“With our calculated sensitivity we artists are able to see and to some degree reproduce nuances that others may know of but not be able to express. That’s why we’re so highly paid.” Every once in a while, in a workshop or a speech, I mention something like the above. Funnily, this line always gets a laugh. Artists roll their eyes and think, “Oh yeah — highly paid — who does he think he’s kidding.” I’ve never thought I was kidding.
I’ve always thought of artists as professionals doing their jobs. A doctor, for example, is highly paid for knowing which organ to cut, which knife to use. The same goes for lawyers and accountants. A pilot knows the subtleties of taking off and landing. When the need arises a float-plane may have skis.
Shared by Canada and the USA, Lake of the Woods, at the western edge of the Canadian shield, covers 1485 square miles and has 65000 miles of shoreline. There are 14000 islands. Right now you can walk anywhere on this lake. It’s overloaded with nuance. It’s the third week of April and there’s still three feet of ice. The islets, like new-cut gemstones, rise up from a blanket of dazzling crystal. White and red pines, spruce and cedar reach into the sky and appear to be in worship. Up close, last fall’s birch-leaves — crinkled, sienna — survivors of winter’s stamp. Pussy-willows whisper. Pollen floats. Counter-light electrifies spring’s tiniest buds. Edge-lit birch-bark. The language of courting geese. Pileated woodpeckers drumming and hammering. Vole-routes underfoot, last year’s aspen-fall, a still-frozen beaver-lodge, bracket-fungus on old firewood, deer bones, the ashes of last summer’s crayfish. Early trilliums. First swallows. Bright lichens. Blue bubble-ups in green ice. Delicate gradations of reflected light. Shades within shadows. Nuances not seen until reminded. Nuances not seen until seen.
The straightforward, professional, riches-winning, two-word method of recognizing nuances, both in real life and in spirit: “Fly in.”
PS: “To be able to observe with a stranger’s eye — permits one to see with an artist’s eye.” (Jean Rostand) “Nature possesses more variation and invention than we do. For an artist, it’s a matter of seeing and choosing.” (Mark Adams)
Esoterica: Nuance (Fr. nuer — to shade) means shade of colour or meaning. “A delicate difference.” For a professional artist, “brown” is not quite good enough. “Raw umber” is better.
Poorly paid professional
by oliver, Texas, USA
Unlike many professionals, I don’t believe most fine artists are highly paid. If you include commercial artists and graphic artists etc, maybe a few. An average doctor, lawyer, accountant, can make a well above the average income, where as I don’t think an average artist can make a well above average income. I think visual artists are more like musicians, dancers, actors, filmmakers and professional athletes. A few of the elite make fine to extraordinary incomes. There’s a bunch of professionals that make solid incomes to very highly paid incomes. A few scratch a living, many, many, many cannot live on what they make or are semi-pro hobbyists or fine artists who really make their money teaching or supplement their incomes from other sources. (How many “undiscovered” actors also wait tables?)
Well paid professional
by Kelly Borsheim, Cedar Creek, TX, USA
When I read the first paragraph of this letter, I thought you were going to follow it up with that clichéd idea “we are paid with good feelings and a sense of accomplishment.” THANK YOU for actually lifting the professional artist up to a good wage-earning citizen! We artists are the ones who perpetuate the myth. We are our own worst enemies. If we do not believe we can and should earn well for our work (that takes years of training like any other profession), then no one else will either. To be a bit more understanding, perhaps I should observe that very few (I hope!) non-doctors practice brain surgery. Perhaps it is this accessibility to art and the differing goals of those who practice it that allows the myth to perpetuate as well. Thanks again for helping me to believe what is possible.
Payment perhaps coming in the next world
by Bob Abrahams, Perth, Western Australia
In regard to your comments about artists being highly paid. I agree. Creative activities that are inspirational and uplifting of the spirit can be seen as a service to mankind and akin to prayer. Anyone who serves their community, family, friends, even government or business with humility, faith, and selflessness is serving mankind, and the Cause of God. In my opinion when one “serves the Cause of God” they are ALWAYS repaid, sometimes with money but not necessarily. Payment can be in the form of happiness, joy and the development of one’s spiritual qualities. Often we receive not what we want, but what God knows we really need. Payment can be received in this world or in the next.
A place close to the heart
by Julia Baker
My family has an island 16 miles down the Lake of the Woods called Red Deer Island that has been in the family for four generations. My husband and I try to get out there for at least 3-4 weeks every summer but my father is the real woodsman. Also an artist, he lives in Oaxaca, Mexico, 6 months of the year and on the island the rest of the year. He has a friend with a hovercraft deliver him to his island even before the ice breaks up. He usually keeps a diary similar to what you have written. The place is close to my heart!
