Obligatory Reflections

Even though my rational side understands that the concept of a “new year” is just an arbitrary marker of the passage of time, which is itself a human construct and we will all die alone in the end…. I admit, I become much more reflective during this time of year. I can’t help but look back at the work I’ve been making and the progress that I’ve made as an artist.

2015 was my first full year of being a post-BFA graduate. I was thrust into “real life” without the constant supervision of my professors and peers. Upon graduating,  I essentially felt like that guy from the first Jurassic Park movie who, upon sitting down for a leisurely poo, watches all four walls of his little outhouse fall to the ground around him like Popsicle sticks, revealing a hungry T-Rex just outside its (in actuality, probably cardboard) walls. To make matters worse, and more comical (in the movie at least) his pants are down. In this metaphor, the T-Rex is REAL LYFE!!11! Just a few hours after graduating, I remember sitting in my room when a wave of dread and panic came over me. I couldn’t help but think that the T-Rex of REAL LIFE was going to thoroughly kick my ass and I would end up one of the many BFA grads who ends up not producing any new work shortly after graduating. But really, nothing so tragic or dramatic has happened. I’m still making work, and even thought it doesn’t always feel like it, said work is developing.

I went through this whole year making work in a pretty wide variety of media- everything from watercolor, oil, acrylic, various other painting mediums, mixed media, even embroidery.

2015 best9

 

 

 

a sampling of my “2015 best 9” posts on instagram, which showcases the variety in my work this year pretty well.

I kind of have 3 main “series” of work that are in progress. Because of this, I basically felt like I was all over the place, because I kind of was, medium-wise.

I have my “Doe Eyes” series, which really just started as small sketches, but gradually turned into a series of small mixed-media works on paper:

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Doe Eyes: Green Mascara | gouache, watercolor, crayon on paper | 5×7″

Then, I have my Fixation series, which is mostly done in acrylic paint/mediums on canvas:

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Fixation: Eye III | acrylic, false eyelashes on canvas | 12×12″ |2015

Finally, I have my “Clown” series, which is the most recent. It’s a series of self portraits:

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Self Portrait: Clown III | oil on canvas | 20×30″

All three of these series, although different medium-wise, share a common thematic concern: they all have to do with feminine beauty rituals: the type of beauty that is dabbed, smeared, and applied. It’s not like I’m never conscious of this commonality while painting, but I can’t help but feel like I’m all over the place when I’m jumping from watercolor to oil to acrylic gel. I even went through some old portfolios and ended up destroying a lot of things from school in the name of new year’s cleaning (sorry, Mom,) where I also ended up finding a lot of examples of me exploring these kinds of ideas as early as freshman year of my BFA. It’s interesting to see how far back the core ideas for work that feels “new” often go.

So, 2015 was a year of experimentation, but experimentation with a pretty focused set of concerns and ideas. That seems to be a pretty good place to be in. I’m also pleased to say that I sold my highest volume of work this year at Art One Gallery. I still have a long way to go in my burgeoning art career, but I look forward to continuing to explore and develop in 2016, hopefully with less existential fear of T-rex attacks.

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Art Entry Fees are Too. Damn. High!

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I’m sure any artist who has ever looked into entering their art into juried shows has balked at some of the prices to simply SUBMIT to have their work considered. It seriously stinks. I’ve seen price tags as high as $60 to submit TWO images! That’s how much it costs to apply to some graduate school programs! Rabble rabble, I know, but it does suck when you’re an artist without a lot of money to just gamble away on these things.

As I always do when I feel righteously indignant, I googled “art entries too expensive,” and I found this great interview with Lori Zimmer, a Brooklyn based curator, writer, and art consultant. I really agreed with what she said regarding art entry fees:

“…but to tell them oh, well, ya gotta pay me. That’s a little too greedy for my tastes. I understand that you have to pay your staff and you have to pay people to look at things, but if there’s no return, where does all that money go? If 1000 people enter and they each paid $45, where does all that money go? And then if you’re selling the work on top of that?… It just seems a little greedy to me.”

And I’m sure in some (hopefully not most) cases, the high prices being charged are not even proportionate to the qualifications of the jurors. I think that there’s an unfortunate trend where even really inexperienced curators/ galleries with really unimpressive qualifications are still demanding high entry fees simply because that’s what other juried shows/competitions that they want to compete with or emulate are doing.

