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Embracing Risk

by Lori Woodward on 8/25/2010 8:48:13 AM

Today's Post is by Lori Woodward, Regular contributing writer for FineArtViews. She is also a contributing editor for American Artist's Watercolor and Workshop magazines and she writes "The Artist's Life" blog on American Artists' Forum. Lori is a member of The Putney Painters, an invitational group that paints under the direction of Richard Schmid and Nancy Guzik.  Find out how you can be a guest author. 

Has your work become so repetitive that it's become stale? Are there techniques or designs you'd like to try out, but deny yourself the time because you are pressured to make sure sales? Are you afraid that you'll fail if you try something new?

The greatest artists (today and historically) pushed themselves to ever increasing levels of competence. They were not content to endlessly repeat subject matter and style just to make a sale. In fact, it was expected that they'd grow over time - improving and wowing their collectors.

I've been re-reading my collection of Seth Godin Books and listening to his podcasts. His writings have inspired me to not fear risk. Today, the way everything is marketed and sold is changing rapidly. As Clint recently concluded in an email to me, "Risk IS the new safe". 

Companies are learning to take on new risks - Record companies, TV and other standard ways of getting media to the masses is dying. Consumers are becoming more independent in their tastes, ordering their music and books directly from artists. They are developing their tastes as individuals. That makes all marketing circles smaller.

This is good news for the artist. When I worked with Calvin Goodman, a guy who teaches galleries and artists how to sell art, he stated that one of a kind, original art cannot be marketed to the masses. I believe this is still true and while that may sound like a bad thing, keep in mind that an artist only needs 100 (maybe even fewer) loyal collectors in this world to make a living. As your prices increase over time, you'll need even fewer collectors (which you'll probably have fewer because some will no longer be able to afford your work).

Every business venture involves risk. For most companies, they invest money in an idea, a book, a show, movie... and then hope they make more than they spent. They defray risk by doing marketing research - understanding who will buy their product and how many of them there are. Then the company finds the best portal to reach those people.

As artists, we risk when we buy supplies and create an original painting. In a way, every work of art we do is a "spec" painting. In the housing industry, this is where a building developer constructs a "speculation" house - and then offers it for sale. He's guessing that it'll be nice enough for someone to want to buy soon after its completion.

As I paint, I'm speculating -- if I create something that I love, someone else will want to live with it. Being a professional artist means more speculation in the beginning years. As our work grows in popularity, the risk of recouping the cost of supplies and our labor decreases.

But here, I'm talking about risking by adding value to your work with something a little different, A LITTLE BETTER.... and all the time. It's great when people say to an artist, "You've outdone yourself". I have found that this type of risk has become an essential part of my artistic growth. It's exciting to see my work improve and change over time. I don't worry about losing my audience because the style I've developed over time stays intact.

This week, I experimented by repainting several older works... works that could have probably sold, but I, personally, was not content with their outcomes. Did I ruin some of them? Probably... Did I learn anything that will ultimately benefit my body of future work? You bet!

It's just canvas and paint! Embracing growth through change and experimentation is an option I choose even though the results are temporarily painful. How does this tie in to the new way of marketing? Remember, collectors are busy defining their individual tastes. If I develop my INDIVIDUAL work - the honest creative "me", something that people can recognize and latch on to, my "tribe" of collectors may be small, but they sure will be loyal. I don't expect or want to try to please all the people all the time. It's OK if some collectors don't like my work. I'm interested in a relationship with those who do.

Risk is painful... it most assuredly means embracing some amount of failure at first. There will be "bugs" to worked out, but that's the way to grow. It will, at times, slow you down and discourage you. You'll have bad painting days. But ultimately, you'll be a better painter. Who has fun following a formula for life? Who has fun looking at one?

Refuse to give in to defeat. Maybe it'll take you months to get really good at this new dimension, so what? Mastering anything difficult takes time. Read the dip (by Seth Godin) - the deeper the dip, the easier it is to shine once you navigate it. Most people give up in the middle - Few make it to the other side. Some never risk the dip, some stagnate where they are and end up living in a cul-de-sac. Don't be one of them.


