Thanks so much for all your Christmas wishes. I’m deeply honoured to be connected to so many fellow travellers. This time of year my emails show an increase in “Dear Santa”-type letters. Though I treasure every one and take them seriously, I’m not always able to come down as many chimneys as might be wished. They often go like this:
“I’ve been an artist all my life. I quit a dull job to go full time. I graduated from a great art school where I wasn’t taught many technical skills. I’ve taken some workshops, I work hard at my many different styles but my income still isn’t good. I think I need to get into established galleries and also get a new website. Could you give me your honest opinion about my work and what direction I should take? I’d be happy to pay for a critique or coaching session.”
First off, like any decent Claus, I don’t charge folks who want to sit on my virtual knee. When images arrive, I study them. I try to determine who’s been naughty and who’s been nice. Sometimes I can tell by the work.
The naughty ones tend not to do too much heavy lifting. Further, they often haven’t taken the trouble to learn composition, colour, technique and other basics. They can have so many bad habits that expecting glad tidings would boggle the mind of the most benevolent Claus.
The nice ones, on the other hand, know in their souls that they themselves run their own sleigh and any nudge from another elf would be just a temporary blip in the delivery system. In other words, the nice ones are pretty focused, already know most of the answers and are just dropping in for fun. Often compulsive workers, they have an inner drive to get good. Funnily, they may have little of what we call natural talent, but they do have character. They may know it’s a rough world out there, but their dreams often do come true.
Parents of our acquaintance had put forward so many threats of impending doom that when they finally got their only kid on Santa’s knee, he pulled the old guy’s beard and said, “I don’t need you, Santa.” Now there’s a kid who’s going places.
Best regards and Merry Christmas,
PS: “It takes nearly as much ability to know how to profit from good advice as to know how to act for one’s self.” (Francois de La Rochefoucauld)
Esoterica: It’s a problem. “There are some people that if they don’t know, you can’t tell them,” said Louis Armstrong. No matter how jolly one tends to be, this is depressing, especially when you’ve made sure your advice is well thought out, tailored, and lovingly rendered. “Many receive advice,” said Publilius Syrus (46 BC) “but few profit by it.” I quite often use the words of Thomas S. Buechner: “Figure out what you do well and make it better.” “Descendamus nostra caminis,” said Kjerkius Gennius (36 BC). “By and large we come down our own chimneys.”
We’ll never know
by Michael Fuerst, Urbana, IL, USA
The ones to worry about are the naughty who believe they have been nice — those who somehow graduated from an appropriate art school, but failed to absorb any of the elements of composition and color, although believing they had done so. A year or two ago you posted the images of such an individual, certainly with the person’s permission. Everyone who commented did so diplomatically, but hidden between the lines of the comments was the message that the artist lacked understanding of fundamental concepts. We of course do not know if the artist received the message.
The word from Mozart
by Alan Mynall, Oxford, UK
I have been told that a young would-be composer wrote to Mozart asking advice about how to compose a symphony. Mozart responded that a symphony was a complex and demanding form and it would be better to start with something simpler. The young man protested, ‘But, Herr Mozart, you wrote symphonies when you were younger than I am now.’ Mozart replied, ‘I never asked how.'” (Isaac Asimov, 1920-1992)
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The nuts and bolts
by Bob Ragland, Denver, CO, USA
The problem is that many would-be artists do not take the time to game plan. Art careers are a business: basic things like doing outreach by real mail, showing art in different venues other than galleries, keeping a list of people who have the art, making business cards to be carried all the time, postcards of one’s work should be in the car and pocket, looking for opportunity to show the works, branding by doing PR, getting on the radio and TV — Reading good books on business, e.g. How To Sell Anything to Anybody by Joe Girard. The Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell is a good book — the chapter on 10,000 hours is paramount to read. Having some revenue is a good tool to have all the time. These are some of the things I coach artists on. Nuts and bolts stuff matters.
(RG note) Thanks, Bob. I know of artists who do all of that, have all of that, yet their work is substandard. In my view, all the cards and venues and branding and PR is not worth a pinch of otter puckey if you don’t paint well. Think of a dentist who had the office and everything but still didn’t know how to drill and fill. Some people in the arts think we are in an age of failing connoisseurship. If we are, then perhaps proficiency is indeed not as important as getting on TV.
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by Phoebe Ackley, Berkeley, CA, USA
Among many other kinds of art that I do, every few years I create a series of portraits. The most recent one was Elders in Our Midst, 20 bay area elders. I was pleased to exhibit the show twice, once at an art center in Oakland and again at a downtown windows gallery in Berkeley. These shows are mainly self-produced affairs. I decide to paint a particular group of people and then decide finally that I’d better wrap it all up with a show. I love the painting – live sittings are just the best way to spend time with individuals who may be too busy to sit still for any other reason! And creating the opening party is always fun! The piece which I have failed at is the documentation and publicity. I have figured out that I can paint well and I truly work at doing it better, as Thomas S. Buechner recommends. How to not let the other important parts slip through the cracks at the last rush before a show??? Only with experience I’m sure, realizing that this piece, too, is important in building professionalism.
