Sunday, August 30, 2009

Original Concepts

Early Friday evening: 

"So what visual image would you pick to represent love?," he asked.

"I was thinking of a mother and child," she said.

"That's a cop-out," he quickly answered.

Later that same evening:

"What do you think of that portrait of the young African-American man flipping us the bird?," she asked me.

"Well, I think the artist is trying to comment on the attitudes of youth in America today," I answered, trying to be diplomatic.

"I think it's offensive," she said with total candor.

"Yes, it's supposed to be, but I also think it's a bit cliched," I answered back.

I share these two conversations from my Friday evening because they both touch on an interesting topic: originality. I suspect that most of us try very hard to be original in expressing the values and ideas we hold dear. Yet, more often than not, we fall short of the goal, reaching instead for images that are familiar, expected, cliched, or sentimental. On the other hand, every new work is the artist's own spin.

So how important is originality? Is an image that's not original still valid as a work of art? How do we avoid becoming cliched or sentimental? Is there a way to cultivate a unique vision? Your thoughts? I'd like to start a conversation about this because I'm struggling with this very thing.

Last Saturday Summer Paint-Out

Yesterday saw the last of the summer paint-outs on Saturday mornings. I want to thank my friends Ray, Mike, Monica, Rosemary, and Carol for coming out and joining me on many occasions. You made it so much more fun to be out there, and of course, I treasure your insights and advice.

The plan is really a testament to how effective accountability is. When I started sending out the invites to the summer paint-outs, I specifically did not ask people to RSVP. I know myself well enough to know that I wouldn't get my behind out of bed if I didn't have to, so by not knowing who might show up and wondering whether people were counting on me to be at the scheduled locations, I didn't have any other option but be there. What great discipline! And I'm really thankful for that because I know I would not have painted as much or learned as much without the discipline, and I'd be sitting here regretting every lost opportunity.

Instead I'm sitting here surrounded by about 15 paintings from all the paint-outs. Most of them are pretty bad. Does that matter? Not one bit. It's about the process, not the product.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

O Happy Day!

Many thanks to Nancy Achberger and Ray Hassard, both OPAS members, who arranged for a fantastic day of painting in Historic Milford, Ohio, on the banks of the Little Miami River. We caught a break from the 90+-degree weather we've been having all week, and it was comfortable and beautiful. Cloudy but still a perfect day. More than 40 artists came from all over Ohio and beyond to participate in this one-day paint-out that ended with a wet-paint sale. Congrats to all those who sold their work right off the easel!

In addition to the fun of meeting fellow artists, I had a great time painting the same subject as two other watercolor artists--an old white house surrounded by a fantastic wildflower garden. It's always fascinating to see how each artist puts her (or his!) own unique spin on something. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Having Your Work Critiqued

The past couple of weeks have been very interesting. A friend of a friend asked us to critique her novel, giving me an insider’s look at the creative process in a different form. The thing is, she’s been working on it off and on for the past 15 years. With that much time and effort invested, you really have to admire someone for putting her work of art out there and asking for criticism.

Having your work critiqued is never easy. I think that secretly we all want to hear that our work is fantastic… perfection… inspired and inspiring. So when we hear anything other than pure praise, we can end up feeling deflated, discouraged, embarrassed, or even surprised. For instance: Recently I was visiting my friend Tina’s studio, and our friend Mike walked in and asked why she had included some throw pillows in her newest painting. The “throw pillows” were actually the back of a figure’s head and shoulders! We all laughed—maybe guffawed would be more accurate—and then Tina gritted her teeth and went back to work on that figure.

But if you can get past the emotional strain of a critique from a reliable source (by which I mean someone knowledgeable about art), you’ll probably emerge a much stronger painter for the experience. After all, how else will we ever learn to improve? Do we really want to stay stuck in the same place? Ignorance can be bliss sometimes, but always?

I’ll tell you how I critique my own and other people’s paintings. I start with a simple question based on the assumption that the purpose of art is to communicate: What is the artist trying to tell me? If the answer isn’t immediately clear, there’s a problem. And that’s when I start running through the list of elements (value, color, edges, shape, etc.) and principles (variety, dominance, repetition, etc.) to see if I can identify what’s blocking me from receiving what I believe was the intended message.

So the next time you find your work getting a critique—by request or not—listen attentively. Give yourself time to feel and process any emotions that come up, but then put them aside and apply whatever useful information you’ve received.

On Sunday, I met with the author and the friend, and we spent close to three hours reviewing her novel. At first she listened and took notes, then she began to look away and got a little defensive. When we parted company, there was definitely some tension in the air. But four hours later she was back on the phone, calmly asking us to begin again, to clarify, to respond to her new ideas. ’Atta girl!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Your Palette, Your Way

Some time ago, I posted a short blurb about my favorite color palette: Cad Lemon, Cad Yellow Medium, Cad Red Medium, Alizarin Crimson, Ultramarine Blue, and Titanium White. This is the palette I used a week ago Saturday for this square painting of a little tree out at Miami Whitewater Forest. As always, I was able to achieve a wide range of greens without using any tubed greens that harmonize nicely because they all share a common color, Ultramarine Blue.

