The most common question I hear is, ‘how do you paint water?’ The answer—if you’re smart—is, ‘how it looks at that moment.’ Water, like the sky, is infinitely variable. Yes, there are some fundamental truths, such as that reflections are symmetrical across a horizontal axis, or that water will reflect the sky color. But other than that, all bets are off. I’ve heard artists say, with authority, that the sea is always lightest at the horizon, or that the chroma is lower than the sky.
Those things are usually, but not always, true. The sea is bigger than you or me; it does whatever it wants. If you want a more scientific explanation, moving water is a massive, constantly-changing, fractal-featured mirror. It doesn’t stay the same for a minute, let alone over time.
That complicates painting from photos, because the surface usually changes faster than the human eye can perceive. The long ellipses or droplets in space captured in a still photograph are not what we ‘see’. My friend Brad Marshall experimented recently with painting a waterfall using a continuous loop video instead of a still photo. I haven’t tried it yet, but it’s on my to-do list.
Frits Thaulow was a Norwegian landscape painter, roughly contemporary to that brilliant trio of Anders Zorn, John Singer Sargent and Joaquín Sorolla. In that company, Thaulow might have faded into obscurity except for his ability to paint roiling river surfaces. Typically, he laid down the bones of the reflections in very thin paint, and then scumbled the traceries of water over the top. That was frequently in a neutral tone, because he was painting in far northern Europe where the skies were often grey.
Roiling water was Thaulow’s particular talent. Beside it, his buildings seem sketched in as an afterthought. It would be easy to dismiss him as a one-shot wonder, someone who figured out a cool effect and then repeated it until he was a caricature of himself. But it was more likely an obsession.
I say that because Thaulow also got excellent water effects in watercolor, where the brush technique is entirely different. That, by the way, is something he had in common with Zorn, Sargent, and Sorolla, all of whom handled watercolor with equal facility to their more famous oils.
I once painted something for a plein air event that I longed to call Everything but the Kitchen Sink, because I literally threw in every cliché about the area that I could think of. Having already started down the road to hell, I brushed in the vertical reflections and then I overbrushed them horizontally with a large, dry brush. This is something you might learn at a sip-and-paint as ‘how to paint water’, but it seemed appropriate for that absolutely still water.
Naturally, it sold.
I was being fanciful and farcical, but learning one ‘way to paint water’ and then grinding it to death is not a technique I recommend. Brilliance lies not in sleight of hand but in observation. Worry less about your brushwork and more about what’s in front of you. If you learn to see, your hand will naturally follow your eye.
The death of Tom Thomson is one of art’s enduring mysteries. Although the Group of Seven didn’t formalize until after his death, he was one of the painters who gathered at the design firm Grip, Ltd. He was arguably the most famous of them all.A dedicated woodsman and fisherman, he loved heading into the wilds of Algonquin Provincial Park to paint, as he did one July afternoon. He was found drowned eight days later, a four-inch bruise on his temple. Did he capsize, did he commit suicide, or was he murdered by a jealous husband? We’ll never know.
The Group of Seven were realists in the age of abstract art.They passionately clung to plein air in defiance of a world culture that was veering off toward abstraction. They felt the spirit of Canada was best understood by painting in direct contact with nature. Instead of huddling in Toronto studios massaging their angst, they rode the rails to some of Canada’s most desolate and difficult-to-reach spots.
They invented the idea of the Great White North.Lawren Harris believed the desolate north was the seat of Canada’s economic and spiritual power. His scenes of the cold, majestic, and empty northland defined Canada’s essential self-image. This was a land of black spruces, isolated peaks and dark water, lit by fantastic skies.This started out as nationalism, but transformed into a more universal paean to the power of nature. As much as he abstracted the landscape in later years, he always told this story.
The Great War temporarily derailed them.The First World War had a profound effect on Canada. Out of an expeditionary force of 620,000, 39% were casualties. AY Jackson, Arthur Lismer and Frederick Varley enlisted as official war artists. Jackson served in France and was seriously injured. Lawren Harris enlisted in 1916 and was discharged in May 1918 after a nervous breakdown. Tom Thomson’s death in 1917 was another blow to the group.
