Do you tailor your art to your audience?

It's the elephant in the room.

Look, we all have the same image of the artist: driven to create by their internal demons, expressing their soul through their artwork, bringing the intensely personal to life. And I firmly believe that it's true that if you want to create art - not even "great art" but just "competent art" - then you have to establish a personal connection to what you're making. Otherwise it's more like "craft" than "art," if you follow me.

That being said, the subject no one wants to talk about is whether or not you consider your audience when creating your art. Or to what extent you tailor what you are creating for the audience. The consumer, not to put too fine a point on it. 
 
Even if you don't create art with the intention of selling it, you are still creating something to be seen by the world. Unless you destroy your art the instant you create it, or hide it from the world like a secret diary. (Can these things be considered Art? That's a discussion for another day.)
 
This kind of thing leaves a bad taste in many people's mouths. In fact, I can hear my 20 year-old self rolling her eyes and calling me a "sell-out" just for talking about it. But consider this: a stand-up comedian like Chris Rock or Louis CK will test their material relentlessly. Before something goes into their act, they will tell the same story 50 different ways to 50 different audiences, gradually honing it down to the purest essence of itself, cutting out everything that doesn't land, until they are satisfied. It's an exacting, painstaking, painful process, but that is how great comedy is made. Great comedians spend thousands of hours tailoring their works based on audience response. 
 
Why should your art be any different?
 
Of course, in some ways, comedians have it easy. The goal of a comedian's art is to make people laugh. If the goal of your art is to make people consider their own mortality, it's not as easy to read that from an audience. Laughter is an obvious tell, and standing on stage in front of an audience makes you exquisitely attuned to every nuance of the audience's reaction. It's harder when you're (say) creating a painting that will be bundled together in a gallery show.
 
One wants to use caution with this kind of thinking, though. Take it too far and you could end up the next Thomas Kinkade.

Water-soluble oil paints vs. traditional oil paints

Non-toxic is good!

This year I resolved to learn oil painting. Although I have dabbled in most media, I have never tried oil painting because it's "too expensive" and it's something that only "real artists" use. That's a pretty silly thing to think, right? So for Christmas I bought myself a beginner's oil painting set, and a very well-reviewed book about learning oil painting.

Not knowing better, I bought traditional oil paints. Whereas the beginner's oil painting book strongly advocated using water-soluble oil paints. I didn't even know there was such a thing, and I was a little dismayed to learn that I was already behind the curve when it came to art supplies.
 
To a beginner, the issue of solvents is a confusing one. Oil painting involves so many different chemicals, with overlapping uses, and a seemingly endless list of substitutions. For example, I bought a tin of Turpenoid Natural, which is a turpentine replacement that is non-toxic and has a pleasant citrusy smell. However, it turns out that this is only effective as a brush cleaner. The manufacturers recommend that you do NOT use it to thin your paints, as you would with traditional turpentine.
 
It should also be mentioned that you don't really NEED turpentine in the process of painting. Turpentine is used to thin out the paints, which you would mainly do if you wanted to create a thin glaze. If you paint in an impasto style, or alla prima (without using a second layer of glazes), you could probably get away without ever thinning your paint.
 
There are many oils that you can use to change your paint's consistency. They don't thin the paint the same way that turpentine does, but they might get you close enough to work. Linseed oil, walnut oil, and alkyd medium can all be used by many people without having a reaction. (Although they are not entirely non-toxic, they don't have the same issue with toxic fumes as turpentine.)
 
Many fine artists use water-soluble oils successfully. Others find that they feel like they are wrestling with the paints. And I suspect that a lot of artists might be interested in switching, but aren't willing to sink that much money into replacing all of their paints at once.
 
One undisputed use of water-soluble oil paints is for the traveling artist. Because airlines forbid you from bringing flammable and toxic substances on the plane, a travel kit of water-soluble oil paints would be just the thing!
 