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Related Posts:

Be an Outside Zebra by Getting Out of Your Comfort Zone

Developing Your Individual Style

Making Your Own Rules

Don't Be Afraid to Change the World

Topics: FineArtViews | inspiration | sell art 

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Helen Horn Musser
Another great post, Lori, If I weren't already committed to a plan I would probably try something new instead of staying with the plan. You have a way of cheeering us on to new vision. Thank you

Michael Cardosa
Hi Lori,

You never disappoint!

Interesting post and one I really like personally. Right on my website, in About the Artist, I say "trying to learn a little more each time I pick up a brush". Not sure if that instills confidence in collectors, but it happens to be true. Some of my work might seem "similar" to some other works but honestly, I've tried something new to me in each and to me, that's the fun and that's how I'll learn. Right now I'm working on a series of paintings that involve a lot of sky formations or different atmospheric conditions. Each is different and each represents some new challenge to "me" even if they would be old hat to someone else.

Anyway, thanks again for a great article.


Aline Lotter
I was kind of looking forward to the day when my work will begin to feel repetitive. It seems I hear a lot about that problem and a corollary problem: the compulsion to reproduce a formula that has generated sales in the past, and the difficulty (perhaps) of getting your collectors to go along with any change. But at my point in development, I am still searching for that signature style and subject matter. Everything I do is a risk. Does making art tend to get stale when the challenges seem no longer so daunting? Is this the best of times for me? How exciting it is to be at that point where nothing can be taken for granted. I should stop looking forward to that day when I have to worry about being repetitive.

joanne Bernardini
The best thing about having a bad painting day is that you can wait until it dries and try again! Similar to the tears of an artist. Keep trying until your works makes YOU smile!

Sue Martin
Excellent advice, Lori. I am constantly experimenting, but with each one I believe I'm getting closer to defining "my style." I also risked going back to college in my 60s to earn a BFA degree. I'm having a ball and learning so much.

Lori, your post was like going to an art museum and being inspired by the various paintings.
Thank you very much.

I recently started oil painting, something I'd put off because of uncertainty, and so that feels good--and risky--but I have to get over my fear of wasting materials in order to really get some traction going with this new (to me) medium. Here I am, at middle age, with relative financial security and no longer living from paycheck to paycheck, but my ingrained survival instinct and frugality from the past is making me worry too much about wasting paint and canvas and boards as I learn this.

John Smith
This is so important Lori - good one!
I believe a creative artist needs to 're-invent the wheel' at least every five or six years.

Michael Cardosa
Hi Sue,

that's great! I used to tell my kids when they finished that I was going back and now it was my turn to go away to college. Good luck!


JoAnne Perez Robinson
Hi Lori,
Thank you for your article, I am so glad I received it today! I have been having good sales at art fairs and I'm so tempted to continue with the same format, but I have a yearning to bust out and try new a new medium or completely different subjects, your article reminded me that I need to do that in order to challenge myself and become a better artist. Growing pains are good. It's also good to be reminded that bad painting days come and go.
Thanks for your great articles!

Michael Cardosa

The nice thing about oil painting is that when it's wet, just wipe and start over. When it's dry, paint over it.

In the scheme of things, the cost of materials is pretty low to experiment and learn a technique if you consider the cost of an education or a workshop to learn it faster.


Helen Horn Musser
Kim, this is probably something most go through when taking up oil painting. 30 years ago found me painting very thinly and exercising great control. Part of it was my frugal instints and part was I did not want to make mistakes. Needless to say there were many mistakes and I soon became wanting more paint in my brushes. You will pass through this; you have a great deal of experience to lean on.

Lori Woodward
Hi fellow artists - I really appreciate your comments and encouragement. Without them, I would wonder if my writing connects.

I do read all of your comments since they come directly to my email box, but I must put some time in at the studio today. Don't hesitate to add your ideas too. Remember, we can learn from and encourage one another to do our very best.

