I remember the exact moment when I knew I was an artist. It wasn’t as a child. Art was the friend I set aside when it was time to be a grown-up. No, it was much later, when I was well over fifty. I don't know why it took so long. But in a way, I'm glad that it did.
We all experience life in ways that prod us toward such realizations. Eventually, we find ourselves talking about that progress. When I first got out of art school, I was invested in the philosophical influences I had learned. I relied on Art Speak, a lot. I spent most of a decade painting and explaining while eyes would glaze over until I had lost my audience. And in the end, I lost my confidence.
While the process of learning can be uncomfortable, you can’t always fix your inexperience through art speak. It is not an effective way to control the impressions people make about your work. But you can learn how to better engage your audience. I have discovered at least three keys to effective Art Speak: these insights might be helpful to you.
Key 1: Start by nurturing the human connections. People are curious about their attraction to art. They want the story. What were you interested in depicting? Why did you pick that subject? Through this shared conversation, something interesting happens. The viewer becomes invested in the work, making their own connections. It is no longer a work that must be justified. It becomes a form of collaboration.
Key 2: Discuss the entire canvas. The example of developing the entire block in before the focal point applies here. While it's obvious that your painting is about a child sitting in the shade beneath a tree, by pointing out how the loose abstract in the background helps to describe the dappled light, or the thickness of the paint on the folds of the shirt provide dimension - it's the details that add richness to the visual experience. At a recent art walk, I enjoyed a long conversation with a group of college students. Their curiosity ranged from questions like ‘what is this about?” to “how did you achieve that and why?” I finally asked if they were art students. To my surprise, not a single one had ever taken an art class. They just found the discussion interesting, seeing the art with new insight.
Key 3: Be curious about what others see when they look at your work. This isn’t always comfortable for the artist. I remember standing in front of a self-portrait, listening to someone say it would probably look better upside down. He was probably right, and he had no idea I was the artist. But the experience reinforces an important point. Most people want to connect, but human experiences are not unilaterally universal. I have always found the best insights this way, realizing that I was too focused on getting something perfectly right when most people saw the work in a different light.
If there is isolation for the artist when creating work, there is also the need for connection. At some point, you will be asked to talk about your work. It may feel awkward to walk up to a stranger and start a conversation, but in the end you are both after the same result.
January is the month for "Colors of the Year," symbolically defining the trends for the coming months. As useful as it is to consider new color palettes, emotional cues behind the choices hold the most value.
When Pantone introduced the 2016 colors of the year, they keyed into two themes: persuasive compassion and serene composure. Thematically, the 2017 color marketers are tapping into more energized emotions, and if interpreted right, artists can find new opportunities for work that appeals to the various niches.
Elle Decor uses words such as sophisticated and creative to describe how the consumer sees self identity as defined by personal living spaces. In the visual examples used, Elle Decor combines furnishings and fine art to define specific moods or emotional cues, from those seeking drama, to atmosphere, or regional identity.
Elle Decor is not alone in seeing a new trend emerging, based on the consumer's desire for a more optimistic, cozy, comforting, renewing, or elegant new image for 2017. Pantone, recognized as a standard setter in the design environment, has selected the color Greenery as definitive of the 2017 environment. Their descriptions of the emotional connections to Greenery include back to nature, spring, renewal, life affirming changes, starting over with a fresh approach.
Sherwin-Williams has selected "Poised Taupe" as their Color of 2017, calling it a complex neutral intended to communicate the idea of a refuge from the outside world. Ideas such as elegance, graceful patina, earthiness and the authenticity of "a well-lived life" identify the emotions they want associated with this color.
Benjamin Moore takes it a step further, posting a video showing how their design team drew inspiration from contemporary art events, selecting their deep purple color, called "Shadow," as their entry into the 2017 trend. Shadow is intended to communicate the combined emotions of nostalgia, morning light filled with optimism, evenings of mystery, romance, magic and "an Old Master palette."
The value here is in the word choices used to sell the colors, and how those define the marketer's view of the 2017 consumer. Using this analysis, 2017 will see strong enthusiasm for a culture-based environment, where not just colors, or furnishing, but original fine art may play a strong role. It will be interesting to see if this theory plays out for both galleries and artists alike.
