Yesterday, Judy Singer of Toronto, Ontario, wrote, “I’ve been an artist for 36 years and taught at York University for 30 years. I now give workshops in my studio. I’m often asked for advice about how to get a gallery, pricing, my opinion of their work, etc. Yesterday, an artist wanted to know how the gallery system works, how to show and sell. The images he sent were totally amateurish and lacking in skill. He told me that he has not taken any lessons (that’s obvious!) and he is worried that lessons would get in the way. He is in his 40’s and has another profession. I am at a loss as to what to say to him. Who am I to rain on his parade? What would you do?”
Thanks, Judy. Everyone deserves to fly. On the one hand you don’t want to interfere with people’s freedoms or ambitions; on the other hand, you somehow have to tell them to fly to their room. The question comes up so frequently that I’ve often wished for a small pamphlet or tract I could silently hand out. Once, while having a bad hair day, I said, “I don’t want to upset you, but in my opinion, and it’s only an opinion, your work is so bad you might consider chartered accountancy.” Bad as the work was, the baddest of all was how I felt after saying it.
Then, numbers of neophyte artists are running off to (often expensive) art-marketing workshops and business seminars. It’s like eye surgeons taking courses in bedside manners before they know anything about cataracts. I generally tell people that if their art is professional enough, marketing will not really be a problem. I’m not being smug here, but that’s been my system. I spend practically no time marketing or even thinking about it.
Here’s what you need to do: Direct people to above-average arts organizations, clubs or guilds. Recommend ones with quality membership, professional standards, juried shows and community clout. You can often get people to join by emphasizing the fun of it all. Search diligently within their work to find even the merest possibilities. Give praise to potential.
I’ve found the following sentence useful for all artists — good, bad and indifferent: “The real joy of art is in the making. Go to your room for a year and actively follow your nose. I’m interested in your growth, so please keep me informed.”
PS: “There are some people that if they don’t know, you can’t tell them.” (Louis Armstrong)
Esoterica: To add further mystery to the whole ball of wax — some art schools stagger with the blind leading the blind. In a way, your friend is right. Lessons can and do get in the way. Poisonous pedagogy has sent more talent into the purgatory of accountancy than this world dreams of. Your friend must come to know that his best teacher is himself, and perennial studenthood, with the help of books and passions, bring true creative happiness and often success. Artists of character know all this. That’s how they fly.
by Bobbo Goldberg, Orlando, FL, USA
I believe that every life (not just a human life) is a very particular and detailed journey of growth. A wise elder once said, “When I interfere with people’s growth, I not only knock them off their path, I knock myself off mine.” How would I dare to prescribe anything to another person, whether about their creativity, their politics, their sexual preferences or how they relate consciously (or don’t) to their own voyage? Your message, which encourages the questioner to trust inner guidance and get back to work on their own path, their own terms, is as good as any I’ve ever heard. Indeed, bad tutelage can corrupt confidence. Even good tutelage, too heavily wrought, must necessarily emphasize technique over individual expression… and that can be a path-mangler. Another person once told me that Buddhists don’t proselytize. A good Buddhist, encountering a Hindu, will encourage him to be the best Hindu he can be. When we deal with the ineffable, like a person’s budding creativity, what better message can we offer than “trust yourself and get back to work?”
How to help them?
by Denise Bezanson, Vancouver, BC, Canada
As an art consultant I get constant emails from these amateur artists that are trying to have their work displayed, and the work is so amateurish it’s scary. Especially bad are the “nouveau artistes” that have no schooling and do not understand how art evolved through the centuries, who the great masters are, etc. etc. I had one lady say “maybe she was a diamond in the rough.” I viewed her work, it was a complete waste of my time, it was so elementary, the brush strokes were rudimentary.
It is so hard to tell people to their face they should take up accounting or knitting instead of painting. Maybe the right thing to say is, “How about taking classes?” I even see people Giclee their work and it is of such student quality that one wonders where they will sell it. I could go on with more horror stories, but you get the gist. I feel your pain, and I know how awful it is to destroy someone’s dream. I am not able to be critical, I don’t want to dash dreams. I often say, “I’m not looking for more artists,” it’s an easy out, but really no help to the person in question.
