Things are percolating

Chalk pastel studies of master drawings

Over the past few months, I’ve been making concrete progress with my idea for creating a series of fine art video tutorials. I’ve been following a trail of bread crumbs, slowly finding one crumb at a time. I can’t get into any specifics, but let’s just say that it’s looking like I won’t have to do this on my own. I’ve managed to make some important connections that could provide a platform that I wouldn’t have by myself. Nothing is official right now, so it’s still possible that I could be back to square one if it doesn’t work out. That’s fine with me; in the end it’s all a learning experience and it’s refreshing to take a different approach to my teaching.

I’m enjoying the brainstorming process I’m in right now. I know that I have strong content to share, the major challenge is how to deliver it. The presentation and format are critical, as they are highly influential in terms of targeting the audience. I had initially thought that my target audience would be students ages 12-18 and adults, but it seems like even art school students would be interested as well.  Last week I received an email from a current student at RISD (someone I didn’t know) who was struggling and reached out to me for help.  It occurred to me that even students in an academic environment could benefit from a resource outside of their school. The audience is there, I just have to reach them.

Ask the Art Professor: How Do You Price Art?

“Ask the Art Professor” is an advice column for visual artists, now featured in the Huffington Post.  This is your chance to ask a professional artist/educator your questions about being an artist, the creative process, career advice, etc. Submit your question by emailing me at clara(at)claralieu.com, or by commenting here on this blog. All questions will be posted anonymously, and you’ll receive notification when your question is online.  Read an archive of past articles here.

“How do you put a price on a piece of art? Is it different for different forms of art? I’m specifically interested in paintings. How are paintings priced in general?”

There are essentially four criteria which factor into the price of an artwork: 1) the media of the artwork, 2) the size of the artwork, and 3) the artist’s position in the art world and 4) the venue where the artwork is being exhibited.

The artist’s position in the art world is probably the most important aspect to consider. Emerging artists haven’t developed a name yet, so they can’t demand thousands of dollars for a single artwork. The majority of emerging artists will usually sell an oil painting within the $100-$1,000 range. An artist who can sell an oil painting for $30,000 would be considered by most people to be very successful. Then there’s the top of the art world where some artists can sell an oil painting for $500,000 and more. These artists are the select few who are internationally renowned and showing at the top museums.

Generally speaking, the most highly priced media is large-scale sculpture. Sculpture that is being sold professionally has to be in a permanent material, such as bronze or stone. Works created in these materials require specialized fabrication processes that can cost the artist thousands of dollars for a single sculpture. After large-sculpture, large paintings tend to be priced the highest. Paintings will always be on the higher end because they are unique objects.

Prints and works on paper are usually priced less than sculpture and painting. Since many copies of the same print exist, several people can own the same print, therefore making each print less valuable. Many painters create companion bodies of work in printmaking, which allows them to have an inventory of work with a more diverse range of prices. For example, if an artist sells a 48″ x 48″ oil painting for $2,000, a 9″ x 12″ drawing on paper by that same artist might sell for $200.

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Large-scale artworks tend to command higher prices, although there certainly are exceptions for small scale works that are exceptionally labor intensive. Not only are large-scale works more expensive to create because they require more materials, but they also cater to an entirely different kind of patron. The average person who buys a 9″ x 12″ artwork is usually purchasing the artwork to decorate their home. Most people simply don’t have the space to fit a 48″ x 60″ painting in their living room. The patron who purchases a 48″ x 60″ painting has to have an extremely spacious residence, and/or be a major art collector.

The venue where your artwork is being shown also determines how you price your work. On the low end is open studios, which is generally a very casual neighborhood event where an artist opens their studio to the public. At most open studios events, anything priced over $50 is unlikely to sell. The crowd at an open studios event is mostly local people who have interest in art, and the purchases they make are usually small impulse buys. When I’ve done open studios events in the past, I treat the event like a yard sale; works that generally sell are small sketches for $50 and or less. The highest priced work I ever sold at an open studios event was a 36″ x 24″ charcoal drawing on paper for $90.

By contrast, at a commercial gallery in a big city, pricing an artwork for $50 would never happen. Every gallery is unique, but it’s typical for prices at a commercial gallery to begin at around $300 for small works, going up to $20,000 for larger pieces, and even more at the top galleries. You also have to factor in that most galleries take a 50% commission, and that the gallery will likely have a say in determining the price of your work.

So how do you approach pricing your own artwork? Avoid prices that are so low or so high that it becomes embarrassing. When I was director of a college gallery, I worked with a relatively unknown artist who priced his 36″ x 48″ ink drawings on paper at $55,000 each. All things considered, this price was astronomical. On the other hand, if you saw that same 36″ x 48″ ink drawing on paper in the same gallery priced at $90, that low price would be detrimental to a visitor’s opinion of the artist.

