Yesterday, Dana Finch of the UK wrote, “I have been painting for years. I now have to work at a fulltime non-art job but I still consider myself first and foremost a painter, and spend most weekends, evenings, holidays, etc., doing it.
I studied at art school and have a degree in art. Despite my dedication I am getting nowhere trying to interest a small provincial gallery, let alone a London one. I do sell a few things, mainly through friends, but not in a consistent way. Am I really a bad painter and should I give up? What do you advise? I know you are not an agony aunt for painters, but my problems may resonate with other struggling painters.”
Thanks, Dana. Agony uncle I’m not — mostly I can be found chugging up my own mountains. But when it comes to my fellow-travellers, I try to be a positive guy. And while brazen approval and blind encouragement are often as effective as any crit, there are some practical concerns that artists need to think about. Thanks also for mentioning “other struggling painters.” My groaning inbox tells me your plight is currently quite universal.
Your work has a fine sense of feeling and atmosphere — rain, fog, etc., and a simple, understated honesty. But is this enough? Is there enough to really carry a viewer away? Is there possibly a sense in the minds of many potential collectors that they could have done one of these themselves? As I see it, and there will be many who will disagree, this sort of work is really a bit too facile and too easy to do.
While there are exceptions to this, the hard, cold facts tell us that only a few top workers are truly thriving. The competition is tough. To the admirable virtues of feeling and atmosphere, one needs to leverage skill, craft and a degree of hard-won cleverness that the average person on the street cannot easily attain. When you add a personal style that distinguishes you from the others, opportunistic gallerists are more likely to check you out.
I’ve never advised anyone to give up. It’s not in my DNA. But I’ve suggested that some need to re-examine directions and invest in a new and rigorous program of private study and daily labour. This may sound cruel and simplistic, but to get a decent ride on the train of joy, many artists need to spend more time shovelling coal.
PS: “Never, ever, ever give up.” (Charles Schulz)
Esoterica: Perhaps a lot of Western Art has tipped too far toward our personal demands for private joy. Further, many artists are trying to combine casual pleasantries with secure cash flows. It’s nice work if you can get it, but it may just be mastery that gives the truest joy. “The secret of joy in work is contained in one word: excellence. To know how to do something well is to enjoy it.” (Pearl S. Buck)
Dana Finch’s paintings
Art for a song
This pursuit is a life long journey with potholes, dirt roads and also some smooth sailing too. I would suggest that you figure out a way to add something that is uniquely from your world, from your mind and heart. What that is, for you I cannot say, but ask your higher self the question and for guidance and then listen; tune your consciousness so that you will be able to recognize it when it comes to you.
Every painting or work of art that you do does not always have to look like it belongs to a series.
Step out of your comfort zone; try painting a song by one of your favorite recording artists. That’s right — a song. Do a visual composition of it. How about creating a piece of art about what love feels like? That will make you think, feel, and open up even more.
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Art is in your blood
by Hans Mertens, The Netherlands
I’ve read your article about Dana Finch. Perhaps my story is interesting for her. I draw and paint since I can remember and I am 53 years old now. For more than 30 years, I did jobs other people wouldn’t even consider. But I never quit drawing and painting. From 1987 till 1991 I followed my art education and in 1991 I graduated because I wanted to develop myself more I took 5 years of lessons, besides another unpleasant job at that time. Now, from 2006 till now I teach art to adults for a living. I sold works in the USA, exhibited in Italy three times and created a website for artists all over the world. I just never gave up. I think when you are a real artist “it’s in your blood” and it becomes a (positive) addiction for the rest of your life.
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Failing is not a disgrace
by Jesse Silver, Burbank, CA, USA
Making a career as a painter is pretty much a crapshoot. If you believe in what you’re doing, then go at it without restraint and don’t give up. One gallery is not the world. The hard truth is that artists need to spend as much time in promotion as in creation. Get out there and hustle! I’ve made my living as a painter for over 30 years, by making a decision to find a commercial avenue for my painting. I love what I do and I make sure that others know about me. There are many options for a career in the arts, of which the “fine art” path is but one. So don’t limit yourself. The other point is to be ruthless in the pursuit of excellence. Anything less and you’ll be spinning your wheels and in the marketplace you will be road kill.
Do not fall in love with your work. It’s fine to take pleasure in something that visually sings. But then it’s time to move on and develop further. If you’re not throwing a new creative challenge at yourself, you will become a bore. Those aren’t laurels you’re resting on, they’re poison oak. From time to time, try something wildly different than what you’re doing. Failing is not a disgrace.
