For those artists inclined to sell their art, the concept of rarity is worth understanding. “Keep ’em rare,” said one of my dealers when he named me “The fastest brush in the West.” As part of his ploy, he kept a lot of my stuff in the back room. It never bothers me when dealers do.
From a marketing point of view, not only the work of one artist but also genres of art need thoughtful control. The world is awash with florals. Landscapes are thick on the ground as well. They have to be darned well done or different from the crowd to get noticed. Figurative works are less common, mainly because not many painters do them well. Some might say they are less popular anyway, but I don’t think so. Quality in figurative work is elusive.
Media have to be watched as well. The wildlife-photo-litho-print market went up the spout a few years ago when the market became oversaturated. This has had a negative effect on all print-like art, including hand-done limited-edition prints and original watercolours. Sad to say, in many areas people currently distrust flat art under glass.
The business of supply and demand has an effect on all collectibles. Back in the 1890s, a New York printer, Nicholas F. Seebeck, obtained the rights to print sheets of South American postage stamps for the benefit of what he thought were eager collectors. The collectors rebelled, and to this day the “Seebecks” are mainly worthless. Currently, stamp collecting is in decline because of general overproduction. Pictorials from small countries in the Middle East are known as “sand dunes.”
What’s an artist to do? Many respond by making art a challenging hobby and accepting the occasional sale as a pleasant bonus to go toward art materials. As well, some satisfaction comes from knowing that fashions and taste are cyclical. Today’s orphan could be tomorrow’s pride and joy. But that doesn’t help the living artist who needs to make a living. Artists should know that creative personality, stylistic uniqueness and the handmade look will forever be art’s main virtues. That works of art are uncommon and hard to get is also part of the game. Also, the degree of skill required may count in the long run but may be overlooked in the short. No fun for the speedy among us but no comfort to the slow ones either.
PS: “All excellent things are as difficult as they are rare.” (Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677)
Esoterica: “Rare” and “perceived to be rare” are two different things. During the North American photo-litho print bubble, the system of controlled distribution and limited access popped when too many folks got into the game. Bears, wolves, eagles and ocelots became as commonplace as McDonald’s hamburger wrappers. The misguided investor with piles of paper under his bed suddenly had no recourse. Collectors soon revived the wisdom of original art. As the wise man said when he was asked for a few words that might stand the test of time, “And this too will change.”
Artists need passive income
by Gavin Calf, Cape Town, South Africa
This is a word in time! South Africa’s more “successful” artists, commonly known as “Contemporary” in their colourful subject matter, are falling over each other making prints that are taken on ocean liner tours and auctioned on board to wealthy passengers. This seemed like a dream to me as I cannot get a price for my figurative works that will help me also pay my way, not just keep me in paints.
What do we do? We depend on hard working spouses or we starve. These worthy individuals are true patrons of the arts. Artists who paint need to find a passive income as in royalties. How?
More art, more affluence
by Jack Oates
Certainly there is a glut of paintings and reproductions of original paintings in galleries, on the Internet, and on the street. There are more people in the world affluent enough to spend time practicing the art, as a hobby, for side income, or for recognition – many more than existed and practiced the profession in the age of those painters who are considered “great.” There are many painters today equally as “great” who go unrecognized. Of course, some of the “greats” of the good ol’ days went unrecognized in their own time as well!
It should give us hope that even in England, where every other person is a watercolourist, Edward Seago had people lined up outside galleries on the opening day of his exhibitions and was sold out in a very short time! Of course he was never recognized by “the Academy.” There are more people today, with more money to spend, for something they like and admire!
Supply and demand
by Dustin Curtis, Decatur, AL, USA
Speaking of the print market, as a wildlife artist I have seen and have been one of the many who probably wanted to get into Limited Edition Prints too early and often. I was having prints made of almost every painting because a few people requested them. On the other hand, a successful wildlife artist gave me this recommendation. He said, “You don’t need to get into prints until you are having trouble keeping up with the demand for your originals.” That made good business sense to me, so I stopped doing prints and only offer original paintings for now. It goes back to supply and demand as you mentioned.
