Saturday, April 17, 2010

Integrity as the way to success in art

Edgar Payne

I do a lot of shtick and joking around on this blog, that's me in the pearls, but I want to be philosophical tonight, and serious. What I want to write about is artistic integrity. Clear the decks for some ranting and raving!
I have joked with my painter buddies many times about "selling out". I tell them " There was something I was never going to do in art school that was selling out, If I could just remember what it was, I would do it today, just for a little while, until I paid off my mortgage and got my kids through school. The problem is, I can't remember what it was!"

I don't really mean that of course. I want to impress on you the importance of artistic integrity. It is the hard road. But it is the way to a successful career in art, at least that has been my experience. By integrity I mean making art that is sincere, well crafted, and speaks to the best in the viewer, even if you leave some customers behind.

What we are selling out there as artists is integrity. I want my clients to think of me as the real thing. An Artist. You may fool a few people in the short run, but in the long run, who you are will show. People will want your art because it is real and individual. Faking it has a corrosive effect on your soul and on your art. Let me get some more bullets in my clip and I will lay out some things that I think are signs of flagging integrity.
  • Cheap or tawdry subject matter, if you are putting the girl with the parasol into more than one picture a year, perhaps you ought to examine your motives. I know it sells the occasional picture, but in the long run it will put you into the race with the schlock artists from Korea.
  • If you are imitating another artist, you are cheating your clients who expect you to be original and singular. They think they are buying that. Studying other artists is essential, but deliberate cold blooded aping them is dishonest. I page through the art magazines and I see all this work that is in imitation of established painters. There's a wannabe Richard Schmid, there's a wannabe Scott Christiansen and then I turn the page. Be yourself, everyone else is already taken. You are selling yourself when you go into the art market, if you aren't being yourself, your product won't perform as expected. Your paintings need to be individual and unique to yourself. A good painting should look as if it could only been made by the hand of a single individual. That's what I mean by integrity. This will of course take more time and be harder, but it is a surer path. Be suspicious of short cuts or quick success.
  • Making vast quantities of predictable low priced art is a problem. You should be asking yourself" is this really the best I can do?" Don 't work for money, work for excellence, and the money will follow, someday. The world is full of paintings, it doesn't need more average ones, make great art or go raise tropical fish.
  • Don't paint genre art such as sailboats or wild life, unless that is what you really care about deeply. That's a dead end too. I grew up in Minnesota, a few guys made fortunes painting pictures of ducks and about a zillion wannabes painted ducks too, hoping to make it as wildlife artists rather than finding their own path.. The weight of all those imitators crashed the market. Even those who were really on top of this market must now spend their lives grinding out the same sort of paintings. If they really love wildfowl that's OK, but if they don't, its slavery. Again be yourself, do what you love and success will follow. I know this because I tried painting those ducks too, I thought I was going to quack under the pressure.
  • If everyone is making edgy figurative things and you are planning to jump on the band wagon, stop. Unless you are edgy or tortured yourself, it will be a dead end. Insincerity shows. Maybe not in a single picture, but it will in a room full of paintings at a show and in a career it will outshine whatever good you CAN do. If you are aware of a trend it is because others have set it. The laurels are to those who set trends, not those who follow them. There is always a new hero, this years new kid on the block. But that is unsustainable. Next year some one else will be the new overnight success and you will have had your time in the sun and will be reexamined on the actual strength of your painting.
  • I have known artists who were waiting to "break through". That may happen, but I haven't seen it. Build your career slowly. Build it on a solid foundation of ability and experience.That way your career as an artist won't get out ahead of your abilities. If that happens you will be terrified. You will live in fear of people finding out you are a fake, and they always know in the long run.
  • Trying to make the one great picture with the most over the top amount of work, or detail or outrageous subject matter is like showing up as an amateur at a major league ball game and trying to hit one out of the park. Don't think of creaming the world with a single painting, make lots of good paintings. It is the ability to make good art that you should value, and not being the guy who made the damnedest thing imaginable. I have seen lots of those over the top damnedest thing paintings by artists who I had never heard of before and never heard of again. You need to be consistent. It isn't like rock and roll where you can be a one hit wonder, sustainability is the goal. Acquire the ability to make fine paintings at will, that way you will always be able to pull off another. Think marathon not sprint.
People who are successful are the ones who are willing to do the hard things that others will not.


terry said...