Away from gallery input
by Carole Pigott, Santa Fe, NM, USA
The concept that one has to be with a gallery to be considered successful is troubling — although there are many good and honest galleries, there are more that are not. Most artists I know who have a long career as an artist take responsibility for their own sales and use gallery shows to pad their resumes and wallets, but do not consider them the end all. Personally, when I quit gallery shows and got away from gallery input on what is popular and sells, I went inside myself and painted from my heart. That is when my work really started selling – not because of galleries, but because of the soul in the work.
(RG note) Thanks, Carole. All of my galleries are terrific. On the other hand, musicians, composers and performers are currently shedding their labels like dandruff. In the music business some of these free spirits make ten times as much by selling ten percent of what they previously sold when they had a label. A worthwhile book on the subject is How Music Works by David Byrne.
It’s a great read and a lot of the material may be a harbinger for what’s coming in art. As you pointed out, many painters are moving in the “do-it-yourself” direction.
Not for me
by De Gillett, Australia
Having just finished art school myself, I have empathy with the general feelings of those asking for your critique. I went to art school after 15 years experience as a practicing professional artist, in order to better understand this world of art, and to continue on the journey of becoming the best artist I can be. Glad to say after 3 years of working harder than I ever have before, I am content to understand a few things about myself. Following is the statement I wrote right after my last exam.
On finishing my degree…
Attaining my Bachelor of Visual Art has taught me so much it is the hardest and the most worthwhile achievement of my life thus far. My suspicions have been confirmed that very often, artistic critical success is not about the work itself, but a political outcome more about the artist as celebrity and the critics who write about the art. I choose to locate my practice in a more honest world where the work stands alone, truthfully proclaiming its values to the viewer.
After three years of immersion, I understand what to resist and what to embrace in order to pursue my best, most authentic self. The world I previously inhabited no longer fulfills me, a world where beauty was enough, and salability was everything.
Not for me, the world of contemporary art where an unmade bed or a turd on a stool are exalted.
Not for me, a place where technical skill is sneeringly dismissed in favour of laziness or ineptitude.
Not for me, cool, detached, purely cerebral work that no-one outside the educated elite wants to live with.
I have learned about, and am weary of, art that finds its entire expression in ironic placement. I am exhausted by art as a supremely cerebral in-joke calculated to guarantee the educated viewer their exalted position at the top of the ivory tower of post-post-modernism.
My work is for the world — a visual journal of gratitude and celebration. It is art for life’s sake, and life for art’s sake. Art that ordinary people can love having in their homes, art which delights them, and me.
I will make the art that I can make best, art that brings me to my knees and makes me shiver. I seek a visceral reaction resisting the “mind/body split”; sucker-punching me with such intensity that intellectual divisions between body and mind dissolve into the tissue of lies they have always been.
So thank you, Queensland College of Art, for the intellectual rigour and the immersion in your world; for the theory, the philosophy and the growth.
I am content with what I am, and with what I am not. I now understand the conundrum which is contemporary visual art, and am a better artist because of that understanding. I came to QCA in order to be the best artist I can be, and you have helped me immensely along that journey. The purpose of the nude, it is said, is to strip the artist naked. Over the last three years I have drawn hundreds of nudes as part of this process, and it has undoubtedly stripped me bare. My education now clothes me with the certainty that for much of the time the Emperor of the contemporary art world Ivory Tower and the Citadel of Spin does indeed have no clothes. Fortified, armed and dangerous, my journey continues. So excited I can hardly breathe!
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by Brenda Behr, Goldsboro, NC, USA
Hey, Santa Claus, I have no problem with your delivering your gifts online. Makes it difficult for me to leave cookies, but if you’ll send me the name of your favorite [cookie]and a shipping address, I’ll make sure you receive them. This is a promise. Thank you for another year of extraordinary biweekly gifts. No doubt, the artists to watch are the ones with fire in their bellies. They keep on an on, improving as they go. They are Energizer Bunnies who run not on batteries, but on passion. They can’t be stopped. I don’t think all the workshops, or classes, or what is called “God-given” talent can compete with the fuel we know as passion. Without passion, art is a song that can’t be sung. P.S. If this is one of Santa’s elves reading this, please tell him I’m serious about sending cookies. Enough for all of you. And Happy New Year!
(Head Elf note) Thanks, Brenda, and others who wrote with similar requests. This year there was fudge, taffy, oatmeal cookies, Rice Crispy squares, cake, and an unidentifiable treacley substance that looked like the Alberta Oil Sands. Thank you so much. A few years ago I saw a beat up VW van in Alaska with the bumper sticker: “Will be President for Food.”
Online crits — are they available?
by Adele Galgut, Cape Town, South Africa
May I really e-mail you a selection of my works for you to crit? Is that a real possibility or would that be too much? Hoping I’m “nice” and would be just dropping in for fun.
(RG note) Thanks, Adele, and everyone who wrote with a similar question. By all means send along a few jpegs. I don’t guarantee I’ll get at them right away, but I will try to return with a short, meaningful crit.
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watercolour painting, 30 x 22 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 Aud Grete Mullaard of Norway, who wrote, “I wish you and your family A Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year with my paintings of my little Norwegian ‘house nisse.’ Thank you for all your twice-weekly letters.”
(RG note) Thanks Aud Grete, and others who sent cards, e-cards and letters.
Enjoy the past comments below for The problems of an online Claus…