Benefits of listening in
by Karuna Johnson, Hoquiam, WA, USA
Our ability to look at many facets of a subject, as you did in your piece, “Rarity,” is an art I am appreciating. Especially so your summation, what’s an artist to do? Last night on Iconoclasts (Sundance channel), a celebrated, financially successful artist… said, “What I’ve learned about art is that it’s all about accepting and trusting myself.” His art would not be my choice to collect if I had the millions some of his pieces go for. But I still had something to learn from him. In looking at his “contemporary sculptural works” (which look like plastic pool floats for children, or ceramic sculptures of the coitus of Beautiful People), I can well see that he trusts himself, his instincts, his urges, in order to put his stuff out there. His longstanding commercial success no doubt gives him a boost in confidence. This same artist also stated, “Art is what’s inside the observer, it’s not the object itself. It’s a response that comes from inside the observer.” Last year in art class, I boldly (rudely, impetuously, assertively) stated my opinion of watercolors in a local well-regarded annual exhibit as, “It looked like photocopies of the same subject, each done in a different color scheme… this one if your couch is teal green, that one if your couch is country blue…” The class got so quiet. A recognized local artist’s work had been noticed in a slightly impolite way! But I recall this vignette because of your theme of rarity. My first public exhibit is coming up. Some subjects are floral, some are landscape, only a couple lean toward a more abstract expression toward which I sense my work may develop over time. “They have to be darned well done or different from the crowd to get noticed.” (Robert Genn) I’ll keep this notion in mind, as well as the rarity thing, as I choose which pieces to show. Listening in on your letters, I’ve decided, is a rare opportunity to benefit from practical experience.
Unique = rare
by Mark Hope, Wasaga Beach, ON, Canada
I have tried to focus my career on uniqueness rather than rarity because, as you say, the world is full of art and, in particular, traditional florals and landscapes. I would also include abstracts. I was recently at a big Toronto art show and sale in the downtown Convention Centre and the place was awash in red and gold patchwork quilt abstracts… no uniqueness or rarity there. Surprisingly landscapes were not well represented.
I personally have focused on improving my painting/drawing skills in order to paint the things I wanted to paint. My sense is that uniqueness accomplishes two tasks, it will be rare and it will stand out in a crowd. I’m pretty sure that this is all being driven by the psychological sub-routine that “I must show the world that I am unique and worthy of attention.” My focus on unique subjects or unique colour, compositional approaches to traditional subjects, has given me the opportunity to expand my view of what is ‘paint worthy.’ It’s risky though and a hard-sell as the average buying public likes what it knows. I do offer the more traditional stuff, the potboilers as a friend of mine called them but I really like to show the unique stuff and I think it helps educate the buying public.
The evolving artist
by Elaine Clendinneng, Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, QC, Canada
An artist evolves and no two works are ever the same. As Lawren Harris once said: “One believes a masterpiece must be a unit, a little world, and that this is one of the great secrets of all art of all time.” I would add that a great work of art is a universe unto itself. Often the viewer (and even the artist) gains a new perception, a new way of looking at something hitherto undiscovered. The more work an artist does the more chance he has at grasping the indefinable and in the process produce exhilarating art.
Elusive quality hard-won
by Patricia Peterson, New York, NY, USA
Quality in all art is elusive and hard-won and figurative work easily registers as out of whack since our species’ form is imprinted in our brain to recognize it all as such or not — no artistic training or awareness needed. Quality is art and all approaches to it remain efforts toward that goal, however successful and sadly, not always appreciated. Marketing strategies come a distant second to that as a way to draw attention for collectors who can afford the market value of the piece in question.
The rarity are those with the time, diligence and persistence to go after the subtext; the real, in the moment connection with the viewer rather than the apparent subject of the artwork. Are Rembrandt’s paintings portraits or any other label we classify them or, an experience for the viewer — to me that rare experience is art — transporting the viewer to another place in the moment as we breathe.
