Monday, May 31, 2010

Why should I know art history?

Jean Baptiste Greuze courtesy of

You need to know your art history for several reasons. Here's why

  • .How are you going to make great art unless you know what it looks like? If you were learning to play the guitar you would study great guitarists. If you told me you wanted to be a great rock and roll guitarist and I asked you "hey, how about Chuck Berry?" and you replied "who?" I would know you weren't serious about learning and probably weren't going to play well until you knew your Rock and Roll history. You would be displaying a lack of curiosity about your craft. People who want to do things well, are anxious to learn all about them. Writers study great books. Actors watch old movies to see Hepburn or Brando do it fabulously.
  • Many , if not all the problems you will face in painting were solved by generations of painters who built upon knowledge handed down to them. You won't live long enough to figure it all out.
  • The work of those who don't know art history is instantly recognizable to experienced collectors and artists they know their art history, and may look at your art to see if you do.
  • You will need it to compete in quality with other artists who do know art history
  • It will educate your taste, to know the merely facile from the excellent. It provides a yardstick against which to compare all the art you see.
  • It will inspire you to set a higher mark for yourself to reach.
  • It is legitimately part of your job if you are an art teacher and painter, you are a leader, you need to know this too.Your students look up to you, if you blow this off, they will too.
  • You live in our culture, as an artist you are either going to lead or follow. Followers look at the average crap in the "how to magazines". Leaders know the names and paintings of the greatest, and the runners up. That way the know the difference between truly great and the almost great. In the historic art as well as their own.
  • Leaders know their field they are experts on the subject of their craft. (see Earl Nightingale)
  • Studying great paintings is like eating great food or visiting sublimely beautiful places. It recharges your ability to go on in a world full of things and events that aren't always so groovy. It is a reward, it is treating yourself to something extraordinarily fine. We get a thrill from the sheer wonderfulness of an artistic creation. Standing in a museum before a great work of art and thinking "that's so cool" is one of the good events . Lots of things we have to do are not so exciting like carrying out the trash, or shampooing the dog, but enjoying art is a special pleasure.
  • Because of the great collectors of the gilded age in particular, leaving their fabulously valuable collections to museums we can see art that was once closely held by princes and plutocrats. We can do it for the same price as an ordinary meal in a second rate restaurant, where no prince would deign to step. We have the prizes once reserved for great wealth available to us to enjoy and understand. Only several generations now have had this. The museums really didn't have great collections before about 1890 or so. Before that, all the great art was squirreled away in the hands of the super wealthy and ordinary people only rarely had a glimpse of it. You need to know a little about what you are seeing to fully enjoy this treasure that is readily available to us.
  • Just like listening to great music, looking at great paintings is a source of enjoyment and gilds the experience of being alive.
  • I will tease you if you don't.

For an artist it can be very lonely painting by oneself. Seeing great work by those who've gone down the path before us reminds us we are part of a long brotherhood/sisterhood of artists. They inspire us, please us, comfort us, and challenge us to keep going. In a way we are all on the same art team. ---Philip Koch

Sunday, May 30, 2010


Someone in the comments asked about projectors. Was I pro or con on projectors? I would have to say I'm "agin em" Here's why.......

They won't do what people think they will. No one brings them up because they want to enlarge their sketches. The purpose of a projector is to copy photographs. But that won't make a painting. If it did, everyone could paint and of course few can. If the idea is to make a salable thingy, the projector might do it. As I have said before, every gallery I am in has someone who just copies photos literally, and they tend to sell pretty well. So you can use a projector to make a close copy of a photograph. But that's not a painting, its still only a photograph, but now it's made out of paint.

So it doesn't matter how you copy a photograph, whether you use a grid to square it up, or squint at it pinned to the corner of your canvas, its still the same thing. Copying photos is just busy work, it's drudgery and without creativity. Copying photos is the most boring thing imaginable.
I see so many paintings made this way in the magazines and they aren't compelling or interesting. I just turn the page. Anybody with the patience can do it, and a roomful of patient airheads with the same photo will all make the same painting. There are collectors who exclaim "it looks just like a picture and imagine the painting is "perfect" and for them it is. But it contains no art. Art comes from decision making, things like handling and design.

There is another problem with projectors. They give an absolute outline of a literal scene in front of you, or an object, but they don't give the information to describe the form within that object. Form is a construct that cannot necessarily be observed, it must be installed to some extent. A very practiced artist can do it, but a learning artist never will. Nor will they learn drawing by trying to copy photos. You have to actually learn to draw to have command over what you represent rather than being chained to the most cursory and literal presentation that is styless. So many people want a short cut, an easy way to be a painter. You simply have to be able to draw. A projector might seem like it will enable you to do that, but it won't.

So the answer is not projectors yes or no but, projectors, what use are they to an artist?

