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?”
When Amy Sherald was growing up in Columbus, Georgia in the 1970s, her dentist father encouraged her to go into medicine. “There was this attitude of, ‘The civil rights movement was not about you being an artist,’ ” she remembered. But as an introvert, Amy enjoyed painting and running and, unsure of what else she was good at, she felt drawn to a life in art. “I don’t feel like I chose to do it,” she said. Near the end of her MFA, during a medical check-up, Amy’s doctors told her that she had a barely-functioning heart and that she would eventually need a transplant. She was 30 years old.
Painters paint, writers write, and sculptors make a lot of chips. No matter what our disciplines, these are the facts of successful creativity. Today I’d like to go a little deeper into the “doing” part of what we do. It’s about the basic unit of our work.
The “art unit” is a piece of art, finished and signed. It’s the best you can do today. It isn’t the motif, the stroke or the passage. It isn’t the word, the phrase, the idea, or the plot — it’s the job.
Last weekend we hit the highway and pulled up to a storefront in a nearby coastal city. Inside sprawled an art space where a handful of artists mingled beneath a barrel ceiling lit to the hilt before taking their places for a panel discussion. The gallerist, prepared with notes and video, dangled questions about background, motivation and process while we cast our glances around the room at one another’s work.
Every once in a while some experts will have a conference and announce that painting is now dead. They are usually referring to somewhat realistic paintings that depict something or other that a more or less average person can understand.
I’m painting in a place called Treguier in Brittany. About a hundred meters along the quay, another man is also painting. As it’s time for a Pernod, I take the opportunity to have a look.
A couple of months ago, Peter and I wandered into an all-white room in the Auckland Art Gallery during moments of the museum’s opening show. This tour had already visited London, Buenos Aires, Shanghai and other hotspots. The room, set up like a typical New Zealand home with lounges, dinette, kitchen, piano and TV, lay in wait to be covered by visitors with sticky dots. Within minutes, a flurry of toddlers exercised their born obligation to vandalize the pristine little homestead with stickers. Like many starts, it was sputtered, incoherent, and a bit anti-climactic.
Older artists don’t necessarily lose their chops. New studies seem to show that the aging process actually improves certain abilities. At McMaster University in Canada, researchers found that elderly people are better able to grasp “the big picture” than younger people. As the big picture is a desirable element in all pictures, this insight has implications for artists both young and old. The study tested young and elderly volunteers. In a series of computer-generated images, the appearance of a set of bars changed while they watched.
While discussing the turning year recently with an actor friend, he confided that if he could do it all over again, he would have been a writer. Now in his early forties and after 25 years of auditions, he’s pivoting to the blank page. “Great news!” I said. “Unlike ballet or being a starlet, being a writer doesn’t depend on the trimmings of youth, and you don’t have to rely on a production green-light to get sweaty. Writing is a doing activity. Writers write. You can start today, and you’ve got plenty of decades to try to get good.”
A subscriber asked some tough questions: “You often use the term ‘serious collectors.’ What kind of person is this? How do they choose who to collect and who not to collect? Do they collect only artists that the marketers have made into a hot item? How large is the demographic? Where do they congregate? What do they like? What do they not like? How does one capture this market? As an artist is there more to this than just putting out good work?”
A question appeared in the inbox recently, and I’m wondering what you think: A brother and sister inherited two of my dad’s paintings and devised a plan for how to best enjoy them. They decided to each keep one painting and wrote to ask if they could make two giclées — high quality digital copies, most likely on canvas, made on an inkjet printer. This way, brother and sister could enjoy both paintings in each of their homes.