No amount of marketing can come close to quality as the result of dedicated love of excellence, which throughout our history has indeed been rare.
Collectors deserve the original
by Mary Susan Vaughn, Weddington , NC, USA
I agree with the concept “keep it rare” as I believe in the value of supply and demand. I am fortunate in that my husband supports our family so I am able to pursue my career as an artist and “keep my paintings rare” by not having to succumb to the pressure of reproducing my works into giclee, prints, and putting the images on everything from mouse pads to coffee mugs to support myself and my family. I believe this cheapens the artwork and depreciates the original work as well. I have two paintings that I am going to reproduce in a limited number of giclees and that’s it, and I don’t feel completely comfortable with that. I believe that if the collector loves a particular piece of work enough to pay thousands for it, it should be the one and only. The collector of your work should not walk into Target and see his painting in a paper print in an art bin or visit his neighbor’s house and see the very same piece on their walls. The collector should not have to say “I own the original” because every painting he is willing to pay for SHOULD be the “original.” That will bring him back to you, the artist friend, time and time again, knowing that if he loves a piece, and buys it from you or your gallery, the collector will have the one and only in the world.
What makes Art so wonderful is that each piece we create is like a signature. A reflection of our personality and our life. Keep your work as rare as you can and still live. That will make your work appreciate in value from year to year and make you — the artist — a rare creative person indeed.
The artist’s legacy
by Joy Gush, New York, NY, USA
Your letter is factually correct — but depressing for the artist who desperately needs money in sales of his or her canvases. My agent in the late 1980s who sold my work in New York City, often daily, for the three years I was with him, before his death in October 1989, said that I should protect my values as they always go up. My paintings received wonderful comments, with frequent requests, and I was blessed to have been “Maurice’s” favorite artist.
During the late 1990s and the turn of the century, with losses in loved ones who had given me support over 30 years, my resulting loss of income from slow sales began. These times have been very tough going… I am in my mid-Seventies and trying hard to protect my legacy of unsold canvases. I keep to myself mostly as I continue to paint gifts for people who have helped me during the year. My talent must be worked with in order to help bring peace in the world. The personal paintings around me give me serenity and that comes at little cost now. My website is my only display outlet now. This year, I added a shop with affordable items with my paintings’ scenes. Advertising will be handled by my hand-made Greetings Cards, directly sent to clients, for the Holidays from attorneys in Estate matters.
What your letter gave me, Robert, is the comfort that I am not alone in the financial problems of today. For that, I am content to work to gift to others a small personal canvas of my talent. After all, Grandma Moses paid a lot of her debts by this method which made people happy with her “payment.” She lived a long and happy life with her paintings of family life as she remembered them years ago when she was a child. Grandma Moses’ legacy will live on for centuries ahead increasing in value each year. Just spread our talent around in gifts. Few people have such a wonderful legacy for our work in this life.
Notes from a collector
by Phil Taylor, Halton Hills, ON, Canada
As a collector of contemporary fine art in Canada I would like to offer my perspective. My wife and I only buy art from mid-career artists who have spent many years honing their craft. Among other things, art is a craft. I also only look at artists who have not made a name for themselves in the art world — whatever that means. This serves to keep the price at a reasonable level. I don’t mind paying a fair price for art, as long as I am paying for the work done and not a bloated reputation. I apply this standard to anyone I might hire, from a plumber to a lawyer. There are three basic things I (and my wife) look for when considering a purchase:
— Technical mastery of the artist’s chosen medium. This is very important and very rare in my view.
— The artist must have a strong personal artistic vision.
— I have to love the work on a totally subjective level.
When I speak to artists, I always encourage them to do the very best work of which they are capable. Many do not and admit so. If they spend too much time on a piece they are afraid that it will not sell at the higher price demanded of more time-consuming work. My hope is that they will trust the process and that the cream Will rise and quality work will sell.
