This morning Ray Johnson wrote, “My first job was doing charcoal portraits on the Atlantic City boardwalk (for $2.00 each). My friends and I did 30 or 40 a day. Good training. Then on to mountains, oceans, beaches–whatever would sell at the time. The mood of the buying public shifts like the wind. The artist is sometimes forced to give in to the wind. Do you agree? Or do you feel that is not true art?”
Thanks, Ray. You’re right about the training. Some street artists dazzle you with their facility — particularly with deadly likenesses in short order. Street pros, members of a distinct subculture, have three things going for them: (1) they do a lot of it, (2) they’re driven by economic pressure, (3) the stars of the game automatically demonstrate their personal techniques. Fact is, new workers have to learn fast in a closely knit competitive world where poor likenesses get few takers.
More than one artist has noted that BSA (Bachelor of Street Art) may rival BFA. The “worker’s edge” is one of the most valuable talents a fine artist can bring to the easel. But there’s something else — a subtle transition needs to take place. The artist needs to see wisdom in catering to the self.
Throughout history there have been artists who were men of their times, and yet they maintained their individuality. Take Rembrandt. Blown by the wind, he catered to the portrait needs of the Dutch gentry. But he also added his own peculiar spin, personality, sense of truth and sense of self. It’s as if, while doing commercial work, he discovered a kernel of wisdom in both his sitters and himself. When I look at Rembrandt’s portraits, I can almost hear him say, “Something’s going on here. It’s interesting to me. I’ve tried to figure it out. Can you see?”
It’s been said that no art exists without patronage. Perhaps this is true even when patrons are obscure or unknown. Breakthroughs come when artists realize the desires of the patron are merely the framework on which the desires of the artist are built. To answer your question, Ray, all art is “true art,” but some art is truer than other art.
PS: “Of course you will say that I ought to be practical and try to paint the way they want me to paint. Well, I’ll tell you a secret. I have tried and I have tried very hard, but I can’t do it. I just can’t do it! And that is why I’m just a little crazy.” (Rembrandt Van Rijn 1606-69)
Esoterica: No matter how streetwise artists may be, a great deal of growth takes place in their spare time. This can be a time when artists exercise private spirit and utilitarian skills for their own whim and benefit. Rembrandt didn’t need to paint those self-portraits. There were no collectors standing in line to buy images of an impecunious painter. But his mirror image was there in all seasons and ages, a free subject worth exploring. We are ourselves, after all, the most available, interesting, problematic and best known person we’ll ever know.
Being me again
by Vivian Anderson, Sydney, Australia
I just gave in completely! For the longest time I’ve worked on paintings I thought would please my daughter, who has a very good eye. She never wanted any of them. Today she said, “Why do you always paint in blue?” and I then realized I had to let go trying to please my audience (her), got out MY colours, smashed the huge (for me) canvas with rich, wonderful, exciting purples, scarlets over the “blues,” and now it’s MY painting, and I’m over trying to please, and have found the fun again. (When I do my self-portraits at home on my own, they are always purples, scarlets, fuschias and for now I’m back to being true to “me” again). Maybe someone will love my over-painted painting: I do!
Giving your own spin
by Nina Allen Freeman, Tallahassee, FL, USA
A few years ago I had a commission from a close friend to paint portraits of her beloved dog and cat. Her desires were simple: likenesses to hang on her wall that her friend had painted. I don’t normally do pet portraits so my dilemma was how to give her what she wanted and keep my self respect, at the time thinking it was a little below my dignity. I found the job challenging and ended up with two portraits that both she and I can be proud of. You can make a quality painting out of any subject by putting your own spin into it.
Priority of learning experience
by Hiria Ratahi, Whakatane, New Zealand
“To be or not to be true to yourself.” I, too, have painted to the affordable art — it is quick, it contains a smidgen of myself but there is more joy and satisfaction in creating a painting that takes time and emerges as a “gem.” I call “true art” the “gems” that I put out. Not all of my paintings are gems — there are paintings that just haven’t got that ‘edge.’ However I need to learn that it is of no matter what others think about my paintings but that each painting is a learning experience and to keep painting.
Don’t be a damn fool
by Valerie McCaffrey
I, too, cut my artistic teeth doing pastel/ charcoal portraits — on the boardwalk in Wildwood, NJ! — so the anecdote caught my eye. “Truer” isn’t “truth” and it is the truth to which an artist must yield. When a student asks me what I mean by “truth,” I know she isn’t there yet (but I would never say so). There is a quote by Georgia O’Keeffe that says at a certain point in her life she realized she couldn’t say what she wanted to say, to go where she wanted to go, or even do what she wanted to do, so, she said, “I’d be a damn fool not to paint the way I want to paint.”
