Wayne Thiebaud Revisited

Although known mostly for his sumptuous cakes and desserts (of which I’ve certainly admired), American artist Wayne Thiebaud also made a variety of simple, quiet images of everyday objects. These works in particular are interesting me at the moment.

Wayne Thiebaud- Bow Ties 1990

Wayne Thiebaud, Lipsticks 1964

Wayne Thiebaud- Yellow Dress 1974

I like these simple still lives that depict classically feminine, everyday items. The bow, lipstick, and dress are such blatant signals of gendered femininity- but Thiebaud’s works remind me that they’re just simple, everyday consumer items. I love Thiebaud’s ability to find great beauty in the everyday object, in the homogeneity of mass produced items. He handles them similarly to the way he handles his cakes and desserts. Usually displayed in orderly rows in such a way as to be very deliberately presented to the viewer, these still lives remind us of their existence as mass produced, consumer items. Regardless, Thiebaud’s use of bold brushstrokes, delicious color and eye for design make the resulting images more that the sum of their parts.

Thiebaud’s work, much like his cakes, are endlessly rich with inspiration for me.


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?

My First Life Drawing Experience

Taking a life drawing class is kind of what I was most looking forward to in my first half of college. Sitting/standing there, drawing nude models in a studio just makes one feel so artsy and professional. There’s a certain romance to depicting the nude figure, thanks in part, I’m sure, to Titanic. But anyway, I had my first life drawing class last semester, and I really enjoyed it! I thought it was an invaluable experience- one that every aspiring artist needs to have.

I’d had very limited experience with seriously drawing the figure when I started the class- I’d only taken a portrait drawing class in high school. I was also prepared for some awkwardness with the whole nude model thing (I’d heard some horror stories from other students of models being unprofessional) but it really was no big deal. We would promptly start class with a series of at least 10 gesture drawings. Initially, I had the typical struggles with this- fitting/centering the figure on the page, accurately depicting all main body parts (I had a few footless or headless gestures…), and just moving my hand fast enough. Learning how to draw a great gesture (that is, quickly, well-centered, proportionally and accurately,) is such a unique challenge, as it’s something that students rarely have any experience doing themselves. However, it’s an invaluable skill, in that it forces you to take in a complex subject (the human body) and break it into it’s most important parts,- all in 1-2 minutes. Basically, that means you have to do all of that without thinking. As a result, you develop a more accurate, quick, and skilled eye (and hand.) This makes your drawings of more extended poses more accurate. Good drawings almost always start with a good gesture.  In just one semester, I really saw an improvement in the quality of my gestures!

Gesture- Megan Koth

Most life drawing classes also include some sort of lesson on anatomy. In my case, this was a really involved part of the class. It was important that we learn and be able to identify the most important (i.e visible under the skin) muscles and bones. This was something I definitely had no experience with. I don’t even really remember studying much anatomy in high school. However, I recognized its importance (even though I loathe just looking at diagrams and memorizing). As a drawer/painter, you have to have as good of an understanding as possible of your subject. The human body is so complex that understanding how those complexities work makes an accurate depiction a lot easier. Why does that wrist look strange? Oh, it’s because I forgot the distal head of the ulna! Bam.

We also learned portrait drawing, which was more of a review for me, as I’d already taken a very involved portrait drawing class in high school. We also went over the typical fare- learning different ways to depict value (crosshatching, chalk, charcoal, planar analysis etc.) Of course, being a painter, I most enjoyed using the india ink washes on the last few days of class!

Ink Wash- Megan Koth

So, if you ever have the chance to take a life drawing class (with nude models!), take it! It’s such a valuable experience. Being able to tackle the complex subject of the human figure is a great skill to add to your artistic tool belt. Who knows, you might fall in love with it and figure painting/drawing may become a major part of your own work!

On Painting Using Photographic References

Over my years of pursuing art and being an art student, I’ve encountered many people- and they all often had strong opinions about using photographic references for making work. In my experience, the “older” instructors I met were more hostile towards using any kind of reference other than “real life” to make a painting. My younger instructors, mostly graduate students, were much more accepting and even emphasized that good photographic references could be necessary for a successful painting. The thing is, I agree with both of these sentiments, to a degree.

I absolutely agree that there is really no replacement for drawing/painting from life. Being a student, and therefore having participated in many critiques, it’s often immediately obvious when the entirety of somebody’s drawing “skill set” is essentially derived from their finding cool pictures online and copying them. The images, although of real life objects or people, become flattened and dull because of their limited source material. I’ll provide a picture of a horrible drawing I did in middle school as an example of this:

You can see the flatness I’m talking about (in addition to other problems…) They may be well executed copies of another 2-d image, but the aren’t great works in their own right. Seeing this kind of stuff is depressing because these people don’t realize that they pretty much don’t have any real drawing skills. I mean, drawing pictures from magazines or of your favorite actresses or whatever can be helpful in developing a more accurate eye/understanding of proportions, but being able to copy a 2-d image accurately isn’t exactly a difficult feat (although, maybe to a middle-schooler…) I mean, I was in an art marketing class this semester where a student was seriously shocked- SHOCKED! that he was violating copyright by drawing a favorite album cover and selling it. Or a girl who was SHOCKED to learn that making batman fanart could never (legally) make her any money. I weep.

Which is why, of course, one has to develop fundamental drawing/painting skills- and that means working from life. Transferring 3-dimensional space into a 2-dimensional composition presents a more involved challenge, and requires a higher understanding of space, lighting, anatomy, etc. than just working from a photograph. And it’s these skills that will make working from photographs when you need to much more successful- the idea is to make it look like you drew/painted from life, even when you didn’t have the opportunity to for whatever reason (models are expensive, for instance.) Understanding what a photograph does to a 3-d object and working with that knowledge, and the actual skills you have from working from life, is what it’s all about.

Megan Koth- Pointe Duc Hoc (16×20)  © 2011

For example, here’s a pretty recent painting I did based on a photograph that I took on a 2010 trip to France. As you can see, I didn’t exactly replicate the lighting and color. Instead, I created a more apparent and appealing cool/warm contrast with the rocks in the foreground and the grass in the background. I also decreased the blinding whiteness of the sky to a more neutral grey (part of that is just the bad lighting in the photo of the painting.) It’s not perfect, but is more interesting to look at than if I had directly copied everything in the photograph, especially if I had done so with no knowledge of working with 3-d space.

At the end of the day, a photograph is a captured moment in time- whereas a painting isn’t (although some mistakenly claim they are). For instance, when you look an someone’s self-portrait (not from a photo, of course) you’re usually seeing the face of the artist in intense concentration, and their face after making any number of small or large adjustments along the way to subtle changes in expression as the process goes on. In other words, a painting is an image that constantly changes- until it’s finished, that is.