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Reading the blog in black text on white

I didn't paint on the seascape today. I wanted to get away from it for a day and clear my head. So I painted outside. I received an email from a helpful reader ( thanks a lot, that's a big help!) that will be useful to those of you who have complained about reading the text on a black background. I like the aesthetic and the art looks good on black. I like the black., It looks cool. It also gives my blog a distinctive look.

First of all I would like to thank you for your blog, I cannot emphasize enough how much it has helped me. Thank you. Second, I've seen some people complain about the color scheme of your website, and I've seen you suggest using google reader. However, there is an easier way, at least in firefox browser. You can go to options -> content -> colors, and choose your own colors. I think that should help people who complain their eyes hurt. I've attached pictures of how to do it.
Thank you again.


Friday, May 28, 2010

Seascape 4

Here is the painting as it looks after today's work. Those are a couple of blades of grass encroaching on the left, I shot the picture flat on the lawn in the fading light. I seem to get better color that way. I spent a second day working on the lower left hand corner of the painting. Oh, and I straightened the horizon. You painting-a-day folks most be shocked. I think I am five days into this project now.

There is some chance I will finish this tomorrow, but more likely it will take me two more days to complete this 26x36. This is not a spectacularly long time for me to work on a painting this size. I have taken much longer. Tomorrow I will go after all of that rock and maybe buff up the sky. That should go pretty quick. Compared to the water it is relatively easy.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Seascape project 3

Here again is the painted sketch done on location on the left and my layin on the right. Below is the second days work on the seascape, sorry the color is not better, I shot it in the failing light after working on it yesterday.

I do feel a little self conscious posting my stumbling towards my result, working outside I often go very directly to a finish. But seascape painting for me is much more experimental and much more difficult. But I am showing you how this picture gets made so you get to see me fumbling too. Boy, this picture better come out good, a lot of people are watching, and I know they will laugh at me if it doesn't!

I spoke a little last night about this pictures problems and today I went after a few of them. Painting is problem solving. It is a self critical process, I look at the painting and say,"why isn't this working" and then try to fix it. Sometimes I feel like one of those mathematicians in the movies from the 1930's who work on about six blackboards on their way to solving an equation. Below is the painting at the end of today's session.

I scraped the left hand corner of the canvas all the way down and went at it again. I still don't feel its right, but its better. I raised the end of the wave up so that I would be looking out at it, rather than down on it. I am trying to get it out of the "hole". I am not totally happy with the bottom line of the foam or the planes below it, but I am getting closer. I need to tie the structure of the rising planes beneath the breaker into the sea in front of it better, and the foam needs to roll down its surface more energetically. I hope I know how to do that tomorrow. I didn't today. Each days painting is a rehearsal for tomorrow's. Tomorrow I will refine it further. I am also getting closer to the tonality and value structure I want. I didn't work on anything today other than the water. I still have used no references, this is all out of my head. I am not painting a breaker that I remember, I am making it up out of wave anatomy and knowledge of how to build structures using light and shadows on planar structure.

I will show you tomorrow what happens next.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Seascape project 2

Here is the sketch for the seascape and the layin for the large version on the right.

Here is what happened to the seascape today. I shot this against the wheel of my car and it is a little dark and too cool, tomorrow night I will shoot it in better light, but that is what I had. The color from last nights shot is still a better representation.

Now you get to see me struggle with this thing.........

I have worked the whole painting. I began working out a more dramatic sky. Darkening that should make the wave stand out better because it won't compete with it for contrast. Also its more threatening mien gives the picture more power. I am hoping to pull the sea and sky together into one large unit. I need to work out a better arrangement of the small dark clouds at the top, I want them rushing to the right, that should help drive the wave towards the shore better.

I am not at all happy with the left hand side of the wave. It still feels like it is "down in the hole" a little bit. I want to lift it up more to the viewers eye level. Tomorrow that will get scraped out and reworked. It has to come up a little bit and the whole thing feels a little small. This is what I call the "in between stage", when the gremlins start to pop out. When I first lay a painting in, it seems easy and it is not until I start to get the thing worked up a little bit that all of the problems that will have to be dealt with appear. The first thing I will do in the morning is scrape the left hand side of the wave with my palette knife, leaving a sort of ghost image. Then I can take another run at it. Sometimes I do that over and over.

I have photography of the rocks, remember I am making up the water, there are no references for that. But I haven't looked at the rock photos yet. I want to design those and not copy a photograph of them I actually have pretty good information in the sketch. Once I get the design completely worked out I will use them to get some details in the rocks, but only a little. Good references can enslave you. I want to use them as little as possible.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A seascape project

I made this sketch on location near York, Maine last week. I actually made up the water, the foreground was filled with rock and weeds as it was low tide. It might look like this at high tide, I don't know. It has the defect that I wrote about recently that I call "down in the hole.". That's a problem that you get painting the sea on location. The water is too far below your eye level.I am enlarging the painting to 26 by 36 and reinterpreting it to look as it might from a lower angle. Below is my lay-in for a larger version having a lower viewpoint. I also made a few small changes here and there. This is the 26 by 36, so it is a lot larger than the sketch. I have only established the big poster shapes. This is about three hours of work.