I can obviously understand what is most likely the original argument for charging jury fees- that it discourages mere hobbyists or people who are less than professional from applying by requiring that entrants put some skin in the game. But I think in some cases it has the opposite effect- you get only the people who are so desperate to have their work shown somewhere that they’re willing to fork over $50 to just have their work looked at and possibly rejected. I mean, curators and other arts professionals aren’t impressed by someone with a bunch of pay-to-show vanity galleries on their resume, so why is it suddenly different when you have someone willing to pay to enter a juried group show? Professional artists are savvy businesspeople. Unless your jurors have some truly impressive qualifications, they’re not going to see the benefit of gambling away their hard-earned money just to possibly be rejected. And if they are accepted, to then have to pay shipping and insurance costs on top of the initial entry fee adds up to a lot of money invested. The quality of work received would probably be better if the entry fee were something affordable- like $5-10, or if there were only a fee to those selected.

As artists, we’re asked constantly to gamble away our money, time, and skills in the hopes of it leading to regular work, a sale, or even just nebulous “exposure.”  If an organization or gallery truly cares about giving emerging artists a chance, then they need to stop forcing them to take on all the financial risk from the get-go.

How NOT to Approach an Artist

This past month,  I had work in a group show in downtown Phoenix. It was a great experience, and I was happy to show my work for the first time since my solo BFA show. Even more awesome- I had some interest from buyers in a large triptych of mine that I honestly never thought of selling. Not so awesome, one person who approached me did it in a, quite frankly, insulting way.

Now, these being large oil paintings, the price on them was appropriately set. I’m no dummy, I understand that not everyone, hell, most everyone, can afford a rather pricey triptych. Regardless, the price is what it is. Basically, I encountered an individual who had no respect for my (more than reasonable and competitive!) pricing.

Now, If someone is really, truly interested, I’m willing to be as accommodating as I can in offering a payment plan, a smaller commission, or even a small (SMALL!) discount on the purchase of multiple works. If they’re  nice.

This individual wasn’t mean, per se, they just had a very entitled attitude. Basically,  they offered to pay me 40% of the asking price. Yes, less than HALF of what I was asking for. They said that affordability was an issue for them, of course, and asked for my thoughts. I offered them all of my accommodations listed above,  including the small discount. I also explained that I could not offer such a deep discount as I had to keep my pricing consistent with my gallery (as giving buyers a disincentive from buying from your gallery is a GREAT way to ruin a gallery relationship.) They curtly message me back offering 50% of my original asking price. Um, no.

I mean, you encounter so many things in life that you may want but can’t afford. One of those things may be my art – and that’s incredibly flattering.  But it’s also not my job to cut into my own wage – my payment for my work, to make what in many ways amounts to a luxury item affordable to you. This person’s attitude just reflects an entitlement and an ignorance of the fact that being an artist and producing great artwork that people actually want to buy in the first place  involves incredible skill and  expertise, time, equipment, and  accompanying financial risk. Artists don’t pull their prices out of their ass.

The worst part is so many artists don’t realize this, especially emerging ones like me. Thus, they may feel pressured into caving to lowballers out of desperation to make a sale. And that’s a supremely shitty situation to put someone who is already financially struggling in. Asking an already struggling artist for a discount most would reserve only to their closest friends comes across as incredibly arrogant.

So, inexperienced art buyers, please respect the prices of artwork,  ESPECIALLY those of emerging artists. Understand what you can and can’t afford. And if you do see someone’s  pricy magnum opus and fall in love, it never hurts to ask an artist if they have any more affordable work, like small paintings or sketches, available. In fact, most emerging artists would probably love that. Simply respect the artist and the value their work over the shallow desire for a “bargain.” If the latter is what you want, I’d suggest avoiding art galleries and instead taking your business to the local swap meet.

Ghosts of Painters Past

I’ve been reading a book called Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland, and one particularly salient point I found (among many) was this:

“Your reach as a viewer is vastly greater than your reach as a maker. The art you can experience may have originated a thousand miles away or a thousand years ago, but the art you can make is irrevocably bound to the times and places of your life.”

Which also reminded me of a conversation I had with one of my painting professors, where he essentially said that “you have to live in your own time. You can’t be Monet.”

