Sunday, August 9, 2015

What and how of painting: two questions realist artists wrestle with

When she sails, 11x14 inches, lightfast colored pencil
When I had decided to take art seriously, I began studying for my B.F.A. I commuted to school for about 80 minutes one-way for two years. I had a wonderful professor over there who kept telling the class: "it's not WHAT you paint, but HOW you paint it." I didn't really get what he meant by that statement, and so I just painted the required still lifes, like everyone else in class on handmade 36" square canvases. Enjoyed it and even sold some of my work produced during that period. There were no demonstrations, just painting from life. I guess so everyone could figure out HOW to paint it.
When I went for my Master's, there was disregard for HOW. It was all about WHAT to paint. Theory and ideas coupled with some chance and luck involved...
            After a roller-coaster of many years spent drawing and painting, failing and believing in the impossible, now I know that true painting doesn't quite work, if HOW to paint is missing WHAT to paint and vice versa. As a realist contemporary artist, I try to balance both parameters where the skill supports the idea with equal force.
I must admit I have no talent painting people. It's me who drew stick figures. I took more life drawing classes than many other students. That's where I saw the difference between the sheer talent and plain hard work.
This is how it looked after 2-3 years of drawing. LOL

Up to this day figurative painting represents the highest challenge for me, yet I do it, working on such pieces 4-5 times longer than on landscapes. Why? Because my bare knowledge of HOW must meet with my concept of WHAT. Figurative painting is the highest form of art, in which emotions and thoughts can be expressed at artist's fullest potential through the power of human form.

Serenity, oil on canvas, 16x20 inches

Thursday, July 30, 2015

The philosophy of art marketing and how I come to terms with it

Dear artists and art students,

You are about to discover who you are as an artist and a person, standing for many hours in front of your easels thinking of your artwork as a contribution to society, dreaming of becoming famous one day, enjoying the creative process, failing, laughing, crying, and smiling again and again. You’d love your painting as you paint it, you’d hate it in a couple of days. You don’t wait for a muse to visit you, you paint to release the pressure. You’d pick up your brushes to do it all over again, thinking of your ultimate masterpiece.
Soon you’d also discover that it’s just the very beginning of a very strenuous marathon that is called the artist’s career. Your family and some friends might doubt your talent and abilities for years. If you are a female artist, beware, people would be insensitive and obnoxious, asking what your husband does for a living. (It happens to me every time!) Deep inside, however, you know it’s the only path you are taking, no matter what others tell you. If it’s you, welcome. Welcome to a different state of mind, of survival and success. Yes, we must think of success to survive the hardship. Unfortunately, in our world we need money to function. For many, money is the only purpose of living. That’s how people measure your level of success, but you know, my friend, that this measurement doesn’t even come close to our self-inflicted standard of success we pursue in painting. So below you are about to see a rumble of some thoughts and ideas about art marketing, philosophy, and my plain attitude.
  Is it moral for artists to employ marketing gimmicks to sell art? How can we-artists connect with the purpose of making art to one of its necessary components-making sales? After my graduation from college, I knew nothing about the art marketing (art marketing is not the same as a plain marketing book you get in college) and how hard it would be to learn. As practical advice is rarely given, I've learned to see the hard way that the pursuit of perfection in realist drawing and painting often has nothing to do with the artist's "hotness" and sales. In theory, my art will find its clients and viewers based on merit; in practice, my art finds the viewership and sales through my consistent effort and promotion.