In the early years, the group was supported in part by tractor money.Lawren Harris was the son of Thomas Harris of A. Harris, Sons & Company Ltd., farm machinery merchents. This merged with the Massey company and later became known as Massey Ferguson. Harris's share of his family fortune enabled him to partner with James MacCallum to build the Studio Building in Toronto, where his fellows could rent studio space cheaply. Together the two men bankrolled the Group of Seven during lean periods. Harris took them on boxcar trips to Algomaregion north of Lake Superior and elsewhere.
They developed a distinctive Canadian style.Group of Seven paintings are instantly recognizable by the fusion of graphic design and Impressionism. However, they were always driven by what was actually there. The screen of trees and the view down into the deep woods are recurring motifs. This is not a grand, golden view in the style of the Hudson River School painters, but a deeply honest view of what the northeastern part of North America looks like. It requires embracing chaos in a totally new kind of composition.
The Group of Seven is not without controversy.They’ve been criticized for depicting northern Canada as a no-man’s-land, or terra nullius, when it’s been lived in for centuries by indigenous people. However, the goal of plein air has primarily been to capture the landscape, not human activity.Having painted across Canada myself, I can say that much of it seems empty a hundred years later. In any case, they’re among the best painters North America has produced, and that’s the real reason to study their work.
“There have been few more momentous weeks in British history, or indeed in world history,” Bruce Anderson wrote in the Spectator. The Queen’s funeral coincided with the rout of Russia. I missed it all. I was coasting around Penobscot Bay on the schooner American Eagle, teaching watercolor, as I do twice a year.
I would normally have watched the Queen’s funeral, either in real time on the internet, or by flipping to the BBC every five minutes as I worked. I don’t watch television, but I do read voraciously. I was raised with The Buffalo News delivered every afternoon. Reading the news is a hard habit to break.
Back then, the news was structured. The front section gave us international and national news of import. The second section was local news. Then living, and then sports. After that came the auto ads and classifieds. All neatly segmented and focused on a local audience. Those of us who wanted more could take the New York Times on Sunday—back when it really was the nation’s ‘newspaper of record.’
One would occasionally get a ‘Florida man’ story—if it was sufficiently amusing—but paper and ink and the trucks to drive them around were expensive. Editors carefully selected what went in our local paper. Moreover, we read it and then we set it aside. We didn’t come back every hour for more.
Today my phone tells me ‘The Real Reason Why Prince Harry and Meghan Markle Allegedly Went Back to Montecito Fuming’. I can read about a woman who faked her own kidnapping, a teenager shot to death by someone who thought the kid was a political extremist, another teen who died in a football game, or a Missouri mother looking for the remains of her murdered child. No wonder so many Americans take antidepressants. The world isn’t inherently any worse than it used to be, but all its ugliness is being served up to us constantly.
Out at sea, there is only spotty signal. (Unfortunately, it’s improving over time, as more islands get coverage.) My husband—an electrical engineer—once told me how he could fix that empty space. I looked at him horrified. “Don’t even think about it!” As long as our captain can communicate his position to other boats and the Coast Guard, that’s enough contact.
While the world revolved without us this week, we painted. A Hurricane Island crew stopped and talked to us about their scallop research. We watched two bald eagles doing an amazing dance over a bit of ledge. A finback whale breached behind our stern. Porpoises did their lovely cartwheels. Seals were everywhere; so were schooling fish and the gulls that eat them.
Heather broke up her painting by fishing for mackerel. She caught five.
It was unusually cold for September, but that didn’t make it bad weather. It mizzled, it fogged, the wind came up and went down, the sky was grey, then slate blue and violet, and finally brilliant blue. We picnicked on lobster, corn and fresh vegetables.
Finally, on our last morning, it came down in buckets. We watched it from beneath a deck awning while eating hot biscuits and frittata, wearing waterproofs.
