Cheap advice


Dear Artist,

Last Sunday I gave an artist’s talk. There was standing room only in the small museum where my retrospective exhibition is being held. Some people had to stand out in the hall where they couldn’t hear, so I’m giving it a repeat this coming Sunday.

Forsythia, April, 1976 oil on Masonite 16 x 17 3/4 inches by Lois Dodd (b.1927)

Forsythia, April, 1976
oil on Masonite
16 x 17 3/4 inches
by Lois Dodd (b.1927)

I’ve tried to figure out the usefulness of the talk convention, and what others might be getting out of it. Most who attended were artists, but there were quite a few collectors as well. I kept my talk to one hour — including spirited audience interaction. To me, the main value of these events is to put a human face on creative comings and goings.

There were note-takers who asked about brands of paint, and how early in the morning I got started. (Golden and early.) And then there were those who needed anecdotes about specific paintings. (I keep ’em short.) As usual, when I offered to help and mentor people, the keener ones left their cards and said they would send me their jpegs. As I give my advice for free, no one complains about the price.

By Monday night there were a dozen packets of jpegs in my inbox. Some people included platinum prose with high-aiming personal ideals and visions; others were merely looking for practical advice. Here, in part, is one of my responses:

Water Gap, March, 2003 oil on masonite 14 x 16 inches by Lois Dodd

Water Gap, March, 2003
oil on masonite
14 x 16 inches
by Lois Dodd

“It’s only an opinion but I find your work a bit stiff and pasty. It might be improved by loosening up and softening some edges. Perhaps estrange yourself from the camera for a few dozen paintings. I consider them to be competent and professional — good commercial-type illustrations — but perhaps more magic and intrigue are needed. A background in commercial art can be a detriment if you are on a search for feeling and creative impact. Go for a while with instructors who don’t paint as you do. Regarding your questions on marketing, keep painting and try to perfect your personal direction and creative processes. Good luck, and please feel free to send more at any time.”

A bit tough, possibly, but it is, after all, only an opinion. The weird thing is that I sent very similar responses to four different painters. In light of the big picture and the long history of art, how valid are these opinions? Am I guilty of mouthing some current fashion or — worse — my personal prejudices? What’s going on?

Best regards,


PS: “Dream lofty dreams, and as you dream, so shall you become. Your vision is the promise of what you shall one day be; your ideal is the prophecy of what you shall unveil.” (James Allen)

Lois Dodd in Cushing, Maine, 2014

Lois Dodd in Cushing, Maine, 2014

Esoterica: The convention of the artist talk employs two-directional curiosity. In this age of individual empowerment, the art-talker looks out at a sea of fellow sailors. The interaction business is a ship unto itself. We trade each other’s moxie and lean on the supposed wisdom of perceived authorities. The brotherhood and sisterhood is alive and well. Knowledge is power, and the desire for the joy of private creation is viral. Getting out of the rat race is now a religion.

This letter was originally published as “Cheap Advice” on February 16, 2007.

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  1. Oh the braveness of offering honest advice. It is of great value and priceless if married to the painter’s intention. Otherwise, pebbles rolling on the surf of a west coast beach are likely of more use in providing fresh insight and direction. There is one exception – “keep painting and try to perfect your personal direction and creative processes.” This advice always hits the mark! In a world where there is an expectation that “we get there” or “we succeed” or “we triumph” painting is at odds, an anomaly. I suspect that as long as I can hold a brush I shall be curious, learning, exploring and somehow finding myself at the beginning of the next grand adventure… a novice by design, or a quirk of fate.

    • Terrill Welch, I’m so glad you expounded on that “one exception” because I became aware that I find that open, endless road a wonderful, inspiring comfort. Never heard anyone point it out as such. Did me good to hear it! I guess I heartily approve of cheap advice — thank you.

  2. I would so have loved to receive feed-back on my creations from Robert. The fact that he is so forthcoming on his opinions is really refreshing to say the least… bones, just facts derived from his astute observation and his own life’s experiences especially and mainly in art. One could truly trust his opinion. My message to Robert: “You are so missed, Robert. I’ll meet you one of these days when it’s my time and maybe we’ll have a chance to chat about art…..a true love of both of ours.”

    • I too am painting and not following a photograph etc. What a difference! However, what a path strewn with disposed of work and hours of playing around with the paints and paper but arriving nowhere! However, I keep doing it, and it is a fascinating way to work. Sometimes I a gem pops up.
      They say “plan in advance” and “do the thumbnails”. I prefer the unbeaten path that leads who knows where?
      I try to follow Robert’s advice and almost always agree with it. What a treasure. Thank you Sara.

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