The cringe factor

Dear Artist, 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?”

“Under the Bridge”
oil painting, 24 x 36 inches
by Clyde Steadman

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.

oil painting, 16 x 20 inches
by Clyde Steadman

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.

“Quiet Morning”
acrylic painting 20 x 24 inches
by Robert Genn, 1984

Best regards, Robert 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.   Clyde Steadman

oil painting
30 x 20 inches


oil painting
20 x 16 inches


“Leg warmer”
oil painting
18 x 24 inches


“On the couch”
oil painting
20 x 16 inches


“Derby Elbow”
oil painting
9 x 12 inches


“Swing time”
oil painting
16 x 20 inches


“Piano trio”
oil painting
18 x 24 inches


“Piano Trio: Opus 2”
oil painting
24 x 36 inches

            The value of multiples by Jon Rader Jarvis, Vashon Island, WA, USA  

“George’s Seven”
acrylic painting
by Jon Rader Jarvis

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! There is 1 comment for The value of multiples by Jon Rader Jarvis
From: Cheryl O — Dec 26, 2010

Thanks for sharing this tip – it’s inspiring!

  Lesser works first to sell by Sonia Gadra, Frederick, MD, USA  

“Yellow Flowers & Red Apples”
original painting
by Sonia Gadra

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  

oil painting
by Rick Rotante

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. There are 2 comments for Landscape and figurative standards by Rick Rotante
From: Sara Filacci — Dec 23, 2010

Another winner. I love your figure work. The last few you’ve shown are outstanding. Keep up the good work.

From: Bob Hanson Jr. — Dec 23, 2010

I have to second Sara’s words. You put your money where your mouth is that’s for sure. There is an obvious love of subject which is reflected in your work. Even if this were your relative, it’s a terrific example of what you’ve said.

  Ill fated from the outset by Amanda Jones, Richmond, BC, Canada  

“Quiet Shores”
acrylic painting
by Amanda Jones

“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. There is 1 comment for Ill fated from the outset by Amanda Jones
From: Marsha Hamby Savage — Dec 24, 2010

Very Well Said!!!!! And I will follow the same advice! Thanks for saying it again. Love the acrylic painting also.

  Substandard work on the market by H Margret, Santa Fe, NM, USA  

“Tree of life”
original painting
by H Margret

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. There is 1 comment for Substandard work on the market by H Margret
From: Darrell Baschak — Dec 24, 2010

I am quite struck with this painting of yours, it is “eye catching” and engaging. Well done.

  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  

“Thunder Hill Explosion”
pastel painting
by Paul deMarrais

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. There is 1 comment for The trap of comparison by Paul deMarrais
From: Marsha Hamby Savaage — Dec 24, 2010

Paul, thank you for the thought about an artist’s “average” paintings. These are what we do on a daily basis. And the fact that the “average” becomes better as we practice and learn. I like this concept. And the idea that of course, we create what I would call knock-outs and drop-outs also. The knock outs is what we are stiving for! But to believe they will be the norm every day, who do we think we are? right? Love this philosophy, thanks.

  Letting the market decide by Sandra Jones, NJ, USA  

“Batsto II”
original painting
by Sandra Jones

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  

“Morning stop”
original painting
by Randall Cogburn

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.    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for The cringe factor

From: Rene Wojcik — Dec 21, 2010

Clyde, I like your work. It is well done and should sell. However, you perhaps should live in a market such as New York rather than Denver. Is the work you do something people in Denver would buy? Go to Gallery open-house events to see what flies off the wall. This may give you a clue. If you want to sell your work you have to be the best artist you can be. When you go fishing, you bait the hook with what the fish are eating, not what you eat. Re-look at your subject matter. One last thought….. Is the economy in the Denver area depressed? That might just be a large part of the problem.

From: Darla — Dec 21, 2010

What about the paintings that are technically good, but make you cringe because they are too transparent a window into what you were thinking when you painted them? Some of my old paintings make me wonder that I was ever that unsophisticated and shallow. Or maybe just young. Will I think the same thing in the future about the things I’m painting now? Yechh!

