Thursday, October 28, 2010

The history of smalls

(From the archives)
Acrylic on canvas
24 x 36 inches
Barbara Muir © 2002

In a recent article on The Painter's Keys website
Robert Genn explains to artist, Randall Cogburn
who sells small paintings online, (Genn calls them "peanuts"),
that painters who sell small works at a low price will not
be taken seriously by major galleries. Cogan does very nice
work, but hasn't been selling.  Genn gives excellent tips for
how to improve sales, but adds the cautionary note that
selling this way is a poor career move for artists who want to have
credibility in the art world. 
The Pool
Tom Thomson (one of The Group of Seven)
76.4 x 81.7 cm 
National Gallery of Canada
I've been thinking about this problem ever since
I read the post, and don't know what you think.
Yesterday when I was at the Art Gallery of Ontario,
one of Canada's major public galleries, I was
most interested in seeing the work of The Group
of Seven.  These painters from the turn of the
last century are Canadian icons.  And let me tell
you this.  Out in the woods of northern Ontario
where they painted the bulk of their wonderful
landscape paintings -- they were painting on small
boards.  The reasons were practical, ease of
carrying (you don't want a giant canvas in a backpack
when you're hiking), and the ideal size for a
quick study.

But these smaller works, which are every bit as
magnificent as their larger paintings in all respects
except for scale, hang proudly on the wall beside
the large works, and are now just as "important."

In my case, if I had not been doing small Skype
drawings I would not have attracted the attention
of Howard Wolinsky and then The Oprah Winfrey
show etc.  I might not have been asked to show in
Florence, and a vast, exciting world of opportunities
would never have opened up to me.

But I also took Robert Genn's article as a permission
slip not to try to create a new small painting every day,
or if I do to charge a reasonable rate for my work -- something
like what Edward B. Gordon does.  Painting small works has
not hurt Edward B. Gordon in Germany.  He has been
asked to do all sorts of exciting projects.  What seems
to matter to me is that an artist continues to paint larger
works while producing small work (in part to pay the
bills to produce the large work).

I would love to hear what you think about all this.
It's certainly an interesting topic.

Have a painting-in-whatever-size-suits-you day.


Nicki said...

Hi Barbara,

When I was at the AGO (summer 2009) all I cared about finding was the rooms that held the Group of Seven. You are so lucky to be close to that work. I found many times that the smaller work or sketches were a bit more exciting than the larger work done in the studio.

This is a very interesting topic. I really don't know what to think about what Robert Genn wrote. I get what he is saying and often I see "daily work" (there are a lot of them these days) and I think to myself "they aren't charging enough". I do think the way you price your work gives it some credibility. He is an extremely successful artist who has sky high prices which he regularly increases by 10% every year. When you are that successful and have gone the traditional way, I'm sure a $75.00 daily painting seems like peanuts. But honestly, is the type of success he has found guaranteed if you are signed on with a couple of galleries? Certainly not. I think, in fact, that many artists want to skip the middle man and are using the internet to do just that. There is a book called "Linchpin" that looks at Abbey Ryan as an artists forging her own way in an unconventional manner. There are some very successful artists who have not hurt their careers by going online: E.B Gordon, Liza Hurst, Abbey Ryan, Duane Keiser, Karin Jurrick, Pierre Raby to name a few (they all charge a respectable sum for their work). To look down on them because they have not gone the traditional route is , well, snobby. Maybe it only hurts your career if you actually want to be represented by a gallery (Karin Jurrick does both successfully).

Hope I didn't ramble too much...

XO Nicki

P.S. My mentor got agitated when I brought up Robert Genn to her this summer. She thinks he is nothing more than a formula painter. Which has raised this question for me... "what is the difference between a formula painter and a painter that has developed a strong style?

Barbara Muir said...

Hi Nicki,

Wow. Thank you so much for the long response. It's a serious subject. The responses on The Painter's Keys to this article are pretty interesting too. I like your question at the end. A friend yesterday was saying that galleries like artists to stick with a recognizable style, and how can you grow and change if that's true.

But the truth is that there are so many galleries, and different ways of handling the contractual arrangements with artists that it's not possible to make assumptions.

We all have to carve our own path. Selling is vital. I think what Robert Genn is saying is that it can't be the main driver for painting. But I've read that in Vermeer's time artists were considered to be another trade like baker, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that.

Love your work Nicki, and your thoughtful blog.


Susan said...

I think an artist has to value her/his own work in order for the public to value it. The yardstick that we have is the price that's charged for the work. Lowering the price does not necessarily mean that something is going to sell. This action actually can have the opposite effect because the public then views the item(s) for sale as not having much value. I think that's the real crux of the problem. An artist should take her/his work seriously, treat it professionally and price it accordingly. Why would a gallery want to represent an artist who does not take his/her work seriously? Of course, marketing is another aspect of the problem but, again, if you don't take your work seriously you're not going to spend the necessary time on the marketing aspect.

Barbara Muir said...

Hi Susan,

Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Of course this whole conundrum puts the artist in a double bind. If you don't value you work, no one will, but if you need an income and most artists do, selling the work at prices people can afford matters. I was shocked a few years ago to meet a couple of American artists who are quite famous. Both of them said that despite being in excellent galleries they do not earn an income from their paintings, which is why they conduct seminars. One fellow said -- you can have a great month and sell two paintings for $10,000 each, then not sell anything for six months. Although the prices are great, and the work renowned, sales are erratic. Most painters don't paint to sell, they paint because they have to. But when painting is your profession, that passion needs to pay the rent too.

Take care,


Portrait Artist

My photo
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
I paint and draw on commission and for shows. To commission a portrait, or purchase one of my paintings please contact me at:
A major highlight in my career? Drawing Oprah Winfrey live via Skype for her show "Where in the Skype are you? Galleries: Studio Vogue Gallery, Toronto, Canada. The Amsterdam Whitney Gallery, New York City. Gallery at the Porch Door, Kingston, Canada. Your positive comments on this blog mean the world to me. I'd love to hear from you!