Hi Stape,
This is such an important post.
In the 70's and 80's I was blessed to have some amazing teachers; years of drawing with a student of Nicolaides, with Sergei Bongart until his death, with William F Reese and several workshops with a young Richard Schmidt. I could draw well and copy their styles, I think I have an abitity to see space relationships very accurately, I get likenesses quite easily in any medium. Copying others as a learning process, a crutch and than a lack of confidence to break away. Than I was in an accident, had a stroke, went from right handed to left handed, artist to business woman. Now long recovered and retired, I found your blog and live to paint 24/7 (I work on color notes and edges in my sleep!) You have given me a process to achieve my goals for my art; to be original, to find my own muse, to create my own vision. My biggest struggle, to break free of the masters I admire. I get excited, I'm painting my life than I look and it looks like someone I admire and I feel like a fraud. I don't want to be a version of someone else, how do we build on a masters work that humbles us? I have painted hundreds of studies from life, since last fall, portraits, still life and outdoors. What does original look like? How will I know?
Thank you from the bottom of my heart, you are such a blessing to me, this renewed quest to find my voice has given me such bliss.....thank you, Terry

willek said...

Just a terrific rant, Stape. I wrestle with these ideas all the time. This is the first time in all my readings that I have seen all of these concepts in one place. Thanks,

Gregory Becker said...

The advice I was given not long after I began studying art is still with me. I think it echoes some of your advice...
Dont be seduced by the work of another artist or you will never reach the surface to take a breath on your own.
I sometimes have to ask myself what am (I) painting? If I sense the stylistic influences of artist I admire while drawing or painting, I have to remind myself that I am just as capable of making something beautiful. Admiration is more circular than linear.
I have seen paintings and said to myself that I wish I had painted that. I'm only guessing but I bet that I could aquire a skill set through hard work that allows my own sensibilities to sing and I may actually produce something that someone says, I wish I had painted that.

Mary Byrom said...

Excellent post Stapleton. I see so much of this imitation art going on out there. Its good to admire the work of great artists and when a student you copy them to learn, but maturity is when you forge your own path. And that is a process that is constantly changing as you change. I've found its a process of going inward deeper - a lot more thinking about what I'm doing then moving that brush. Combined with outward exploration this makes for change. The manifestation of this shows up in the paintings. Sometimes its slow sometimes its fast. Things change, you change, your paintings change, I think its called growth. And if you are living/working with integrity you will grow as an artist.

Manatee Writers said...

After reading this, along with many of your other postings, I'm going to wipe off the still life painting I finished the other day and go back to painting what I like, the way I like to paint. Thanks! said...

This is a great post and should be re-posted once a year. As you know, I do my own thing which turns out to be "happy paintings". That's because I AM happy. Happy to be alive and happy to have the opportunity to answer my calling;painting.

I get excited by the little found beauty in my every day life.My paintings are not for everyone, for sure.
I had this chat with Mary Byrom the other day about landscapes. I love painting outside. But I don't like the paintings I am making because I haven't found my own footing there. What can I bring to the landscape that is me and that is an added value to the already beautiful landscapes being painted. I don't want to be Stapleton Kearns. (There is just one and he's wicked good.) That day, I put the brush down, said "Screw this... I am a pallet knife painter and went for it." I kind of liked what I did for the first time.
At the moment I have these images in my mind of a really off beat beautiful object. I know I am going to have to paint a series and never sell them but "to thy own self be true".The images won't go away. Savings account, here I come.

PS. If you ever think of copying someone else's photograph. Don't do it.

Philip Koch said...