The rise of Chinese artists
by Mary Susan Vaughn, Weddington, NC, USA
When I walk through the malls (especially at Christmas time) and there are kiosks for artists who do portraits — many do portraits right where they sit in the middle of the mall, and I look and I look and I am amazed at how good some of them are. I also notice that most all the ones I’ve seen in the malls are from China. My thought: “Are we making something more difficult than it has to be?” Really, why do so many of us struggle, when China is putting out master artists as quickly as they put out — well — all the other stuff I have wrapped under my tree?
Rembrandt against the wind
by Jack Dickerson, Brewster, MA, USA
Rembrandt had a very difficult life. It was painfully tumultuous. He had legal difficulties, no money, and was bankrupt several times. Despite his current universal acclaim as THE Dutch Master, he was ignored and forgotten in Holland during his life. Yes he did do portraits, but he also had no qualms about painting subjects that were not of any appeal to the public… i.e. the gory image of the bull being skinned and butchered. He lived a life of turbulence and numerous adversities. But he also painted enough portraits to help him make a meager living, and they are some of his greatest and most sensitive works. There is a balance between painting what you want and what others want. If you paint only one or the other, you suffer the consequences. This is not so bad. It is the real world (there are exceptions of course). So I do not think that Rembrandt was blown by the wind. From what I can see, most of what Rembrandt painted flowed from deep inside him — whether for paid portraits or his own subject matter. All you have to do is learn about his life of continuous ups and downs, misfortune and adversity. There is a lesson here, one that is shown to us by great artists through the ages.
by Sandy Davison, Lansing, MichiganI, USA
At that time in Holland, there was a genre of collecting artist’s self-portraits and while some of the etchings are called tronies, meant as rather general “type” pictures, and therefore appealing to a wider market, there were patrons very specifically interested in buying his and other artists’ self-portraiture. Uffizi houses now, and did during Rembrandt’s life time, the Lorenzo Medici collection of artist self-portraits that included commissioned and not. During his lifetime, a significant Rembrandt self-portrait was given to the King of England, he was still mid-career. One doesn’t give gifts that would be laughable to a king. Rather, I interpret this to mean it was enough a sign of understood merit by an artist of understood renown to be very certainly accepted as a contribution and tribute to the King. Even while Rembrandt’s long serious self portrayal delights me, I know that we all act on multiple simultaneous criteria. There are no known records, contracts, stating a patron’s order of Rembrandt self studies. But cultural trends are noted by artists since we are business people. Detecting a run on a subject, why not give it a try, or do it again for both purposes: self and other. My recently read references include Svetlana Alpers’ Rembrandt’s Enterprise. Other books not by this author, Rembrandt by Himself and Fictions of the Pose. Society was connected by information, artists traveled as part of their required development and, as an artist, I know I would be deeply excited by what other artists were doing, surely that was the same.
by Rick McClung, Atlanta, GA, USA
So many challenges exist while on the journey to becoming a pro artist. We learn the mechanics of the craft, study art history to learn what worked in the past for others, and then over the years we slowly develop a personal approach, hopefully. Then many artists, after overcoming so many hurdles, achieve a little success. After a little press and a few pats on the back, many will make the most common mistake of all. They become very prideful of their accomplishments and either level off or become hard for vendors to deal with. Art is a high calling. We should be thankful for the talent we are born with, the energy we were given to work and refine it, and for those who appreciate it enough to support us. When we become humble in spirit, then we will produce masterful work. Then again many just enjoy the idea of being an artist and attending the openings instead of leaving a meaningful body of work.
The hidden ingredient
by Mark A. Rue, FL, USA
Many painters struggle with the age-old problem of doing what they think the public wants, or painting what they want. I believe that if we paint from our hearts – do what we want (need) to do, in our own unique voice — the art has a certain honesty about it. I honestly believe that the viewer can sense this honesty. The art has integrity, spirit, and soul. I once heard about an artist who painted cats. Someone asked her how many cats she had – she said none, that she hated cats, she liked dogs! Of course when she switched to painting dogs, her career took off. When we paint from our hearts, paint what interests and excites us, people can feel the passion when they see the work. When we paint what we think we want, it comes off as soulless — it just sits there! I believe that if the subject matter doesn’t excite the artist, it’s never going to excite the viewer.
by Gwen Pentecost, Pinetop, AZ, USA
It’s a matter of balance. Many years ago, I painted for a gallery (now closed) whose owner told me what to paint in order to hang on their walls. Feeling a bit, um, stunted by both the choice of “assignment” and my own desire to go elsewhere, I also did what I called “hooky” paintings, as in playing hooky from school… that lasted until the gallery’s assistant director visited me in my studio. Somewhat reluctantly, she asked, “Why does he have you painting what he has you painting when you can paint like this?” Those words burned through my mind for weeks, and eventually I left to take some time off and rethink things. Now I have a gallery of my own, and am extremely sensitive to economic pressures and the wishes of my customers… however, I still paint “hooky” paintings, in fact they’re my primary focus. I use other people’s paintings and sculpture to fill that customer need when I hit a stretch where my work might not be as popular. It works, at least so far!
