You Are Lucky!

‘You’re so lucky to be an artist, free to do just what you want.’ It’s a common enough remark, one most artists probably encounter as did I this week. Thinking about it, I quite like how this one sentence is both a manifesto for artistic success and a misunderstanding of how hard that success is to achieve.

Doing just what you want is, by and large, exactly what an artist needs to do to succeed, but let’s not confuse that with an easy ride. The ‘doing just what you want’ in question is not the soft focus dream of late mornings sipping coffee barefoot in a pretty studio. It’s the hard graft of developing a personal viewpoint and using experience, practice, talent and time to turn that vision into a consistent flow of well-considered work.

In this week’s Ask an Artist podcast you’ll hear gallery owner Nick Bentley return to discuss artist/gallery relationships and what galleries look for in their artists. Turns out that education, background and age are cheeringly unimportant. It is the body of work that matters, and that work must show passion, consistency and individuality. It is only by the artist doing just what they want and going their own way that this kind of work is made. But this is the freedom of hard work and focus, not the freedom of a fantasy bohemian lifestyle.

Living the dream, working on ideas in the studio

I don’t say this to put anyone off wanting to be an artist. It is a brilliant job and sometimes it does indeed involve sipping coffee in a pretty studio (though bare feet are never a good idea in real studios). But it’s not a job for the fainthearted. Doing just what you want is a great freedom, but holding your nerve and using that freedom to pay the bills – that’s not an easy life.

Not just a pretty face

I left my hairdresser recently; other women of a certain age will sympathise. Undeniably talented hairdresser that he was, Bob was somehow just not seeing me anymore. I’m not sure when I went from paying customer with individuality into the big box marked ‘nice ladies of a certain age’ but, just like in Toy Story, there I was. Left on the side of the style road waiting for the nursing home truck. The nail in the coffin came when I said that I didn’t wish to look like a lady who spent her days colour matching towels in John Lewis and he replied that I ‘had the face for it’. He was right of course; I have the pleasant face of the stranger who’ll mind your bags while you nip to the loo. Doesn’t mean I care to pay to be reminded of it. Now I go to Emily, covered in a riot of tattoos, who is far more interested in my trips to Japan and my prints and far less in pigeon-holing me into a one cut suits all.

The sad fact is that I am as guilty as Bob. I once taught a very elderly woman who was struggling a bit in class. I spent a bit more time than usual one to one with her and sorted out what she needed to understand. Then I stupidly said that being in class could be a bit overwhelming and not to worry. I didn’t actually say ‘for a woman of your age’, but I might as well have done.

She smiled kindly and said that she thought the problem was too much time in class, not too little. Handing in the final papers of her doctorate had clashed with my workshop, so she was feeling a little tired. I’m grateful for that humiliating lesson in teaching me that people are very seldom who you think they are. Can I put in a word here for a similar re-education programme for mobile phone sellers? I’m tired of having my ignorance interpreted as stupidity and I’m sure many feel the same. I’m ignorant about phones because I can’t be ars*d to be interested, not because I lack the intelligence to learn.

Appearances can be deceptive. We all know that and we all forget it. This week on the Ask and Artist podcast we’re discussing social media, the most misleading light ever provided to shine on our personal and professional lives. Surely social media is the greatest villain for misinterpretation the world has ever seen. Or is it?

All the towels in my studio are coordinated to match with equally inky filth

For me as an artist it is the exact opposite and I hope that’s true for most creatives. It’s a platform for my reality. A world away from predictable ‘niceness’ of my age, face and clothes, where I share just who I am and what I can do. I’m good with social media and I believe this is mostly down to authenticity and honestly. That the audience like my output is fantastic, but that I have a place to put the output is even better. Look on social media and you’ll see the truth: in my world, towels are ripped into squares and dunked in ink and spirits, not politely matched to the colour of the downstairs loo.

Take the Plunge

This week’s blog will have to serve for two weeks of podcasts. I took Christmas week off writing to indulge in cooking. The cooking was huge fun, the post-visit laundry less so, but hey it was a good Christmas and I hope your Christmas was a good one too.

We covered criticism on Ask an Artist last week and I hope you listened. Dealing with critics is not just for art, but for Christmas too. A graceful fielding of family critics is always a good skill to possess. I used to get wildly angry with a Christmas relative who added ‘little’ when referring to anything I did. It was a clever ploy; even a NATO accord is belittled by ‘little’. I’d love to tell you how I managed to defuse the situation with witty words, but in reality I learned the wise lesson to let go and that some little things can be dismissed with a little smile.

Come on in – the water’s lovely!