Oscar Ortiz

This was an excellent dissertation. Very inspiring.



Lori Woodward
Kim, I'm in the same boat as you. I'd been a watercolorist for years and moving onto oils was a huge challenge for me.

I found that copying the old masters (and sometimes new) was the easiest way to get a good handle on working with a new medium. It's so different... just slides around on the canvas, never dries... it's been 10 years now that I've been working with oil, and finally starting to feel like I'm getting the hang of it.

Thank you for sharing this with us.
OK folks... I"m "Stepping AWAY from the Computer"!!! I will ignore my email box, put my music on and get the brush moving across the canvas! Just heard my email beep again... oh no!

Carol Schmauder
Lori, another great article. I love the line "Don't give in to defeat." Not too long ago I deviated from my usual style and had a wonderful time. Those paintings have received excellent comments...hopefully one of them will sell.

John Smith
What is wrong with painting thin?- There is no law that says one has to paint impasto. some artists have a bravura style and others work in washes. Just asking?

George De Chiara
Hi Lori,
I really enjoyed your article today (as always). For me risk is usually my inner self telling me it's time to improve and push myself harder, which is all the time as an artist. We never want to become stagnant. I'll also risk something not working out when I struggling with my work by trying something different then what I had been doing. Maybe it's a different subject matter or I'll try a different format or size. In fact this article has inspired a new idea for me to try to get out of the current funk my last few painting attempts have been in. Thanks!

Helen Horn Musser
Hi John, Good question! Nothing wrong with painting thin; that is the way I am painting now, glazing oils. I believe Kim will find herself coming out of that style eventually; did want to encourage her toward oil painting. Not be afraid to make mistakes or wasting paint.

Sue Martin
Michael, thanks for the encouragement. So far, I'm a straight-A student (better than when I went to college the first time). Do it while you can still lug art supplies across campus.

Marian Fortunati
I once got a fortune cookie that I will always keep in my heart and in my mind. It said:

He who makes no mistakes, makes nothing.

Simple sweet memorable and to the point. When we don't risk we have not gains... not growth.

Thanks again, Lori!!

Kyle V Thomas

Great article. I just started attempting a new technique based on watching Dennis Sheehan's work. It's uncomfortable. I'm not sure the work is successful. I wanted to stop, but after reading your article, I've decided to press on.
Thanks for the encouragement.

John Smith
Hi Helen, Are you well? Just giving you a rev to see if you are wide awake!
Thin washes and glazes can be very beautiful. (or a combination of both glazes and impasto) I'm in the process of painting a flower piece and have employed some gold leaf in the vase and then am glazing over it. Quite an interesting exercise. I use genuine Gum turps with the glazing medium and then splatter with substitute turps or white spirit and it kind of leaves pock marks or curdles exposing the gold. Just some fun and games but keeps one interested.

Peggy Guichu
I just love to read your blogs. I don't mean to sound arrrogant, but I seem to always be right where you are in your thinking at the time. I was just doing that exact thing.

I've been told in the past that I do my oils like I have done my watercolors. That was said in a negative way to me. Just yesterday I thought, why not. So I did what you did and painted over two of the paintings I had finished which were safe, but that I wasn't really excited about and started working them in the same fashion as I did with my watercolors. It's so much fun. A risk, sure. But what can I lose? Nothing. Art is for exploring and reaching and sometimes grabbing at something you have no idea if you can do or accomplish. When it works it's the best feeling in the world.

In the depressed economy as it is, what a perfect time to get out of your safe zone. As soon as I get that familiar feeling that I need to paint what will sell I stop, check myself, remember why I started painting in the first place and go for it. In the end if I have a house filled with my paintings, that's okay. It's impossible to second guess what a collector will buy. But if you don't take the risk you may just lose that one collector or body of collectors that find your work worth their interest. And at the same time you are doing what you were meant to do. Create, paint, enjoy life.