This is incredibly valuable advice. It’s normal to be a student or developing artist and to have artistic heroes- people who you look to and just think, “wow, if I could paint like that…” The problem comes when you essentially try to replicate work from a certain artist or era with the intent that it all but pass for one of those works. There are plenty of painters out there, for instance, who fancy themselves to be Monet-esque impressionists. But their work, being produced in the present and therefore divorced from the context that the original impressionists painted in, just looks like a cheap imitation- and that’s because it is.

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The Impressionist’s work was highly innovative in their time because from their cultural context, they were solving a problem and presenting something new to the world. They actually took incredible creative risks in doing so. People today who try to imitate these artists (or artists from any other historical period,) however, are merely piggybacking off of their innovation and banking on the nostalgic feelings that some retain for the group. As Bayles and Orland go on to say, “There’s a difference between meaning that is embodied and meaning that is referenced.”

Admiring artists from the past is completely natural, and a great way to see different approaches to solving formal or even thematic issues. And I know and understand the whole Joseph Campbell, “nothing is truly original” thing and all that. But taking bits from the past and mixing them with your own personal point of view and painting style derived from the actual, present world around you is much more worthwhile and brave than just chasing after the ghost of Monet.

 

Mugs!

As you all know, I have a little shop on print-on-demand site Redbubble.com, and recently they added mugs to their lineup of products. I ordered some for myself (well, to give as gifts and one for myself!) and I’m, again, pleased with the printing quality. The price is also, surprisingly, only as much as a tote bag.

MUG Ocarina Pic

Above is my Pop-Art Ocarina Tilted Pattern

MUG matchsticks

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Above is my Many Matchsticks pattern.

Never thought I’d ever see any of my work on a coffee mug, but I must admit that I like the result! As more of a “fine” artist, I also love that I get to indulge my more design, graphics oriented ideas and inclinations through my store here.

 

The Secret

Point A to B

                                                       Getting from point A to B.

People pursuing creative careers often look up to the very successful for guidance on what to do. Creative careers don’t have the benefit of a rigid, structured career path, which is part of the draw of them. The freedom! The independence! But the main disadvantage of that is, of course, that it can sometimes feel like all your efforts are leading nowhere, or not in the right direction, or to something you don’t really want (or, maybe you’re not even completely sure what you want in the first place.)

Feeling directionless is not pleasant, especially when you look around at your peers and see them all in their structured, cushy jobs while you’re still trying to nurture an art career. At least if you want to be a doctor, there’s a way to figure out EXACTLY what you need to do to get there (not that actually BECOMING one isn’t hard, but at least you get a road map.) Artists don’t get a road map. There is no one, formulaic, way to become a successful artist. And that fact can sometimes be refreshing, oftentimes maddening.

I would take any opportunity to ask successful people in my field the question: any advice? What should I do? And they pretty much always say the same thing- just keep on making work. Okay. I would get so frustrated with this answer, because I felt like they were deliberately keeping some secret from me. I wanted to shake them and say “but what should I really DO! JUST FREAKIN’ TELL ME THE SECRET!” That answer is frustrating because it negates the idealistic fantasy that there is some sort of “secret formula” for success. That you can just gather the right ingredients, cook it under the right conditions, and BAM!, you have success gumbo.

So I’ve started to realize and accept this fact. It’s a scary thing to accept as a young, aspiring artist because it means accepting that you’ll have to go out and make a lot of calls for yourself, and that you will have to trust yourself to make said calls. Not crumbling when you make a bad one is where the “keep making work” advice kicks in. Gathering the strength to keep going, despite failure, or hopelessness, is really what “keep making work,” means. Although it’s no secret formula, it is great, valuable advice.

Where’d Ya Get That Idea?

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint

Often well-meaning people say this phrase all the time to artists. It would always throw me off because I would scramble to find a concise answer to satisfy the asker. “Uh, I’ve always been interested in X and Y, and then I eventually put X and Y together, and there ya go…” If I weren’t polite, I’d just say “OH! I just hopped over the the idea store and picked up an idea off the shelf and took it to the checkout where I paid for it in IdeaBux!” But really, people who have never spent much time really creating things often have this misunderstanding of how grand ideas come about.

Honestly, this whole concept that ideas are just something you stumble upon randomly is kind of insulting. It implies that what we do as artists is not the result of hard work, dedication, toiling, and careful cultivation of a body of work over many years, but is just some sort of weird fluke. Like we were walking through the forest one day and just stumbled upon an idea in the middle of the road.

