What is an Artist?

A few weeks ago over on Twitter, I saw someone who discretely sought advice on their artwork and on approaching galleries receive in return a public shaming and the judgement: they are not an artist.

I was appalled that somebody in my profession would treat another person in this way. Instead of saying to them privately that they should perhaps build up a wider body of work, or explain that galleries are now looking for styles such as ‘x’, to gently let that person know that they needed to improve their work a little, they decide to do this publicly, which of course invited others to discuss it.

This got me thinking about the word ‘artist’. Being an artist comes way before anybody takes an art class. Being an artist can strike at any age and any time; when you wake up each day and feel the need to be creative – to draw or paint or sculpt then you, my friend are an artist!

“To be an artist is to believe in life” — Henry Moore

Ability does not come into it. The many prefixes that can be attached to the word ‘artist’ such as ‘good’, ‘rubbish’ or ‘professional’ are merely opinion and are totally subjective. Any dictionary describes an artist as ‘a person who creates paintings or drawings as a profession… or as a hobby‘, so those opining that ‘an artist’ is of a certain calibre are misinforming their followers. How must it feel to read this and feel that they cannot call themselves an artist because they weren’t good enough? Good enough for whom? Unfortunately this can turn people away from something that they enjoy, find relaxing and go into to escape the worries of life. Statements like this can cause people to lose confidence and give up doing what they enjoy – something that no tutor ever wants to see.

“He who works with his hands is a labourer. He who works with his hands and head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands, his head, and his heart is an artist” — St Francis of Assisi

Our role is to inspire and encourage at every stage. An artist is simply someone that enjoys being creative – being ‘good’ or making money from it doesn’t come into it. There are many paintings by trained ‘professional’ artists that I wouldn’t give hanging space to, and paintings by untrained ‘beginner’ artists that have captured the essence of a subject that I would gladly have on my wall. It can often be forgotten that people use social media and internet resources such as blogging, rather like a diary.

“Painting is just another way of keeping a diary” — Pablo Picasso

Setting up a Facebook page or a website to show their paintings isn’t so much saying ‘look at me, aren’t I amazing?’, it is a way for artists to keep their artwork all in one place, to show what they are achieving and in the hope they may sell a few pieces to people that like what they do. It is a good way of displaying your portfolio of work to people and what is important is the feedback that can be given which will drive the artist into new directions and deeper into their chosen field.

The public does not have to ‘like’ or view these pages, nor do they have to feel compelled to order a commission or buy the work. So if you enjoy painting, drawing, sculpting and creating then please call yourself an artist – the world needs more people like you. Fill Facebook and the internet with your artwork and enjoy yourself. Not everyone may like it, but as long as you do then it is okay! 

“Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art” — Andy Warhol

Looking Back to Go Forward

Sometimes we have to look back to go forward in art. Having my art shop in a wonderful old town, when I get a quiet moment I peruse the many shelves of my local antiquarian and second hand bookshop, heaving with weighty tomes of artists of years gone by and I find out so many ideas and techniques that I then buy the said books and add them to my own bookshelves!

I think in art it is important to look back at the techniques and methods of the old Masters: these artists have been revered for centuries and are what artists aspire to be like, yet these methods are scarcely taught and in fact the only places they are taught are during art history lectures and often not to practising artists wanting to deepen their knowledge and understanding of art. By looking back at these methods, I have learnt so much more than I ever did during my time at college studying art.

I also got me thinking about a quote that I have printed out and hung as a banner in my classroom:

“That which we call failure is often that necessary struggle called learning”.

My students occasionally say to me how frustrated they feel as their work sometimes doesn’t look like it’s getting better. There are a few things I say to help them see that they are improving even if a little slower than they had hoped. Firstly, the knowledge that is in our head (techniques we learn in an art class for example) can take several years to reach the end of our fingers in skillful rendering of that technique, so it may take a while before what is in your head gets rendered on paper. With that in mind, I ask my students to critique their work after they have finished their painting and ask themselves ‘if I were to paint this again, what would I do differently?’ and if they can see that a few techniques could be altered, or the use of colour or that the perspective isn’t quite right, that shows great learning, even though it may not be obvious from the execution of the painting that is before them. Also, I tell my students to keep their paintings in a file – even the ones they’re not happy with. This way, when they are having a bad day, they can look back at their old paintings and see how far they have come and even though they may not be pleased with the latest painting, it is a lot better and shows more skill than their earlier works.

