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The hot news on social media earlier this year was that scientists had modified spinach to send an email when their roots detect nitroaromatics in groundwater.
Spinach sends email is a cute headline, so I wrote the following:
Oh good. Someone else to email me saying their son/daughter/niece/nephew is a Really Good Artist and at least as good as every other artist and they can paint basically every style and how do I know it won’t sell if I won’t even give it a go?
Reader, I hope you’re sitting comfortably, because I’m beginning whether you like it or not.
Picture the scene. It might be a physical approach, it might be an email or a direct message. The person approaching you is being highly solicitous, complimentary about your gallery, about the artists that you represent. They respect you, you seem like a great person to work with, and oh boy have they got an artist to show you.
This might be the first time they’ve had this conversation, but dealers have had it a million times before. Our art dealer is Lieutenant Columbo: they do this week in, week out, and whatever gambit the hapless murderer is about to bust out for their freshman I-do-murders-now enterprise, Columbo has seen it all before.
And by doing an awful lot of talking (and not enough showing) about this incredible world-changing artist the Lieutenant simply HAS to see, they’re confirming his suspicions.
Back to our scene. You're shown something that’s perfectly fine or serviceable, but doesn’t exactly set your world on fire. And that’s to be expected. Even the most golden of geese has its off days. The artist might be better than someone who’s never painted anything in their life, but that’s a pretty low bar and not what people go out of their way to visit your gallery for. It certainly doesn’t sit right with the description of a peerless artist who can paint in any style, and whose output sits atop the highest echelons of the art world.
You might try and establish some context. How long have they been painting?
If they only started at Christmas, this might be a genuinely commendable effort, and you can offer some insight into what more established, more successful artists did at similar points in their careers.
The dreaded answer is, “They’ve been painting all their lives.”
Best-case scenario, there's a confusion between a hobby and a professional endeavour. Technically, an hour every third Sunday can mean all your life. It’s not in quite the same spirit as clocking into your studio at 8am every day for 40 years, though.
Where it gets decidedly more iffy is when they’ve done the grind, and there just isn’t anything there. Because that doesn’t just point to a lack of any sort of artistic growth and flourishing, but a lack of awareness that this is never, ever going to pay the bills.
Which, I guess, leads us neatly into: not everything has to be done professionally.
A friend of mine LOVES to sing. It’s her favourite thing in all the world, and brings her so much joy and pleasure that it palpably lifts entire rooms.
She’d be the last person arguing she should be on stage though, because she’s categorically tone deaf.
And she recognises that. She knows she can’t sing, finds it hilarious, continues to love singing, and does so as much as she can.
Back to our intrepid art representative, who’s on a mission to get you to represent their adoptive ward.
This is when the arguing begins.
“Art is subjective anyway; isn’t it in the eye of the beholder? And besides, how do you know it won’t sell unless you try selling it?”
Can you believe the junk BMW sold before before they hit the big time? Cabbages, bouncy castles, door stops... they must have rejoiced when someone suggested motorcars.
Imagine a restaurant serving up bits of house brick sprinkled with your Nan’s ashes. Whether or not food “will kill you” is subjective, pal; now pay up.
I get that there’s enthusiasm, and for all my snark, I love that it exists. Unfortunately, it’s the kind of enthusiasm that hasn’t known the touch of objectivity or experience until now.
This is where the pretence of civility drops.
You’re not giving them what they want, so actually, they never respected you at all. Your artists and your gallery actually suck, and if you’re too stupid to recognise greatness, you deserve to fail.
(Having since closed my gallery, I often wonder if declining the guy who painted minotaurs with pentagrams on their heads was where the rot set in.)
And again, I get it—someone you love is better-than-terrible at painting, so they deserve to go straight to the top.
But imagine telling a fully fledged, 90-hour-a-week chef pushing out 120 covers a service that your kid is professional chef material because they spent six hours cooking dinner for their mum. The idea that the only thing standing in their way is you failing to threaten the chef and tell them their restaurant's shit is unhinged.
You aren’t going to argue your candidate into a job they're not qualified to do. Leave that nonsense to the X-Factor parents who can’t hear their progeny can’t sing, protesting that they could be as big as Mariah if you gave them a chance.
(Pal, they're on the X-Factor; it’s not the lack of a chance that's holding them back.)
Truly, the devil works hard, but the parents/relatives/teachers/guardians/tangental associates of solidly average artists work harder.
It’s cringey as fuck, but I guess it comes from a place of love, so lets bring it home and get to the gold:
Good artists admit to bad work.
Take a minute. Read it again. Good artists admit to bad work.
Because bad artists will only ever admit to good work.
No artist was born brush-in-hand, able to paint. If you’ve got ten minutes' painting under your belt, you’re already a better painter than every single artist on earth at some point in their career.
The difference is an ability to criticise your own practice, and to be able to accept honest appraisal and constructive criticism from someone qualified and experienced enough to look at your work objectively.
Friends tell each other the truth, and artists, galleries and advocates in any creative industry only flourish when they can recognise shit, understand why it's shit, and care enough to want to help the practitioner grow.
So, advocates, the moral of the story is that in spite of everything, you might be able to help after all. You just have to put your ego down and get out of your own way to do it.
- Alex 🎨✌️
OF COURSE, the practical tips section is hidden in the addendum. Pass it on.
put the hours in, every day
You’ve got to practice your practice. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Have your sketchpad ready, your easel set up, your workbench clear and ready to go. It’s supposed to be fun; you’re supposed to enjoy it. Have everything ready so you can get straight to it.
it doesn’t have to be perfect
You don’t have to produce a masterpiece every time. Be silly; have fun. If something goes wrong, get it as wrong as you possibly can. You’ll be learning how you work every single time you do, and you’ll draw from that well of experience for the rest of your life.
paint the same thing 50 times
“I can’t paint animals,” goes the refrain. “I’ve painted every animal on earth, and none of them were any good.” “How many times did you paint each of them?” “Once.” The problem, as the saying goes, contains the solution.
don’t wait for inspiration to strike
Anyone can go for a run or go to the gym when they want to do it. Working out when you’re not in the mood separates the fair-weather enthusiasts from the committed professional. (Remember, being professional is doing something even though you don’t feel like it.)
understand who’s already done it, and how
There are tons of professional artists out there, in all sorts of careers. You might want to be an illustrator, a graphic designer, you might want to work in film or television or publishing or...
Do a bit of research. Who made the work you like the most, and what was their career path? How did they get their break? And how did they make sure they were ready for it when they got that break? Those paths have already been successfully trodden—the blueprint’s out there if you look for it.
find out if you actually enjoy it
Not everybody enjoys painting or singing for dancing or writing at a professional level. It can be a hobby that you love and enjoy, and you can still share your work with local art groups and amateur shows.
Amateur isn’t a dirty word. All sorts of people have hobbies and pastimes that they love to bits, and don't want to ruin by doing them to deadlines, day in, day out.
Professional cheffing nearly killed me. Cooking at home made me fall in love with food all over again.
Find the level that makes you happiest, and enjoy doing it. After three months in a professional kitchen, and 17 years in the art world, that's the best advice I can possibly give you.