Here are the two, side by side.

I hope to work on it again tomorrow and I will post the results for you to see, along with some commentary on what I am up to. This may qualify as the seascape demo I promised a month or two ago.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Building a square within a rectangular composition

If you take a rectangle, any rectangle will do, and draw a square within it. Usually by measuring one side and then finding that measurement across the rectangle, like so....
You now have an attractive mathematical armature upon which to build a design. As I mentioned before, the viewer finds hidden geometry pleasing in a painting. I think that is because they are vaguely aware that there is sense or order there, even if they don't know exactly why. Below are a couple of paintings that use this idea.

This Payne uses the square as an opening or window into his distance. Below is a variation on the idea by Eastman Johnson. The square is a little smaller but the idea is the same.

This square functions like a stage on which Johnson's actors pose. Can you find the square in this landscape by Enneking?

Above is a Leon Gerome from the showing the same idea again. Napoleon and all of his roadies are confined within the square. The guy in the red dress defines the outer edge of the square.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Powerspots 4

Above is a painting by John Constable, provided by our friends at This painting is constructed using the powerspots. Here is where they fall on this image.

I have drawn a red line joining the two powerspots on the right. The weight of the tree is poised on that line. The boys head on the tow horse, falls on the right, lower powerspot. This is not an accident, Constable designed it this way. The two elements balance one another, The boy on that horse is able to balance an entire tree because he is a figure and that is arresting of our attention, by the way. It is possible to balance a large shape with a very interesting small one.

Here is Thomas Coles The Course of Empire, Desolation. Its pretty easy to spot this one. Below is another example, Duel after a Ball, by Leon Gerome.

Here the lower left powerspot is the location of the action. OK enough of the powerspot posts. Tomorrow I will march onwards.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

An odd phenomeon

Just a short post tonight as it is very late. I went to a concert tonight. It was great but I got home late. I do love rock and roll. I had dinner with a friend afterwords and we were talking about this and that, and I told him about people sending me paintings for attribution. He thought it would make a good blog post, so here it is.

I am routinely sent e-mails from people who have bought paintings at auction or in a yard sale. They have searched the web and found me. I have some strong auction records, including a painting that brought 25,000 dollars at an auction in Texas. They are hoping that the painting they have is one of mine. But the odd thing is that the paintings they send me are NOTHING like what I do. Above is an example. I would guess it was made about 75 years before I was born. It isn't a plein air picture and except for its subject, snow, bears no resemblance to my work. I don't know why they think it does but perhaps they are hopeful that they have got themselves a deal on a more valuable painting. I get one of these every few weeks or so.

The painting above is not too horrible, but I get mass produced paintings from the workshops in Korea and Taiwan that are obviously production painting that have a misspelling of my name on them (Kerns) and I get weird amateur stuff from yard sales that has an illegible signature, it might say Kresges, who knows. Still they e-mail it hopefully to me.I guess people are just clueless about paintings, perhaps they see only subject matter. It seems so odd that what is so familiar to me is so foreign to most people. But of course they have their own lives and interests and I probably know nothing about what they do know. Maybe one of those sport games? Still it is scary working so hard to make things that only a tiny fraction of the population is interested in. Don't they teach art in school?

The thing that is most surprising to me is the unbelievably low quality of most of the paintings they send. I always begin feeling a little insulted."How could you think I made such a piece of dreck?" but I always calm down and realize that they don't know one painting from another. They have seen the antiques roadshow and imagine they are going to find a treasure. There are lots of bad paintings out there and you can always get them cheaply. But please, only send me those that look professional OK? I have feelings too. Gee.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Powerspots 3

Above is an illustration of an easy, non mathematical way to find the power spots on a rectangle. This may not be perfect mathematically, but it is close enough for making paintings. However I can put my finger on the powerspot at a glance. But maybe I learned that once and forgot, possibly everybody can, I dunno. Either way, here is the pool hall geometry way to get there. Draw a line from corner to corner, both ways diagonally across the rectangle regardless of its proportions, then mark the point half way between the center and the corner of each quarter of the lines. And there they are, leering at you, powerspots.

I am announcing another workshop. Seems like I am doing a lot of those. People call me up. This one will be "Seascape Painting for the non amphibian". This will be held at the Rockport Art Association, in Rockport, Massachusetts on Sept 10-12. Weather permitting, I will teach both inside and outside.and show you how knowing the anatomy of a wave creates the means to craft its appearance. This is an RAA schedule event so talk to them if you want to be there. Their phone number is 612 546 6604.