The ‘crazy’ package
by Warren Criswell, Benton, AR, USA
I was listening to Ridley Scott, director of the 1982 movie Blade Runner, on the radio yesterday describing the audience testing process. He said the trouble was that the financial backers rely too much on it. “It’s not the end in itself. You’ve got to know how to read it and know how to use it and, also, you have to know how to reject it if you think it’s wrong,” Scott says. But he said that after three audiences prefer a version you know is wrong, you end up going with the wind and selling your soul. (Now, 25 years later, he’s releasing the final cut — the true version.) Yes, as you say, it’s all “true” art but some is truer than others. If we were just in it for the money — but surely we could find an easier way! — then I guess sailing with the wind is the way to go, if you can do it. But if you’re possessed by this demon Art, as I think most of us are — even Ray, I suspect — nothing satisfies her but the real thing. The truest version we can manage. It’s not really a decision to be noble and true to the Spirit of Fine Art so much as a failure to be able to do something more reasonable. As Rembrandt said, “I just can’t do it!” The craziness comes with the package.
Painting the kids’ portraits
by Vianna Szabo, Romeo, MI, USA
I have spent many years painting portrait commissions and am thankful to have the opportunity to do so. I find, however, spending too much time worrying about the customer’s opinion can suck the creative energy right out of the process. What has pushed my art forward and kept me excited is painting portraits of my kids over and over and over again. I am lucky to be the mother of two teens who have modeled for me since they were in diapers (really). There is little monetary reward in this for me but painting them allows me to try new ideas and push boundaries in my abilities. That is something I am hesitant to do in paid commission work. Sometimes a certain gesture or lighting will spark an idea for a painting. With my daughter we have fun collecting beautiful gowns from the local Salvation Army for her to model in. She is by far the more versatile model. I love painting my son but his outfits are limited to tee-shirts in black and white and his shaggy mop of hair remains constant. So painting my children has not granted me commercial success but it has given me a wonderful record of their lives and allowed me freedom to experiment as I please.
Source of bad habits
by Paul Edmund Herman, Arcos de la Frontera, Spain
I was also, like Ray Johnson, a street artist almost 30 years ago. I did portraits on the streets of London’s West End for two or three years when I was still a teenager. Since then I’ve dedicated a chapter of my memoirs to the great memories of the experience and the tight band of painters who lived it. I find it hard to believe anyone could do 30 or 40 portraits a day, however poor in quality they might have been. On the busiest days of London’s short summer, twenty portraits was considered an extraordinarily good day (at five Pounds Sterling per drawing, 10 for a pastel — in 1978 just seven or eight portraits a day was very good earnings) and however commercially driven an artist’s technique was we all recognized that even in the unlikely event one found more clients than fifteen or twenty in a day, his work became very unreliable after that number. Moreover, I disagree strongly that it is good practice or education and, funnily enough, practically for the same reasons you cite as good ones. Of the dozens of street artists I knew, none had anything in common but one trait, one exception: he was working on the street for the money it provided. Despite an array of artistic principles that varied from one to another of us, there wasn’t one who would have been there if he could afford to stay in his studio. The implication of this fact is that our finished work, the portraits we did of strangers in bad light, on the street, and in fifteen minutes, was influenced and guided (accepted, rejected, criticised or even ridiculed) by people uninformed on the subject. Almost none of the people who sat for us had any formal understanding or appreciation of art and so their appreciation was based instead on likeness. We who understand art better know that Rembrandt’s self-portraits are not admired by generation after generation of painters and art connoisseurs because of the accuracy with which he copied his own features onto a canvas (many of his contemporaries were better at that but their work is forgotten today) but rather because he managed to capture something of the drama of human nature which we all share and therefore recognize. The art in a good portrait is made up more of psychology than dominion over the painter’s craft. I still, thirty years later, recognize bad habits in my draughtsmanship whose roots I trace to those days. My painting and sculpting follow a road of their own choosing but the drawing abilities that allow me to get a confident and reliable likeness are stuck in their artistic evolution at the time my work was directed by short-lived and uncouth bosses.
Enjoy the past comments below for Give in to the wind?…
Pansy Patch, St. Andrews, New Brunswick
acrylic painting, 8 x 10 inches
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 Mary Atkinson of Charlottesville, VA, USA who wrote, “I take a different tack and bend with the wind, stretching myself in another direction.”
And also Diana Troxell who wrote, “When painting a child, his face lights up with joy and everyone around lights up too. I have a little world of love and joy. Isn’t that art?”
And also Dave Wilson of White Rock, BC, Canada who wrote, “My truth must give priority to humans today and not ‘fame tomorrow.’ ”