Feature Article - The Fine Line

"Words do two major things: They provide food for the mind and create light for understanding and awareness."
- Jim Rohn

The Fine Line – One Artist’s Decisions About Love And Money

Publication: Art Calendar Magazine, May 2009

            The fine line between art for the love of it, and art to make money, is territory that every serious artist must eventually face. Balancing the eclectic call of the Muse with the often conservative expectations of the buying public is one of the Big Decisions, where the factors of financial freedom, artistic integrity, and the desire for acceptance all get thrown onto the scales. As with all Big Decisions, there is no single right answer. One source of guidance can be studying the decisions of other artists.

            Paula Cravens has been painting from her home studio in Canal Flats, BC, since 2004 and regularly exhibits in area galleries and shows. Her subjects range from landscapes to cowgirls to women aviators to wildlife, using many different media and techniques. One year ago a painting rolled off Paula’s easel to instant acclaim among friends and gallery patrons - a new subject of an old, rusted-out car done in broad swaths of cartoon-bright acrylic colour patches. More old cars and trucks followed, garnering her sales, and attention in the media.

            “My first old car painting sold at a gallery right away. My second I donated to a hospital auction and it went for double what I expected.” At shows her cars always received comments, often from men. Paula says she couldn’t tell a Volkswagen from an International Harvester, but men would buttonhole her with details about the ’57 Pontiac in her painting with the slant 6 and the funky taillights. She was painting subjects that, to her, had colour and character. For her viewers, they enlivened old stories.

            Opportunity was knocking. Paula could concentrate her efforts on this one, popular style of artwork to the exclusion of her other interests, increase her profit, and gain wider exposure. She might grow tired of producing the same thing, but it could be well worth the tedium. It was time for her to draw her line.

            One thing to consider is that predictability sells. If an artist consistently produces a certain popular style of work, then the public can know what to expect, can be more comfortable in their knowledge of an artist’s work, and consequently is more ready to buy. Predictable output is the lifeblood of many a successful, wealthy artist. It is also, for some, a pernicious trap that stifles their creativity.

            The pressure for predictability doesn’t just come from the public, says Paula. Gallery owners sometimes have preferences as well. “The galleries are retailers, they want you to create a product. By having twenty paintings more or less the same, then they can offer that to the public, and that’s what the public wants and is expecting. So if the artist bucks that trend then that’s when he starts running into trouble with the gallery.” There are many galleries that understand and allow for an artist’s creativity, too. “There are some galleries that really encourage the artist. There are many gallery owners that understand where the artists are coming from, and I think they can flow with that innovation because it could take the artist to a newer, higher level.”

            Paula’s decision on the fine line came more from intuition than intellectual processing, and her own interest was its wellspring. “When you get going on something and you’re enjoying it, and the public expects you to just keep on doing those things forever, then you lose your interest, the thing that drew you to that subject in the first place. You have to do some bread and butter art to keep yourself going, but you also have to keep exploring so that you’re trying new things, finding new subjects so that you can grow as an artist. Because otherwise you’re just a hack.”

            Commissioned works are another tight spot for artistic integrity. Paula finds commissions to be a challenge. “I hate the pressure of a commission because then I’m living up to somebody else’s expectations. And I’m having to work from their photographs, which I find hard, too. If I don’t get enough information in the photograph then it’s almost impossible for me to be able to come through.” Paula’s line on commissions is that she has to have some personal interest in the work. “It has to make me happy on some level. There has to be something there that makes me glad about liking this painting, or I just can’t quite bring myself to do it.”

            Paula can tell when an artist has strayed too far over the line in pursuit of commercial success. When every painting in a show uses the same palette or very similar subject matter, she quickly gets bored. “The public gets disappointed, too, even if they still buy what the artist is producing. They feel the loss.” She prefers artists that, in her words, shake it up a little rather than stamping it out.

            Juried art exhibitions are one area where Paula is willing to bend, just a little. When  applying for prestigious shows, she says, it makes good sense to do your homework. By looking at past exhibitions she is able to see what basic themes and styles the judges look for. If her work doesn’t come close, she knows not to bother. If her art is within the show’s range, and the judges obviously favour a particular technique or style, she can keep that in mind when painting for the show. “I think if it works and it doesn’t totally violate where you’re coming from - you have to honestly ask yourself that – I think it’s plausible.” Pandering to the judges’ tastes will get you quickly disqualified as too technique-y, however. Again, Paula’s personal interests come first.

            So, for Paula Cravens, the line between love and money – or artistic integrity and painting for popularity – is clear and simple. It comes down to interest. The day her old car paintings no longer intrigue her is the day they will stop coming off her easel, regardless of public or gallery demand. Until then, she will happily make them a solid part of her portfolio and enjoy the fruits of their popularity. And the rest of her artwork will have benefited from the increased exposure.