This week the podcast is about finding your own style. It’s something we all need as artists, but I’m beginning to believe that it’s one of those elusive things that arrive the more you do and the less you think. Bit like my swimming lessons. Swimming I’ve always found easy, thanks to my brother who, in the name of ‘teach your small sister to swim’, tipped me into the deep end of the swimming pool and saw to it that I didn’t actually drown. The after-swim flake from the vending machine and the attention of a heroically older brother was more than enough reward for me to embrace the whole proceeding with gusto and to clamour for more.

Artistic identity is a little the same I think. More about jumping into the deep end and paddling hard, less about thinking things through. Individuality will out and, as skills develop, will become more pronounced. A case of loving what you do and following where your interests lie. My initial interest in swimming lay in impressing my brother and eating chocolate, but ended up resulting in a strong and confident swimmer with what I would certainly describe as an ‘individual’ style.

As mentioned, this week’s Ask An Artist is all about individual artistic identity; how to develop your unique style, how to keep it fresh and how to avoid the pitfalls of becoming a one trick pony. Don’t forget to subscribe on your favourite podcast provider!

What goes around comes around…

I spend a lot of time on social media and on my web site telling people all about what I do and how I do it. I’m quite happy, indeed enthusiastic, in sharing knowledge. I am very pleased to share. My family and non-printmaker friends will tell you how pleased I am. They’d just roll their eyes and look exhausted while doing so.

I’m not alone in this. I have just visited two paint and printing ink manufacturers to interview for the podcast. They are going to be long episodes. Far from wanting to control the podcast around promoting products, both companies revelled in sharing ideas, methods and helpful hints. Both challenged artists to get in touch; ‘the harder the questions the better’.

Sharing techniques and materials has never been a problem for me. Printmaking is very process-led and that means plenty of lovely tools, materials and methods to share. Aside from that, I feel a debt of gratitude to people who helped me along the way. Passing on my knowledge to others is simply keeping the chain of generosity intact as I go from novice to experienced printmaker. I believe generosity in the art world is pretty common, here are a few of my experiences.

I’ll start close to home with my in-laws. My lino tools were given to me to take to art school by my now mother-in-law and former illustrator Sal, whose father James Boswell used them for his own prints and for illustration jobs of all kinds.

My mother-in-law Sal painted by her dad James Boswell . I love this painting, she’s less keen.

They are beautiful professional tools that she entrusted to her son’s 18 year old girlfriend of a year who was about to vanish over the horizon to Aberystwyth University, possibly never to be seen again.

Paul Hogarth, the illustrator, who I met in passing and who took time out to chat and to tell me exactly how hard I would need to work and how much passion was needed to become an artist. It took me many years to realise how sensible and realistic he was and to see how much he didn’t need to waste time with a twenty-something shilly-shallying between a paying job and trying to make it as an artist, but he did so anyway.

Old Mr Lawrence of Lawrence Art Supplies who apparently had all the time in the world to discuss Japanese papers and printing inks in his shop in Bleeding Heart Yard and who treated me like a serious artist when I was anything but.

Ian Phillips, linocut printer and member of Pine Feroda, who told me (when I began printmaking in earnest in 2005) to stop thinking of myself as a woman with a shed and a hobby, to grow up and start behaving like printmaker with a studio and has given me endless helpful advice ever since.

The list goes on, but I am sure you get my point. What goes around comes around and I’m very happy to be a part of that process.

This week on the Ask an Artist Podcast we are celebrating Christmas by discussing the many ways of giving back to other artists, the local community and to our supporters. The podcast is released weekly on Fridays at 10am GMT

Laura Boswell is not at home…

I am not good with heights or indeed with the wild outdoors. As a child of the city, I used to spend summers with friends in Lincolnshire. Daughters of a farming family, they were perfectly at home running wild all day with their father’s horses, up trees and lighting fires. I was not. I was unfit in almost every sense and, put up on the farmer’s expensive hunter, allowed her to run onto the main road before falling off and needing stitches. With the wisdom of age, I see that I was not the clumsy idiot I felt, just skilled in other ways. Navigating the tube with ease by ten and possessing a Londoner’s knack for jumping on and off moving buses. This was the seventies when kids were free to roam and, provided I had the sacred 2p for a phone call, a fair chunk of London was my playground.

Hoping I live long enough to turn this view into a print…

These days I work with landscape and you’d think I’d be better at being out there. Sadly, it isn’t true. I’ve just a couple of days drawing, first on the North Yorkshire Moors and then at St Abbs Head up in Scotland. The moors were everything you would expect from a Yorkshire December bar the snow, while St Abbs Head is a magnificent length of Scottish Coast: picture a rucked-up candlewick bedspread falling into the sea from a great height.

I’m fit enough these days, but not what I would call comfortable. You can see it in my urgent, ‘get me out of this weather and into some dry/warm clothes’ sketches. Add the dizzy plunges of St Abbs Head and I go from grumpily uncomfortable into properly scared. This part of the trip I alternated between a sort of locked-knee mincing walk and, anywhere near the edge, I opted for all fours or a sort of amateur commando elbow shuffle flat out. Nobody falls off a cliff lying down – am I right?

