Stop thinking like a wage slave

You have to be an entrepreneur if you want to succeed in the arts.

Tricky Mary in a Pea-Soup Fog, by Carol L. Douglas, available.

My parents were the children of immigrants and were raised in great poverty. My mom went on to be one of the first class of nurse-practitioners graduated by University of Buffalo. My father was a child psychologist. Mom worked at the local hospital for her whole career; my father moved around a little, but always within the state system. They aspired to stability. In mid-century America, a job meant a trade-off of loyalty for a good salary and pension. It wasn’t a bad system, as long as it worked. It created a stable community, albeit one where economic mobility was not particularly coveted.

I don’t remember any entrepreneurs among my parents’ friends. The adults around me worked in jobs or professions. Even highly skilled machinists—much in demand—didn’t hang out their own shingles. They went to work in factories, where they were paid very well.

Parrsboro at Dawn, by Carol L. Douglas, available.

In fact, my father was a talented photographer and painter. He had his own studio before he married, but he didn’t know how to build a business. He had no role model for self-employment, so he wisely went back to school and got what he and his peers called a ‘real job.’

That economic system is broken now. Even wage slaves must be entrepreneurial. Young people think of the corporate ladder more as a jungle gym, where they swing from place to place rather than climb vertically.

Blueberry Barrens, by Carol L. Douglas, available.

My goddaughter is also the child of immigrants, but her history is different. Her family escaped the Communist revolution when her father was a young child. They moved to Vietnam and took up the family trade of cooking. After the fall of Saigon, they were again refugees, ultimately washing up in America. They’ve run a small restaurant for decades.

My goddaughter Sandy has a master’s degree and is working on a second one. But when COVID-19 knocked her out of her job, she didn’t go on unemployment. Instead, she’s been cleaning houses. She knows how to use a crisis, so she’s charging the earth in exchange for the risk. In fact, she’s never been shy about telling others how much she’s worth.

After one of her graduations, we went to Chinatown. Her mother and aunt stood listening as she haggled over the price of luggage. Finally, they nodded and the deal was done. She’d just been handed a diploma from one of America’s most prestigious art schools, but—more importantly—she’d demonstrated that she could negotiate a business deal.

Downdraft snow, by Carol L. Douglas, available.

That’s a real skill, and it’s something we don’t come by naturally—it’s learned, as much as calculus or drawing are.

I talked with a talented friend last week. She’s stuck in a low-paying job although she has good writing, video and design chops. When I suggested that she market her own videos, she quickly demurred. Without knowing how to be entrepreneurial, she’ll never escape the soul-sucking, 9-to-5 job.

That’s the bottom line for an art career in modern America. Your success or failure depends, not primarily on your painting skills, or your ‘talent’, but on your ability to sell yourself. If you don’t have that, don’t just give up—learn. Be more like Sandy.

Why show your art?

Even if you have no interest in selling, you should still be showing.
More work than they bargained for, by Carol L. Douglas
For those painters who want to make sales, exhibitions are a no-brainer. Gone are the days (if they ever existed) when the world would beat a path to your door for a better mousetrap. If you want your work to be seen, it has to be where it can be found.
There are other artists who paint for love, not money. It’s still important for them to show their work.  Art is essentially a form of communication. That can be as personal as a private gift between two people, or as general as a landscape. A painting should say something. For that to be complete, it needs an audience.
Monhegan schoolhouse, by Carol L. Douglas
I first started showing when I’d built up an inventory of work and didn’t know what to do with it. They were modestly priced works. When they sold, they enabled me to buy more paint and create more paintings. I imagine the need for shelf space and materials has motivated many painters to go from amateur status to professional.
Every group show is in some way a competition. Your work stands next to others, so it can be judged as part of a group, on formal or intuitive standards. This makes you think about ways you can improve.
Fish Beach, by Carol L. Douglas
There is one pitfall in local shows, and that’s local groupthink. If you’re a Luministpainting in a community of Impressionists, you’re going to feel pressure to conform to the prevailing ethos. If you find yourself in this position, start showing outside your geographical pool; that’s a great way to find your own tribe.
Still, that’s the exception. Viewers often have incisive observations on our work. We ponder them and take them back to our studio. Over time and many shows, our body of work starts to take on aspects of dialogue, rather than being a strict monologue. (That’s also the great advantage of classes and workshops.)
Jonathan submarining, by Carol L. Douglas
Showing is a great way to build confidence. In my experience, the viewing public is overwhelmingly kind. Regularly participating in art shows helps you develop a sense of perspective about your own work. Yes, it’s important and wonderful, but it’s also part of a panoply of work being done by other artists. It’s great when you realize you have a place in this wonderful parade of images. That shatters ‘imposter syndrome’.
Many of my close friendships were developed at art shows. That’s important in a career where you spend lots of time working alone.
Everything I’ve said about real world exhibitions pertains equally to social media. Getting your work out there, and reacting and responding to other’s work is the goal. Art always looks best in person, but social media has a longer reach. If you don’t use Instagram and Facebook, you should start.

