Everyone has an opinion. We all know this. I’m either told I’ll never make it or people gush on a regular basis. There’s never an in between. No one says, “Meh, you’re okay.” or, “You can earn a moderate income doing that.” Although, I have gotten a couple, “You’re not my taste,” which is a polite way of saying, “Let’s not ever talk about this again.”
If I can be really honest though, I don’t care if someone thinks all artists are starving and that I’ll never make it. If I could have happily made it in any other profession, I would have. I have no choice but to try. That opinion is irrelevant. Not in a rude way, just in an I-have-an-itch-and-you-telling-me-I-will-starve-if-I-scratch-it-will-not-make-it-itch-less kind of way.
After I decided to become a professional artist, that’s when things really became interesting. Before, almost everyone was supportive of the skill; after, not so much.
Suddenly it is a free-for-all and no one even has a clue about art or the art world.
I’ve had advice from everything to how I should work, what size I should paint, to what I should paint.
As if art isn’t extremely personal.
I want to preface the following story by saying, we all may put our foot in our mouths at one time or another. I just happened to be on the receiving end so I’m sharing a funny thing that happened, as a slight warning.
I knew this guy for a couple of months. Maybe two, but we didn’t speak often or long. We spent probably less than 20 hours in contact with one another, including dates. That’s less than half a work week. Think about how comfortable you feel with someone half-way through your first week at a job.
Before dinner one time, we walked by the gallery that represents me and I showed him, from the sidewalk, some of my art.
He was polite, but we didn’t really discuss any details. Weeks go by where we chat here and there and go on a couple more dates.
I get a text, “Why didn’t you tell me about your artwork?”
“What do you mean?” I replied, “I showed you my paintings at the gallery.”
“Your older stuff.”
“The ones you could see were my older stuff.”
“You should go back to that style. Go back to the basics.”
“I purposely chose to move away from that style.”
“Why? You shouldn’t. Go back to the basics.”
I give him a condensed list of reasons why I do what I do. (Why would anyone stick with the basics? There’s no fun in that. I learned the rules so I could break them.)
“Well, you are now one of my favorite artists so you need to go back to the basics. You need to prove me right.”
Yes, really. Someone I barely knew actually told me not only how I should paint, disregarded my reasoning for painting my way, but also told me I needed to do it because he said so and he knew more about art than I do. Which, honestly, could be, but he definitely doesn’t know more about my art than I do, surely.
We didn’t speak again for a few weeks when I received a text asking if I paint horses.
“No,” I replied, “I really don’t like to paint horses.”
He kept on marching though. “I have a great idea, you should paint Derby horses and sell them. It will be HUGE! I’ll take the photos and you can keep all the money.”
I shortened this exchange for brevity.
I understand people want to be helpful. I know people are worried.
What I don’t know is, why on Earth people with no background in art try to immediately take over my career. He’s not the first and won’t be the last. I don’t want to commodify the subject of my art. Sure, I’ll make prints and merchandise with art I’ve created, but no, I will not create for the sole purpose of making money. If I wanted a get rich quick scheme, there are much easier ways to go about it. If I hate what I paint, I may as well work at any job. I’m not going to paint things with the idea of selling them to people who like those things. I’m going to paint what I care about and sell it to people who care about those things too. The difference is subtle, but it’s there and it involves intent. Very important.
So, when you have someone in your life that is an artist, please don’t:
- Tell them what they should paint to make a lot of money. Unless they ask. Perhaps, try helping them find ways to sell what they are already painting.
- Tell them they won’t make any money. Ever. You don’t know what you are talking about and you just look unsupportive. There are a lot of ways for artists to make money. They may never drive a fancy car, but they probably aren’t into that anyway if they chose fine art as a profession. If someone you care about has decided to become an artist and you really feel the urge to say this one, please look up professional artists and research. This is actually a legitimate career choice. You may change your mind and find great examples to use when they are having a rough time. Like when someone else, who definitely isn’t you because you would never, tells them they’ll starve.
- Tell them you don’t get it. That usually comes across as dismissive. Ask questions. Ask them what they want to express or convey to the audience. Ask them their intent. Even if you still don’t “get it” you may learn more about them and their art. Worse case, you made them think more deeply about their art. You don’t need to get it, but if you want to get it, they will want to help you get it.
- Tell them to paint in any other style. An artist’s style is very personal. It takes a long time to achieve and it is usually deliberate and constantly evolving. Art cannot move forward if all art is the same.
- Tell them how often to paint. Yeah, a daily practice is best, but we all need down time. They may work better at night or in the morning. Even if it looks like I’m not doing anything, I could be working through an issue in my head that I can’t work out on the painting. You would think I’m just sitting around. What you think their art career should look like is not necessarily what it looks like. Especially if you have no experience being an artist.
- If you knowingly date an artist, don’t expect them to magically not be an artist just because you are over the experience. Just go. It’s okay, they have their art. They will be fine. Shoot, your leaving may be the emotional spark they need to paint their most wonderful work yet. You kind of owe it to them anyway since you were just dating them because you thought it would be fun to date an artist.
- If you can’t turn your criticism into something helpful, don’t say it. Critique is one thing, putting down someone you claim to care about, that’s different. I’d also like to add, sometimes, an artist has to go through some bad art to get to the good art. Especially if they are trying something new. People could not see where Picasso was going with his work until he got there. He may have known, but no one else could have. Just because you don’t like that stop in the journey, doesn’t mean it is their final destination.
More things you can do:
- Ask them if they need help. If you have time and the inclination that is. Artists have to wear a lot of hats. They won’t be good at all the things they need to do. If you have expertise in one of those areas, by all means, offer to help with that. They may be feeling overwhelmed and need someone to help back envelopes.
- Give them space. If they work from home, don’t text them midday and tell them to throw a load of wash in. Or yell down the stairs to toss it in the dryer. Would you make someone come home from work to do that? I’m not saying you can’t have a system or have a clean underwear emergency once in a while. I’m saying, don’t interrupt them with chores. It seems like you don’t take their work seriously and if an artist is in the flow, it is very frustrating to be pulled out of the elusive, beautiful experience. If I’m working from home, I’m more than happy to do chores while I’m waiting for paint to dry or puttering around while a thought works its way through my brain. I’m actually writing this at the laundromat. Just don’t expect me to drop everything for laundry, please. Dishes are not more important than my art. Ever. If you disagree, just go.
- Reassure them when they are having one of those days where they feel their art is the worst thing on the planet. Tell them which piece you love the most and why. Tell them how much you enjoy watching them work or whatever feelings their work brings out in you. It may not seem like it makes a difference immediately, but it does make a difference. It’s like yeast, you have to let it rise.