This Post is by Lori Woodward Simons, Regular contributing writer for FineArtViews. Find out how you can be a guest author.
My husband and I have a cabin in the back woods of New Hampshire. It's located on a dirt road – which is just fine most of the year, except in what New Englanders call “mud season”. When the ice melts, it breaks up the dirt and turns the road surface into foot-deep soft, gooey slither. As trucks and cars run through the muddy surface, they create ruts. Some of these ruts can go on for a hundred yards, and if your wheel drops down into one, it's unlikely that you'll be able to steer your way out of it. What's worse, if the rut travels near the edge of the road, so will your vehicle. Ultimately, whatever rut you fall into will be the rut you stay in.
Likewise when artists gain a following for their work, whatever style or subject they choose to feature may ultimately become their rut. You see, once an artist establishes him or herself with a subject or style, it can get extremely difficult to change direction without a drop in sales. Let me illustrate this with true stories.
Ruts of the Rich and Famous
Steve Doherty, the editor of American Artist Magazine, recently wrote a blog about how an artist friend complained about having to paint the same scenes over and over. This particular artist's work is eagerly sought out by collectors, and yet, he was feeling trapped by his subject matter. Steve was amazed that this artist was complaining, and replied, Do you know how many artists would love to be in your place?
Another well known landscape painter, who happens to be a friend of mine, got tired of painting the moody landscapes he is known for, so he set out to create a new body of work featuring portraits and figurative paintings. As you may well have guessed, sales of these new works were less than enthusiastic... even though the quality of the new work was evident, his collectors just weren't interested in seeing their beloved landscape artist change his ways.
I have a coffee table style book on plein air painting, and if you were to browse the inside pages without having seen the title or book cover, you'd be hard pressed to guess to who did the artwork. The pages display well-executed, painterly plein air landscapes. I bought this book just because I was so tickled to see that this artist was capable of painting in a totally different style from the one he is known by... The Artist? Thomas Kinkade.
You might be wondering why Mr. Kinkade didn't continue with these loose, thickly painted works. My guess is that his collectors became distraught – you see, ten years ago, I was working with a gallery whose owner had an original Kinkade in her collection. The painting she owned was one of his typical works. At about that time, Kinkade attempted to break away from his well known style. But like this particular gallery owner, some of his former collectors wondered if their purchases would lose value if Kinkade's new works gained popularity.
Choose The Rut You Can Live With Forever
So what does this mean for us who are in the process of becoming well known? Taking the previous examples into consideration, it means that we should be careful about what kind of work we get famous for. In other words, we need to choose our rut carefully. And even though we do have the freedom to move in an altogether different direction, it's also true that our collectors have the freedom to boycott that new work.
If you could make a great living doing one thing – what would that thing be? The more important questions is: How much do you love the process of making that one thing? While I'm not saying that you must paint only one subject – after all, we are artists and inclined to experiment .. what I am suggesting is that we should make sure that we enjoy painting whatever we choose our body of work to be. My friend Richard Schmid paints figures, landscapes, and still lifes, but he has developed his own style – a thread of similarity throughout all of his works. If he were to suddenly paint photo-realism (which, by the way wouldn't appeal to him at all), his collectors would be loathe to begin collecting those new works. See what I'm saying here?
So.... what if you are just really sick of painting the same old thing... and you must change or die? Well, you could paint the new style under another name. Even though folks out there will know that you are the same person, it saves the integrity of your previous body of work.
What Art Do You Love to Make?
The best of both worlds is being able to create what you want to, do it very well, and have a following of collectors just waiting for your next inspiration. If you're just starting to market your work, why not make it something that you adore doing and will probably want to do for a long time to come.. so that when you gain a following for it, you won't mind continuing.
How Do You Decide?
What have others told you that you are good at? Do these subjects match up with your passion? I try not to paint something just because I should. Yes, I want to make money, but if I can manage to build a body of work around what I love doing, and build an audience for it at the same time, then I'm living the life of a content artist. Are you painting a certain subject just because you're more likely to make money at it? Think seriously... you may end up living in a prison of your own designing, especially if you get famous for something you have no passion for.