How to get into a gallery

It’s just like a job search.
Yes, gallery representation is an attainable goal.

“I guess I really don’t know how to get gallery representation,” an experienced artist told me. “I tried a couple times, unsuccessfully.” As with a job search, you have to try many times before you get there.

There are no shortcuts.
Make sure your website is up-to-date. It should include your newest work, dimensions, media, and, optionally, prices. A neat, easily-navigated portfolio of photographic images, including current curriculum vitae (CV), is good to have in reserve, but don’t plan on taking it around and sticking it in gallerists’ faces. Instead, introduce yourself, hand the gallerist your card, and follow up with an email.
Don’t assume you have to talk to the top dog. A good gallerist trusts his or her assistants’ judgment.
Do your research. If you’re mass-mailing enquiries, you’re doing it all wrong. At a minimum, you should have visited all the galleries in an area before you approach even one.
Don’t approach a top gallery if you’re an emerging artist. It’s a waste of time. Be sure you like the galleries you approach. While there are often vast differences in style, there are always commonalities, too. Visualize your work on their walls. Are you a good fit?
When you write, direct gallerists to an online portfolio—either your website or one you made especially for them. Always include a current curriculum vitae (CV). Ask the gallerist to review your work against their future needs. Talk about your experience and why you think you’re a good fit. And remember—there are lots of candidates out there. Rejection may have nothing to do with your skills; the gallery may simply be overloaded.
Doing this event in Camden Harbor started my relationship with Camden Falls Gallery. (Photo courtesy Howard Gallagher)
No stealth visits
When I’m scoping out galleries, I make it clear that I’m an artist, not a buyer. I don’t ask to show my work at that visit; I give them a card and follow up with an email if I’m interested.
Misrepresenting yourself is a terrible way to start a new relationship. Many of my best conversations with gallerists have been because I’m an artist.
Respect their time
Never stop to chat when they’re changing their show. They won’t appreciate the interruption. Likewise, don’t interrupt a potential sale, ever. If they say they review portfolios at a specific time, respect that.
Historic Fort Point, by Carol L. Douglas. This painting at another event started my relationship with the Kelpie Gallery.
Maintain your image on social media
You love Facebook; gallerists do too. Be professional, up-to-date, and informative, and don’t include information that will shoot you in the foot.
Reverse engineer resumes
Identify a few regional artists whose careers you admire. Their CVs are usually on their websites. You can track their progress from local shows to important galleries. This will give you ideas on what paths to follow.
A Little Bit of Everything, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard, long since sold.
Choose a smart path in
Almost every gallery invitation I’ve received has been the result of an event I did in that community. Gallery owners pay attention to them, especially when they organized the event. If the gallery you’re interested in hosts group shows, apply to them.
I (almost) never turn down an opportunity to show my work, but I know the difference between my local farm and a university gallery. Not every venue is a resume builder.
The studio visit
Should you be lucky enough to net a studio visit, be neat, clean and organized. This is your workspace, and it shouldn’t look like a party house or boudoir. Don’t expect miracles, and don’t try to push the gallerist into taking work he or she doesn’t like.
And, above all, be nice.

