Painting what you know

“View toward the Bay,” 9×12, pastel on paper. Summer 2015. The shoreline of Lake Huron near Au Gres, Michigan. NFS.

One of the old axioms about writing is that you should always write about what you know. As a marketing writer by day, I’ve found it definitely helps. Recently, though, I’m realizing this philosophy applies to painting as well.

This spring, I read a book by celebrated watercolorist Mary Whyte about how to paint. Not about technique, but how to choose what to paint. And then, how to paint it, from a purely personal point of view. The book has continued to infiltrate my psyche ever since, mostly because the timing is now right. The best advice in the world is meaningless until you’re ready for it. Until recently, I was preoccupied with my disobedient brushes and contentious canvases, mocking me with my amateur abilities. But with a lot of work, I steadily improved.  And now, I’m all ears. And eyes.

Whyte’s premise is that you don’t just paint what you see. Instead, you paint what you see uniquely and also what you know. Not the bird in the tree, but that bird and its song. Not the lake with the purple haze, but the serenity, too. Not the model, but her anxiety or his playfulness. And now that I’ve gotten to be more skillful, I can see that my best paintings are always like that. Something about them makes me feel emotional. When I’m painting a portrait, there will often be a single moment when I’m startled to notice that the person’s essence has suddenly come together on the canvas.

“Disappearing Towels,” 11×9, pastel on paper. Summer 2015.  The shoreline of Lake Huron, near Au Gres, MI.

Paintings that spark emotion are also inevitably the paintings that sell, and when they do, I always feel a twinge of regret within the happiness of a sale. It’s like a piece of me is for sale, too, one that I’ll never get back. It’s a little disconcerting when you allow someone to see straight into your heart.

These paintings were done plein air at my favorite place on earth:  my grandmother’s cabin on Lake Huron. The first painting was done entirely plein air, but the second had to be finished in the studio, since the kids started grabbing the towels off the fence, one by one, while I was painting.

With these, I am painting endless afternoons jumping in the waves, the bad sunburns I got as a teenager, looking for sea glass with my little niece, my mom making up fake Scrabble words, and my grandmother emerging from the lake in her bathing cap after her 6 am swim. I’m painting memories of rocks on the water’s edge and a big sand bar further out. I’m painting lazy afternoons of antiquing in Oscoda, ice cream cones in Au Gres, and trashy novels and Margaritas on lawn chairs. I’m painting the vigor that comes from sleeping soundly to the eternal beat of the waves on the shore.

Fittingly, we get terrible cell reception at the cabin. Because the cabin is me, unplugged.

Random things I learned from my first show

Your first solo exhibit. A profound chance to grow. My first show just wrapped up, and I’ve learned so SO much. I’ll be adding to this post, I’m sure, but here are some tidbits of wisdom, in no particular order:

“Skeptical Nude.” 14×11, oil on linen.

— Always finish all your paintings to the edges in the first painting session and sign them before you put them away, even if you plan to work on them more. It will be easier to paint over those areas than to try to match them afterward. It’s also less time-consuming, especially if you’re working in oil, because you’ll have to wait for the painting to dry again. Likewise, clean all schmutz off your painting at the end of each session. Much easier and less damaging than attempting it after it’s dry.

– Take photos of everything. Don’t think you’ll have time to get to it later.  I threw a couple things at the last minute into my bin of unframed work for sale, thinking I’d photograph them when I was done filling out my paperwork in an hour. They sold within 20 minutes.

– If you’re framing pastels, they look the best with two kinds of glass:  museum glass or cheap, plain glass. Choose based upon your price point. As a newer painter, my price point is pretty low, so museum glass did not make sense with gallery commission. I did some with UV glass; it was a waste of money. In my opinion, UV glass distorts the beauty of the pastels, and the ones with cheap glass wound up looking better.

– Frame all of your paintings for the show in the same (or very similar) frames and colors. Makes it much easier to do a grouping, particularly if you’re hanging them salon-style, as we did.

– If you paint standard size paintings and you need a bunch of frames all at once, don’t bother trying to find them cheaply at garage sales, flea markets or the Salvation Army. Maybe you’ll find some 8x10s or 16x20s in a color you’ll like. But you really don’t have the time, and it’s not worth the money you’ll save. You could be painting instead.

– Varnishing paintings is an art. Practice on some pieces before you do it, and make sure the varnish you choose is removable. I used Gamvar. It’s easily removable and great once you get the hang of it.  Very shiny if you apply it thickly, so unless you like that, you’re best off to mix it with a bit of cold wax. Not all paintings need varnish (evidently Monet never did it), but some are enhanced greatly by it, particularly darker ones. Get a brush that has a thin brush pad, i.e., a thinner row of bristles (not width, depth). Varnish needs to be applied very VERY thinly.

