You may have noticed the roar of applause when the orchestra plays what the audience already knows. It’s not rocket science to understand that folks are not applauding Tchaikovsky’s genius but their own ability to recognize his tune when they hear it.
Take the plight of singers and songwriters. While many may be deeply committed to the development of new material, they can be sure their audience will demand their greatest hits. It’s a peril for Leonard Cohen, for example, to step onto a stage without doing “Suzanne,” “Everybody Knows” and “Hallelujah.”
Thus it is when painters get branded. Collectors take pride in recognizing a painter’s work from across a crowded mall. The phenomenon can both bless and tyrannize. Getting a brief and satisfying whiff of product identification, collectors express themselves with their wallets. And artists get the whiff of wallets when they do what they did before.
“It’s a painter’s right and obligation to explore her motifs and work with her styles,” said one of my dealers. We know where he’s coming from. But the operative word is “explore.” Working a one-trick pony may be a one-way trip to the ATM, but it also leads to one helluva state of boredom. Diminishment of joy is a major creative hazard. When your work has achieved a “look,” you need to make sure your look has legs. Blessed with an energetic, variable style, the artist can inflict herself on a challenging range of motifs.
Leonard Cohen’s work has both statics and variables. Statics include a deep and dark male voice contrasted to an echoing female chorus backup. Variables include a rich poetry combined with instrumental invention and a highly imaginative cross-discipline exploration.
We should all be so lucky. Or is it the result of careful planning? I think the latter. Some ideas can be explored in an afternoon, or at most, in a month. Our goal is to find something that can keep us amused for a lifetime. Our prayer is to be spared from too many non-exploratory fans.
PS: “An artist is an explorer. He has to begin by self-discovery and by observation of his own procedures. After that he must not feel under any constraint.” (Henri Matisse)
Esoterica: A social acquaintance owned a significant but seldom-seen collection of boat paintings. One day he phoned me out of the blue. “Any chance I could buy one or two of your boat works?” he asked. We soon shipped him a nicely framed selection. “Oh, no,” he said when he phoned in a few days. “All my boats have to be portraits. Yours won’t do. They’re all higgledy-piggledy.” As I’d been invited to a private view of the collection, I decided to drive over and pick up my “refusees” myself. Wall after wall was chockablock with those 18th- and 19th-Century ship profiles that sailors used to buy from wharf artists in foreign ports. My man had collected them from antique shops all over the world. “I like my boats best when they’re facing left to right,” he said, and indeed, most of them were.
Keeping your artist voice alive
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
Branding works, but it often kills while it enriches. I am not a well known painter, yet even in my area I have become ‘known’ for a certain style. A few years back I did a series of paintings featuring daylilies in a large growing field. Friends of mine own a daylily business and the big blocks of color during the bloom were very inspiring. Many of these paintings were sold, but there were grumblings in my gallery that I had done too many. Now, a dozen years later people will ask the gallery if I have any more paintings like those! You just can’t win trying to please customers or even galleries. You are required to listen to both, but at the same time you must hear your own inner artist voice more strongly. When your personal ‘artist voice’ goes quiet, you are in trouble. You are then a production worker, soon to become bored and tired and producing art that mirrors those qualities. Keeping your artist voice alive requires effort. You need to look at other paintings, try out new techniques and mediums. You need to invite failure in order to achieve success. Failure is important in the process of growth and human nature wants to avoid diversion and to go directly to the cash drawer. Having bills to pay increases the pressure to play it safe. It’s a conflict artists have faced for generations.
The dangers of style
by Peter Reid, Chatsworth, ON, Canada
Many painters seem to be desperately seeking, or fearful of someone copying, their ‘unique’ style. I understand there are economical reasons for paint style — many galleries see it as the holy grail and painters buy into it. I see painting style or a ‘look’ as a dead end, a trap. Style is the way I move my brush, the way I see colour, my attention to detail, one might say the way my voice sounds. A personal stamp that that’s just how I am, not some contrived painting style. I don’t want to be out looking for a motif to apply a style too, rather, how I can paint this motif best. Exploring is hard work and often not rewarding in the short term. It does, however, make us stronger painters. Style or ‘look’ is a factory job, albeit a pleasant one, no matter how much leg it has.
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The power of style
by Fleta Monaghan, Asheville, NC, USA
With some of the pressure off to produce the same old thing, I have seen some really fine work with new directions being produced all around me. Perhaps this can be a measure of a true creative mind. An artist with a track record of countless hours of practice will always shine with a unique, recognizable signature style; it is just in the blood. New adventures with imagery and materials keeps us sharp and at the height of our creativity. At the core, art work worth paying attention to has some kind of purpose as a driving force, an intellectual direction in theme or a goal at learning more about materials, colors, or whatever. Without this intention, the work usually falls flat. Our work reflects our inner thoughts and preferences. This just does not change all that much and if it is genuine, it is always recognizable as our own work.
Freedom regardless of money
by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA
At one point I changed my painting style. I was painting Geometric Abstraction and these were selling quite well. I delivered a batch of these paintings to my gallery, but I made the mistake of showing the gallery director some other paintings in a figurative style. “I can’t sell these new paintings,” she said. It was like I had destroyed a bond. I have hardly sold another painting since that day. To me, painting in a figurative style was like learning a new language. I made these paintings with the same tubes of paint and, this work is mine. I can kick out a product with which I am comfortable, or I can explore new places. I miss the money, but I love my freedom.
The gallery always wants a new painting that is just slightly different from the last painting they sold. I have higher hopes for myself. I would rather die unknown than to be a slave. I would rather be a free person.
