Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Whistler, Even More Continuing

"Out the Back Window" - 8 x 10"ish colored pencil on Bristol paper.
Copyright 2007 Maggie Stiefvater.
$50 - email me at portraitswithcharacter@gmail.com to purchase (first request received honored)

Well, today has been crazy. We just moved back to our old town to be closer to my family and grandmother, and moving is - well, you know how moving is. I'd rather eat a tomato, which for me is saying a lot. And we JUST moved too, so grrrr . . . also, I have my first show of the year coming up this weekend so I'm very busy making sure my booth set-up is beautiful for that (e-mail me or comment any artists who are interested in seeing pics of that and having me wax poetic on the joys of outdoor shows). So expect me to be scarce this week - back in full force on Monday but popping my head in until then when I can.

I took advantage of being separated from all my "real" work that I've been working on to do my Whistler project - remember, the drawing from memory? If you're just signing on, head back a few days on my blog and read the post on how Fine Line Artists is studying him this month.

Anyway, James McNeill Whistler painted his later nocturnes from memory, saying the impressions of a location were more important than exact details, so I decided to try it. While we were in the car the other night, I did as he did: observed the details of the scene, then closed my eyes and recited the details to myself, including what colors I thought each large area was. (No, I wasn't the one driving, in case you were cringing and wondering). That was two days ago. I was surprised how many details fell out of my head in that time, like any of the exact colors I'd planned to use, or how trees really looked.

But I gave it the old college try. And you know what, it kinda feels like the evening. I can remember the way the light looked when I look at the drawing. I think in another life I would've made it softer and less detailed, but it's hard to break out of that mold.

Anyway, I really want to see my readers' attempts at painting and drawing from memory. It doesn't have to be a long effort - this one was about 30 minutes of my time - but it was entertaining and kind of freeing for a normally anal artist like myself. So will you show me yours, pretty please?

Saturday, May 19, 2007

And I'm Not Even Menopausal

"The Beautiful Goodbye" - 11 x 14" colored pencil on drafting film.
Copyright 2007 Maggie Stiefvater.
Private commission.

Am I the only girl under the age of 50 who has problems regulating their temperature? Seriously, I go through more wardrobe changes in a day than Britney Spears during a concert. While I watch my husband and children happily play and work in the same wardrobe every day, I'm constantly adding and subtracting layers to make up for my changing temperature.

"Are you hot?" my husband asks, as I throw a long sleeved shirt off and grab a tank top.
"No, I'm practicing my strip routine, idiot. Do you like it?"

1 hour later . . .

"You're cold now?" my husband asks, as I trade in the tank for a hoodie sweatshirt.
"You aren't?"

1 hour later . . .

"You're hot again?" my husband asks, as I take off the hoodie and replace it with the long sleeved shirt again.
"Middling hot. Not hot enough for tank top."

This has got to stop. Every time I tell myself to grin and bear the temperature changes I'm feeling, that they're all in my head, my inner child throws a tantrum and kicks until I swap clothing. I know I should be firm, but she's so cute when she gets what she wants . . .

Friday, May 18, 2007

Why Isn't My Stuff Selling on eBay?

"Kitten in a Straw Hat" - 2.5 x 3.5" colored pencil on Bristol paper.
Copyright 2007 Maggie Stiefvater.
Click here to bid.

I am curious about just how you started out on eBay - it sure does give you visibility and advertising, but do you have any tips for boosting your chances of getting bids?

I started on eBay with just ACEOs - 2.5 x 3.5" art cards, all originals. If you want to get a reality check about your competition, do a search on eBay for ACEO. You'll get thousands of hits. But the truth is that a lot of them are very . . . uh . . . middling. If you're excellent or if you have a unique style or a unique subject, there's always room for more. And it is a HUGE market. Collectors love ACEOs.

Getting started on eBay, however, will be a waste of your time if you:

  • don't yet have a firm grasp of your style - you must stand out from that huge pack in some way
  • don't do images that read well in thumbnail - high contrast images look the best when shrunk down to itty bitty thumbanils in search listings
  • aren't prepared to list at least five pieces a week, preferably one a day (you can fudge this as you get more well known)
  • aren't willing to take a hit on auctions that don't go as planned - low starting bids are the way to go - you have to risk art selling for $4-10.
If you're already selling on eBay and your art isn't selling, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • was I selling well before? is it now tax season, Christmas shopping (most people don't buy art as a present - my sales sag in December and jump in January), vacation time?
  • was I selling well before? am I being less innovative with my compositions? am I hurrying through my work?
  • what IS selling? have I done a search to see what sort of subjects and sizes are grabbing the viewers' attention right now?
  • what ISN'T selling? is the market flooded with realistic animal art cards? can I do something related but different?
Remember when dealing with eBay that a pitiful auction price is not usually a reflection of your art. I've seen beautiful pieces go for too little because the artist didn't judge the market right. Sometimes, I've been that artist.

