William Wharton on the art of “Making it”

“The proof is in the painting” May 1986

As an artist, a painter, who, more or less, scratched out a living over twenty tough years, rearing four children, I’m often asked:  «How can an artist make ‛it’?». The question is usually presented by young artists with yearnings, or by concerned parents of yearning young artists. I invariably answer with a question, What do you mean by it’».

Here I’m going to limit my response to the economic aspect of it’. If one longs, yearns for recognition, immortality, fame, acclaim; then go talk to somebody else…I’ve never wanted those ‘goodies’ and never had them. I only wanted to paint.Recently, a long time friend, a neurosurgeon’s wife, a doyen at a large U.S. museum, mother of three and, for years, God bless her, a buyer of my paintings, brought up the same question. We were dining at the Closerie des Lilas. She asked because her much loved daughter was about to marry an artist.There were tears in her concerned eyes and I tried to answer her. For what it’s worth, I give her the essence of my response. This is, after I’d asked my usual question about  it’. If she meant living in the style to which she and her family had become accustomed, again, I’m the wrong person to ask. If she meant living on one quarter of that elevated scale, I’m still the wrong one.

First, the easiest path of an artist, is to be born rich, or have wealthy, loving parents; preferably older and in not too good health. The second easy path is to marry a rich mate, or one who is willing to support you while you do your work. These solutions seem easy but are hard to come by. We won’t even consider them here.We get down to defining “it’.The first it’ for a working painter is selling enough to pay for materials.

The second it’, is being able to afford a place in which to store materials, paintings equipment, a place to work when the weather is bad. The difficulty of attaining this‛it’ varies with the artist. Unnecessary needs or wants can hinder or even abort this  it’. If high ceilings, north light with hot and cold running models are essential, this it’ can take a long time. It’s my experience, that regardless what painting genius an artist might have, it’s rarely combined with ingenuity. Success as a painter at the economic level, however, usually requires considerable portions of this characteristic, ingenuity. In varying sequence, most of the following it’s will need to bemade’.

Food. One must eat. Clothing, for warmth and decency; a studio can be a cold place. Heat, electricity and other mundane necessities must be arranged somehow, or done without. Also, most humans like companionship. The most difficult it’ to support, is a mate. Further yet, an involvement with biology; to have children, the ultimate creation, is a difficult ‘it’ to support.If, with painting alone, an artist achieves these‛it’s, and maintains them, that artist has indeed made ‘it’.

I suspect that less than one hundred American painters have actually managed to gain this rather limited level.I know this all sounds rather discouraging, but there are alternatives. One alternative is to train for and do something else for money in order to support your painting. This does not necessarily make one a Sunday or ‘amateur’ painter. It can actually indicate dedication.  The problem is, front-line-painting is terribly demanding in terms of energy and time. It is almost impossible to achieve meaningful painting as a mere handmaiden to another activity.

One must keep painting centered in the mind and spirit. I speak from personal experience here. In the years since I’ve begun writing professionally, the demands of my literary life often interfere with the drive of my prime mission, painting. I’ve known other artists who’ve found occupations which gave them enough money to live and still allowed day time space and energy to paint. A few of these activities are:Garbage collection (up early, finished in light, good pay, good exercise, valuable work, not intellectually demanding). Fireman (on twenty-four hours, off two days. Plenty of time to work.) One artist I know has done beautiful drawings and sketches of the fireman’s life as he lives it.Teaching (try not to teach art, it’s too draining, too close, yet not close enough, to personal work.) If you have the academic skills, train for and teach in another area.Some other possibilities are mail delivery, bar tending, waiting on tables, almost any job which is not too demanding, doesn’t short circuit your painting and leaves some good time for work.

Obviously this is not an all inclusive list but it gives an idea. I did not include work in art allied fields such as advertising, TV, films, etc… I’ve found it almost impossible for a serious painter to survive in these high pressure activities. The pressures in front of an easel is quite enough. The gallery-agent-dealer route is a perilous, difficult, and time consuming farce. It is also almost impossible to maintain any personal aesthetic.

The demands of the gallery to produce what sells and not to change style when they’ve developed a market for your work, can be overwhelming.  Money in art galleries is made by gallery owners, not painters. Remember also, most of the costs of most galleries in almost any large city are sustained by the artists; not the owner, not the buyer. Between one half to two thirds of the price paid by a buyer in a gallery, never gets to the artist.

However, the painter, who, out of desperation and frustration, tries to market his paintings personally, will find it terribly time consuming. Standing around a studio showing paintings when one would rather be painting is discouraging. Avoiding this trap calls for ingenuity. Some artists fulfill Webster’s definition of the word. Ingenious: Marked by especial aptitude at discovering, inventing, or contriving; resourceful, clever.

The most successful artists I know are so marked. I’ll give a few examples. Randall Lake, studied painting in Paris, married, with five children. He lives in Salt Lake City. He paints portraits of local dignitaries to feed his family and also paints some of the most beautiful still lifes since Chardin. He shows in San Francisco with good sales. But his bread and butter for the kids is the portraits. Morris Byrd in Pennsylvania, has 18 acres and runs a nursery, loves plants, paints them, sells plants and paintings.

Another artist I know well, travels all over America once a year, goes from city to city giving “Tupper Ware’ type art shows. He asks people who know and love his work to invite friends over for a weekend while he shows his work. He sells. Another artist, here in Paris, Jo Lancaster, has a two story studio, formely a broken down storage place for furniture. He works in the top story and the bottom story is a self service gallery with over six hundred paintings. These are carefully stored in racks with markings as to subject matter, size, date. Phone him, or and he’ll let you in. You can look at paintings and slides of paintings to your heart’s content. If you want to buy, just ring the bell to his upstairs studio and he’ll come down. He’ll tell you about the painting you want to buy and take your money. You walk out with a painting or not, at your leisure, no time lost on anyone’s part, no embarrassment.

Another artist friend in Los Angeles, publishes a yearly catalogue of his work with black and white photos, descriptions of paintings, prices. He mails this out to former buyers and potential buyers. It’s first come, first serve, and within the month of publication he’s usually sold and mailed out enough paintings to live another year. There are many other ingenious solutions I know of, by which painters try to‛make it’. Some work, some don’t. It takes experimenting around to discover a way which will be good for a particular painter. But, the important thing is, these are serious painters giving a straight on, courageous try at an activity which is demanding and not particularly rewarding, economically. The reward is internal. It might be the only thing I’ve ever done in my life which never became work. So if you have it’, go after ‛it’, and see if you can‛make it’. You’ll know you’re a painter (the second most asked question, «How do I know if I’m a painter?») if you paint. The proof is in the painting.

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