Dear Artist,

When I was at the Los Angeles Art Center my friend Tom Bizzini used to say, “Fine art is a sham.” It was a popular sentiment around that workmanlike, survival-of-the-fittest, quality-counts school. In those days it seemed that there were lots of artists who were “putting in a nickel and trying to get a dollar tune.” Same as today.


“Waiting for the Tide”
oil painting, 20 x28 inches
by John Stobart

Recently, I saw some of John Stobart’s work in a gallery and was reminded once again just how good he is. John is one of the world’s top marine painters — his work sells in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. He grew up in Derbyshire, England, went to the Derby College of Arts and Crafts, emigrated to Canada and then to the USA.

John’s historical works are loaded with accurate research on vessels long since gone to the bottom — as well as re-visualized buildings and locations. Looking at his paintings, they make me feel like lowering my noble little clinkerbuilt and rowing around in them. To actual happenings in marine lore, he brings an understanding of drawing and perspective, painting bravura, luminous shadows, reflected light, unusual lighting conditions — moonlight, fog, against-the-light and atmospheric interference. Further, he gets details (such as rigging) right. This is a tough order. John knows how to rig a man-of-war, a Bluenose or a paddle wheeler. Practically everyone who has sailed on any sort of boat will look at a boat painting and find something wrong with it. I overheard one sidewalk expert say, “That block has four holes, it should have five.” The guy was wrong, it needed to be a four-holer, John got it right.

john-stobart_Nantucket-The Island-Port-by-Moonlight

“Nantucket: The Island Port by Moonlight at the Turn of the Century” oil painting by John Stobart

One time John was on our 112-foot vintage tug “Ivanhoe” together with John Horton, another brilliant marine painter. The two studied the giant oak knees that spanned between the ribs and the deck. They looked closely at our scuppers, gunwales, our brass and our carved detail. There was a glint in their eyes — that sobering look that you see when passion is combined with knowledge. New information gives new understanding and new understanding gives new inspiration. This is no sham.

john-stobart_NewYorkSouthStreet Arrival, 1881

“New York South Street Arrival, 1881”
oil painting by John Stobart

Best regards,


PS: “Painting from life should never be lost. It should still be taught, respected and practiced. My prayer is that the ancient art of true painting will not disappear, for if it does so much of human nature will perish too.” (John Stobart)

Esoterica: John’s is the classic story of character together with rigorous training at the Derby School, the Royal Academy in London, England, and then emigration to countries (Canada and the USA) that appreciated his skills. Success was more or less instantaneous because quality was there. “I determined I would never call one of my galleries and ask for money,” he says. “I wanted to elevate myself above the status of a starving artist.”

This letter was originally published as “Sham” on January 30, 2004.

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    • Marine painting is classical enough to rest on a ready-made market of wealthy men. He’s a good artist….like J. Bruce, I put in a dollar for a nickel. The new is always a longer road to financial success. I read recently that Rothko, Rauschenberg and Pollock were secretly funded by undercover CIA money to alter the European art market’s profits. It was a real news story…and it truly revealed how those guys got so rich in their ’50’s. They all drank so much, too. Anyway, the Impressionists were a role model for many of us. The artist life is a workman’s life, not celebrity life. Keep on keeping on!

      • I recently read the biography of Lee Krasner and J. Pollock, by Krasner. There was never any mention of secret CIA money for them. That sounds like a myth. They had money sometimes and none other times. He would never have been as lionized as he was without her untiring work in promoting him. She also worked ALL the time on her own painting. I wonder at her energy . She produced her own large body of work, all the while pushing his work, even after he died. She never got her own retrospective in NY until she had died, though she knew it was coming. Donna Veeder

        • roberto e.cañedo on

          yes, I believe you are correct about no CIA involvement, and the support Lee gave Jackson during his creative genius and drunken binges. Props to her, and I sure wish I could afford one of her paintings!

    • Well, right off the bat, Ill bet you enjoyed putting in that dollar, though, didn’t you? We artists paint because we have to. I can’t imagine not painting. I honestly don’t think about the dollars or nickels. If they come, great, if they don’t, ( which is most of the time.).I still paint. If I have a good day painting, I am on top of the world. If the painting is not very good. I quit, and try again the next day.

  1. What’s funny to me, before I read your email, I was working on a piece of furniture. I thought about the cost of each layer, added it up, then laughed to myself as I said ” Now cut that in half and pray I can get that!” Sometimes, it’s good to have a sense if humor.

  2. Elevate your status to above a starving artist is key. Few can achieve that lofty goal, especially with the increasing cost of materials, commissions, travel expenses, shipping, deep pocket patrons, etc. Then you have to put on well attended workshop and teach your method, shop it in magazines and online. None of this comes cheap. Even deducting your expenses from your taxes you are barely getting by. I am so happy that I don’t have to do art to make a living. I do art just to do art for art’s sake.

  3. One of the most delightful things I love about Robert is his appreciation of so many different styles of art. His assessments are always worth reading, and his eye for quality was outstanding. How I wish I had known him personally while he walked and painted this planet! Thanks, Sara, for continuing the work so admirably.

  4. Thanks for the book recommendation Norman.

    As a curious and creative person, I am interested in the emotional/intellectual aspects of art, as well as the technique/technical stuff.

    For me, learning how to recognize, describe, and reproduce what I like in art, is relatively fun and easy for me. It is a lifelong endeavor that requires effort, but I enjoy it and can understand it.

    A much more difficult nut for me to crack, was the issue of “what is art” and can I honestly say “yes” when people ask me if I am an artist, without offending other artists.

    After much thought on the subject, I have come to the conclusion that, there is no correct answer to that question, and that art to me, is freedom of expression, and that the quality/value of a work of art is a matter of personal preference/opinion.

    While I enjoy the praise of an established artist/critic, it is not as important to me as how I feel about the creation, and finding a home for my art, where it will be appreciated.
    I don’t care if the person who buys, or receives my art as a gift, is a serious art collector or not.
    The only thing that matters to me is if it makes them happy to have it on their wall, or in there collection.

    Simply put:
    Art and beauty are in the eyes of the beholder.
    Art snobs and people who claim there is only one “right way” to make art, have no power or influence over me.
    In my art, I am free. And that makes me happy ;-)

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