You’d think I’d give up landscape for bowls of roses and cityscapes, but my work is increasingly looking to wilder places and I think there’s probably good reason. It’s my discomfort and craven fear that makes these places so damn exciting for me and so much more productive for my printmaking. It’s the ‘hiding behind the sofa while thrilled by Doctor Who’ syndrome. Perhaps I’ll get happier at being out there, though probably not, but I’ll feel the fear and keep on going regardless.

This week on Ask an Artist podcast we discuss writing an artist statement. Funnily enough I don’t say anything about my clumsy and reluctant embrace of nature in mine, but then I think they’re best kept short.

Christmas Games

Christmas is looming so here’s a little game to play that’ll hopefully be more fun than reviving the annual bicker about a) who fed the cat/dog the most inappropriate treats and is now responsible for the subsequent fallout b) why all the hard/soft centres have vanished from the bottom layer of the chocolate box before the top one was empty c) whether a brisk post-lunch walk/drinks with the neighbours is a seasonal highlight/to be avoided at all costs.

For the game, you each choose three things from around the house that you have bought over the years and that have a special meaning for you. I’d love them to be pieces of art, but it’s not really that important. You could choose a soap dish, or maybe a wooden spoon. Or choose both and a piece of art, since I did say three things. Then each person gets to tell the stories behind their choices. Prizes for the best stories are optional and awards go to any object chosen by more than one member of the family. This should go well unless you choose the distressed leather recliner you bought at a car boot sale and have reclined in it throughout the clearing up post-dinner.

Gifts and inheritances aside, objects we buy that mean a lot to us tend to come with a story and, more often than not, it is about the moment when the object is found and bought. You’ll have just proved that with your warm and witty stories.

As an artist, I have a head start over the sellers of soap dishes and wooden spoons since people are buying my work as a pleasurable luxury. But it’s still in my power to make or break the experience. The trick for success is really simple and it’s to take the time to listen and respond to the customer with genuine interest and kindness. Customers when coaxed to tell, come with the first part of the story; the why of the purchase. Then I fill in the middle where they get to learn about the who, what and how. By the time the artwork gets home, it’s a purchase bound up with empathy plus a deeper understanding, and the whole experience becomes more than the sum of its parts. It may even become a winner in a Christmas game one day.

This week on the Ask an Artist podcast we are interviewing gallery owner and art dealer Nick Bentley about his gallery Bils and Rye and his customer and artist relationships. Listen out for his bittersweet story about a piece of jewellery and a special customer he’ll always remember.

The Artist’s Persona

I do like a personality quiz. There’s something appealingly Daliesque in discovering the public building that most represents my taste in men, or which Jane Austin book reveals my secret sporting ability*. Surreal answers aside, the one fixed point in these random tests is my high score as an introvert.

If life consisted of hiding in the studio and pretending to be otherwise occupied when required to speak to anyone other than the studio spiders, introverted is all I would need to be. I’d have a considerable talent for the task. But most of my time is spent in front of other people; teaching, chatting, selling and generally being a pleasantly outgoing and engaging person. Indeed, my livelihood depends on it.

Keeping calm and carrying on!

Fortunately, connecting with people is a skill that can be learned. It’s terrifying, like most extreme sports, but comes with practice. I made it a rule, when I started out as a printmaker, to engage with strangers whenever I could. Not in a mad person on the bus way. Think more inept British person breaking all bounds of normality to mumble something about the weather. I still make myself do this to keep my hand in; take away the art and I’m back to staring at my shoes and avoiding all eye contact.

Over the years I’ve actually come to love this duality and my outgoing role as an artist. I like meeting people, hearing their stories, coaxing lovely prints out of students and taking part in shows and fairs. I weirdly adore giving public talks about my work: an evening all about me and a chance to show off in public, what’s not to like? Turns out that inside the introvert, there’s a borderline extrovert waiting to break free. It just takes my job, backed up with some hard core training, to make the switch.

Ask an Artist podcast explores the artist’s persona this week, the how and why of developing a professional public face. Have a listen and tell your friends – we’d love to have your company

*
• Tate Britain/talented (obviously)
• Sense and Sensibility/downhill running with mixed success

Putting on a show…

My boarding school was big on presentation. Any event that involved us as a group saw every girl issued with a pair of deeply horrible American Tan tights. In fairness to Americans, I think the colour was based more on the idea of America as a place of glowing opportunity than a skin tone. Either way, we were made to wear bizarrely tangerine tights in the name of unity and good presentation.

