Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Donating Artworks

 "Fishing 3" Oil on copper

Artists are the darlings of fundraisers.
When it's time to raise money for the school, animal shelter, wildlife preserve or cancer research, many fundraisers email a request to local artists.  What they want is the donation of an original work of art so that they can auction or, worse- raffle it for money for their cause.  I get a 8 or 10 such requests each year.
Somehow, while the cliche of the "starving artist" still persists, people in charge of fundraising have come to see us creative types as easy money.  And, as a rule, we are.  Without exception, every artist that I know (myself included) has donated a painting for a cause at some point in his or her career.  We've watched our works auctioned- often for less than we could sell them for in galleries or other exhibitions- and the money pocketed by others.  And often it's a lot of money.
It's rather bizarre:  we create a one-of-a-kind work that will last for generations, frame it at our expense, and fundraisers easily ask us to give it away in return for a tax receipt.
The writer, Harlan Ellison, addresses this penchant for asking artists to donate their work in a hilarious YouTube rant.
His point is: do the people who ask artists  to work for free do so themselves?  Does anyone even ask them to?
What is it about artists that makes people able to ask for the products of our creative labour for free? 
I think it's a basic low self esteem.  Many of us have a deep insecurity about the merit of our work (especially on the days when we can't bag a painting to save our lives) and the prices that we should command for it.  We often undervalue our time and skill, which gives permission to fundraisers to do the same.
But it needn't be this way.
Instead, on a good day, after a successful painting session, write yourself a note and post it somewhere for all time:  "I do good, creative, unique work.  I deserve to be paid accordingly."
Or, as Harlan Ellison says: "Cross my palm with silver!"

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Think Before You Paint

10 x 14"
I've been reading the very informative Oil Painting Secrets from a Master  by Linda Cateura about the  artist, David A. Leffel.  It's my kind of book: lots of short, thoughtful truths and pieces of advice organized in such a way that you can dip in here and there and find something useful no matter where you read.  The reproductions are terrible though: out of focus and dim.
Leffel teaches that every painting should have a concept to be successful.  It doesn't matter what that concept is and it can be very simple, but he stresses that you must think of one before you start the painting.  Without this clear idea of what you want to express, all sorts of extraneous detail creeps in.   He says that "the concept is the structure and framework on which your assembled subject matter (composition, value, and color) is suspended, all working to maintain the shape of the original idea of the painting.  As you work, you must keep your concept foremost in your mind." 
His concepts are as simple as "light against dark" or "edges" but he keeps the focus on those things and anything that doesn't relate to the concept is omitted. 
It's common, I think, for painters to miss this initial, crucial step of thinking before we paint.  We're so excited to have the brush in our hand and the subject in front of us that we launch in too quickly.  Those are usually the paintings that fail or that you look at and say, "great ___________!  Next time I'll know to give more thought to ___________(fill in the blanks as you see fit.  There are lots of things that can go wrong in a painting which has some successful elements.)
In the painting above, I focused on rhythm.  The line of the indistinct audience echoes that of the posing girl's torso.  In the original reference photo, the audience was in a straight line and the faces were individually distinct.  Neither of those things enhanced my concept so I changed them to suit me.  Glad I did!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Teaching Yourself to Paint

"Interstices"  24 x 24"
I'm a self-taught painter in a young, North American city.  Our galleries are largely contemporary or landscape and there is a lot of Western art.  There is no place to go and see the historical European masters of painting and enrolling in a BFA program is not in my cards.  In this situation, becoming a unique painter used to be tough.  It's not anymore.
Most of what I learned came from the library.  Not just those "How to Paint a Tree in Oils" books which are, briefly, a great tool, but also the massive, coffee-table books full of high quality reproductions of the greats.  I've borrowed the series of books about John Singer Sargent written by Richard Ormond so many times that they seem like my own.  Rembrandt, Manet, Degas, Morisot: all are available for me to examine and think about.  The best of them have detailed, crisp close ups of a small section of the painting.  In the book: Women Impressionists, there is a detail of a woman's sleeve, painted by Berthe Morisot which is a revelation.  The layering and choices of colour and unique, zigzag brushwork are clearly visible. 
After a couple of years with the library as my main resource, I turned to the Internet.  All galleries put their works online and, a few of them have really great quality images.   (Most don't.)
The best one that I've found so far is Greenhouse Gallery in San Antonio, Texas.  Their photographer is amazing.  None of the paintings are ever out of focus or obscured by glare and the colours never show an imbalance (blues can easily take over a digital photo; I don't know why.)  But the best thing is the function which allows you to see each work at high resolution.  It takes a little longer to load but the painting fills the screen and then some.  Each brushstroke is visible and colours that would be impossible to discern in a 3x4" image suddenly appear in large format. 
The gallery contains works by contemporary realists and impressionists, by big names and small, but the quality of the work is uniformly high. 
They also maintain an archive of sold works by each artist which is still available in high resolution. 
For the study of painting when you have little access to original art, this site can't be beat.