In the comments some one asked me to show the powerspots operating in one of the paintings from last night, so here that is.There are the four power points in this Bouguereau. Each of them is in an important place in the design. The stern of our heroine is place right on the lower right point. Which is where Bougoureau placed it so we would be sure not to miss this attractive young woman. Over on the left power point the nymphs foot comes in and intersects the line right there. Because their is downward weight implied in the leg, she "stands" on the power point. That gives plenty of emphasis there.

The upper left point is the nymphs face, looking down into the action. Her gaze directs us or returns us down to the laddered stack of arms at the middle of the canvas where the pale flesh of the nymphs contrasts with the deeper more ruddy skin tone of the Satyr.

There is some kind of a passing reference to satyr in mythology that says they are afraid of water, that's why these naughty woodland sophomores I trying to throw him in the pond. It was a typical convention in classical painting to portray men as being russet colored and women as being pale. Society's taste for tanned woman came much later. That's why you see those paintings of Victorian ladies out with their umbrellas, they weren't avoiding the rain, they wanted to keep their complexions as pale as they could. Being tan was for people who had to work under the sun. Incidentally, when I see a contemporary painting with a woman in a long dress and a parasol, I think 'heightened cheese content'.
A number of readers have e-mailed me questions. I love that, but I can't answer them all immediately. I will work in the answers to your questions when I am in a transition from one series of posts on a subject, to another.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The eyes of a rectangle 2

There they are, the eyes of a rectangle. Many compositions begin by seizing one of these points and sticking something real important there. You may have played tic-tac-toe and knew which square to grab if you went first. Its a little like that. However its so easy to do that you can do this design too often, a roomful of power spot designs can look pretty monotonous. It also tends to give a formal 19th century look. That may be just what you want, or maybe it is not.

As I said the other night I felt like I was just mindlessly starting every composition this way a few years back and now I am on the lookout for that fault. I still use it, but I try to design by pattern instead,That is arranging interlocking shapes of varying size and value across my canvas. I think I get more varied designs that way and they look less predictable.

My friend Bob, who knows his math, wrote in the comments the following;

On a canvas with the common 3:4 ratio (12x16, 18x24, etc.), the diagonal is 5 units. With a little trigonometry, you can figure out that the power spot is 1.8 units from the closer corner along the diagonal. In other words, the spots are at 0.36 of the diagonal length from each corner. If you drop a perpendicular from a power spot to the long dimension of the canvas (the 4 unit dimension), it is 1.44 units from the edge, which is 0.36 of the long dimension. Each spot is 1.08 units from the top or bottom, which is 0.36 of the short dimension (the 3 unit dimension). The recurrence of the fraction 0.36 in all these dimensions is fascinating -- I see the makings of a cult. The fraction 0.36 is roughly one third (0.33), so the spots lie very close to the intersections of lines that divide the canvas into thirds.

I had to read that several times (once lying down) in order to understand it.

Above (courtesy of is a John Constable, The White Horse. The major tree is placed on the eye in the upper left of the rectangle. That gives it a place of great prominence within the design. There is also a white cow marking the eye on the lower right.

Here is the wonderful Bouguereau from the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. If you have never been to that museum, it is well worth a trip to western Massachusetts to see it. There are many masterpieces there, including this, Bouguereau's finest painting. He has placed a figure of a nymph at both the upper left and lower right eye. The stern of the nymph on the right is moored securely right on that point.That may be what gives this painting such a broad based appeal. Incidentally, notice how nicely the raised arm of the woman on the upper right leads us up and to an easy exit after we have viewed the rest of the scene. It also repeats rhythmically the leg of the figure on the left,and also the leg on the lower right, giving a sort of pinwheel design to the painting.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The eyes of a rectangle

Above is an illustration of our rectangle represented as a shark-shopping cart with a lantern. This concept has been illustrated so many times in design texts that I felt it necessary to distinguish my version from those that have preceded it. I believe this will probably be the authotiative version.

If a line is drawn from one corner of the rectangle to another, then intersected by another line dropped from an opposing corner so as to intersect it at a 90 degree angle, the intersection forms a power spot on that rectangle, which I have marked with a lambda. Four points on the canvas can be found using this method, one lower and one higher on each side. These points are called the eyes of the rectangle.

I am not sure if all the math is really necessary to find these spots. They are neither in the center horizontally nor in the corners of the composition. I figured out intuitively that there were four such spots on my canvas and saw this mathematical explanation many years later.