When I price my artwork, I consider the cost of the art materials and the approximate number of hours I worked on the piece. The total cost of art materials can vary tremendously depending on the piece. For example, an oil painting requires that I pay for a heavy-duty wooden frame, canvas, primer, oil paint, brushes, rags, a palette, solvent, etc. By comparison, an ink drawing on paper of the same size costs practically nothing because ink and paper cost very little. Then, I estimate how many hours have gone into the work and multiply that by an hourly rate. (Most artists choose a rate that ranges from $15-$50 an hour.) Between the labor and art supplies, I can usually arrive at a price that comes close to what I think will be appropriate.

Pricing art is always tricky, especially for new artists who don’t have a track record. Once you have had the chance to sell your work in a number of contrasting venues, you’ll develop a stronger awareness of what’s appropriate.

Related articles:
“How can an artist overcome their financial issues?”
“How do you explain to potential clients that artists need to be paid?”

2015 RISD Faculty Biennial

The RISD Faculty Biennial is now on view at the RISD Museum through March 22.  If you can’t get to Providence, you can view images of the exhibition here. I have a 7′ x 4′ figure drawing in the exhibition.

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Getting back to what it was all about

Studio View

I had lunch with one of my artist friends yesterday, and I realized after talking to her that I need to shift my thinking towards my art. I’ve been in denial about this, but I am finally letting myself confront the hard fact that over the past few months, my studio practice has become distressingly unpleasant. Lately it feels like I’ve have to focus all of my energy on everything but the art: meeting deadlines, exhibition logistics, making professional connections, publicity, etc. It’s gotten to the point where I’m distracted by so many external responsibilities that I don’t even enjoy the art making process. I’ve let the tasks outside of the studio ruin the experience of creating.

My friend said that another artist she knew recently did a solo exhibition that turned out to be a highly taxing experience. She said that this artist poured in months of work in the studio, had to make a huge financial investment to frame the work, and did substantial marketing and publicity.  In the end, the artist said that it was extremely demoralizing to have dedicated such an immense amount of time and money into an endeavor that basically didn’t garner any concrete results. Other than being another line on her resume, her career didn’t make any noticeable progress, and none of the money she invested into the exhibition came back in the form of sales.  I know from experience that unfortunately, this is a very common experience for many working artists.

If there’s no financial return, and no visible career advancement, what is left? Do we just have to keep treading water so we don’t disappear?  My artist friend said that ultimately, you have to be able to derive your own joy and satisfaction from the experience of making the art.  Otherwise, you’ll just be bleeding time and money, which frequently leads to bitterness and resentment.

That’s what I want back, that feeling of being so completely immersed in the art making process that it feels like nothing else in the world matters. I want to have studio sessions where I forget to be hungry and focus exclusively on the moment I’m in.  I had a professor who used to say “if you’re not having fun, you’re doing something wrong.” I still don’t know what my next project will be, but whatever it is, I want to enjoy myself again.

Ask the Art Professor: How Do You Begin to Think Conceptually as a Visual Artist?

“Ask the Art Professor” is an advice column for visual artists, now featured in the Huffington Post.  This is your chance to ask a professional artist/educator your questions about being an artist, the creative process, career advice, etc. Submit your question by emailing me at clara(at)claralieu.com, or by commenting here on this blog. All questions will be posted anonymously, and you’ll receive notification when your question is online.  Read an archive of past articles here.

“As a visual artist, I have never been able to work serially. I feel stuck in a rut that seems impossible to break out of. I thought working serially might help me break out of it but here is the problem: I have never worked conceptually before. I don’t put any specific emotion, concept, feeling or anything into a painting or drawing. How do you begin to think conceptually as a visual artist?”

Unfortunately, many art students are taught to learn technique and content separately. They are instructed to first focus exclusively on mastering technique because they are told that they are “not ready” to address the subject matter of their artwork. The consequence is that students develop technical proficiency, but in terms of content, their artwork is vapid and meaningless. This is a common problem that many beginning artists face.

To think conceptually, find a compelling reason to create your own original content. As an art student, it took me many years to figure out exactly why the content of my artwork mattered. I devoted all of my energy towards learning how to paint realistically, and didn’t spend any time thinking about my subject matter. I had always been fairly confident in my painting skills, but my senior year, there was a student in my painting class who created breathtaking paintings which were incredibly vibrant. I felt extremely discouraged because no matter how hard I worked, my paintings just couldn’t compare to hers in terms of technique.

When I started working professionally, this experience just became even more pronounced. Eventually, I had to accept the fact that there were always going to be people who had stronger painting skills. The only way I was ever going to distinguish myself was through my ideas. This realization provided the motivation I needed to start generating my own content.

Learning how to think conceptually is tough for many artists. The process is unpredictable, and there are no answers at the back of the textbook. Some concepts will flow easily while others will have you banging your head against a wall for days on end. In the beginning, I can guarantee that you will fail much more than you will succeed. Keep in mind what works for one person may not work for another. Be prepared to go through a lot of trial and error before you find a system that works for you. Here are some concrete actions you can take:

1. Develop both technique and content in every artwork.
Creating a piece that strikes an effective balance is exceptionally difficult, so this approach will be rocky and frustrating at first. Inevitably, you’ll create pieces that are strong technically but weak conceptually, and vice versa. Even if you’re unhappy with how things are going in a piece, push through and keep developing both aspects. Resist the temptation to revert back to creating pieces that only focus on technique.

