Talking trash

Can you remember your worst teacher? I don’t mean the one who couldn’t keep the class quiet, or the one who bored you to tears, or even the one, like my husband’s, who found himself during the summer holidays and returned to school with a kaftan and a passion for mystic religion replacing his previous one for mathematics. I mean the one who messed up your confidence with a few chosen words.

Advertisers love us to get all warm and fuzzy remembering our best teachers. Hopefully you have at least one, I was fortunate in having a couple, and of course they are a wonderful thing. Where would I be without Dr. Sullivan’s engaging ability to make sense of written English or Miss Fountain’s generosity with the art supply cupboard and her blind eye? But these are never the teachers I get to hear about in my classes. Students never say ‘I’m here, keen and confident thanks to Mr Woolford’s encouragement in applied woodwork’. Rather they say saddening things like ‘I can’t draw’ or ‘I’m so sorry, I’m hopeless with design’ or even ‘I’m not sure I can do this’.

Nine times out of ten there’s a teacher at the back of it and I sympathise, I really do. To this day I would almost rather starve than speak French. Madame Wharton did for me. Elegant Parisienne trapped inside the nightmare of an English boarding school facing badly dressed and clumsy girls, she took out her frustrations on us and left me unable to mutter une seul mot.

These days my job as a teacher sometimes involves unpicking this kind of damage done long ago. It’s not easy and it takes time, but the good news is that there’s always the same outcome: the teacher’s words are never accurate, never the truth.

Checking out a new print, always an exciting moment!

I’ve yet to meet one student who comes to a class and really can’t do it; who is actually unable, given the right help, to design or draw something interesting and worthwhile. I don’t believe they exist, but plenty of my students arrive convinced they are that very person.

I don’t aspire to be one of the memorable teachers, the people who come to me are too grown up and independent to need that. But I do hope to occasionally be the one who gets to release the iron grip of a bad teacher. It’s just so damn satisfying to prove their idiot words wrong and see the student blossom.

This week on Ask an Artist podcast we discuss teaching, its benefits and pressures and how to decide whether to add teaching to your list of skills as a working artist.

Practice makes perfect

I wasn’t expecting an exam. Certainly not a blind test, facing anonymous little pots of paint on Cranfield Colour’s board room table and the Managing Director’s stern questions. I thought I was going for a lovely sightseeing tour around the factory responsible for making my printing inks. Apparently I had to win the entry ticket with my clever answers first. It’s a tribute to MD Michael Craine’s charm that this scenario, which could so easily be me narrating a recurring nightmare, was both fun and illuminating. Could I tell which was modern oil paint and which a pre-industrial mix? Which sample came from Italy and which from the Netherlands?

There seemed little chance of getting anything right beyond a lucky guess, except I found I could. Once I had the sense to relax and trust to my gut feeling.

A slick of yellow printing ink passing through Cranfield’s milling machine

I dipped fingers into all pots, felt the paint, smelt it and smeared it about a bit, probably not best practice in a board room, and it all became clear. Mad as it sounds, the modern paint felt modern, the historic paint authentic, the Italian paint smelt of sun and the south, the Dutch paint of Northern chill and wide skies. I just needed to remember that I had this covered; I spend all my days around inks and paint. If I didn’t know intellectually, my fingers and nose would answer for me.

I don’t think this gut instinct gets enough of a shout when it comes to artistic practice, at least not when it comes to technique. There’s plenty spoken about ways in which artists are moved to create, but little said about their instinctive feel for method and materials. That essential understanding of how materials feel on any given day and what small adjustments in movement, mixing or application is needed to correct and improve them. It’s a shame because this wealth of instinctive knowledge is a beautiful thing. Watch any expert maker working and you can see how much they rely on instinct and experience. That magic only comes with putting in the hours and doing the work, but it’s an essential part of the job if an artist wants to excel.

I’m pleased to say that I did win the golden ticket, I did get to tour Cranfield Colours and enjoy all the delights of traditional paint and ink milling and mixing – and I got to feel like a worthy winner as well.

This week on Ask an Artist podcast we turn the tables on Michael Craine and ask him the questions. It’s a fantastic episode, full of helpful tips and some very interesting insights into all things paint, ink and pigments.

How Much?

Pricing work; nightmare eh? I dare say there are artists out there thrilled by putting a price to their work, but I have yet to meet one who actively enjoys it, especially at the start of their career. I know I’ve lost a lot of sleep over the years thanks to pricing.

I think that’s because pricing is a bit of an iceberg situation. There’s the financial bit bobbing about on the surface for everyone to see. Reasonably clear facts and figures; what the work costs to make, where you sit in the art world, what the market will bear and so on. Stuff you can discuss rationally and more or less pin down with a pen and paper.

labours of love come at a price for both artist and collector

Below the water lurks the larger, less rational challenge of finding the nerve needed to fix a price and stand by it. The confidence and self-belief essential to actually get out there and face the public as a new artist with newly priced work. This was about ninety percent of the difficulty for me, tying it neatly to the iceberg metaphor now I have googled to check the proportions.

There’s no easy formula for that ninety percent, only time. One thing I found did help was to be sure that my prices suited me on my terms. I did the practical stuff: the research and maths needed to be sensible, but only finalised my figures when I was happy and comfortable with the decision reached. It sounds silly, but this checking in with my feelings as well as doing the maths helped enormously with my confidence, tiny as it was at the beginning. And it’s confidence that sells. It helped me to smile and stand by my prices without apology or justification. It was a terrifying charade to begin with; I have a transparent Celtic skin that was no help at all, but my belief in my prices did. Over time selling got easier. It does all get easier, pricing included.

Pricing is a serious business, emotionally as well as mathematically. As any ship’s captain will tell you; it’s a good idea to consider the whole iceberg, not just the bit above the water.

We’ll be navigating all things pricing this week on the Ask an Artist podcast, released every Friday at 10am GMT.