Faking old ship paintings
by Carol Ferguson, Tampa, FL, USA
As a college student I spent my summers working in Nantucket. One year, I became friends with two young Brazilian men, each with a gift for painting well and quickly, who had certainly found their niche. After specially preparing their canvases, they would paint detailed images of large 18th century Spanish ships at sea. When the paint dried, they would crackle it by running a spoon around the reverse side of the canvas, and then rub brown paint into the cracks (once they even used shoe polish) to create a convincing aged appearance. Then they would sell these to a number of antique stores — on the island, in New York, and elsewhere — who I assume knew what they were buying, since they never seemed to question how these two could provide them with such an unending supply of old paintings.
The tell-tale sign of their work was the fine lettering on the unfurling flags at the top of the masts, written in Spanish, which spelled out various swear words. Perhaps the owner of the “significant” collection you wrote about had at least one of Raul and Julian’s masterpieces!
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by Michelle Pearce, Oakville, ON, Canada
They say there are three things that intrinsically motivate people: a desire for autonomy; an urge to constantly improve (mastery), and a quest to be part of something bigger. As a “second career” artist, making up for lost time, I recently had a strong desire for the third element. In a flurry of activity I sent off pictures, all of which at some stage had been selected for juried shows — of my work to a society for election to be (or not be, as it turned out, to my mortification) a member. I could not decide what to describe my style as, how to “brand” myself. I eventually only included work that I thought reflected one of my “looks” and themes. My application came back with remarks that included “suggest more consistency needed.”
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Popular junk art
by Brenda Poole, Graham, NC, USA
It seems to me that art galleries, shops, shows, dealers and most anywhere you will find art to buy, people are somewhat the same; out to make money. I have seen lines of people waiting to purchase a cheap thin print from a very inferior artist while the cream of the crop with affordable originals was passed by, all on the premise that these so-called educated buyers knew what good art is, when in reality they didn’t, they just knew a look the artist had obtained and the buyer thought they were getting real good art. They were keeping up with their neighbors, the status quo and all that stuff that drives people to spend their money.
Part of the problem that drives this is what I call the good old boys and girls club mentality. All towns and places that have art groups unfortunately encourage snobbery, elitism, and downright rudeness when it comes to showing, promoting, and selling art. So, the average buyer doesn’t know what they are getting, they just know what has been shown or more pushed off on them. There are hundreds if not thousands of artists whose works are as good as or better than the average promoted artist of the so-called elite group.
Creativity does not belong with catering. Catering is more on the kiss butt scheme of making art. Get in the corporate world and cater all you want. Art is created for art alone, the creative process should be enough reward for your work. There will always be people that are out to make a buck, skin a flea for its hide, but the true artist knows art is created for the sake of making art and if in the process you become famous, rich, poor, not so famous, what does it matter? The world is full of fools and as the old saying goes a fool and his money is soon parted.
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Respect versus cash flow
by Skip Van Lenten
This sounds a bit like crossing the line between an artist and a manufacturer. I once saw a documentary about a very famous artist, whose “brand” you would immediately recognize. In one scene, he stood at a table with a stack of his most collectible prints. An assistant flipped them over, one at a time, as the artist signed them, and the commentator explained that each signed print sold for $1500.00 more than an unsigned print. Nice work, if you can get it, but I didn’t know whether or not to be jealous of the artist, or disillusioned by the profit motive behind his actions. Maybe there is a point in every artist’s career where the need to be respected as an artist gives way to the equally valid need (or necessity) to be a wealthy entrepreneur.
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A lesson from early performing
by Lindakay Rendina, CA, USA
I studied tap dancing beginning at the age of 5. I loved it so much and took it very seriously and began private lessons early on. I did my first solo performance, at about age 10, in front of a huge audience. I remember, I could see only the bright lights, hear the applause, the music and the sound of my own percussion. I was definitely in the zone and left everything else in the wings. While I was dancing, I quickly noticed how people applauded for, what I knew were, the simpler, more showy steps, given to me in the dance by my instructor/choreographer, and no applause for the more complex sections I worked hardest to learn and perfect. I remember thinking “Why are they clapping for that? That’s nothing!”
My early performances taught me an important lesson, as an artist, and has served me pretty well throughout in my pursuit of the visual arts and performing arts and in life. Remain centered, do my very best, do what I love, have fun, take risks, be inventive, create with intention and not expectation, and never look to an audience, friends, family, clients, gallery visitors, customers or anyone for final approval or disapproval, for as soon as I do, I begin to disconnect from my spirit, my self, the work itself, and compromise my artistic integrity, by doing and creating to people please, rather than exploring and going deeper into unchartered territory, where the real gold is mined.
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The concern of women-mothers
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 Pam Craig of Memphis, TN, USA, who wrote, “Selling your art is like icing on a cake. But without the cake the icing is nothing more than a glob of sugary mess.”
And also Dorcas M. O’Reilly of Goleta, CA, USA, who wrote, “That applause you hear may be for recognizable quality and the aesthetic pleasure it brings amidst the sea of modern junk, especially in today’s world of music (and art).”
And also J. V. Grewal PhD who wrote, “That applause is often the sound of one hand clapping — and it’s your own.”
And also Meredith Blackmore, who sent us these quotes from Picasso: “To copy others is necessary, but to copy oneself is pathetic.” “Success is dangerous. One begins to copy oneself, and to copy oneself is more dangerous than to copy others. It leads to sterility.’
And also Margo Buccini of Ponte Vedra, FL, USA, who wrote, “May we always explore our full potential and not be constrained by what the world expects from us… only what the universe and we know ourselves to be.”
Enjoy the past comments below for The fine art of exploration…