Canvassing Opinion

Canvases are all the same, right? Sort of. So why would it appear that art shops sell canvases at a much higher price than say, a home furnishing or bargain book shop? Are they ripping off their customers?

On first glance, all canvases appear to look the same, and they all carry the name ‘canvas’, but there is much more to this humble, ancient painting surface than meets the eye. There are many things that will cause canvases to be more expensive:

i) The weight, the weave, or the type of canvas will make a difference. For example a 7.5oz canvas has a more open weave than a 10oz canvas. Callico, Cotton, or Linen canvases will also change the price (and the look).

ii) Is the canvas primed? If it is primed well you should be able to hold it up to the light and not see any daylight shining through (which is often the case with cheaper canvases).

iii) How the canvas is secured to the frame. Often with more budget canvases, there are visible nails or staples on the sides. With better quality canvases these move to the back, and with good quality canvases they are hidden altogether in grooves.

iv) The wooden support. This is perhaps the most important thing to consider when buying a canvas, and yet is often over looked. It is the wood that will make or break (quite literally) the canvas.

It is this that can mean the difference between a cheap canvas and an expensive one. If the wood is not well seasoned then should the canvas be hanging on a wall above a radiator, the heat may cause the canvas to twist put of shape and bend. An awful and embarrassing mistake to make especially if it was for a commissioned or exhibition piece of work. Good quality canvases will use better quality wood which will keep its shape no matter where the picture will be hanging. So although canvases are all called canvases, there are many reasons why some appear to be cheaper than others.

Generally art shops will sell mid range to high end canvases as their customer base dictates quality and longevity over price, whereas bargain shops who have the reputation for stocking inexpensive items will very rarely sell good quality items at pocket money prices.

Copyright Questions

I often get asked that if you exhibit or sell paintings you have created that have been done in a workshop or from a step-by-step art book, is it acceptable or legal? In short the answer is ‘no’. However most of us art tutors understand that when you start out learning to paint or draw, our instruction will be the only reference point you have so are fairly lenient.

It all boils down to two areas: permission and profit. By attending an art workshop or buying an art instruction book, you (may) have the artist’s permission to reproduce their painting(s), as it is often taught in a step-by-step fashion. However, this does not mean you have their permission to reproduce their artwork to sell on or make a profit from. They are not the same thing.

In reproducing a painting that is being taught (whether it be in book form or in a class), you are being allowed to use the artist’s ideas to learn techniques to become a foundation to your own style so that you can create and sell your own paintings from what has been taught. Most tutors will accept that when you start out that you will exhibit and sell one or two of your versions of their paintings, the problem can begin if they become your ‘best sellers’ and more versions are painted and are either repeatedly sold, or prints made from them as greetings cards or open print runs.

It could also be a problem if you reproduce any painting from any art book, even that is a step-by-step book as the publisher and artist has exclusive rights to its reproduction.

Why could you get into trouble? You are painting a picture that is basically someone else’s originality – it is their composition, their colour choice, their entire own idea; and without careful consideration you could be in breach of copyright law. The same goes if you are using photographs you find on the internet or in books to copy from.

Here a few steps you can take to make sure that you are never in breach of copyright law:

1. (i) Always where possible, only sell art work that is of your own originality and not copied. Use your own photographs to work from at all times.

2. (ii) Ask the owner of the original painting or photograph for permission to sell it. Permission will often be granted especially by your art tutor. However, do not make prints of them or turn them into greeting s cards. Make sure it is a ‘one-off’. But if working from an art book, you would need to contact the publisher for permission to reproduce the painting as they may have exclusive rights on that image.

3. (iii) Where possible, credit the originator of the painting on the back: ‘inspired by a painting from…’, or ‘after…’.

4. (iv) Check the front pages of the book you are using. Some clearly say that ‘no images may be reproduced in any form’, others say ‘a substantial part may not be reproduced’.

In short, it is much easier to only produce art work that is yours and only yours – painted by you from a photograph that you have taken. There are one or two websites available that allow artists to use the images posted on there, but always check the copyright before copying it.

