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HATERS GONNA HATE: “It’s Just Chalk!”

by Luann Udell on 8/5/2017 7:44:58 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.



You don’t have to defend your choice of materials.

In fact, make it a selling point!


A quick return to my series on how to answer the innocent questions, the odd questions, even the hurtful questions our visitors ask.


During one of the discussions on a post in this series, a reader related that someone had dismissed her choice of medium with a disparaging remark”


“It’s just chalk!”  Ow!


I remember the very first show I did, selling pens I’d covered with patterned polymer clay. I sold them for $5. Someone picked one up, sneered, “It’s just a cheesy pen covered with some kind of cheap plastic!”, tossed it back onto the table and walked away. (I remember thinking, “Was that absolutely necessary??”)


Sometimes a remark like this comes from another artist. One of the oddest things I’ve found among artists (of all kinds) is the hierarchy assigned to various media.  


For example, oil paint is often considered a more “professional” medium than acrylic paints. It’s traditional, it’s harder to master, and it takes time to dry. Once cured, it’s extremely durable. It’s versatile, perfect for mixing and layering, because of that longer drying time. In the hands of a master, it creates spectacular results. Oil paints have been around for centuries, and became the “artistic medium of choice” in the 15th century.  Art made with oils usually commands the highest prices in the art world.


More modern acrylic paint, created in the 1940’s, has a slightly less lofty reputation. It dries quickly, doesn’t have such a prestigious history. The very name “acrylic” suggests ‘plastic’, synthetic. Fake.


On the other hand, acrylics are valued more than watercolors, which are valued more than drawings, colored pencil, pastels. And don’t even open the door to photography, that’s not even art. It’s a craft! So are woodblock/linocut/etchings/etc., because you can make hundreds of copies. They aren’t considered “real” art forms.


When I entered the art world, my mind reeled trying to sort out the innuendos and rationale for these hierarchies. My own choice of materials are so non-traditional, my medium is greeted with some suspicion. I don’t get much respect as an artist, until people actually see my work.  Even then, people used to pick up a piece and ask what it’s made of. “It’s polymer clay!” I’d beam, and they’d quickly put it down again.


What’s going on here???


Some of this bias is historical, based in tradition. Centuries ago, drawings were considered simply a draft for the “real” art—a painting. Colors were made with Newer art materials may contain more synthetic colors. Some media are easier to master. And some, I suspect, is turf-building: “You don’t use the medium I use, so my work is automatically better than yours!”


But there are plenty of counter-arguments, too. The first artifacts made by humans were shell beads. Yes. BEADS. Early cave art involved drawing, with charcoal or other pigments, i.e., CHALK. Yes, later on, these pigments were mixed with saliva, or oil. But their first application was probably to decorate and color bodies and hair, a practice that still continues in some cultures today.


So what do we say when someone denigrates our medium of choice?


My first response is this:


It’s not WHAT the material is, it’s what you DO with it. 


The logic of this is irrefutable. 


When precious metal clay, a metal powder in a clay base that can be modeled, formed, and fired with a micro torch, first appeared on the market, I saw this push-back immediately. Some traditional metal workers—sculptors, silversmiths, jewelers, etc.—protested that this was a ridiculous, amateur-targeting material, that cheapened their reputations. Gone were the traditional skills—soldering, casting, chasing, etc. It couldn’t possibly be considered a “real” metalworking medium....could it??


Google PMC artist “Celie Fago” and you tell me. (Spoiler alert: Whatever medium Celie works in, she creates incredibly beautiful work.)


Last week, I showed an artist friend portraits of my kids by a friend. He thought they were oils. Yeah. Colored pencil artist Nicole Caulfield hears that all the time.  (See my favorites at !)


Nicole Caulfield's colored pencil work is often mistaken for oils


And my favorite story about art vs. craft came from a potter friend. “If I make a sculpture in clay, it’s considered ‘craft’ ”, she said. “If I send that model to a foundry to be cast in bronze, it’s ‘art’.”


And we have all seen atrociously bad art done with oils, and amazingly beautiful work done, Etch-a-Sketch. 


"The Etch-a-Sketch work is by artist George Vlosich."

A hundred hours and one unbroken line. That's not easy.


And me? Fiber arts is often considered a craft, or a woman’s medium. Polymer clay is considered a kid’s play material. I had a lot of explaining to do when I first started displaying, exhibiting, and selling my work.


My second, even more powerful response:

I CHOSE this material, and here are the reasons why….