I can’t say why, but art is restricted by anxiety. Nervous tension stops us from reaching our real potential. There’s something about the ocean that releases that, and frees us from the need to produce something ‘great’.
By my last day aboard, I find that I never reach for my phone except to take photos. The real challenge is to bring that home, to stop being so plugged in. Yes, we need to be informed citizens, but a little bad news goes a long way.
I'm wearing the tiara in honor of Queen Elizabeth II, whose state funeral is today.
There are many good paint brands out there. They tend to be more expensive, but price is not the sole indicator of quantity. There are an equal number of horrible paints on the market. You might think you’ve saved a few bucks, but that’s a mistake that will cost you in time and frustration.
There are differences in the binders, in the amount of pigment the manufacturer uses, and how the pigments are stabilized. There may be filler or drying agents added.
Instead of buying cheaper paint, cut down on the number of colors you buy. I suggest a system of paired primaries, as explained here. Oil painters will add titanium white; watercolor painters should avoid white altogether at the outset.
These aren’t the only good paints out there, of course; they’re just my go-to brands.
Hues and convenience mixes
Art paints are marketed with names that appeal to our sense of tradition. If you buy Naples Yellow thinking you’re buying an historic pigment, think again: the modern paint is a convenience mix replacing the historic (and toxic) lead antimonate.
Expect to find, at minimum, the following information on the label of your paint tube:
Manufacturer’s name or common name for the color;
The CII number and, sometimes, the name of the pigment(s);
The manufacturer’s lightfastness or permanence rating.
The CII code consists of two letters and some numbers. Most paints start with a “P” which means it’s a pigment, not a dye. The next letter is the color family: PR is red, PY is yellow, etc. The number is the specific pigment included in the tube.
When you compare paints with the same names, check their CIIs. It seldom makes sense to buy a tube of paint that contains more than one pigment. These blends are meant to look like something else—either an historic pigment or an expensive one. They don’t behave like the pigments they’re named after. For example, ‘cadmium yellow hue’ may look like cadmium yellow coming out of the tube, but it makes insipid greens.
If you are comfortable painting with a hue, learn what’s in it and mix it yourself. You always have the greatest flexibility by working with pure pigments (rather than mixes) out of the tube.
You can buy a whole set of bristle brushes on Amazon for $20. The same price will get you a set of genuine sable brushes for watercolor. Good deal, right? Wrong.
Natural bristles have splits at the end, called flags. These help the bristles hold more paint. (With high-stain pigments, the flags can discolor, but that’s not a sign of permanent damage.) With good brushes, bristles are cleaned, sorted, sized and wrapped into bundles where the flags cup, or curl naturally into each other. This bundle is then glued into the ferrule with a solvent-resistant glue. The best ferrules are seamless nickel-plated copper, crimped onto a lacquered hardwood handle.
Badly cupped brushes and poor-quality bristles can be made to look good with lots of sizing that dissolves as soon as the brush is used. Bad brushes often lose hairs, which can ruin a painting. And ferrules that fall off the handles can’t be crimped back on.
You need fewer brushes than you think. In watercolor, a ½” flat, a 1” wash brush, a #6 quill and a #8 round are enough to get you started. Add a set of short synthetic flats (or mottlers, as they’re sometimes called) in ¾”, 1” and 1½”. A little pointed brush to sign your name is helpful.
In oils and acrylics, a life list would include:
Brights (short flats) in 6, 8, 10, possibly 12, depending on how big you’re going to paint;
Rounds: 2, 4, 6;
Long (true) flats: 3, 4, 5;
Filbert: 2, 4, 6;
A few tiny rounds in sable for detail and to sign your name: 2,4;
1” badger blender brush;
2” spalter or hog bristle background brush—this is for blocking.
I recommend Princeton brushes to students; they come in a range of quality and material and are good value for money. I’m currently painting with Rosemary & Co. in both watercolor and oils, but they’re quite expensive. Other brushes I’ve known and loved include Isabey, and Winsor & Newton. But brushes are a highly-personal thing, and you’re best buying one or two from a maker and running them through their paces before you commit to a relationship.
