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I Don't Care About Your Materials

by Luann Udell on 12/22/2016 10:28:19 AM

This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. She's blogged since 2002 about the business side--and the spiritual inside--of art. She says, "I share my experiences so you won't have to make ALL the same mistakes I did...."  For ten years, Luann also wrote a column ("Craft Matters") for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explored the funnier side of her life in craft. She's a double-juried member of the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (fiber & art jewelry). Her work has appeared in books, magazines and newspapers across the country and she is a published writer.



OR your techniques, OR your process.  Unless you tell me the reasons why I SHOULD care.


I had a conversation at the gym today with one of the assistants. I’d normally put it under my “Lessons from the Gym” series, except it’s about wine. (“Lessons from the Vineyard”... ???)


This person works part-time at a winery, and really likes good wine. Mr. J is constantly encouraging me to try really good wines. I am actually clueless about wine, and don’t even care for it very much.


Finally, I asked him, “What’s your favorite brand of polymer clay?”


Huh??  Not only did he not have a favorite brand, he wasn’t even sure what it is.


“See?” I told him. “I do have favorite brands, and there are other brands I’d never even dream of using. It’s important to me, but won’t matter to you at all—unless you love my work and want to purchase a piece. Then I can explain why I use the clay I use, and why it should matter to you.”


Now, his customers at the winery may care very much about the types of wines, their characteristics, their history, etc. But trying to tell people who don’t like wine, why they should buy a certain kind of wine, is barking up the wrong tree without a paddle. Or something.


As artists, we all have our preferences and favorites for materials, techniques, process, even the brands of oils, watercolor, pencils, canvas, etc. All of our selections and preference matter very much to us, because we believe these choices all contribute in some way to the work we do.


Many of us are happy to share our preferences, etc. too. But before we do, it might behoove us to figure out if that’s what our potential customers really want to hear about.


As fine craft consultant Bruce Baker always says, “Telling a customer you use a cobalt glaze on your pottery and fire it at cone 10 means nothing to them. They want to know if there’s lead in the glaze, and can they put it in the microwave.”


Tell me WHY you chose that brand. WHY you choose wood panels over canvas, and linen canvas over cotton. Tell me WHY that specific shade of blue is so important to you, and WHY that effect excites you.


The next time you see the art of someone who works in wood, ask them the difference between marquetry, parquetry, and inlaid wood (aka intarsia--who knew??) You will learn a lot. See how much you remember the next day.


OR wait til you see a piece and fall in love with it.  Then ask about the technique. You’ll remember more, because you’re already connected to the piece.


THEN ask them WHY they use this technique. If they’ve got a handle on it, it will bring tears to your eyes. Or at least stop you from complaining about the high price, encourage you to get out your checkbook, and leave you truly appreciative of this skill.


There’s a paint color I love to use, when I can find it, called Van Dyke Brown. It’s usually not a fun color, despite its association with the work of old masters. Its base was lignite coal, and it wasn’t very light-fast. But it’s the perfect color for the “scrimshaw technique” I use to “antique” my polymer artifacts. (It’s a lot easier to find Raw Umber.) This is also the reason why I have a bag of dirt from New Hampshire. (Yep, you read that right!)


Even when there’s a plausible “why”, make sure you only share it when people are eager to hear more about your work. Many artists will say with pride that their materials are archival and will last a long time. Unfortunately, I’ve seen plenty of really awful work made with archival materials and acid-free papers. So that’s not  an automatic good selling point, unless they’re ready to buy.


My approach with discussing materials, process, technique, etc. is to use them sparingly in conversation, and only when people comment on that aspect of my work. (“How do you get this bear to look so old?!”) Even then, my focus is not on the what, or the how, but the WHY. (I tell them WHY I want the bear to look old.)


Every single bear is different. People are drawn to each one for a different reason, and THAT reason is the start of your selling process.


Just like a good artist statement, your explanation of your choices should make the client want to go back and take a closer look at your work.


Nobody buys my work because I use Van Dyke Brown and dirt from Keene, NH.


But many, many people buy my artifacts, and art made with them, because they are appealing, mysterious, have a an authentic look and a wonderful feel...


And each aspect—the materials, the technique, the process--has a powerful story, with as many answers to the WHY as there are people who ask.





Editor's Note: 

Each artist is inspired by different subject matter, different medium, different emotions. Finding that which truly speaks to you and hence contains the emotional content of your heart, may come easy or may not. To see some art from the heart, take a look at entries in the BoldBrush competition. You should enter one of your 'art from the heart' masterpieces! Remember, all FASO members get a FREE entry every month! To sign up for a free, no obligation 60 day trial, click here.



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Topics: advice for artists | artist statement | FineArtViews | inspiration | Luann Udell 

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Loading comments...