I appreciate the way you have accepted my words, and my art, into your lives. So I would like to thank and welcome the new subscribers to this blog, and those who have also subscribed to my newsletter. In my newsletter I write more about art technique, my motivations behind specific paintings, and occasionally offer paintings for sale at special prices. Here is a convenient link to subscribe to my newsletter .
I would also like to thank those of you who have purchased my book, Ancient Wisdom: Emerging Artist: the business plan (not just) for the mature artist, over the past month. I hope this book helps you with the intrinsic motivation, as well as offering practical ideas and a bit of humor at the end of the day. Please leave your recommendations or suggest it to others who might be interested in the content.
Image: The Sun, The Moon, and The City. @2017, SFSmith
One of the most fascinating artists of 2016 has to be Cuban-born, American Minimalist artist Carmen Herrera. Born in Havana in 1915, Herrera moved to post war Paris, eventually ending up in New York City in the mid-50's. Her work was exhibited next to Piet Mondrian, and was considered equal to that of Barnett Newman and Frank Stella, but Herrera remained unnoticed, and undeterred.
I discovered a wonderful 2010 interview by Hermione Hoby, titled "Carmen Herrera: 'Every Painting has been a fight between the painting and me. I tend to win.' The abstract artist on the man who saved her paintings from the bin, and being discovered at the age of 89."
One of my favorite quotes is this:
"You don't decide to be an artist, art gets inside of you. Before you know it you're painting, before you know it you're an artist. You're so surprised. It's like falling in love."
But she has an acerbic wit and great insight, so I'm sure you'll find favorites of your own.
More interesting reads on this remarkable story of passion and resiliency include Carmen Herrera, 101-Year-Old Overnight Success, Gets Her Whitney Close-Up (with video), at CultureGrrl, written by Lee Rosenbaum, and this Dazed article, At 101-years-old, artist Carmen Herrera is NY’s one-to-watch, by Ashleigh Kane.
Overlooked for decades, Carmen Herrera remained true to her passion. Though some of the reasons the art world ignored her work have since been resolved - women are not as invisible as they were 50 years ago - there are other obstacles that have little to do with gender or the quality of the work or the direction of the vision. The take away here is truth to vision and belief in purpose, and not allowing age to be the excuse for no
How do you balance your creativity while working in an entirely different field? Or stay connected to your own art practice, and yet succeed in an art world that often feels too opaque and impenetrable, operating by secret rules?
Over the holidays I learned about a young artist who was self-destructing, because the door to her creative path had slammed closed. “I consider myself an artist,” she said, “trained to be an art teacher. But the only door left open to me is toward a corporate job I hate and which drains me of all creativity.” Another artist, connecting through email to explain his disappointment after pursuing an academic art degree in his 40’s, struggled with a loss of faith in the art world. “It seems almost too challenging to maintain the heart of creative art making while entering the art market.”
When we commit to a lifetime of art making, we rarely consider what is actually required – little institutional security, the need for both independence and collaboration, success, failure, hot and cold, critics and feeling invisible. Often, when confronted with that reality, we struggle with disappointment. But disappointment comes to us for a reason: the message is not about impossible dreams, but how to pursue them.
I have always maintained that it’s important to have a philosophical understanding of your art: the why, what, and how of it. Identifying meaningful connections to art history provides a reason for creating despite the down times, the fears and loss of confidence. There are more long-standing artists who sustain the idea of Fine Art through a dedication to their work, than those who fly to the top of the visibility scale, so building a strong foundation from a very personal perspective is worth the effort.
Keeping roles separate is equally important. Real life can be filled with demands, and often a few obligations (such as work and family) will overrule all others (such as the need to make art). Since we often have unwritten contracts with world, we feel intense disappointment and anger when those contracts don’t work out. Most of the time, we don't even realize the subconscious contracts we construct, we just behave in ways that assume outcomes that fit comfortably with our image of what we should be. This is actually a larger impediment to creativity than we acknowledge - the reality that life might not always allow you to spend the time, under the conditions you need, to do the work that you intended and trained and expected to do. Or that the work you produce will not even be acknowledged, or allow you to make a living doing what you love.