You should learn a new art form

Push yourself!

If you're thinking about goals for 2013, one of them should definitely be to learn a new art form. Why? SO MANY REASONS.

First of all, learning is good for your brain. It doesn't really matter what you are learning; it makes new neural pathways in your brain, improves your brain's plasticity, and helps you make more connections in other aspects of your thinking. Learning is just plain good for you, which is why it's such a shame that most of us essentially stop learning once we leave school. 
 
Learning a new art form will improve your current art. Let's say that you are a watercolor painter. If you take a ceramics class, or learn woodworking, or glassblowing, you will soon notice an improvement in your watercolors. Learning a new art form gives you a new perspective on your current art. Nothing makes you appreciate your experience in one field like becoming a rank amateur in a new field.
 
Techniques can be surprisingly transferrable. For example, working with ceramics can help improve your fine motor skills, which is certainly a benefit to painters. It also gives you a new outlook on volume and shape, which can bring more life to your watercolors. By contrast, a ceramics artist who takes a painting class might come away with a new appreciation for light/dark contrast and color theory.
 
You might really enjoy it! What if our hypothetical watercolor artist discovers that inside her is a ceramics artist who has been yearning for freedom her entire life.  Whatever age you are, it's never too late to discover a new passion. Maybe oil painting or weaving or metalworking is your true calling - but you will never know unless you give it a try.
 
It will broaden your understanding of the arts. When you learn about ceramics (for example), you also learn about the history of ceramics. You learn about the popular styles, historical glazes, and various cultural aesthetics. Each art form has its own huge volume of art history. The more you know about one, the more you know about all.
 
It will humble you. We all love to be the big fish in the small pond. If you have been painting for 20 years, it's easy to get complacent. And when you get complacent, your art suffers. There's no better way to knock yourself out of that rut than to try something new, and have that experience of being a newbie all over again.
 

What are your art goals for 2013?

I hate the term "resolutions!"

As we come to the end of the year, I always like to take December to assess how far I came in the year that passed, and draft a road map for the year ahead. 

In the artistic aspect of my life, 2012 was incredible. I have been a casual sketcher my whole life, but this was the year that I was inspired to get serious with it. Looking back, the path was obvious, but it didn't seem so at the time. 
 
It started when I attended Emerald City Comicon for the first time in several years. I was blown away by all the talent and energy, and inspired to do something, although I didn't know what. About a month later I got an iPad and started playing Draw Something. 
 
After playing the game for a few weeks, I realized that I was WAY more into the drawing than the playing. I downloaded the free Sketchbook Lite app, which led to finally starting the webcomic I had always talked about doing. I'm finishing up the year with a thriving business in merchandise made from my own artwork, and I'm close to being able to offer prints of my original artwork for sale.
 
You don't always know when you're going when you take that first step. But if you keep following the path, and have faith that you're headed in the right direction, and you keep pushing yourself to work harder and do better, it is truly amazing what you can accomplish in a few short months.
 
One of my goals for 2013 is to take some baby steps in painting with oils or acrylics. I have never gone beyond giving my pen and ink illustrations a watercolor wash, in all my years as an amateur artist. Why? Because I felt that oil and acrylic paints were "too expensive" and something that "real artists" used. Subtext: "I'm not worthy." 
 
And you know what? That is a dumb thing to think. Really just idiotic. I feel like it's time I finally threw that kind of self-defeating talk out the window and at least give "real painting" a try. Maybe I'll hate it; that's fine. I want to at least be able to say that I tried.
 
When you think about where you want to be at the end of 2013, ask yourself what's holding you back. Why aren't you at that spot now? Make 2013 your year of removing roadblocks!

Subway snuff pic: When art goes too far

Ethics of eyewitness photography are called into question.

It may be stretching most people's conception of "art" to include the cover of the New York Post, but this latest scandal involves one of the most powerful works of photography in the modern era. And the New York Post may be nothing more than a local gossip rag, but it happens to be a fairly high-profile local gossip rag. 

