Some of my friends are surprised that I can tell what kind of a day I’m going to have by my morning choice of pants. I always choose well worn, paint-raggy, spotted ones. They keep me in the studio and off the streets. A possible irritant is the frequent and boring remark: “How much for your pants?”
There’s more to pants than meets the eye. Pants are bearers of tradition — they carry the patina of past glories. Modesty and warmth aside, there’s nothing worse than pants without character. Like the teenage girls whose expensive, brand new jeans look like they have just come from a motorcycle accident, pants imply history. Also, pants ought to hold that most permanent and endearing of the senses — smell. The smell of old paint on old pants is heart-warming and conducive to putting new paint down.
Other people’s pants may be of value too. Apart from the possible transference of libidinous energy, there’s the transference of power. Rock stars are familiar with the arrival on stage of various minor garments. Honouring, bonding, and love are shown when pants and other items are given and taken in this way. With the clothing of others, you gain their moxie. Imagine owning Michelangelo’s pants.
Just as policemen, firemen and airline hostesses have their uniforms, artists, when on duty, should at least have dedicated clothes. It’s too bad about the demise of the artists’ smock. Like the gravy-stained apron — symbol of kitchen drudgery — it has lost popularity. The flight to uniqueness and the demand for rugged individualism has now determined that artists not be in uniform. Eccentricity comes naturally through the disregard and mistreatment of personally chosen and appropriate clothing. For creativity to flow naturally, one does not need the discomfort of the likes of John Constable’s riding breeches. Just as freedom of expression ought to rule the canvas, so too should pants be free and easy and provide the most comfort possible. At least since the 1920s, lady artists have taken to pants in a big way. Hardly an oil is done these days in a frock. As a matter of fact, it seems these days that in the art business it’s the women who are more than ever wearing the pants.
PS: “Artists ought to walk a mile in someone else’s pants. That way you’re a mile away and you have their pants.” (a
Esoterica: The Social Psychology of Clothing by Susan B. Kaiser examines how our dress affects others and ourselves — our confidence, work, power and influence. Also the effect “costume” has on success and how situations are handled due to clothing. But the classic study is W. I. Thomas’ The Psychology of Modesty and Clothing, (1899) There are many theories of the origin of modesty. The assumption that men were ashamed because they were naked, and clothed themselves to hide their nakedness, is not likely with the evidence that all other species are naked, and not ashamed of it. A case can be made for the contrary view, that clothing was first worn as a mode of attraction, and modesty was then attached to the act of removing the clothing. A third theory of modesty, “the disgust theory,” developed by Havelock Ellis in Studies in the Psychology of Sex, makes modesty the outgrowth of our disapproval of immodesty in others.
No pants here
by Heather Levy, Washington D.C., MD, USA
I am a female painter and almost exclusively paint in a skirt. Just like your old pants they are spattered and splattered with my history of achievement, frustration and experimentation. I write this wearing a “new” painting dress, a dress that I’ve retired from public but is too comfortable not to wear painting. Some women are still painting in dresses.
by Nancy Talcott
How about clothes developed as protection from the searing heat or freezing cold elements in the environment? I am pretty sure that when clothes were first created, the people of the time had no concept of modesty. Why would they when they lived in caves and other extremely difficult situations? Anyway, that’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.
(RG note) Thanks, Nancy. My theory, not substantiated by anthropologists, is that cave people started to wear clothing in order not to get paint on themselves.
Thrill of the unplanned
by Cathie Harrison
In my case it’s not the pants but the tops. I paint best when I wear a good white shirt as an act of defiance. There’s something in me that gets a thrill out of not getting paint on it and an even bigger thrill if I do. On the other hand, if I end up in something ugly because of laundry “issues” I just don’t paint worth a darn. Anyway, it’s good to have at least one more reason why things didn’t go as planned. Of course, since I was well trained, I do always wear a big oversized apron, just in case.
Knickers in a knot
by Margaret, UK
Here in the UK, pants are not trousers. Pants are the undergarments worn under trousers — alias briefs, shorts or y-fronts. I think your little story works quite well as trousers or pants — my mother told me to always wear a clean pair in case I got knocked down by a car.