I use polymer because my hands want to SHAPE things, not carve them.


I love using it to create jewelry because even larger works are lightweight, and comfortable to wear.


I can make artifacts that look truly ancient. I have a story to tell, about the roots of our own humanity, inspired by cave art going back a hundred thousand years and more. I want that power and mystery to be an integral part of my work.


Also very important to me--No animals are harmed in the process.


I use polymer clay by CHOICE. It does exactly what I need it to do.


I could not have made this work 50 years ago. Thank heavens for modern materials!


When I began to share WHY I use the materials I use, it became a selling point.


Your homework today, should you choose to accept it, is to take a few minutes to think about WHY you work in your chosen medium. Share your thoughts, and feel free to ask for help, if you need it.


Most of all, embrace your choices. Never excuse or apologize again for your choice of materials, nor your techniques. Something spoke to you the first time you used a brush, or a palette knife, a pencil, or a fistful of clay. It agreed with your inner self, your preferences, your tendencies, the way you want to work, the way you want to create.


Their question—“What are these made out of?”—becomes a powerful point of connection with your potential audience.


Share this with your visitors, and watch your connections grow!




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Related Posts:

HATERS GONNA HATE: How Long Did It Take You To Make That?

Making The Bed

I Don't Care About Your Materials

The Story You Tell and the Power of Your Tribe

Little Words of Wisdom

Topics: advice for artists | art appreciation | art collectors | art criticism | artist statement | creativity | FineArtViews | inspiration | Luann Udell 

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Mark Brockman
'It's not what the material is, it's what you do with.' Nothing says it better.

I can only speak to painting mediums, I've used oils, acrylics, watercolors, casein, gouache and pastel. Right now it's pastel and watercolors. Yes oil is king, but shouldn't be. Each medium has its pros and cons, one is no better then another. In regards to different media, pastel (used in cave paintings), watercolor, casein, tempera and encaustic, oils are still the new medium, the others are actually older. Acrylics, the baby of mediums, but nothing wrong with it.

While painting Plein Air some time ago in pastels a passer by remarked, 'You did that with chalk!?' 'Yup.' I felt no point to explain.

Back to what you said Luann. The medium, so long as it is archival, means nothing, it's the artist's hand and heart that is important.

Samantha Saether
Thought your comments on hierarchy of mediums was very well written and imagine my chosen expression of glueing glass beads on objects doesn't even make the scale to be at the bottom. But its a fun process for me and I appreciate the results and sometimes sell a piece and always enjoy describing the technique to anyone interested.

I also really thought you were on the mark with previous essays like how to turn a potentially snarky comment into a sales opportunity.

But most importantly I have written to recommend if you ever take time from your art and other life pursuits to read for fun, to consider the series of novels by Martin Walker - especially -The Caves of Perigord”ť. I think you would greatly appreciate the setting as your work looks like it came from that magical place and Walker is a really good author.

Thank you for the great time and effort of your very thoughtful posts - its noticed and appreciated! Samantha

Marie Lynch
How shallow can we be not to recognize as you say "It is not the medium but what one does with it". Why a patron cannot just admire, love and or desire a piece of art for itself and ignore all else is just insane. Yes, it may be interesting to hear about the process, but this should not change the connection one feels to the art. It is just sad we have to be beholden to the materials hierarchy when we price our art. Yes, I am cranky because I recently switched from oils to oils with cold wax and finally acrylics and know my new pieces will be ignored because of the medium. You have to be true to yourself you work in and love polymer clay, I find acrylics adapts well to what I want to express and what a rush to apply graphite marks on it. Do appreciate your writings, thank you.

Huzzah! You did it again. So true Luann. I am an assemblage artist and it always amazes me the price differentials I see in galleries and art shows between the holy of holy, The Oil Painting, and its red-headed step child- assemblage work. Found objects are way down the ladder from images in the art world. Especially images rendered in oil. I know one great assemblage artist who always shows collectors her oils first then her assemblages later because she feels the oils prove she is a "real artist." Odd because her assemblage work is phenomenal in my opinion. It's her strong suit.

Mark Brockman
We all know that we each have a personality, well so do the different media out there. As artists we can best express ourselves by using the media that either matches our personality, of as sometimes opposites attract, we work with a medium that contradicts our personality.

Pastels and I get along fabulously, watercolors not so much, but I still love to work with both. One allows me to best express myself through cooperation, the other, we fight, we argue, but in the end we are both happy.

