My friend Amy knows that commissions are a little difficult for me because I don’t like someone telling me what to do. (Only a little difficult, Amanda?) So when she asked for one and told me to “surprise” her, I was ever so grateful for her submission to my artistic ego. Was she just indecisive? Or did she trust me? I didn’t care. She gave me a handful of photographs of a landscape special to her family, and I sat down to think about how to knock her socks off.
I started with mood. The landscape is hunting acreage, and I honed in on a photo showing the place in winter—tall skinny bare trees, open grassy field, a small fire pit. It felt quiet, even a little reverential, which I know reflects the relationship between the adult and the children in the image when they share this place. A second photo was full of details that I knew would personalize the piece, including the figures that I wanted to be recognizable. I can get very detailed when working with pens and watercolor, and if I went with this medium, I’d stay small to deliver a sense of intimacy. I drew it in pencil first, then added ink to the foreground. I painted the background and was even happier I’d chosen winter woods because the earthy colors make the bright bits of color in the foreground pop. Those red heads are really working!
I was so confident Amy would like her painting that I captured her reaction on video. She squealed a little. It was great. The painting will be a Christmas gift for her husband, and I asked if she thought he would cry when he opened it. Maybe, she said. I will reveal his reaction in the January newsletter. Fingers crossed! Because when someone cries, you’ve won gift giving.
Goal Update: When I went back to painting three years ago, I wrote down one of my short-term goals was to be in an art fair. This month I did it. I chose the Ravenswood Art Walk for my first one because of its convenience (basically in my neighborhood), it has indoor options (smaller space, no need for tent rental, weatherproof), and it has one of the lowest booth fees on the circuit. It seemed like the least risky investment in time and materials. Afterward, I’m here to tell every artist to try an art fair. Here’s why.
Feedback from visitors. I brought only my best work to the show, so I was confident in the quality of my art. The fair let me hear how people responded to it. I had a few different themes on display: beach, sidewalk gardens, traditional floral still lifes, and water towers. People were very complimentary of my work, and I got to have some good conversations about my art and art in general. I’m happy to chit chat, and I asked everyone who stopped which painting they liked best. There wasn’t a clear favorite, but the comment I liked most was, “Each painting has something that draws me to it.”
Networking with artists. I work alone in my basement studio, and I miss having colleagues, even meetings (kind of). My location in the art fair was a big open room with ten other artists. It was like my office at the Art Institute but without a boss lurking around the corner. We spent two long days together killing time, sharing tools, going on beer runs, and talking about the art-fair circuit. I was the only first-timer, and the other artists were open with their suggestions for where I should try to show. The internet is great and all, but there’s nothing better than talking face to face with people who have the experience I (may) want.
Marketing experiments. I said to a friend that my goals at the fair were to look good (booth-wise) and hand out all my business cards. I also brought a couple of non-art items to sell—buttons and note cards. In my 8 x 6 space, I brought twenty paintings, most of them small, many priced at $100. I brought two large paintings that I knew wouldn’t sell but would look good and get people’s attention. Sure enough, my 22 x 28-inch painting of Montrose Beach was my number one talking point with visitors.
Self-review. I had to edit the group of paintings I’d show, decide on framing, titles, display materials, pricing, and packaging, and keep in mind expenses and logistics of hauling all this stuff to the venue. This being my first art fair, there were many first-time decisions (and expenses) that I won’t need to consider next time. And when is the next time? I don’t know.
You may have noticed that typical reasons, like making money and moving inventory, are not on the list. No, I didn’t sell a lot, but I still call it a successful event for my professional development. I swear.
I told an acquaintance that I had been painting this summer in preparation for an art fair this month. His response surprised me: “I prefer art that is painted from the heart.” His implication didn’t register with me for a moment when I said, “Me, too.” He went on to ask me if I thought artists need to make money. I said, “Everyone needs to make money.” We softly debated (we were at a child’s birthday party, after all) and parted still on good terms, but the conversation had me thinking that more people than I think still have a mythic idea about what it is to be an artist.
