We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know
One of the most conflicted facets of my adventure to become a full time artist was the tug of war between what I am drawn to create, and what the collecting public finds appealing in art. I started the I’m-Going-to-be-an-Artist journey with a truckload of conviction: studio hours were set from 8 to 5, and then I launched an art blog (2005) and joined every art group I could find. At the same time, I subscribed to art/print trade magazines to study purchasing trends by subject (still life is the most popular). I found stats about the buying habits of art collectors (searching for art on instagram, and purchases via mobile devices are growing trends amongst younger collectors in 2019) and I scoured websites for exhibit opportunities across the continent. I scrutinized popular artists with sold out shows and throngs of followers. As a card-carrying Research Aficionado, I left no stone unturned in my quest for the secret sauce to making a living as an artist.
Slow Your Roll
When I sat down to make art marinated in all that data, my excitement to create morphed into a dizzying tea-cup amusement park ride. All the information I harvested felt like paparazzi flashbulbs, distracting me from locating a single, practicing path towards my own process. I thought I could pre-plan who I was going to be as an artist from research gathered on a notepad at my kitchen table before I began creating. Defining your style is not really an intellectual question to be answered with research, trends and logic. The revelation of who I was as a painter was at my work table, in the paints and brushes in my hands, and the art I made. You don’t find out what your style is beforehand, by thinking about it. You find your voice by making a ton of art, and your answer will reveal itself – note-by-note – in the work you produce. The crystal ball future of who you’re meant to be as an artist lies in the work you do while making the art. #practiceoverperfection
Art Practice vs Art Business
A workshop instructor once warned me that painting with dreams of art collectors, and a target of brisk sales is like making art with dollar signs taped over your eyes. You’re so focused on the future outcome, you can’t make good art that’s true, and sprung from your own experiences. I think painting for accolades and praise is just as misguided. Both approaches depend on outside directives. Painting for the tastes of collectors, or painting to pad a bank account, or to win ribbons are each a platter of instructions being handed to you by others. Some people can do that very well. As a beginner, I think it’s important to keep the joy in the making, especially if you’re going to commit to creating five days a week. It’s wiser to paint what you love, to keep yourself interested. You fill the platter, and then offer it up.
One Step at a Time
You can take your Maker hat off when you’ve built a body of work, and put your Marketing hat on to look for the collectors who love what you paint. They are part of a tribe who will buy your work. You can practice writing descriptions, taking good photos, and boxing and mailing your work to your growing group of collectors. And then you can put your Maker hat back on to replenish inventory. Make first, Market second.
Experiments, Rough Drafts & Artistic Adventures
Before art becomes sellable, and prior to painting subjects to win awards and praises, it’s a good idea to find yourself. If you start by painting and selling large abstracts, and then decide your heart is more attuned to miniature pet portraits, your first collectors will be disappointed at the change, and your new collectors might be weary of your wanderings. And how does an artist find their own style? By painting and making – a lot. Every project started is an experiment. Every painting has a certain amount of risk-taking, and every single one of them has a looming potential to fail. You *have* to be okay with failure. Your art might meander here, there, and everywhere at first, but with regular practice, you’ll improve immensely, and settle into a groove naturally, and find a vein of gold that will hold you there.
Be the Coach
Painting a great watercolor is not a linear step-by-step process, with directions in a textbook. Those are lessons. You can start that way, but with time and regular practice, the training wheels will come off the bike, and painting what moves you, in an open, experimental way, will be second nature. Painting in watercolors doesn’t come packed with any certainty of skill-building without regular work at it. If you need attaboys, give them to yourself. Decide – and commit – to making a lot of art, and search each finished piece for mini swatches that show evidence of advancement, rather than as a whole painting, through the lens of wishes for a Masterpiece. As a beginner, you need all the encouragement you can stash, so actively conjure the Good-Job! spot-checker in your own assessments.