You have no doubt already heard the story: someone pushed a man named Ki Suk Han off a subway platform. He was unable to climb off the tracks in time, and was run over by the approaching subway train
 
A freelance photographer happened to be standing at the same platform. He whipped out his camera and snapped a picture of Han, with the speeding subway train about 20 feet away. Han is facing away from the camera. He seems to be locking eyes with the subway conductor. Time seems to stand still in this photo. Below Han, the New York Post cover says "DOOMED." 
 
Abbasi's photograph is upsetting not simply because it depicts a man who is about to die, but also because it puts the viewer right there. When you look at this photo, it's as if you yourself are standing there on the subway platform. You cannot, or will not reach Han before the train arrives. It makes the viewer feel as if they themselves are responsible for Han's death. It is literally a nightmare scenario, to see a train speeding toward a helpless person, while you are rooted to the spot unable to help.
 
And what about the other people on the platform? What about the person who pushed Han? They are nowhere to be seen. In the photograph it is just the conductor, and Han, and you. 
 
People are saying that the photographer is a terrible human being for not setting down his camera and helping the man. The photographer, R. Umar Abbasi, claims that he realized he was too far away to help Han, and that he snapped pictures as he ran forward to help, hoping to alert the subway conductor with the flash of his camera.
 
Abbasi is not the one who pushed Han onto the tracks. And surely there were other people on the subway platform who also could have helped. Personally, given the evident distance of the camera from Han, and the speed with which this event occurred, I agree with Abbasi - he could not have saved Han. (Whether it was ethical for him to sell the photograph to the newspaper is another issue.)
 
One thing is certain: for better or worse, Abbasi's photograph will not soon be forgotten. 

Beck puts Obama in jar of pee; no one cares.

Fails to grasp how art works.

Glenn Beck, once a seemingly unstoppable force of cultural disaster, has become more and more irrelevant as the days go by. Ever since his show was canceled, Beck has struggled to remain in the public eye. His latest non-stunt was supposed to give Liberals a taste of their own medicine, but it utterly failed thanks to Beck's complete lack of understanding of how art works. No surprise there!

Beck's artwork (and I use that term loosely) references the infamous work titled "Piss Christ," a 1987 photograph by artist Andres Serrano. The photograph depicted a crucifix submerged in a yellow-orange liquid, which Serrano claimed was his own urine.
 
"Piss Christ" was a crucial item in the conservative war against the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Because it won a prize at a regional art competition which was partially funded by the NEA, the Right turned this into "Government dollars sponsored this image." Which isn't entirely true, but since when did logic enter into something like this?
 
Glenn Beck's work is a clear glass mason jar filled with a pale yellow fluid. Inside it floats a plastic Obama figurine. Beck calls this item "Obama In Pee Pee," and attempted to sell it on eBay. (The auction was canceled as a violation of eBay's strict rules against selling human body fluids on the site.)
 
"Piss Christ" works because it is a shocking image. People have pretty strong feelings about Christ, and seeing the Son of God submerged in urine was horrifying to many. 
 
"Obama In Pee Pee" does not work, because it is not shocking. First, you have the infantilized term "pee pee," which undercuts any seriousness the work might otherwise have. Second, the figure itself is Obama. Beck may believe that liberals think Obama is the second coming of God, but that doesn't make it so. In fact, many liberals have mixed feelings about Obama at best. 
 
Beck's work also moves the shock from the religious realm to the political one. It's naturally going to be more difficult to get a rise out of people when you attack a political target, versus a religious one.
 
(Even if the concept was sound, Beck would still be trounced by the Lyndon LaRouchies who parade around with their "Obama wearing a Hitler mustache" placards.)
 
Beck has since claimed that the fluid is actually Corona beer. Thus nullifying any artistic interest that this object may have had. If any of Beck's followers are getting anything more than an awkward chuckle out of this, I would be surprised.
 