Soaking in the nuances
by Lida Van Bers
My first reaction when I read the first paragraph was a chuckle. Our thought of monetary value is always on the foreground. However, reading on I have to agree we are highly paid because our inner eye is constantly rewarded with the many hues, budding life, and if it is very quiet and you listen very closely you can hear the many nuances of sound. Living in the north of Ontario for many years I can see the picture you paint right in front of me. But wherever you live there are special hues and sound that any artist can pick up if you give yourself time and stay tuned. My own way of tuning in is finding a quiet spot and just soaking in all what is surrounding me. It might be something special or just the whole space. Once I am home I will know what has struck me and stayed — then I take it from there.
Painting in William Bartram’s steps
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, Florida, USA
I have spent the last five days with forty-four other artists participating in the William Bartram Paint-Out, a six-day marathon. Bartram was a naturalist plein airwho took a long walk through Central Florida back in the 1700’s and wrote a book about it. Thanks to the attention he paid to this area, the task of reclaiming and preserving our beautiful land is a project which has captured the imagination and the will of many dedicated people. What a wonderful week this has been–surrounded by the scent of jasmine and magnolia and oil paint under a sky so blue no combination of colors in my paint box comes close.
by Adrienne Adler, CA, USA
This week I will go into the Joshua Tree National Forest just to the north of Palm Springs into the high desert for the second time to be amazed once more by the huge boulders stacked many years ago by some force. These boulders are surrounded by flat desert lands that roll into mountains (actually large hills compared to many mountain ranges) Also, there are amazing cacti that stand taller than most men with “arms” reaching upwards toward the sky. I always think they are praising the God source that created them. Long ago a “Holy Man” visiting here named them “Joshua trees.” As I sit in the hollow of a boulder at least four times my height I will wonder once again why and how all this happened.
An infinity of love and generosity
by Jennifer Garant, Naramata, BC, Canada
I went to Prince Albert, Saskatchewan this weekend — in the very short window of time of no snow and no mosquitoes. It was my brother’s 50th birthday. We had a barbeque We had a barbeque at his place on the Saskatchewan River. It was glorious watching the large islands of ice float by while sipping wine beside an open fire, and then, later, looking up to the night sky to see the oh so awesome Northern lights. But for me the nuance was having my two brothers in the kitchen laughing and dancing. Seeing the young souls of the boys I grew up with, looking into their eyes and seeing the magnitude of their greatness and the infinity of their love and generosity. And of course the ability to embellish and embrace yarns and stories of common people doing uncommon or great things and that we can still watch the sunrise together after the more practical go to bed. We have no need for clocks when together because we are in the moment and always wonder if this may be the last time we are all together and know that if it is — it was the best!
Memories of Lake of the Woods
by Helen Shemilt Channen, Kingston, ON, Canada
Thank you for your letter about your visit to the lake where I grew up. Last fall, I painted a watercolour there, a full sheet, with October chill stiffening my hands. I tried to catch all my feelings for the land, the lake, the clear air, autumn’s glory gold, my feelings of childhood.
We lived near Kenora, Ontario, during the depression, and during the war. As kids, we swam at Gordon’s dock while my brothers and the other big boys swam at Galloway’s boathouse along the Channel. We dared to swim across the boat lane, to circle the black buoy and return to the dock; sometimes we swam to the log booms, held on to the great outside logs chained together, until we were pursued by men running the booms who hollered at us and chased us off. Men and boys fished for pickerel, sweet beyond words when fresh to the frying pan from the lake. Once my brothers caught a Muskie nearly as long as they were tall. We skied cross-country three miles to reach Karlberg’s ski hill, so we could skim down the slopes on to the ice covered lake, and herring-bone laboriously uphill again. We skated on the town’s outdoor rink down the back road, across the river from the flour mills. Music from the old record-player in the boys’ shack echoed across the town. Strauss waltzes, the Man on the Flying Trapeze, the Desert Song, Skater’s Waltz. The boys scraped the ice clear with big metal-edged plows, and shoveled the gathered snow over the boards where great piles of snow formed as winter days went by. They would give little kids rides on the shovels down the ice from the far end of the rink to the gate in the board fence. There was little money around, but we made our own games in all seasons of the year. We believed we had the best of just about everything! Everyone walked everywhere, except for Dr Baker who drove a car. Some others owned cars, but they only used them on special occasions. As a child I noticed the nuances you mention, while unaware I was observing nature as an artist observes, with all senses pulsing. I live a long way from ‘the lake’ now, but still in the shield country, north of Kingston, Ontario. Rocks, lakes, wild grasses, marshlands, heron nests, all are nearby. Full circle, still attached to the idea of north, comforted through observation, still painting from and surrounded by nature.