Sometimes I ask an artist this question to focus the mind.
“If there was some strange law passed that decreed that you could only do one more piece of art in your life and you had one year to complete it, what would you create?”
Obviously the answer is ‘the very best I can do.’
So then why not do the very best you can do all the time? This after all is your legacy as an artist. No one will remember your lesser work. Do your very best always. If you do that, then I may want to buy your art, and I will pay fairly for it, and you will be satisfied knowing you did your best.
Quality defines rare
by Mary Erickson, Marshville, NC, USA
Over-saturation surely killed the wildlife print art market. Many artists who formerly did not paint wildlife got on the band wagon and started churning out wolves and tigers and bears and lions, Oh MY! This saturation did in fact destroy that market, making way for new IN things. Many of the dealers and artists were unwilling to accept that each “favorite” subject has its own time, and perhaps the time for wildlife art had run its course. As a painter who is devoted to birds, both their depiction and survival in today’s environment, I am painting what I love. The wildlife art market is still alive and well for the painters that demand excellence in their work, and have a following because the collectors love the work, not because it is the IN thing.
The hot item today is small originals, many of which are plein air landscapes. Oddly, many of the wildlife painters popular in the ’80s (Seerey-Lester, Bateman) preached “getting out in the field” and not depending on photography to depict animals. They stressed painting from life, use of color, composition and design no matter what your subject or style. I was a plein air painter before I even knew what the words meant. To me, the paintings were field studies.
Many artists are jumping on the plein air wagon, and churning out original landscapes that will not stand the test of time. They are calling them impressionistic, when, in fact, many people say they are simply sloppy. These paintings fall short of the skill or thought required to produce exceptional work.
Quality always separates the rare from the common.
Will not play the game
by Toni Ciserella, Marysvale, UT, USA
Your letters are so timely. I swear you are peeking in my window! I’ve been at a crossroads lately and have been struggling with where to take my art (career?). I do one of a few things with a finished painting. I hang it at the local hot spot (where they generously let me have front and center), enter it into the local artist show (where it may or may not win an award) or keep it for myself. I complete (emphasis on complete) 10 to 12 works a year. This year I’ve had more time and have completed a few more than usual. I have won a couple of awards, had my work hung in the local college library, and sold 5 paintings this year. Here’s the snag. Not one of my works was similar. I work in oils, watercolor, pastels to name a few. Some took months to complete, others just hours. I’ve been told by other artists and galleries that I need to work in one medium, choose one category (landscapes, still life, portraits) and churn them out quicker to achieve success. Well-meaning friends and family offer suggestions such as, “Why don’t you paint like Bev Doolittle or Thomas Kinkade?” Both of which are huge commercial successes and to me, seem like nothing more than schlock art. Who wants to paint the same thing over and over again? Not I! And although I would not begrudge anyone the monetary success they have achieved through their obvious hard work, I realize that doesn’t appeal to me. So, as I write this letter to you, I have come to a decision. I will not take the road that may possibly bring me commercial success. I will not play the game. Instead I am going back to my easel and work on my new painting — an abstract in acrylics. Now talk about rare!
Art print issues
by Barney Davey, Scottsdale, AZ, USA
What is scarce is valuable is an axiom that holds up well for fine art. I can understand a dealer holding back originals of a popular artist when he knows they eventually will sell at premium prices. The unfortunate fact for too many artists is buyers are what is most scarce. And for them, the print reproduction market holds more promise.
You mention the negative effect caused by an oversaturated wildlife-photo-litho-print market some years ago. That era came to a close just prior to the onset of digital printing technology that spawned today’s giclée market. An interesting vestige of that era is Bev Doolittle’s return to the limited edition print market for the first time since 1999. The market reaction is the roughly 4,000 copies of her canvas giclée print in two edition sizes quickly sold out at the publisher level. Despite the optimism it’s caused, a new oversaturated, “One for the wall and one for under the bed” art-print mania is likely not erupting.