Many years ago in Rockport, I realized while looking at my work that I had become overly reliant on the power spot or eye idea in design, as I looked around my gallery every painting seemed to proceed from my nailing that power spot with a tree or the house or something. I made an effort to get away from that time honored design (Loraine used it extensively) as too old timey. I wanted a jazzier look. I began then to arrange patterns of interlocking shapes across my paintings. I still think about those spots but I try not to build my designs from them.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Colored rice

A reader asked me;
"Interesting how you did the brushstrokes. I didn't quite understand when you were describing putting down each stroke of the same color near each other. Do you mean you didn't overlap they would be separate grains of rice? For movement-the purpose?"

I mentioned this in passing a few days ago. I said that I laid the strokes separately from one another when I was doing this kind of impressionist painting. Now, a few may overlap but I try to keep most of them separate. If I have a brush loaded with a color, I try to place each of those colors discreetly, in a mark surrounded by first white canvas and then a different note. I describe these paintings as looking like they are made from colored rice. If you run the brush strokes together you lose the effect.

I am using optical mixing of the hues here. This is not really divisionist color like some of the French impressionist used, I am not putting down a blue note next to a yellow note to get my greens, but I am allowing the colors separately placed to assemble in the viewers eye. It gives a fluttering, lively and happy look. Below is a Childe Hassam from the

Hassam and Metcalf, good friends, were the primary exponents of this kind of handling. I learned it from them. Do you see how the little highly colored strokes are placed? Here is a Hibbard doing a similar thing.

This painting is a little broader but the technique is the same.The rice grains are more planar and follow the form more, but the notes are laid side by side and separate from one another. Below is a lovely Hassam.This is also from the

This should be a large file and if you click on it should give you good detail to examine his handling.

Here is a detail showing the separate marks he has made. If you were to pull the marks together the vibration would cease and it would be a tonal painting. If you add this method to your bag of tricks there are times when it will be extremely useful, even as an area with in a larger painting that is not handled in this way.

I am getting requests from readers to tell them where within this blog they can reread certain things they remember my saying. I can't find anything in it either. I may have to come up with a table of contents of some kind now, it is so huge that it is becoming impossible even for me to remember what is where. The archive descriptions have way to many posts. I am scratching my head for a solution to this and I will let you know when I figure one out.

Also I have a few slots open in the workshop at the Sunset Hill Inn. I talked to two people today and they were interested. I told them I could save them a year of screwing around. I believe I can......for you too. The information is here.

The golden ratio

Here is the facade of the Parthenon. Hambige felt that a mathematical ratio known as the golden rectangle was used by the Greeks in its design. That is disputed today, and it depends how you choose your measuring points. Whether they did it intentionally or not, they instinctively used the proportions derived from the square root rectangle I presented last night.
What it means is that there is a mathematical relationship between the two pieces of line one is 1.683 (it is actually along irrational number) times longer than the short piece. There is the ratio.1.683.

Lots of things we deal with in the world use these proportions, or something close to them. here is an example below of those proportions.

The grill of this Bentley has approximately this shape turned vertically. Books and notebook paper, many standard sized artist's canvasses and the pelvises of rich Hollywood movie stars bear these same proportions.

I would like to congratulate Rima Fakih on winning the Miss USA pageant. I have in the past insisted that Taylor Swift was the most talented young woman in I'm not so sure.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Jay Hambidge

Jay Hambidge 1867-1924, a Canadian born artist and mathematician wrote Elements of Dynamic Symmetry. In the book Hambridge lays out the mathematical formulas that underline classical architecture and the structures of various parts. of nature. I expect that most of you have seen a nautilus shell with a drawing overlaid upon it to show the geometric and mathematical ratios of which it is composed. Hambidge laid out his idea of natural symmetry which some artists and many more designers have found useful. The book is still in print and can be had from Amazon.

Hambidge made careful measurements of the Greek temples including the Parthenon and reached a design theory he called dynamic symmetry. Much of it is based on root rectangles.The drawing below shows how they are created.If you draw a square and pull an ascending line from one corner to it's opposite, then measure along the base with that line you get a root v2 rectangle. If you draw a new line through the corners of that and drop it down to the baseline again you have a root 3 rectangle.

Forms designed with this system have pleasing proportions. Tomorrow I will take this out another step and we will see how it can be used to plot the arrangement of as painting in further posts. I do not use this system in my own painting except perhaps instinctively, but some classical realists are very fond of this stuff and I think It is useful to know a little about it.

Friday, May 14, 2010

A Rhode Island garden

Here is a painting I made this week down in Rhode Island. Add another state to this years tally, I was in Connecticut before that......

Because it was spring foliage I changed up my technique a little and pixilated the painting in Metcalf like brushwork. I used to paint this way a lot, but recently I have been painting more broadly with larger brushes. This was all done with a #4 soft nylon brush.