Simple Gifts

The world still has a place for exceptionalism; the young person’s first job is to recognize his own unique gifts. 
Full Stop, by Carol L. Douglas
I have a friend who has a warm, light, perfectly-feminine speaking voice. However, she sings with the basses in her church. There are women who have naturally deep voices; they’re contraltos. I express my skepticism that she is one. The true contralto voice is a matter of where the timbre and power lie, not what notes the untrained voice finds comfortable.
Recently, she spent a Sunday evening with her Amish neighbors, singing. People called out hymns and then were expected to lead their selections. “Croaking” was the word she used to describe her star turn. That, I tell her, is because she’s not singing in her true voice.
It’s a great metaphor for doing the wrong thing and expecting good results. As long as she sings in the bottom of her range, she’s going to sound like a strangled frog.
Little Giant, Carol L. Douglas, courtesy Camden Falls Gallery
We’re very blessed to live in the time and place we do. My mother, the daughter of immigrants, once said, “I never had time for self-actualization.” She wasn’t kidding. She worked like a dray-horse from her sixteenth birthday on. It’s no surprise that I was discouraged from going to art school. To children of the Depression, that seemed very flighty.
Young people often ask, “How did you become an artist?” I was one of those kids born with a pencil in my hand, but that wasn’t enough. I was painting in oils before I reached my teens (thanks to my father) but that wasn’t enough, either. I worked in other fields for several decades, drawing or painting in my few private moments. It wasn’t until my fourth kid was born that I had the courage to step into my calling.
Headlamps, Carol L. Douglas
It wasn’t my epiphany at all. My husband had a far clearer understanding of how I was “singing bass” when I’m a natural soprano. He pushed me in the direction of painting, and then supported me when I flitted off to New York City and the Art Students League to learn to do it properly.
Do I regret those years doing other work? Not hardly. For one thing, that’s how I learned the craft of writing. Working a day job also put me firmly on the side of the doers rather than the dreamers. That profoundly shaped my view of art.
American Eagle in Drydock, courtesy of Camden Falls Gallery.
Young people ask these questions because they’re struggling to figure out their own places in the world. They’re often trying to figure out how to make a living off the beaten path. I can only tell them my own story and then counsel them to dig down to their primary gifts—the ability to teach, to tell stories, to think clearly, to lead, to work with their hands, to serve, or to create. The world still has many places for unique and exceptional people; their problem is to understand their own gifts and how to use them in the service of others.
I’ve got one more workshop available this summer. Join me for Sea and Sky at Schoodic, August 5-10. We’re strictly limited to twelve, but there are still seats open.

Monday Morning Art School: How to throw a party for 200

The artist’s job is to give linear thinkers a respite from their own minds. That starts with your opening.

The artist dancing with her eldest child.

Great gallerists also know how to throw great parties. Regular openings and developing a circle of fans is part of their job. There’s no value in having all that work assembled in one place if nobody ever stops by to see it. Selling—whether it’s art or cars—requires a person to be likeable.

That’s true for the artist too. Art-making may be a solitary job, but the artist needs to be convivial to sell his or her own work. I’ve thrown more brawls for a hundred or more people than I can count. Actually, I’d far prefer to do that than to have you over for dinner, which terrifies me.

An opening done by gallerist Sue Leo at Davison Gallery, for my show God + Man. Photo courtesy 
Iván Ramos .

The invitation is the key

Whether you call it an ‘invitation’ or an ‘advertisement’, the way you announce your event is key. It tells your intended guests the tone of the event, and hints at what kind of good time they’ll have. Graphic design is ruthlessly trend-driven. Spend time on Pinterest and Etsy and pay particular attention to fonts. They’re as fashion-sensitive as shoes.
Hound your guests
You’ll find yourself repeating, “Are you coming to my party?” over and over for weeks. This is a good thing. They won’t be excited if you’re not excited. Scarcity marketing—as perfected by the old Studio 54 in New York—is a great way to pack the house, but it only works if you’ve already demonstrated that your parties are worth attending.

