Charcoal and graphite on paper, 21 1x 13 in.
Private Collection, Savannah GA
It may be an unwise man
who doesn't learn from his own mistakes,
but it's an absolute idiot
who doesn't learn from other peoples'.
~ Frasier Crane
June 7, 2019 10 Comments
Our biggest regrets in life are the things we never tried.
Boy, do I disagree with that one.
Disagree because the older I get, the more I lament over all the humiliating, moronic, often devastating blunders I committed as a young artist. Things that I never should have tried but did anyway, emboldened by the rationale, Ah, what the hell.
I can hear the consoling voices now...
But we learn from our mistakes.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained, etc.
All true. But I personally believe we learn a helluva lot more from achievement, which is wonderful to experience and just as nice to reflect on.
Or as the holiday advertisers say, it's the gift that keeps on giving.
So if you're launching an art career of your own, I invite you to learn from some of my costlier mistakes. This in the hope that you won't have to go out and make them all yourself, only to learn that you shouldn't have made them in the first place.
Besides, you'll have your own whoppers to learn from in time.
Thinking Your Gallery is Your Friend
It's easy to delude yourself into thinking that the artist-gallery relationship is a friendship. Especially when you're new on the scene and everyone in the place is loving your work.
Heads up... your gallery is not your friend. Doesn't matter how friendly they are.
Not unless you're a veteran enjoying a healthy 10 to 20-year run with the same gallery. In which case, you're on firm enough ground for a friendship to bloom and endure a few challenges.
Usually, it's just a business partnership.
But your gallery isn't your enemy either. They want you to flourish. They want you to be happy and productive. And they want to profit from your work.
So don't ask them for favors and don't burden them with whatever personal tales of woe you might have (and we all have them).
Failed romances, financial troubles, health issues, are to be shared with close friends or life partners, not with the gallery management or staff. An artist's troubles, especially, can be seen as signs of instability, flagging you as a risky investment.
And to a gallery, every artist is a good or bad investment.
Anticipating Collectors' Tastes
Painting what you expect others to love is another way to self-sabotage. For example, everyone loves flowers. So beautiful floral paintings should be an easy sell, yes?
No, not if you suck at them.
Never sold a floral in my life (haven't done so many either). Because my heart just isn't into painting them. So how can I compete with some of the freakishly-talented masters of the genre out there?
If You Don't Love Your Work,
Someone Who Loves Theirs
Will Beat You Every Time
Lucian Freud: Reflection (Self-Portrait), 1985
Oil on canvas,
Private Collection, Ireland
Another example: how many people do you think are turned off by Lucian Freud's paintings?
I don't know either, but I'd guess quite a few.
And how successful was he?
Point is, what matters most is your passion for your subject. That's what enlivens your work. That's what sets you apart. If the passion is missing because you're painting what you "should", the work will go flat.
Scan your surroundings for the things you love. Then paint the hell out of them, no matter how unusual they seem, no matter how exposed you may feel. And don't ever fear the naysayers or the critics. Because the stronger your work is, the stronger the reaction, positive and negative.
Rubber Gloves, 2005
Oil on wood panel, 8 x 13 in
Private Collection, Dallas, TX
Not Preparing for an Artist Talk
There are few experiences more traumatic than showing up for an artist talk, brimming with confidence that you're going to knock it out of the park, and then going completely blank.
What happened? How did you lose the ability to speak? Why did your IQ drop 30 points?
You're on unfamiliar turf.
Cold, expressionless faces staring back at you, adrenaline racing through your system, and most of all, the haunting echo of your own voice. Which for some strange reason doesn't sound like yours anymore.
If you're giving a one hour talk, have two hours of material ready. Rehearsing will make you sound stale, but do know your material backward and forward. This way if you forget something, and you will, you can always grab hold of something else. You'll be 100% more relaxed and spontaneous when you're bursting with information.
Artist talks are a wonderful way to get involved and build your career, so don't shy away from them. But unless you're a natural speaker, don't try to wing them either.
Overpricing or Underpricing Your Work
A director at Hirschl and Adler Galleries once said that overpricing one's art show a lack of confidence. Which actually makes sense.
Because if you feel you can never surpass your best work, you might try to hold on too tight with an unreasonable price. Or agonize over finding that perfect dollar figure.
Chuck Close likened his paintings to grown children who need to leave the nest and get lives of their own. And, like your children, your art will always be yours, no matter where it lives. Clinging is the sign of an amateur, and it will hold you back professionally.
Underpricing, naturally, comes from feeling unworthy. Make it a habit, and unworthiness become ingrained. Same goes for giving too much of your art away.
I find the best pricing strategy has no emotion to it at all, not the rush of chasing the jackpot nor the comfort of the easy sale.
Find that unremarkable middle zone. Stay in line with the competition, you can always adjust the numbers later.
Let Your Art Be Extraordinary,
Let Your Prices be Typical
Saying Yes to Every Opportunity
Tenth Avenue Crosswalk #4, detail
Charcoal and graphite on paper
Work in Progress
Why would you turn down a fan who's willing to pay good money for that "special" art project, just because the project is a little out of your realm?
It could be a lousy fit. Lousy and doomed to failure.
Someone wants you to paint their swimming pool filled with inflatable toys.
Or their high school friend from an old yearbook photo.
Or their dog wearing pajamas and a hat.
Should you do it? (Should anyone do it)?
Only if your heart is truly into the project. Otherwise, you're asking for trouble and likely to disappoint the collector. You'll hate the project and you'll kick yourself for accepting it. And you'll never feel you've been paid enough.
Sometimes, you just have to say no, without the guilt over being fussy.
But here's the good news...
A high-quality no, the kind that's genuinely supportive of the other, is empowering. You'll feel your confidence rise when the wrong commitments are off your plate. And you'll be dying to get into your other projects.
Just about everyone in the workforce has a specialty. Find yours, and work like crazy until you do it better than anyone else. Only then will the right opportunities find you.
Resilience is King
If you're like the rest of us, your first attempts at painting were probably a little humbling.
Putting yourself out there is no different.
You'll feel lost at first and you'll get knocked down a few times. Even the big names can fail miserably, and they have big reputations on the line.
But no setback is permanent, not for any artist.
And while you can't possibly avoid all mistakes, you can minimize them, and take years off your career-building time.
More artists than ever are becoming successful in doing what they love, even before becoming household names.
So why not you?
Why not avoid some of the obvious pitfalls?
Why not get there a little faster?
Don't worry if you feel you haven't paid your dues yet. If you really want to, you can always pay them later on.