It’s a curious subject that’s seldom discussed and surprisingly poorly understood. The idealists and the practical are at odds about it, but it’s really neither good nor bad — it just is.
I’m talking about “the look” in popular art. Art is a commodity joined at the hip to an artist’s name. That the name is recognized from the work is both its beauty and its curse.
Here’s one example out of thousands. Mark Rothko’s work is pretty well universally known. Anyone with a smattering of interest or knowledge can pick one out from across a crowded MOMA. Both curators and commoners use words like “soft-edged,” “repetitious,” “simple,” “ethereal,” and “consistent,” to describe Rothko’s work. That’s what people know about Rothko. On the other hand, figurative and exploratory work by him is hardly known and seldom collected. Rothko is not just a painting that looks like what a Rothko should look like, it’s a brand, and like the wealthy woman who needs a Louis Vuitton purse, well-endowed galleries feel the need to have a Mark Rothko.
The condition isn’t limited to the herd-instinct of Public Galleries. That little gallery down highway 101 in Humptulips also plays a role in branding the look. Joe Schmaltz’s landscapes need to look like other Joe Schmaltz landscapes. Your local art-collecting orthodontist needs to have seen something like it before. It takes a mighty evolved orthodontist to seek out the more unusual Schmaltzes. Evolved orthodontists are as rare as perfectly straight teeth.
Whether they admit it or not, both the lofty curator and the modest collector see work as a product and have finite expectations for it. Going beyond those expectations upsets their understanding of the particular brand they’re looking at. So much for an artist’s versatility, varied skills, complex abilities and eternal exploration.
Problems arise when one artist appropriates the look of another artist. If the look is simple to produce, and many looks are, multiple galleries can become glutted. Overproduction of a look leads to devaluation. Such is the circular nature of looks.
PS: “Such laboured nothings in so strange a style,
Amaze th’ unlearn’d, and make the learned smile.” (Alexander Pope)
Esoterica: I’d like to apologize to many of our readers. With the inordinate amount of travelling I’ve been up to this summer, more that three thousand emails asking specific questions have built up. While I’m working at it, some of these may never be answered personally or in the twice-weekly letter. I’m both sorry and honoured. However, the subject of artistic consistency and uniformity of style was a common thread in a lot of the emails I’ve looked at so far. It seems some artists strive for consistency, while others shun it.
Brand recognition matters
by Coulter Watt, Quakertown, PA, USA
“The Look” is an excellent description of art as commodity and the value of an artist’s style. The consistent style of work is something an established artist must progress from in steps to move forward. Making a radical change upsets the apple cart, the herd mentality of dealers and collectors. If a radical change isn’t loved, the people say the artist has “lost it.” The “it” is what people came to love and purchase — the expected look, the style, the voice. Inconsistent style or unrecognizable look is the hallmark of amateurs who lack command of their skills and/or lack of vision and intellectual content in the conceptual aspect of their work. It’s also the mark of an artist who hasn’t found their style yet and that’s not brandable or bankable. The creative act happens on an easel. Remove a painting from the easel and it becomes a commodity. Framing and placing the work in a gallery places it into the world of business. Yes, art is a business and brand recognition matters.
Room for experimentation
by Karen McLaughlin, Philadelphia, PA, USA
I do agree that well known artists can get stuck into a certain style category. When I went to see a recent Dali show I was blown away by the breadth of his style. I was never a huge fan of his surrealist paintings, perhaps it was overexposure, but I fell in love with his later work. I was also impressed with his technical abilities (another Genn hammer-home philosophy). I remember having a conversation with the artist Susan Howard about that very same thing. She wanted to move forward into new subject matter, but her gallery affiliations only wanted her signature animal paintings as they knew that they would sell. If you think about it, that’s probably a real ego killer, as nobody has any confidence that your new work will sell. On the plus side that leaves plenty of room for experimenting amongst us poor, unknown artists! So go crazy!
Push aesthetic boundaries
by Mark Nordell, Deerwood, MN, USA
I certainly walk into very generic galleries. Yes, I make my little tour about. I see if there is someone in the shop that is engaging and then I leave. Does that make me more evolved than the next person, more aesthetically inclined? I think not. Yes, I too would hope that attorneys, roofers, clergy and people who sell used cars, in other words — everyone — would push at their aesthetic boundaries. However, to consider one more evolved than the next person, leads down a slippery and condescending slope. Or as they said back in the hippy days, “Different strokes for different folks.”
Recognizing style, not subject matter
by Nina Allen Freeman, Tallahassee, FL, USA
I think there is more than one way to look at this question of the look. I searched for a long time for a look or a subject that could become marketed as prints or cards and uniquely connected with me. I now learn that people who know my work can recognize it any where.
