A young woman who wants to be my art agent was disappointed when I told her that I didn’t want to sell my best paintings – at any price. Unfortunately (for both of us) those were the pieces her clients wanted to buy. I tried to explain that if I ever achieved any recognition as an artist, it would be through those paintings and therefore I was reluctant to part with them. The money, I have learned, quickly disappears towards the oil bill or the groceries and I would have nothing first rate to show should (by some miracle) somebody “important” turn up to look at my work.
The solution she came up with for the both of us to make some easy cash was to have me knock out paintings of saleable kitsch, artwork she could market through a large, high-end catalog company she represented (OTC: Over The Couch stuff). I tried to explain to her that while I could certainly do what she wanted, if I changed my style, even for a short while, I would have a devil of a time getting back into my own groove. I’ve been there; done that. Once you try to paint with a market in mind – even if you like what you’re doing – you can never get your own style back. Your work gets corrupted; once a hack, always a hack.
Many, many years ago, I decided to give children’s book illustration a try. Nothing shabby about that! I did a series of lovely (if I have to say so myself) drypoint etchings to illustrate a children’s folk tale, Clever Manka. It took me several months to do the etchings and put a mock book together. I then made an appointment with an editor at Harper & Row, a major publisher of children’s books and went to see her, pre-school child (no baby sitter available) in tow. The reception I received was very favorable and the editor asked me to send her more samples. Unfortunately, before I got around to it, a family crisis occurred (one of many) and it took a good year or two before I could get back to doing what she asked. By that time, I was no longer interested in children’s book illustration (my mood was too dark and serious) and I never followed up.
I soon discovered that all the months I spent doing children’s book illustrations had given me an acute case of “the cutes.” All the serious art I attempted to do afterward now looked “cute” - like children’s book illustration. It literally took me over a year to undo the damage, to get back to my own style and message. And so I learned a bitter lesson: it looks easy to move from commercial work to fine art and back, but it isn’t. In commercial art, everything you do is focused on client approval; in fine art, you only have to please yourself. It’s a totally different mindset.
Another case in point: I have a good friend who is a brilliant surrealist painter, fantastic technique, original imagery, but there’s not much of a market for such strong stuff. Lately, he has been churning out acres of large, abstract paintings with nice colors and heavy varnish for corporate offices. They sell like hotcakes as the saying goes. The irony is, he doesn’t need the money, but he was originally an advertising executive and his mind set is to give the public what it wants (to pay for.) I feel badly because his surrealist stuff was great and what he’s doing now is nice, but nothing special. There are a million “suburban painters” out there who can do what he is doing, as well or better. He’s thinking of going back to surrealism, but I’m not sure he can any more. It’s easy to lose your way.
So, the moral of the story is that if you want to be an artist, you have to let the chips fall where they may. If you’re lucky, the work you want to do coincides with the marketplace and you can make a living with your art, If not, take the consequences and wait on tables before you try to do something “that will sell.”