$69 million. The 2021 sale of Beeple’s Everydays at Christie’s auction house stunned the art world and sent shockwaves through society. What was once a passing phase — non-fungible tokens — held real clout, and money started pouring into the space.
Soon, many artists were asking, “What is NFT art, and how exactly do I get into this new world?”
If you have that question today or a curious interest in the intersection between art and the new technology of non-fungible tokens, you’ve come to the right place.
This article covers the basics — what is a non-fungible token, types of NFT art, and the successful NFT artists — along with some high sections explicitly tailored for practitioners. These more practical sections include creating NFT art, how to monetize it, and some recommendations for NFT artists to follow.
Let’s start with the acronym most people have heard of by now: NFT and what it means.
“Non-Fungible Token” Defined
Non-fungible token. It was the buzzword of 2021, named by one publication as the word of the year. But throughout the more extensive discussion in society, the acronym’s meaning became lost. The actual, complete definition of “NFT,” then, needs clarification.
First, it’s important to state what NFTs are not:
- AI-generated art
- Pictures of bored-looking monkeys
- Items used in games
- Metaverse land
These are all use cases for NFTs; in other words, what NFTs can represent on the blockchain. But they aren’t the NFTs themselves. The secret lies in the acronym NFT: tokens that are non-fungible or cannot be exchanged 1:1 with another non-fungible token for the same value.
They are unique, unchangeable assets registered to a blockchain, a digital ledger that securely records transactions. Each is unique because they all come with code differentiating them from other non-fungible tokens and fungible tokens like Bitcoin or Ether.
This code means that no two non-fungible tokens are exactly alike. It’s impossible for them to be. This technology has impacted the art world in several ways.
First, NFTs created scarcity within the digital world. Before NFTs, scarcity simply didn’t exist. People reproduced digital images, videos, and pockets of text with abandon. There was no ownership. Although many proponents of the Internet loved the idea of a world where file-sharing was free, it led to consequences for artists, such as copyright infringement.
Because NFTs are unique and one-of-a-kind, they create a system of ownership. While anybody can screenshot a Bored Ape, only one person is considered the owner. This ownership trail (what can be called provenance) is traceable on the blockchain. If you were to look up a specific wallet on the blockchain, you’d see what NFTs they have paid for and which ones they own.
It’s certainly not a perfect system — there are still concerns about copyright infringement within the NFT space —but it was a step in the direction of signifying ownership over digital assets, which had not existed beforehand.
These NFTs can correspond to any number of items, giving these items the ability to be bought or sold. The use cases for NFTs are staggering and will only continue to grow. They include:
- Real-world property like houses
- A mapping of a user’s genes, which the NFT owner can rent to medical studies
- Admission to VIP events or access to celebrities
- Membership in decentralized autonomous organizations that offer perks
And, of course, one of the first use cases will perhaps be one of the biggest: art. The NFT art world has grown considerably since the beginning of 2021 and shows no sign of slowing down.
Types of NFT Art
If NFT is a technology, then a definition of NFT art might be, “Any type of process that combines the nascent technology of non-fungible tokens and digital art, which can include varied art forms.”
Digital art, in the landscape of NFTs, can include many different designs that mimic or utilize IRL art forms and techniques. For instance, an artist may use a method that mimics the brushwork of painting or the smooth application of oils. An illustrator could take a picture of an illustration they created and upload it to a marketplace as an NFT.
Or, on the flip side, the art could be more futuristic and in the style of contemporary digital art — edgy, messy, full of popping colors and references to pop culture, and utilizing QR codes. Either way, because the art gets paired with an NFT, it can be considered NFT art.
Some examples of the wide-ranging category of NFT art include:
- Beeple’s Giga-Chad, a digital creation that is a play on the “Chad” crypto meme
- Pak’s Merge, which utilized the concept of mass to sell fractionalized shares of a digital artwork
- Vhils’ The End of an Industrial Era, which witnessed a building explosion
NFT art is not limited to stills either. Because much of NFT art has digital roots (rather than a photograph or a picture of a still artwork), animations and videos are entirely in the game. Some NFT artists make bank selling loops, animations, or videos.
