Friday, December 18, 2009

Ramble Post: how changes in style and format intertwine

The following is adapted from an email that I sent to an old acquaintance from my comic book days. Since I'm still adjusting to the sleep deprived craziness of parenthood, I haven't had a chance to finish off any new paintings or write any new blog posts, but I had written the email recently, and although it was a bit rambly, it was serviceably interesting, so I've filled it out a bit and here you go:
 
All that being said, this thing became easier to manage when I accepted that it's a competition. I must've had some vague idea that there was some kind of sub-society of artists that Society at large owed a living to because of their altruistic or idealistic contributions to that Society's culture. Now I'm working on the idea of artists competing in a market. Yes, fellow artists will help you out and vice versa, but it's still a competition. If you produce better quality work faster, you'll do better. Artists who survive on government grants from arms length agencies are just in a different kind of competition with different rules. Yes, it kind of seems like a sell out to be including sellability as a factor for consideration in your work, but if I want to make a living at it, I have to. Those are the rules. Fortunately there's a pretty large intersection between what I like to paint and what is sellable, so I can easily restrict myself to a subset of paintings that is both things l like to paint and things that people like to buy. I still never have to paint something that I don't like.
 
So in the name of that competition, I concentrate on figuring out how to make better paintings, and how to make them faster. And eventually I figured out that that doesn't necessarily mean moving paint faster. It mainly means figuring out a style and a process that's faster, more economical. Figuring out where you spend the bulk of your time and paring it down if it's on things that aren't as important. In my case, most of my time is mostly about figuring out colour choices. When I first switched from comics to paintings, I originally figured out that producing multiple copies of a small painting at the same time allowed me to work faster: I could reuse the same composition, and I could reuse the same sets of colours. Sort of a mini production line.
 
I also developed a style that didn't depend on blending colours in the picture. That allowed me to pre mix a set of colours, and lay them down in discrete brush strokes. I think this method served to minimize the risks in the long string of choices that makes up a piece of art, so that it was more likely that the paintings would be good enough to show by the time they were all done.

There are other little things that I've used to speed it up too. I now use archival art markers to draw the lines, instead of the slow process of trying to draw with paint on plywood, in which you can only do very short strokes. That was really tedious, and the markers have cut hours off my paintings' times. Not only that but they allow the drawing phase to flow a lot better and the results are looser and more interesting. I also realized that paint costs were a small percentage of my expenses, whereas art show fees, travel expenses, cameras and computers were a lot more, so spending time trying to use 25% less paint because I was reusing colours only saved me $100/year. My biggest hold up is time, or making enough paintings to get into more galleries, so now I don't carefully lay out space on my pallet for colours that I might use later. I either just trash what I'm done with, or mix it all together so I have a blob of gray or brown. Much less thinking: faster and less energy used. That allows me to create more paintings over the course of a year, which is worth far more than the extra $100 or $200 of paint I might've used in the process.
 
Eventually, especially once I moved to the larger pieces, I found the premixed colour method to be slowing me down. I used to have to make enough of all the colours, even though I didn't really know which ones I'd use the most of, and I'd have to make extra colours just in case. Then when painting, I'd have to make sure to space the brush strokes out pretty much exactly right to achieve the right overall rhythm once all of the colours were applied. That added a kind of high wire tension to the application of the paint. Kind of deliciously nerve wracking in one sense, but in the end too much of a self imposed obstacle.

So I changed my style to accomodate that process change: once I decided to trust myself that I could still get good colour schemes even if they weren't all pre-planned, I could start with a single colour, apply it, then use it as the base for the next one in a progression, or switch to something completely different. So I only really have one or two active colours on the palette. What that means is that if accidentally stick my hand in the wet paint, I no longer have those colours saved to repair it, so I have more work to do to fix an error or an accident. That's fine, because that doesn't happen too often. But now I force myself to look at what I've just put on, and decide if it's good enough, and if it is, I'm moving on and there's no going back. If it's not, I touch it up, or scrape it off and just keep going. The previous colours are gone and I'll never mix them again. No safety net in a way. And that's fine, because I need to force myself to stop wasting time puttering around worrying about getting the colours exactly right. And I adjusted the style so I'm applying overlapping brushstrokes instead of discrete ones; I don't have to worry about where all of the rest of the brush strokes are going to go, and I can always just go over an area later if I think it needs an adjustment. I no longer have to agonize over getting all the colours right at the beginning of the painting.
 
Now I'm trying to figure out what to do about frames. I can build my own fairly quickly, but it still keeps me from making paintings, which is the unique part of what I do. I'd love to farm it out if I could find an economical frame that wasn't a complete mismatch with my pictures. The ones I make myself are pretty good, but I would be fooling myself to think that there aren't better frames out there. I think if I had better frames the art would look better. Be more valuable. The small pieces might not work that way though, because in my own frames the scale of the piece and style of the frame have an intimacy that goes really well together.  But with the big ones I think they might need something more polished in order to convince people that it is in fact worth the big bucks. Of course, a lot of hopeful artists blow a lot of money on frames and never make it back, and that's really the crux of the matter: what's the return on investment on the frames? You need frames that look great and are relatively cheap, and they have to be consistent. Nothing kills an artist's booth or show like having their paintings framed in 18 different styles of frame. 

Haha, that's more than I thought I was going to write. I should put it in a blog post. 

There's a saying about Canadian artists: It's not hard to be a famous Canadian artist: everyone else quits.