A subscriber wrote, “Recently I’ve been asked for a painting as a wedding present, as a birthday present, and as a keepsake. Of course all these requests, while flattering, take time or cost money. What does one say? I recently asked my brother-in-law to pose for me while we chatted over a beer. He was disappointed when I told him I needed the sketches. Am I obligated to give him one? My colleague asked me to paint her portrait. Thinking she meant commission, I said I’d love to but she thought it would be my gift for her birthday. What does one do?”
We all have great stories like yours to tell. One time an old friend became weirdly excited about a painting he saw in my studio. He pleaded poverty, said he had always wanted one, and begged me to give him this particular one. I did. A month or so later someone told me it was in an auction in another city. Fun, eh? Then there was the time a dear friend told her new neighbour that I did “quite good” portraits and would come around and do hers at the drop of a hat. The new neighbour phoned me and asked if I could pop by. She had never heard of me, of course, and I decided to explain my price structure as soon as I arrived. She was pretty as a picture in her silky negligee, but when I told her my prices she threw me out. I felt terrible. I was, it seems, living off the avails of art.
The secret, I found, is to take your generosity into your own hands, control it, and make it life enhancing for as many others as is practical. Heartfelt gifts can take many forms: A memory of a great trip. A thank-you to someone. A surprise or a joke painting for a friend or the friend of a friend. A fundraiser, a birthday, an anniversary. A painting of someone you really want to paint. Looking back at all the paintings and drawings I’ve given away, it seems to me they have provided me with the most pleasure of all — even more than my regular and sacrosanct “flow.” Actually, when you think about it, an artist can be fully employed just throwing the free love around. Employed, but impoverished. But when you give a work of art, you collect a friend. Try to do it on your terms and in your own sweet time. There are times when we seem too busy to give, but the day comes, and friendship can’t wait. I look at it this way: I work pretty hard, yes, but painting comes relatively easily and is also my gift. I get the joy, they get the painting, we get the friendship.
PS: “Art is the giving by each man of his evidence to the world. Those who wish to give, love to give, discover the pleasure of giving. Those who give are tremendously strong.” (Robert Henri)
Esoterica: In the case of sketches that you’re going to need — give the originals and keep photocopies. The works you give tend to be a specialized group anyway — they actually stimulate and round out an artist’s capabilities, testing new subjects and taking you places that you might not otherwise go. In this sense they are part of the learning curve. Also, “Art karma” is so real and reliable that it could become its own religion. For every freebee out the door there’s another work of art that sends a paycheck. Sometimes within minutes. Try not to miss the opportunities to give.
This letter was originally published as “A gift of art” on August 26, 2005.
The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are now available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.
“When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else.” (Georgia O’Keeffe)
The Amalfi Coast, a World heritage site, and one of the most spectacular vistas to be found in Italy. Stay at our four-star hotel on the waterfront of Amalfi; all rooms with private bath and with Mediterranean Sea views. Elevator available. Small groups or painters with guests. Paint in Amalfi, Ravello, Positano, and Capri. Work in oils or other media; beginners to advanced welcome. Demos and individual instruction. Breakfast each day along with 2 lunches & 5 dinners.
See www.SamDAmbruoso.com for further details.