Really, in digital art, the only limitation is the artist’s imagination.
There are some broader frameworks for NFT art depending on the artist’s intention. These categories are not mutually exclusive — an artist can have some overlap. They are, in essence, a way to package NFT art. Here is a list:
- Themed 1/1 collections: The number of pieces can range from small to large.
- PFPs: These are collections in the thousands that use some form of computing to disperse traits
- Generative art: A design where an algorithm or AI model creates artwork
- Derivatives: The creative process of taking one collection and tweaking it to make a new collection
The derivatives deserve a special note. An example would be derivatives of the CryptoPunks collection. These include “Fast Food Punks,” “PicassoPunks,” and “3D Punks.” All involve taking the original artwork and giving it a twist, thereby creating a knock-off.
Which one of the categories you choose depends on your idea and intentions. PFP projects can require much work up front, while 1/1s may have a more regular work-income schedule. Derivatives are always interesting but generally don’t get the respect that original collections or 1/1s get. So it depends on what you, as an artist, want.
Now, with all that in mind, let’s get to the brass tacks: how to create digital art.
How to Create NFT Art
If you’re thinking of creating NFT art, there’s good news. Because many marketplaces allow you to upload various file types, creating NFT art is similar to creating digital art, with just a couple of extra steps to turn it from “digital” into an “NFT.”
A few of the most popular software programs to use are:
- Adobe Photoshop
- Nifty Ink
The software you choose will reflect your personal preference and the type of art you want to create. Once you have made your artwork, it’s time to turn it into an NFT. Now, you need to decide if you will use the marketplace’s smart contract or deploy your own.
Using the marketplace’s smart contract is generally straightforward. For instance, on OpenSea, the largest NFT marketplace, you can simply upload the art file and click mint. This procedure uses OpenSea’s smart contract, enabling you to bypass the need for coding.
Other marketplaces can work similarly.
If you are thinking of deploying a smart contract to the blockchain, there are some steps you’ll want to consider.
The first step is determining the blockchain to deploy your contract on. Each blockchain has perks. Ethereum is the most well-known and has the most traffic, Solana has fast speeds, and Tezos is the unofficial home of the independent artist.
The second step is learning the code you’ll use to write your smart contract. The code has a few crucial aspects. It can vary according to the blockchain (Ethereum uses the Solidity coding language, for instance), and errors in the code can lead to a bad minting experience for customers.
The third step is choosing whether you’ll link to the artwork off-chain or store it on-chain. In most cases, projects link their artwork off-chain and keep it in a secure location. In some cases, you can store the NFT artwork directly on-chain, though you may have to pay higher fees.
The fourth step is considering the costs. Deploying your smart contract costs a great deal of money, sometimes in the thousands. The fee generally rises the higher number of NFTs you’re minting. Your budget matters here, so pick the option that suits you the best.
Visit our guide about creating an NFT to learn more about these processes.
Now, whether you mint through a marketplace’s smart contract or deploy your own, you have opportunities mostly unique to NFT artists to monetize your work. That’s what the next section is entirely about.
How to Monetize Your NFT Art
A question: Wouldn’t it be great if you could earn income on secondary sales of your work rather than just on primary sales?
It seems like a dream. In most sales, an artist only benefits if the sale is a “primary sale” or from the artist directly to a customer. The arrangement can be through a gallery, online, or person-to-person, but it only occurs once per artwork. Generally, an artist does not benefit if that new customer sells the work to a friend, a family member, or another person.
The artist does the work, then gets paid just once — after the first sale.
But with NFTs, an artist has the possibility of earning money on every sale of the artwork, no matter the sale price. This type of sale is called “secondary sales” and occurs on secondary markets from peer to peer. What was once a rarity in the art world now is commonplace among NFT artists — receiving 2%, 5%, and even 10% of the sale price each time the artwork changes hands.
This arrangement means you can make money while you sleep and, more importantly, have more time to create.
Royalties — or taking a percentage of secondary sales — is just one of the ways you can make money as an NFT artist. You’ll still be able to sell works directly to customers, which can be lucrative. And the truth is that it all comes with minimal upstart costs.