Scanning your artwork: The basics

What ppi to use and why.

There are a lot of reasons why you may want to scan your artwork. If you want to create a run of prints from a single original physical work, it will need to be scanned. Scanning is also a great way to archive your work in case of a disaster (like a fire).

And finally, if you want to share your artwork online, it is a lot easier to scan it versus trying to get a decent photograph. Between having to control the lighting, to rendering the colors properly, and making sure that the camera faces the artwork exactly head-on, a scanner is definitely the way to go if you can.

If you are planning to create prints, you will need to scan in your work at 300 dpi or 300 ppi. This is the industry standard for prints that will look just as good as the original. And trust me, it is FAR preferable to get the scanner to do 300 ppi versus scanning it in at whatever resolution, then changing the image's resolution in Photoshop.
 
The terms "dpi" and "ppi" are used interchangeably. "dpi" stands for "dots per inch" and is specific to printing with physical ink. If you have ever looked at a newspaper photograph under a microscope, you have seen all the dots that make up the picture. Pack 300 of those dots into an inch, and you have something that looks seamless to the human eye. "ppi" is the same concept, although it stands for "pixels per inch" and specifically references the digital side of the equation.
 
Conveniently, scanning something at 300 ppi also means that the scanned image will be the same size as the original. If you take an 8x10 painting and scan it in at 300 ppi, then print out the image file on your printer, you will get an 8x10 image.
 
However, if you scan it in at (say) 200 ppi, the resulting image file will be smaller (something like 6x4). Obviously if you want to create prints the same size as your original (which you probably do) then you want to use 300 ppi.
 
You may need to fiddle with your scanner's driver settings to get it to scan at 300 ppi. In Windows 7 you can go to Start -> Devices and Printers, then double-click on your scanner and poke around until you find the resolution settings. 
 
If you don't have your own scanner, you can take your artwork to a place like Kinko's to have it scanned. Be sure to confirm that they will be scanning it at 300 ppi before you hand over your cash!

Art wars: who should get credit?

If a painting isn't painted by the artist, why is their name on it in the first place?

The latest controversy rumbling through the art world is the question of who should get credit, and when, and how. When a movie is made, at the end of the movie, every single person who had a hand in the production is listed. The same goes for television shows. Even the lousiest, most short-lived, low-budget sitcom will list the names of everyone in the credits. 

Moving closer to an "apples to apples" comparison, a novel has several places where people are credited. The author may choose to dedicate the book to someone, and can also include a section with acknowledgments in the back. On one of the first pages at the front of the book, the publisher will sometimes list the font used in the book and the name of the artist who created the cover.
 
So what about paintings and sculptures?
 
Increasingly, big budget artwork is being created more by a team of assistants that the actual artist. And yet it is the artist whose name ends up on the work. 
 
It's one thing to hire assistants to take care of the mundane chores around an art studio. Cleaning brushes, stretching canvas, that sort of thing. Most artists beyond a certain level will hire a studio assistant for minimum wage plus experience. This is a great way for newer artists to get their foot in the door, network, learn the tools of the trade, and so forth. Many art school students help pay their way through school by doing this sort of grunt work.
 
But it's an entirely different matter when the artist is essentially just giving directions, not actually creating the pieces themselves. This situation crops up more than you might think. Of course, Thomas Kinkade famously left the actual painting of many of his works to an assembly line of painters.
 
But Damien Hirst, one of the biggest names in the art world, left painting the actual dots to his team of assistants. Yet his name is on the paintings. Although many art critics turn up their nose at Damien Hirst's work as "crassly commercial" and "attention-getting shenanigans," Hirst is big business. And yet he himself had almost nothing to do with his works, beyond writing up the specs.
 
Is this fair? No, but then again, life isn't fair. It's well-known inside the art world that the art of big-name artists is almost never created by those artists. Confusing, yes, but as long as people are willing to keep paying for it, this practice will continue.

