Doug MacBean of Toronto, Canada, wrote to ask a simple but profound question: “How does one keep from becoming discouraged with one’s style of painting after a long dry spell with no sales, and no interest from new galleries?”
In its various forms, this question is a frequent one, and no generic, one-size-fits-all-answer will do. Perhaps, in a spirit of giving, some of our readers can help. I’ve learned I have to take a considered look at an artist’s body of work in order to get an idea of what might be suggested. Doug’s is a difficult one because he’s a gifted artist with good colour and sound compositions. I’ve asked Andrew to include some of Doug’s art in the current responses so you can see what we’re dealing with.
Doug works in many media and with a wide variety of subjects. His years in advertising have given him the capacity to work in many styles. I think this might be the root of his problem. I think I know this because I’ve dealt with the same problem myself. While an artist’s interests and subject matter may vary widely and indeed be a tribute to his or her versatility, it’s important to focus on a relatively narrow range of work for each gallery approached. This can still permit versatility at home and yet provide focus for each commercial setting. Secondly, when an artist focuses, either consciously or unconsciously, his work is more likely to develop a greater depth of meaning and feeling. Right now Doug’s work is rather developing along the lines of facility. Facility, however brilliant, is not generally enough. Somehow Doug’s style-force has to develop further, to extend what he so obviously knows. Doug’s work needs an enriched “MacBeanness” that will engage him, as well as potential dealers.
How does one go about finding one’s extended self? It’s difficult. The hard fact is that we who compete are into survival of the fittest. In this squirrelly world there’s lots of competition for a limited number of cashews. Character and a steady hand are important, but there’s something else — a kind of elemental reconsideration. One needs to discover an inner well with a natural flow that takes one through an evolution of style — and more than anything it takes an ability to make work that doesn’t look like any other.
PS: “As you grow older, it dawns on you that you are yourself — that your job is not to force yourself into a style — but to do what you want.” (Beth van Hoesen)
Esoterica: Boxing day is a good day to reassess. It’s traditionally the day when you take back those gifts that you found were redundant. It’s also a day for rediscovering old values and inventing new ones. In our job, every day is a day of reassessment. Today, I’m wishing you the very best of creativity in this holiday season and beyond. Thank you for being my friend.
Change equals growth
by Scarlett Decker, San Manuel, AZ, USA
This topic had recently been foremost on my mind and in my life. My own solution was to work in another medium and I advise this. A painter in oils may wish to try alkyd, work 3-D, learn encaustic collage, etc. If nothing else, toss the paints to the back burner and draw, draw, draw — sepia, conte, charcoal, india ink, etc. Also, read, read, read. Old art magazines, artists (multi-genres such as Gerhardt Richter, Marcel Duchamp, etc.). I tried abstraction (I’m primarily narrative normally) and it had a freeing effect. I think the blockages are sometimes healing transitions so that we make a change. Change equals growth.
Rule of seven
by Sonja Donnelly, Lake Oswego, OR, USA
I took a master class four years ago from William A Harring in New Mexico. His advice was to “drop out” and paint eight hours a day in my studio, for three years. He said do not show or sell your work during that time, and to paint and draw something every day. This I did. I closed my display business, and dropped out of all art volunteer work, and anything else I could, and concentrated on improving my own art. It helped my work immensely. This last year I have started to enter competitions and have been accepted into a good number. The other thing that he told us is what he called the “rule of seven.” That is, a collector must see your work at least seven times in a credible situation for them to accept you as a serious artist. And I know this will take time and a lot of work. I just keep reminding myself “seven” and have patience. I have something worth sharing.
Believe in yourself
by Louise Corke, Southport, Australia
I find it an essential ingredient to always firmly believe in yourself and to love what you create despite the responses or lack of from the public at large. Keep doing what you do, just keep refining and in the long run you will become distinctively unique and of course your individual style and message will shine through touching someone’s heart somewhere. Who you are as a person is a very essential part of your paintings… so keep developing yourself as a person who makes a positive impact on the lives of others and you will naturally create paintings with impact that cannot be resisted. Sales are not always an indication as to whether your work is well received.
It will break for you
by Richard Tomkinson
Paint what makes you happy (or gives you the most satisfaction). And don’t paint what you think others want if it does not satisfy you. Do what you do best. Be it medium or style, we all have our strengths. As we need to have a focused and coherent work presence in any given gallery, the bottom line is, if you are in the grove doing your best work in a preferred medium and style with subject matter you know well, then just keep painting and showing… it will break for you.