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Study broadens painters’ minds
by Shirley Peters, Putney, NSW, Australia
There are two major things to learn about painting. One is how to paint, and the other is what to paint. The first one is the easiest, how to paint. It can be self taught, albeit using books for color theory and composition. The second is the hardest, what to paint. I see so many amateurish big-eyed girls, big flat flowers and splashes of color at our local art shows. Often the technique of applying the paint is working, but the drawing or subject matter screams ‘self taught.’ A good painting teacher will expose students to old masters, all the ‘isms,’ all the post moderns, and every new artist that comes to the nearby city Museum. They will be discussed, critiqued and, eventually, understood. This study will broaden the painter’s mind. It will make a girl’s portrait or a flower or an abstract look meaningful and complete.
Encouragement at all costs
by Dena Crain, Kenya
As a design teacher, I face this dilemma every day: how to tell a student that what they did as a first and often only attempt is no good, without destroying the student’s chances of ever moving forward. It requires the ability to see something positive in every attempt, to praise the minute, and to encourage at all costs. Creative egos are so vulnerable, so fragile, that even an off-hand remark from a family member can be devastating.
I like to watch Len Goodman on “Strictly Come Dancing” as he critiques a performance. He always finds something to praise first, then says what needs to be said in such a way that the performers walk away hearing only the praise. He does this by offering a suggestion for future development without ever having to tell them that what they just did was awful. He’s a gentleman! Later, when they’ve calmed down and had time to reflect, the dancers may realize that he was also very critical of the job, but he took nothing from them in the process of analyzing and critiquing their work.
Problems with accountancy?
by Peter Land, CPA, Lebanon, NH, USA
I very much enjoy your emails, your books and most of all, your paintings. I actually do know why practitioners of your profession seem to have a problem with practitioners of mine. A couple of years ago I took a 2 day seminar with Tom Lynch. He was quite vocal about his feelings about accountants and I debated handing him one of my business cards at the end but decided not to embarrass him. Balancing the left and right brain is really the solution, don’t you think? And no, I don’t plan to give up my day job even if it IS tax season here in the US!
(RG note) Thanks, Peter. One of my best friends is an accountant. To his perennial annoyance I keep using chartered accountants as stand-ins for everyone other than artists. I could just as easily use engineers or proctologists, although for some reason I find the practice of those professions less dull. It’s my problem, not yours. I’m seeking help. Tom’s going too.
Don’t stifle creativity
by Kaye Guerin, Tucson, AZ, USA
Having seen legions of substandard art, I have thought about the problem often. I think that no mentor can see how another person’s vision will evolve over time, nor where their passion will carry them. I also think that calling someone else’s creativity a gimmick stifles creativity, and encourages sameness. It’s a very interesting problem. All I know, after 30 or more years of being an artist is that I’m exploring new ideas and concepts, new materials and ways of using them. I am bored to tears by paintings carefully copied from photos. Am I wrong?
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Keep the list short
by Patrick Davis, Calgary, AB, Canada
During my time as an English teacher, I developed the following procedure for helping a student with his/her work. After looking at the writing carefully, I would first offer one thing I liked about the piece… or sometimes even two. Then I would suggest just one thing they could do to strengthen the writing. Most of us would be deterred by a massive list of things that need improvement, but we can handle one quite easily. I am sure this strategy can also be applied to art critiques.
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It’s only a creative outlet
by Kathleen Cundith, Pleasant Hill, CA, USA
Your response to Judy Singer is right on. Reputable art clubs (associations) with local juried shows help new artists get a perspective on their work, particularly if the work is “graded” in a way that lets the artist know how their work stacked up to others submitted. I know, that is how I realized how much more painting I needed to do, and that I would not set the world on fire, just my family and friends! And we all know that family and friends want nothing more than to make you feed good. I still enjoy the process and continue to paint, but know my limitations. In our community we have a wonderful teacher who has been a juror, award winner, book writer, etc., and who critiques paintings done outside the class. We thrive on her demonstrations, and on her ability to point out where we can improve. Painting in a class is much too intimidating, although I have done that also. In fact, in one workshop a well known instructor said of one of my paintings “do that one 6 more times, and you have an award winner.” That kept me going for years!!! LOL. There is a place for those of us who just enjoy a creative outlet, just not in a gallery. The problem arises with what to do with all those paintings!
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Just have fun
by Joan Polishook, New York City, New York
I guess that I have been doing right by the many artists and would-be artists that pose similar questions as you write about, to me….How to improve, where to show, what price, etc??? As founder and leader of a plein air group my professional advice is always requested, and believe me I don’t have all the answers, but always try to select the best of the poorest work for praise and something to build upon, advise sharing time and learning from other artists, read books, attend art shows and exhibits, visit the galleries in as many different areas as possible. Joining art organizations and participating in their events, workshops, demos and classes is invaluable. Lastly, just loosen up and create in your desired environment with materials that you feel comfortable in using. Remember too, that every painting is not a masterpiece, but perhaps, a step toward that goal… let go of the fears of not producing something wonderful or of making mistakes. You can always paint over a canvas or throw away a piece of paper and start over. Most of all, have fun with what you are doing.