No one gives a shit about my art, if I don't. That means that no one will speak/promote/ market my work with the same passion and effort I put into it. It's the artist's responsibility to become successful. You are in charge of your career. Remember it.
To become financially stable artists must personally communicate with clients, directors, gallery' owners, etc. If an artist avoids direct conversation, thinking you will get noticed eventually by merit or some e-mail communication, know that you severely cut your chances to become recognized these days, remaining as a drop in the ocean of millions of practicing artists out there. While the extrovert artists seize the opportunity to promote and sell their work and it looks natural to them, where do the introvert artists fit in? It's a question to ponder for many, including me. Changing myself a little bit one step at a time helps me to achieve my set of goals. Written up, concrete goals make marketing easier and less overwhelming. Do you know exactly what you want?
One of major marketing strategies at art festivals or other sale venues (no art marketing books would mention) is to talk to people about them, not about an artwork they want to buy (unless they specifically ask about it). That means that the client, customer, art enthusiast, whoever is interested in buying your art is the focal point in a conversation.  As a result even if the client doesn't understand much about the artwork and what goes into it, in order to have an easy sell artists should refrain from educating people or talking about the technicalities of art-making. In this case it comes to a big ethical question for me: do I want to make instant sales or to just grow a client's understanding and appreciation of art? In most instances the salesperson would chose the first option, the artist-the second. There are exceptions, of course as we all have various parts to ourselves working in different modes in various situations, or we simply absorb and learn the tools of the trade to transform from "starving" to "successful". 
Another sales gimmick is to make yourself a "hot item to buy" to attract attention. For that some artists go for a shock value in their art: they often paint obscene images with overly naked bodies and bloody parts that have nothing to do with the beautiful, spirited art captured in the nude. "The shock artists" talk a lot about the significance of their work, PR themselves in every possible venue. Will their art stand a test of time? I doubt it, but they make it financially. One fine example is Damien Hirst. Although some of his pieces are good, he is a great self-promoter who built his business on marketing and connections, making controversial pieces for critics to talk about. Check out a very wealthy artist Jeff Koons. Is he really that great?!
With purpose such artists create a persona with unusual appearance. Everyone recognizes Einstein's mad hair and Dali's long mustache. While these guys are deserving personalities, they are personalities, wouldn't you agree? Here I see another moral dilemma: why does the artist have to "look interesting" in order to sell? Why can't we fall in love with his or her art without this necessary marketing gimmick? I think it's just human nature to get attracted to someone or something unusual, to stand out from the crowd so to speak.
You may argue that one of artistic purposes is to bring our attention to societal problems with shocking imagery. You may ask how artists could depict the ugly, the worst of our society, if there are no gross objects splattered across canvases. Is it possible at all to leave social commentary on pressing issues without modern shocking elements? My answer is yes.
It can be done with grace and beauty. Here is an example: the Vasiliy Perov's painting "The drowned" completed in 1867. Bored and indifferent soldier casually smokes over the young lifeless female body spread on the river's bank. The artist represents the indifference of society to tragic and irredeemable life of low class women. Viewers look at the ugliness of Russian society through the visual poetry. The artist leaves a historic mark with his painting, creating controversy to serve a much higher purpose than annoying fluff so many contemporary artists fall for these days.

Today while I believe that purposeful art speaks for itself as it connects with a specific audience of thinkers, it also looks like a necessity to make statements, create controversies and speech stunts to attract media attention, and do so consistently. Look at Donald Trump. He loves to create controversy to promote whatever he wants to sell.
One of fair marketing strategies, I think is to communicate and share my art online, including the social media and email. While organizing a show is a time consuming process that only few people may attend, sharing art online is instant and global. It helps to see who my audience is, to get feedback, and to just enjoy a conversation with like-mind individuals.
What do you think? In modern culture of Twitter and Facebook blurbs, are we destined to make hype to sell or do we just keep working and working until we get discovered on one lucky day? Your call.
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Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Making sales: creating realist oil paintings is hard work.

"How long does it take to make this oil painting?"

This is the most notorious question artists get. Viewers really have no idea what it takes, and artists don't even know where to begin answering this question, because it involves a thorough explanation of not just ONE piece of art for us. By getting this question often, it took me a while to understand that people just want to open up a conversation with us, and they often don't know how to do it differently. Like many artists I used to get confused, intimidated, and even angry at times being bumped by it. What it meant for me back then that people didn't see much value in my work and thus questioned me. I think of it quite different now.
In general, viewers try to calculate or connect the objectivity of high pricing with the time artist spends painting the particular work. On the surface it looks expensive, overpriced, too much money, you get the idea. Artists, on the other hand, think of a lifetime of EFFORT, misery, bills, and COST associated with the ART-making chosen as a career that can't be quantified into a certain number of hours spent on one work.
So here is a partial list or a breakdown if you will of some costs artists accrue producing realist painting:
·       Education
Besides the obvious tuition and living costs most students have (that run into many thousands of dollars), artists don't become artists in four to six years after college graduation. This profession starts with zero job prospects or security, and builds up to something meaningful over a very long period of time of hard work and dedication. That means a continued struggle, a reconciliation of the need to paint and to make money to pay the bills and to buy a ton of art supplies, until the one glorious day. Waking up on that sunny morning, knowing that the artist is good at his job and can begin selling his/ her artwork. 
·       It takes A LONG time to learn how to paint realistically.
There are no cute formulas or shortcuts.  No one learns it overnight! It's a skill that takes an artist's continuous effort and focus. Until very recently, there were no realist schools available to get a comprehensive education from, which magnified the problem and effort to achieve a certain skill level. Of course, there are exceptions. There are super talented artists who haven't spent as much time learning, but such instances are rare.
Those who have no time to do their art don't become artists. Fear of instability takes away their need to paint from them.
·       Artists don't just hang out at art festivals, fairs, or their shows enjoying the limelight of attention.
Well, maybe for a little bit but... It also involves a lot of effort, persistence, and investment. On average, a popular festival's booth fees run around $450-$500/per a 1-3 day show plus application fee, hotel, gas, rented van, and finally the cost of a good booth itself with professional walls that costs around $2,500 on average. Many artists hit the road for months doing such shows and festivals traveling from one state to the next, working way over 8 hours a day.
Work at the festivals includes not only the artist's time present at the booth all day, but also the time and effort to set up and to break down (usually early in the morning and late in the evening,) time to carry, pack, unpack and pack again a number of heavy, framed paintings. Costs paid to enter juried shows and festivals run anywhere from $10 to $45 per artwork, $35 on average.
·       Custom framing costs a fortune, it can literally cost more than an artwork, but many artists invest into their frames because it gives them professional presentation that is often required, by the way, to display their work in juried shows.
·       Time to market artwork (emails, presentations, social media, research, writing, contacting galleries and editors) takes A LOT of time and effort to do it consistently.
      Model fee.