Here is a detail of the tree on the right. This was painted in one go, I didn't want to lose the airy fluttering brushstrokes by hitting them twice. The whole painting is one brushstroke thick. There are little spots of canvas showing between the brushstrokes here and there. The painting is high key enough that they are nearly invisible. I drew a few lines in burnt sienna and then laid it in pretty much from one side to the other. I tried to place each brushstroke separate from its neighbor of the same color. That looks like colored rice and has a quivering look.

Here is a detail showing the trellis and the house on the distant shore. The house was actually a modern octagonal T111 sheathed unit, I turned it into a period cape. There were no roses on the trellis.

Here is the right hand corner of the painting. There were lilacs but they were actually outside of the picture so I cheated them in. I don't know if it is bothersome having roses and lilacs blooming at the same time but I liked the color over there. There is lots of cobalt violet sprinkled around this passage and the whole painting. That's my favorite color outside in the summer. It is an anti green and makes the darks down in the bottoms of my shadows hot and glowing. I use it almost straight out of the tube.This painting was two long days of furious work. I also fooled with it a little in the studio.

I have a nice gold frame for this 26 by 29 inch painting and will now varnish it and send it back to Lily Pad gallery in Watch Hill, Rhode Island.

More about galleries and the artistic intention.

Edward Hopper from the's great online museum. They are a valuable resource. Go check em out. The link is in my sidebar. I am as always, thankful for their allowing me the use of their images.

I have excused myself from a dinner party and am typing away. I will make it short but I did have a few more thoughts about what we have been discussing. Thank you all for all the comments. I am responding in part to some of those.

Several respondents were somewhat incensed at the idea of painting for the market. There is nothing that says you have to. In fact the gallery is hard to get into. There are many different sorts of galleries, and if you do edgy or highly personal work there may be a gallery that is looking for you. But even they, if they want to stay in business, are trying to find things they think their clientele will want. If their client wants edgy and personal, that's what the dealer will look for.

I am lucky in that I am doing the kind of work that I want to do and there are galleries that can sell it to some fraction of their clientele. Therefore for me the goal is to do it as well as I can. My heroes, Metcalf, Hibbard, Seago were all professional painters who showed in commercial galleries. My interest is in picture making. I am making beautiful things for people to hang in their homes. That's my goal. It may not be yours, nor does it have to be. But that is the kind of artist I always intended to be. I don't feel like I have compromised a whit.

However if you are doing art that is intensely personal you may decide the whole gallery thing is too restrictive( I don't as I said) but you may want to paint for yourself alone, or even market your own art. But if you want to be out in the gallery world you will have to understand what the deal is. I am personally very comfortable with it and I enjoy working with my dealers, I enjoy knowing them and we operate together for both of our benefit. It is unrealistic to fault a dealer for being concerned with sales and profit, just as it would be unfair for them to be opposed to my caring about the quality and integrity of my art. You wouldn't want a dealer who didn't care about sales would you? That's their piece of the puzzle. In order to do that they must be business like. They are the sales end of the operation. I am the production end, the factory floor.

This conversation flowed from a letter from an artist who wanted to do better in galleries and hoped for some advice on how to do that. They were not being compelled to be in a gallery, they wanted the benefits to be had from being in the marketplace. I am unashamedly a capitalist, and the gallery world is a capitalist place. I am an art entrepreneur. That's what is going on out here. You don't have a problem with the Rolling Stones getting paid well do you? They are doing it for pay too. So did Hendrix. Making a living with your art is not necessarily incompatible with making good art. In fact I think the process has made me a far better painter. I need to paint well in order to eat. An old artist once told me " Do you know what kind of paintings sell best? Good paintings!"

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Interview with an experienced gallery owner

Dear Stape

I have no problem with competition, when it is with talented individuals. While it is interesting to see the praise being heaped on people like ???????? and the ???????? . I have no issue with it, other than I feel there are much better painters out there that should be getting similar praise. But that is not my issue.

Mine is with the teaming mass of absolute amateurs that have flooded galleries and museums. It is as if the barbarians have broken through the gates and have taken over. There is so much work out there that just kills my spirit. It is not just work being shown at simple art fairs, but work getting major gallery and even museum shows. I feel like I am in competition with crazy people. My work is judged on the same level as an untrained street person. I am not even talking about the porn art being made by Jeff Koons and his like, I am talking about the soccer mom that has a studio, and now is an artist.
I have been looking for galleries lately, and I take my work in to show them when I set down the art for them to look at, my work is by far the best in the room. It is better in composition, color and impression. The reaction I get is like I have just set a flaming bag of dog extrusions on the floor and asked, "what do you think?"

How does one deal with the fact that there seems to be little respect for ability, quality, and beauty? In fact it seems that today skill is looked at with suspicion, or even that it is an ego trip by the artist being self indulgent.