For instance, as an NFT artist, the main expense you’ll need to make to sell a piece of artwork is to pay a gas fee. This gas fee varies by blockchain. Below you’ll find a list of which blockchains have the highest gas fees per one artwork minted:
- Ethereum: Between $20-$100
- Tezos: Less than $1
- Solana: Less than $1
And if you get lucky, you can use a “lazy minting” strategy that requires you to pay gas fees only when the artwork is sold.
Now that we’ve covered some ways artists generate revenue, what are some ways successful NFT artists have packaged their artwork? Here are three:
- 1/1: A 1/1 is a unique piece of artwork with no duplicates. It stands on its own. Because 1/1 art is rare, these pieces can command higher prices, sometimes millions of dollars.
- Edition sizes of more than “1”: Sometimes artists will create an artwork but mint more than one copy of it. In some cases, the editions can reach thousands of pieces. Although this may increase the amount an artist will gain from a single artwork, lowering rarity often dilutes the price.
- Collections: Often, artists create 10, 50, or 100 art pieces in a single-themed collection. An excellent example of this is Tyler Hobbs’ creative Fidenza collection, which contains multiple works of similarly styled art.
These three ways of packaging artwork for customers are often mixed and matched. Some collections might have both 1/1s and pieces with edition sizes much larger in number. Or a collection will just have works with edition sizes reaching into the hundreds. Ultimately it depends on the artist’s strategy for selling their work.
The best way to get a glimpse of how other artists are doing it is to head to an NFT art marketplace and check out some collections. It could give you ideas on how to create your art packaging strategy.
Top NFT Art Marketplaces
So, you know how to create NFT art and monetize it. The next step is finding the right NFT marketplace to sell it. The following five marketplaces are some of the most popular for NFT artists, and they break down into two categories: curated and non-curated.
Curated marketplaces are like galleries: They only allow artists invited to the platform to sell their NFT art. It can be tough to gain access to them, as they are often for established artists. But don’t fear. There are stories of NFT artists who have labored for months before securing an invite to one of these top NFT curated marketplaces. Three are:
- SuperRare: One of the top curated marketplaces, this platform runs on the Ethereum marketplace. It has many features, including allowing perpetual artist royalties, a “following system” that permits you to organize a kind of art “feed,” and decentralization through the $RARE token.
- Nifty Gateway: Owned by the cryptocurrency company Gemini, this NFT art marketplace is custodial, meaning the pieces are held in a company-controlled wallet. This arrangement allows for “gas-less” transactions, which can save you, as an artist, a great deal of money. Customers can also pay with credit cards, making the platform more appealing to the casual collector.
- Foundation: Operating on the Ethereum blockchain, Foundation relies on an invite-only system for artists. While anyone can buy artwork on the site, you need an invite to mint and sell art. Artists on this platform are from all over the world. And another big plus about the site is the many options for selling, including auctions.
Now, for the non-curated or “open” marketplaces. These NFT art marketplaces allow anyone to sign up and mint NFTs — no invite needed. In this section, we’ll cover two. One has a lazy minting option that enables you to bypass gas fees until after the sale, while another runs on a “green” blockchain that caters to independent artists.
- OpenSea: The king of kings, OpenSea is the top NFT marketplace in the industry, operating at a valuation above $10 billion. In addition to art, it allows the sale of NFTs relating to collectibles, gaming, virtual land, and more. The main perks about OpenSea are the visibility for upcoming artists, especially if you get featured on the main page, and the lazy minting mechanism mentioned above.
- Objkt.com: The heir apparent to Hic Et Nunc on the Tezos blockchain, Objkt.com is a clean marketplace that allows for the minting, buying, and selling of NFTs on Tezos. The appeal to Tezos is that it’s a “green” blockchain, with its environmental impact minimal. Gas fees, as a result, are extremely low, less than $1.
While the curated marketplaces often have the top sales for NFT art, open marketplaces are an excellent place to start for a new NFT artist. And with most marketplaces, you’ll find a good mix of selling options, including different auction types and some gas-less minting mechanisms.
5 Most Expensive NFT Art Sales
If there was any doubt about the power of NFT art, look no further than these top five sales. Even beyond the price tags, which stretch into the 10s of millions, the art itself poses a new frontier. We’ll lead off with the top sale first and work our way down.