Explore the Zen garden
by Julie Houck, Maui, HI, USA
I just finished looking at Doug’s site and was struck by the beauty and power of his landscapes. So often the answer is right in front of us. These are clearly his strongest images, the images where he knows himself the best. It is easy to muddle the collector’s eye with “too much.” The sculpture, drawings and figurative work, although interesting, lead us off on a visual pig trail. As artists, we are continually seeking to evolve and reinvent ourselves. Sometimes this means going outside of ourselves to discover something new. Most often, it is delving into what is already on our canvas and merely exploring the Zen garden.
Seen it before
by Henry de Jager, Morinville, AB, Canada
Doug’s work looks to me to be in a very gallery adapted style — perhaps it was the going thing some 10 years ago. Like we have seen it before. This guy may have to loosen up. Or get away from this style of painting. And perhaps he didn’t work on the foundation of the selling part. People don’t know the artist so no sales. I’m going through the same struggle. The wrong place. The wrong subject matter. The wrong time?
A tsunami of creativity
by Angela Tunner
My journey has lead me to reach several, as Oprah Winfrey would call them “ah-ha moments.” After years of trying, pushing and struggling, I was getting nowhere artistically and my style was all over the place. No sales, no interest. One day, both tired and frustrated, I surrendered and stopped pushing. Something amazing happened. Once I quieted down, I was washed over by a tsunami of creativity and my style seemed to come together overnight and flowed with great energy.
Looking for extended self
by Alan Taylor, Swan Valley, MT, USA
Like Doug MacBean I am going through a dry spell, in my case with limited edition hand-made relief paper-cast wall-hangings of beautiful half-squash, pumpkins, gourds, corn-on-the-cob, and other local vegetables, (or “Kitchen Essentials”… my series title). I know that these are beautiful, and that they are pretty well-rendered… but they do not sell, at either the local restaurants or at art-park shows where I present them. As Doug MacBean says, “How does one keep from becoming discouraged…?”
These paper casts of veggies and of bark-beetle carvings in conifer bark are “extensions” of my gypsum relief match-holder wall hangings, of which I have designed some 143, and sold some 3,000 in the world since 1986. The originals of these limited edition “match pokes” are freehand carvings in clay/wax of mountains, cabins, trees, and critters of the northern Rockies in Montana, and they sell pretty well, but my “extended self” has developed this passion for hand made paper reliefs… so very exciting to work with! So, obviously, I am looking for my “extended self.”
No snow here please
by Mona Vivar, Alabama, USA
As a manager of an art gallery and an artist myself I have learned that artists have to have an identifiable “look” to their paintings in order for those paintings to be sold. Doug’s six paintings could have been done by six different artists. I think Doug would see his work sell if he focused on one type of genre — whether it be landscapes, nudes, still life or whatever and then painted that one genre in one media. After a while he would gain great insight into what he wanted to express and how best to express it. Potential customers would then know a Doug MacBean painting the instant they saw one. He should also make sure that his paintings connect with people in the area where he is showing. Our gallery, for instance, is in the southern part of Alabama. I cannot sell any paintings depicting snow. People here do not connect to snow because we see it about once every 25 years or so and it only lasts a day. We are by the gulf and people like to see beach scenes, tropical colors and light. My best advice to Doug is to paint what he loves with great focus in the media that best suits him. Become an expert in that subject and media. Direct his paintings to those galleries or areas that serve people that are familiar with what he is depicting.
by Steve Hovland, San Francisco, CA, USA
Is Doug painting what he feels like painting? Has he lost touch with his passion? Rather than galleries contacting him, has he been contacting more galleries? Talk therapy is a good way to tap your deep energies.
by Jerry Waese
Lately people are telling me that my style has been changing (with curiosity — not complaint). Though I feel it is the same, maybe the medium or emphasis has shifted a bit. In truth, I have begun to prefer a palette knife over the brush lately, since it introduces more accidental color shapes to my acrylic figurative art work (also they are easier to clean and to use dirty too). These ongoing color accidents are exciting and drive me more frequently into an appreciative reassessment of the piece as a whole.
by Tricia Migdoll, Byron Bay, Australia
Sales? — what’s that? — Never had one, and still very happy painting. Seriously though, I do wish I could just paint and not have to think about making a living as well. Painting is the most joyous, rewarding, self-forgetting, spiritually enhancing thing I have ever done. If I had enough dollars, I would just paint, and paint and paint, and not care a hoot if I sold one or not. The most irritating thing in my life is to have to run a sourdough bread business — just so that I can afford to Paint — in my spare time. Tell your friend Doug to be a happy brilliant painter — though a pauper. I know what I would rather. If I were a really good painter, I would count my blessings and be happy.