Dollar-Store painting boards
Why does one manufacturer charge $15 for a painting board when you can buy one at a local discount store for $2? There’s a difference in quality at every step. The cheap board is made of cardboard, which warps. The gesso is thin and porous, so paint bleeds through it, breaching the all-important barrier between surface and substrate. The canvas is glued with a water-based glue, so if the board gets wet, it will start to separate.
Still, the price of a premium painting board is too high for painting exercises. Instead, buy a tablet of linen or canvas and tape sheets down on a board. For linen, I like Centurion; for canvas, Dick Blick’s house brand. If you do end up creating a masterpiece, you can glue it to a stable board with PVA adhesive.
As a bonus, a tablet of painting canvases is a lot lighter than the same number of boards when you’re traveling.
I used to spend a lot of money on painting mediums tailored for specific situations—matte finish, quick-drying, slow-drying. However, because these all have solvents in them, they’re not legal to carry on airplanes. I found myself replacing them on every trip. Eventually I went back to the jar of linseed oil I’ve been carting around since my salad days. It’s cheaper, it lasts forever, and you can carry it in your checked luggage. (An aside—you can also fly with a small jar of Gamsol, but not Turpenoid; they have different flash points.)
Linseed oil is the binder for most oil paints. It’s harmless; it’s made from flax-seed, the same thing I eat for breakfast. The same cannot be said of the driers and solvents in many mediums.
If you’re worried about yellowing (I’m not, because my paints are linseed-oil-based) then use stand oil. That’s linseed oil that’s been polymerized by heating.
“Interesting that you say ‘I have come to recognize that there are certain subjects that will languish, and I no longer seek them out.’ You mentioned gray days. What other subjects do you find difficult to move?” a reader wrote in response to Wednesday’s post.
For the record, it was Ken DeWaard who doesn’t like gray days. I love fog, especially Maine fog, which seems to have an intelligence of its own. I don’t have a particular problem selling fog paintings, especially when there are boats involved.
On the other hand, I have never had much success selling snow paintings, although they can be very interesting as they invert typical light relationships. I’m from Buffalo and live in New England, so I know snow. I’ve painted enough of it. But I only go out in winter to keep Ken and Eric Jacobsen company. Just as Ken has a closet full of grey days, I have a closet full of snow paintings.
Perhaps my audience is sick of shoveling it. However, the late, great Aldro Hibbard lived and worked in Rockport, Massachusetts. He made a fine business of painting snowy Vermont landscapes.
Buyers tend to associate certain painters with certain subjects. Colin Page paints boats, children, and complex still-lives. Charles Fenner Ball paints pastorals and trains. Mary Byrom paints the marshland along the southern Maine shore. Whether or not it’s fair for the marketplace to pigeonhole artists, it happens.
I will occasionally paint an old tractor or historic old farm. These, too, sit on my shelves, but Kari Ganoung Ruiz and Jay Brooks are able to move them along just fine. They both capture the mystery of lost time in these paintings, whereas I am just painting objects.
On the other hand, I sell a lot of boat paintings. A lobster boat is just a tractor of the sea, so why does my audience find them romantic and a Massey-Ferguson prosaic? Perhaps because nobody comes to Maine to look at old tractors, but they do go to central New York for them.
I love rocks. They tell the story of a place, they’re fascinating to observe and classify, and I find rock outcroppings easy enough to sell.
However, I also appreciate farm animals, orchards, and hayfields. However, I find it harder to shift these subjects. The farther I get from the farm country of my youth, the less it compels me. Somehow that’s transmitted to my audience, although I can’t tell you how.
What sells depends on the obsessions of the artist. If you love, say, butterflies, your passion will be transmitted to the canvas and buyers will respond. If you are indifferent to rain, it will show, and your rain paintings will languish. If you spend lots of time painting boats and very little time painting classic cars, your boat paintings will be fresher and livelier.