Basically, I am starting to feel like there is no hope for the art world, that my deciding to be an artists is not unlike me saying "I am going to be a medieval knight and promote chivalry throughout the kingdom!" Most people would be like, "what ever, idiot. "
No one really seems to care about the paintings other than whether or not they fit over their couch and match the color theme of the room. Or maybe I am deluding myself and the work I am doing is just not that good.
I suppose if I were selling I would have a different tune, but I have not sold a significant painting in over a year, and I feel I am doing the best work of my life, and the best work that I am capable of at the moment.

signed ;
Artelasticum PepsiCola

The following interview is with Wivi-Ann Weber owner of Lily Pad gallery in Watch Hill, Rhode Island. Specializing in realism, naturalism and semi-abstraction. Twenty six years in the business Wivi-Anne,has a PHD in art from Columbia University. Her theses was about "How people choose works of art" Over the years Wivi-Anne has advised hundreds of clients on on works of art for their homes and collections. She is the areas best known expert.

  • The artist needs to think about what the client might want. Everything is purchased on the basis of meaning to the client. Unless they are a collector filling a void in their holdings, it is all about them, and not the artist.
  • Many times I have stood with a client before two paintings. One more professional than the other. The client then would choose the less well painted piece because there was something in it that had meaning to them. I have experienced that there would be nothing I could do to persuade them to purchase the better piece.
  • It is important to listen to the sophisticated buyer. We need to remember it is about what THEY want to purchase. You always have to look beyond yourself as an artist, unless you are not interested in the commercial aspect of art.
  • When a client purchases a work of art they are creating their own soul as a reflection outside themselves. Therefore their choices reflect their inner feelings and desires but now mirroed in the outside world. Who you are has to match what you put in your intimate place, your castle. It reflects the inner you.
  • The artist need to think "how does the client recreate their inner life with your painting. What the artist needs to do is create something that completes the clients inner life.
  • In other words, the client is looking for something that represents meaning for them. What has meaning for you, the artist, may not be meaningful to a buyer. The client may not know as much about art as you do, but they know what is important to them.
  • Think about who buys the art. Usually it is a person between thirty and sixty years old. What is that age group looking for?
  • The client wants art that is personal to them, and they are not concerned with what is personal to the artist.
  • Every gallery experiences the individual who purchases art, that through well lived lives has come to know quality in a work of art. They search it out. They will purchase a work of art for its quality as well as its subject matter. But even they, want pieces that fit into their lives.
  • My suggestion is to rethink what you paint and gear it towards a subject matter in which the art buyer can see beauty. Transfer that type of image to the canvas and that will ultimately enhance their lives.
  • I tell people "take the art off your walls and see if you can still make that house into a home, it is not possible. The art completes you and your environment."

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

about the personal in art

I received an email today from a reader ( I love those) asking me what I meant in my last bullet point when I used the description "personal" when I talked about art. I will see if I can make some sense of that.I usually think of it as a good thing from an artistic standpoint, but it may not be in the market place. Sometimes it is, but often it is not.

By personal I mean highly individual and often expressing the personality of the artist or their deep concerns or quirks rather than having universality. If your work is personal in a good way often it looks as if only you could have made it and no one else. That is it is individual. Van Gogh would be an example of an artist whose work was highly personal. After he was dead it came to be appreciated for its power, but most people of his time thought it odd and a little too tortured and uncomfortable.

If you are working out your personal demons or using imagery that is meaningful to you but puzzling to the larger world you are being personal. If you are polically concerned and that is an element in your art, many people will see it as a statement of your beliefs but not necessarily want to hang it in their home, even if they agree with your point if view. Bizarre religious imagery, psychedelic surrealism, illustrations for your own unpublished fantasy manuscript and photo realistic depictions of your mother ironing laundry underwater are all going to be difficult to sell. They may be meaningful to you and they might be good art, but their appeal is mostly because you think they are cool. Others may look at them and think "what the hell is that all about?"

Art schools have, for years, encouraged their students to make highly personal, or art that looks as if it might be highly personal without warning them of this drawback. Those teachers are often not out in the art market and may even have contempt for those who are, except for the most celebrated of the modern guys in New York. They see as no part of their purpose raising up students who can make a living in the gallery world. Shows in galleries are for them about communicating who they are and what they have made, rather than paying the rent.

If that is what you want to make you will have a harder time selling your art. Fewer dealers will want to handle it and there will be fewer customers. I don't mean none, just fewer. You might want to ask yourself if you should be out in the market place at all, you might be happier teaching and making your art for your own enjoyment and getting shown in non retail venues like museums. Some artists are repelled by the whole art market thing and choose to find another means of support so they can make the personal art that they want and not have to be in the commercial galleries. There are avant garde galleries out there that feature very personal art though. In New York and a few other places that sort of thing can be highly valued.

