Thursday, September 23, 2010


Being an artist is a tough job. Like any other self-employed individual, you have to make your own way in the world. There isn't a time clock to punch in or out on and you don't collect a paycheck at the end of every other week.

Being an artist can take more courage than most think it might. It 'costs' a lot in blood, sweat and tears to stand before a blank canvas, piece of paper or clay block and attempt to translate into either two dimensions or three, what resides in your heart and soul. I have often equated the feeling of accomplishment and gratification that I receive when I finish a work that I am particularly happy with as like pulling little pieces of flesh off; it leaves a scar as a reminder of the effort that went into producing that work, a reminder that part of me went into that work and will always remain a part of that work.

Being an artist, for most, is not a choice. We may know from the very beginning what our path in life is to be, or it may take time, years of meandering along other pathways before we get to that all important, inevitable fork in the road that demands we finally resolve to be who we are meant to be, or not.

Being an artist throws down challenges to us, challenges that can make us better at what we do and help put focus on the best use possible of whatever talents we have. The ability to produce a work of art that can spark an emotional response or connection within someone else is not something that comes easy to many. When it is achieved though, that creative and emotional outpouring of the artist's inner being is celebrated by both artist and collector alike.

Being an artist means, also, having the strength and stamina to withstand the 'slings and arrows of outrageous fortune' that are thrown our way each and every day and to not allow any of it to distract from being explorative and digging ever deeper into our creative depths.

An artist reader commented the other day on her dismay at not having her graphite works, done on paper, given the respect that is generally lauded upon works on canvas. I feel her pain as long, long ago, the realization became quite clear to me that many professionals in the 'business' of selling art and many collectors as well, will not even consider a work done on paper, be it a drawing or even a watercolor.

When I first turned professional as an artist twenty years ago, this nagged at me as I had not really chosen the medium of graphite as my means of letting the creative juices flow, the medium had chosen me. As my technical use of the medium developed then, from all the previous years of honing and refining and testing papers and such, I knew that working in graphite on a piece of paper was what I was meant to do and that was that. My joy in rising every morning to spend a productive day in the studio was rich with ideas and plans and purpose and it all revolved around using that monochrome medium.

I have talked here before about having been a painter when younger and in art school and a bit thereafter, but never feeling the fulfillment that I immediately felt once I started intently working in pencil. For years, I had forced myself to try and get command of paint mediums and to produce work that I was proud to put my name on. This never really happened and it always was a frustrating experience and, ultimately, led me to abandon any sort of creative art making at all. I spent years sitting at a drawing table, making the same straight lines and marks on architectural drawings in one office after another, paying bills, having a life, getting along.

And that was just it, I was simply getting along!

The turning point finally came, that inevitable fork in the road, that point at which I had to make some decisions about the way the rest of my life might go and my path was set. Returning from the first of seven eventual trips to Africa, I picked up a pencil and 'dabbled' a bit. At first, the 'sketches' were memories for me, memories of that incredible continent that I fell in love with and the change in course that my life seemed to shift to after that experience. Long story short, twenty years after those first steps on African soil, came the day I became a professional artist, not looking back on failed moments on canvas, not looking back on months and years spent in other pursuits, not looking back at all but looking forward to each new day as a professional artist. I could finally tap into every creative atom that I knew I had inside me.

One should not start down a road like that making any assumptions, good or ill, and I just began to do what I do, learning as I went, discovering how far I could push myself, testing and always feeling a level of accomplishment that was beginning to be accepted out there in the big, cold world just as many other artist had done for generations.

With my medium having already been established for me, the main focus of my subject matter also seemed predetermined in a similar manner as Africa and its animals and the experiences of my recent trips there, were always at the forefront of my ideas for works of art. Finding very well established venues and exhibition situations that were structured solely for the depiction of animals and nature, I found immediate outlets to hang my work and through participation in these group ventures over the years, I made new contacts and found even more acceptance for my work.

Now, all through this time, the early years after turning professional, it was very apparent to me that since my medium and major focus of subject matter was rather limited in scope, I knew there was going to be a limited 'market' and approval for it. This was something I just had to accept and move on from. It was not something I took lightly, but in the end, finding an increasing number of eyes that were drawn to my work, made it easier.

Whether I was lucky or in the right places at the right times or whatever, I was gratified to find collectors who were interested enough in my work, work on paper, to be able to pay the bills and have a life and get along just as I had when working in all those architectural offices, but with much more joy to it all.