The limited edition offset litho prints of that era also kept the opportunity for fraud somewhat at bay because it was too technically difficult for scammers and crooks to create phony paper prints. Fast forward to 2007 to find sensational stories of giclée printer and art promoters run amuck as evidenced by the recent conviction of Kristine Eubanks and Gerald Sullivan who were accused of selling $20 million in phony prints. Print-on-demand technology is revolutionizing how visual artists, writers and musicians reach their buyers. Unfortunately, it creates ample new opportunities for crooks as well.
I think limited editions make no sense when anyone who owns an inkjet printer realizes giclees made from digital files can easily and endlessly be perfectly reproduced. Who are we fooling with this practice? It seems tawdry to sell limited edition digital prints, it is especially egregious in large numbers. Would it not be better to indelibly consecutively number, and sign if the artist prefers, prints without a limit? This would remove concerns about how many are in circulation. If the work is collectible, the lower numbers will likely have increased value despite an open edition.
Digital printing allows artists for the FIRST TIME EVER to provide their collectors with custom sizes for the prints they desire. If you want to make more print sales, give buyers what they want. Consider open editions allow artists to let their winners run instead of artificially capping their income. No other form of the arts puts artificial limits on the number of reproductions that can be made. Arguably, Doolittle and her publisher, Greenwich Workshop, left money on the table because in due time her new piece could well have sold thousands more prints.
Rather than clinging to arcane methods of marketing digital prints through ginned up limited editions, let’s turn the equation upside down and make them available to all buyers in the sizes they want and in the process create a new paradigm of transparency around the them that makes it far more difficult for schemers and crooks to abuse and sully the system. I think the majority of buyers buy because they want to own the prints and will pay good fair prices even for open editions. Who would argue that speculating on the increasing value of giclée prints makes sense when saner safer investments abound? If you have discretionary investment funds, there are abundant ways to put them to good use at.
Painting and giving back
by Elfrida Schragen, Canada
From a need to ‘give back,’ as the saying goes, but also not wanting to stop painting, I came up with an idea that has been very successful. It’s a one time shot, I think. But it’s an idea that artists in other communities may want to expand upon, if they are not financially dependent on selling their art.
Because of the way I set it up, and my purpose, I get no money from this project. But all expenses are paid and so far I have been able to contribute $16,000 toward the establishment of a center for the homeless. But more importantly, I have had a non-stop supply of models, I have learned a great deal about the real issues around poverty, I have met people that I would not normally meet, I have been painting solidly and totally inspired for nine months.
(RG note) Thanks, Elfrida. If readers want to know more about Elfrida’s project and see all of the thirty portraits go to her website. Even the local art critic Robert Amos gave her a rave review.
Enjoy the past comments below for Rarity…
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 Norman Nelson of Boise, ID, USA who wrote, “Boy I sure wish you were wrong on this one but unfortunately you’re right and I’m changing and experimenting like mad to come up with a style that is unique, different, but it ain’t rare as I paint fast and furious with 30 years of experience… selling, now that’s the hard part.”
And also Norman Ridenour of Prague, Czechosovakia who wrote, “I so agree, both from personal experience and from being married to a “dealer,” art of course. Uniqueness is an asset but not too “different.” Many (most) people buy art to impress, friends, collegues, etc. One does not want the target audience to go, “WHAT IS THAT?????” “How much did you pay for it?” Americans at least are aesthetic cows and travel in herds. They need to have their fragile sense of critical awareness validated. Czechs we do not discuss. They are largely unaware of any values outside of glossy magazines, except for music which is in the blood, so to speak.”
And also Megan Pierre of Cardiff-by-the-Sea, CA, USA who wrote, “I am happy to see you talk in a practical manner about the art market. I owned a thriving national level art gallery in downtown Seattle for 12 years and helped about 400 American artists establish careers in that time. I sold the gallery a few years ago, and have begun painting. You speak the truth about how it works to artists, who honestly for the most part do not have a clue.”