Every single person who paints/sculpts/draws/builds/etc. has a hard time calling herself an artist because of how loaded with history and drama the word is. I read that my favorite living artist, Wayne Thiebaud, never liked the word because he doesn’t think he deserves the same title given to the great Rembrandt. (He prefers being called a painter.) I like “painter,” too—it’s specific—but it’s time for artists and nonartists to get over the old, old, artist legends that still dominate public opinion.
I listened to a funny and spot-on podcast episode called “Kill the Genius” (Art Opening(s), May 24, 2018) with Courtney Jordan and Samantha Sanders. They compiled a list of four types of art genius archetypes that hold back the average person from understanding that it is people like them—average—who make art. The two hosts tore apart the list by getting to the heart of each legend. It was inspiring. I’m not going to say Michelangelo was just like me, but that man went to great lengths to control his image, too. AND, he wanted to get paid. And moreover, he knew that the former would influence the latter. $$$$$$
Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking
David Bayles and Ted Orland
At the same time that I started painting again, I started re-reading my art books. I was looking for a more specific vocabulary to think (and eventually talk) about my artmaking in this new phase of work. While I still love a good exhibition catalog, I’ve also moseyed into another section of the bookstore. I finally picked up a book I’ve heard about many times called Art and Fear (1993). It was in the self-help section.
This little book helped myself think about the cold, hard truths of being an artmaker. Three years in as a (nearly) full-time painter, I see how difficult it is to sustain an artist’s lifestyle. It’s lonely. No one cares about most of what I make (I show only what’s decent, which is a small percentage). I am solely responsible for every aspect of the job. No colleagues, no clients (some when I take commissions), no vendors. No feedback. No hum, buzz, energy found in a shared space. It was helpful to have these authors verbalize this reality so that I can try to verbalize my response to it. This book has the greatest compilation of Dose-of-Reality quotes. A few of my favorites:
“Art is hard because you have to keep after it so consistently. On so many different fronts. For so little external reward.”
“If you think good work is synonymous with perfect work, you are headed for big trouble. Art is human, error is human. Inevitably, your work will be flawed. . . To invite perfection is to invite paralysis.”
“In fact, there is no good reason why others should care about most of any one artist’s work. The function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of it that soars.”
“There is no clearer waste of psychic energy than worrying about how much talent you have. . . Talent may get someone off the starting blocks faster, but without a sense of direction or a goal, it won’t count for much.”
“Until your ship comes in, the only people who will really care about your work are those who care about you personally. Those close to you know that making the work is essential to your well being. They will always care about your work, if not because it is great, then because it is yours—and that is something to be genuinely thankful for.”
Someone recently asked me about making a custom painting from a favorite photograph. It was a great photograph; that is, it was so great, that I worried a painting of it wouldn’t make it a better picture. Thinking long and deep about how to respond to the person, I had about three different trains of thought and decided it would be a good idea to write them down, as well as my response, to use as a guideline when talking to other potential clients about commissioned paintings.
At the advent of photography (stay with me), painters were afraid photography would be the end of the painting business. A couple decades later, the very modern Henri Matisse (work pictured above) replied to a subject who didn’t like his painting, “You want it to look like you? Take a photograph!” Now, no one would ever categorize Mr. Matisse a realist, but his point is important for all types of painters. A painting inherently transmutes a subject. That’s a great word that means to change its nature to something better, to elevate the subject on some level. Frankly, I think that’s why all painters paint. We zero in on an element or a feeling and see if we can show why we think it is worth painting.
So then, what makes a painting a good choice instead of a photograph? I summed it up like this: A photograph is right for capturing a moment. A painting is right for enhancing a moment. Is there overlap? Certainly. And there are different styles of photography just as there are painting. And don’t forget mixed media! There are no rules with art and--more important--with what appeals to an individual.
But when it comes to a commission, both the client and the artist have to be happy. Know that when you approach an artist with your request, she may respond to your chosen subject like Edward Hopper did to the entire American southwest, who said it was too beautiful and therefore “unpaintable.”
Later is what?
After settling into various desk jobs, I always said I'd get back to painting later in life, and later is now. Again means that I tried once before. I decided to write about my painting endeavor, too, as a learning tool, an accountability tool, and to stay sharp in case I have to go back to a desk job. Again.
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