So, once again, thank you for giving me confirmation that I'm still okay, not crazy and wasteful.

Helen Horn Musser
Sounds beautiful and must be challenging. Let us know when you put it online. Used Gold leaf with some of my angels; loved the process.

Michael Cardosa
Hi Sue,

I'll have to keep that last part in mind. May one tube of paint and one brush... change my whole style!


Lori Woodward
Kyle, Dennis Sheehan is a good friend of mine. We shared his studio space for a year and I helped him organize workshops - wrote an article about him for American Artist.

I commend you for trying something new. Yep, it's always uncomfortable in the beginning - like taking on a new sport. Feels awkward until you get the hang of it.

Lori Woodward

Hey, if you want to use oil like watercolor... great! I've seen some incredible work where oil was painted transparently like watercolor.

We're artists; therefore, experiment with what appeals to you until you tire of it. When we've got a consistent body of work built up in our own style, then collectors will get used to seeing it and recognize the work as ours.

I was gonna paint today, but I might as well accept that on days my blog goes out, I'll be here listening and helping where I can.

Charlotte Herczfeld
Lori, your articles are always really good! And the comments are great, as usual.

For once, I can say I actually do it all the time -- take risks with my paintings. Each is a study of a phenomenon, or an experiment. I used to be surprised over the fact that people liked my experimenting enough to want to have them in their homes, which to me is both humbling and delightful, and part of the purpose of painting.

It is sometimes frustrating to paint on the edge of what one is capable of. It becomes a constant struggle, and seldom does a painting "paint itself". One doesn't even experience the feeling of improving, as every experiment is a struggle. It is fascinating to notice that there is actually progress. It can be time-wise; suddenly one notices the average time spent on each painting is halved, compared to last year. It can be in choice of motif; last year, this was too difficult, but this year it went well. It can be in the strokes; last years painting wasn't too bad, actually, but, look at those anxious strokes, and compare to this years effort where the strokes are much more sure.

Taking risks is definitely keeping the boredom out. Frustration is in, but so is also a big dollop of joy.

Writing newsletter posts like you do, Lori, is also taking a risk, and they were really good when you began, and they are getting better and better.

Oh, and remember, the purpose of painting is *not* to preserve paint in tubes. ;-)

Thanks, artists, for the advice and encouragement regarding oils! I know there are many experienced oil painters here, and I feel fortunate that I can get guidance from this source! I am coming to realize that I've been penny wise and pound foolish in my concerns about using oil painting materials, that the results will be so much better in the long run if I get accustomed to painting freely right now, in the beginning learning phase. And Lori, so true, it is a completely different feeling from watercolors, but I really do like it! I didn't expect to like it as much as I do. I will be curious to see if there is some reverse impact on how I do watercolors in the future after working with oils. If you get back to this post, let me know if you found any unexpected reverse influence on your watercolors?

Lori Woodward
Lori McNee posted a link to this article on Twitter, and it soooo relates to this blog post. Excellent points to ponder.

Lori Woodward
Wow Charlotte - thanks for the compliment. It woke me out of my late afternoon stupor.

Kim, yes working in oils has definitely changed the way I work in watermedia. I usually start out with transparent watercolors on 300lb cold pressed paper, and if I want to make changes, I use acrylic opaquely. As soon as I go opaque, I start having more fun!

Judy Mudd
I love the idea of taking risks. I just need to force myself to do it more. Get out of my comfort zone! I'm finding I try to get my students do it more than I actually put it in practice myself! What does that say about me???

Helen Horn Musser
Hi Kim, You are going to be a great oil painter. Years ago I attended a workshop with the PAPA'S. Kevin Macpherson was one of the master artists; he saw both oil and watercolor that I was doing at the time and told me to do both interchangeable and was very encouraging to me. So stay with the watercolor and learn the oil; the principles are much the same and you will grow in each.If you've never met Kevin; you would profit from one of his workshops. He is a jewel to know and a master of his art. He has a website with his workshop information.