I know artists who win awards consistently with paintings of a certain subject or a certain look. They, of course, are technically very high quality, but their look is known instantly. The drawback is that these artists are expected to forever paint their look and never change if they want to get into exhibitions or sell paintings. I would think this could be boring and stagnant. If you paint all over the spectrum, different subjects and styles, collectors become confused. I think they want to know what to think of you; what you are about, more than technical ability. They want to know what you have to say as an artist. Only I know the answer to this for me; to try to do the best work I can while speaking from my heart.
Resisting recognizable style
by Dyan Law, Pipersville, PA, USA
What limitless wonderment could we realize if artists had NO recognizable look or style? Soft-edged is hard-edged, repetitious is random, simple is complicated and detailed, ethereal is direct and real, consistent is haphazard or — heaven forbid — a little of everything! Were Picasso, Rothko and Mondrian boring and untalented when they cranked-out their earlier representational, figurative works? Not in my opinion.
Isn’t “recognizable style” for the expectations of the general public, visa vie galleries, a bit over-rated? At the risk of sounding naive, it could be refreshing to find artists who are (or strive to be) just simply excellent at what they do, persistent, dedicated and honest. By producing Art which isn’t sensational, message-bearing, gimmicky, way-cool, violent, or bloody; simply ART for art’s sake!
Marketing drives the interest
by Barney Davey, Scottsdale, AZ, USA
Your take on “The Look” is as usual pithy and on point with a hint of controversy. Controversial to the extent some artists take issue with the notion of their art being commoditized. There is no way of getting around the fact that art-making is a business if the artist seeks to make a living from their creativity. I have current guest blog on Absolute Arts titled, Art vs. Marketing — Making Hazel Dooney Cringe. The major point is that art is about expression. Without an audience, expression is not complete or satisfying. Marketing in its broadest sense drives the interest that completes the expression. As you point out, sometimes successful marketing means creating more of the same despite the desire and ability to do something really different. Some artists I’ve known use different names to sell their much different “looks” to competing galleries and publishers. While this won’t work for every artist, it is one solution that satisfies the creative urge that also brings in more money.
Same colour palette, different styles
by Janet Lee Sellers, Monument, CO, USA
You recently wrote,”It seems some artists strive for consistency, while others shun it.” I do both. I strive for consistency, only to overdose and then shun it. My studio is loaded with experiments, mostly enjoyable, and all on their way to a finish of some sort. Recently, I put up about 40 paintings on my studio wall from the last 3 decades. It looked like there were a bunch of different people’s works up on display. The singular consistency was that I used the same pot colors over and over in different ways, some in direct, unmixed color, and some had glazes piling up to in a hundred layers. My conflict of consistency vs. exploration is perhaps the only consistent factor in my art life. Oddly, while the stylistics of my work change around a lot, my palette of colors remains relatively the same, and I like to use colors right out of the pot. My darks are most frequently dioxazin purple and lights hansa yellow or white. My medium tones are most often red or blue. I remember clearly the day I realized I only had 3 colors to choose from in my crayon set of 64 pieces; everything leaned one way or another to the primaries. From then on, hue was irrelevant to me, and I worked from values.
by Nina Meledandri, New York, NY, USA
I don’t believe that Rothko is a good example of “the look.” His mature style was abstract, not figurative. While it was specific and identifiable it was never formula. This is a man who, in the midst of producing some of the most powerful and evocative images of the 20th century, killed himself because he thought his work might not have true meaning. This was not someone in control of his product, this was a man driven by self-exploration, self-doubt and pushing the visual boundaries of his time.
Keep collectors guessing
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA
As a Florida landscape painter, I suppose my ‘look’ is the unique freehand realism I bring to palm trees. I do find that many of my collectors seem to enjoy acquiring examples of every genre I like to work with. I hear it all the time, “We’ve got one of your Ireland paintings, a Caribbean scene, a figurative piece, and an architectural study. One of these days, we’re going to have to finally have one of your palm trees, but now we want this still life!” Having a brand, or being a brand, might be good for business, but I’d die of boredom. My collectors recognize and value the freedom I express in my choice of subject. It gives them a reason to keep coming back to the studio. “Now what are you up to!”
by Cathy Johnson, MO, USA
The whole branding concept makes me nuts. I know it IS, I know it exists, I know you’re right, and because of that I know I would starve if I depended only on those buying my work — just as I would shrivel and die if I tried to narrow my focus on “the Cathy Johnson look,” whatever that is.
