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Show Your Best Work

by Keith Bond on 2/21/2011 9:36:01 AM

This article is by Keith Bond, Regular contributing writer for FineArtViews.  You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.



Recently, I had lunch with a local fine art photographer friend of mine, Cole Thompson.  He was showing me some of his recent work from a trip he had been on.  He told me that he will have to live with the images for a little while before deciding whether to upload them to his website or not.  Some of the images he knew would sell well, but they were too predictable.  They were postcard shots.  Cole didn’t want his work and reputation to be diluted with works that weren’t consistent with his goals and voice as an artist. 


Image after image Cole said would be trashed.  There was only one or two that he knew he would keep for sure and one or two maybes. 


I asked him what percentage of his photos is ever released to be seen by the public.


“One percent?” I asked.


He reflected for a moment and said, “At most.”


We had a fascinating discussion on the topic. 


You see, Cole wanted to be in control of his reputation as an artist.  He wanted to be in control of his message; of his story.  Only the best images are released.  Only the ones that he loves.  Only the images that have the quality he expects and contributes to the message he wants to share.  Only those which are pure expressions of his vision are shown.  By being selective and critical, his work reveals who Cole is as an artist.  If he were to release everything he ever shot – both good and bad – the message would be diluted.  His work wouldn’t have the focused message he carefully tries to get out there.  Many of the photos may be technically good, but don’t reveal his message.  These, too, get cut.


It’s possible that Cole might sell more work if he weren’t as selective.  He admitted that.  But he said that his definition of success is not how much he sells.  Success to him is to be true to his voice.  He wants to do fine art work, not “landscape porn”.  He wants to create work that is a reflection of who he is as an artist.     


As a painter rather than a photographer, I don’t have the luxury of selling only 1% of my work.  I wish I could.  But even still, there is a large percentage that never sees the light of day.  I may not be as selective as I should be, but I am getting better.  I am careful not to let anything out of the studio that isn’t at least at a certain level. 


Cole said that his collectors would probably love some of these photos and would likely buy them.  But the photos weren’t up to his standards.  They didn’t express HIS message of what his art is about.  They were formulaic or trite or predictable. 


I agree with his philosophy.  We, as artists, do need to be self-critiquing.  We do need to realize that not everything we do is up to par.  Not everything is at the level it should be.  Even works that may be up to par in technical terms, but lack genuine, sincere expression should be left on the cutting room floor.  Like it or not, we are often judged by our worst works. 


Have you ever heard someone say, “So and so is hit and miss with his art.  He’s got some good stuff, but a lot of stuff isn’t very good.”


Perhaps you’ve seen an artist’s work and thought the same thing.  What was your overall impression of the artist?  Did you consider him a good artist with a few duds or an average artist who got lucky a few times?  Be honest.  Certainly it depends upon what percentage was not up to par. 


I should interject here that there is a difference between well done art that isn’t your taste and art that is of poor quality.  Even my very favorite artists have works that I don’t like.  That’s okay.  But the quality is still there.  More importantly, they are following their voice.


It is true that you will grow over the years and your early work will not be as good as the ones you might reject now.  But they will be judged with that in mind.  They show a progression in your work and career.  They reveal growth.  Contrast that with artists who have good and poor artworks displayed side by side from the same point in their career.  That is a different matter.  That reveals inconsistency and an inability to self-critique.  It reveals immaturity in their work. 


I suspect that most artists show the good and poor works side by side early in their careers.  As they grew over time, they are better able to weed out the poor works and show only the stronger pieces.  I don’t know if that is true of all artists, but I have a hunch that it is common among most.  In my early career, I showed a lot of bad paintings along with the few good ones.  I wish I could take most of them back. 


Do you want to be defined by your worst work or your best?  Show your best work.


Best Wishes,

Keith Bond



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Michael Cardosa

Excellent post and thank you! I've heard it said that an artist's website is often judged not by their best work, but by their worst. Unfortunately even if that is a half-truth we need to keep that in our minds when letting things out. I've started to delete some of my earlier works because one, I started the site with little work to display and used it at first more as a chronological time line of my work progression. That was not the purpose of the site. I'll continue to weed until I'm happy ( or at least kind of happy) with everything there which I am today but my tastes change just like everyone elses. Of course some of that will be a natural progression of my growing and being able to produce more complex and defined works so I hope I can tell the difference and hope collectors will too.


