Category Archives: Artist profession

The truth about artwork

“Can’t you just paint my entire family perched on a rock off the top of your head? I’ll give you some photos to use.”

As an artist, I dread those questions because I know it will take a small disseration to explain why most artists can not just paint anything they want out of their imagination and make it come to life.

I discovered that most people truly belive that the great painters of old just painted their masterpieces off the top of their head and/or that reference materials is “cheating.” They do not understand that even the Great Masters had models and painted on locations outside.

Of course, the more an artist paints a subject, the more they can paint from memory. But usually a portrait painter can not paint a landscape without either being there or having good reference material. There are exceptions to every rule, of course. There are very creative , talented people that have no training or drawing skills, but create beautiful and emotional paintings. On the flip side, there are skilled technical painters who can paint in Photorealism.

I believe that most art should be in between somewhere. Every professional artist should be skilled in drawing, composition, value, color, and design. but also they need to put a part of themselves into the painting and create something with emotion.

What does that mean for commissioned art? Well I can paint a picture off a photograph and my paintings will look like that photograph. But we all know that photographs do not capture the likeness of a person - they are cold and distant and only show resemblances. Not to mention, there are other short comings with photo references such as distortion and loss of color.

Of course I can paint something that I do not know intimately by using a photo, but the viewer will be able to tell. Artists need to connect to what they are painting. For a portrait artist, this means that they need to spend time with the subject and paint them in their studio or have several photos to use with the right lighting and poses with tons of expressions to choose from.

For a landscape artist, this means going to the location and either painting en plein aire (outside) or taking the right photo references and making sketches or notes of colors and composition.

All we artists ask is that people understand that just because we can paint a nice picture of one thing, it does not mean that we have the ability to paint whatever we want with the same success. We do not have a magic talent, we just have developed skills in seeing things and expressing them on canvas or paper after years of practice.

So, just because somebody is “an artist,” it doesn’t mean they have this unique gift that allows them to create anything they want. And be gentle the next time you find out that an artist used a projector to blow up a photo reference. Honestly…they are not cheating.

The Value of a painting

How do you determine the value of any given piece of art?

My simple answer is that the answer is extremely complicated and is continuing to be a source of headaches for me. I guess the correct answer would be that it depends on several things. The type of medium is one possible factor, as is the style. The size of the piece is important as well as the reputatoin of the artist. An important issue is whether the artist or the buyer determines the value. Along those lines is the issue of how the painting is sold or marketed.

I want to start out by talking about the medium. For this article I want to keep it simple and talk only about two-dimensional paintings. So the question would be, why is an oil painting generally valued higher than a similar acrylic or even a watercolor painting? Do not forget other mediums like casein, alkyds, gouache, pastels, egg tempera, or colored pencils.

I found that the medium does not really impact the vlalue placed on a painting, although there are people that would surely challenge me to a duel with pistols over that issue. However, for some reason oil paintings do seem to be valued a little higher. For more discussion, see the post Why Oil Paint.

The style could affect the price or value of a painting. Abstract versus comptemporary realism versus pointalism versus impressionism. This topic is more subjective and probably more tied  in with the other factors such as marketing. For example, during one year contemporary realistic cityscapes are popular, while the next year abstract flowers are hot. If you paint in the currert style, you may see more value placed on your art. In fact most great artists of the past were not valued in their time simply because they were ahead of their time. Yes, my wife hopes my paintings will be worth more after I’m dead.

Now when it comes to paintings, size does matter. Artists and buyers tend to agree that it should cost more for a 36 by 40 inch painting than for a similar 16 by 20 inch painting. In fact, most artists price their paintings by the size and usually not by the difficulty level or time spent on the particular piece.

Artist reputation is another subjective criteria, but one that is a little more easy to grasp. I doubt anybody would argue on my behalf that one of my landscapes should be worth several million dollars even it if looked as interesting and well done as a Monet. Again, I hear my wife saying that she hopes to make more money after I’m dead.

So who really sets the value – the artist or the buyer? Initially the artist obviously puts the price on his/her painting, but it is not that simple because the price has to be reasonable enough for somebody to buy it. Here is what is giving me a headache.

I view it as that there are two forces at work here. One is the art community, including artists, galleries, and collectors. It is the responsibility of the art community to push up the value of art for the rest of society. Art can be good for society as a whole because it can create a market and therefore jobs, as well as adding interest and excitement to everybody’s lives, thereby enriching society as a whole. I know that it sounds a little exaggerated and grandiose, but societies have historically been more well rounded and sustaining when the arts flourish.

