I sold my first painting when I was 14 — a watercolour of a hovering Rufous hummingbird and its nest. The painting was exhibited in a craft fair in Victoria, B.C., where I grew up. The buyers, a couple from Portland, Oregon, phoned me at home to thank me. This act of good will blew me away. Not only had they paid $15 for my joy, but they phoned me. I offered to meet them and show them the actual nest, and they accepted. The next day, on my bicycle, I met them in a parking lot in Beacon Hill Park and led them to the nest. Even then, it didn’t feel like I’d done enough for them. I offered to change the painting if they didn’t like it. The lady said, “I’m sure we’ll like it just the way it is, Bobby.”
Years later, I was explaining to a fellow artist about my ideas of “value added” and “guaranteed for life.” He told me that sort of thing wrecks the integrity of your original concept. He also pointed out that it was economically unsound — because of the risky nature of our business, artists need to take the money and run and get on with the next sale. “Yours is a dumb idea,” he said.
Yesterday, my friend Barbie Newton brought me an acrylic portrait I’d done of her brother Jimmy in 1990. Jimmy, at the time, was learning to fly and dreamed of becoming an F18 pilot in the Canadian Air Force. When Jimmy had visited me in my studio, he was an idealistic 27-year-old with the beginning of a dashing moustache. I included his moustache and ghosted two F18s in the background.
Jimmy’s fighter dreams didn’t pan out. He ended up flying a Sea King Helicopter for Canada’s famed 405 Squadron. Barbie asked if I’d change the fighters to a helicopter, and remove his moustache. “Jimmy’s wife, Jennine, never liked him in that moustache,” she said. Barbie left the painting with me.
Using ammonia, I carefully tested one corner of the painting to make sure the paint was stable and then I cleaned off the old varnish. Using a thin, opaque tone (titanium white, yellow ochre and ultra blue) I obscured the fighters and popped in a couple of Sea Kings. The moustache came off with more dispatch than the razor of an Air Force barber.
PS: “When we seek for connection, we restore the world to wholeness. Our seemingly separate lives become meaningful as we discover how truly necessary we are to each other.” (Margaret Wheatley)
Esoterica: I’ve always been aware that this sort of thing might get out of hand. But in all my years of “guaranteeing for life,” it never has. This policy has brought a wealth of friends. Because of this dumb idea, my cup runneth over. The Jimmy job took little time. I was the only one in the world who could safely do it. It was a joy to inspect the old painting, clean and re-varnish it and send it on its way once more. Future black lights will learn its secret. What they won’t know is that there was no charge.
Before and After
by Padmaja Madhu, Bangalore, India
It was gratifying to read this post. I think what the young fifteen year old did was out of truthfulness and a craving to do his best, without fully knowing what “value added” meant. Or maybe he was mature enough to realize the significance of this act. I am amazed at this “dumb idea.” It shows an artist who is honest in what he does and it also shows how valuable changing the painting without any charges was to both parties.
by Lisa Chakrabarti, Los Angeles, CA, USA
Mr. Dumb Idea sounds like he is using the business model often favored by used car salesmen. Professional integrity matters. We are the sum of our deeds – good and bad. I’ve always believed most artists seek to share their joy with the world – the “connection” you quote from Ms. Wheatley. I think it is inseparable from the notion of self-expression. Without this as a basis, there is little point in getting our work “out there” to be sold. An unrepentant capitalist, I don’t find these ideas to be at odds. The favor of repairing or adjusting a piece of artwork that someone bought in good faith is an act of generosity that rewards both ways. Call it karma. I hope Mr. Dumb Idea chews on that for awhile.
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Your ‘friend’ the jerk
by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada
I think your “friend” sounds like a jerk. “Take the money and Run” is a terrible thing to say and an even worse thing to do. When it comes to being an artist, whether you are a painter, sculptor, dancer or actor, you have to paint like nobody is watching, dance like there is no music, sculpt from found objects and act like you don’t have a script. Do it all like there isn’t an audience and you don’t need the money. I have always said, if you are looking for fame and fortune, go sell real estate. But to get paid and run off without following through is nothing short of shameful.
This was a wonderful shot of self-esteem to sell a painting at 14 years old. You followed through with your client and showed them the spot where you found your creativity. And years later, to follow through again by reworking a piece for a client just to make them happy is called Service. While there is very little justice in the world, I think you have shown something even fewer people show… INTEGRITY.
These are now lessons I plan to use to up my own game when following through with a client. Hope your fair weather friend doesn’t darken your door again sometime soon.
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The peril of giving too much
by Peter Lloyd, Blacker Hill, England
This is a delightfully old-fashioned approach to life which I have always aimed at but continue to regret, because in my case others have invariably taken undue advantage of my being a ‘soft touch.’ Even my wife used to say I was an idiot for doing too much for not enough return! But I am as I am, and cannot, will not, change. Nevertheless, for such skilful work, I think you would have been entirely justified in charging the client even if only time and materials – for changes made at the specific request of the buyer. Your portrait of Jimmy is outstanding. His character is as clearly apparent as his features, a sure (but usually absent!) sign of a great portrait.
