Try, fail and try again

I Got This, by Jane Chapin. For more information, see her website here.

How to get in a national art show:

  • Assemble all your best qualifying work in one room. Take the very best photos you can. Stare at them intently.
  • Pick your two favorites and eliminate them. 
  • Have a drink (I’m kidding—never drink when critiquing your own work)
Vendor, by Jane Chapin. For more information, see her website here.
Okay, so the truth is that there is no way to assure you get in. We all try to do our best work all the time and most of us are our own worst critics. At best, we can eliminate entering works with glaring compositional flaws, but there are a whole host of unknowns we cannot control.
Is your beautiful red barn the 358th red barn the juror looked at that day in a sea of 2500 paintings? We have all posted at least one thing on Facebook at some point that ticked someone off but the juror is probably not out to get you. Jurors do not set out to be subjective—they donate their time and painstakingly go through entries multiple times to get their ‘keepers’ and the last cuts are minute details. 
Lower Colonias, by Jane Chapin. For more information, see her website here.
How to be ok with rejection:
  • If you enter national shows, consider your entry fee a donation to the organization, rather than an expectation of a payoff.
  • Don’t take it personally. I am a signature member of 3 organizations and my batting average is about 50%. Some artists have much higher percentages and that’s ok too. 
  • It is not luck but perseverance and numbers. Sort of like the more you paint, the more truly good paintings you will have. The more you enter, the more chances that there is one that no one can deny you entry. 
  • Be happy for your friends who got in. Even if you feel yours was better, cheerfully congratulate them. At some point the shoe will be on the other foot. 
  • If you don’t agree with these competitions and don’t like the angst they produce, not doing them is an option. I know many fine painters who do not.
Shoeing Scout by Jane Chapin. For more information, see her website here.
It is truly astounding how may really good painters there are today. Among all levels there are paintings that are great and not so great. In museums there are paintings that would be rejected for shows. In famous artists’ books there are plein air sketches that would not get the artist into modern plein air competitions.
Relax, be kind to yourself and paint on. 
Jane Chapin’s work has been exhibited in Oil Painters of America, American Impressionist Society, Salon International, International Guild of Realism, American Women Artists and the Richard Schmid Fine Art Auction. Her plein air work has been accepted into juried shows in Easton, Callaway Gardens, Florida’s Forgotten Coast and San Diego Museum’s En Plein Air.  She has also served as an entry and awards juror for regional shows and as an instructor in both classroom and private venues. Her work can be seen here.

Rejected in favor of dreck

If you can buy something similar at TJ Maxx/Home Goods, it’s not really art.

Spring Mountain Lake, Carol L. Douglas

Earlier this year, a young artist asked me about a gallery she was approaching. I gave her what advice I could and wished her well. This week she sent me a note telling me they’d chosen to represent another artist instead. One could accept that with equanimity, but she also sent me some images of the other artist’s work. Frankly, it’s schmaltz. It’s no more complex or insightful than the ‘art’ they sell at TJ Maxx/Home Goods. I can see why my friend was upset.

What the other artist has is breezy, light patter on Instagram, and cute graphical pictures to match. Like shoes, these are easy to market on-line, but they have no depth. That doesn’t mean all online paintings have to be shallow. In fact, I can help my young artist friend develop her online presence. First, she’s got to get past her disappointment.
Small boat harbor, Carol L. Douglas
There are roughly 19,000 galleries in 124 countries and 3533 cities worldwide, according to the Global Art Gallery Report 2016. The vast majority of them are in the US, Britain and Germany, with the US being the far-and-away leader. That means that my correspondent has lots of options, but she may have to leave her town to find them.
The gallerist’s primary job is to cover his or her nut. Generally, galleries do this very badly. They are risky revenue generators, even in good economic times. 30% of them are running at a loss. Only 18% make a healthy profit margin of over 20%. This means there’s lots of turnover. Only 7% of galleries are 35 years old or older, and almost half have opened since 2000. (These are international figures; the US has a healthier gallery scene, but it’s certainly not easy even here.)
The gallerist who rejected my young friend’s work was thinking about what he could sell, not what’s insightful or brilliant. Or perhaps he’s not thinking acutely at all—remember that almost a third of galleries are losing money.
Keuka Lake Vineyard, Carol L. Douglas, courtesy Kelpie Gallery.
Rejection itself is a sign that the relationship wouldn’t go anywhere. There’s no future with a gallery you have to woo aggressively. The gallerist has to understand and appreciate your work. “I have a perspective worth sharing,” my friend said, and she’s right. But if the gallerist isn’t on board with her message, her work will languish on the walls, or, worse, in a storeroom.
One advantage of old age is that you’ve experienced rejection enough that it generally doesn’t hurt so keenly. You realize that the difference between success and failure is picking yourself back up and pounding your head against the door… again and again.
Sentinel trees, Carol L. Douglas
When I said my correspondent might have to leave her town to find better options, I was speaking of both geographically and online. The Art Gallery Report asked gallerists to rank their key competitors. They said:
  1. Other galleries
  2. Dealers
  3. Artists
  4. Auction houses
  5. Online platforms
Their heads are in the sand. Online selling is a far bigger threat to gallerists than artists’ occasional studio sales. It’s an area that my young friend can exploit, and I hope she does.