I frequently marvel over this real estate listing, which features large paintings of meat on the wall. Why anyone would paint them, and why anyone would buy them, escapes me. But truly there’s a market for anything, if you’re passionate about it.
On Monday, I wrote about how to be a successful artist. Perhaps I should have written about why you should pursue success, because the comments I received through Facebook and emails questioned that assumption.
“I hate the fact that everyone expects us to happily marry art and capitalism. I love art. I hate capitalism. Why can’t I just enjoy the thing I love independent of the other?” wrote Jason Weinberg. “I wish art was simply free to be art, not product.”
In fact, I think that many people are better off as gifted amateurs than trying to make a living at it. Monetizing it can kill the very thing you love, so it's not for everyone.
For those who spend long hours making art, it helps to have an outlet for it. Let’s start with the fundamental truth that the laborer is worthy of his hire, as Jesus pointed out. All modern societies (capitalist or communist) measure output in terms of money and assign value through currency. To say that art should be free assigns it a value of exactly zero.
I have a friend who’s an excellent printmaker but prefers to keep it purely amateur. She also needs to eat, so she works full-time unloading trucks. That doesn’t leave much time or energy for art, so she doesn’t make a lot of it. She’s happy with that compromise, but I wouldn’t be.
It costs money to make art. My printmaker friend needs to buy ink, paper, and whatever she’s using for plates. A small etching press starts at around a thousand dollars. The archival canvasboards I use are about $15 each; the paints run between $12 and $40 a tube. Then there are frames, which are the bête noire of the working artist; they cost a fortune and get dinged up constantly. All that money either gets recouped through sales or the artist’s day job.
It can cost thousands of dollars to have a foundry cast a sculpture in bronze. Unless you’re wealthy, it makes no sense to cast sculpture without sales in mind, and yet without that last step, the artistic process is incomplete.
I have a gifted student who supports herself working a series of side-hustles while making art seriously and studiously as an avocation. I’m sure she excels at anything she does, but she’s a brilliant painter, she has a unique message in her work, and it deserves to be in the public marketplace. By not putting herself out there in the fray, her work stays relatively unknown. That extends beyond her own circumstances, because she has insight that would benefit us all.
We don’t just exchange goods in capitalist trade; we exchange ideas. That requires entering the marketplace. Its critiques are harsh, its judgments summary. But it is also the most honest judge of whether we’re getting our point across or not.
“I would love to sell more of my artwork but I still want to be able to do whatever I want, not what someone else expects me to do,” wrote another correspondent. That’s difficult. Although artists are paid to think, they also need to connect with their audience. That requires compromise.
I have come to recognize that there are certain subjects that will languish, and I no longer seek them out. As my friend Ken DeWaard says of grey days, “I have enough of those in my closet at home.”
Today’s blog is being released simultaneously with the YouTube version, above. They’re slightly different, of course.
I wince every time I hear someone say “art is a good hobby but you can’t make a living at it.” Of course you can; I know many people who do. Last year, the global art/antiques market had sales of $65 billion. Of this, the US was by far the biggest player. All that art is, or was, made by someone.
However, a career in art is hard work. If you don’t like that, get a day job and keep your art as a hobby. Successful artists are entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurs generally work harder and longer than anyone else. There’s a lot of drudgery in an art career—bookkeeping, inventory control, making frames, online sales. On top of that, you have to create your own inventory and somehow keep the creative fire alive.
It helps to start when you’re young. As soon as you have a mortgage or car payment, you’re locked into a 9-5 job. Keep your expenses down. If your parents can stand you, live in their basement, but use that time wisely. Too many young people just piss time away.
However, sometimes you come to the realization that you should have been an artist much later in life. I was 38 and had four kids and a mortgage when I had that epiphany. It was doable, but juggling all those responsibilities was a lot harder than it would have been had I started as a youngster.
