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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Artistic Skill, A Blessing or a Curse?

 I got this Robert Genn Newsletter. Read it, then read my response. which I didn't send to him. He doesn't encourage comments and this is such a great topic.
Not your father's Oldsmobile
 May 22, 2012
 Dear Linda,
 Remember those sad children's faces with big, misty eyes? If you don't, you weren't around in the late fifties when they were hung on a lot of livingroom walls. Nowadays, this sort of painting has been sent to the rumpus room or the dustbin. Remember those juicy, over-the-mantle Parisian street scenes? What about those black velvets? Debuted in high-end galleries in the early sixties, black velvets made their exit marked down to $29.95 in humiliating supermarket parking lots.
 Fashions come and fashions go. One generation doesn't always want what the former generation coveted. It's an action-reaction syndrome and, considering human nature, it's inevitable.
 Music is an example. Statistics show that kids tend to go for any music that's different than what their folks like. My son Dave is a rocker. One day I asked him what he thought was the essential quality of Teen Rock. "Anything that parents can hate," said Dave, only he used more colourful terms.
 The situation is compounded by each generation's renewed need to appear smart and not to be like the fogey-generation behind. Dad may drive a dinosaur gas-guzzler, but junior needs to look good in a light-footprint sipper. Who knows, the next generation might feel smart in bulletproof pickups. Some already do.
 The "Not your father's Oldsmobile" campaign failed because it was still an Oldsmobile.
 The secondary art market is loaded with, "What goes around comes around." The "What's next?" crowd tries to figure out what might be a smart investment. Woodblock prints, for example, can suddenly come out of the fifty dollar range into the fifty thousand dollar range.
The transformation often takes two generations. Recently, at an auctioneer's viewing day, I saw a couple of sad, misty-eyed kids staring out at me. The next day at the auction some discriminating connoisseur was the highest bidder.
 For those whose main sensitivity is money, name blinds judgment.
With the advent of the Internet, even regional and peripheral names can gain mystique. This may be the main megatrend happening in art right now. But art-market well-being is also governed by the liquidity-availability equation. Right now there's lots of availability and limited liquidity. Without reasonable money floating around, artists, too, can get sad and misty-eyed.
 Best regards,

A painting I bought from an art gallery in Rome in 1969 while
on an art buying trip for our company.

The artist's name on the big teary eyed children’s paintings is  Margaret Keane, an American artist and an amazing business woman. We sold  a lot of her highly stylized paintings  in addition to European and Asian “oils”  (nothing on velvet)  in the sixties through the mid eighties. All the artists we carried painted to earn a living. They were production artists.

The best of production art came from Europe, Italy in particular.  And most of the artists that painted those oil paintings did so using a pseudonym.  They saved their birth names for their fine art that was marketed in  respectable European galleries. They made a living from their production painting while honing their skills in fine art. There was nothing shameful about producing  a lot of  similar landscapes or flowers or portraits. It put bread on the table and oils on the palette.

 But the fine art artists, on this side of the Atlantic,  were outraged. They cried  the public was being duped when no duping was done, only business.

Decorative art had been produced  for centuries. To this day, nobody knows which part of a Reuben was painted by Reuben or by one of the many artists who worked for him. Wall art was a product for sale and production within a reasonable time period was desirable. To speed things up,  artists formed workshops and hired on other artists. American artists, me included, stuck our nose up at artists who would sink so low to produce in bulk. Art was lofty didn't anybody know?  It wasn't a commodity. 

The Asian art market overtook the European market somewhere in the seventies. The Asian representatives would sell their artists'paintings for a lot less than the Eutropeans; so, the Asian market  became the new center for export. They didn’t paint English gardens or Paris street scenes  for over the mantle as well as the Europeans, but they did a pretty darn good job, good enough to fill the public's demand.  The “average Joe” liked having real oil  paintings in phenomenal wood frames, (Mexico was the best country for that at that time),  for a reasonable price hanging on their castle walls. He thought an authentic oil  was  much better than  a mass produced print, like a   poster. 

From what I have seen, production  paintings are still being sold in galleries. The artists producing these works have amazing skills and are prolific producers. Their dealers/agents are aggressive. I don't know whether the artists separate their production work  from their fine art work via changing their signature, but given the snobbishness of gallery owners and the American public, I would guess yes.