Sue Baines’ hors d’œuvres are not like those in any other gallery.

Play to your strengths

Sue Lewis Baines of the Kelpie Gallery is a wonderful cook, and the hors d’œuvre at her openings could make me rise from my deathbed. Howard Gallagher of Camden Falls Gallery knows how to assemble great bands for a dance party. I can bake. Know your strengths and capitalize on them.
Make a budget and stick to it
I saw the most wonderful fairyland floral arrangements at the Renaissance Minneapolis Hotel three weeks ago. I whipped out my phone and snapped several shots, and then set them aside. To change my decorating scheme at this late date would cost a small fortune. A budget set in stone is the only way to survive to throw another party.

A beer-themed opening of my students’ work at VB Brewery in Fairport, NY.

Work way in advance

Procrastination is the worst possible habit for the host or hostess of a party. I have been working on this upcoming one for months.
Be surprising
Good taste is so highly overrated. What’s important is that people laugh and have a good time. If they can’t figure out how ceramic dogs, moose, and woodland animals go together, they might be overthinking this. The artist’s job, after all, is to give linear thinkers a respite from their own minds.
Ask for help
Nobody can throw a party for 200 without help, so when someone offers to help, smile and accept gracefully. Hire out what you can.
And on that note, I’m shuffling off to Buffalo for my third daughter’s wedding. It’s about time for you to consider your summer workshop plans. Join me on the American Eagle, at Acadia National Park, or at Genesee Valley this summer.

Unhappy in your art career?

Envy, covetousness, and false expectations are all ways to guarantee a rotten time as an artist.
Dyce Head in the early morning light, Carol L. Douglas

I haven’t been able to paint for weeks. It seems as if my peers have made fantastic strides in that time. I look at their work on Instagram and Facebook and it’s downright depressing to see the clarity, color, and compositions they’ve achieved while I’m lying on the couch with my feet elevated.

I’m competitive; I’ll admit it. It’s not a good trait. I have a dear friend who is capable of shrugging off the worst jurying news. She isn’t focused on the competition, but on her own development as an artist. If I ever grow up, I’d like to be just like her.
As Ecclesiastes reminds us, “all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.” Envy leads to anger and covetousness, but it also burns up the envier. Being competitive is a rush when it’s all going our way, but more often, it just makes us miserable.
Lonely Lighthouse (Parrsboro, NS), Carol L. Douglas
Another great way to kill your joy in painting is to tailor your work too closely to a niche a gallerist has identified for you. Yes, lighthouses sell on the coast of Maine, and they’re fascinating to paint. Do you want to spend all your days churning out pictures of them?
Fitting work to the marketplace is wise. Fitting it to anyone else’s expectations is very foolish. What will sell is not just a matter of content; it’s a combination of that and your approach to the content.
If you’re a young person, you probably seek advice from your parents. Neither of mine were entrepreneurs. Their advice, while grounded in love, was the product of their own experiences.
Cape Spear Road (Newfoundland), Carol L. Douglas. That’s not one, but two, lighthouses.
Even though my father taught me to paint, my parents were hardly enthusiastic about an art career for one of their children. I remember my first complete bust of a show. I’d sold nothing and a pastel fell off the wall, damaging the frame. “Well, you gave it a good try,” my mom sighed, thinking I’d get over the idea of a career in the arts.
This isn’t because families are not supportive; it’s because they believe the lie that it is impossible to prosper in the arts. To a degree, they’re right; it’s a lot easier to make a living as a computer programmer. But the arts are not a one-way ticket to poverty, either.
Owls Head Light, Carol L. Douglas
Still, once you decide to follow a career in the arts, you’ve made the decision that money isn’t your paramount value. Why, then, would you let money dictate every small decision you make thereafter? The marketplace is too intelligent to reward this, anyway. Trying to produce work that looks just like someone else’s is a guaranteed path to insignificance.

Judging watercolor sketchbooks and paintings

Grey is a beautiful color, but it doesn’t stand out in a crowd. Neither does weak design.
Jonathan Submarining is one of my all-time favorite paintings, but it didn’t impress jurors overmuch.