Problems with formatting
by M. Kelsey Webb
I recently read a book on composition by yourself and other artists. To me the most informative part was your mention of formatting. After reading it I looked at a lot of my paintings, and felt that I hadn’t been having many serious problems in this area, and filed the information away for later use. Then, this morning I was looking at a recently finished painting, and I realized that it probably could have been as much as 50% larger. There were a couple of areas that were too fiddly for even a two-haired paint brush. And there were another couple of areas where I had actually used photo-transfer images of TV screens, where increased size would have made this more obvious by showing the scanning lines. I’m very meticulous (perhaps even anal-retentive) as far as the planning of my pictures. But I do like to leave certain things to chance. To me that’s where the fun and the art comes in. And I guess that I’ve been relying on sort of a sixth sense for my formatting. The problem with a very well thought out and slow working style is that you’re very loath to start all over again when you’re three-quarters finished with your painting. Aside from making more mistakes and benefiting by the experience, do you have any hints as to how I can avoid this problem in the future?
(RG note) The book referred to is called Design and Compositional Secrets of Professional Artists. My main idea is to calculate in advance the subject material as it relates to the picture plane in order to get a general idea that I can get my brush around its elements. As I mentioned in the book, scale is one of the main areas where I tend to get into trouble. A useful ploy is to determine the size and then go and find the canvas or paper to do the job. I bad idea is to try to work out something to fill up a canvas that you happen to have around. Furthermore, a minor decision to do a 20 x 24 as opposed to an 18 x 24, or vice versa, can make all the difference in a work. I call it “format thinking.” Generally, I find that formats run in series until I get temporarily burned out in a size and have to move on.
Preserving paper documents
by Karl Konrad Sheerar
At this very moment I’m printing out your recent letter, Tool Kit, to use as a reminder and inspiration. I will give it the poor man’s lamination (slather both sides of a document with acrylic matte medium, dry… and it’s waterproof!). “Procrastination is a sign of a perfectionist.” (PJ Kennedy — UWEC Counselor & father of a good friend)
(RG note) Thanks for the quote. We always appreciate quotes. We grab them and put them into The Resource of Art Quotations. This is the largest collection of art related quotations anywhere — online or in books. It’s entirely the work of volunteers. There are almost a thousand new quotes going into the resource this week. A warning: Don’t try to print it all out. It will use up all your ink.
Art pricing questions
I have been using a career coach who told me I should double my prices as they were the prices of works on paper. I do oil on canvas and panel. I’ve already embarrassed myself at my local gallery by giving them my “new” price list; and now that I am seeing what other people are charging I am greatly confused. It made sense to me to charge a flat rate of so much per square inch. But when I see the prices of other peoples’ work it seems to be all over the place. Is there a formula or method for this? I am honestly trying to find a fair range that will work for me and that I can grow year by year. Now, I realize that I have to change my prices yet again and apologize to my gallery and ask for their understanding. I am ready to begin a big mailout to galleries across the country, but won’t feel comfortable doing so until I have a secure grip on the pricing. Yikes! Have you got any tips?
(RG note) I’m a believer in yearly incremental price increases of about 10%. Big price changes can be a problem and it’s difficult to go back. Generally speaking smaller works should be reasonably priced as a safe haven in times of downturn. High-end price-testing should be done with your larger works. A previous letter “The price of things” and responses can be found at The price of things. As a matter of fact if you go into the new search feature at the top of this page, and type in “pricing paintings” you will be taken to eleven places on the Painter’s Keys site where the subject of pricing is being discussed. You can do this with anything that interests or concerns you.
by Jane Shoenfeld, New Mexico, USA
Visual Artists sometimes become writers and poets, evoking images in words and stimulating the imagination. You did this today. Painting that is too literal doesn’t do much for me. I actually completed this poem a few days ago even though we are in the midst of beautiful early spring.
SNOW IN THE MORNING
The sky is a grayish pink
And no more flakes are falling
Rest on everything I see
And whiteness contrasts
With dark winter branches.
Both complex and delicate,
the interior shape of trees
and shows the eye
in bold lines
Fence posts and
Short, spreading sage
Adobe walls and
Curvaceous shrub pine
Snow shows and hides at the same time
In the quietness before the cars come,
Before tracks scratch the gliding white
Before the silhouette dissolves
Before I wake up.
Tree of the life
oil painting on canvas
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