Finding your audience

Marketing art is about being as visible and transparent as you can tolerate.
Electric Glide, by Carol L. Douglas

“Any thoughts you ever have on who might be interested in what I do, either gallery-wise, or direct buyer-wise, I’m all ears,” a reader commented on a recent post about finding your audience. I know this painter, but she lives in Colorado and I don’t know her market. I do know she’s already taking the first step I’d recommend: applying to plein airevents to get herself noticed.

What does ‘marketing’ mean?
  • Getting your paintings seen by an audience;
  • Keeping that audience engaged with your process via regular communication;
  • Inviting them to your events.

Put that way, it’s not so daunting, is it? But expect to work half your workday at this marketing gig—first by studying how it works, and then by implementing what you’ve learned.
Dry Wash, by Carol L. Douglas
For example, although I’ve had an Instagram account for several years, I only recently figured out how it actually works. I learned that by listening to webinars and my friend Bobbi Heath.
An artist can’t have too many friends. Often, the sale is less about what you know than who you know.
Still, can you talk comfortably about specific pieces of your work? Your inspiration and process? This self-knowledge is critical to selling your own work. Here’s a test: ask your best friend about what it is that you do all day. If he or she can’t answer, then maybe you need to start talking about your process more.
Cape Elizabeth Cliffs, by Carol L. Douglas
Everyone has an audience, and it started with your family. Just as your social circle grew in concentric circles from them, so too does your audience start with close friends and family. Your friends on Facebook and your followers on Instagram are your first audience. You need to connect with them regularly about your art. From that, your audience will grow as naturally as your circle of friends did when you were a child.
Your posts in all media should be designed to show a ‘whole’ you—not just your finished paintings. Your studio, your town, your brushes, your gaffes all combine for a total picture of you as an artist. Be as transparent as you have the nerve to be.
Tricky Mary in a Pea Soup Fog, by Carol L. Douglas
And update your website, or make one if you don’t already have one. That’s your business-card to the Web, and it must be as beautiful and inviting as you can make it. It doesn’t have to be exhaustive. It should include a bio/CV, artist statement, images of your work, and contact information.
Only then are you ready to approach a bricks-and-mortar gallery, because the first thing they’re going to do is look up who you are on the Internet.
As for what galleries you should approach, that requires legwork. Make a habit of visiting galleries in your area to check out the work they sell. Get to know the gallerists. Approach only those that seem like a good fit. And don’t be afraid of rejection; there are many reasons galleries won’t take you that have nothing to do with your work.
Tom Sawyer’s Fence, by Carol L. Douglas
At the beginning, I said that my reader is already applying for plein air shows. They’re a great way to be seen by a wider audience. So too are art festivals and juried shows. Apply to as many as you can tolerate.
Here’s a final bit of advice from my pal Bruce McMillan: “I tell my students in my children’s book class that the way to deal with rejection when submitting a manuscript is to assume it’s going to be rejected. That way you’re never disappointed. And while it’s away, get the next place lined up that will reject it.”

Feeling rejected?