I’ve promised several readers I’d get back to them about my sketchbook choice for my Age of Sailworkshop. I’m supplying the materials, so they must be good. I wanted to talk to Mary Byrom before I reported back. She teaches a sketchbook class in York, ME. Our technique is not the same; she works mainly in pen-and-wash; I prefer straight-up watercolor. But there’s overlap, especially when the problem is keeping supplies contained for travel.

We agreed that the top sketchbook we’d tried was Strathmore’s Series 400 watercolor journals. While I prefer ring bindings, this notebook’s soft backing made it possible to hold back pages with clips. I’m a very wet watercolor painter, so if I can use it, nobody will have a problem.
And the winner is, the Strathmore 400 series watercolor journal and a clip.
That was the last fifteen minutes of a two-hour phone call. Most of it was spent on that eternal question: how to choose the best paintings to submit for jurying. My strategy has always been to put my top work from the prior year into a folder and look at it and whine.
I’m drawn to the paintings in which I perceive a struggle. An example is Jonathan Submarining,which I painted at Castine Plein Air. This is one of my personal favorites. Poppy Balser and I had our feet in Penobscot Bay. The kids in their sailing class were rampaging about in a stiff wind. It was hard work to be accurate while capturing their excitement. Apparently, jurors did not share my enthusiasm. I didn’t get into many shows for which I used it.
Lobster Pound at Tenants Harbor is well-drafted and strong, but I don’t think its grey tones will work for jurying. (Courtesy the Kelpie Gallery)
All of us have emotional connection with our work. It distorts how we see things. To overcome this, I traded the final-pick task with Bobbi Heath. She reviews my submissions; I review hers.
Mary Byrom and I came up with another strategy. Next year, I’ll create a folder containing my own best picks alongside paintings by artists with whom I will be competing to get in. (If you don’t know who these people are, you haven’t done your homework.) I did a snap search after our conversation. It was sobering.
Fish Beach, by Carol L. Douglas.
It’s all about design and composition, which is why value sketches are such a necessary step in plein air. Aline Ordman said that a painting must compel at 300 feet, 30 feet and 3 feet. The 300-feet test is the same as the thumbnail-on-the-screen test. Depending on the popularity of the show to which you’re applying, the jurors may be looking at thousands of the little buggers. If your painting doesn’t stand out as a thumbnail, it’s not going to compel at any size.
Color matters, too. Grey just slumps back into my monitor. There are some paintings in my folder that are strong, but I won’t be using them for future submissions. Nor will I design a composition around neutrals for an auction-based event, for the same reason. Lovely grey tones sell just fine; they just don’t stand out in the maelstrom.
It’s about time for you to consider your summer workshop plans. Join me on the American Eagle, at Acadia National Park, at Rye Art Center, or at Genesee Valley this summer.

The hardest working women in show business

To the ramparts, woman! The future of women artists rests in part with you!

