Thursday, March 22, 2012

Artists and Money

We have all been looking at our finances, what with tax time and new fiscal years and all that other left-brain stuff. I have made my living as a freelance artist for nearly my entire adult life, and have been forced to learn various left brain things, from having a spreadsheet to getting my estimated payments in on time.

It's tempting to call myself an "artiste" and too "flakey" or "above it all" to take care of that kind of housework. Financial management is also scary because it's outside my comfort zone.

I think there are myths about artists which make us seem crazier than we are. The artists who also happen to be womanizers, or alcoholics, or mentally ill, are the ones who get the attention of media personnel who are trying to get published. It's a vicious cycle: these artists get more attention because their stories are titillating. The writers want thier own work to sell, so they write about titillating artists.
And when that written piece sells, the artistic community looks even wilder than it did before.

The reality is that most successful artists, in order to BE successful, have to be disciplined. Artists cannot afford to be paying interest on credit card debt.They have to put the liquor down. They have to get their love lives under control. And they have to manage thier money.

How can anyone paint if they can't afford the supplies? How can they paint if thier home is always in turmoil? How can they paint if thier hands are controlled by alcohol or drugs?

When I was single, it became clear that there was no where to turn except to God's narrow gate. Any other option would have destroyed my ability to work. And God has a lot to say about money management. Now I'm married to a man who has a talent for seeing numeric patterns, and a master's degree in accounting... but my own discipline about money is still MY responsibility.

We're both fans of Dave Ramsey, and right now we're participating in the taping of his new series on financial management. He is not shy about telling his own story, and he emphasises again and again how important it is to read what God has to say about it in Proverbs as well as other old and new testament passages. He has helped millions of people get control of their finances. It's exciting to see him in action.

It's also good to look at our own financial snapshot and see that we have been doing some things right. Care and conservatism in your money management will get you, an artist, through even a recession like the one we are climbing out of now.

Friday, August 26, 2011

A Work in Progress: Planning the Perfect Studio

Well, that title is probably a little grandiose, as a plan is never perfect nor is a studio. These things are always "works in progress!" 

I am settling into my new studio home, bit by bit. Boxes abound still, and the packing peanuts are, I do believe, actually breeding! But we have a plan, and we are putting it into effect.

Here's the idea: as in my other house, the largest room in the house is the studio. This is generally a room which builders like to call the living room. I like using the living room as a studio, not just because it's big but because it represents one of my personal gripes: builders designing houses that don't work. As in, every house has a living room, but does anyone do anything with said room but put their best furniture in it, vacuum it once in a while, and entertain ... or LIVE ... somewhere else? 

As a studio, this wonderful cathedral-ceiling room will get some real -- daily! -- use. And my easels will not be forgotten in a corner somewhere in a back bedroom, basement... or worse, closet or hall. I've seen artists try to force their creativity into tiny cramped spaces which just make me sad. 

The second largest room is the office. In this case, it's the room the builder called the master bedroom. (Do you see a pattern here?) Believe it or not, my husband actually suggested we use these two rooms for these purposes. I love this guy! How could I be so lucky? 

The office has our two computers, two computer chairs, file space, shelves, an easy chair, a couch and a treadmill. Here is where we watch movies, exercise, veg AND do administrative work. Some modern builders are actually incorporating such a room into their designs, and calling it a Media Room. 

Where, you ask, do we sleep? In the other bedrooms, of course!

The third essential room for a studio is a workroom with a dedicated work table for stretching canvasses and framing art. In this case we are using the garage, which my ever-awesome husband stayed up all night to transform into the most wonderful combination garage/workroom imaginable. 

He's asleep now. In the other bedroom. 

All kidding aside, here are the essentials for these three spaces:

The painting studio has a large wall for the nine-foot long landscape easel. The room has a 5x6-foot window with adjustable blinds, and a chest for still life arrangements diagonal to the window. The free-standing easel is positioned in front of it. There are two tabourets on wheels, an oriental carpet and a Gel-Pro chef's mat on a hardwood floor. On order is a set of stereo cabinets, again with castors, which will store sound components, media and oil sketches. Already we have a good set of speakers and sub woofer. Across from the sound system we have two easy chairs and a set of reading lamps, along with a large hinge-topped storage table low enough to sit on.

The office is equipped with cell phones, land lines, internet, printers, laptop, recharging station and a wireless network. There was a time when I had hoped an artist could do without all that. I have grown up. 

The workroom has the aforementioned dedicated table at one end, and a 12 foot long work counter along one wall. The counter is fitted with undercounter drawers and open cabinets above. Several pegboards will house lots of tools.  This room also houses the car, which is equipped with a plein air easel, Mighty Mite field brush cleaner, panel caddies and rags. Also, and this is important -- sealable metal cans for the used rags. 

The above are what I have found are the essentials for my work. I have, one way or another, found space for these elements wherever I have worked. This is the first time I have been able to pull it all together with enough resources and the experience to know just exactly what it is I really do need, and to do it right. 

