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 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.