Volume sales is the way to make money in art like in everything else. That’s why many of us go into prints. The glicee print, from what I read in Wikipedia,  is  the best reproduction around; all of the prints come out identical.  A digital reproduction of original art is done on high quality substrates, with superior ink-jet printers and color correction. Artists often oversee the production of the prints of their work and approve it before it's brought to market.  Editions consist of about 1000 pieces; that's quite a lot considering that prior to digital print reproduction, print editions were a hundred to two hundred.  I have no idea, but wonder, if these digital editions are limited.  With no plates to destroy after printing , as in the old days, how many times are artists reproducing the same original?  Are there any rules about this? I didn't see that information.

I find all of this information incredibly sad. The truth is as I've always known. I have a skill that will never support me or even cover my supplies.  My sales are erratic, consequently, I am not making money regularly from making art.  Could it be I'm not really an artist? Am I just a hobbiest? The IRS thinks so.

Margaret Keane was a damn good artist and one smart cookie in the fifties. Google her biography. Take a look at what she did with one slick idea. I think she's amazing. Reese Witherspoon is going to play her in an upcoming film, Big Eyes.

The painting you see here, to break up all this text, was done by an Italian artist who painted his way  up the ladder and into a gallery stable in Rome, where he is still represented.  We bought it on one of our buying trips to Italy in 1969.  I would have bought two of his pieces, but he was getting ready for a one man show and didn't want to part with another.  I just liked this lady sitting up in her bed observing the world go round  and him for being so candid in our discussion of art, artists and making a living with this skill that is as much a curse as it is a blessing. On one hand, we are gifted with an appreciable talent, On the other hand, that talent is useless...unless wake up and smell the coffee.  Art is a business and it always has been.

I would recommend Genn's newsletter. It makes you think.


  1. Hi Linda. I do get Robert's newsletters. I did read it, and your response is wonderful, true and accurate, and saddens me. I am of the dying [ or dead] and long-forgotten breed of purists ... can't help it, I was born this way. I don't mind the idea of mass-producing, but for some reason, the idea of prints galore bothers me.

    1. Me too--unless I designed something that would make a good print. Print is a medium to me, just like charcoal, oils, watercolors, And I'm for limited editions of a hundred. Keep some exclusivity.

  2. Bingo, Linda. What a post. I haven't got a clue how to break into art sales, or frankly if I even want to. It takes me so long to settle down to do something of value for all the right lofty reasons, and I couldn't bear to just sell it off like a cut of meat. Selling giclees would be just fine, but now that becomes the point of it all--wrong motivation. If one thinks of art as something to sell, the whole beautiful, mystical experience falls apart every time. I did think of a way to demolish this insidious, depressing head battle but am not sure I've got it in me to participate. The idea would be to just give away art pieces to anyone who really values it. Kind of freeing isn't it? Motivation changes completely. Anyway I'm still working on the idea. What do you think?

    1. I think the same thing. I'm so glad you wrote this Bill. It's exactly how I feel-- caught between a rock and a hard place and it's best for me that I don't think about it. It makes me stop painting. It aggravates me that I'm reluctant to get out into the marketplace because I'm afraid of making something I love into something I might hate. Genn's newsletter is not all that great, he only scratches the surface and then tosses it off, "Oh well. This too shall pass." He has no answers because there aren't any. Since I was seventeen, I haven't been able to figure it out.

      I went to the beauty shop yesterday. I was going to take a painting I did a while back of one of the operators working on a customer and just give it to her. I mean. I just painted it as an afternoon amusement, a painting-of-the-day thing. It looks like her. It is the shop. She might as well have it.She might like it? All I would do with it is paint over it to make better use of the canvas.

      Ellis said "Why would you give it away?" The money hungry me surfaced with his remark and I left it home. I shouldn't have. I'm going back today. If she's there, I'm going to give it to her. I mean how marketable is a painting of a gal combing out another gal's hair? It was a dumb painting, an initial exercise in multiple portraiture, a step towards where I'm going now.

      In spite of the tugs I'm feeling in retirement, I am glad about one thing : I didn't choose fine art as a way to make a living all these years; I chose a tangent occupation.