Cast a Wide Net
If I focused on painting just like Gustav Klimt – who I adore – I’d get really good at being a copyist of his palette, patterns and subjects. All that focus on mimicry would cover my work with a Klimt-inspired veil, and it would do nothing to construct my own style. I believe in copying masterworks as exercises – to learn solutions deployed by painters exhibited in museums (have you watched Cesar Santos do this?). Those exercises inform future approaches on your own work, and they build strong foundational skills, but that’s not the same as trying to be someone else. You’re style is already in there, fluttering around your creative heart, trying to find the door.
Where Does Your Art Come From?
We have to create our own art, from our own still life setups, our own abstract dreams, our own vistas, and our own reference photos. That’s where we find ourselves; in the plans harvested from our own experiences, feelings, memories and beliefs. Start by looking at your own photo albums, and leap into sketching ideas from there. If you don’t know where to start, and you need structure in order to launch, take a class or a workshop. If your conviction frequently wanes, find a friend to take an online course with, and meet for each session to help each other stay accountable. Getting your art supplies active in your hands will remind you that your creative-self is longing for expression. Make arrangements to open that door.
The Gift of Practice
Becoming good at anything takes time. It sounds like such a cliche, but being masterful the first time you sketch a self portrait in a mirror is not likely. How many times have artist friends said “I tried a [fill-in-the-blank: watercolor, linocut, charcoal, monotype] once, and it came out terrible!” Of course it did! How do you think Elton John played the very first time he sat down at a piano? If you sketched yourself in a mirror for 3 hours every saturday for twelve months, I’d bet you a box of donuts the improvement in your drawing skills would be astonishing. Artists longing to be amazing right from the beginning will fall through a trap door of disappointment, and lose the will to create – before they’ve even have a chance to make enough art to see improvements. If you sketched, painted and made drawings 6-8 hours a day, Monday through Friday for twenty years, you’d be really good at it. And that’s what most of the artists we admire have done, so it’s crazy to wish we’d get that good by painting every third Saturday for an hour or two. John Singer Sargent made thousands of sketches, drawings, oils and watercolors, all day long, every day. You have to make a lot of art, with expectations directed firmly towards bettering the last art you made, to improve. Compete against yourself. As often as you can. Capiche?
All About Bonnard
Here is one last article on the Bonnard exhibit at the Tate. If you missed the series of posts where I fawned over my friend Pierre, here are links. You can peruse his beautiful paintings, check out the resource links and be inspired. His choice of subjects and his layered colors are gloriously enduring. I’m *still* thinking about his work this week.
- Learning Color and Composition from Bonnard
- Combatting Discouragement After a Failed Painting
- Painting Interior Scenes with Bonnard
- Still Life Inspired by Bonnard
- Bonnard-Inspired Portraits – Painting the People You Love
Note: This post was propagated by reading old notebook entries written at the beginning of my artist journey. These are the words I needed to hear then, but couldn’t find at the time. So, I’m writing them now, in case they’re just the thing you need to hear too.
Thanks for stopping by. Paint something soon, and I’ll see you in the next post –
P.S. You can get each post via email by subscribing here.
P.P.S. If you’re thinking about trying audiobooks, here is a link to get one free. See if you like listening while you paint. 🙂
P.P.P.S. This week, Carol Marine wrote about finding your voice as an artist. I highly recommend you check it out here.
Do you want to draw like Rembrandt or Degas? Simple! Just draw ten hours a day, six days a week for forty years. That’s how they did it. Ready for that? How did Monet paint those densely woven symphonies of strokes of light, weaving that luminescent Japanese bridge over the swarming lily pond? First he excavated a huge hole, then diverted a river to fill the hole, planted it with lily pads, then built a Japanese bridge over the whole thing, all at vast expense. Then he bought a boat, made a floating studio out of it and for twelve hours a day, for over twenty years, he paddled around that pond, and painted and painted until his eyes glazed over. If you want to make stuff that has Monet’s charm, have Monet’s passion, devotion, largess, sacrifice.
The techniques of Monet or Degas can be copied; their principles of design are not obscure, they can be learned. If you want them for yourself, you can have them – for a price. And the price is dearer than you may think. Not only will you have to put in at least as much time as they did in developing these same skills, all your living days, but the real price you will have paid is that you will have succeeded in becoming them, and will have missed becoming you.
Peter London – No More Secondhand Art