·       Art supplies
First, artists spend hundreds of dollars on art supplies every year as we keep learning and practicing for years. This is a continuous expense like going to a grocery store each week. Second, when the time is right, the artist transitions to professional, durable, lightfast materials that cost a lot more that cheaply manufactured canvases and paints. The result is different. Expensive art supplies let artists create long lasting, museum-quality pieces, unlike the junk that would fall apart quite soon. Do you know what you buy? Often times if artist doesn't share this information with you, you can't tell visually.
·       Other ordinary expenses, like the office costs that include professional photo equipment, a storage file for artwork, a scanner and a printer, often a video camera and tons of inks and photo paper.
·       To stand out from the crowd, some artists chose to advertise that accrues to yet another hefty expense.
·       Artist's price of an artwork includes the 50% mark up, sometimes 60-65% that galleries take selling artist’s work.
·       Attitude towards artists in our society: not that much respect, stereotyping, and generalization.
“Lazy artists,” “starving artists,” “stupid artists…” We have become the 2nd class citizens because we often allow it to happen, and because art is sort of everywhere today. Sometimes we don’t even pay attention to it, it’s just there. This is one of the hardest costs artist encounter. As the society has moved from scarce products production to consumerism, artists got pushed to the side. A lot of work got devalued by, being in a direct competition with the Chinese cheaply made goods and mass-produced items. This trend multiplies by people's needs and desires that include purchases of a new piece of technology rather than a small artwork, for example. Even the multitude of options of buying art prints has cheapened the value of art even further. As a result many folks don't see that much value in an artwork, which can only be seen as valuable when buyers understand how hard it is to produce an exceptional piece, and that's the only one available. The ONLY ONE. The only one that gives you JOY and may even be HEALING. The one that connects with you emotionally and often intellectually. When we look at history, we often study it through art, as artists improve lives in meaningful ways and make powerful contribution to society.
·       What is an exceptional piece?
I think the word ART has lost or changed its original meaning, evolving into many facets of artful creations that redefined the uniqueness and value of art. Moreover, there is plenty of bogus "art" that receives attention due to smart marketing campaigns, and many get lost trying to understand what's really valuable and what is not. It's rare to see someone admitting that he or she doesn't get art.

Finally, I get to that original question. "How long does it take to make this oil painting?"
It involves: sketching and planning, a color study, hand-stretching and further preparation of canvases, a set up creation, a precise drawing, and yes, painting... Painting in layers for many days, depending on size and detail. Varnishing. Framing. So the time spent painting one piece equals to two weeks of work plus 10 to 15 years of learning the craft of painting, including everything else listed above. Do I answer your question? ;)

If you'd like to hit a meaningful conversation about painting, feel free to ask these questions:
"What's the process behind your work?"
"Where does the inspiration come from?"
"Where do ideas come from?"
"How do you achieve this or that?"
You get the drift.

*This list also applies to many abstract painters who often spend the same time and effort to produce and sell art.
*I dedicate this blog post to all the brave artists out there who have the courage to stay on their path.

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