The other side is the old supply/demand principle. Art prices can not be pushed too high in any given market or people will not buy the art and it just sits in artists’ basements and bankrupt galleries. Yes, I know I am exaggerating again but that pull between the two forces is there.

For me, I have to decide whether I price my art so everybody can buy it, but then I would undermine the local art community by placing a lower value on local art. Ok…so then do I price my art higher and force my supporters to pay those prices, or even worse – not buy my art at all? I only have so much room in my studio!

This brings me to how art is sold and the market. Art sold in galleries is high because the galleries do a lot of the work to bring artists and collectors together and they then need their compensation, usually 50% of the sale. Yes, you read it correctly – 50%. Some galleries do less, but the 50/50 split is the most common.

Some artists sell at fairs and art shows, but the prices have to accommodate the spur-of-the-moment shopper and so most of the art are watercolors, pastels, acrylics, or prints of oil paintings. My point is that it depends on where you are selling your art and what market you are tapping into when deciding on prices for art.

So what does this all mean? 

It means that my family and friends have told me that my prices are too low. My fellow artists have actually lectured me not to do that and I have been accused of undermining the local art community. I did not think my art had such an impact, so I take those accusations as a compliment.

Of course if my prices are too low, then why do I have a whole studio full of art? I want that art in people’s home and offices to enjoy.

Ok…now I have a headache again.

How to be a professional artist

I have met many people in the last few years with great skills and talent. They all have the same thing in common – “day jobs.” Creating art is their hobby.

Well for some of us, we start getting more involved in our “hobby” and maybe start selling some of our artwork, or get commissioned to do a drawing or painting. At what point do we cross that line and become the ever valued professional artist? Well I have been trying to figure this one out and I finally struck oil. In order to explain my enlightenment to you, I will have to take you on my journey.

Here I was, a chubby twelve year old boy with a colored pencil set. My mother told me that my grandmother was an artist and that it runs in my blood, but all I did was just get bored one weekened up at the family cabin and draw a few pictures. They were not that great as I look at them subjectively now – a sunset off a cliff in one and a farm house in the woods for the other. But when my mother showed them to everyone and the praises started coming, I realized I had true talent. You know the same way my own daughter must have felt when she was five years old and I told her  that she was the most beautiful dancer in the world.

Parents lie to build self-esteem. Thank goodness I did not know that back then.

I kept drawing and then came my first acrylic painting set. Ok, I was definitely not a professional artist in middle school. Nor was I even one when two other artists and I organized the 1992 Grand Haven High School Art Show. I only took one drawing class in college, so that does not help. I kept painting that whole time here and there, but I am not sure I even reached the level of a hobbyist up and through college. I drew pictures for other people, but that was usually to get dates or because I was too cheap to buy a real birthday present.

Well after I got my “day job” I started doing some commissioned drawings, but I was not good at asking for appropriate pay, so that became more hassle then it was worth. Still far from being a professional artist.

Finally I had my artwork on display at the Grand Rapids Police Department in 2003 in a show with a talented artist from the fire department. We even got in the paper. Then a whirlwind took over and I met up with a printer, who made limited edition prints of one of my paintings and we sold those for $119 each. Now I was ready to start the business and make the move when the printer, who was also going to market my work, disappeared from town.

Now how was I to sell my art?

Art and craft shows usually have more crafts than art. And even at fine art shows most spontaneous buyers only buy water colors, pastels, photos, or prints; not large original oil paintings. I was not to be deterred and hence came my quest to get represented by a gallery. That would surely mean I was a professional!  I went to many in town and even showed a few my work.  They liked some of it, but said I was young and my work was too sentimental.  I worked harder and reapplied only to be told the same thing.

Finally I took the best advice ever and signed up for a workshop from a respected artist, Jim Connelly. That is when I decided to forget being a professional artist and to just enjoy painting and experimenting and growing at my trade.  Besides, there are artists in galleries that only sell a few paintings a year anyway.

But then it happened…my wife wanted to start framing my paintings, so we opened our business, Kemme Fine Art & Framing, LLC. I made fancy business cards, letterhead, fax cover sheets, and started on a brochure. My wife worked all winter learning her trade and then I go and accidentally cut off my left ring finger on the table saw while doing yard work. Ooops. That ended my wife’s framing part of the business – she just did not want to hop on the saw after that. And just when we were getting professional!