A good paintbrush is an investment

It's worth spending money on your primary brushes.

Ages ago someone gave me some really good advice: spend the most you can on the paintbrush that you use the most. It really is worth the extra money.

A good paintbrush - the best one you can afford - will last longer than a cheap brush. It will have better spring, more pliancy, it will not shed bristles, and it will balance perfectly in your hand. Anyone who has ever painted anything has, at one time, struggled with a cheap paintbrush. They are forever shedding bristles in the middle of your work, and are either stiff when you want a flexible fiber, or too floppy when you want a stiff brush.
 
I admired this rule anew recently, when I was moved to go excavating through my supplies to uncover my old watercolor things. Many of the cheaper brushes I had were basically unusable junk by now. Some had shed so many bristles that they were rendered useless. Others had rusted through their "brass" bristle-holder. But not my most expensive brush. It was ready to go, just as good as the day I bought it. 
 
My favorite brush for watercolors is a #6 with an oval tip. After going through several cheaper brushes of this size and shape, I finally shelled out the cash for a Winsor & Newton Sceptre Gold, which is a sable/synthetic blend. Hardly the most expensive brush out there, but it was a lot of money for me at the time.
 
This brush, far more than any of my cheaper brushes, is a joy to paint with. And it has outlasted dozens of its cheaper peers. Although it seemed like a near-ludicrous expense at the time, it has proven to be a bargain.
 
The only exception to this "buy the best brush you can" is for brushes that you use rarely. I (and I'm sure many painters) have many brushes that I bought because I needed them for one specific effect, and I hardly ever used them past that one painting. It's not worth your money to shell out for expensive brushes you won't use more than once a year. 
 
I also recommend that beginning painters go through a lot of cheap brushes before buying a nice one. There is no one right brush for everyone, and you don't necessarily know up front which brush size and shape will turn out to be your favorite. Once you know what kind of brush you use the most, go shopping for a good one!
 

You have all the art supplies you need!

It's time to stop shopping and start creating

Hey you! You out there, staring into space and thinking about that one art supply item that you don't currently have. This is my stern face, and this is me telling you that you don't need it. You already have everything you need to create art, I guarantee it.

It's so easy to get lured into thinking "If I only had X, I would be able to make great art." Where X may be a new wash brush, a different brand of technical markers, or a sketchbook of a slightly different size and paper composition than the five unfilled sketchbooks that you already own.
 
Believe me, I speak from a position of authority. In the same way that an alcoholic probably doesn't want to take advice from someone who has never been a drinker, I would never want to take art supply advice from someone who isn't constantly being lured in by the Next New Thing. And that person is me. I myself am just coming through a brief, passionate, but short-lived relationship with Copic markers. (My ardor cooled when I learned that they are not at all light fast. Good thing I found this out before I bought more than two. OK, three.)
 
Furthermore, it's good to be constantly trying out new techniques and new media. It's good to push yourself in new directions and try different things. I'm not saying you should stop buying art supplies altogether. (God no.) 
 
I'm just saying, let's be honest with ourselves. "I need to buy X first" is just a cop-out. A cheap excuse to keep you out of your sketchbook for another day. Another way to blame the world around you for your own failure to create.
 
Hey, I hear you. I love a good excuse, myself. But I have seen too many would-be artists fall down the rabbit hole of art supply evaluation. Should I use a Pitt Artists Brush pen, or a Crow Quill dip pen, or an actual brush dipped in ink? Should I use Rapidograph pens or Pigma Micron? Which brand of watercolor paint has the Chromium Yellow which is the yellowest?
 
Art is about the thing you make, not the things you make it with. Presuming a base level of supplies - even just a ballpoint pen and a sheet of printer paper - you have everything you need. Stop making excuses, stop letting yourself get distracted by technical minutia which will never be solved, and start creating! 
 

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