A romantic story
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA
A young man I’d never met before came into my studio a few days ago with an interesting idea. He wants to ask his girlfriend to marry him, and he wants to do it with art, and he wants it to be a surprise. The plan is for them to ‘spontaneously’ visit my studio during a casual downtown walk, and ‘on impulse’ he’ll pick out a painting to give to her as a gift. The surprise will be her discovery of an envelope attached to the back of the painting, with her name on it. Inside: a beautiful note asking her to marry him and a diamond ring. You’d think the ring would be reminder enough of their special moment, but he likes the idea that the painting will also always bring them back to the beginning of their life together. I am amazed and honored to get to be part of that.
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Offering the choice
by Leigh Cassidy, Quesnel, BC, Canada
I have always and still do guarantee for life, as most people who buy from me or hire me to paint for them know how I work. They are also people that if they damaged it, would volunteer to pay to have it fixed, accept if it could not and we would work something out. I like my gut feeling of knowing that the people who buy my work would offer something if they could, or just appreciate my efforts in changing something. It is nice being offered and choosing to not need recompense, but accepting if offered under particular circumstances would also not make me feel guilty. This is where knowing how you work and endeavouring to work with quality materials to one’s best abilities in one’s own particular ways is of great merit. Further, in case of downstream problems, I often make notes.
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An endearing connection
by Susan Peck, Merrickville, ON, Canada
My drawing, “Reflections and Refractions,” was done in coloured pencil. At the time I drew this, I was not aware that my supposed “artist” coloured pencils were not, in fact, what I had believed they were. Only after I joined the Colored Pencil Society of America, did I learn through research using the results of tests performed by CPSA, that my Prismacolor Premier pencils were not all lightfast, to my dismay and chagrin. My set of 120 Prismacolor Premier pencils was reduced to about 95 pencils, once I had eliminated all the colours that were fugitive, about 35 duds. Multiply this number by 3 (since I have three sets of 120 Prismacolor Premiers) and that adds up to 105 pencils that are now useless to me, since their pigments are fugitive… almost a full set. It was a painful, agonizing and costly process to eliminate all the fugitive colours in all three of my sets, since a set of 120 Prismacolor Premiers now costs $250.00 before taxes.
My drawing has been displayed in digital format on the large illuminated bulletin boards at Times Square in New York City, in the 2012 “Art Takes Times Square” event. It has also been accepted for publication in the upcoming “Strokes of Genius 5, Best of Drawing; Composition,” book to be published by Northlight Books in the fall of 2013. I have made several attempts to contact the owner in the past year, without success. If it has faded, I will feel obligated to fix it for her. Needless to say, I am using ONLY lightfast colours now.
(RG note) Thanks, Cathy. This is a problem that’s generally noticed by artists who have been at it for some time. In tubed paint, artists who seek permanence need to check the ratings that are usually printed on the tube. Some reds, for example, are given longer, brighter lives by admixture with red oxide. There are many examples of this safety precaution.
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by Corrine Bongiovanni, Windham, ME, USA
What did you use to clean off the old varnish? I’ve wanted to do that with a painting of mine but haven’t known how or dared to try on my own.
(RG note) Thanks, Corrine. I always varnish my acrylic paintings with Golden Final Varnish Gloss with UVLS (Ultra Violet Light Stabilizers). Most painters do this sort of thing. A final varnish is often quite reduced by oxidation after about 20 yearsbut there is always some of it still remaining. In order to paint in acrylic on older acrylics you need to remove whatever varnish has been left. Household ammonia lightly applied and washed off with water does the trick. A significant problem with acrylics is improper use of acrylic medium in the original production. In acrylics it’s good to use lots of medium. In the event that passages are produced with watercolour effects, ie, thinly painted with little medium, they can become chalky and unstable after just a few years. This is the reason surfaces must be tested before you try any cleaning. A white, soft terrycloth or cotton batten are best. If you see colour coming off onto the cloth, you can stabilize the chalky stuff with a spray of acrylic medium (not varnish). After that another thin coat of 50/50 liquid medium thinned with water will definitely hold things down. Then you do your repairs. Then you put on a coat of medium again, maybe two, and then after a while, a final coat of varnish.
One of the reasons I like to get older work back into the studio is to see how healthy they are. “Jimmy Newton” was in good shape, but I have seen a few older ones of mine that required special handling.
To simply remove smoke, flyspecks and other grime from older acrylics, I test first and use a soft white cloth and Mr. Clean (a household detergent with no evidence of grit) mixed with lots of water. Wash off thoroughly and make sure it’s completely dry. A courtesy re-varnish is always appreciated before returning it to the owner. After you’ve done something to any older work, it’s a good idea to date and note this info on the back.
watercolour painting 16 x 11 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Stewart Turcotte of Kelowna, B. C. Canada, who wrote, “When you go through the Pearly Gates, Robert, God is going to pat you on the head and say, ‘You didn’t have to change anything, Bobby, you were just great!’ ”
And also Moncy Barbour of Lynchburg, VA, USA, who wrote, “One of the things that made it a joy to work with Andy Warhol that he was so easy to get along with.”
And also Shannon Kelly who wrote, “Sharing yourself is at the heart of our spiritual connection to one another through the gift of art.”
And also Gretchen Boyd who wrote, “Do you think you could remove my wrinkles like you did Jimmy’s mustache?”
(RG note) Thanks, Gretchen. My friend Alan Wylie told me about a time he was painting a portrait of a woman when she began to ask for some “improvements” here and there. Alan said to her, “Madam, I am a painter, not a plastic surgeon.”
Enjoy the past comments below for ‘A dumb idea’…