Mark Brockman
Great post. Love that, '...barking up the wrong tree without a paddle.'

I'll explain materials and technique if asked, but even then I try to gage how deep I should go into it. I'll talk about why I painted a painting if it will help the prospective buyer understand and buy it, but again it is easy to say to much so I try and keep it simple.

Seems most people who are not artists of some kind don't care. One of the last sales I made of a very expensive painting sold because the frame matched their fireplace mantel. Hey, whatever works.

Luann M. Udell
You got it, Mark. And yes, often when people care a LOT about technique and process, they turn out to be....other artists in the same medium.

Though, to be fair, many of my best patrons ARE other artists and craftspeople--because they really get how unique my work is, and how much time, skill, and attention to detail go into it.

And yes, whatever works. :^)

I believe more artists would have more success connecting their work to a potential customer if they had MORE WAYS to talk about their work, in addition to materials and techniques.

Thank you for your comment!

Back when I was working as a Advertising Art Director I ask a photographer friend that I used why camera he though was best as I was interested in buying one. He had years of experience and a studio full of equipment so I figured he would know. Not so. He told me he was very familiar with his Nikon's but knew very little about any other cameras. I try and remember this when I read about and observe painters and their color and brush choices. I have to remember to use what works for you and what you are use to.

John P. Weiss
People love to talk about their passions, be it wine or art. The challenge is to read your audience. Gauge their interest. And I really like your point about covering the "why." Great post, Luann!

Luann Udell
Great story, Dave, and a good reminder that it's what we DO with our materials that matters.

Luann Udell
YES, John, reading your audience! You just said in two sentences what took me a few thousand words.

If their eyes get that glazed-over look, the conversation is not going the way they (and you!) had hoped.

Mark Brockman
First it was barking up the wrong tree without a paddle then you refer to that glazed-over look, my wife has that look sometimes as I'm talking, both made me chuckle. Thanks.

Karen Ferrer
I have mixed feelings about this post. My work is unique enough that I frequently get asked how I make it and no, not just by other artists.

Having said that, do I plan on doing a lot a blog posts on the technical details? Not at this point.

I may post some videos of my process, though. As visual as our culture is, an interesting video or slideshow can easily trump getting into the technical weeds.

Luann M. Udell
Karen, mixed feelings are fine. On one hand, you may not agree with what I've said, and you find your technique is sufficient you sell your work. On the other hand, it's given you something to think about, a way to take this further.
I'm glad I got you thinking. :^)

Luann M. Udell
Mark, you are an ever-evolving work-in-progress! It sometimes takes years to recognize that glazed look..... My hubby is still working on it.

Walter Paul Bebirian
considering Seth Godin's experience described here:

there could possibly be certain materials or methods when described to individuals about some art work that they have never ever seen or heard of before - might - for one reason or other - peek their interest in at least seeing this work and then perhaps enjoying it - connected and then absolutely loving it so much or enough to then want to purchase that art work and then embrace it as if (for whatever reason) they are part of it's conception -

what materials might have such an effect or draw and then sticking power on someone's imagination is another story but this type of reaction is certainly totally possible and I would image an even more powerful drawing power than the seeing and then connected phenomenon might be since the concept is what (in the case that I have described above) drew the person to even think of viewing the image in the first place and therefore has a powerful connection with the person's mind ---- as an idea -

Walter Paul Bebirian
oh let me add - that whether I am photographing or creating any other abstract - collage or any other image - I understand and am aware of the fact that I am always working with -----

pure energy -

Luann M. Udell
That is, hardware being the techniques, process, materials, etc. And software being the way people interact and connect with the hardware.

Cristina Del Sol
Great post Luann !

What attracts people the most or what I am asked about my paintings is the inspiration, the story behind and only sometimes the process or materials,

And the story is what people fall in love with, in my experience.
Yes, whatever it works!

Joanne Benson
Hi Luann,
You are right on the money with this post! My eyes glaze over when my hubby starts telling me about the workings of the car engine, etc. And I have had artists bore me to tears explaining some obscure technique that they are excited about! You have to know your audience and what they want to hear about!

PS Your bears are beautiful!

Luann M. Udell
YES, Cristina, you got it!
It's okay to talk about process, etc., but if it is our ONLY story, then we miss the opportunity to connect with a wider audience.

With my work, a question about the technique, material, etc. is the moment when I can go deeper with my story. It's that question people ask when they are unconsciously telling me, "It's okay for you to talk to me now."

Luann M. Udell
Joanne, yes, YES!!!! You got it!

We need a term for it. Art-splaining....?

And thank you for the compliment! My bears (and horses) are subtly changing, becoming more sculptural, with more movement. Years from now, I'll know what it all means....

And that will be another story to tell. :^)

Andrea Jeris
That was great! Really makes sense. Thank you.


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