Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Decision Making, Step-by-Step

Building an art career is a step-by-step process that requires many decisions along the way. There's no single trajectory, no designated path of promotion like there is in many other careers. Instead, each individual finds her own way. A lot of the decisions involve matching one's artwork to the right opportunities.

When I began my career over a decade ago, the pastel medium was enjoying a period of unparalleled popularity. Although the medium has been around and in use since the late 1800s, the mid-1990s and early 2000s brought with them the publication of a new magazine, The Pastel Journal, as well as dozens of new manufacturers offering pastel sticks and related products. As recently as the 1980s, it used to be that the choice to work in pastel necessarily meant that one was "settling for" a medium with few options in materials and low quality. That's no longer the case at all. Today, artists have more choices in materials and enjoy much higher quality than ever before and interested viewers can see some wonderful creations in the pastel medium.

Concurrent with this rise in popularity and availability of materials, many juried art shows geared specifically for pastel artists appeared. When I started working professionally back in 2003, I participated in several of these events. This was a decision that I made to gain some credentials and validation for my artwork. This is a fairly typical career step for many artists because juried shows and the awards that they bring give artists distinction and recognition that's difficult to obtain in the art world more broadly.

Rain Walker 16 x 20 original pastel. This piece was damaged after it returned from a national juried exhibition. Luckily, I was able to preserve the artwork after replacing the frame just a couple of days prior to a major outdoor art show


I got into shows and even won some awards. All was good, until an out-of-state show in the summer of 2011, when my cityscape, Rain Walker (pictured above), was returned to me with the frame smashed inside the shipping carton and the glass severely damaged just two days before I needed to exhibit it in my local outdoor art show, The Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts. This unfortunate outcome happened because my piece had not been properly packed for its return trip.

Around this time, juried shows for pastel artists had become quite an industry, with many pastel societies sponsoring them and using the jury fees to bolster their annual operating budgets. Having served on the board of the Maryland Pastel Society, I know how much work goes into these events, and that these jury fees are often used to defray the cost of procuring an exhibition space for the exhibition. But in addition to collecting a jury fee from each participant (whether his work is admitted or not), about five years ago shows also began to collect "handling fees" for transporting the artwork to and from the exhibition venue. On average, these extra fees range from $50 to $100 for each piece. Add in the cost of shipping original artwork to the show venue, which can easily run up to $300 for a medium-sized piece, and you end up with a rather expensive proposition if you're an artist trying to participate in one of these events.

Brown Bagging It, 18 x 18 original pastel, was accepted into an international juried exhibition, but I decided not to participate.


This past week, I made the difficult decision to withdraw from a juried show. My cityscape, Brown Bagging It, was accepted into the Pastel Painters of Maine International Juried Exhibition. Following the nightmare of having my piece damaged back in 2011, I had largely stayed away from these exhibitions because I eat the cost of such damage. But I thought I might try it again this year precisely because it's been many years since I've participated and I thought it would be good to get back in the game. I was all set to ship my cityscape to the exhibition last week when I noticed that the exhibition paperwork included a waiver to release anyone and everyone from damaging the artwork at any point. In essence, I would have no recourse if my piece was once again damaged, even after paying a $75 handling fee.

I thought to myself, "Does this make any sense?"


I'm a fan of Kevin O'Leary on the ABC TV show, "Shark Tank," and all I could hear in my head was his voice asking, "In what world would this be a good business decision?" I'm about to start a very busy summer art show schedule, and I just couldn't reconcile tying up this piece for an exhibition that runs for two months, and then risking that the work be damaged without any way to insure or protect it.

After working in this profession for many years, you may think that I've grown a bit jaded about my creative output. But I still care. I recall where most of my pieces have found homes with collectors and I remember the stories that clients have told me about why they purchased a certain piece or where they placed it in their homes. Moreover, the very act of creating a piece involves an intricate series of decisions. To gamble the final result of that series of decisions without any protection is a risk that I'm no longer willing to accept. To illustrate this decision-making process, I thought I'd share with you today the step-by-step process behind the creation of my newest cityscape, "Bleecker Street Shoppers," an 18 x 18 original pastel.

Step One: The initial charcoal sketch of my composition. This is a sunny afternoon street scene from Lower Manhattan and I chose to create this piece on a neutral grey surface.


Step Two: The initial block-in of darks. In pastels, you build from the darks forward to highlights. This is analogous to the process in oil painting, which is why so many artists work in both media.


Step Three: More colors to establish the composition.


Step Four: Some highlights to establish the boundaries of the lightest lights and darkest darks in the piece.


Step Five: Establishing the background and other figures in the composition to complement my star individual.


Step Six: Here, I'm establishing the foreground shadows and more details of the background.


Final Step: I changed the shirt color of the woman on the right to purple so that it would not be too "matchy matchy" with the other warm colors in the composition. A few refinements of details, and { tah dah }, the piece is completed.

I'll debut this new cityscape this weekend at the Rittenhouse Square Fine Art Show in Philadelphia. I hope to see you there!