The power of pride
by Pam Craig, Memphis, TN, USA
I think most of the time, the artist who is asking for an opinion doesn’t really want to hear what I think. It reminds me when you meet someone you know on the street and they say, “HI, How are you?” The response should be, “I am fine,” because they don’t expect any more detail than that. Anyway, I did come up with another phrase; when I am asked what I think about someone’s work, and this phrase helps me stay positive and encouraging, keeps them happy and keeps me from possibly hurting someone’s feelings. I say, “You must be very proud of yourself for what you accomplished in this work.” It is simple and it turns the judgment back on them and they usually expound on why they are proud and no one gets hurt. If they are serious and pursue the critique I could take the opportunity to go into further detail, first listing the positive and working to giving my opinion into the areas that I feel may need work and finally we get to a point where we actively discuss the piece, the pricing, the points of how to have the work noticed and afterwards I feel we both can walk away feeling “proud” over the potential and possibilities.
Just paint a ripper
by Robert Wade, Australia
After your letter I had a laugh to myself as I read an email from a former student: “Could you suggest a weekly routine for me. Just feel I need to be more structured & disciplined so that I am achieving. Any advice would be appreciated. My sales have dropped to ZILCH! (Barry) I responded:
In the current world financial situation sales are dreadful no matter who you are, 2009 was my worst year ever! Next step for you is to become twice as hard on yourself, be a much sterner self-critic, reject at least 50% of what you do. Your Solo show would have been so much better from every aspect had you reduced the total by at least half. I had my first solo show at age 52 when I knew that every painting of the 40 was as good as I could paint. I knew that I had almost that number in reserve but they had been rejected by me because they were only about 98% good. Tough! but it pays off. Everything we do is not good enough to put up for sale. The buying public also know “just good” from “best” and they want top stuff for their money, deservedly so too.
Aim at producing a ripper every two weeks, you may have to paint SIX to get ONE but that’s how it has to be.
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A quality art education
by Caraleen Baker, London, ON, Canada
Art is a process and for so many people it is a healing process. I see it happening so often. I truly try to help all my students in their process, teach them new techniques and try to push them a little further. And as far as art instruction in concerned, we can never have enough. I have learned so much over the years from other teachers as well as other students. We learn from each other, but ultimately we all know there is significant value to quality art education. It is a prerequisite to a good painting but not necessarily a license to produce one.
by Kitty Wallis, Portland, OR, USA
My marketing strategy is simple: Become Irresistible. When a beginner asks me how they can sell their work, I tell them they have asked the last question in the series of questions they need to ask.
1. Am I good enough to be in a gallery? Yes or No.
2. How do I get good enough? Paint every day. Make it your top priority.
3. How do I know when I’m ready? Learn to critique your work.
4. What galleries do I go to? Those who show work in your genre and style and maturity.
5. How do I market my work? See above :) There is a lot of homework to do. Gallery directors have become insular because so few artists do their homework. Artists besiege them in droves with inappropriate presentations, showing no understanding of the gallery business or that particular gallery’s interests.
I try to tell the truth without couching it in confusing, misleading words, such as the ‘oreo’ technique. The gallery world is not a support community. I applaud the artist’s effort without lying by omission. To me art is a sacred activity that illuminates the human experience, and truth is the only thing that serves.
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Prairie path at Sundown
oil painting by William Marvin
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 Susan Pharaoh of Darlingford, MB, Canada, who wrote, “My instructors have been so supportive, I’ve never felt that they judged me when they looked at my beginning efforts. If they had been critical, I think I would have given up and been the poorer for not having had a chance to express myself.”
And also Lauren Everett Finn of Oxford, MS, USA, who wrote, “I beg to differ with one point, though. You say, “I spend practically no time marketing or even thinking about it”… not so… You market each and every Tuesday and Friday. That’s why I bought your books and wish I could buy a painting.”
And also Jeanne Aisthorpe-Smith of Wolfville, NS, Canada, who wrote, “I was reminded of a quotation a friend gave me… “Don’t bother trying to explain something. For some people it’s like trying to teach pigs to sing… It frustrates you and annoys the pig.”
Enjoy the past comments below for The etiquette of mentoring…