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Giving up is fun to do
by Katherine Lakeman, Calgary, AB, Canada
Just to let you know the other side of the coin; that giving up can be pleasant, and freeing. I gave up my art making almost 4 years ago, and told everyone that I had “quit.” Many of my clients and friends were shocked and disappointed, and said things like, “you might just be taking a sabbatical” or things like that, but I was adamant that I had totally “quit.”
After 3 years, I started to feel like I wanted to paint again, and did one or two pieces sporadically for fun. Now I know that I can, and will return to art when, and if, I want to. It’s not black and white, and there’s no need for a contract. It all depends on me, and what I want to do at the time. And whether I have something new to say in my 24 year career of art making.
So, don’t despair about the prospect; it might be a good thing to let it go, and do something completely different for a time. Then, if and when you come back to it, you will be recharged, and you will have something new to add. I learned to dance Argentine tango in the 3 years I was away from art, and learned how to communicate through movement and music. It has made me more whole, and has helped me to trust my intuition, not just in the dance, but in making art.
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by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada
Goodness, yet another artist waiting patiently in the queue line to sign their contract of fame and fortune. They are usually wondering why they haven’t been signed by a big gallery, why their work isn’t selling at a national or international level. These types are usually more angry than frustrated. Their friends get government grants and write ups in major art magazines. This artist needs to go sell real estate if they are looking for fame and fortune! I remember an old Drag Queen named Pepper L’Abeigia once saying “If you shoot an arrow in the sky and it goes far, then honey, good for you!”
Artists usually start out with two of nothing. We just have this voice that we want to express. Whenever I look at someone’s work, I always wonder what they are trying to communicate to me. When I look at this woman’s paintings I see a series of foggy paintings with a subtle sense of colour. What I also see is some formulaic paintings that are riddled with drips and some sloppy brush strokes that I find little to revere. Artists need to always work beyond what they already know…this is the sign of true creativity. I know that being an artist is what defines me. I also know that the bulk of the greatest work of my life is still ahead of me. I can always be better. And I know that my Magnum Opus is not going to happen until I am in my 80’s! Then again, that is just me…and I am not rich and famous!
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Disappointments are part of the experience
by Frank Gordon, Giggleswick, North Yorkshire, England
It all depends why you’re painting. You seem to be concentrating on being a successful painter in the sense of commercial success, recognition, showing in London galleries etc. Is that what it’s about? I’ve been painting all my life (I’m 65) and only in the last ten years or so (since moving to the Yorkshire Dales) has my work sold consistently; even now, many others are far more successful from a financial point of view. But the selling is the icing on the cake. It’s the making of the work that matters; an experience is incomplete — life is incomplete, in fact — unless and until I’ve done something with it in the form of a drawing or a painting. This is what gives life its meaning as far as I’m concerned; with luck, someone else will get meaning and joy from what I do and that is wonderful and makes up for the thousands of disappointments along the way. And that’s the other point: being an artist is inherently frustrating in the sense that you always fall short of your ambitions.
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Time and style
by Adrienne Godbout, Grande-Digue, NB, Canada
“…to get a decent ride on the train of joy, many artists need to spend more time shovelling coal.” I feel like I’ve been shovelling coal for years and just now, after 25 years of painting, not painting, moving around, retiring at 32, going to the country to live a better “non-corporate” life and painting more. Just now at 42, do I feel like I’m on the train of joy — finally. It took a long time and the subject matter has changed and the mediums too and finally, now, it’s working.
I make and sell between 50 and 60 originals a year and I know that if I made more, I could sell more. Represented in just one gallery, I also run a framing shop and we manufacture artist canvases that we supply to stores too. I have a small gallery with my work in my boutique. I participate in a few group exhibits each year (juried) and have a few solo exhibits as well.
So this brings me to my question. I have this different style and the more I develop it, the more people recognize my work now. I always get the same question — what IS that? What is the style? And I have no idea what to answer — I just paint. I’m attracted to design and order and lines and movement and I just do it. It just happened, over some years, there was a progression and now my paintings look like this. I don’t know how to explain it.
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The 20-year plan
by Caroline Simmill, Morayshire, Scotland
‘Never give up’ in the words of Winston Churchill are very important words that motivate and keep a body and soul together. It is hard these days to be an artist. I think there are many more artists around than there used to be, it is certainly the case in the Highlands of Scotland. When I first started out as an artist selling to galleries there were very few indeed. Many people took early retirement in the good days when money was freely spent with no worries to the future. But the recession does seem to be sending many artists back into the work force as the buyers are being very careful with their spending these days.