Kay Hale
I love this post. I currently work in collage, watermedia, mixed media...Can't even figure out what it is! I think I am getting push back because currently mixed media is looked at as a scrap booking. I may use some of those materials but I am not scrapbooking! See even I just created a heirarchy..scrapbooking = less than mixed media. I think that I need to sit down and write out why and what I do and maybe even need to name what I do other than mixed media. I have even collaged at plein air events so I feel like it is an adventure to move away from tradition and go with my guts!

I really enjoy reading your articles; insightful and positive. Anything; meaning, ANY thing can become a medium in the hands of an artist. Any thing can become an instrument in the hands of a musician.

This was so encouraging and insightful. Thank you. As a Fused Glass Artist, I enjoy sharing the many techniques and processes, but find it a struggle to educate the public that as an art medium it's not as fragile as they imagine.

Luann, thank you for addressing this topic, which has been on my mind a lot lately. Your article encouraged me to articulate my thoughts, first to myself, but also to share them with my fans and collectors. The longer I am working as an artist, the less sense this medium hierarchy makes to me. The medium is just that - a means to achieve something, in this case a work of art. What counts is the outcome, which requires skill, craft, vision, and expression, regardless of the materials used. I think this hierarchy reflects an attitude on the part of collectors - often based in insecurity - of what confers the most prestige.
As an occasional art collector (when funds allow), this actually works to my advantage, because the kind of art I value highest - drawing, printmaking, pastel, watercolor - is more affordable than the oils and, to a lesser extent, acrylics that most art buyers prefer.
I've been primarily a watercolor painter for nearly thirty years, but have recently started to include India ink, graphite, and gouache into my work. I'm finding it difficult to price this new body of work: I think the work is better, but given the media used I should be pricing it lower... which is what I did, but not without some misgivings.

Patricia Stafford
I just sold both an abstract mixed-media painting and a fine art photo at a local library exhibit. The fine art photo was the more expensive piece.

To me it's always been about the final result of what the artwork looks like, and what impact it makes on the viewer.

Patricia Stafford
Hi Kay Hale,

Firstly, I love your bright style and the flair of your mixed media works! Talk about living color! :)

Last year when I first got into abstract acrylic painting, I never would have dreamed of getting into mixed media. As of now, I've sold two mixed-media paintings, and have to admit it's fun creating them. I've been encouraged to move in that direction because it seems to fit my personality and again just today have been contemplating this.

There's always the freedom to create anything you want from minimalist acrylic abstract paintings up through elaborate mixed-media acrylics.

Why not do what feels right? Go where you feel creatively called?

Linda Star Landon
Thanks for your wonderful insights on this, Luann. You always start a great conversation. I have found that using a medium that may be "unusual" or "different" from most of the others actually attracts attention. You aren't "just another ...." And as to these "new" mediums, I think if the old masters had them they would have used them.

Suszanne Bernat Droney
I am able to relate to your words about what material one chooses to use: "It agreed with your inner self, your preferences, your tendencies, the way you want to work, the way you want to create."

Thank you for your always insightful articles.

Luann Udell
Mark, thank you for weighing in early, and with good insights!

Luann Udell
Samantha, sounds like you are already centered in your sacred, creative space, and I've already confirmed what you already know. Good on you!

And thank you for the book recommendation, I will check that out.

Luann Udell
Marie, congratulations on experimenting with a new medium, regardless of the push-back you fear you will receive. It takes courage to pick up a medium you know may affect your sales.

I know that cranky stuff. As I said, polymer has..or at least, HAD...a horrible reputation. What I wanted to pass on to you, and to others who struggle with this, is to USE THOSE COMMENTS as a way to frame a different conversation. One where you are meeting people where they are (not knowledgable about the reasons for your choices) and turning that into a deeper conversation.

YOU are in the driver's seat. YOU get to frame this conversation. YOU now have a chance to share the WHY of your choices.

I had my first open studio today in months, and it was amazing. Many people came who were new to my work, and EVERYONE asked if they were wood. (I think the ivory ban is such a given, no one even thought to ask if they were real ivory!)

For every single person, I used it as an opportunity to share my values (no animals are harmed), my story (inspired by prehistoric cave art), and every conversation opend a door.

It was actually different for each person, too. Some shared their own yearnings for a creative outlet, or mourned the one they'd chosen to set aside. I met every single person where they are, and from there, we had a unique conversation.

This will work for you, too.

The blessings here are, you KNOW what you are up against; I've offered STRATEGIES on how to frame your responses; and you have TIME to prepare your new story.