Either way, you might have to work part-time when you’re getting started. A lot of artists have done it, either in the home or away. Child-care definitely counts as one of those jobs. Don’t magically think that the kids will play quietly at your feet while you’re painting. Käthe Kollwitz made child care a condition of her marriage. We can’t all afford that, but caring for a child is real work and must be factored in as such.
Twenty years ago I would never have said this, but don’t bother with art school. The best art schools are private colleges, and they’re too expensive now. Instead, take classes at an atelier or working studio. Copy works by great artists in your field. Watch and learn from artists around you.
Above all, give yourself time to become good at your craft; working every day is the number one key to greatness.
The most common problem I encounter in artists is a lack of interest or experience in business. I started there myself, and it was a painful learning curve. If I had it to do again, I’d take business classes at community college or through an adult education program. Instead, I learned slowly, on the job.
You’ll be selling a product no different from any other product, and you can’t afford to turn your nose up at marketing. You’ll spend half your days doing it, so learn to love it. Marketing changes constantly. When I started, we stuck labels and stamps to postcards. Today, we focus on the internet. The one constant is how time-consuming it is.
I prominently display a slim volume in my bathroom: How the Queen Can Make You Happy, by Mary Killen. It’s a paeon to duty, discretion, politeness, healthy habits, kindness and more. Anyone who visits for more than three days ought to be able to finish it. As I have a lot of houseguests, it’s one small way to improve the world.
If you’ve spent any time with me, you know I’m a fan not of royalty in general, but of Queen Elizabeth II in particular. Her portrait is on my pickup truck; a statuette of her waves at me when the sun comes up. I was in Britain for her Platinum Jubilee.
She reminds me of a generation of women who are now almost gone. They were tough, phlegmatic, hard-working, and loyal. They were the first generation who went out of the home in large numbers to work. They dressed well, but their breasts and bums stayed inside their clothing. They were saddled with incredibly annoying children who burned draft cards, burned their bras, did drugs, joined ashrams and generally made complete asses of themselves (myself included). And yet they persevered and by and large those kids have turned out okay.
“Cabbage” was supposedly Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh’s affectionate nickname for his wife of 73 years. She had many of the virtues of that under-sung vegetable—she was tough, resilient, humble, nourishing and supportive. Her British sisterhood was forged in the London Blitz, but the same words could describe American women of that vintage. My mother was like that, as was our old neighbor Norma Stern, who died last week at age 94. Norma chopped her own firewood, but scratch beneath the surface and there was that same steely determination.
Princess Elizabeth was ten years old when Edward VIII abdicated the throne, precipitating a crisis that transformed her from a mere princess to heir to the throne. In 1939, when Britain entered the war, it was suggested that she and her sister Margaret be evacuated to Canada. The Queen Mother famously responded, “The children won't go without me. I won't leave without the King. And the King will never leave.” At age 14, Elizabeth made her first wartime radio broadcast. At 18, she trained as a driver and mechanic with the Auxiliary Territorial Service. She ascended to the throne of a world empire at 25.
Much has been written about her work ethic, and it was prodigious. On her 21st birthday, she pledged, “I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.” She never broke that vow. Two days before her death, she appointed her fifteenth Prime Minister, Liz Truss.
“Forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian faith. It can heal broken families, it can restore friendships and it can reconcile divided communities,” she said in Ireland in 2016. “It is in forgiveness that we feel the power of God’s love.”
She wasn’t just blowing smoke. The IRA killed a close member of her family, Lord Mountbatten. He was Prince Philip’s uncle, the godfather of King Charles III. When she laid a wreath at a memorial garden in Dublin for ‘all those who gave their lives in the cause of Irish Freedom,’ she demonstrated that hard, hard work of forgiveness.
Rest in peace, Queen Elizabeth. Your like will not this way come again.
I asked ten of my students to create art for this project. Their only limitation was that they were restricted to native species; they could work in any medium they chose. Proceeds from the sale of their work will be split between these emerging artists and the library. This is just a very small selection of the work that will be available.
Fundraising is important because Camden library’s remit extends beyond its building. The library maintains Camden’s amphitheater and harbor park in addition to its own magnificent grounds. All three were designed with an eye towards the natural environment. That was an unusual approach a century ago.