Stede Barber
Thanks Keith. This sort of thinking seems to become more and more important with time.

I'm at a point where I paint my heart out, then study my heart out, focusing on artworks that move me deeply and are gorgeously done technically. This type of visual studying and observation fills my inner artist toolbox with references for quality, brushwork, composition, color, vision, etc.

I don't end up copying, because I'm not interested in that. But it keeps me raising the bar for my own vision by inspiring myself with what I consider to be "the best."

It also helps me to move past "road blocks" when I know a painting needs something and I can't discern what's needed. I'll suddenly see weak composition, or etc., after looking at some great paintings.

Thank you for writing on a wonderful, to the easel!


Kim VanDerHoek
A teacher of mine had said the same thing when I first started painting and though I didn't understand why then, I do now. Like your photographer friend, I too need to live with a painting for a while before I decide whether or not to send it out into the world. That's one reason why I haven't joined the Daily Painters Movement.

I think today I'm going to go back through my work and see if any work needs to be culled out....

Lorrie Beck
Great subject, Keith. Some of the best advice I got early on in my career is "You are only as good as your worst piece." I have remembered that and have done my best to only show work that I am proud of. That being said, some of my work that made me proud when it was originally doesn't meet my current standard. Hopefully that means I'm getting better!

Sandy Askey-Adams
Hello Keith..

Great article and topic.

When I think of all my work that is out there...somewhere... since starting to do the outdoor art shows in the late 1970's, Some of those works would be oils, and some would be watercolours, a few pastels....I shudder to think what those works look like. I did and tried then to do what I considered my best work, but one improves over time...especially from decades ago.
However, past collectors from years ago have some how managed to find me and will ask me what their painting would be worth today.

How do you answer a question like that??

Gosh, I NEVER know how to answer that question. I realize they are asking what I would charge for it today....but I still cannot answer it. For one thing, I am hoping and praying (and I think it has) that my work has improved considerably since I painted those particular paintings.

I would like to get some of those pieces back too...well, errrrrrr,, maybe many of them back. Thank goodness it is in the eye of the beholder and those who find me again, still tell me they love the painting.

What scares even when or if we believe to be doing our best.....IS it?

In the meantime, what do some of you do when a collector gets in touch with you and asks you what a painting is worth today..a painting you may have painted 2 to 3 decades ago?

Joanne Benson
I can surely relate to this one. I have stuff out on my blog that I should go delete immediately. Not to mention stuff that I have hanging in my house and in friends homes.....Oh well....we certainly grow and learn. I started a new blog recently because I wanted a new look. Hopefully, I will be more discriminating with what goes out there. My taste as an artist has changed over the last 10 years as well and some stuff that I thought was bad before, I like now and other stuff that I liked, I don't care for.....this is beyond just the technical aspects....And I look at some of my compositions and just cringe! Live and learn. Thanks for the rienforcement!

Esther J. Williams
Keith, all that you stated I have been through. I have hung strange looking pieces next to finer ones. I once heard some fellas laugh at the price of a butterfly painting I made that took me two months to do and I asked two thousand for. Next to it was a larger painting for two hundred. Things like that stay with us forever. I have grown since then and have a critical eye now. That is because I have gone through years of judged shows and looked at scores of each piece. It helped me to analyze a new work or one I am about to begin and avoid the pitfalls again. I have studied and watched demos, asked questions to established artists for advice. I have sat in my house and garage for hours, even days going through old works and destroying them. It is cathartic and liberating. We always say, "What was I thinking?" when we see a weirdly painted work. I still struggle on some works and others seem to paint themselves. We want to learn new things and take on challenges, sometimes they show the struggle. I remember what Kevin MacPherson said, art is a series of corrections, when there is nothing left to correct, it is completed. Something to that effect anyway. We can go either way with that philosophy and either paint a goodie or an overworked badie. Oh yes, I have been there many times. Now, I love to scrape! Scraping when you know that the painting process is heading towards no solution. It is almost intuitive painting that I do now, the learning and practicing process has a way of building a blue print in an artist. One we can follow to see where we are going and ask questions in our mind while painting. I have put some paintings away for several days not wanting to look at it until I have fresh eyes.
The journey of painting and revealing each piece is a life long process for an artist, one in which trial and error leads to fruitful growth in the long run. The older the wiser we get. I hung a piece recently that I had real trepidations about submitting to a show, it got an award though. But I feel I struggled, it has received many compliments, but I want to take that piece down. There I admitted it, just don`t ask me what one it is. When the show is over, I will probably take it home and paint it again to my satisfaction, then destroy the first one. We live, we learn, we carry on. Thanks Keith.

