An Interview

I received an email the other day from a young lady in California who advised she had found me on Quora where I have answered questions or made comments in relationship to art in the past. She was working on a paper in which she had to “interview” an artist.

As a former journalist (WAY back in my past), I was intrigued and asked her to send along her questions. And they were very good, thought provoking questions for me. I tried to answer them as honestly as I could. In the end, I asked her permission to share her questions and my answers on my blog and she agreed. Since she is in middle school, I have opted not to publicly identify her, but she and her teacher knows who she is but I’ll call her “D”.

1. What is an unexpected challenge of being an artist? As an artist you have to overcome the idea that you MUST be a “starving artist” to be serious about your work. There is a long, on-going myth that one must not expect to make enough money to live on in order to be “successful” (in other words have an impact on the art world). I have come to believe over a long period of time (I’m 60 years old now), that I do not need to be the creator or an art movement in order to be a “real” artist. To be a real artist, all I need to do is create work on a regular basis, that is of the best quality I am able to produce and be willing to challenge myself in the process. To move myself into the label of being a “real professional artist”, I must also sell my work. I don’t have to sell all of it, but at least be willing to sell all of it. 

2. What do I like most about being an artist? I was a journalist for a period of time in my life and what I loved most about that was the opportunity to present my point of view to a vast number of people. Don’t kid yourself to believe that journalists are neutral. You can try to tell both sides of the story, and you should, but it’s nearly impossible to overcome your own opinions. As an artist, I’m doing the same thing. I’m making a statement that my subject matter or my choice of color, or my choice of medium, or my choice of genre is important and people should pause a moment and appreciate what I have to say. The nice thing is that as an artist, I don’t even have to pretend that I have no opinion. My opinion matters in art. I also very much like being my own boss as a fine artist. If I were in commercial art, this would be different as the opinion of my boss or my clients would have to be represented but I’m not a commercial artist for that very reason. I’m an egotist in that way. 

3. Is my job competitive? Depends on how you look at it. As a fine artist, I am first competing with myself. My competition, my goal, is to work so that every painting is better than the last. From an artist who is trying to make money from my work I am, in all honesty, competing with other artists because there are a limited number of art patrons and they have a limited amount of money to purchase art and a limited amount of space in which to display it. So, if I want to sell my work, it needs to fit with someone’s idea of what they want to collect. I don’t always know what that is. 

4. Is being an artist a difficult job? I started out in college as an art major and ended up moving away from art at the time because I did not want to struggle through the 5 to 10 year period of becoming an “established artist” after getting my degree with no guarantee that even the time frame would result in a decent income. I opted to change my major (to journalism), took a full time job out of college, saved and invested money, and ended up raising my children before I came back to fine art. Even then, it was as a hobbiest (not selling) and it was not until I retired from a job of 27 years that paid me a monthly retirement check) that I returned to selling and then with the idea of simply supplementing my retirement and investment income. Perhaps had I married a rich man when I was younger I would have gone back to my art full time at a much younger age. 

Physically, painting many hours a day can be challenging. Your back hurts, your feet hurt and if you don’t take safety precautions such as good ventilation, etc, you can actually poison yourself. Stretching canvases is really tough work and I really appreciate it when my husband pitches in to help me. You have to know how to use power tools and hand tools and be able to lift heavy things. Just today I received a shipment of 12 frames for a show I have coming up in March. Thankfully the Fedex delivery man was willing to bring the boxes into the house for me. Unpacking them all took almost an hour. So there is some physicality involved in art.

Mentally, it is hard because you are always thinking. It’s really hard to shut off your brain at the end of the day and your head brims over with ideas all the time. 

How long does it take for me to make a piece of art from start to finish? I could give the cryptic “it depends” and leave it at that, but that isn’t much fair. So let me pick one piece which is an average size that I’m currently working in and around. Let’s assume I already have an idea. To create a piece that is 16×20″ on a canvas that I stretched with a figure as the subject: I must arrange for a model. Finding and hiring the right model can very time consuming, but once you find a little group of folks who are willing and able, it gets easier. Of late, I’ve been doing a series of painting focusing on the trades people of Colonial Williamsburg. It is an hour and 15 minute drive from my house one way (so I have to account for travel time). Then I have to find the person I want to paint, that could take a few hours of walking around Colonial Williamsburg. I’ll talk to the trades person and explain what I’m doing and get them to sign a model release form. Then I’ll take a bunch of reference photos and do a few quick sketches and maybe take some more reference photos. Normally, when I go to Col. Williamsburg I’ll try to do this with three of four trades persons so I have a selection of things to work with. So basically a whole day to gather reference materials. Then I go home and take a half day to process the photos with Photoshop and print out some of them. Then another day to a day and a half to make small sketches and finally a canvas sized drawing. That can take two or three days (10 to 24 hours).  I then have to stretch the canvas. I use pre-primed oil ground linen canvas that I purchase in a roll, but assemble my own stretchers. I then stain the canvas to knock down some of the bright white of the canvas. So another two days. Then transfer the drawing to the canvas which takes a couple of hours usually. Finally, I get to start painting. There is a block in layer done in one day. Then a second layer with a few more details, another day or two. Then a more detailed layer, yet another full day or two. This needs to dry for a couple of days and then I can begin glazing which can take four to five days depending on how many layers I need to do. Mind you, each layer of glazing may only require 30 minutes of application, but it may take an hour, in any case it must dry between layers which is usually overnight. Each of the earlier layers may also have taken anywhere from 2 to 5 hours but must set up between layers. I try to work on at least two paintings at the same time so I spend 4 to 6 hours in the studio on painting days. I will also stretch 2 to 3 canvases in one sitting with each of them taking 1 to 3 hours depending on size and if my husband is helping me. Finally, the painting is ready to cure and I sit it up on a dresser or shelf for about two weeks to six weeks until it is dry enough to apply a retouch varnish. At this time I photograph the finish painting, decide on a price and title, and enter it into my inventory paperwork. The varnish takes 24 to 48 hours to dry and I will “save up” four to 10 paintings to varnish all at one time … usually laid out on my dining room table.  Finally, they all get framed which involves attaching them to the frames, drilling a lot of holes for the canvas clips and drilling more holes for the hanging D-rings and then measuring and cutting and winding the hanging wires.  At this point I consider them finished.  I’ll let you do the math. It takes less time for a smaller painting and more time for a larger one, so I charge by the square inch for the painting plus framing cost. Let’s says 65 hours invested in the painting at 16×20. Currently, a framed 16×20″ painting is $1100 which is actually pretty affordable for most middle income art collectors. The frames is going to run about $65 wholesale. Materials including paint will run about $25 on the high end. My gallery will get a 50% commission for selling it. So my take home is $650 then I subtract the frame and materials… I make about $560 or $8.61 an hour.  As much work as I can afford to “farm out” like creation of the frames, having my canvas primed in the factory, saves me time in the long run. Maybe sometime I will make enough to hire someone to do the grunt work like framing, stretching canvases and taking care of the paperwork. I also have to account in there somewhere for doing things like paying quarterly sales taxes, ordering supplies, cleaning my studio, etc. Currently minimum wage in Virginia is $7.25 but they are projected to jump up to $15 a hour, so I will likely raise my prices this year to at least be making $10 an hour. 

Much luck on your paper. Hope I have not discouraged you from pursuing art as a career. I wish I had more courage as a young person and had hung in there and just done it. The first 10 years are tough, but with talent, perseverance and focus, I do believe one can be a successful artist. 

I think “D” had great questions. If you had to answer the same questions, what would some of your answers be? Pick one and share in the comment section how you might respond.

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