Well that was ok. I still sold some paintings to friends and family, so I decided to keep painting and donate a few paintings a year to charities for tax write-offs. Unfortunately I shortly discovered that I can not write-off the fair market value since I created the art. That is when I decided to try commission work again. 2006 marked the first year when I became a commissioned oil painter (mostly landscapes). Fallasberg Covered Bridge was my first piece. To top it off, I even created a professional looking postcard to advertise my new niche. Looking back, I’m not thrilled I spent the money to print several hundred of those things.

Anyway, I got another mention in the paper for a portrait I did of our police chaplain. I even had somebody see my name and say that they were happy to meet me because they recognized me as a local artist they liked (those donations to auctions had a happy surprise).

That was it! I became a professional artist…right? Oh but wait, I still have a “day job” and there is no sign of that going away.  You know – family, mortgage, health insurance, etc.  But what if people view me as a professional artist because of this blog and my fancy postcard sized brochure? Does that count? What if I make several thousand dollars this year in sales? Does that push me across that line?

On second thought, who is even the judge on whether I am a professional artist or not? What if I were to quit my “day job” and paint full-time, but do not sell any more paintings than I do now? 

Apparently I do not have the answer after all. If you figure it out, can you please tell me?

The sentimental debate

Just to clarify, by sentimental debate I am not referring to a sensitive way of arguing the pros and cons concerning art, or any topic. I am talking about the question of what does it mean to have a piece of art be overly sentimental, and why is that a bad thing, if it is really a bad thing.

I do not know if this issue is the most controversial topic in the art world, but it sure has impacted me. To explain what I’m talking about, I will take you on a little journey (yes again) back to when I first heard that word pertaining to artwork. I was presenting my art to galleries in the Grand Rapids area, and meeting with the owners. I kept hearing that word being used to describe some of my art and I received several warnings not to cross the line any further.

At first I did not know exactly what they meant and I faked understanding out of embarassment. After a while I pieced it together though. What the various gallery owners were referring to was what I later came to call “being cheesy.” Let’s say you have a painting of a field near a barn. That does not necessarily sound “cheesy.” Now let’s add a little swing, a farm cat asleep on the porch, the farmer milking the cow, and maybe a bright green tractor. Then to make it more clear, just think of any stereotypes about a happy farm house and throw them in the picture as well. Oh I know…how about a little girl swinging on a tire swing (which by the way was the subject of a picture that I had showed to a gallery once).

Now you have what I was told is an overly sentimental painting.

I remember one gallery owner showed me the Art Business News that I was also subscribed to and pointed out all my favorite pictures of women laying leisurely on  beds and mothers with their daughters strolling on the beach in sun dresses. I thought he was going to talk about how interesting the brush strokes appeared in the photos of those oil paintings, but then he said something like, “See what I mean? It makes me want to throw up. All the art in this magazine is crap.”

Wow, I thought those pictures were amazing because of the technique used by the artist and the wonderful feeling they gave me about how beautiful life can be. Well what is a good painting then? I became completely confused and what I thought I knew I realized I did not know at all. Then he finally added that a painting does not necessarily have to be about garbage in the streets or death, but that it has to be about real life.

Ok, now I at least understood his point. I suppose I do not know any extraordinarily beautiful women just lying around draped in pink sheets on their bed, perfectly posed.

Well now that I understood how to avoid painting something that was overly sentimental, I began to purge those ideas from my artwork. Then just when I thought I had figured out the art world, I was blind-sided again. At first it was just little commments from friends and family about how they loved those “cheesy” paintings and how they make them feel good.  Then I noticed yet another retail store open for Thomas Kinkade (that very same gallery owner I talked to used Kinkade’s artwork as an example of extreme over-sentimentality). If he is not a good painter, why does he have dozens of retail stores? People seem to love his paintings and he apparently must be quite wealthy by now, which one could argue is a measure of success.

Soon I noticed “cheesy” paintings all over the place. They were at art shows, in people’s living rooms, and offices all over the area from my dentist’s office to government buildings.  If that type of artwork has no value, why are people buying it? Does not the fact that people value that art enough to pay for it mean that it has value? Who is right then – the gallery owner or the mass of people buying all that “cheesy” artwork?

I guess for artists it must be about who they are painting for. Are they painting for the millions of us who like a nice picture to match the colors in our living room, or are they painting to create a piece of art that holds merit to art collectors and gallery owners?

For me, I found a balance. I strive to push myself further with my artwork to create art that means something and has interest on several levels. But every now and then I will paint something that I believe somebody might buy someday because it has nice colors and water in it (people love the calming effect of water in a picture). I suppose I will let others decide if my art has value, “cheesy” or not.