I am lucky in that the kind of art that I am excited to make is appealing to a portion of the clients in some galleries . I have worked to find my own individual way of doing things and make my own statement. That is how I work to make personal art. I hope that when people see my painting they will know it is mine. I often ask myself;


I have arranged to interview an art dealer I know who did her masters dissertation on what art sells and why. I am going to turn her loose on Artelasticum Pepsi-Colas questions and see what she has to say. I think she may have a lot of insight. Like most dealers she meets a lot of artists who hope to have her show their art, and must reject most. She has been on the other side of the equation and I am looking forward to what she has to say. I am hoping that that will happen tomorrow night. Till then I will lay here on the floor beside the computer with my arms at my sides trying not to think.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Reply to Artelasticum PepsiCola

Stapleton Kearns, Osama drowning kittens 16" by20"


I can sympathies. I have had periods of time where I sold nothing for months, never a year, but its the same thing. Here with bullet points (oh, how I love those!) are my thoughts.
  • I know your art and you are a skilled painter, but something is wrong. You can't change the world, so you are left with no choice but to change what you are doing. Immediately acquire "Lead the Field" by Earl Nightingale and memorize it, better still, tattoo it in reverse on your chest so that you see it in the mirror first thing every morning. You can download it to your i pod for about ten bucks I have been told. You need Earl! I am not kidding here, this is the best piece of advice I could possibly give you. nough said.....
  • Different towns, different galleries and different sections of the country have different art markets, each with their own preferences. Find out what your market wants, or find the market where what you make is wanted. You may have to find a gallery that is far from your home. Look in the art magazines and get an idea of who is selling what. I moved to New England long ago to have my career because where I was in Minnesota the kind of art I was making was not in fashion. They wanted ducks, I got out. If you are making quirky, very personal art and you are working in a traditional style, that's a harder fit than landscapes. If you are painting still life, you could think about what sort of places people put things in their homes and what might fit there. You can paint quality still life with integrity and still make things that will appeal to peoples taste for their homes. See Fantin LaTour, or Chardin. You don't have to do everything that way, just add it to the list of pictures you make. Experiment with painting some subjects that you don't usually do, something might click. Throw a lot against the wall and something is bound to stick sooner or later.
  • If the galleries you are showing in are into the avant- garde, go elsewhere. There have got to be galleries within a days drive that fit what you do. Initially you should find three. Then give each of them six paintings. I know that's a tall order, but that's what I think it takes, for starters.
  • You might have a discussion with a gallery owner whose inventory you respect and ask him what you could be making that would appeal to his customers. That may seem a little mercenary, but this is a business. I am able to make the kind of work I like and have no conflict with the artistic versus commercial. There are plenty of artists who are making work that is supposed to be commercial that fails. I think the public is mostly hip enough to reject a lot of them,. People don't know much about art but when the money starts flowing they get a lot smarter. They know the want integrity.
  • You need to have a fairly large body of art in several galleries, if it doesn't sell then, you may have priced it too high. I know we have all heard the admonishment to never drop the prices lest it hurt their sales. you don't have any sales. These are tough economic times, but getting better. My sales last year where horrid, this year I am right about on track. Things are improving and I think the art market is righting itself, but the herd has been thinned and a lot of galleries and artists have been purged. If your sales pick up at a lower price point, you can gradually increase them. Incidentally, no one cares how long it took you to make a given painting.
  • Make compelling, beautiful paintings. Once I asked an older artist "what kind of paintings sell best?" He told me "good paintings" Find something you have a flair for and polish that ability until you are making the most exquisite paintings of that sort in the marketplace you inhabit.
  • Do shows, do demos. Help other people who don't have the considerable skills you yourself possess. Besides being the right thing to do it builds a fan base who will speak well of you. Every workplace and family has someone who is the "art expert" try to teach and help those people who are usually amateur painters. If you want more from the world you have to put more value out there.
  • Present your work well. You may need simpler frames, are yours too baroque for your market? maybe they aren't the quality or are too fancy, or too something. There is a sweet spot on that. As an artist you may have exalted taste in frames that is playing over your clients heads.
  • I have written a series of posts entitled the art business waltz. Search my archives and read those. I have tried to spell out how to break into the gallery scene.
  • Some artists I know have a hundred or more paintings out there consigned. I don't have that many, but you need to have a pretty good number. The more you have the better your odds become. Also rotate your paintings, if you have work unsold in a gallery for a year, maybe less, its time to rotate it out to another dealer.
  • If you make art that is political, or very personal, or full of weighty ideas, or humorous, that can mkae it harder to sell. Not impossible, but the market is smaller. My own teacher R.H. Ives Gammell made a lot of stuff which must have been the devil to sell. But he could afford it. He was wealthy. I am not.