In the end, there’s an audience for nearly everything. The trick is finding it.
The Red Vineyard, 1888, Vincent van Gogh. It was sold to Anna Boch for 400 francs in 1890. Courtesy Pushkin Museum, Moscow.
“I like paintings with buildings in them,” a non-artist friend told me yesterday. “Scenes are beautiful, and I appreciate them, but if there’s a few cottages by the shore I can imagine the lives of the people who live in them forever. It’s more interesting over the long haul.”
I was driving at the time (with Bluetooth, of course) back from picking up paintings at What’s Nude in Boothbay Harbor. I try to send them two paintings every year. A naked person on the living room wall isn’t to everyone’s taste, but every once in a while, someone will express an interest in one and off it goes.
In the evening, someone else mailed me two images of really odd paintings. “My friend does some stra-a-a-a-nge art,” she said. I couldn’t disagree, and yet they were on their way to a juried show.
Ward in the Hospital in Arles, 1889, Vincent van Gogh, courtesy Oskar Reinhart Collection.
Recently, I wrotethat all art criticism is by nature subjective. That’s never truer than in a particular gallery or show. There, a single juror usually holds sway. There are also factors about which we’ll never know, like where we live, our subject matter, and the media in which we work… or if we’ve somehow offended the gallerist or organizer in the past.
It’s very easy to lose your nerve after a string of rejections, especially in the dead of winter when most show apps are made. Keep on persevering. One never knows what the outcome will be.
“A lot of what we sell is popular because it’s pretty and unchallenging,” says a fictional gallerist in a so-so novel I’m reading. “I do well out of those artists and that means I can keep stocking artists whose output is actually meaningful.”
Wouldn’t we all like to meet such a gallerist in real life! But the truth is that accessible, pretty, and unchallenging does sell most quickly.
The Round of the Prisoners (after Doré), 1890, Vincent van Gogh. Courtesy Pushkin Museum, Moscow.
‘I, for my part, know well enough that the future will always remain very difficult for me, and I am almost sure that in the future I shall never be what people call prosperous,’ Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo.
Legend has it that Van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime, to fellow artist Anna Boch. This is not true. Vincent sold several works, but his income from painting was never sufficient to support him.
“Nothing would help us to sell our canvases more than if they could gain general acceptance as decorations for middle-class houses. The way it used to be in Holland,” Theo van Goghwrote back.
The Church at Auvers, 1890, Vincent van Gogh. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
Theo was an influential art dealer in his own right, and was able to further the careers of Impressionists like Claude Monet and Edgar Degas. But championing his brother’s ‘strange’ artwork was beyond even him.
Of course, the great barrier was that Vincent was painting farther into the future than his peers. His work wasn’t accessible to the contemporary Parisian in a way that Monet’s and Degas’ were. He had an authentic voice, and it got in the way of his sales.
In the end, there’s an audience for nearly everything, but the great career dilemma for the painter is to find it.

Rejection

If you get into every show you apply to, you’re not reaching. If you don’t get into any, you need to reassess your process.
Jonathan Submarining is one of my favorite plein air paintings, because of the difficulty in capturing the sailing class on a windy day in Penobscot Bay.

We all know the feeling of not getting into a show we really wanted. It’s really disheartening, especially when you compare your work with that of the accepted painters. I recently discovered something almost as bad: when your friend doesn’t get into a show you were accepted into. I suspect it’s even worse from the friend’s side.

We all know we shouldn’t take it personally, but I don’t know anyone who can do that all the time. Of course we’re going to personalize rejection; that’s only human. But it helps to be businesslike about it. When a business’ bid is rejected, they do not sulk. They lay the groundwork to succeed the next time.
We long to understand what goes on behind the curtain, and sometimes our conclusions are flat-out wrong. A fellow artist recently commented about a show I’ve done since its inception, saying that I was ‘guaranteed a place for life.’ I know the organizers are committed to changing up the talent, and that show is anything but a sinecure. I sweat bullets every year.
Red Truck at Lumber Yard is another favorite that I don’t think translated well into a submission.
An invitational show I’ve done for many years has a ruthless process: they tot up sales and cull the bottom quarter of performers. That may seem heartless, but it does raise the bar.
When you apply to a show, you know the overt criteria; they’re spelled out for you. You don’t know the covert criteria, like demographics. Then there’s the question of style. You ought be able to see if you’re a good fit by looking at the judge’s own work, but that is no guarantee. No good juror picks only painters whose work looks like his or hers.
Dyce Head in the early morning light works as a painting, but are lighthouses a no-no with the cognoscenti? 
Then there is the question of collegiality. Yes, people are biased to like their friends. The best shows are juried at arm’s length, by a juror from another region. But that’s expensive. Sometimes it works for a small show to invite artists they know and like and who they know can sell.
We artists are terrible judges of our own work. I tend to like the paintings that were the greatest challenge or struggle to create. These are usually not the most aesthetically pleasing. The more anxious we are to ‘make an impression’ with our entries, the more our judgment is fouled. I’ve illustrated this post with four paintings that have been rejected by jurors.
There are times when we’re making radical changes to our technique. I’ve found that during those periods, I’m less likely to get into shows than when I’m coasting along doing what I know. Since growth is an important part of art, the last thing you should do is try to retard it. Instead, be patient with the temporary check on your career. It will resolve itself. I once took an entire year off from showing just because I didn’t understand the work I was creating. It was a great move.
Fish Beach is another painting I love but jurors haven’t..
It helps to have a friend you trust with whom you can discuss your submissions. If you keep track of what paintings you submit where, you’re sitting on your own data mine. Compare your successful applications to your failures and see if you can find a pattern. I’ll be interested to hear what you find.