From: Dwight — Dec 21, 2010

Years ago I had a relationship with a gallery owned and run by a woman who would not accept work from her artists that was, in her mind, not up to that artist’s standards. She knew what she was doing and was always right. There were several times in those younger days of mine that she simply told me not to leave something with her. She required at least two new pieces per month from her artists and we were to remove anything that had been there three months unless she requested that we leave something longer. She sold well for her artists and none of us seemed to have trouble with her judgement. Not many gallery owners have the guts or knowledge to do what she did, but it worked for us.

From: John Ferrie — Dec 21, 2010

Artists should always work beyond what they already know. That is the key to being creative. These days an artist needs to have 25 SOLID and strong pieces ready to go before a gallery will even consider taking their work. There needs to be a through-line in a collection showing the artists creative voice. What an artist needs to watch out for is the “onesy-twosy’s” where an artist has a fluke and brings in a stunning new piece where there is a complete 360 degree change. Then they can keep trying to shoot arrows in the sky and bring in this or that and nobody, including the artist, really knows what is going on. Making your work a collection and treating their career like a business is the key to a happy artist and a gallery that can carry their work with confidence. John Ferrie

From: Tinker — Dec 21, 2010

Then there’s always the thought that “One mans’ (artist’s) trash , is another man’s treasure.” Who can figure a buyer?

From: Jen Crowell — Dec 21, 2010

I feel as though I let go of my best, most precious pieces. I miss them and am sad they are no longer with me. I should be happy that they were appreciated and purchased. But there is a huge interior of me that wishes for them to come home.

From: Jan Ross — Dec 21, 2010

I really, really like Clyde’s artwork and how he captures ‘a moment in time’ in his models’ lives. His choice of colors capture the energy of his subjects, as well. These paintings really hold my interest and make me want to study them, as well as just enjoying them as paintings. Isn’t that why we artists create? Thanks for posting these lovely works! Kennesaw, GA

From: Edna V. Hildebrandt — Dec 21, 2010

Perhaps to a viewer some works may not look as good as others but then it is subjective.One person may differ in there perception.I agree that the best critic of ones work is the artist himself.He would have to carefully review what he is doing periodically to analyze if there is any room for improvement.Remove yourself from the work for a certain period to have a fresh look each time.It can only be as good as when the artist is satisfied.Thanks for the challenging letter.

From: Nancy Ness — Dec 21, 2010

Glad to read this letter, as I am outside reworking an old painting for a show. It’s hard to destroy work but I’m getting better at it. Best to keep only the good ones alive and well. Some borderline pieces hang around too long. Here there are new opportunities to sell unframed unmatted work at quick shows provided by galleries. It’s a big help in clearing out the studio.

From: Bill Skrips — Dec 21, 2010

But how to rise above the need for income and also above the clamor of artwork that “looks” like yours (my public seems to want me to stay with a certain identifiable style, whether it’s good for my creative growth or not)? Some see this as an enviable rut, but a rut is still a rut.

From: steve banhegyi — Dec 21, 2010

The difference between destiny and destination depends on the stories we craft.

From: Lisa Mozzini-McDill — Dec 22, 2010

Seems pretty hard to avoid this pitfall if you are constantly improving! I might destroy everything since I am never satisfied or never finish a painting!

From: Jane McClain — Dec 22, 2010

I would just like to comment on your statement that “shows, dealer pressure and too many galleries can degrade your quality”. These things don’t degrade the quality of an artist work, as your article continues to imply, however, they are an external influence to an internal system. It seemed significant to point out the difference, if only to myself! Thank you for listening, I love your articles. Future topic to discuss: If you don’t sell anything, are you still an artist? [