Right to the skin
by Petra Voegtle, Munich, Germany
I assume that you wrote this week’s letter tongue in cheek, but I must say that it never occurred to me that there could be something special about wearing someone else’s pants. I must admit, I don’t like to wear other people’s clothes at all — I have never bought something second hand and I am not sure if I ever will- it is simply something too personal.
On the other hand, there is a considerable change in my attire since I am no longer working in the electronics industry; even my underwear has adopted some unintentional brush-strokes. I have more T-shirts which reveal my true passion than those that are less “personal”. I can no longer get rid of the status I have now acquired — being an artist and becoming as individual and personal as a human can be, right to the skin. Could there exist more identification with a profession than that?
New validity for old clothes
by Veronica Stensby, Los Angeles, CA, USA
My colleagues, mostly women, take pride and comfort in their well-worn art clothes. We tease each other about the vintage nature and certainly recognize each other by the clothes. When there’s an opening reception for a show, it’s “Wow, you look great when you’re dressed up!” Much like the response when the life-model shows up and we all say we didn’t recognize them with their clothes. Before sending beloved old clothes to the thrift store I see if they can become beloved art clothing. Old shirts from a bygone era/style take on new validity as they can cover my street clothes when I get to a class to paint. For better or for worse my painting habit validates my pack-rat instinct to keep old clothes for an important function: Painting.
Transfer of power
by Lynda Kerr, McDonough, GA, USA
I teach art in a high school in ex-urban Atlanta. The art smock is nowhere in evidence, but we do have aprons. Mine is 7 years or older, has a hardware store logo printed on it, and bears the paints and ink spots of my 2 previous teaching positions. I’ve provided newer aprons for my students, at hand in the studio, but the kids are always wanting to wear my apron. It seems to communicate a certain magic to them. Must be that transference of power you talked about.
Old blouse inspires painter
by Susan Curtis, Novelty, OH, USA
As a matter of fact, although I don’t have painter’s pants, per se, I do have a blouse created at least 12 years ago in India, a gift to me for my 50th birthday from my niece, from her closet, which I wear in warm weather and leave draped in the vicinity of my easel in the cold weather. Always near or on me when I paint, it is beautiful in color and floral print, with large flowers in primary colors of red, yellow and purple, made of a rayon cotton mix, smells like the dyes it is made with, and shows neither the tears from sheer wear, or the paint spills. The more shredded and painty it gets, the more it inspires me.
Suit up and show up
by Nancy Reyner, Santa Fe, NM, USA
My motto every morning to get me out of bed and in my studio is, “Suit up and show up.” It works for me. My artistic juices click when I don my work shoes. They are old red Nikes which once belonged to a friend and are now spotted with a rainbow of colors. I have even started wearing them on teaching gigs, where they get noticed immediately.
Paint spots on most of clothing
by Shannon Thomas
Most all of my clothes have a spot of paint on them. It seems I can’t resist walking by my canvas to either improve or start on a new canvas no matter what I am wearing. My bath robes from getting up in the middle of the night have splashes of color all over them. My husband is always saying, “Are you going to paint in that?” I do have a favorite pair of pants and it looks very artistic and has a lot of my art history attached. My favorite pants are very comfortable jogging pants but sometimes I don’t make it to those and end up with paint on what ever I am wearing. The good thing is everyone knows I am an artist.
by Ron Ogle, Asheville, NC, USA
On the history of clothing, one should read Anne Hollander: Seeing through Clothes and Sex in Suits. “Between 1910 and 1930, male lounge-suits came into their own as aesthetic echoes of the machine age. The same smooth tubes of sleeve and trouser and the neat shapes of collar and tie now came to look functional and streamlined instead of infinitely masterful and trustworthy, or daringly revolutionary as they had done when they first appeared. Works of art and fashion art came to harmonize with similarly sleek and tubular women and with equally trim buildings. We can see how the allegedly “phallic” look of narrow, smooth, fast-moving objects became a formal element of neutral erotic power without specifically male or female associations.”
by Marsha Elliott
I’m just now entering the world of fine art doing watercolors, but I’ve spent the past 40 years working as a sign artist and believe me, those special pants came in handy! Why use a rag when pants were so available? Oh the stories they could tell… the signs, the creativity, the mistakes, etc. The pants themselves became a masterpiece with all those little colorful “comets” of paint made by the swipe of a finger. As a surprise to me, my husband took a pair of my old pants out of the throw away bin, added a piece of cloth at the bottom with some meaningful needlework and had them framed as a gift for my 25th anniversary in the business. What a unique piece of art. Being a Southerner at heart… it’s entitled Culah is Mah Liafe.