Keeping it real is so much bland, generic advice, I'm rolling my eyes even using it. A better suggestion is to constantly reevaluate what is real and possible, and adjusting accordingly. I have been painting and selling art for over 18 years, and I work harder at it and find it more challenging in today’s environment than ever before. So realistic is important to me, as well as risk taking and believing in what I produce, and how I choose to market it. I admit to going down rabbit holes, searching for solutions to make my "contracts" come true. There are moments when the "why bother to be an artist when there are so many struggles" question is overwhelming, especially when there are so many deserving artists who are under exposed, and always will be. Directions change, new styles emerge that take attention away from your work, you grow cynical from rejection and disinterest. So the real question - the real contract - is how to evolve when the current path is not working, how to keep painting when you can't imagine doing anything else.
Leonard Cohen talks about writing all the time, doing nothing but writing in order to find out what the song is. Stuart Shills talks about affirming the immediacy of a moment, finding the residue of memory.
So what feelings are you chasing when you make art? What needs are you feeding?
What are your contracts?
I recently participated in an event that prompted me to reevaluate my thoughts on style. The show was available online and when viewed this way, I felt my painting style did not easily "fit" with the general feel of the show. There were many excellent paintings, all versions of the prevailing visual appearance, and it made me question whether my ideas about personal style ought to be reassessed.
I have always felt that style developed over time as the artist found his visual language. The way we mix the paint, hold the brush, the direction of the stroke or the ideas behind the composition are all part of style. I still believe this. But I want a richer understanding by expanding on that idea.
The standard advice for artists has always been to develop a style that identifies you, so that your work is recognizable. So the question is how far can the artist stray from the norm before their audience becomes confused as to the style they are expecting? It should be easy, but it’s not.
The definition of style, which you can read in full here, is straightforward: Innovation in style rises through the work of a single or small group of artists, and those that follow are said to be working in a similar manner, or the school of, where essentially they are taking the ideas and expanding on the body of work, but not necessarily changing the trajectory. So an artist must eventually decide where he fits within a particular school (or set of ideas) and work in that direction, or risk being labeled as disorganized and confusing.
But how broad can that direction be? Where is the boundary, where this side you are safe, and that side you are at risk?
In this article at quartz.com, we learn that art collectors at the high end are looking for artistic rigor, work that challenges the status quo, communicates ideas, displays outstanding technique, a distinguishing narrative – all while playing “outside the rules.” There is no real surprise here from the art sector that believes in preserving high culture for our society. Art that is intellectually challenging, while reflecting the bones of art history beneath innovation and contemporary approach is meaningful at this level. And while attitudes at the top eventually filter down to the lower tiers, the collectors outside the auction houses have different expectations. They are more interested in ideas around the beauty and artistic prestige of a particular work, the emotional connection or narrative depicted, and a sense of recognition between collector and artist on a subtle level. But one idea that will not change no matter what group you are talking about is that people bring their experiences and expectations to the artwork, and they want to understand what they are looking at - and the strongest, easiest mode of communication is style.
Style does evolve organically, but the argument can be made for the artist to fit their work between the fine lines of innovation, expression, and expectation. This is especially true if you are trying to get your work accepted into prestigious shows or important galleries. While there is leeway, there is also a strong pull toward "fitting into the whole presentation." While looking at your own portfolio, there may be a strong sense of continuity, of work that is easily identified as yours. But when that work moves out into the group shows, what is better? To fit in with the group or to work at the edges? Does your personal style fit close enough to the expectation of the audience or does it feel discordant? Are you too sensitive to your own voice, too insecure with the acceptability of your style that you over-react (always possible), or does it signal the need to step back and reassess?
It comes down to the artist deciding what their work is about and how they want to develop the ideas, and then how and where they want to present that work to the marketplace. The reception is going to be risky no matter whether you are following the traditional path or the “play outside the rules” path. Art has always been about problem solving, and risk is part of the artist’s development. It is said that art at any level can find a buyer, but most serious artists I know are also looking for high artistic achievement, producing the best work possible, improving their technique, and then translating that into recognition and eventually sales. I hope I am opening a discussion, and look forward to other artist's thoughts on this subject. Please add your ideas through the comments section.
The story behind the Desperation Ridge paintings: there is no specific geographical place called Desperation Ridge, although seeing parts of the Oregon Outback I am sure more than one gold miner, or short-cut following wagon train called one or more of the volcanic ridges and gullies by that name - or others more colorful. While not totally born of imagination, Desperation Ridge reflects many emotions artists experience when a painting does or does not come together as intended. And not just artists. We all have the obstacles we are determined to overcome at all costs. There is beauty in that quest.