Those Pesky Things You Don’t Want To Hear But Should…



Each week I receive queries and photographs of paintings outlining problems and asking for answers.  That is partly what I do. Try and help people find answers to their painting problems.


In a field as complex and complicated as the visual arts, one must expect there to be endless problems, questions and alternatives to what one does. That comes with the territory. The thing that intrigues me is that in fifteen years of being a kind of  ‘Artist’s Agony Aunt’  90% of the questions sent to me could be answered either by the artist themselves or the solution found in their Artists Handbook. This every artist should have as their arts bible and keep next to them at easy reach.


Since I started writing for ‘The South African Artist’ magazine I have mentioned Artists Hand-books on numerous occasions and given examples and where and how they may be obtained but I still find many people/artists who have not heeded the message.


You will never find a garage mechanic without a workshop manual, and if you look at pictures of lawyers in their offices they have bookcases of books and documents to which they can refer. Why is it then that prospective artists feel they can fly blind? It really does make such a difference if you know what you are doing.  One may also wonder at artists so proudly announcing that they are self-taught as if that is some kind of honour or trophy. Get all the help you can from more experienced people. Can you imagine the reaction if doctors or scientists were to announce that they are self-taught with great glee. The response would be horror and consternation.


Don’t get me wrong. I am more than happy to answer questions but it is so much better for painters to have the answers to problems at their fingertips and in reading such journals you go into painting so much better prepared. I have six or seven really good handbooks and they are my bibles and I’m constantly digging into them. Each time I do delve I discover not one thing, but a host of things that I didn’t know before. Knowing things gives one a greater sense of confidence and it’s nice to be in a position where you know what you are talking about and can help others too.


Some people who have purchased the handbooks I so often refer to, have written to me and told me that they are amazed at the difference it has made to their painting and their understanding of art.


When purchasing art books my policy has always been to buy the very best I can find. Yes they are expensive but you can bet your bottom dollar that the producers of cheap art books have employed the cheapest artists to keep the prices down, and these volumes are generally of little real value if you want to climb that ladder of success and get ahead.


The Internet


I shouldn’t imagine there are many artists who do not have access to the internet now-a-days and judging by the amount of time some appear to spend on Facebook there seems to be no shortage of time available. I wonder how much time some of the artists spend on the net actually looking up answers to their problems. I’ve been really amazed at what one can find by Googling or surfing if you prefer. For the first time in history artists have this whole world of information literally at their fingertips, but so many abuse this treasure rather than embrace it – why? One can now access the great art galleries and museums of the world and take virtual tours to see the greatest artworks ever produced. Anyone can now see what the masters created and even what they looked like. One can see their studios too, read their thoughts and find how they worked;  but so many painters spend all their time posturing or posting their own work to Facebook, not looking to learn but to find acceptance and adulation from people who at best offer only an essentially empty or emotional response. So much of that time could be used for seeking (and finding) valuable information. Many or most of our very best artists (and galleries) have websites that are easily accessed, and many of those same leading artists are more than happy to talk to people if the people only make the effort to write to them. You may be surprised what you can learn from them. Give it a try!


It is also not a bad idea to ‘look’ at galleries and see what they are doing and who and what they are selling. The best way to get a gallery interested in you and your work is by communicating with them. You may find what you are creating or producing is what they are looking for, or they may be able to give you tips and advice on how you can get your work into galleries. As was mentioned in the immediate past SA Artist magazine (what do gallery owners expect from artists? – page 11), the worst thing you can do is arrive unannounced at a gallery with an arm full of paintings. That is possibly the best way to be shown the door. Always make an appointment. Talk to them and possibly send them one or two pictures of your paintings (Not screeds!) via e-mail and if you know what they want and they invite you to see them, you have taken a big step in the right direction.




For as long as art has existed there has been critical analysis of art work that is put into the public domain. Until recently artists accepted this and used criticism as a tool to gauge their progress or acceptance. Granted there were some pretty nasty, and in some cases destructive critics, but there were far more good and constructive people who could teach aspiring artists, or those who had lost the plot, a thing or two. A good critique could do wonders for your ego and public standing and a harsh one could give you a rude wake-up call if you were on a slippery slope. It did keep artists on their toes.


Critics were considered necessary throughout all the art forms, dance, music, literature as well as the visual arts. Recently things seem to have changed and what I see is that aspiring artists no longer feel that their work should be analysed or criticised. This is strange for people who by the nature of their work need to expose what they do to public scrutiny. There are few people who, while looking at art, do not have an opinion on that which they are looking at. In many cases these people are largely unenlightened (The old “I don’t know much about Art but I know what I like” applies) so there is not much to be learned from their opinions as it is in the main emotional and a knee–jerk reaction to the work, and not an analytical one. The artist needs to differentiate between knowledgeable criticism and mere opinion.


Many of our current critics and the adjudicators who are accepted by artists and art groups/ societies are now in the main what I refer to as ‘marshmallow critics and judges’ Their analysis is always sweet and sugary and from which the artist only hears what they want to hear. It does them little good other than a short lived feel-good moment. A little honest advice can open new possibilities to explore and would be far more valuable than empty flattery.


This in itself is a huge subject requiring a full article and I’m hoping that our editors will soon devote some space to looking at knowledgeable, well- informed and authoritative critics and what we can gain or lose by having them back.


In the meantime the South African Artist magazine has a facility where artists can send in pictures of their paintings and established artists will give suggestions of where the artists can improve or have gone wrong, or even in cases get the thumbs up where the artist is on the right track.


We welcome your letters and your thoughts on the matters we discuss and present to you, so please let us hear from you.


Till next time…


Written: June / July 2013

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