In reality, ideas are the result of a soupy, internal, evolutionary process of our experiences, thoughts, and dreams, stirring and boiling together in our brains. Whenever I’ve taken what seemed like a sharp turn in my work, I’ve always been able to look back and see ripples of that idea in my past work, sketches, writings, and general interests or experiences. An idea that may have seemed spontaneous and sudden at the time, I often find, was really the result of years and years of exploring peripheral ideas or concepts.

We all have ideas every day, whether we acknowledge them or not. And that’s the thing- most people have them, and then let them peter off into nothingness. Artists, on the other hand, run with them, carefully nurturing, exploring, and developing them until they become something great- something impactful and meaningful. And that’s not something that happens by accident.

The Perils of Pricing Artwork

For an artist, pricing artwork can be particularly challenging. Putting a value on one’s own labor, investment in supplies, time, etc can be confusing and daunting- especially when the end product can be deeply personal. There are no real “rules” to what one must charge for their own work (you could hand them out for free if you really wanted to.) However, I’ve learned from teachers and mentors some really helpful guidelines (especially for students just starting out) for tackling this daunting task.

One thing that’s important to keep in mind (and that is always emphasized by professionals and those in the industry), is never to lower the prices of your work. Obviously, this means that the best thing to do is to start at a modest price point that you also feel comfortable with. The reason for this is that it looks pretty unprofessional to buyers if they perceive that your work is depreciating in value, as it would appear to be if you lower your prices over time. For instance, one buyer might see your work in a gallery decrease by 50 dollars, and conclude that they can just wait a few weeks for it to decrease another $50 rather than buying it now. This would also cause dissatisfaction to your previous buyers, as they’d conclude that they were overcharged or made a bad investment. Conversely, it’s a positive thing to see when an artist’s work is appreciating in value, meaning that their prices are gradually increasing over time, as their careers grow. So, starting out modestly gives you lots of room to grow, and makes your work more accessible. That doesn’t  mean that it’s impossible to find success starting at an exorbitant price point, but you’d better hope that that demand never dwindles, or else you’ll be in trouble (recession, anyone?)

More specifically, most people I’ve asked have emphasized the importance of consistency in pricing. For 2-d artworks like drawings and paintings, this means setting up some sort of system- usually charging a certain amount per square inch. In order to do this, once you get serious about producing sellable work, you should buy canvas and paints of a consistent quality (always at least acid-free/archival quality.) This would also make pricing easier because every canvas/paper of a certain size would have cost you the same amount.

It’s also important to remember that the money you make from a work doesn’t need to just cover your time/labor and materials, but your ability to maintain your studio (like rent, utilities), as well as your time for marketing the work in order to sell it (unless you already have a gallery contract). It’s also good to take into account that you’re a skilled laborer. For instance, I’m majoring in painting, and I’ve also taken studio classes at Scottsdale Artists School, not to mention the countless hours I’ve spent on my own time cultivating my skills. So, I’ve invested a significant amount of time and money to become skilled enough to produce the work that I do. That means that my labor has some more value, and that needs to be reflected in the pricing. This isn’t about charging a million dollars for a painting because you’re such a special snowflake for going to art school, but for me, its a good thing to keep in mind because it helps me to see that my work is valuable (and that I deserve to make a good profit on it.) Too many people (and artists) think that just because art can be a “hobby” that artists should be happy to get little compensation for their work.

This might seem contradictory to the above, but I think it’s also important to keep in mind that when you’re just starting out, you may have to sacrifice a bit of your desired profits towards getting exposure and selling more work. That probably means you won’t be able to fully support yourself selling art. For instance, I recently signed on with a gallery that specializes in student work (more detailed update on this to come!) One of the draws of this gallery is that they provide affordable original art. Since my commission to the gallery is 50%, meaning they get 50% of the asking price, this means that I make less money on these paintings than I would selling them on my own. However, being an aspiring artist, right now the valuable exposure and networking that being in this gallery provides is more than worth that discrepancy to me. I likely would have to work considerably hard to try to sell my work on my own, since I don’t have a clientele or following that a gallery has. So, artists shouldn’t feel resentment towards galleries for getting a cut of their profits- they do a lot of work marketing and exposing your work to people who otherwise never would have seen it.