Creativity is simply too exciting and challenging, to me. I can’t corral it to a single look or style or medium — in truth, I don’t think I have a style, though people tell me they can recognize my work. There is too much that delights me and makes my fingers itch to capture it to try to force my square peg into that round hole of buyer approval and branding. I paint landscapes, people, animals, botanicals, architectural scenes and whatever else captures the light in a way that delights my eye. I use watercolours, acrylic, pen and ink, graphite, or whatever seems to suit the subject or my mood. It would be too boring to contemplate otherwise, and creativity, making art, should never, ever bore the artist.
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Following his own path to success
by Phyllis Rauch, Jocotepec, Mexico
I’m certain my late husband, artist Georg Rauch would have agreed with you wholeheartedly. When he returned from the trenches and prison camps of Russia following WWII, the accepted “looks” in Vienna were either abstract expressionism, or the Wiener Schule. They were a group of artists painting a kind of miniature, fantastic surrealism.
Neither of these looks, which many ran to copy, satisfied Georg’s deep need to paint, in his own way, the effects of a horrible war on an 18 to 21 year old’s sensibilities. He left Europe in the sixties for the US and later Mexico, always determinedly following his own path. In spite of avoiding the sought after modes and styles, Georg successfully made a living as a professional artist for over fifty years. He painted over 2000 oils as well as creating hundreds of drawings, watercolours, serigraphs, and kinetic sculptures. I hope many other young artists will be able to find the courage to follow his lead. He was one of the happiest and most fulfilled men I’ve ever met, because every day of his life he lived his dream and painted only that which he needed and wanted to express.
(RG note) Thanks Phyllis. Readers will enjoy reading Georg’s book The Jew with the Iron Cross, A Record of Survival in WWII Russia translated by Phyllis Rauch. Georg survived the German Eastern Front retreat and a Russian POW camp while his mother hid Jews in their Viennese attic.
Finding one’s distinctive voice
by Bill Hibberd, Summerland, BC, Canada
It is interesting to contemplate our choices and methods as we create art. As I stand before my canvas I seem to be struggling to discover a personal language. I’m all too aware that there is nothing truly new under the sun and yet I try to sift through my observations of other artists, nature itself and the occasional accidental discovery in the hope of finding my own voice. I think another reason I search for a consistent “language” is because it is so difficult to be always beginning with each new painting, never knowing how I will begin or proceed through the process. It will be reassuring to have a familiar point of departure and methodology.
Revisiting the past
by Rod Mackay, Lunenburg, NS, Canada
Artists, dealers and collectors frequently tell me, “I know your work.” I can’t see how that this is possible as I have a body of work stretching back five decades. I don’t even have a complete understanding of what I have done. I have never had time to record more than a few hundred images. This led me to think about my long ago career as a newspaper cartoonist, moments of producing commercial art (in particular pen-and-ink illustrations for books) and even creating work meant for tombstones. All quite different from some of the surrealist stuff I was doing for amusement and from the “folk art” painting of game boards and sea chests back in 1960s). I even had a flirtation with abstract and non-objective art.
Of course, I know they mean the “current look” which until recently has included landscape, marine and floral images. Having just moved to Nova Scotia, I think I unconsciously picked up on what other artists were producing here. I have recently recalled that I once had a reputation for painting realistic figures which dominated their landscapes. I have now gone back to the future and restarted this interest.
Working to find your brand
by Claudia Roulier
I think artists should brand themselves, once you have done that 1000th painting, it should belong to you, you should own it, for better or worse. I work in several mediums and I now have people tell me they know when they see a Roulier, no matter if it’s a painting or an assemblage. Artists brand themselves, it can’t be helped.
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oil painting 16 x 20 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 Sally Jackson of Oakville, ON, Canada who wrote, “I’ve been told commercial galleries look for consistency, a body of work, a series that shows you can — unsaid — paint the same damned thing over and over again.”
And also Joseph Jahn of Denmark who wrote, “My ‘style’ goes all over the place. I recognized this early as a handicap to sales. But you know, following the great tradition of Picasso, that’s for others to deal with. Let others bore themselves with great sales and dull times in the studio.”
And also Randy Bosch of Jackson Hole, WY, USA who wrote, “Wow! You must have had a seriously bad day to produce this rant. Have a cookie and pet your cat.”
And also Anonymous who wrote, “I have had a lot of visits to a local dentist recently who has an office filled with abstracted art. All of which I see teeth in — from teeth-shaped trees to teeth-shaped landscape. I wonder what gynaecologists put up on their walls — Judy Chicago?”
Enjoy the past comments below for The look…