Mary Sheehan Winn
I have high standards for my work and sometimes I don't achieve the result I was looking for although the work may be technically good. This is disappointing but I've learned that even if I don't like the painting, for that reason, someone else will probably love it. So I feel alright about posting it.
On the other hand, some paintings should not be let out of the studio. I wipe them off or if there's significant merit I keep the work as a reference. I'd rather have fewer posts on my blog than fill the gaps with work that doesn't show what I know I can do, which is paint really well.

Karen Winters
I heard a story of a well known landscape artist who has gone around buying back his old paintings to get them off the market. Sometimes he destroys them. That may be taking it to an extreme, but it certainly underscores how some people feel about only having their best work "out there."

Sharon Weaver
I have started to really differentiate between the good, the mediocre and the bad of my work but I am surprised when my opinion doesn't match what others think. With art being so subjective it can be tricky. The paintings that I am dissatisfied with will usually be painted over or get wiped down before anyone else sees them. I've gotten good at that and have no regrets when I destroy one of the bad ones.

George De Chiara
Esther - I really like that Kevin MacPherson quote. That really sums up when to know when your painting is done. I also agree that scrapping is nothing to be afraid of. The pallet knife works just as good to take paint off as it does to put paint on with.

Great Article, I am a new artist and struggle with this. I am very critical of all of my work, but I show it so that I can get a feel for the direction that I want to go in in the future. This is my first year of trying to market and sell my work, and I am using this year as a test period, I know what I eventually want from my work, just trying to figure out which direction I need to go to get there. I guess that I should learn to be more selective with what I put on my website, I know that every piece cant be the one. Thank you for the advice I will definitly use it wisely!!

Esther J. Williams
George, some of my paintings in the past couple of years have distinct scrape marks that I intentionally left. Those palette knifes can be pretty handy and a good friend!

Jeanne Guerin-Daley
I once had a painting which I think was the best I could do at the time, but a few paintings later, I realized that I didn't really consider it very successful. (I am assuming and hoping that meant that I grew as a painter during those "few paintings later" time.)
It was leaning against the wall one day when a visiting friend commented favorably on it.
I was surprised but pleased at his comment. I usually try to seriously consider any (good and bad) criticism for my own learning and growth.
The painting is currently buried in a shelf with other "unfavorites," awaiting a fresh coat of gesso.... (Bottom line I think: you have to listen to your gut.)

Jo Allebach
During the process of painting correcting mistakes until the painting is done is absolutely the best I've ever heard about the subject.
I can finish a painting feeling it is certainly a great painting, than over time it becomes a "good" painting and sometimes eventually to one i think is not very good at all. But I always hear that the one who bought it still loves it. Funny isn't it.

Marian Fortunati

Another great post which makes us all reflect on our art and our practices.
I think the REAL crux of the matter is defining what is "your" voice and knowing what your goals are. Although it seems like it would be an easy thing to do, it really isn't.
The part of your post that most caught my attention was, "As they grew over time, they are better able to weed out the poor works and show only the stronger pieces."..... This to me is a skill that is probably as great or greater than developing all of the technical knowledge and abilities....
Sort of the "know when to hold 'em... know when to fold 'em" skill. Wish I could master it!!!

Donna Robillard
After reading this I need to go weed some of mine out. Great post!


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