Let me know if this helps you in the days ahead, and let me know where the sticking points are. We--this community, me--are here for you, and we will help you find that happy place where you make your heart's work again.

Luann Udell
Thea, I'm so glad this has offered you some insights on how to move forward. And how funny that I'm a redhead, too! (Chemically enhanced at this point in my life, but still....) :^D

I started to give you thoughts on how to stand out as an assemblage artist, thought I better check out your work first, and then saw that you write for one of my favorite mags, Professional Artist!

So I spared myself from preaching to the choir. AND I signed up for your article on burn-out. How's that??!! :^D

Luann Udell
Mark, sounds like a beautiful, passionate marriage of two great minds--good on you!

Luann Udell
Kay, I'm impressed that you caught yourself making the same judgments, and moved into thinking more deeply about your choices. Good on you!

I just spoke with a fellow artist today, who introduced me to one the fine galleries now carrying my work. (He's one of the owners of the co-op.) He recently sold a wonderful piece, not because someone just walked in and bought it, but because he shared the history of the gallery, which piqued the visitor's interest. That led to a conversation about Tim's work on a deeper level. After walking the gallery some more, the visitor finally purchased a wonderful piece of Tim's art.

So, unless we are in the rarified world of high-end galleries and high-paying collectors, it's all about human connection, and stories.

And that's what we artists have in abundance, once we have the insight--and the courage!--to share.

Luann Udell
You got it, Dianne! I take it the Etch-a-Sketch example was a good visual? :^D

Verne, I get the fragility feature. When people worry about the durability of my polymer work, I share the story about how I "vetted" my sculptural work.

OH WAIT--that could be another article!! Sorry, you'll have to wait a week or so. :^D

Luann Udell
Mineke, I agree, it's an old hierarchy, and who knows? Maybe it will change in our lifetime! And as Mark said straight off, even oil is not the "oldest" nor necessarily "the best"--just the most treasured, and perhaps not even for the right reasons.

Price is a whole nother bailiwick, one I never feel competent to comment on. BUT if you already have a loyal audience, and your work is evolving, it's possible there won't be as much resistance to higher prices. Or at least you won't have to wait as long to bring them along. I hope that's the case! Keep me informed.

Luann Udell
Patricia, I love that you've worked with those "outlier" media, and gotten your price from them. And good on you for applauding Kay, and encouraging her on. You're an example for us all.

Luann Udell
Linda, ABSOLUTELY! (Er....I mean, first, THANK YOU!) I mean, "absolutely", if they'd had pencils and pens, they would have used them and rejoiced.

When I first started with my fiber wall hangings and jewelry, I ONLY used the colors found in the Lascaux cave paintings: Black, yellow ochre, rust, white.

Then I realized, if they'd HAD blue, they would have used it. Why should I restrict my palette??

And now, more than 20 years later, I'm doing an entire series with whites and neutrals. Why? Just because. :^D

Luann Udell
Suszanne, I'm delighted you are enjoying them, and thank you for letting me know. :^)

Ray Hassard
Good one, Luann! Beside sharing our enthusiasm for our "off brand" medium, though, we can also explain about it. I tell those people who say "Wow, its chalk!" that it is pastel, high quality oil painting pigments in a dry binder and that it is the most permanent of all media, since there are no chemicals mixed in and no varnishes. Won't crack, shouldn't fade if cared for correctly, etc. I also explain about the surface I'm working on (usually sanded panels) and how I frame them (under AR glass with spacers between art and glass. I don't make it a big boring lecture, but most people, including gallery owners, don't seem to know this stuff. If we don't tell them we will most likely always remain step-children of the oilers.

Walter Paul Bebirian
my only medium now is pure energy - the stiff from which everything is made of -

Luann Udell
You have a great approach, Ray, and you are doing your part to (gently) educate your audience.

The only thing I would add would be WHY you choose to work in pastels--unless that adds too much to the conversation! But it's something I'm always curious about, myself. And maybe it would appeal to your admirers, too....?

steve musk
Hi there everyone, t'way I look at things is you enjoy your art then who cares what people think of it?
Also being brain injured gives me a slightly different outlook on things. I paint in oils, watercolour and acrylic, I also draw in coloured pencil and do work with both types of pastel-soft and oil, Infact on a few occasions I have even put more than one medium in a picture. you have to try it before you knock it.
I also wish to thank t'author of this piece that we are looking at.

Gayle Temple
Regardless of the medium it still takes talent to make use of it.

all true can use anything to get end product


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