Friday, April 17, 2015

Post #84: Pricing the Priceless

oil on canvas 25"x34 2/3"

I’m one of the least competent people I know about the’ business’ of art.  I tend to think of art as a “calling,” a vow of poverty one takes when joining a religious order. I think that any artist who works with sales in mind is corrupted whether they realize it or not. Of course there are plenty of artists whose work has lots of sales appeal without even trying. They’re lucky; they don’t need to compromise. Unfortunately, I’m not one of them.

The hardest part for me is that when I do find a buyer and they ask me how much I want for my work, I begin to stammer, don’t have a clue. Uh! What do you want to give me? That, cleverly, takes the onus of a business transaction off me. Most of the time, my prospective purchaser doesn’t fall for the ploy; he or she hands the ball right back to me. I need to give them a number.

oil on canvas 26"x35 1/2"
Several years ago, a friend came to my studio, pointed to a pair of large paintings (a diptych) I had just completed and announced: “I want to buy them.” I panicked. a) I didn’t know if I wanted to sell them (too new) and b) as usual, I had no idea what to charge. And so I vacillated; hoping she would  change her mind. First, I wanted to see how they looked in her New York apartment. I offered to roll the canvases up and ship them to her so she could pin them on the wall and decide whether she really wanted them or not. I figured they would never go with the more traditional (scenes of Venice and the Seine) paintings she owned and she would send them back, saving me the problem of having to come up with a price. When they arrived at her apartment, I came into the City and we tried the work out in various rooms. Surprisingly, they looked great; even managed to look comfortable with her other paintings. Then came the dreaded moment; what did I want for them? I had just completed the pair and had not had time to decide if I really like them, so the asking price in my head was fairly low. (I never price paintings based on what I think the buyer can pay.)  I struck a deal: I would write down what I wanted on a piece of paper and she would put down what she wanted to pay. We would split the difference. As I anticipated, she got a “bargain” and I got more than I expected. It was a win for both of us. The work (expensively framed) looks great in her living room.

Another way I get around having to price paintings is to give them to my friends on “Long-term Loan,” Better over someone’s fireplace than in my attic, I always figure. So far, I haven’t done too well with that ploy; in fact, possession being 9/10s of the law, I rarely get the painting back. The borrowers move away (far away) or die (the heirs don’t know me from a hole in the wall.) One of my favorite paintings got taken out of an apartment when the property was repossessed for non-payment of rent. The “friend” who did this to me is perplexed as to why I am upset when he’s perfectly willing to borrow something else to replace it. No thanks

oil on canvas 26"x36"
I decided to ask my artist friends how they priced their work and their replies varied. Some based the number on the amount of work and time they had put into the piece. Others, on what they thought someone would pay. A few said that people (mostly rich ignoramuses) thought that the more they paid, the better the work. Other factors enter in. If the art is sold through a gallery, that triples the price but not what the artist gets.  Some buyers like to “bargain,” so with them you have to start higher so they can think they got a deal. It’s like haggling at a bazaar.

And then there are people like me who don’t like to sell their work. It’s not that we can’t use the money (I certainly could).
My reasoning goes as follows:
As an unknown female (Strike 1) of advanced years (Strike 2), living in the suburbs (Strike 3), my work has very little value in the art market. In order for it to be worth anything, I need a “reputation” and I’m never going to get one if my best work is gone – sold or strayed. And don’t say I can always borrow it back for a show. Practically every time work leaves my house, it disappears for good. My artist son tells me Noguchi, the sculptor, used to hide anything he really liked and create a copy to sell. The buyer, never having seen the original, was happy with what he got. He told me this story during a discussion about my recent, more “saleable” work, poetic scenes from my daughter’s New York City windows. No raunchy women with their butts exposed, only rooftop water towers painted in lovely, muted colors against a cloud-filled sky. So far, everyone who has seen them wants to buy one. Maybe I should make prints on canvas. Everyone tells me giclee prints on canvas are now almost indistinguishable from the original.

oil on canvas 25 1/2"x35 1/2"

I envy artists who can treat their work as a standard business transaction (x number of hours labor, cost of materials etc and then factor in % profit.)  The problem is, it doesn’t work for most artists. The price of a work of art has too many variables and that’s why we go to art dealers who know the market and  how the game is played. There’s a saying in the art world that two people are needed to make a work of art: the person who creates it and the person who takes it away from him.

Most artists I know don’t need to sell their work to survive, though they are too serious and too competent to be considered hobbyists. They would like to make at least enough money to cover their expenses but you won’t find them homeless if they don’t. In a way, they are fortunate; they have the latitude to do what they want without worrying about buyers. On the other hand, I know artists (the proverbial garret dwellers) who survive below the poverty level. The problem is that even a garret nowadays costs a small fortune and it gets harder and harder to suffer for one’s art.

Friday, April 10, 2015


In Post #82, I asked my readers to let me know what topics were of interest to them. Most responded that I should keep doing what I was doing; they just seemed to enjoy my jaundiced view of The Artist’s Life in Fairfield County.

But my sculptor son, Ned, had a specific request. He wanted me to elaborate on something I had taught him when he was still in high school. He remembered my saying that a work of art should flow, move the eye around the canvas. The artist needed to create a visual path for the viewer, whether through line, shape or color. He said this was a valuable piece of information I had given him that he had never heard from any of his other teachers. He was thinking about it a lot lately, relating it to the way the body functioned. A living entity needs to “flow,” just like a successful painting. You could call it “chi,” “meridians” “circulation” or “chakras”; the Principles of Design I taught him all those years ago were, as Ned observed, intimately connected to his life.

I don’t know if they still teach these concepts in art school, but they were right up there with drawing, painting and art history when I studied art. I remember spending countless days moving pieces of colored paper around a page, trying to illustrate principles such Balance, Center of Interest, Rhythm, Unity and of course, Eye Movement, There were no “right answers,” no “correct” arrangements, just an intuitive sense that the universe was in order and everything was placed exactly where it belonged. The course I took: Introduction to Two Dimensional Design, probably came from the ideas of the early 20th century Russian Constructivists, Kasimir Malevich and El Lissitsky 

But back to Ned’s observation that the Principles of Design manifest themselves in the way our body functions. For example, the need for a “Center of Interest,” a starting point that dominates everything might represent the heart. “Balance” is not just a physical phenomenon that keeps us upright, but is important in our emotional life as well. “Flow” or “Movement.” “Repetition”, “Variety”, “Unity” are human truisms that exist both in life and art.

In order to demonstrate to my classes how the Principles of Design worked, I would project a slide onto the blackboard, usually an accepted masterpiece like the Mona Lisa or Brueghel’s “Wedding Dance”. Then, with chalk, I would outline the shapes, show how they interact and also how the smallest change was all it took to spoil the perfection of the art. I would often use the analogy of a seesaw and the delicate balance that enables it to function – and how easy it is to lose this balance . 

Meanwhile, all you artists, follow the Principles of Design! If you’re interested, there’s lots of literature on the subject. The Principles apply to everything that ails you: your body, your life and your art!

P.S. The images in this post were all created by the overhead projector.