My first event this spring is Santa Fe Plein Air Fiesta, so I’m getting into a New Mexico kind of mood. This pasture sketch is from my last trip there.
Last night I had a brief chat with my pal Mary Byrom. I want to go down to draw in Strawbery Banke in Portsmouth, NH. Strawbery Banke is unlike other living history museums in that it is a real neighborhood of real houses, restored where they originally stood. It dates back to 1630, when Captain Walter Neale chose the area to build a settlement. It was saved from the wrecking ball of 1950s urban renewal by historic preservationists and opened as a museum in 1965. It has unadorned simplicity and solid shapes that make you itch to draw.
Mary lives and works in southern Maine, so Portsmouth is her stomping ground. She recently did some delightful pen-and-wash sketches of Strawbery Banke. When she put them on Facebook, I asked her if she’d be game to join me. “I have to wait for this foot to heal,” I said.
Last night she texted to see how I was doing. I’m off to Damariscotta this morning to have the stitches removed and the foot released from its bandages. As of now I can’t do any significant walking. I don’t know what the doctor is going to tell me, or whether I’m going to have the other foot operated on immediately. It’s frustrating to watch my friend doing such lovely work from the vantage point of my couch. I’m heartily sick of my couch.
The Rio Grande in New Mexico, by Carol L. Douglas
Mary told me she’s teaching three classes right now. I whistled in admiration. The last time I did that was in 2008. I was ten years younger then.
That doesn’t sound so hard, but it is really a lot of work for the solo practitioner, who must advertise, prep, teach and clean up on her own. Every hour spent teaching means at least an hour of preparation.
Meanwhile, Mary’s been out doing small pen-and-wash sketches all winter. They grow steadily more wonderful. All of which points out an essential principle of painting: if you want to improve, you have to keep doing it. That’s true for beginners and it’s equally true for old pros like Mary.
Study at Ghost Ranch, by Carol L. Douglas
Bobbi Heath and Poppy Balser are two other women artists I’m tight with. I know something about their day-to-day life. Neither of them is resting on their laurels, either. Both juggle the day-to-day business of an art career with the day-to-day business of living, while simultaneously driving themselves to improve and broaden their skills.
I’ve written hereherehereherehere (and probably elsewhere as well) about the fabulous misogyny of the art world. If that ship is righted—and it will be—it will be because women artists like Mary, Poppy, and Bobbi have worked so long and so hard to produce work. Their tireless efforts will open the door for younger women artists to be taken seriously right out of the gate.
Around the Bend, by Carol L. Douglas. New Mexico is surprisingly green in April.
Meanwhile, I’m trapped on the couch with a damn dicky foot. I realize it’s only been two weeks, but it feels like an eternity since I last had a brush in my hand. To the ramparts, Carol! The future rests with you!
It’s about time for you to consider your summer workshop plans. Join me on the American Eagle, at Acadia National Park, at Rye Art Center, or at Genesee Valley this summer.

A strategic plan for the artist

Planning isn’t the artist’s strongest skill. Here’s a step-by-step model you can use.

Winter lambing, by Carol L. Douglas. When I stray from my narrow focus, it’s for my own purposes and intentional.
My husband’s work is incremental. His current project has a three-year timeline. The members of his team have a clear idea of the end product. Each person disciplines him- or herself to finishing their bits each week. Planning has to be part of their process, or the end result would be chaos.
Artists work alone and usually finish a piece in a few hours, days or weeks. Then we move on to the next piece. Our planning is limited, and many of us resist it. “I’m a free spirit,” we tell ourselves.
Yesterday’s posttouched a chord. I messaged with artists from Mobile to Maine about how to write a strategic plan.

Apple tree swing, by Carol L. Douglas. One of my goals is to limit how many plein air events I do.

Here are the steps:

  • Find yourself someone smarter than you to work with. Lots of artists have business backgrounds; I don’t. Ask that person questions. Ask gallerists for advice. And don’t forget your spouse. After you, she/he is the biggest stakeholder in your process.
  • Identify what you want to make and sell. In my case, that’s landscape paintings, workshops, and a weekly class.
  • Identify marketing channels, including cost-free publicity. Social media marketing is so fluid that what works today will certainly notbe effective five years down the road, so be prepared to revisit this question regularly.
  • Julie Richardsuggests that you do a SWOT analysis. I didn’t, but I think it’s a good idea. That means you identify your:
  • My Acadia workshop is important to me both personally and professionally.
  • Many artists work other jobs to support themselves (including child care and homemaking). They need to figure out how many hours a week they can honestly give their art careers. Other artists are at retirement age or have retired spouses. You’ll be frustrated if you don’t face the limitation of time honestly.
  • Who are your target clients? Bobbi Heath and I drew up profiles of our clients based on our sales experience. We each realized we have two separate client bases, one for teaching and one for painting.
  • What are your objectives? Be realistic. When I first did this exercise with Jane Bartlettmany ago, I said I wanted to be earning $10,000 a year. (Money was a lot cheaper back then.) That seemed modest compared to what I was earning as a designer. I failed to make a fundamental calculation. At the price points I’d set for my work, I couldn’t possibly produce enough paintings to hit that goal. I was selling well enough, but still coming up broke.