Stape- excellent post. As you say, the art world is overcrowded with gimmicks and grandstanding. And excessive imitation.

One of my favorite pet peeves are the artists imitating Wolf Kahn (an artist I admire) churning out all these Kahn-like barns in pinks and purples. In the long run, this has to be one of the worst things one could do with ones career. I've followed Kahn work for years, learned a lot from it, and made a real point of not doing paintings that could be mistaken for his work.

Karla said...

What another great post! I am also thankful to Mary Byrom's comment that it is ok to copy others when you are learning. Whew! I was about to hang it all up. The hard part will be when I feel it is time to take off the training wheels and go it alone. A scary thought! Any tips on how to go about that would be welcome. For now I will just quietly sit at the feet of the masters and try and learn everyting I can.

billspaintingmn said...

Where do I begin on this... It's not easy to get serious over here!
(I was serious on your last post)
Stape I have always used music, or musicians for an analogy for artists/painters.
Even the Beatles did a few Chuck
Berry songs.
McCartneys Little Richard OOOH's
and AAAH's led to Yeah Yeah Yeah's
At some point they did all their own material.
And it was fun fallowing it all the way through.
We laughed we cryied, we lived and we died with them.
Also too with art/painting(my opinion)
I try to have fun with what I paint, If I enjoy what I'm doing, the viewer will have fun viewing it.
If I can barrow some of Stapleton
Kearns 'snow' or 'trees' approuch
in my work I will.
Piccasso said a good artist barrows, but a great artist steals
(What the hell does that mean!?)
Anyway.. To me the journey is the goal, and to have my artisticness
reconsidered at this time in my life is kind of fun.
Ah, back to that Fun stuff! I think having fun, for me, is most important. Sure I would love to have the art world embrace my art, but in the big picture, I am so very small.
My art is like a horoscope, it's only good for that day...
Again, there are so many artist I admire, I'm not worthy! Ha

Frank Gardner said...

Very wise words Stape.

Deborah Paris said...

First, love that Payne.

This is a wonderful post and one that is needed in any serious discussion among artists. As students we can imitate and even copy to learn, but at some point, your own personal reason for making art has to take hold. Once skills are acquired, I would submit that this becomes a choice, rather than just a natural part of development. Once we know how to paint, we can paint in any number of different ways. But, we choose, eventually, to go in a certain direction.(or don't choose and by not choosing, make a choice). That choice can be based on what the market wants or what our heart wants. After years of painting in a direct, alla prima way, and doing lots of plein air shows, I undertook a study of indirect painting methods. The seeds of my aesthetic had been there all along, but my desire to go deeper meant I had to find new techniques to accomplish what I wanted. It wasn't smart from a business standpoint. I had gallery relationships and some recognition. I couldn't really afford to do it. But, I had too. I not only had to learn a whole new way of putting paint to canvas, but find new gallery relationships and markets for my work. I made a choice and I'm glad I did.

Anonymous said...

Nice take, Stape.
Wouldn't call it a 'rant', but more like the sobering truth from the tranches. Myself, I'm on a continual search for my 'visual voice', and with each painting (or series of paintings), I feel like I get closer.

Using another's work on which to scaffold your own creative construction can sometimes be necessary. It can become a leaping off point for which to fly on your own.

Thanks for the food for thought!

Unknown said...

Excellent words, Stape!

"Don 't work for money, work for excellence"

That could be a forehead tattoo.

armandcabrera said...

You mentioned the magazines. People see this stuff getting articles and gallery representation and can't wait to follow. People won't say anything to the galleries or magazines because they don't want it to affect their chances of getting publicity or representation.

Unknown said...

