me photographs from which to draw. But now the sky's the limit: I could potentially use in-person subjects from my environment or images from wildlifereferencephotos.com or my own photography. Realistically it could be anything from a still life of a wine glass to a sea lion on a rock to a sunset over my backyard.
The problem isn't that I don't like anything; it's that I like too much. I have photos I've taken of flowers and slugs and waterfalls. I've considered beautiful landscapes of Alaska and amazing photos of red, spiny crabs with freaky eyes. Sea turtles and dolphins. Ducks, whales and bison. They would all be a pleasure to paint or draw.
Sometimes too many choices can lead to analysis paralysis. So here are some questions to ask when choosing your next subject, and as usual, I'm talking to myself here, too:
1. Who is your target buyer and what would they buy? Okay, so this is probably more than one question, but they're interrelated. Your target buyer will be in part based on what you charge, which is partially determined by production costs and the time associated with creating in your medium and style. If you can do a small piece everyday for a low cost, you probably won't have to be as pricey. If your material costs are considerable or it takes you 80 hours to finish one piece, you will have to charge more. Your pricing will obviously affect who your target buyer will be.
Are your buyers necessarily more affluent? Corporations? Or are you prolific and willing to sell a lot of art to a lot of people for a couple hundred bucks a pop on Etsy? What subject would someone display over their massive rock fireplace in their million-dollar home? Or their posh hotel lobby? Or would your art be more at home above a reading chair in a cozy study? How many people are going pay $2,500 to put that 65-hour painting of a freaky-eyed crab on their wall?
I recently did a 9"x12" pastel painting of a squirrel from a 4"x6" print I took about 20 years ago. I'm very happy with how it turned out. But I doubt I could get the same asking price for that little squirrel as I could for a large, statement painting of a majestic elk, even if the two pieces were equally beautiful and took the same amount of time to produce.
A note on pets as subjects: In my experience people would rather pay for a commissioned portrait of their labradoodle, Buster, than your drawing of a random labradoodle. I learned pretty quickly at art festivals that while drawings of dogs and cats might get me commissions, the drawings on display didn't sell. Just something to consider if you do (or don't) want commission work.
2. What are you passionate about? It's going to be hard to stick with something for 35 hours if you're not digging it. Estimate how long you think a particular composition will take, then double it (because it always takes twice as long). If you don't see yourself being moderately passionate about it for the duration, maybe it's not what you're looking for.
If you know you gravitate toward wildlife, are your subjects endangered species? Do you prefer endangered marine life or birds or mammals? Do you love the mustangs, bison, and big horn sheep of the American west? Wildlife hidden in urban cityscapes? What feel are you going for and passionate about?
3. What do you want to be "known" for? This relates to the last question. You are much more likely to develop fans if your art is recognizable, and subject matter and stylistic choices play a role. Michelle Lucking is known for her underwater paintings of people. Zaria Forman is known for pastels of endangered icebergs. While I don't personally feel it means you have to focus on one subject for the rest of your life (goodness, I hope not), it's probably not a bad idea to find a genre you're good at and are passionate about, and stick with it as you build your fan base.
There's not always an easy answer to these questions. But if you tend to be like me and see beauty in anything and everything, asking these questions can give you focus as you choose your next subject. Odds are this won't be your pièce de résistance nor the last piece of art you ever create. Choose something that meets some of your criteria, follow your gut and dive in.