    The answer to that, by the way, was not to raise my prices to an unrealistic level. It was just to ride through those years. Knowing they were coming would have helped my financial planning, though.

  • From your objectives, set some concrete goals. Commit to them. Most of my working week is spent working toward them. They keep me focused.
  • How are you going to make those goals a reality? By setting some action items. These may include:
    • A calendar of show applications with the dates firmly inked into your personal calendar;
    • An advertising schedule;
    • A work schedule as in, “I’m going to finish six large studio paintings by May.”
    • A budget—I realize that you’d like this budget to be zero, but that’s not practical. It costs money to make art and it costs money to advertise.
  • Write it down. It doesn’t need to be complicated; my current one is barely a page long.
  • Create accountability. I use Bobbi Heath’s system for managing multiple projects, but you might need an accountability partner. Make a system and use it.
  • Go back and look at the plan on a regular basis.
Give yourself room to be flexible. My watercolor workshop on the American Eagle is a new thing.

Does this mean you can’t be flexible? No. If you see an opportunity, grab it—as long as it doesn’t take you totally off track. if it does, ask yourself if your current plan is really your best plan, or does it need revision?

Instagram, the internet, and the painter

Instagram is changing how buyers respond. Should it also change how artists paint?

Hashtag #pleinair. By the time you read this, the top nine will be something different.

I haven’t painted in square format in a long time. The stark symmetry of the square can be lovely, but it can also be static. Recently, however, one of my daughters suggested that I start up again. “You should try painting for Instagram,” she said.

Instagram images started at 612px by 612px but have grown to 1080px by 1080px. (On your laptop or tablet, the images are scaled back down to 612px.) You can nab a few more pixels by posting portrait-format images. This made it easier for marketers to cross-post to Facebook. As someone who uses Facebook/Instagram marketing, I appreciate that.
While 1080px is incredible resolution from a wee little phone app, it’s not going to reproduce the subtleties of a masterpiece like Frederic Church’s Heart of the Andes. It skews art to the graphic-design side. What’s important isn’t how the work reads on a wall; what’s important is what it looks like on a phone. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it does tend to leave subtler painting back at the Met.
Hashtag #landscape is overwhelmingly photographic and mystical.
The Instagram artist’s goal is to end up where newspapermen used to call “above the fold,” meaning on the upper half of the front page. That translates to being among the top images in a wildly popular category like #art. You’re not going to get there without great images. But you also need to discipline yourself to act like a trained monkey at times, to do things like randomly “like” posts by your followers, over and over and over.
The artist/gallerist has to wrap his mind around the fact that Instagram isn’t a way to flog paintings, it’s a medium in itself. It favors the bold and simple. Composition and color are key. Instagram users like video. And they aren’t librarians: even in a category like #pleinair, the top posts don’t necessarily have anything to do with painting.
Hashtag #artist. Is that a Vampire Facial in the middle?
Instagram flows both ways, of course. There are artists whose work is about the interaction of people and technology, like Jeanette Hayes. There are many more of us who’ve integrated Instagram and Google into our reference material. That makes the search engine roughly analogous to the camera in the 20th century. Instead of creating our own reference images, modern artists appropriate them from others. Yeah, I know that’s illegal and unethical, but appropriation is one of the major movements in modern art.
Then there’s the issue of what’s acceptable. “There is also a notorious censorship issue on the app that prevents real artistic freedom,” said Instagram darling Brad Phillips. “Sure, the official stance is that you can post pretty much whatever you want but sexual images (ones that do not violate Instagram’s terms around nudity) are often flagged and deleted.” That predates Instagram, of course.
Hashtag #art. If they print it, it must be true.
All this is puts great pressure on the artist, particularly one trained in the 20th century, when there were very different ideals about craftsmanship and the meaning of art. I’m ambivalent about Instagram, but I ought to get past that. Should I change how I paint? I’m not sure I want to. Should I change how I photograph and present my work? Absolutely.