Yesterday, Clyde Steadman of Denver, Colorado wrote, “Recently I went to an opening by one of my favorite artists. Three or four of the paintings were absolutely top notch. Most of the rest didn’t rise to the same level. Since I don’t have too much gallery pressure right now, I resolved to go back to my studio and destroy a bunch. How do you manage the challenges of supplying paintings to all your dealers while keeping your work at a high level? Do paintings slip by? Do you sometimes cringe when you see them in galleries?”
Thanks, Clyde. Good news. The better artists worry about this the most.
Here are a few thoughts.
Catch losers early. You need to get your ducks in a row fairly early on in the process. While intuition, passion and creative energy are all important, particularly at the beginning of a work, try to do a quick look-see where the work is liable to take you. Thinking ahead warns of pictorial traps, creative boondoggles, substandard work and terminal cringes.
Take time to look and see. You need to systematically vet on a secondary easel. Really check things out–morning and night, tired and fresh, relaxed and tense, under several moods, several lights. Over a period of time the bad stuff just miraculously appears, and you’re properly propelled to fix the stuff. Prematurely shipped art kills artists.
Get them back. From time to time it’s a good idea to cruise dealers’ sites. The above methods can fail you for a variety of reasons. Ask nicely to have things sent back. Dealers understand this and appreciate it. You have a couple of choices. You may destroy the work or try to rework it. Sometimes you can make them better with just a few strokes.
And yes, the golden rule is not to send substandard work out in the first place. Shows, dealer pressure and too many galleries can degrade your quality. To keep your standards high you need to learn to be an ever-vigilant, ever-dedicated student of your own product. Your destiny depends on it.
PS: “All is measured by that relative term quality. It is in this search for quality that the artist is, of necessity, the eternal student.” (Rex Brandt, 1914-2000)
Esoterica: Particularly during the holiday season when you go around to the homes of acquaintances, you see two main kinds of your art: That which you wish they had never bought, while bothersome, also brings the possibility that you’re improving. And then you see work that looks pretty darned good. This brings the uncomfortable thought that you might be getting worse. I saw one like that last week that the folks had bought 26 years ago. I took it with me to clean for them, but I also needed to study it to see what I was up to in 1984.
The value of multiples
by Jon Rader Jarvis, Vashon Island, WA, USA
The pressure to show less than the best comes from our shared difficulty in producing enough work. A mentor from years past had the perfect solution. For every good image idea there are at least 5 variations in scale, color or viewpoint that will multiply our output. One will stand out to save back for our own collection, competitions or for museum donations to make our name, the rest will supply at least 4 additional one man shows and provide more than enough work. Try it! It has worked for me for 25 years!
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Lesser works first to sell
by Sonia Gadra, Frederick, MD, USA
I recently participated in a mini works table show and sale. I spent many weeks creating a body of work in order to have a good inventory. I was very pleased with the end result of some of my creations but others were not as good. I almost excluded the pieces I was not too happy with but needing to have enough pieces to get me through the day, I took everything I had to the show. To my surprise, the pieces that I didn’t like as much were the most popular and the ones that sold. This has happened to me several times during a show, so how do you decide what is your best work and what is inferior? Isn’t it all a matter of personal taste?
(RG note) Thanks, Sonia. It’s called the “Fickle Hand of Commerce” and it drives us all nuts. But after a while your own opinion of your work outweighs commercial and obligational decisions, and your customers have to struggle with your taste, not theirs. As P.T. Barnum said, “Nobody ever lost a buck underestimating the taste of the American public.” Also attributed to H. L. Mencken: “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.”
Landscape and figurative standards
by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA
Most of us would like to think everything we do is the best we can do. I find landscape artists guilty of sending out inferior work. Many feel that a landscape is “flexible” or doesn’t have to be perfectly painted which is a big mistake. This is not to say landscapes are poorly painted, it’s just that artists can “fudge” it and believe it’s okay. Figurative artists have a different problem. There is a certain kind of figure work galleries will tolerate. Don’t send your uncle Harry’s portrait to the gallery, it will be rejected. I have been guilty of sending those “girl in a chair” poses early on in my life, ( I’d love to get them back) but I began to realize galleries and buyers don’t want you niece Suzie or your daughters in their homes. So pose and setting is paramount for a successful figure. I now try to rarely show a face and make the pose relaxed as if I could be depicting the subject unawares. This seems more acceptable to everyone. There are three word that will almost guarantee success every time — quality, quality and quality.
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Ill fated from the outset
by Amanda Jones, Richmond, BC, Canada
“Catch the losers early” I think this is the best advice I have heard in a while. I will replay those words over in my mind as I evaluate new pieces. If I had a dollar for every time that I had slogged on despite the nagging little voice saying — ITS NOT WORKING! — but then the other little voice says — BUT I CAN MAKE IT WORK! I have wasted more time on paintings that were ill fated from the outset. The more I paint the more I realize that the early stages are so important. The foundation has to be strong. Often I will have a strong emotional response to a subject and I don’t take the time to create a strong structure to hang that emotion on. I am working now towards slowing down and being more considered in my approach.