The tights might have sucked, but the presentation thing stuck. My first ever exhibition took place in our garage and consisted of about twelve prints. A small show, but I was big on the presentation aspect. We hauled out every last bit of junk and scrubbed the place, added lighting and hung work in matching frames made by my husband on our kitchen table with huge care and painfully little experience. I hung signs on as many local lamp posts as the local council would stand and made carefully coordinated price labels and little storyboards about printing. Then I optimistically invested in wrapping and a cash float for the imagined sales.

Ouch, mixing that colour ink was traumatic…

Perhaps I should have worn the lucky American Tan tights too. For the first six of the nine days nobody came at all except my family. Thankfully they showed up, made robust comments about giving things time and generously found a need to buy a print or two.

On the last weekend I got some proper visitors; four unknown strangers. The first couple came and took my small show perfectly seriously, writing in the visitor’s book that they enjoyed the ‘well-presented work’ and promising to come back next year. The second couple bought a print, commenting that they were sorry they’d not noticed I was open in previous years as they very much liked my work. Suddenly all that preparation was worth it and the show seemed a total success. The sale felt great, but more importantly the casual acceptance by total strangers that I was the real deal did wonders for my confidence. It also confirmed my faith in the power of good presentation. That said, I remain steady in the belief that American Tan tights, still available on Ebay, are best avoided.

This week ASK AN ARTIST podcast is all about art fairs, don’t forget to subscribe!

Understanding Galleries.

I have a gamekeeper turned poacher feeling about galleries. I had a similar sort of job working in a picture library in the nineties and the overlap has stood me in good stead when it comes to understanding and working with galleries as an artist.

I used to manage a collection of child development photographs, the work of about ten or so professional photographers. There’s much I could tell you about alternative methods of childbirth and developmental milestones. Instead I’ll tell you that looking after those photographers and managing their work was more than enough labour to entitle our business to the 50% we took from any sales. Hopefully no artist would arrive at a gallery with a big smile and several carrier bags packed with uncut and rapidly unspooling ribbons of film as my photographers often did, but still the workload for any serious gallery is huge and the responsibilities equally demanding. And that’s just the behind the scenes work, not the selling.

My time managing the baby photos taught me not to be sentimental. I needed to send out photos that would sell, not photos I liked. Among the hundreds of babies, it was easy to spot that my son Jim was the winner; clearly the most intelligent and beautiful child on file. That didn’t mean he’d sell for every job.

My lovely Jim, cover boy for Mothercare during the boom years…

When I sent my photo selections to clients they were based on sales, not mother-love, and he often didn’t make the cut. Remembering this when a gallery turns me down or returns work unsold helps to remind me that rejection isn’t personal, just a practical decision based on sales and not to take it too much to heart.

We loved our photographers, crazy and demanding creatives that they were. We welcomed their visits, drank tea, shared lunches and took time to truly understand their work and methods. I don’t expect every gallery to supply lunch and tea, but I’ve no time for any who have no time for me. A good gallery never makes an artist feel it’s a favour to take their work and, if they don’t mind, could they use the back entrance and be quick about leaving. Without the artists, there is no gallery and without taking time to understand the artist’s work, selling must be close on impossible. It’s not often I walk away, but I did the day a gallery owner greeted me with ‘love your work darling, now remind me which ones of these are yours?’

On this week’s Ask An Artist podcast we talk all things gallery, don’t forget to subscribe!

There was no grand plan

My becoming an artist was a chance event, so entirely dependent on the kindness of almost-strangers, that I could easily have missed the boat entirely and spent the rest of my life without so much as picking up a sketchbook, let alone an inky roller. And when the chance did come, I was far from keen to seize the day; it took a year of gradually evaporating patience on the part of distant, to me, family friends to press the gift of an Albion printing press upon me and more or less force me back into print.

Sounds stupid doesn’t it? Even if you aren’t a printmaker and are not presently shouting ‘YOU SAID NO TO AN ALBION??’ at the screen, it’s obvious in retrospect that I was an idiot. I was indeed an eejit (as my Irish father-in-law, best mates with the press-offering friends would confirm), but the problem was a big one. It wasn’t that I was afraid of the printing, though after a sixteen year period without drawing, let alone printmaking, it was a serious concern. It was that I knew from the very first suggestion that I might like a press, that this would be no private hobby. Agreeing would launch me on a new path as an artist and open a whole can of worms that were noticeably absent from my part time work, gardening and family life. I can’t say how I knew that, but know it I did, and I was fairly sure that I was going to die trying to make it all happen.

Early days with my new press, but already a deadly serious face!

Thankfully I caved and took the press. Fourteen years later, I still get cold sweats thinking I could so easily have missed my chance.

My story does lack the fairy dust of passionate ambition fulfilled and instead reveals considerable ingratitude and dithering on my part. But I did get one thing mostly right; the journey to becoming an artist was a tough one and, while I didn’t die trying, it’s been a staggeringly steep learning curve. Starting with a very simple lesson: always say yes to the offer of a press.