In 1928, architects Parker Morse Hooper and Charles Greely Loring chose to slip the library under the shade of existing elms and maples on the site, angling it toward the community rather than the picturesque harbor below. Today, traffic and parking have rendered the Main Street portico almost obsolete; patrons use a new ground-floor entrance on Atlantic Avenue. That has an upside; its facade is undisturbed in its austere, symmetrical, colonial beauty, despite the very modern library within.
Immediately adjacent to the library is Camden’s amphitheater. It’s a confection of fieldstone, brick, grass native trees and shrubs, with Art Deco wrought iron rails, light standards, gates and arches. It’s all carefully orchestrated to marry sophisticated garden theater with the wilds of Maine.
Across Atlantic Avenue, Harbor Park extends the views from the amphitheater down to busy Camden Harbor. This was designed by the Olmsted Brothers and is less formal and more naturalistic. It also relies on native plantings.
Once this fabulous complex of gardens was completed in 1931, the whole mess was given to Camden Library by arts patron Mary Louise Curtis Bok. Here choice of stewards wasn’t misplaced; they’re approaching their centenary in great nick.
In addition to my painting above, I’ll be painting en plein air during the event.
But honestly, the event is mostly about the plants. They’re available for pre-sale here. They’re from local native plant nurseries and are grown without the use of pesticides, herbicides, and neonicotinoids. “Native plants are low maintenance and normally do not require watering, fertilizer, herbicide, fungicides, or pesticides,” said Amy Thomsen, organizer, restoration ecologist, and my buddy.
If I can sneak away, I’ll be looking for a tree to replace the not-native sequoia seedling in my front garden. It only lasted two years before it dropped dead from cold. Imagine that.
I’m no fan of the Guardian, but this recent (unsigned) piece is one more argument about a well-known problem in the art world. Women’s art sells at a shocking 10-to-1 markdown from men’s work—"for every £1 a male artist earns for his work, a woman earns a mere 10p.” That should come as no surprise to readers of this blog; I’ve written about it here, here and here, among other places.
Women artists earn less than their male counterparts; they are collected less by institutions, and—this is something that surprised me—if they sign their work, the value goes down.
Gender disparity is something I track as I watched the prizes being given in juried shows. So how did I fare as a juror at Adirondack Plein Air? I’d promised organizer Sandra Hildreth I’d set my own biases aside. With few exceptions I did not know who the work was by. (Although artists are told to not sign their work in advance, that’s difficult to enforce.)
Of the nine prizes I gave, overall, three were to women. The top three all went to men. Ouch. That’s hardly a large-enough sample to convict myself over, but it is cause for reflection.
I stress the formal elements of design over mood and evocativeness. (I scarcely know how one would judge those subjective values.) Perhaps that gave the edge to men. Does that mean that quantification, classification, and structure are somehow male thinking? That’s an argument that troglodytes on both sides of the culture wars might happily embrace. I reject it myself; I have the brain that God gave me, and he made me female.
This concept of a male-female divide is in some ways stronger than it was in the benighted 1950s and 1960s. Back then, nobody went on about some inner standard of male and female that our outer bodies might be in misalignment with. In fact, nobody spent a great deal of time analyzing our minds unless there was something starkly wrong with us.
I may not have been allowed to wear trousers to school until the seventh grade, but there was no pink-and-blue differentiation in kids’ clothing in my youth. Outside of school, we all wore the same mud-stained shorts and shirts. We had the same toys. We played sandlot baseball together.
At the same time, artists like Lois Dodd struggled mightily against a system that denigrated her work in comparison to her peers. While I wish I could stuff Barbie-culture back in the hole it came from, I never want to go back to the days of ignoring women artists.
That ship has started to turn. “Even though prices for work by female artists are starting from a far lower base, they are currently rising 29% faster than for art by men,” said the Guardian. “For canny investors who want a bargain and a higher return, it’s a no-brainer.”