So, when asked for advice on how to navigate through the challenges of having one's work accepted as viable, valuable and with validity as a work of fine art suitable for collection, I offer these thoughts -

First, do what makes you happy - first! There seems to be little point in working in the studio on things that don't challenge you, make the best use of your creative talents or bring a smile to your own face. No matter what the medium or support, be it paper or canvas, your inner soul should dictate to you and your best work should surface.

Second, hone your skills with whatever medium has chosen you. Learn from others whose work you respect and who work in the same medium. Art school is always a great place to learn basics, but to really, truly learn how to use a medium, find someone who you respect and pick their brain.

Third, don't let the 'slings and arrows' get to you. Find outlets and venues and exhibition situations in which your art, your chosen medium will shine. Do your homework and discover juried events in which you can stick a foot in the water. For me personally, it was such as Birds in Art, which I have just posted about in these last few postings. There are lots of possibilities out there for getting your work accepted and respected and to have a work or two juried into these sorts of major events, shows that much needed spotlight onto your work and you. The Internet has become, just as with other issues, a tremendous source of information and possibilities for finding all sorts of competitions and contests.

Fourth, depending upon your subject matter, find organizations or art groups that focus solely on that subject matter. For someone like me, who works with animals and nature subject matter, such groups as The Society of Animal Artists can be a wealth of information and opportunity to a 'newcomer' artist or even one who has been around for a bit. Acceptance and membership to such organizations gives an extra added cache to your work as something beyond the norm, in most cases. Having your works equated with that of more well known or Master artists in the field, can only serve to elevate it and give you even more goals to set for yourself and your art.

In closing, it has always occurred to me, in relation to art works on paper and their lack of acceptance as important works by many, would these same persons turn their noses away from a drawing by Rembrandt or Matisse, Picasso or Degas, Van Gogh, Escher or Leonardo? I certainly do not equate my work with the likes of those masters and would say basically, 'to each his own'. Those that would find pleasure in a work on paper and wish to add it to their collection are those who I endeavor to make connections with. If in the course of time, others who may never have considered it before, join those that have found such pleasure, connection and emotion in my work, great! There are enough possibilities out there, I feel, for all who have an appreciation for a fine, well balanced, inviting work of art to be able to select from and a work, just because it is on paper, should not be relegated to a secondary status or ill considered if it embodies the best of those same elements.

5 comments:

Arti said...

Hi Terry thank you so much for sharing all this..I guess I am at the stage where you were twenty years ago- loving my pencil but unsure if others will like it or not!I still don't know if should single mindedly persue pencil professionaly.People don't seem to be interested in pencil as they are in colored work.
I am just taking inspiration from artists like you and marching along..

Lene said...

hi
very interesting post. Glad an excellent artist as your, can open peoples eyes to the art of graphite. An medium I find wonderful too.
What I think could be part of the problem with the lack of accepting graphite and watercolor-artwork (pastels too) on paper, is the issue of framing. Frames with glass and mats, needed because of the delicasy of those medias vs oils and acrylics being framed without anything but the frame itself.
If this comes from the gallery-world, or customers I'm not sure, (I suspect galleries to be the guilty!) but framing can be very expensive.
Some people think the glass makes a barrier between the artwork and the viewer, but I don't think so.
Do you think this could be part of the problem?

TDawn Maddox said...

Love this post, and appreciate all the advice and insights on your journey as an artist. Looking forward to applying it to my own endeavors.

My medium is clay, but many of the hurdles artists face are the same despite different mediums. :)

Thanks again.

sfox said...

What great observations and insights!

I guess I'm "lucky" that painting in oil is what floats my boats, but I love to draw in graphite also.

I have a line of notecards that are all graphite drawings of animals and have found over the years that while they don't sell as well as the cards with color, there ARE people out there who love drawings and get quite excited when they see mine.

So I would absolutely agree with you. An artist MUST do what they are passionate about, regardless of perceived saleability. People can tell when you care. And when you don't.

Rose Welty said...

Thank your for urging courage on us. I'm sure you are right, but it still is scary.

What you said about a medium choosing you reminded me of what Ernest Watson said in his book _The Art_of_Pencil_Drawing_: “I decided to master the lead pencil. The words of an art teacher came to me at the time. He had once said, 'Master some one medium thoroughly. ...learn to speak one language perfectly.' Very well, I had discovered my language."