- The Merge ($92 million). Pak, an anonymous digital artist, explored the boundaries of fractionalization for this piece. They split the creative work into 312,686 pieces, with a corresponding “mass.” The pieces could be merged over time, creating chunks with bigger mass until the collectors formed the entire artwork. The final tally for all sales? A cool $91.8 million.
- Everydays: The First 5000 Days ($69 million). This artwork is a compilation of digital artist Beeple’s (real name Mike Winkelmann) daily art creations done for 5,000 straight days. Beeple was already well-known in the crypto community before the auction, so it didn’t take long for the price to go above $1 million. But more than the finishing price tag, Everydays set NFTs up for mainstream success.
- The Human One ($30 million). Another artwork by Beeple, this lifelike digital sculpture portrays an astronaut walking across a foreign environment. The design can change over time, and Beeple has said he’ll update the work throughout his lifetime, ensuring that this digital piece doesn’t remain static.
- Right-click and Save As Guy ($7 million). XCOPY a crypto artist based in London, created this piece to poke fun at “right-click savers,” who believe that NFTs are worthless because you can right-click and save them. The buyer was a well-known NFT connoisseur called Cozomo ‘de Medici, which some people think is American rapper Snoop Dogg. This piece is slightly animated, with a shifting shape background and red lips mumbling something.
- Ringer 109 ($7 million). This Art Blocks piece is a static image that shows loops running around a series of pegs. The price tag might indicate its rarity; there are a few ultra-rare traits in the artwork, including a red peg that appears just in 0.3% of the pieces in this collection. The buyer is a mystery, but the seller went by the name of AKIRA. They bought it for $550 before flipping it months later.
Five artworks, five different designs. All sales in the millions of dollars. As a side note, three sales were omitted from this list because they are considered PFP collections (profile picture collections where people take the art and use them on their social media accounts). All three were from the popular CryptoPunks collection and fetched between $8 million and $24 million.
The Five Most Successful NFT Artists
Many of the most successful NFT artists aren’t just about the money — many have pushed the space forward with innovation. Their names are quickly becoming household. Here are five of the best:
- Pak. This anonymous artist has been producing digital artwork for more than two decades. They have sold more than 60,000 NFTs to date, including some priced in the millions of dollars. Their average sale is over $4,000, and they are perhaps most well-known for The Merge, a fractionalized artwork involving mass.
- Beeple. The NFT artist with the biggest headlines out of all those on this list, Beeple single-handedly started the mainstreaming of NFT art with his Everydays: The First 5000 Days piece. When it sold for $69 million, it marked the sale for one of the top-selling art pieces of all time, much less one that was digital.
- TYLERXHOBBS. This artist doesn’t have the eye-popping numbers of Pak or Beeple but is successful in his own right. His pieces, which utilize algorithms, plotters, and paint, have the labels “unique” and “one-of-a-kind” and resemble pieces hanging in museums. His average sale is a whopping $100,000.
- Trevor Jones. This artist is part of a new wave that combines old-school subject matter with the world of crypto. Look no further than his work “The Bitcoin Angel,” which combines religious themes with a motif of Bitcoin. That piece alone sold for $3.2 million, making Jones a significant player in the field.
- XCOPY. A London-based artist whose work often depicts death and dystopian themes, XCOPY produces pieces that have flashing lights and epilepsy warnings. And they are popular too: His works have an average sale price of $24,000. One of his most celebrated works, All Time High in the City, depicts a ferryman bringing the souls of the dead across a river. It sold for $4.3 million.
Those are five major NFT artists, but there are many more. If you’re interested in checking out more successful NFT artists, head to one of the art marketplaces mentioned above and peruse some works.
As a last note, if you are thinking of pursuing a career in NFT art, know that many artists start a business as part of the process. The proper business structure can allow you to deduct expenses during tax time, protect you from any liability, and make you seem more “professional.” Starting a business can also change your mentality to make you think more about the bottom line.
If you’re looking for more guidance, check out our various guides on the content portion of our website. You’ll find advice and data on several topics. The guides will give you an excellent place to continue your research into NFT art and the NFT space.