A mark of distinction
by Marion Barnett, Norfolk, UK
Nobody has offered me as much as tuppence for my painting trousers. However, there was one morning when I sneaked out early to the next village for a pint of milk, wearing my favourite paint-bedaubed jeans. There was a little girl and her granny in front of me in the queue. “Oh, Granny,” suddenly said this little voice. “That lady has paint on her trousers.” Granny looked embarrassed. I giggled. “Look,” said I, “I’ve got paint on my T-shirt, too!” “Ooooh,” she said. “And just look at your shoes!” “Mmm,” I said, “they’re good, aren’t they?” She grinned in a conspiratorial fashion. So did the rest of the shop. Clearly, the best people like paint spattered clothing.
by Jo B. Williams, Cumming, GA, USA
I was painting watercolors on location with two other artists. We broke for lunch and went into a convenience store for snacks. One of the artists wore white from head to foot and used her clothing as paint rags — a walking “Jackson Pollock.” The store clerk immediately pegged her as an artist and asked to see her work. Information was exchanged with the possibility of a future sale of artwork for her. The other artist and I looked like tourists and we were totally ignored. I learned a lesson that day: Looking like an artist is free advertisement! Paint-splattered clothes also seem to “give you permission” to paint freely and not worry about getting paint on them — one less thing to worry about while painting.
Looking the part
by Coulter Watt, Quakertown, PA, USA
I, like Rene Magritte, could paint in a suit and tie, but, don’t. Accidents happen, but I do paint over an old Persian rug. Real oil paint belongs on the palette, brush or canvas and, since I paint with mineral pigments for the most part and the cadmiums are highly poisonous, as is Lead White, etc., it’s best not to eat the paint or consume such pigments by trans-dermal ingestion. You are what you eat, so why be a toxic dump?
If you need to go to town covered in paint, might I suggest that one consider a visit to the shrink to discuss one’s need to proclaim “I’m an artist” to the public. Traditionally, artists have had a very privileged position in societies, but this is accomplished by their work, not paint splattered pants. Although, like a motorcycle they do grant you Instant Rebel Credentials and a huge negative stigma, too — like flake!
I bring this all up because there are serious health hazards to the materials we love so much and handling them properly will prevent you from dying a long, slow, painful death from lead or cadmium poisoning. Other health hazards of dirty old pants include boils and strange dogs nuzzling your crotch, both of which I can do without. But I am in complete sympathy with you about “the outfit.” I’ve just purchased a new article of clothing, a Birthday present to myself because my birthday is just a few days before Christmas and nobody is in the mood for birthdays. I bought a re-manufactured, replica of a WWII Navel flight suit from Duluth Trading CO. Now with my beret, scarf and new flight suit on I look like a Peugeot mechanic from Provence. It’s a whole new look for me, having recently discovered there is French blood in my veins.
Eccentricity comes from the mind and a playfulness about life and language, manifesting itself in real individualistic character. Soiled clothing equals “slob.” If you look like a starving artist, you’ll be one. That’s guaranteed, it’s in the fine print. People are often superficial and judge books by their covers. Any well-dressed individual who looks successful attracts success — a truism in all walks of life. People with money to spend are the buyers of art. If you look like a starving artist then some people will make a minor “pity purchase.” If you want to command high prices, then you’d better dress as though you command high prices and can afford the finer things in life, at least clean pants.
Moving studio out of the house
I currently am experiencing a dilemma. I am a full time painter and I have been renting a studio outside of my house as well as painting in my home studio. Neither studio is very conducive to the creation of art and I don’t know what to do. The studio that I rent is on the third floor, parking is difficult and the hours are limited on evenings, weekends and holidays, and I really like to paint at night. My home studio is too small and my wife does not want me taking over the house, in fact she wants me to paint in a studio away from the house.