– Have a sales bin, and price unframed work a little cheaper in it. Or use it to sell studies. Everybody likes a deal. Big plus: you can also keep adding to the bin while your exhibit it up. Use that to your advantage and keep adding work.

– Order more flyers or postcards than you think you’ll need. We started handing ours out a month before the show.  I ordered double the amount I thought we needed (500), and the gallery still ran out of postcards one week into the show. Printing more copies is cheaper than ordering twice; you’ll wind up paying for press time and shipping twice instead of once.

– If you can avoid it, don’t make nudes the featured art on your marketing materials. My co-exhibitor and I had paintings from the same nude session, and I thought the point-counterpoint would make for an interesting postcard. It did, too. As an artist, I never thought twice about using nudes for marketing materials. However there were quite a few places that wouldn’t let me put the cards out because they had nudes. And many people thought the entire show would be nudes. Some refused to bring their children. Heavy sigh. Americans can be so uptight. It’s art, people!

– Have painter’s business cards made. People want to know how to reach you. Include your phone number, your email, and your blog and/or Facebook page address. I did mine with a grid on the back so that I could write things … instructions, prices, etc. If you want to do that, be sure to have the back side printed uncoated; otherwise, you won’t be able to write on it.

– If you’re thinking about putting up a blog, now’s the time. Capitalize on the increased interest and exposure in your work.

– Start a Facebook event for your reception. Post in it every few days until the week of the reception. The week of the reception, post every day. Keep the posts sounding like they’re from a person, not an advertiser. Be sure to share information about hours, parking, what to wear, etc. Be aware that some people don’t consider a FB RSVP the same as one by mail or other means of communication. About 25% of the people who RSVP’d “yes,” did not show up.

– Save standard size backing boards from canvas pads and other things that you use. You can use them to protect your work in the sleeves without having to cut them all to size or buy extra boards.

ClearBags are a godsend if you’re selling drawings, watercolors or pastels. Order the “protective” model … where the adhesive is on the bag, not the flap.  Safer to slide work in without damage.

– Landscapes and still lifes sell better than figures. 90% of my landscapes and still lifes sold within the first week. Figures sell, but not as well. Female figures sell better than males. That’s not right nor fair, but it’s true. Only one male figure sold in the entire show, and he was clothed. Oils and pastels sell better than watercolors, too.

– Most of your fellow artists will be supportive, kind and happy for you to have a show. But some will not. Expect some sniping; it just comes with the territory. Likewise, expect some insensitive comments about your work, oftentimes from people who mean well. Listen to see if there’s anything you can learn from it. Otherwise, discard it and do not take it personally.

– Unless you’re selling at a high price point, go cheap on frames, but not so cheap as to take away from your work. And consider the walls you’ll be hanging on. Some of the frames I’d ordered looked fine on plaster walls but cheap on the panelling on which they wound up being hung. I ordered most of mine from Dick Blick online on sale; they did a good job packing them and they all looked exactly like the photos. Avoid Jerry’s Artarama for frames, btw. Three different frames arrived looking nothing like their photos [gold leaf was orange!  marshmallow white was grey!], and they hid behind a disclaimer. Even the frames I’d ordered previously from Jerry’s arrived looking completely different than they had the first time. Also avoid frames from Michaels unless you want to do custom trims. Most of their frames are not cut generously enough for standard-sized paintings. About 1/16″ to 1/8″ too small. Had to return them all.

“Unflinching Dignity.” 19.5″x15.5″, oil on linen.

– Think about how to respond if you wind up being introduced to an important collector. That happened to me at my show, and I was caught off-guard and had nothing. A missed opportunity. Everyone told me afterward that I should have told him that I hadn’t been painting very long. Too late.

– Be respectful of the gallery and accessible. Respond quickly if they have questions. Yes, they take a decent commission, but most of them work hard for you. My show was by a nonprofit organization. If that’s the case, in particular, help them out however you can … marketing, hanging stuff, arranging the room, etc. If I’m coming there for an activity or event, I come early and hang out in the room. I’m chatty by nature; it helped me sell some work. Many buyers want to get to know you and your story. There’s a difference between friendly and pushy, though.

– If you wind up hanging your own show, it can be a good thing. Roll up your sleeves and do whatever it takes. Beer will seem like a good idea at the time, but, trust me, it will slow the process down, ha!

– Be mindful of which work is going on which wall. In our room, there is one wall that is poorly lit and another corner that is hard to access due to a grand piano. None of the paintings hung in those areas sold.