But on the other side of the coin, if you're having auctions end without a bid or you are only hitting your minimum bid every time, it's time to evaluate. If you're good and your stuff is unique, your prices should be gradually climbing, with occasional dips, and then bigger climbs. Try and be honest with yourself. Or ask a cruel friend to do it for you. "Is this technically good?" "Is it unusual?" "Is it ME?"

Realistic art card of child - probably not going to fetch much.
Realistic art card of child playing with bubbles - probably going to fetch more.
Stylistically beautiful art card of child playing with bubbles - probably going to fetch a lot.

Got it? Now go out there and make a living.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

James McNeill Whistler, continued

I'm sure you guys thought that I forgot about Whistler. I haven't. I've been reading about him for the past week and I've discovered that he is not the man I thought he was.

(For those of you just signing on, each month, Fine Line Artists studies the work of a safely dead artist and tries to create a work of their own using the techniques and skills learned - this month is James McNeill Whistler and any blogging artist is welcome to join in and send their links to us for inclusion).

Anyway, I've been reading about Whistler in Donald Holden's very readable Whistler: Landscapes and Seascapes and I find Whistler is certainly more and less than I expected. Whistler's Mother (more properly called an Arrangment in Grey and Black, the name he gave it), is no more representative of his works than this old drawing I did of my dog Peanut is of my general body of work. Whistler was far more about his "nocturnes," his abstract landscapes, than any of his portraits. Some of them, like the Nocturne in Blue and Silver on the right, I like quite a bit. Others I find were excellent in the concept and in my opinion, quite flawed in the execution.

Some important things about Whistler:

  • He prized concept over effort - beautifully done pieces in a derivative, "safe" style weren't as valuable to him as an innovative piece done in short order.
  • Abstract shapes defined his composition. Likeness came second, if at all.
  • He abandoned traditional chiaroscuro lighting in favor of a more even one, flattening shapes and muting colors, borrowing techniques from oriental art. Whistler said, "As the light fades and shadows deepen all petty and exacting details vanish, everything trivial disappears, and I see things as they are in great strong masses: the buttons are lost, but the sitter remains; the garment is lost, but the sitter remains; the sitter is lost, but the shadow remains; the shadow is lost, but the picture remains."
  • He named all his later pieces after musical compositions: nocturnes, harmonies, arrangments. They were meant to be enjoyed at face value rather than for an allegorical or literary meaning.
  • He painted from memory in the studio.
  • He mixed all of his colors in advance, taking hours to do so, diluting them heavily and calling them "sauce." He would then paint the painting quickly, rubbing out mistakes and taking pains to remove the evidence of the painter's struggle. His dilution technique was very poor for preserving art, and most of his canvases are degraded to one degree or another.
Normally an idea to emulate each master of the month comes to be quite naturally but this month I find myself somewhat stymied. I do like his nocturnes, however, and I'm reminded a bit of one of my favorite modern painters, Bryan Evans.

With that in mind, I think I'll try Whistler's method for painting from memory. Holden relates an anecdote about Whistler committing a scene to memory. Whistler stopped in his tracks, studied the scene, then turned his back and described the scene out loud, fixing it in his mind. Then he carried on as before, went back to his studio, and painted it.

It sounds like an interesting idea, just capturing impressions. I might make a dog's breakfast of it, but it might be fun too. Anyone else up for it?

Online Presence vs. Real-World Presence

"The Writer's Cat" - 8 x 10" colored pencil on pastelbord.
Copyright 2007 Maggie Stiefvater.
$300 + $7 priority mail shipping
(look at my nifty paypal buy it now button! I can't wait to see if it works!)

Hi, Maggie, thanks so much for taking the time to blog (as well as entertain us) about some many of the relevant "issues" in an artist's life - motivation, family life, balancing life's various elements, toddlers, eating well, etc. and making for us realize it's all possible. Maybe not without losing our sanity, but possible!

We get to see your "on-line" presence, but there's a whole lot of your presence that we don't get to see - galleries, commission works, etc. and I guess my question is around what has been most valuable to you in developing your career - the online presence, the off-line presence? Is one more important than the other? Is there one that should have more focus?
I've notice a number of artists have web sites, some type of store (Etsy, EBSQ), a blog, an EBay presence, but it's hard to know if they have gallery representation, commissions, etc. and I'm not sure where the focus should be? I guess I'm asking what's indispensable to you, what could you and your career not do without?