You'll notice that I'm bragging here (wow, guys, lookit what I have!) ... but in all honesty I am also trying to share with you the results of years of experimenting and making do. Aside from the long wall easel, I really do think all the elements listed above are necessary in some form -- including a good sound system even if it's a good set of earbuds. Don't compromise. Set up a good studio. Your art will thank you!

Oh... once we get rid of the boxes, I'll post some pics :)

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Returning Landscape

Everyone knows we've been slogging through a recession for a while. Art sales are down, along with every other kind of sale, and just about everyone has been tightening thier belt. Which, of course, explains why art sales are down, but I won't dwell on that particular circle!

In Nashville, on my way to the art supply store, I drive by a
container yard. A couple of years ago that yard had a few of the boxcar-size steel boxes sitting around in it. Now they're stacked four or five high. Inventory is piling up everywhere. Real estate sales are not rebounding, due to the changes in banking. Rentals are up, due to the people who have lost their homes.

Pretty bleak...for most people.

But we're not most people. We're artists, and although we need the cash to flow just like everybody else does, we have this other odd need: the need for beauty. And beauty is abounding.

My new studio home is situated on the edge of a town which grew monstrously during the last decade. I remember one day driving through an area of new construction, and watching with horror as the bulldozers laid bare acres of blood-red clay, stripping away the topsoil like flesh from a fresh kill. Paving paradise.

Last week I took a walk through another area of development just outside of town. Someone had put some thought into this one. They had laid out roads and sidewalks, nice little street lamps and
signposts. Some of the big trees had been left standing in pleasant clumps. Pretty little gardens graced the street corners. This was going to be a really nice neighborhood.

But no one came to live here. No houses were ever built.

The graded clay has collected a little drift of black soil here and there. Grasses have taken hold, their untamed swaying brilliant green flowing like waves across the housing lots, spreading in pools of green over the asphalt. Thistles follow, reaching high thier dramatic globes of purple. 

And now, acres of Queen Anne's Lace drift over the land, gracing the earth, healing it and blessing it. To the artist, this is a miracle, a reprieve. The artist stands at the easel alone in the midst of the singing wind, the rustle of wildflowers, the call of a red-tailed hawk which has returned to the landscape... 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Creativity and Learning

Educational theory has held that creativity cannot be taught; that any attempts to educate an artist tend, instead, to stifle that creativity.

In my experience as an art student and also as a teacher of art, I've seen many reasons to dispute this. I have seen that raw, natural creativity only takes a student through stages that use knowledge he already has.

For instance, when a child makes something out of sticks and mud, he is able to exercise the fullest creativity he has at that stage because he has already learned something about sticks and mud.  When he decides he would rather his creation not be swept away in a rainstorm, he will need to learn how to use something more substantial -- concrete, for instance -- and for that he will need to learn about concrete. 

A visual artist often starts out with an idea of what he would like to do, and it's usually grounded in something he's seen before. If he's seen abstract painting he likes, chances are he'll try that. If he has enjoyed realistic paintings or photos, he may try to paint something recognizable.

This artist could go through years or decades experimenting and basically re-inventing the wheel if someone is not willing to mentor him or teach him about some of the basic principles of painting: color temperature, for instance. 

Here is an example of two paintings which were done by a young student in one of my classes. She started out as a beginner, using acrylics, and painting from life. A beginning painter will tend to try to draw an object and then paint it in. He or she will try to "stay in the lines" and therefore will wind up with a white edge around the shapes in the painting. Another thing a beginner will try to do is make a smooth layer of color, fighting the paint's natural tendency toward texture. 

My student was frustrated by her struggles and she asked for my advice. After only five lessons, she understood how to layer color, how to make decisions about transparent rather than opaque color, how to use brushwork to express her subject, and many other concepts. Right now she is learning processes and techniques. When it comes time for her to express her ideas outside of the class, she will have the tools to make it possible.

I'm really so proud of her! She has come a long way. Here are the before and after:

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Soul of a Painting

The Chestnut Group (Plein Air Painters for the Land) is working on paintings of plantations and battlefields just now, in preparation for a fundraiser for these historic monuments. Yesterday was a perfect day to paint, and I took a trip to Franklin to paint at Carnton Plantation.

This plantation has an especially beautiful garden, with a row of handmade trellisses and arbors covered in grapevines. It also has a formal area of plantings "on axis" to the garden gate and the huge double antebellum porch on the mansion. As I stood in the center of the garden, I was captivated by a row of pear trees espaliered onto arches over the path.

One of the arches perfectly framed the garden gate, leading up to the house which reared its impressive bulk behind the delicate plantings. Nice contrast of bulk and delicacy, light and shadow; frames within frames, and all in all a very promising composition.

After setting  up my easel and doing the preliminary value study, I snapped a shot of the scene just in case I needed reference for details later. I usually don't wind up using my reference photos, but it seems to be a good idea to do diligence.

This particular mansion has an especially bloody history. The family who lived there was caught in a horrific battle. Hundreds of wounded soldiers were brought into the house. The floors were soaked with blood. The family buried 1500 dead.