– Put a clipboard in the room with a sheet of paper and a pen, so that people can sign up for your email list.  Some of them used it to write me encouraging notes; fun!

– Have a detailed discussion with the gallery about the parameters for the show prior to agreeing to it. Even if you’ve exhibited at the gallery before, some have different commissions for different shows. You’ll also find out what their requirements are for hanging and submissions. After saying “yes” to the show, I was surprised to find out it would be in under two months. I thought I had at least six months to get ready; very tough timeline for a relative newbie like me. Tons of work to crank out. They also had a different fee structure for competitive exhibits than they had for solo shows. All of which is okay, you just need to be aware so you can price accordingly.

– If you’ve doing a co-exhibit, have a detailed and frank discussion with your co-exhibitor(s) about your visions for the show to ensure they are compatible. How much time and effort do you want to put into the show? Be sure to talk about price points. If someone prices significantly lower than you, it will inevitably make your work seem expensive in comparison and will likely impact your sales.

– Framing and wiring stuff is more expensive and takes much longer than you think it will. For 26 wall pieces, it took me three days, much of that because half my work was in pastel, which is way harder to frame than oils or watercolors. It also took me two days to prep bin work (sign, spray with fixative, add a board behind it) and put it in sleeves with a business card. For pastels, I added framing and care instructions.

– Ask what the food and beverage situation will be for your reception. Augment it, if necessary, and you can afford to.  My co-exhibitor (whom I refer to as The Amazing Painter) and his wife had a friend volunteer to do a vodka tasting, and his wife’s family brought in home-made hors d’ouevres. We drew the biggest crowd they’d ever had in the upstairs gallery. A more established artist had a display in the main gallery that night; BUT our crowd was bigger and stayed longer. Part of that was marketing on my part, but often the best marketing is the most basic:  better booze and better snacks.

– Personal touches are nice. It’s your show, after all. I brought flowers from my garden for the reception and added a tribute to my grandmother, who inspired me to paint. Got some nice comments on both.

– Wear reasonably comfortable shoes to the reception, or bring ones you can change into. I thought my fellow painters should see me in something besides my usual nasty painting gear, so I dressed up. Which was fine. But the 4″ heels were not the best choice. You’ll be running around and on your feet for hours. At the end of the night, I could barely walk!

– Stop by and check on the show at least once a week, if you can. People are going through and sometimes they move stuff around in ways you might not like. My bin got moved next to the drink stand, where the pieces were more likely to incur damage. Someone moved my business cards to a place where nobody could see. A price list that wasn’t mine got thrown into my bin. The order of the bin became disheveled. The tribute to my grandmother wound up face down on a side table.  Etc.

– Thank everyone who attended your show later. Not just buyers, but also your friends, family and fellow artists. Seems obvious, but it does take some effort. Don’t let it slide; it’s important. Gratitude is good karma, both in painting and in life.

– Enjoy it while it lasts. Your first show only happens once and shows don’t come along that often. Don’t get too bogged down in all the work to savor the moment.

That blazing peachy sun and the latest plein air encounter, lol

If you paint plein air, you have probably observed this:  that early in the day or toward sunset, the light changes more quickly.  I was doing this painting at Belle Isle close to sunset and working furiously.  I kept rubbing my eyes.  I could not believe the amazing light on the grasses; it was as if they were on fire.  No color I had in my pastel box was even close to the color of the glorious light.  If I added white, it looked too cool; if I added any other color, it looked too dark.  So I began darkening the other colors around the grasses to get the effect, working as quickly as possible as I began to lose the light.

Inevitably, this is always the moment when somebody stops by and wants to chat. A very nice woman came up to me, complimented the work in progress and kept talking away.  I told her I would chat, but I had to keep painting.  Most people leave after watching for a couple minutes, but she did not.  So after about 10 minutes, I told her I had an exhibit currently and handed her a postcard inviting her to my reception at the Scarab Club.  The postcard features nudes, btw. She looked surprised, hung around for a couple more minutes, then handed me a pamphlet.  At which point I realized that I had solicited a Jehovah’s Witness before she had the chance to solicit me, lol!  I think she appreciated the irony as well, because she and her husband were laughing really hard as they drove off.  My brother is a Witness; I don’t mind them.  They’re always respectful; just trying to live up to their faith.  I hope someone is being nice to my brother and his family when they go door-to-door.

Anyway, it’s been a couple weeks, and I cannot stop thinking about the fiery light that night and how my colors were so inadequate for the task.  It was astonishingly beautiful.  I felt some kinship with Van Gogh, and how he wanted to gouge his eyes out because his paint colors couldn’t describe what he saw.  I guess it was close enough; this piece sold at my reception to a fellow painter and a wonderful supporter of the arts in Detroit.