This question is slightly complicated, because what was indispensable to me a year ago is not today, and vice versa. As I move along in my career, I find I outgrow certain marketing methods and I grow into others. So I guess the most useful way to answer this question is a comparison.

Income Generators Last Year This Time
eBay (including commissions generated by eBay interest) - 65%
horse shows - 25%
art shows/ competitions - 5%
gallery- 5%
blog - 0%
website - 0%

I had to do some fancy math work to get those percentages to work right . . .

Income Generators This Year This Time
eBay (including commissions generated by eBay interest) - 40%
horse shows - 40%
art shows/ competitions - 5%
referral/ previous clients - 10%
workshops - 5%
blog - 0%
website - 0%

So right away I can see the wheels in your head turning. WHOA! Maggie isn't making any money off her website or blog. Whew, that's a relief - I'm dumping those time wasters. Not. A. Chance.

As an artist, or any business owner, for that matter, there are investments you have to make that don't bring in money themselves but bring up your worth. Advertising. Name dropping. Image creation. You have to do it. If you don't have a beautiful website, you have to have one. If you don't like to write and you have the personality of a popsicle stick, don't get a blog. A boring blog will hurt you more than anything. Let people imagine you're mysterious if you can't write. Or just post your daily images with a few grunts at the end.

As far as spreading yourself across eBay, etsy, Yessy, boundlessgallery, whatever -- I wouldn't. I tried out non-eBay venues but frankly I discovered it didn't help me to have multiple sites like this. Really you generate a lot of the interest yourself anyway, and it takes the same amount of energy to drive a lot of customers to one site as drive them to two. So pick one. If you hate eBay, try one of the others. But before you get an established client base and online presence, people like the idea of buying from you in a protected environment. It's scary to send a payment out into the void not knowing if the crazy artist at the other end will send you anything for it. An eBay 100% positive feedback rating helps quell that fear, certainly.

I'm only going to say this once, but I'll say it in bold. I don't rely on eBay for most of my income now, and in fact, I expect to use it just for advertising by the end of this year, but:

I would not be where I was today without the equal-opportunity footing and massive viewing audience provided by eBay. It's how I got my start.

But unless that's how you want to make your living, you have to look at real world venues as well. When the online world is slow (and it will be), you'd better have a back up plan to pay those bills. So, out you go to find art shows, subject shows (for me it's horses), exhibitions, competitions, galleries, and a thousand other ways to get your art in front of people.

Oops, time for another bold statement.

If the idea of submitting your work to competitions, galleries, and juried art shows doesn't excite, nor does buying booth equipment and sitting baking in the sun for a 10 hour day, find another sort of living.

Seriously. This is hard work. It's harder than a 9-5 day job. The reason why I can do it day after day, month after month, is because I still get all excited filling out jury forms or picking out frames or getting ready for a show. I love the details, not the end results. And if you aren't getting thrilled just thinking about - and most people ARE NOT - think about keeping your art as hobby.

Okay. What was the original question? Oh. Presences. What I HAVE to have:

horse shows

What I could live without if push came to shove:
art shows

The latter are all for padding my resume, not my wallet, and that's what makes them optional. I do commissions, because they're not difficult for me and I enjoy them. If you hate them, don't do them. Or find a way to resolve what it is you hate about them.

I would say that an artist ought to have at least one strong online presence and one strong real-world presence. I try and get my sunny face and my art out into the real world once a month. Not a bad goal for any artist.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Questions on Marketing

I've had a lot of people ask me to divulge marketing secrets (this is the part where I shout "My Precious - it's mine, all mine! - just kidding) and I think the easiest way to do it would be for anyone with a specific marketing question to email it to me at portraitswithcharacter @ gmail.com and if it's not a duplicate of another, I'll answer it here on the blog.

Disclaimer! I am not the world's most famous artist (yet). I am not the world's greatest marketing expert (yet). There are others out there who know more and others who know less. I won't make up an answer to a question I don't know. I can only hope to lessen the learning curve that I had to ride becoming a professional artist. I hope that when any aspiring artist gets to that next level they'll remember their responsibility to give back to those climbing up the ladder behind them.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Fine Art of Printing

Those of you who know me well know that I don't follow any of the rules for anything. It shouldn't surprise you that I don't follow the rules for making my prints either. Many many many beginning artists have asked me how I make my prints and so I wanted to share my very simple lazy method.