Carrying stuff back and forth between two studios and up three flights of stairs is very difficult, there are no other studios to rent around here, and my wife does not want to move for five years until our youngest child moves out. This situation is causing my art to suffer and creating friction between my wife and I, and we have not yet found a solution. I would be interested in getting some feedback. I’m curious how others are dealing with these types of situations.
(RG note) Thanks Mark. I’m a believer in semi-detached studios on the home property—or at least within a short walking distance from your home. If there is any way of adding on to your home or developing your garage, or someone else’s garage—give this some thought. There’s an excellent design for inexpensively converting a garage into a studio in Ted Godwin’s Studio Handbook for Working Artists.
Linking up with a special day
by Brian Major, Blaine, WA, USA
Do you know of an Artist Day or Week recognized by the industry or government? A day observed or recognized by the US and set aside for art? I am working on a mural to be painted by 35+ children in Auburn, Washington located at the Supermall. This will be a wonderful experience for these kids, a time to remember. The date selected is the Saturday prior to President’s Day. But if there is a better time — Art Week, for instance, we would love to incorporate it.
(RG note) Thanks, Brian. While there is no national or international art day that I know of, there are all kinds of localized art weeks and art weekends, gallery crawls and walks that you might tie in with. September and October are the months in the Northern Hemisphere when thoughts of art seem to enter into public biorhythms. I’m told that Thanksgiving and Christmas are when the malls are most highly peopled. My experience with dealers and others trying to get art events to coincide with other significant events has been disappointing.
oil on panel
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2005.
That includes Peggy Small who wrote, “In Stephen Potter’s Potter on Gamesmanship: the Art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating, one of his many premises for discombobulating your opponent was “clothmanship” — in short form — dress like a pro if you’re a poor player, and like a slob if you’re a pro.”
And also Yaroslaw Rozputnyak of Moscow, Russia who wrote, “People with low intellectual labour possibilities tend the use of luxurious or expensive clothes after their job times — to compensate dirty labour clothes offensive and increase self-esteem.”
And also Lee Kirk of Eugene, Oregon who wrote, “I’m a used book and ephemera dealer, and on a mailing list devoted to this trade there is a gentleman who purchased Stephen Jay Gould’s pants at his estate sale, and who insists that his “Gould” pants bring him luck when he is book-scouting.”
And Mona Youssef of Ottawa, Ontario who wrote, “The less awareness we have of what is attached to our bodies, while painting, the better result would come out of a canvas. The only focus and connection should be between the imagination, the soul and the canvas.”
And Pam Weber of Calgary, Alberta who wrote, “Forget the pants, I love my aprons! A dear friend who lives in the U.K. sent me a glorious green canvas apron to mark my 40th birthday. That little apron saw me paint my way to a wonderful full-time career as an artist.”
And also Linda Holmes Richichi of Newburgh, NY who wrote, “When the smock or apron (for those hot summer days) is on, it is “creative play” time and this may assist me in keeping in the intuitive mode as long as possible.”
And Bev Rodin of Ontario, Canada who wrote, “I make a point of wearing slim fitting jeans when I am painting rher than sweat pants because they keep me slim. Just no room for added weight.”
And also Loraine Wellman of Richmond, BC who wrote, “My “artists’ uniform” is a lab coat, now interestingly worn and spattered. It was found about 20 years ago in a school science cupboard. No one claimed it and it became mine. It has a name tag that says “Mark.” I wear it to make my marks.”
And also Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki of Coquitlam, BC, Canada who wrote, “I have a three piece suite — a large cotton T-shirt, an old gray sweater and a pair of old grey stretchy pants. When it’s cold, I put the sweater on. When it’s hot, I take the pants off. Works great, and as you say, it keeps me in the studio.”
And also Robert Cerins who wrote, “I think your pant letter felt fun to write. I enjoyed the feeling immensely.”
(RG note) Thanks, Robert. As long as these letters feel fun to write and I have the feeling that they might be of use to somebody, I’ll continue to write them. I don’t really write them. Many of them just sort of arrive in my head and it’s a matter of sorting the parts out and placing the parts. When they are thus in construction I always feel there is lots that is being left out — stuff that is often the material for yet another one.