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Substandard work on the market
by H Margret, Santa Fe, NM, USA
Good subject, the cringe factor. Still, looking at work by the masters, such as Picasso, Matisse,etc, one sees works that have not resolved well or as well as their best works. Maybe less resolved work is an arrow to a new direction. Of course, it’s better not to show these works, but sometimes seeing unengaged response is good feedback for the artist. I agree that it’s best not to have a lot of these less resolved paintings out in public. Recently I saw a painting by Manet in a master work show of a burned out church, painted in 1912… it was a bare sketch and completely tonal, yet brilliantly descriptive. No way would the market have bought it then, but it is a painting lesson for us even today. So, sometimes an apparently unresolved piece has its place.
(RG note) Thanks, Margaret. It’s a fact of life that after a while the public will buy even the substandard works of a well known or popularized artist.
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Sending a card as gift and test
by Theo Nelson, Alberta, Canada
I send out, both by snail-mail and e-mail, a quarterly postcard relating to the season at hand. A painting on the front and a little poem on the backside. I have been doing this for a number of years. I send out these cards with no expectations other than I hope the recipient is brought to smile upon finding the card. The only philosophical underpinning of all my work is just that, get a smile and that philosophy would be at the bottom end of a list of priorities regarding what I do.
My own art experience would seem to closely resemble a number of your mailings on the subject of things to think about and try not to do. :) I have often thought about commenting on some of observations and feelings you’ve posted by artists at the time but, I’m easily distracted. There was one letter from an artist who was questioning his very existence after a long time of painting and having nothing to show for it but a very large collection of his paintings and his spouse berating him. Minus the berating I go through that particular self analysis all the time. As I say occasionally in my newsletter, “Art is a monkey on my back beating me a large heavy crayon. Probably sky-blue.” I’ve come to accept the monkey as it only tells me to create. It thankfully doesn’t require me to make a living as I would have offed myself a long time ago.
The trap of comparison
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
I usually cringe when I see my paintings at galleries. I think it is a healthy reaction. I’m not where I want to be with my painting and I see the flaws in each one. It’s the balancing act all artists must take part in. You shouldn’t be in love with every painting you do. On the flip side, you shouldn’t be beating yourself in the head because you fail to achieve your view of perfection either. Value the effort over the result. Then you can get rid of old paintings without the negativity and see the good as well as the bad. I’ve also found that galleries are not the optimum place to view art or to judge the success or failure of paintings. Your writer falls into the dangerously common trap of comparison. He deems certain paintings top notch and compares the rest to those and assesses them accordingly. Now he takes this biased lens and shines it on his own work. Each painting is a solo entity. Many times when I have taken a painting out a gallery door, I’ve seen the painting ‘come to life.’ It’s because the painting has a chance to stand on its own without this heavy burden of comparison. The painting improves because the context in which it is viewed improves. A painting never looks its best at an art gallery! Professional artists have to produce a lot of work. We all have a certain ‘average’ performance. Some paintings will rise above the ‘average,’ some will fall under the average and it is those we would be wise to cull. As we continue to paint, our average performance improves and raises our own expectations and expectations of others. I read a story about Monet, who met a dealer who had one of his old paintings and wanted to trade it for a new one. Monet looked at the painting the dealer brought for a moment and then said ‘yes, that is a monster, indeed’ and put his foot through the canvas! He then required the dealer to buy a new one! As artists we are both creators and destroyers. Both are essential parts of a greater process.
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Letting the market decide
by Sandra Jones, NJ, USA
I think most of us would agree that art is very subjective, and what might appeal to one person may not to another (one man’s trash is another man’s treasure?) I have found that while I may not be happy or like a painting that I did, that someone else might find it really exciting. An example… I have prints made of my work, all are the same size, same price. At a show a client had pulled 5 pieces out and had them lined up trying to decide which to buy. I walked around to see what they had chosen and I only liked 2 of what they had. I swear that they had pulled what I would consider 3 of my worst pieces! They ended up buying 2 of those “worst”. Being that they were all priced the same, it meant that they really had to like those pieces! So, was I wrong in putting out what I would have considered substandard? They would have missed out on 2 pieces of art if I had. In art shows I have constantly heard of artists who entered two pieces and the one that they felt was the better/stronger piece either got rejected or was the one that didn’t get the award. So, what is the difference between substandard, and “bad” taste in art?
Never thought he’d take it so seriously
by Randall Cogburn, Alvin, Texas, USA
That’s pretty neat to find your work from the past hanging on someone’s wall. At first I thought you were going to wreck your old painting due to the “what in the world was I painting back then thought.” So, after reading this letter I thought about all the drawings and such on my blog that everyone could see if they felt inclined to page through it all. I have at least 500 or so drawings and paintings and if I thought I’d ever be doing that many I’d say no way. I’d say about 50% of it is what I’d say not worthy of the fridge. 25% is worthy of the fridge but not good enough for the wall. 15% is worthy of the wall. What I’m getting at is do you think I should just weed it all out? It’s a tough decision. I’m not sure if I want to weed it all out. Maybe I should just make a separate website for the good stuff but that sounds stupid to me since people can still see all the rest. Eeeeeeeeek. I never thought I’d take this art thing seriously it was just something neat to do but I guess it’s coming to a point where it’s hanging on the edge of being inside the radar of things I really want to do. I’m one of those people that does something and easily gets distracted by something else.
Enjoy the past comments below for The cringe factor…
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 Bruce Winning of Toronto Ontario, who wrote, “I’ve worked very hard this year and have decided I am not working any more in 2010. I’ll be back at my station on Jan. 3, 2011. I hope you have a happy holiday season and that Santa is good to you all.”