This is one of my favorite "Japan" paintings, inspired by a procession of kindergarden children all holding bright yellow umbrellas on a snowy day
” . . . You never know what you’re gonna get.”
— Forest Gump
For three years beginning in the late 90s I worked as an assistant English teacher in Kyoto Prefecture, Japan (JET Program). When I began that adventure I was sure it was going to top my college days as the best time of my life.
The experience did not disappoint, and it was wonderful to be able to savor every moment as I would savor an exceptional meal. When I left for Japan my paintings were dark and moody. When I returned home my mood was reflected in my work which was bright and full of color.
Having recently begun teaching a couple of college level computer art courses, I have begun to realize much to my astonishment that teaching is something that I enjoy far more than I ever realized, a fact that was masked from me by the plethora of experiences that went along with teaching in Japan.
According to an often-cited anecdote, Kandinsky’s “discovery” of abstract art occurred in 1908 when, struck by the beauty and originality of one of his own paintings, he realized that the work had been turned upside-down; the figures he had found especially pleasing and communicative owed their advantage to their lack of conventional denotation.
Years ago after reading about this incident I developed a habit of turning my paintings upside down or sideways while working if I can’t solve a visual problem. When working realistically I sometimes find myself deconstructing or destroying a piece but I find it helps the overall composition and continuity of a piece which I think is more valuable than individually successful portions of a piece.
We know very well that errors are better recognized in the works of others than in our own; and that often, while reproving little faults in others, you may ignore great ones in yourself. … when you paint you should have a flat mirror and often look at your work as reflected in it, when you will see it reversed, and it will appear to you like some other painter’s work, so you will be better able to judge of its faults than in any other way. Again, it is well that you should often leave off work and take a little relaxation, because, when you come back to it you are a better judge; for sitting too close at work may greatly deceive you.
— Leonardo da Vinci, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, Volume I
Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man turned upside down.
I am not one to name drop but I am sure that are a number of people out there thinking, OMG!! Chris Brown!!
Now, let me take a moment to explain that my lunch was with Westchester based singer songwriter Chris Brown who plays a mean acoustic guitar sings with a James Taylor style of music. Not to be mistaken for, which he often is, the Hip-Hop/R&B superstar Chris Brown. Now the Chris Brown I know was performing under the name Chris Brown long before the other Chris Brown was born, but occasionally he is still greeted by disappointed teens showing up at his gigs expecting someone else.
I used to work with Chris who is also a talented graphic artist. When we worked together I would often hang around well past my appointed time to throw ideas at him about innovations, breaking molds and plain ole art. From time to time we still meet up to talk about old times, new times and new ideas.
Yesterday our conversation ended with a tinge of disappointment in his deep Barry White like voice. He asked if I had been painting. I hung my head and mumbled . . . no. Paint he rumbled. . . PAINT!
I spent a good part of my day working on four panels that are a part of a larger 12 panel piece.
As an illustrator and explanatory graphic artist, I am well versed in the art of telling a story. But when it comes to my fine art I often neglect this important part of being an artist.
Another lesson that I learned when I showed my work at the Red Dot Art Fair in March was that simply making art and standing in the shadows is not enough. I need to be a storyteller as well.
As I have learned recently in the world of freelance graphics, I have to wear many hats. I have to be a salesman, marketer, accountant, art director and an artist to make a living. I have recently learned that need to make that same shift in thinking when it comes to my fine art as well.
When asked about my work I often give short adequate answers rather than telling the story of a piece of art. I am becoming aware than I need to “sell” my art in order to sell art.
One of the pieces that I displayed at the fair which depicted part of the Gion Festival drew unexpected comments. Someone who sat within eye shot my paintings for several days told me that it took two days before he became aware that my painting was not purely abstract. That surprised me a bit because the imagery in the painting is so obvious to me. And one of the event’s security guards remarked that he liked the painting because he could see there was a party going on. He saw it much more clearly.
When someone expressed an interest in a piece of mine and wanted to know more about it, I initially thought I didn’t have a much to say about it, but found that I could have plenty to say with the possibility of a sale encouraging me to dig deep in my memory. Just showing my art and standing in the background is often not enough to make a sale. I see a real need to practice talking intelligently about my art and getting comfortable with this aspect of being a serious artist.
The Short Story: Me (Aaron) participating in the Gion Festival, Kyoto Japan, 2000. Painting of the Eve of the Gion Festival (started 1999 reworked 2009).
Many times I have seen people talk a young artist down from an already bargain price on a piece of art, only pay double that price for the framing. But I guess it is easy to talk an artist down on his/her price when they are eager to sell.
A couple of weeks ago I participated in the Red Dot Art Fair in New York City. I was invited by the University of Miami’s art department who sponsored a booth and featured the work of alumni in the New York area.
I had a quandary about pricing so I asked for advice. One of my former professors advised me not to price too low because in NYC in that venue people might not take me seriously if I price too low. So I double my prices. That would also cover the school’s 40% commission if anything sold. Since I was pricing high, I needed to upgrade my presentation. I re-stretched one canvas, $60 and two framings set me back $400. After delivery/pick-up and commuting into the city for four days for schmoozing, I easily plunked down $500 promoting my work.
The spaces at the four day art fair rented for $11,000 to $30,000. A West Coast gallery in a space near us had shipped a huge crate in with their art. They had to cover the owners travel and lodging expenses, and hire someone to work the space when he couldn’t be there. On the last day he sold one small piece.
Lori Woodward, a contributing writer for FineArtViews breaks things down in her article Art Pricing Strategies 2. She discusses things artists should remember in pricing their work — the cost of making a painting, education, travel associated with art, framing, etc.
