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.

So this is new…

I’m painfully aware that it’s been a long time since my last blog. Increasingly aware and increasingly pained as my brother-in-law and manager of my website, has taken to pinging me emails on the subject. Reminding me of my blog deficiency with an ever-lengthening timeline of my failure to provide.

I wouldn’t mind, but it’s made worse by the fact that I like writing this blog. Here’s the place where I get to write with slack on subjects I fancy. Those who know me will know I have a monthly column at Artists and Illustrators Magazine and have just written a book*. Noble projects both of them, but requiring me to be accurate, conscientious and not to slag off my relations for calling me out on my failings. The book’s done, but the articles are ongoing and once I have cudgelled my brain into embracing a fresh topic for A&I every month, there’s precious little energy to think again for my blog.

That’s about to change. Hurrah. At 10am GMT Friday 8th November I launch a podcast with fellow artist Peter Keegan. We are channelling everything we know about the business of becoming artists into Ask an Artist and hitting the airwaves. This for the greater good of all those out there who want to make a start on earning some money from their art. For the greater good of me, there’s going to be a lovely cascade of blog ideas weekly. The proper show notes and yet another writing job, I’ll be doing over at the Ask an Artist website more or less in the style of a stern but kindly aunt. Here I get the freedom to blog along freestyle.

Of course, I urge you to tie up all the loose ends by subscribing to the show on your platform of choice, embracing my sage show notes over at Ask an Artist and completing the triad by reading this blog, which I promise will now appear on a more regular basis. But it’s not compulsory. Nothing about this blog is compulsory, not even not writing it for a bit. Just saying…

*My book ‘Making Japanese Woodblock Prints’ Crowood Press is coincidentally also due to be released on Friday 8th November. I’d shout more about this, but the first print run is already spoken for in pre-orders, so there’s going to be a bit of a delay while they print some more.