I would say keep painting and keep looking at ways to market your artwork, maybe Dana needs to set up her own art exhibitions. If she is selling to friends then this means her work is admired. The British are lovers of simple watercolour paintings so the simplicity may not be the problem. It could just be that the galleries are looking to sell something different or they know their buyers only want a particular style. I think you have to work hard full time at your craft for a good ten years and then you see a big improvement, then work another ten and you begin to really learn and see how to paint and this joy is often bought by others.
Where are the art police?
by David Reeves, Quispamsis, NB, Canada
I enjoyed viewing Dana Finch’s paintings and your response to her story. Your assessment is, I believe quite accurate — especially regarding adding a personal style. Seeing her work, I do hope that she does not give up the fight. In the past five years around my area of the Maritimes, everybody and their uncle seems to be out there calling themselves artists, and unfortunately, the quality of the work shouts — where are the art police? I assume this is a function of the wave of retirements from other professions coupled with the poor economy. Prices are generally low, but frequently so is quality.
This volume of paintings for sale of course makes it all the more difficult for an artist trying to establish themselves. Painters’ enquiries concerning representation must inundate the few galleries we have and so perhaps good artists do not get the dues they deserve. As usual, looking back at art history amplifies your major point — all well-known artists have their own individual way of expressing their subject matter — this is what eventually gets attention.
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The virtue of difficulty
by Karl Leitzel, Spring Mills, PA, USA
Having looked at Dana’s paintings, I find them fascinating, well-painted, and the kind of work I would enjoy looking at over and over, and at the same time I see Robert’s point. When we as painters are at a place in our career path where most of our sales are to fairly “regular” people rather than astute and experienced art collectors, the factor of “How do you do that?” instead of “Even I could probably paint that” is a big part of selling work. Sometimes my favorite pieces in my own work are the most subtle, simple ones, but the ones that attract the most oohs and aahs and sell the quickest are those that are more technically demanding and seem very difficult to do. We as artists know that lots of detail and complex composition and subject matter are not necessarily the hardest thing to pull off (although it does usually require more time at the easel), but most regular folks are not artists themselves or serious students of art. That being said, I could easily see Dana’s work, in a large enough size format, hanging on a corporate office wall, so perhaps it’s a matter of connecting with the right potential clients.
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Why do you paint?
by Jay Stevens, Long Beach, CA, USA
“Should you give up?” depends entirely on why you paint. I discovered oil painting after I retired after a successful and fulfilling career as a University professor. I took classes in both painting and drawing. The second painting class — Intermediate Painting — the instructor introduced us to non-objective art.
So for the most part I would describe myself an intuitive painter who mostly creates non-objective paintings. Most of the people who see my paintings tell me they like representational art much more than what I do. I’ve come to expect that reaction. Should I give up? Not on your life! I paint because I love the creative experience. I don’t have as a goal selling my work. I don’t care if people buy it or not. What I care about is exhibiting it. I’ve found a few local, non-profit art organizations that hold competitions in which artists submit an application to exhibit in a particular show. So far three of my paintings have been accepted in juried exhibitions; additionally, about ten paintings were exhibited as a one person show in a state Senator’s office (not a U.S. Senator) for the better part of two months. I feel very successful, but I would continue to do this even if no one wanted to see my work. I paint for me! It makes me terribly happy!
Usually, in this country at least, galleries are in business to make money. It may well be that your work is not commercially saleable. The first time I heard those words I was terribly upset and disappointed. But I finally realized that I was not painting for commercial success. If you are, you will in all probability be disappointed, and maybe you should give up. There are a lot better artists than you or me who are successful in a commercial venue. Is that why you paint?
Warmth of Gray
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 Elihu Edelson of Tyler, TX, USA who wrote, “At best Dana Finch’s work reminds me somewhat of A.P. Ryder’s. At worst, the paint trickles get to be a bit much. Whether or not to give up is a matter of motivation. If one feels the urge to paint, go ahead and paint whenever possible, no matter what the market may be, but it’s a good idea to seek knowledgeable criticism.”
And also Jennie McBride of Grant, AL, USA who wrote, “You might want to have Peanuts give credit to FDR, however, for the quote, ‘Never, ever, ever give up.’ No. Wait. It was Churchill!”
And also Deb Droog of Forest, VA, USA who wrote, “Wonderful advice to this painter! Kudos to you for pointing out the benefits of study and alternate styles. Today we see too many “painters” dribbling paint to soothe their inner quest when they should be working.”
And also Robert Dwight who wrote, “One of my favorite quotes, which I still remember from when I wrote a report in grade school, was from Louis Pasteur: ‘Let me tell you the secret that has led me to my goal. My strength lies solely in my tenacity.’ ”
Enjoy the past comments below for Should I give up?…