I used to feel strange quoting a price that someone considered too much for art. I don’t anymore. Because I have learned that making art is an expensive habit.
About a week ago I received an email from one of my former professors at the University of Miami inviting me, and several other alumni who now live in the New York area, to display work in their booth at the Red Dot Art Fair. They secured a booth not long before the fair opened so we all had less than a week to select and prepare work for the show.
I often have trouble deciding what is my best work, so I asked a number of people who’s opinion I respect. What I learn was a reinforcement of what I already know to be true. Art is subjective and many of the opinions simply added to my confusion over what to show. In the end, I decided on my favorite painting, Buddha (inspired by a night in Tokyo at Buttu Trick-Bar), my wife’s favorite, Gion (inspired by a night in Kyoto before the Gion Festival) and The Bassist (inspired by a bassist playing at Terra Blues on Bleeker Street and painted while listening to Charles Mingus).
The Bassist almost didn’t make in in the show because space was tight and I almost left it in my car when I delivered my other two piece. And this was after fighting with the piece for 10 minutes to squeeze it in my car and driving with my head cocked to one side on the hour drive into Manhattan. Much to my surprise someone took interest in that piece, I took their card and they took mine. No sale today but I am keeping my fingers crossed for the future.
I have been a bit out of touch with the art world and I learned a lot of things this week, or at least a lot of things to contemplate in my next few posts.
View from outside the warehouse exhibition space and inside at the University of Miami's booth.
I’ve been trying to push myself away from the table of these small scale food paintings. I’ve been working this week to dig into some larger pieces for a spell, but they are a lot of fun to play and experiment with. Today I began messing with a creamy textured soft mixing white with a pallet knife. Initially I only intended to apply the thick paint as the creamy topping on the cupcakes but continued using the technique throughout the piece.
I enjoy the way it can appear to be abstract shapes but at the same time it is clearly cupcakes.
Wayne Thiebaud who has inspired me to go in this direction noted about realism, that an artist “can enliven a construction of paint by doing any number of manipulations and additions to what he sees,” which makes it possible for representational art to be “both abstract and real simultaneously.”
I like the concept and the day’s discovery.
Small oil painting of Cupcakes with butter cream icing.
These days when I am in my studio painting my wife walks in and rarely comments on what I am working on. Earlier this week she walks in and I am startled by her emphatic statement, “Now that is nice!” in reference to a small still life of three pears.
Not having much luck selling my paintings on my own I figured I would give the Etsy community a try. With a slow start well in hand, I am wondering if the rest of the public is reacting to my work the same why my wife does. So rather that continuing to try to sell my more expressive work I began to try to think of a subject matter and style that might have a more universal appeal, which started with the pears.
So I have been borrowing from one of my favorite painters Wayne Thiebaud. I should probably feel a little guilty “borrowing” so heavily from him but, he said himself . . .
“I’m very influenced by the tradition of painting and not at all self-conscious about identifying my sources. I actually steal things from people that I can use … just blatant plagiarism.”
That being said I am “stealing” from Thiebaud’s colorful foods paintings. His food paintings tend to encapsulate much of what I like to think of as good old fashioned Americana, which conjures up images of diners and drive-ins and ice cream stands. For me, these paintings evoke a distilled Norman Rockwell-esk feeling, a pure uncluttered memory or daydream that is very personal, because they tend to spark memories rather than tell a full story.
It is natural for me to paint these subjects because I love painting and I love food. I plan on doing paintings of candies and cakes but I also will detour a bit into some of my own experience by doing paintings of sushi. More precisely kaiten sushi, which is common place in Japan and yet appearing more and more in other countries. Kaiten sushi is not just about the food but also the experience of waiting for just the right plate of food to work it’s way around the conveyor belt to your grasp. Just as much as I enjoyed the experience and taste of a corn dog at a county fair, I enjoy the almost roller coaster like journey of the kaiten sushi.
These are a part of a series of small scale paintings of food.
In a nut shell, what this means to me (and other artists) is that perhaps if your work does not have mass appeal, you can still find your niche on the world wide web by offering your particular brand of art, and earn a living. The theory fascinated me then but was not enough to nudge me into action.
I recently read a New York Times story by Alex Williams titled, “That Hobby Looks Like a Lot of Work.”The story focuses on people, who sell things on Etsy.com, a market place for “all things handmade.” Some Etsy shop owners are successful and some are not. But the star of the article is Yokoo Gibran who quit her day job after opening a successful shop selling hand-knit scarves and accessories. The Times reports that she earns more than $140,000 a year knitting! But she also works 13 hours a day to keep up with orders.
It seems far from idea working such long hours but it still sounds pretty good to me. So inspired by the success of Gibran I opened my own Etsy shop this week, which was really easy to do. All I needed was a credit card and some photos of my work.
I resisted Etsy for quite sometime because I thought it would be expensive to get started. I was wrong, they do take a small percentage sales but it only cost 20 cents to list an item for 4 months. I figured I can’t lose with those kind of start up fees for a shop!
Who knows if I will see a fraction of the success of Ms. Gibran but I am going to have fun trying.
Be true to YOUR ‘art and soul’. Encourage your inner vision; let your imagination soar and don’t concern yourself with what others may think of your work.
Words to live by, but often it is difficult to keep one’s true course when often the people closest to you think you have gone astray.
The art world teaches us to paint in a consistent recognizable style.
I often paint in two different styles. One is a fairly realistic style that I like because the work is easier to sell and generally more accepted, and the other work is where my heart lies. When I first began exploring abstract and expressionist painting, it was hard for me to comprehend myself. I am still not sure that I truly understand it on an intellectual level, but I thrive when exploring with my brush and I try to keep the voices, of the people who tell me that “the way that I used to paint is better,” quiet in my head.