What everyone knows

Toy Reindeer with double rainbow, oil on archival canvasboard, 6X8, $435 framed.

At the end of her senior year in high school, my young painting student told me that she wanted to go to college. “But you apply to colleges at the end of your junior year,” I exclaimed. She didn’t know. Somehow, she missed “what everyone knows.”

I watched this play out again this week as my goddaughter’s family sold the restaurant they’ve owned and run for decades. They don’t speak much English, and they have no experience selling real estate. It’s been painful.

Santa Claus, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435 framed.

Order of operations

In painting, these “everyone knows” assumptions most often appear in the way paint is applied. There are specific protocols for applying watercolor and oil that have remained unchanged for centuries. Yes, there are exceptions, and people who dabble with other techniques.

Most recently that’s been with alkyd media challenging the ‘fat over lean’ rule in oils. In general, those experiments haven’t gone well. Let the horrible condition of Albert Pinkham Ryder and Ralph Blakelock paintings be a cautionary lesson.

Learning these basic protocols makes painting faster, easier and less fraught, but too many students pick them up by osmosis. That’s why a short course in basic painting technique, such as that taught by my pal Bobbi Heath, is so helpful. The true beginner can’t muck around thinking about more complex questions of composition or color temperature when he can’t even get the paint down on the canvas without making mush.

Toy Monkey and Candy, oil on archival canvasboard, $435 framed.

Our own bad assumptions

It’s hunting season here. I wouldn’t stake my life on a hunter’s judgment, so I advertise my presence by wearing blaze orange when I’m in the woods. (If I’m shot, that hunter is also going to have to explain why he thought a deer was singing “I want a hippopotamus for Christmas.”)

“No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public,” H.L. Mencken may or may not have said. That’s rude, but substitute ‘attention’ for ‘intelligence’ and you get to the nub of the matter. We assume others know all about our art. That’s because we’re all far more important to ourselves than we are to the general public. Most of the time, other people are not thinking about us.

If you want people to see and interact with your ideas, you must model Thomas Edison and constantly, repeatedly, get your stuff out there for them to see. You must wear blaze orange in the public arena.

Most artists shy away from that, but what’s the point of communicating through painting if nobody is looking at what you’ve made?

Happy New Year, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435 framed.

A reminder

I hope you are cheerfully plugging away with your holiday shopping. Here’s a reminder about my holiday gift guides:

Holiday Gifts for the Budding Artist (including kids)

Holiday Gifts for Serious Artists (including you)

Have yourself a merry little workshop—because selected workshops are on sale this month, and won’t be after January 1.

And, of course, paintings are a wonderful surprise for the special person on your list. Quality original art is one of the few gifts that doesn’t depreciate no matter how much you enjoy it.

Am I part of the problem?

Beauchamp Point in Autumn, oil on canvasboard, available.

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.

Autumn farm, evening blues, oil on canvasboard, $1449 framed.

Meanwhile, in blind tests, viewers can’t tell the gender of painters by the work alone. My pal Chrissy Pahucki was so taken by that question that she replicated the blind study using plein air paintings by artists she knew. Her results came in about the same as the original study; i.e., the same as guessing.

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.

Blueberry Barrens, Clary Hill, 24X36, oil on canvas, $3985.

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.

Clary Hill Blueberry Barrens, approx. 24X36, watercolor on Yupo, available

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.”