Hey Stapleton,

We met in Kennebunkport and painted there at the Champagne Preview party and all. Anyway, I just love your blog and you amaze me with such talent. On this post--I think if you just keep painting, you will find yourself (not your mini-Richard Schmidt-me) but it does take time. Sometimes, as new artists, we don't even know that we are following someone else in style. We are even trying NOT to. But it's all we can do in order to experiment with a particular medium... we watch demos and mimic brushwork, etc. Finally, after much canvas and disappointment, we begin to see our own signature brush stroke, use of color, design, etc. How exciting it is to finally do that! It always angers me when someone intentionally copies another's style (as you suggest, the wanna be Scotts out there). It's sad too. These are clearly talented people who are not living up to their personal full potential, or at least, trying to find their full potential.

I recently blogged about a similar subject. And I hope this is okay to mention here without seeming to hone in on your blog. Here's a excerpt... (because I'm too lazy to type it again)

First, Be an Artist... Like many, many artists before me, I have chosen a path to "first, be an artist." This means that I do not "bill" myself as a 'portrait' artist, or a 'plein air' artist, or a 'marine artist,' etc. Additionally, many of you may not know that, for the sheer joy of learning, I also enjoy going to Alan LeQuire's sculpting class, painting small watercolors, and working with conté. I liken it to being a family practitioner or internal medicine doctor, as opposed to the country's top heart surgeon--both necessary jobs.

In this way, I learn a lot about all sorts of mediums and subject matter, which keeps me interested and alert. You may even have read before where I claim not to "paint nouns," that is "things," but rather I prefer to paint adjectives such as a person's attitude or the mood of a setting. (Not that I would not mind being able to paint the perfect portrait.) Of course, what this also means, is that I can be labeled a "Jack of all trades; master of none." That's fine by me. It's the learning that keeps me excited with what I do... not just the the accomplishment.

Of course, as for marketing, magazines, galleries, etc., I am marketed as an oil painter. It's where I am at home... with oil, and I paint NOT FOR THE SALES, but for the love of it. I think you can tell when someone does NOT do that. When their technique or subject matter overrides their senses. And, as you suggest, it may pay their bills (for a while) but man when that trend fades, they are left being a miserable 2nd, 4th, or 400th in a long line of "ladies with umbrellas painters"! Sad. Life is too precious for that.

Thanks for letting me rant here too. I try not to do it often. Again, love your blog and this post is particularly important!

Unknown said...

This one obviously hit a nerve - the board is lighting up!
Thanks for the honest truth. I think it sythesizes some of what I've been feeling. I just stepped back from all painting "obligations", either self imposed, or imposed by others, and am hoping to simply spend time painting.
I've got one gallery, to hopefully sell an occasional work to support my habit, but other than that, no contests, no exhibits, no classes, no nothing. sort of "leave me alone, I want to go paint."

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thank you.You must have had great training.I will answer that question in tonight's post.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Hey Thanks!

Stapleton Kearns said...

Gregory;If hard work doesn't do it, I don't know what else to suggest. Butter?

Stapleton Kearns said...

Exactly, well said!

Stapleton Kearns said...

I walked away from still life over 30 years ago. They are good training though.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I see you are still smarting from my critique of happy paintings. I should have said too happy!

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks. What Kahn of fool am I? That's a song I think.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Yes, copying is part of the student process.

Stapleton Kearns said...

A horoscope! Better than a mirror with someone else's face in it!

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thank you.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I am glad I never had to take that leap. I am doing the same thing I started out to do. Hopefully better.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thank you. Flying from scaffolding sounds scary!

Stapleton Kearns said...

I don't have a forehead.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Hi there. It always irks me that people do that.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thats a nice statement from your blog.

Stapleton Kearns said...

The board did light up didn't it. I think some ranting and raving prompts discussion. I hope you don't withdraw entirely.

adebanji said...

It takes courage to write this but it is the bitter truth. I never want to be like anyone but myself, although it is hard out there when you see so much stuff that you love and know moves fast, you just want to imitate. It has always been a hard thing but thanks for this reassurance. This post is WORLD CLASS!

Ian Swain said...

Stape, you're a gem! And to think I almost didn't follow your blog, I would have missed alot of great wisdom, and humor.
Great job man!

Abel said...

Thanks Stape!