2. Put everything on paper.
For many people, brainstorming means sitting down and running thoughts through your head. This is never productive. With no physical record of your thoughts, it’s impossible to get any perspective on what you’re doing. Instead, keep yourself active by sketching and writing as you think. Reserve judgment on your ideas and just let everything spill out on paper. Often times I will think an idea is stupid in my head, but when I sketch it out on paper, the sketch demonstrates a lot of potential. On the flip side, there are ideas that sound great in my mind, but are terrible on paper. You won’t know until you’ve seen it on paper.

3. Aim for specificity.
The more specific your idea is, the more engaging it will be to your audience. Subjects that are too broad come across as generic and vague. I once had a student who said she wanted to concentrate on “20th century themes” in her project. Her topic was so immense that I had no clue what her project was about. By contrast, one of the most intriguing topics I’ve seen in class was a student project that was about Korean face massages. According to the student, the Korean face massages she received were extremely painful and the specifics of her vivid descriptions captivated the class. The fact that her topic focused on one area of the body within the context of a specific culture provided a strong direction for her project.

4. Push your ideas to evolve.
Many artists terminate their brainstorming process prematurely. My students tell me all the time after sketching just one or two ideas, that they have found the best idea. Good ideas don’t happen immediately, your concepts need to go through multiple stages of development to fully mature. Give your concepts time to be transformed, manipulated and adjusted.

5. Recognize and avoid clichés.
If I had a dollar for every art student who drew a clock to represent time, I could send my kids to college for free. Clichés happen because an artist didn’t take the time to think beyond the most obvious response. If you do an image search on Google of your subject, the same image that appears over and over again is the cliché. When I start brainstorming, I intentionally sketch out the most clichéd image I can think of. Once I identify what the clichés are, I can eliminate them and move onto something that is more unusual.

Actively think about your subject throughout the entire duration of creating an artwork. With enough practice, thinking conceptually will eventually become a permanent part of your artistic process.

Related articles:
“How do you keep pushing yourself to get to that next level?”
“Would you improve more if you took art classes than just studying on your own?”
“How do you break out of your comfort zone?”
“How do you get out of thinking you can’t get any better?”
“How do you develop patience for learning curves?”
“When do you let go of an idea?”
“How do I help my daughter reach her potential in art?”
“How can I study to become a professional artist on my own?”

Spinning my Wheels

Gesture Drawing

Since I’ve decided to take time and re-evaluate, I’ve found myself in a creative limbo. I’ve devoted a lot of time to analyzing my previous creative endeavors, and brainstorming possibilities for the future. The consequence is that I haven’t made anything, so it feels like I’ve been spinning my wheels. To me that’s a signal that I’m done thinking, and that it’s time to move on.

I find it challenging to make the transition from establishing long term goals to figuring out what task you should do today. At the beginning of a project, your goals feel so incredibly far away that it’s hard to know where to even begin. Often times this makes me not want to start at all, because I fear that things won’t work out. I know that I have to take my own advice: it’s actually easier to start with something that is flawed and then fix it. In my drawing classes, I see students all the time who are so worried about making a bad drawing that they end up drawing nothing at all. I tell my students that they just have to get some marks on paper, no matter how faulty they may be. Once you have something tangible to work with, you can make progress.

I do better with hands-on tasks, so I’m focusing on concrete actions that I can take right now. My husband, who works in film and animation suggested that I do some quick “video sketches” as ways to get ideas of how the series might function. This seems like a great way to get started, and will likely reveal many aspects of the project that I can’t foresee.

Two options

My idea for a series of video tutorials of fine art techniques has been stuck in my mind. I know that I have good content, it’s just a matter of figuring out what the right format and delivery is.  I’ve gotten a lot of information from several people in the TV/film world.  Essentially, it boils down to two options:  I can do it all myself, or go through a TV network.

Doing it myself is attractive because I can take action right away. My biggest concern is that I would make the tutorials, a few people would see them, and then they would disappear into the black hole of the Internet. A project like this could quickly become a money pit where I would get nothing back. Hiring a production company would ensure a high quality production, but would be astronomically expensive.   I would either have to win a large grant or have an extremely successful kickstarter campaign.  I can finance a low budget production myself, but then I worry that I will end up with a mediocre presentation that will be detrimental to the content.  A friend of mine seemed to think that if you have strong content, the quality of the video shouldn’t be that important. I can see her point, but being a perfectionist, I know how distracting a low quality production could be.

A TV network is ideal because it would provide the platform and validation in order for the project to reach a broad audience. The greatest obstacle is making contact with key people, and then convincing them to back my project. From the people in the field that I’ve talked to, this is insanely difficult and rarely works out.

I’m torn because there are major pros and cons to both approaches. I’m hesitant to hold out for a TV network, because I know that it’s highly likely that the project would simply never happen, which I’m not sure I could live with. Doing it myself would ensure that the idea happens, but I’m not thrilled with the likeliness that the project would probably not go very far.

Which option do you think I should pursue?