  3. I know artists who are making is not great money, but money nonetheless. I sell a fair amout and I would rather do what I do than something else. My family never wanted me to work in the field of art. "You can't eat a painting" was something they'd say. But, this is what I do, despite so much discouragement and I consider it a positive contribution. The world would be a gray place without visual art.
    I like the painting you purchased in 1969...she looks you!

    1. OMG That's what my dad said to me--only a bit more dramatic: "What? An artist? Do you want to live in an attic!" As I write this I laugh. But he did scare me away--and with that same statement insulted my capabilities. While I thought what I could do was a bit miraculous,(none of the other kids could), he thought no one else would and I couldn't make a living doing it. A lot of people think this--and what kills me is it's true, UNLESS you do what Margaret Keane did: come up with an idea and paint it over and over again. That's got to be boring, but also satisfying and fulfilling when many buyers appreciate your work.

  4. I guess you know where I fall in this argument, Linda :0)

    From my POV there is no right or wrong. If one feels being a purist is the only way, so be it. If one feels mass production is right for them, then more power to their elbow. But sitting in judgement on what others do, or don't do, is not for me.

    I know my originals, being in pen & ink, look identical to the prints - the originals seldom sell, but the prints have sold in their 100s. But that doesn't stop me drawing sailing ships ... which nobody ever sees! I draw them for FUN.

    I slavishly spent 3 years drawing only commissions for Museums, Oil Companies etc ... I was being a professional artist, but it destroyed me: I never had time to draw what I wanted to do ... I gave up! I have only recently started again.

    We can be very precious about ourselves as artists ... a breed apart... but I treat art exactly as I treat writing (literature or software): I create the book or program and don't feel demeaned in any way if copies sell. After all, that's the whole idea ... we need an audience, it's the whole point. If one doesn't need an audience where is their problem? Draw for themselves - shut down their blog? :0)

    It's all in the mind!

    PS These are my opinions, and not comments on the other comments herewith.

    1. I think every artist is probably both a purist--for the love of art--and a realist--art as livelihood. That's why
      I admired the Italian artist I met years ago. My art related careers were magazine publication (writer, photographer, layout director)', and then interior architectural designer. I painted on the side for the love of the game--there's a movie I watch whenever it's on. Now retired, I think I'm looking for a third connection.

  5. Hola Linda, me has informado de un tema nuevo para mí. No estoy al día en este tema: de copias de pinturas y originales y sus ventas. Gracias por la información. Lo que siempre había oído es que vender obras de arte es muy complicado para ciertos sectores de pintores. Un beso.

    1. Todo esto se refiere a los artistas que quieren vender su art.There muchos excelentes artistas en el planeta por su parte las ventas de arte están en una mala racha. La mejor manera de conseguir a través de él, es, creo yo, tener un benefactor rico que le compra un montón de suministros y para mantener su trabajo diario. LOL.

  6. The info on Keane is fascinating-- I can see why a movie is planned. I think if one can figure out a way to make a living, then hooray! for her or him.

    1. Me too. It's the money oriented dealers and collectors that have caused a lot of this confusion and sadness. We all wish to be recognized for our work. The way to be recognized in the art world is to be the race horse that wins all the ribbons, makes the dealers a lot of money through sales to collectors who, in turn, believe they will make a lot of money on the resale of their prize winning filly or stud's work. Keane came up from the bargain basement and may very well end up in the penthouse suite. LOL.

      All of this reminds me of the "Emperor's New Clothes."

  7. What an interstiing and thought provoking blog entry and I thank you for it. I agree with the sentiment that there is no right or wrong. A person who creates must follow whatever their internal muse dictates to them. As for me, I paint for myuself and compete only with myself. Whenever someone else likes my pictures or even buys one, I am thrilled to death. Let the chips will fall where they may.

    1. I'm glad you thought this post was interesting Susan. I was really a bit put off by the newsletter downing an artist for going into production art. I think such thinking is snobbish and unrealistic. I was a bit put off that Robert Genn assumed all artists' prime objective was to make sales when some of us do have that objective, but many of us don't. Trying to produce art based upon public demand is confining. So we choose to make our living doing something else--usually art related--or we are fortunate enough to have benefactors who support our obsession and we get to follow our hearts. The rule where you have to make a buck to be considered serious is ridiculous. The problem we all share though is storage: what to do with the inventory that is piling up and taking up studio space? I was thinking of having an art sale much like a garage sale for the pieces I haven't gifted to relatives.