First things first.

  • I haven't yet offered a print over 11 x 14". I'm planning my first 16 x 20" one for this year but until now I haven't tried it.
  • I don't have my own printer. I don't have the floorspace to dedicate to one right now though I DO know which one I'd buy if I did
  • I believe in the principle that says art prints are works of art separate from the original. In other words, it is more important for them to look beautiful when judged by themselves than to look perfectly like the original when hung next to it. Likeness is important - perfection not quite as.
  • I do NOT like any results I have ever gotten printing on my home printer, no matter what quality setting I put it on. I would not recommend printing your own prints on anything less than an Epson printer as you won't be using archival inks and the quality will be, to use a technical term, diddly-squat.
  • I do NOT like paying people lots of money to scan, photograph, and color correct my work. I tried that route and hated the results. Much better to learn to do it myself.
All right, that aside, let's head on to the equipment I use.

  • Camera. I have a lovely Canon Rebel xti with a million jillion megapixels, and I get great results with it. Confession, though? I've also shot prints off my Sony Cybershot 5.0 megapixel, and they came out beautifully. It did 8 x 10" quite nicely, and struggled perhaps with an 11 x 14" - the focus had to be perfect. I would shoot for the best digital camera you can get - it's a good artistic investment anyway as you need shots of your work for everything and you can also shoot slides with them.
  • Scanner. Nothing fancy. I have a Lexmark 3-n-1 or something like that, and it does a nice job with most pieces. It balks at paper with a lot of texture or work with a lot of white in it. And it has a limited plate size. I use it for 8 x 10" and 9 x 12" works on paper and pieces on canvas I just can't photograph properly. To scan cradled works and canvas, put the piece face down on the scanner and drape with black fabric to keep light from getting in. (Thanks Gayle for that tip).
  • Adobe Photoshop. I have the full version, though you might be able to get away with Elements. I almost never take a perfect shot; invariably I need to work on the color or the contrast. I used to have to print out a sample to make sure I had gotten it right as the screen looks a hair different than the printed result, but now I'm pretty darn good at getting it right the first time. I can usually get the print to look just about identical to the original or even better.
When I'm shooting for prints, I want good lighting. I know, you're supposed to have a proper lighting set up and reflectors and blah blah - yeah. I go outside. Preferably in the morning before the sun is too high, or on an overcast day. That's all they're trying to reproduce in the studio anyway.

When you get the photo into your computer, try to avoid tooling around with it too much, especially in terms of resizing. The more you mess with a Jpeg the more you corrupt the file and lose image information, and that's bad.

What you're aiming for is an image at 300 dpi. That's what will get you doable results. More is fine. Less is . . . not fine.

Okay, what do I do with my files once I have them? Well, once they're all color-corrected and beautiful, I send them to one of my two favorite printers. I've tried many and you can look around too, but I really like these two for turnaround, service, and results.




They both use archival inks and offer great products. I use iprintfromhome for my prints on paper (I think they just began to offer a 16 x 20" fine art print too) and Quality Canvas Photos for my prints on canvas. The latter sends theirs unstretched, so you'll have to stretch them yourself - which is easy.

Yes, I know artists are supposed to suffer and spend $250 for their first two prints and proofs and what not, but I just decided not to do that. When I first pull a print from one of my images, I order one trial print from the printer and see if I got the color right and if the file had enough info to make a good image. And I have to tell you, the first time I got an 11 x 14" print done for $17.50 instead of $250, I expected it to look awful. But I held it up next to the original and I couldn't tell the difference. Archival inks, acid-free paper, and a great looking image - what more do you want from a print!

Someone asked me how I market my prints, but that's a whole 'nother question - that's all about selling, and I'm afraid I'll need more begging for that question to get answered.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

May Artist: James McNeill Whistler

Okay, I know we skipped a month. But this month, the artists of Fine Line Artists are studying the art of James McNeill Whistler and, as with our other artists of the month, trying to steal his mojo. Well, more precisely, we're trying to study his methods and his style and composition, etc., and see what we can draw from it.

Now all artists are invited to join in with us and blog about their progress - there are no formal requirements, just an avid desire to learn.

I'm not going to agonize over a beginning post to kick things off because Katherine Tyrrell has already done an admirable job.

I will say that I have read enough to find out that Whistler was quite a character and I have a feeling this month will be entertaining, and also that I will be paying a field trip to the Freer Gallery in D.C.

So no matter what level of artist you are, I ask you to play along - every time we do this I'm stunned by how much there is to learn and apply to my art, even if the artist is entirely different from what I do currently.