From: Tracy Kobus — Dec 22, 2010

I totally identified with thoughts in the Cringe Factor; the thought that seeing good pieces of your work gives you the uncomfortable feeling you may be getting worse; that made me laugh. I have had that feeling as well. And in general to be aware of the quality of your work. I find that this makes me so slow that I have a hard time getting enough work together to approach a gallery in the first place! I fully appreciated your thoughts on how much you have to be looking at your work in all different lights and moods, and thinking ahead. This will help “speed me up”. Thanks and Happy holidays,

From: Paul Paquette — Dec 22, 2010

You remark on the value of looking at your paintings through fresh eyes. I keep a mirror on the back wall of my studio which allows me to view my work “flopped” as I’m working on it. It’s an old painters trick… I think Leonardo made mention of it. Since we can develop “tunnel vision” if we stare at our work for too long… the reversed image is “new” to the eye and it brings problems with the painting into focus.

From: LD Tennessee — Dec 23, 2010

The “cringe factor” is just the nature of being an artist because we open ourselves up to others’ viewpoints every time we put our art on display You have another quote about quality in your list, Robert, and I think it really says it all. “Quality is a word that assumes all parties have the same point of view.” (Judy Elliott)

From: Alan Proctor — Dec 23, 2010

I’d just like to wish everybody a Merry Christmas

From: Bruce Wall — Dec 23, 2010

I am one of the tens of thousand of the Brotherhood and Sisterhood who reads this thread religiously and does not make a comment. The input ranges from the ignorant to the informed, and that is its brilliance. Bravo. Yes, season’s greetings everybody.

From: Rick Rotante — Dec 23, 2010

After getting over the hyperbole of what the “experts and critics” say is good there are two things to be considered in every artist’s life. One is many artists exhibit too early. That is there is period of learning and experimentation. Many paint for a year or less and seek representation. This is a huge mistake and will set an artist back more years than they can imagine. Every young artist, after a good solid time of study, will begin to do good work and they believe it is their best. And it may be for that time. But, when you look at the great artists of the past and even some in the present, can your work stand up to comparison when put head to head. What I am saying is there is good work and then there is great work. Truly great work only comes with time and experience. How many of us look back at what we thought was good and cringe wishing we could take it back. We all look at previous work and know we know we can do better. Many do. When do you say this is my mature, quality work? Going this road alone is very difficult. Asking the experts can also be misleading. Ultimately only you will be the final judge. But we all need mentors, those who we trust to tell us the truth without bias. These people are out there but hard to find. Being an artist who will last means all other things are subordinate to your art. Take the time to try things and experiment. Don’t try to make you masterpiece. The old saying I was told is you will cover miles of canvas before you begin to see results and only then will the real work

From: Ben Novak, Ottawa — Dec 23, 2010

Let me tell you how I feel about the “cringe factor”. Many of the works shown in the clickbacks are obviously produced from a photographic base. This is evident in the very correct postures, perspectives and details. This to me is like writing a poem after reading a very short story, simply putting some of the facts to rhyme. Yes, I know one has to choose the scene and compose, but true art is in writing that poem from within, or painting or sketching the scene as the artist’s eye perceives it, is it not?

From: Laurence Gartel — Dec 23, 2010

May the Holidays be colorful and bright!!!

From: Len Middleton — Dec 23, 2010

The opportunity to clean older works for customers and friends is golden. As a gesture of goodwill it reinforces your attitude of standing by your work. It also gives you a chance to check earlier painting techniques and procedures, possibilities of fading, cracking, granulating, etc.

From: Sharon Cory — Dec 24, 2010

Thanks to all for the feedback, ideas and the opportunity to view the work of hundreds of artists that I would otherwise never have discovered. Merry Christmas to everyone.

From: Brian, Upstate NY — Dec 25, 2010

Bad work is bad work. The idea that craft can be overlooked in exchange for concept has set art backwards from where it ought to be. To be in a gallery and see a cringe worthy piece I make several assumptions and none of them are positive in terms of the gallery, its owner or the artist.

From: Newman Pitts — Dec 27, 2010

I love the girl with the orange hair.

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oil painting by Deborah Levy, Highwood, IL, USA

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