Donna Robillard
I really liked your post about taking risks. I've only been painting a handful of years, and it seem like every painting is a risk. I do find myself having a certain style, but it seems like each painting is taking a risk, whatever the subject matter is.

Thanks, Lori and Helen--I hope you're right, Helen, don't know at the moment! Right now I'm totally preoccupied with the oils, but I love watercolor too much to not want to do them as often, too. I am familiar with Kevin M., but this is a good reminder to revisit his work...

Helen Horn Musser
Hope you can connect with him, Kim. He's a master and is not at all arrogant but, wants to be helpful in every way

Debra LePage
Great article. We only grow through taking risks. Thank you!

Pamela Poole
Lori, this is so right on what I've been doing for almost a year now. I decided in this economy to take a year off to experiment, study more artists and techniques, and begin an art chronicle to keep myself accountible for the results of my journey. I cut back on art-related commitments to devote more time to my own growth. It has been so rewarding! I have learned a lot, and re-done some older paintings that I was not satisfied with (with great results). I only have made a few prints of a handful of paintings, but I loved using them to experiment on as well, before committing to the original. Yes, I had a few failed attempts, but it was freeing to know that there was no pressure for them to be successful paintings anyway, so it was not wasted time--I learned a lot from the trial effort.

Some of what I learned was not just about improving my paintings. In the chronicle I learned things about myself as an artist, and how my personality and priorities are reflected in not only my work, but in how I present both my art and myself as the creator of the art to the public.

Thanks for the encouragement!

max hulse
Lori Risk is necessary for growth.
It is easier to continue doing the tried
and true and safe thing, but to grow in
any venue one must break out of the old
habit patterns.

Max Hulse

T. Miller
Thank you for your post, Lori. I'm definitely in a period of specualtion, having just graduated and begun my art career in probably one of the most daunting times to do so. I believe my work is unique (though maybe my experimentation is a bit too evident). I just need to find the right audience; my group of collectors. I will aim for 100, but right now 10 would be nice! :-)

Debra LePage
T. Miller, you should also join the discussion on abstract vs representational art. You have nice, strong shapes and fine composition in your abstract pieces.

T. Miller
Debra, you just made my day :-D ...I did participate in the a. vs. r discussion, thanks!

Barb Stachow
I just can't settle down and find myself a "style" I get bored to easily so for me it's more a matter of taking a risk everytime I set a brush to my surface! Can't get enough of all the types of painting methods!

Saundra Lane Galloway
Thanks for this Lori! Everything you have said is SO true. Your words rang close to heart for me as in the past few months; as the result of digging deeper and experimenting and balancing that with trying to stay true to my over all vision I found a visual voice that excites and thrills me and it is beginning to attract notice. I've been asked to show my work instead of pounding the pavement to find the places...It has been wonderful! BUT, the best part...I can't see an end to the creative ideas this new style has evoked within...that has GOT to be a good sign! Onwards and Upwards!! Thanks!

John Smith
This for Barb Stachow
Barb I was skimming through some of the responses to these articles and yours kind of struck a chord. Do yourself a big favour and get hold of a copy of a book called "The Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell. In this book he reports on a study of a number of people who have become 'rich and famous' and the study found that the thing they had in common, was that those who made it put 10,000 hours and more into what they were doing. In your letters you state that you have not been at painting long and that you haven't found a style. Maybe you just need to spend a lot more time at the easel and you will find a style - especially after 10,000 hours?
It seems like a long time but amazing how time flies when you are doing something you like doing. Read the book. It explains a lot. Will look out for your name in lights!

Sue Martin
John and all, I also recommend "Outliers." I would add that when I first got back to painting, I would ask every artist I admired, "how long has it taken you to find your unique voice/style?" Nearly every person told me, "15 years." I think that tracks pretty closely to Gladwell's 10,000 hours. Happy painting, everyone!

Sharon Weavers
I am just recently considering redoing a few paintings and this article has inspired me to throw caution to the wind and just do it.


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