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October 2016

Second Thoughts on Artistic Style

I recently participated in an event that prompted me to reevaluate my thoughts on style.  The show was available online and when viewed this way, I felt my painting style did not easily "fit" with the general feel of the show.  There were many excellent paintings, all versions of the prevailing visual appearance, and it made me question whether my ideas about personal style ought to be reassessed. 

I have always felt that style developed over time as the artist found his visual language.  The way we mix the paint, hold the brush, the direction of the stroke or the ideas behind the composition are all part of style.  I still believe this.  But I want a richer understanding by expanding on that idea.

The standard advice for artists has always been to develop a style that identifies you, so that your work is recognizable.  So the question is how far can the artist stray from the norm before their audience becomes confused as to the style they are expecting?  It should be easy, but it’s not.

The definition of style, which you can read in full here, is straightforward:  Innovation in style rises through the work of a single or small group of artists, and those that follow are said to be working in a similar manner, or the school of, where essentially they are taking the ideas and expanding on the body of work, but not necessarily changing the trajectory.  So an artist must eventually decide where he fits within a particular school (or set of ideas) and work in that direction, or risk being labeled as disorganized and confusing.

But how broad can that direction be? Where is the boundary, where this side you are safe, and that side you are at risk?

In this article at quartz.com, we learn that art collectors at the high end are looking for artistic rigor, work that challenges the status quo, communicates ideas, displays outstanding technique, a distinguishing narrative – all while playing “outside the rules.” There is no real surprise here from the art sector that believes in preserving high culture for our society.  Art that is intellectually challenging, while reflecting the bones of art history beneath innovation and contemporary approach is meaningful at this level. And while attitudes at the top eventually filter down to the lower tiers, the collectors outside the auction houses have different expectations. They are more interested in ideas around the beauty and artistic prestige of a particular work, the emotional connection or narrative depicted, and a sense of recognition between collector and artist on a subtle level.  But one idea that will not change no matter what group you are talking about is that people bring their experiences and expectations to the artwork, and they want to understand what they are looking at - and the strongest, easiest mode of communication is style. 

Style does evolve organically, but the argument can be made for the artist to fit their work between the fine lines of innovation, expression, and expectation.  This is especially true if you are trying to get your work accepted into prestigious shows or important galleries.  While there is leeway, there is also a strong pull toward "fitting into the whole presentation."  While looking at your own portfolio, there may be a strong sense of continuity, of work that is easily identified as yours.  But when that work moves out into the group shows, what is better?  To fit in with the group or to work at the edges?  Does your personal style fit close enough to the expectation of the audience or does it feel discordant? Are you too sensitive to your own voice, too insecure with the acceptability of your style that you over-react (always possible), or does it signal the need to step back and reassess?

It comes down to the artist deciding what their work is about and how they want to develop the ideas, and then how and where they want to present that work to the marketplace. The reception is going to be risky no matter whether you are following the traditional path or the “play outside the rules” path.  Art has always been about problem solving, and risk is part of the artist’s development.  It is said that art at any level can find a buyer, but most serious artists I know are also looking for high artistic achievement, producing the best work possible, improving their technique, and then translating that into recognition and eventually sales.  I hope I am opening a discussion, and look forward to other artist's thoughts on this subject.  Please add your ideas through the comments section. 

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IMG_1772 sm copyI'm very humbled to announce that Moonrise (over Desperation Ridge), 8 x 10, oil,  was awarded Best Nocturne in the August/September Plein Air Salon. 

The story behind the Desperation Ridge paintings: there is no specific geographical place called Desperation Ridge, although seeing parts of the Oregon Outback I am sure more than one gold miner, or short-cut following wagon train called one or more of the volcanic ridges and gullies by that name - or others more colorful.  While not totally born of imagination, Desperation Ridge reflects many emotions artists experience when a painting does or does not come together as intended.  And not just artists.  We all have the obstacles we are determined to overcome at all costs.  There is beauty in that quest. 

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The Essential Business Skill an Artist Should Develop

What are your greatest art related fears?  For most artists, the fear of unanswered questions is the biggest impediment.  And the primary business skill you need is a strategy to manage that fear.

Some fears are just fears.

But most fears can be managed if you first realize they are actually questions, and then work toward finding the best answers.

Common questions revolve around the worth of your work.  If you don’t fully understand the rational behind what you create, it’s no wonder the work feels without merit.  Organize your thoughts by writing about your history, why you decided to be an artist, what inspires your work.

I thought my mountain was coming this morning. It was near to speaking when suddenly it shifted, sulked, and returned to smallness. It has eluded me again and sits there, puny and dull. Why? (Emily Carr)

Another common fear involves the market and demand for your work.  We fear the answer will be a resounding “No!”  And what could be worse that knowing that?

What could be worse is working for years in a way that will not succeed because you were afraid to face the possibility that one, you had the potential to succeed, but two, you needed to take greater action to achieve that goal. 

I was a loser, most concerned with making a living. It took me 30 years to understand... I had to reinvent a system, find a way out, and set some rules that could work for me and a few others. I guess in the end that's what we all are trying to do. (Maurizio Cattelan)

But the biggest fear, the biggest risk, is saying you are an artist but never, ever succeeding.  Oh, wow, that is so heavy. I mean, really, what could you possibly do that could compete with the likes of the Art History Stars? 

 “Have pity on those who are fearful of taking up a pen, or a paintbrush, or an instrument, or a tool because they are afraid that someone has already done so better than they could…”
Paulo Coelho, The Pilgrimage

  Don't even bother with this fear.  Focus on the questions that have answers.  Build your art business from there.

Know as much as you can about your own work, as an ongoing process, because your ideas change and develop and often come back around in more effective styles.

Know as much as you can about the business expectations of others when dealing with an artist. Small questions about how to ship large work, and larger questions about the money, the accounting, and the marketing responsibilities. There are good resources if you want group classes, but you can also start with your own investigations by going to the galleries, the shipping businesses, the juried shows and asking questions.

Know as much as you can about the standards for excellence in your chosen medium, and what strategies you can use to gain acknowledgement from your peers.  This includes the standards for excellence and styles when approaching galleries, establishing pricing, and producing marketing efforts.

Because there are many different ways to think about what an Art Business is, experts will offer you a broad approach with the easiest solutions: write an artist statement, create a blog, build a website, and submit to shows.  The road you are on does not have easy answers, simple solutions, or common experiences. The terrain changes rapidly and constantly. While you do need a road map of sorts, you also need to take the responsibility for where you are going.  It’s an adventure that can be both fun and terrifyingly.

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IMG_1772 sm copyI appreciate the way you have accepted my words, and my art, into your lives.  So I would like to thank and welcome the new subscribers to this blog, and those who have also subscribed to my newsletter.  In my newsletter I write more about art technique, my motivations behind specific paintings, and occasionally offer paintings for sale at special prices.  Here is a convenient link to subscribe to my newsletter .

I would also like to thank those of you who have purchased my book, Ancient Wisdom: Emerging Artist: the business plan (not just) for the mature artist, over the past month.  I hope this book helps you with the intrinsic motivation, as well as offering practical ideas and a bit of humor at the end of the day.

 

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