As I painted, I kept reflecting on that history. The very ground cried out to me. The great house and the delicate plantings took on a melancholy air which was not dispelled by the gentle May sunshine. The painting itself turned out to be moody, even a little stormy. 

When I got back to the studio, I took a look at my reference snapshot. In the photo, I see only a pretty garden and house. In other words, the film failed to capture the ghosts. 

This is why it is so very important for us as artists to go through the rigors of our work, and to paint from life. When painting from life, our hearts and souls go into the picture. We can't help but tell the story of what went on beneath the surface. Here are the two images; see for yourself:

Monday, May 16, 2011

Artist Self Promotion

This morning I served on a panel, along with Meg Nordmann of NashvilleArts Magazine, Beth Inglish of Binglish Art, and Cathleen Windham of the Chestnut Group. My contribution mostly had to do with how to make ourselves do the necessary self promotion! Here is what I said:  

The biggest problem I have had with self promotion (and I think this is true for many artists) is my own reticence. I'm a private person, my art is close to my heart, and I'm not inclined to blow my own horn.
Yet how can anyone know about our beautiful art if we don't tell them?

For years, I used to go about my painting and then work myself up to a big, heart-racing, adrenaline-filled promotional effort like putting a stamp on the application to a juried show. A few weeks later the rejection notice would arrive, I would be despondent, and it would be a LONG time before I could work up the courage to do that again!

I've concluded that the best way for me to deal with self-promotion is to think of it as just another chore, like mowing the lawn or cleaning the toilet, and put self-promotional chores on the calendar so they will get done regularly. 

Once every quarter, I send out my workshop information, since I teach on a quarterly basis.  That gets sent to my snail mail and email lists, and published online on my website and Facebook. Plaza also sends it out to their mailing list. My own mailing list started with six people. Every time anyone expresses interest in my workshops, I add their name.

Once a month I enter a juried exhibit (receiving the rejection slips happens about once a month too!)

Once a month I spend some time researching advertising venues and
working with those costs.

Once a month I send out something to a magazine for free submission.

Once a month I feature the work of one of my students on Facebook.

Several times a week I post something on Facebook or my blog.

My gallery relationships are like friendships. These are people I keep up with casually, calling on the phone, sending an email or dropping by. When I have new work, I send an email to the out of town galleries, or I bring it in to Richland. Sometimes I will have a nice bound printed book made up to send to my out of town galleries so they have something to show their clients. 

I'm about to expand to some more galleries, now that the recession is easing up. To do this, I will first research galleries which carry work that may be complemented by what I do, but not quite like what I do.Then I'll send some samples, either in a printed book or by email. To find new galleries will take the same kind of persistence that the other promotion takes, as most galleries will tell me they are “not taking on new artists just now.”

Self promotion can be difficult for us sensetive artist types, and to grit my teeth, close my eyes and just make it a regular chore seems to work for me better than anything else I've tried. Hope this helps!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Adding a Figure to a Landscape

I don't know about you, but we're well into springtime here in Tennessee. As a matter of fact, we've spent the last several weeks painting outdoors. If you watch the news, you may think all we get is tornadoes but there have been a lot of stellar painting days in between! (Actually I have in fact painted tornadoes -- twice! Now that takes some quick painting)

Anyway, there is a beautiful botanic garden near here named Cheekwood. I painted there last week, and got a picture of a pretty terrace garden accented by a clump of cedar and holly. White dogwoods lent their ethereal sprays of blooms to the lovely scene. Here is what I painted:

Okay. So... pretty picture, strong focal point, but....BORING. How can I liven this up? Standing in my studio, I cast my mind back to that day while I was at Cheekwood. Part of the experience was the pleasant weather and the view. But there was another aspect to the day. Behind me several mothers and children were playing on the lawn. Thier voices and laughter added to the experience.

What if I put a child in the scene? I toyed with ideas of pretty little girls posing on benches, of cotton-dress-clad mothers carrying babies, and all those ideas seemed ... well, boring.

How about a little boy? How about a little boy just about to get into some trouble? This begins to sound like fun. So I got out my Sharpie marker and some printer paper, and started scribbling ideas. The way to do this is to do several little scribbles, starting with the gesture. The gesture is a line which gives the general idea of how the figure will be posed. As I scribbled several gestures, trying to get the feel of a calamity about to happen, I gradually developed an image in my mind of a little boy climbing up onto the wall and reaching for one of the trellises. 

Now that the idea is firmly established in my mind, and I don't have any conflicting images to confuse me, I can establish the lights and darks on my sketch and then on the painting. To transfer the sketch to the painting, I started by putting in the boy's shadow on the ledge, then I put the darks onto the boy. Next step was to add the lights on the boy. Last, I put in the reflected light into the dark areas. Here is the result:

The little boy does not immediately draw our eye away from the focal point; the first thing we see continues to be the contrast between the large upright tree mass and the white horizontal dogwood mass. But as we look at the picture, we notice a story about to develop over on the side. This is called a "secondary center of interest" and it can add a lot to a painting. The picture at this point may be described as about "a little boy about to pull over a trellis" but the primary focal point is still the trees near the center of the composition.