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.

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!