So, these are just some of the challenges that I’ve run into in pricing my work. Art is such a weird business that navigating through it as both a businessperson and creator presents a unique challenge. What problems with art pricing have you run into and how did you overcome them?

The Supposed “High” Cost of Artwork

Meat Market by Megan Koth © 2008

Last semester I had a particularly illuminating conversation with my then-roommate about pricing. She had mentioned how surprised she was with the pricing of the artwork she had seen while attending an artwalk. She mentioned a particular painting about 18×20″ in size that was about $200. I was surprised too, but not because I perceived the price to be too high (like she did) but because I knew it was too low (at least for someone hoping to make a living selling their artwork.)

This conversation only reminded me that too many people just don’t understand what artwork should cost, and why it costs what it costs. My roommate thought that  this person, charging $200 for a painting, must be some sort of bourgeois yuppie overcharging for work and going home to a cushy home or apartment. In reality, either this person made most of  their money elsewhere, or they lived out of their car. More people need to understand that an artist deserves fair compensation for their work.

There is a misconception that the pricing of artwork should just work like any other old job, or by “how many hours” was put into the work itself. This fails to take into account a variety of factors, one being that an artist, unlike someone working an hourly job elsewhere, has to pay a considerable amount for their own raw materials. Any artist will tell you how incredibly expensive art supplies can be, especially when we’re talking about materials of a high enough quality to produce sale-able work (crappy paints are cheap, but nobody wants to buy a painting that will fade/deteriorate over time.) This all has to be paid for by the artist, and all for a resultant work that only MIGHT be sold in the end. Another thing to keep in mind is that when you buy a piece of art, you’re not just paying for the number of hours this artist dedicated to that specific work, but also for the years and years of training and practice that they had to go through (and pay for) to get to the level of experience necessary to produce said work. Artists are skilled laborers, and you should appreciate that. No to mention, in order to produce their work, artists obviously need to pay the rent, eat, and buy toilet paper and whatnot. That stuff doesn’t magically materialize, and if someone works only as an artist, that’s going to have to be paid for through their work.

Another factor that people tend to forget about is that, once a painting is produced, it doesn’t just magically get seen by the right people, or into the right venues, and is sold. The artist then has to go on a daunting and often difficult quest to market, present, and hopefully sell said painting. Lets say an artist wants to sell their work in an art show or fair. First of all, they have to pay for a license/fee to participate in the fair, which can range anywhere from $10 to the hundreds. This is without any guarantee that they’ll even sell one piece. Oftentimes, artists have to pay for their own booth equipment, which can be very expensive. Then, they have to spend the entirety of the fair managing their booth. This is work. If this kind of thing was not factored in as work in the pricing, the artist would likely have no time to sit around a booth for an entire weekend when they could be working somewhere else earning an hourly wage. If an artist wants to instead sell through a gallery? Chances are, the artist is only seeing 50% or less of the asking price listed.

German Vegetables by Megan Koth © 2009

And finally, the overall notion is this: people need to understand that a piece of artwork is a one of a kind object created by someone with great skill and expertise. It is not a mass produced product that can be produced to the highest level of efficiency in materials, labor (or even underpaid labor), and time to ensure the cheapest price possible. It’s produced (oftentimes) by a single, imperfect human being, who’s making something new. Imagine buying a painting as similar to buying a song, like on iTunes, from a musical artist. Only, you’re the only one that can ever buy that track, and then the artist can never make any money from that song ever again. They can’t re-sell it, and you can’t make any copies of it.  That song download is it. Whatever you paid for that song is all they’re ever getting paid for all the work they put into it. Whereas producing endless copies of music data is virtually free (once it’s been produced), the same can’t be done with a painting or drawing (at least not without completely changing the format of the work.) I understand that this means comparatively higher (much higher) prices on original artworks, that, lets face it, a lot of people can’t afford. However, artists, if they want to make a living doing what they do, have to charge these prices in order to sustain themselves. It’s that simple. When things aren’t mass produced, you have to pay for that discrepancy.

So, please, fellow artists, charge fairly for your work, in a way that you can support yourself and, most importantly, the creation of future work. Seriously, when you price your work for so little, it warps buyers expectations of what artists should “deserve” for their work. And to buyers, understand all that goes into a piece of art, and understand just what a bargain you’re getting.