But during the week, my best friend and painting teacher, Tina Tammaro, introduced me to another possibility built around the modern color of Phthalo Blue. I have always avoided this color because it's so bright and looked garish when mixed with the other colors on my usual palette. But Tina's been experimenting with a whole different palette of Yellow Ochre, Cad Orange, Indian Red, Phthalo Blue, and Titanium White. What she's discovered, and I think this horizontal painting I did yesterday along the Ohio River illustrates her point, is that you can mix natural looking colors that have a slightly richer feel to them with this palette. We think it's because the dull colors (the Ochre and Indian Red) calm down the Phthalo Blue while allowing it to retain a robust look. I should add that I actually incorporated a little Cad Yellow and Alizarin as well to make the sunlit greens and atmospheric, hazy purples. 

As with so many things in art, there isn't one "right way" to do things. It's all a matter of preference. I'm just throwing these two possibilities out there for you to try. In both cases, the fairly limited palettes helped to retain color harmony. I just think the Phthalo palette looks a little richer and more contemporary than the Ultramarine palette. I think I'm a convert! Tell me what you think if you try these colors.

Monday, August 3, 2009

How to Get Published in a Magazine

A recent e-mail exchange with a fellow artist has inspired me to offer a few tips on how to get published in a magazine. People often think that editors go out and hunt down all those great stories, but that's only true some of the time. A lot of the magazine articles you see were generated by the subjects themselves who took initiative and contacted the editors with their article ideas. In other words, if you're looking to get some publicity in a magazine, don't wait for the opportunity to come to you. Go out and get it!

1. Choose the right magazine for your purpose. Think about what it is you want to promote and to whom, and then choose the magazine that caters to that audience. If you want to sell your art workshops, how-to books, or DVDs to your fellow artists, you want to be in artists' magazines, like American Artist, The Artist's Magazine, and International Artist. If you want to sell more of your paintings, you'll want to be featured in collectors' magazines, like Southwest Art and American Art Collector (although you have to buy an ad to get featured in that second one). And remember that collectors can be found anywhere so broaden your reach to magazines that cater to people who may be interested in your work because of the subject. For example, if you include your favorite sock puppet in every still life, contact toy collectors' magazines.

2. Pitch the story and get a green light before you write (or worse, pay someone else to write) the article. Editors do not want to receive pre-written articles. In fact, they'd prefer to consult with you on the content of your article before it's written. They might even want to have a staff member or freelance writer of their choice write the article. Even if you do end up writing it yourself or hiring someone to write for you, don't invest any time or money into writing the full article until an editor has agreed to publish it when it's done.

3. Write a convincing pitch letter or e-mail. The key to getting published is to convince the editor that a story about you or the group you represent will be great for the magazine's readers. You do this by sending a pitch letter that explains a) the original "angle" or subject that you can provide, b) how the information will benefit the magazine's readers, and c) why your credentials make you worthy of space in the magazine. You do not want to write, "I would love to be featured because I could really use the publicity." The editor already knows that it would benefit you--he or she wants to know what's in it for him or her. The editor's job is to please the readers, not to promote you, so your pitch should be more along the lines of "My journey as an artist is fascinating to collectors" or "I can teach your readers a new technique I've developed." If you want more detailed info on developing an angle and writing a great pitch letter, visit the "writers & writing" section of any bookstore or library where you'll find plenty of examples.

4. Follow the instructions when submitting a proposal. The pitch letter is just one part of an overall proposal package that you'll submit to the editor. Other pieces may include examples of your work and your bio or resume. The important message here is to visit the magazine's website and hunt around until you find their info on Submissions or Proposals or Submission Guidelines or similar. Once you've found their instructions, follow them to a T. If they want it electronically, send it that way. If they want it by snail mail, send it that way. And send everything they ask for and nothing more. If you absolutely can't find any guidelines on their website, check the masthead for the name of the current Managing Editor or Assistant Editor, and send him or her an e-mail asking for submission instructions. Don't contact The Editor, that name at the top of the masthead. Save that for the actual submission.

5. Be patient in waiting for a response. It's not unusual to wait a minimum of three months before you get a response. If you haven't heard by then, send a brief, polite e-mail or make a brief, polite phone call to the Managing Editor or Assistant Editor, asking for a follow-up.

6. If you'd like to contact competing magazines (magazines with the same audience and probably the same readers), do it one at a time. Start with your favorite/most promising one. Only when you've heard a definite "no" should you move on to the next one on your list. And never, ever agree to be featured in competing magazines at roughly the same time. It makes the magazines look bad, which damages your reputation.

Okay, that's all I got. Be proactive. Be patient. Be persistent... And make it fun!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

One-Hour Paintings

Ah, the joys of plein-air painting in Ohio. If the bugs aren't biting, the sky is threatening. But I wouldn't change a thing about it!

It just so happens that my last several Saturday morning paint-outs have coincided with cloudy days, which is what prompted me to paint super fast. All of these are one-hour (or less) paintings. I seem to be able to move faster with the palette knife than with the brush, so I used one of my favorite tools for all of them. It's a great exercise if you've never tried it. It really forces you to focus on your big shapes and get to the essence of your subjects. But I still paid attention to harmonizing the color relationships.