Do what you have to do
by Karin Richter, Calgary, AB, Canada
I am one of those artists who consider this journey a never-ending one. I cannot imagine painting the same thing year in year out. That does not mean I condemn those who do. Excitement for a subject matter is of the essence. In my case, I get bored, I need new things to look at and new ways to explore subject matter. I have moved from being strictly a watercolourist to exploring acrylics, oils and pastels. Its all so much darned fun! Also, certain subject matter may call for a certain media to be effective. I find that after delving into different media for a while, your primary work may be revitalized and become stronger. It is probably best to keep work fairly consistent in a gallery setting but I have also found that customers appreciate and are intrigued by an artist’s versatility. When applying to galleries, however, it is best to show focus in one’s work. Much depends on the galleries you work with. Many want cookie-cutter work from their artists, others welcome an artist trying new things. You have to do what you have to do as an artist. You just have to find markets for your output!
Collaborate for refreshment
by Karen Fitzgerald, New York, USA
Recently, I have been using several collaborations as a source of refreshment. One was with a contemporary composer. It was partially funded by the Greenwall Foundation. I created 6 sixty-inch tondos. Charles Griffin composed 6 songs for small ensemble and solo voice. At the premier, the paintings were paired back to back and suspended above the audience. We collaborated through six poems — also contemporary, that address the human condition through natural and scientific metaphors. (Charlie set them to music and I used their phrasing and imagery in my paintings.)
Piece of the artist
by John Ferrie
Art is a luxury item and people are becoming more and more savvy at what they are buying. People are no longer looking to match the sofa (although I can and will do that). They want to live with a piece that is the essence of their existence. Buyers want to know about the journey an artist is on. What travels have they been on, what people have they met, even what food they have eaten to influence the message behind their work. A buyer wants to have a piece of the artist. If you are having a dry spell, take a trip, meet some new people, take a class, mix up some different mediums, work outside the envelope, try something different.
Work for joy
by Barbara Mason, Portland, OR, USA
I am a printmaker and for years worked with imagery from the cave drawings and rock carvings of early man. I was fascinated with them and devoted almost 20 years of my life to work inspired by them. Then I started working non-objectively, I think I just got tired of the petroglyphs one day and wanted something more. My work had always sold, slowly. But the new work comes from my soul and amazingly it is selling very well. I can’t seem to make it fast enough. It is also smaller, therefore a bit less money. I think maybe the combination of the two — I just don’t know. If there is one thing we all know, it is that we do not know why people buy art. I am having so much fun making this work. It is a great joy. So maybe that is the answer: if the work gives you great joy, others will feel it.
by Marney Ward, Victoria, BC, Canada
Artists have three main needs. First, to be true to our inner vision. Second, to achieve some measure of appreciation and acknowledgement as artists. Third, to make enough money to support ourselves and, possibly, our families. Ideally, if we focus on the first need, the others will follow.
by Henryk Ptasiewicz, St. Louis, MO, USA
It’s insidious, but you have to focus on one subject for gallery sales, or anything else in this business, for things to work. I can empathize with Doug because I too am interested in so much. It is hard to think of yourself as simply a painter or a sculptor or a designer, spending years trying to learn your craft, especially in this day and age. One week I build party props, the next I’m painting, the one after that I’m faux finishing — and I always have to be at the top of my game. I read art books and photography books, watch film and MTV, all to gain visual knowledge. But at the same time, as my mind races ahead, I try to emulate Picasso. He was always re-inventing himself, he was always exploring, and my thinking is that he was right to do so. We can’t all be him, but I too need to express myself in more than one way, and the compromise that I live with is that the production of work is cumulative; nothing is produced in isolation and everything contributes something to the next piece. This is the payoff that compensates for the original premise.
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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, 2003.
That includes Patty Harrison of Surrey, England, who wrote, “Boxing day in the UK is when the Lords and Ladies prepare boxes of gifts for their servants.”
And also Roger Doyle who wrote, “When we’re young they tell us not to put all our eggs in one basket. When we get older we realize that if we have too many irons in the fire then some will cool.”