En Plein Air

I was thinking of the words of the great landscape painter John Constable the other morning. He said that “the imagination cannot alone produce art to bear comparison with reality”. So I thought I would give you a few pointers in what to look for when painting outside, as June offers a spectacular opportunity to paint reality with open garden events in the local area. If you do decide to go off out and paint or draw from reality firstly, remember that one thing that we cannot plan for is the weather.

Keep your materials limited so that whatever the weather, you are not carrying trolley loads of paints. Watercolour pencils are a great media to work in outdoors as they are lightweight and produce good results and all you need is a watercolour pad, a paintbrush and bottle of water to go with it.

Give yourself boundaries. When you are outside, you are faced with a full 360° view. It’s near impossible to do a large panorama justice when outside as each time you turn your head, your viewpoint, and therefore the angles change. This will mean that you will struggle to get everything looking like part of the same scene. The best advice I can give is to use parts of the landscape to form the edges of your paper: a tree on the left forms the left hand edge of your picture, a telegraph pole the other side forms the right hand edge a stone just in front of you creates the bottom of your painting and so on. This way, if you do look away, you will always know what is supposed to be in your painting.

For more information on which gardens are open in your area, visit www.wherecanwego.com or pop along to your nearest National Trust property and produce some wonderful paintings!

What Are Paints Made From?

We often get customers in the shop asking what the pigments in our paints are made from such as Cadmium Red and Ultramarine and what the difference is between artist and student quality paint. Artist quality paints are mainly made from pigments ground from the earth such as Yellow Ochre, others are manufactured chemically from the metal cadmium such as Cadmium Red and Cadmium Yellow.

Student quality paint however, is a synthetic mixture that closely mimics the real pigment, but is often not as bright or permanent. A student quality paint can be identified by the word ‘hue’ written after a colour. I thought I would share with you a brief, interesting and sometimes amusing history of the lengths artists would go to make the colours they needed.

Historically, artists would make their own paint in their studios by mixing the pigment with either gum Arabic for watercolour or linseed oil to make an oil paint. Traditionally, Sepia was made from the ink sacks of cuttle fish, Indian Yellow was (allegedly) made from the urine of cows who has been fed on mango leaves, and Vermillion was made from the highly toxic Mercuric Sulphide. Egyptian Brown was historically made by grinding the remains of Egyptian mummies! Some greens were created by mixing copper sulphide and arsenic, but when the colour got damp it gave off a toxic gas. Thankfully, these colours are either no longer made or have safer modern alternatives.

In years gone by, artists could be identified by their pallor; their sunken cheeks and dark rings under the eyes weren’t from a late night painting, but from the chemicals inhaled or absorbed into the skin as they mixed their colours or painted on their canvases. How thankful we are that the tube of paint was created along with the legislation to makes paints safer! Even today, owing to where pigments are found or how they are made, there are still some high quality paints manufactured that do carry a warning due to the pigments used. The better the quality of paint, the higher the chance of it being slightly toxic. These paints give brighter, stronger more permanent colour and are perfectly fine to use as long as you don’t suck your brushes!

What Should I Paint?

I sit at home and never know what to paint.” Does this sound familiar? I have been in that situation myself. You have the urge to paint and you get your palette and brushes ready, sit down and….nothing! No ideas spring to mind and you sit staring at a blank sheet of paper for what seems an age before you pack it all away again and do something else.

The first thing I can suggest to climb out of the creative block is to take plenty of photographs, if your mobile phone has a camera function then you will never be without a camera to take that interesting sky or picturesque landscape. Keep the photographs to hand as you can look through them to gain inspiration and they are all your own work so are therefore copyright free. Remember that you can combine elements of photographs – the sky from one, the land from another and the old, twisted dead tree from another to create a whole new picture.

Another suggestion is to look at some of your previous paintings and try to paint them again but in a different media. This not only helps you to critique your own work and look for improvements but also gives you experience in using a new media that you may have never thought about using. If you don’t have a room set up that you paint in, it can be disheartening because when the mood strikes, you spend fifteen minutes setting up all your materials, in which time the mood may have been and gone. It is therefore important to grab the mood whenever and wherever it strikes. Always keep a sketchpad in your pocket, a pencil and even a few colouring pencils so that you are armed and ready for action. I mentioned last month how useful the biro was to get beautiful tone and shade so there really is no excuse! Don’t give up, the block will eventually pass and just feel safe in the knowledge that everyone goes through it at some point.