Dealing with rejection

"Rocks at the American Yacht Club," 2013, by Carol L. Douglas

“Rocks at the American Yacht Club,” 2013, by Carol L. Douglas. This is a good example of a bad photo, but it’s all I’ve got.
A friend of mine and I were contemplating a show that neither of us got into. We’re both old and experienced, but this one particularly bothered us.
If you haven’t experienced rejection, you probably aren’t pushing your boundaries enough. There’s always a level of event just above your current one. They’re worth aspiring to. Participating in them is, as my friend noted, like going to school with bigger kids. It smartens you up.
It helps to be reasonable about where you are in your professional development. If you’ve never painted in a plein air event, it’s unlikely you’ll get into a large national event.
Jurying is subjective, illogical, and unfathomable, so don’t pin your hopes on any one event. None of us knows what goes on behind the curtain. There are often structural constraints that aren’t spelled out, like picking a certain number of participants from the local region, or places already held by prior year prize-winners.

Even braced, you’re eventually going to get one of those letters that stings.  Maybe the entrance fee was princely; maybe you really admire the juror; maybe you’re painting circles around some of the other people who got in. None of that matters. Keep your disappointment to yourself as much as it’s humanly possible to do.
"Mamaroneck, NY," by Carol L. Douglas

“Mamaroneck, NY,” by Carol L. Douglas
It’s possible to use rejection as a teaching tool. For example, I’ve been rather sloppy about how I’ve photographed paintings this season, since the pictures are often an afterthought, done in the shadow of my car moments before handing the work in. This is a wake-up call for me to put more effort into them, since they’re the only record I retain.
Time has shown me that, if I didn’t get into a show, there was something else I was supposed to be doing instead.  That turned out to be the case here. I was invited to paint at the American Yacht Club in Rye, NY on behalf of the Rye Arts Center on October 23. I love Rye, I love boats, and I’m looking forward to it.
But God doesn’t always drop another event into my calendar in an even swap. I figure that as long as I’m pushing myself to be a better artist, competing in the marketplace, and working hard, these things even out. And I always have fun in the process.

Rejection

Queensboro Bridge construction, 10X8, Carol L. Douglas

A friend got a rejection letter from an agent on whom she had pinned hopes. This is where her life as an artist begins, where she begins to look inside herself for approval and develops a strong sense of the value of her own voice.

Rejection either makes you or breaks you. Some of us walk away from the encounter so badly bruised that we stop putting our work in the public marketplace. Others get up and paint again.

The Dugs in Autumn, 12X9, Carol L. Douglas
Rejection is part of the artistic process. Last year, I encouraged my pal Tarryl to apply for a show that I thought was a slam-dunk. She was rejected. This year she encouraged me to apply for a show that she thought I would get in. I was rejected. This has nothing to do with either of our abilities or worth as people or inherent talent. It’s about the taste and style of the judges.
It’s paradoxically true that we can be rejected for being either too good or too bad; it’s easiest for critics to see and understand what has already been done, what is in the safe middle ground.
“When they organized their first exhibition [the Impressionists] all already mature artists who had been working for fifteen years or more… Dissatisfied they may have been, but they did not consider that they were as yet beyond the pale. Manet, in fact, still endeavored to show in the Salon, and was bitterly disappointed when he was rejected.” (Richard J. Boyle, American Impressionism)

Indiana sketchbook #1, 12X6, Carol L. Douglas
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.