My framer

Studio View

I brought 7 mezzotints and 7 photographs to my framer a few days ago.  I met my framer about 15 years ago, when he was working at a shop in West Roxbury and I was living in Jamaica Plain.  I followed him several years ago when he moved to a new shop, the Picture Place which is in Brookline.  When I first started working professionally, I had no clue what went into framing, and never thought of it as an important part of the process. I feel extremely lucky to have found my framer, there are so many shops and I can imagine that it’s hard to find someone who is really good.  He is incredibly knowledgeable about materials, has a terrific eye, and really opened me up to the vast possibilities. He is highly detail oriented and is always enthusiastic about explaining every single step of the process so that I know what will go into the work. I completely trust him when it comes to making selections, to the point that when I need work done, I just into the shop with no idea of what I want, knowing that he will come up with a tasteful solution. I also like that he is able to see the work objectively in a way that I can’t because I’ve been looking at the work so long, so he provides a fresh eye which I really appreciate. He comes up with ideas that I would never have thought of, and carefully considers every single factor. 

Because I have to present such a large quantity of pieces, I opted to do just a mat and sheet of plexiglass this time. (by November, I will have to have 23 pieces total done) The pieces will then hang on the wall using L pins to hold everything in place. A full frame on all 23 pieces would have been astronomically expensive, and this is the first year in a while that I don’t have a grant to support my work. 

I am glad to have finished this first round of work. My plan now is to finish 4 more mezzotints, which will finish off the 14 mezzotints I need for my solo shows this fall.  Ultimately, I want to have a portfolio of 20 mezzotints, and there are also a few images I want to redo if there’s time.  But for now, that minimum 14 print requirement is the most important milestone.  Then, I’ll take a break from the mezzotints, finish up the final 3 drawings, and then if there’s time left I’ll start some of the mezzotint redos. 

Ask the Art Professor: How do I Get Started Making My Art Again?

“Ask the Art Professor” is an advice column for visual artists, now featured in the Huffington Post.  This is your chance to ask a professional artist/educator your questions about being an artist, the creative process, career advice, etc. Submit your question by emailing me at clara(at)claralieu.com, or by commenting here on this blog. All questions will be posted anonymously, and you’ll receive notification when your question is online.  Read an archive of past articles here.

“For the last two years I have not been practicing my art. Two years ago I commenced a new job in the corporate world. Due to the demands of the job I was basically unable to focus on my art. I was tired every night coming home from work, and getting used to new systems, colleagues, etc. really took its toll. There was no energy left for my art. Due to the job, I felt as if my head and imagination was not free; I was totally conditioned to think on a practical level. Basically this very fundamental side of me has been neglected for a very long time. However, now that I am au fait with the job, I find that I am less tired and am ready to make a commitment again to creating. The thing is, I just do not know where to start. I feel impotent. I feel weak. I have no structure or strategy, let alone ideas. I am living in a small town and there is no one among the artistic community here that I feel I can ask. How do I get started again?”

The most important priority at this stage for you is to simply get started with the actual hands-on process of making artwork. Getting started can actually be the most difficult part of the creative process if you haven’t been working for a long period of time.

Many artists think that they have to start by conceptualizing a grand idea for a major art project, but this approach can quickly backfire. One of my friends from art school has a habit of psyching herself out whenever she starts to dream up a new idea for a project. She’s always thinking of projects that are incredibly complex and ambitious. You would think that ambition is a good thing for an artist, but for her, ambition is actually her biggest problem. When it comes down to actually sitting down and doing something concrete, she gets overwhelmed by the scale of the project. She can’t figure out where to start, and consequently ends up never doing anything.

Instead of embarking on some huge project, start a series of daily exercises for at least one month. I’ve seen many artists start “a painting a day” blogs where they post an image of a small painting that they make once a day. In advance, determine the subject matter, your art materials, a specific size for each artwork, and set a time limit for how long you will work on each piece. Keep the scale of each artwork small, and use art materials that are inexpensive and familiar to you. Complicated technical processes and expensive art materials will just present another unnecessary hurdle. Set up an easily accessed workplace so that you can quickly pick up from where you left off each time you sit down to work. Establish a blog where you can post each artwork every day. A blog will keep you accountable, you’ll be able to validate your progress, and also share your work with others.

Having all of these details set in advance will keep the project predictable so that you don’t have to fuss about what to do every time you sit down to work. This structure will let you focus exclusively on creating each piece. Focus on achieving a high level of productivity, and resist the temptation to judge yourself while you are making the artwork. Assume that the majority of your creations during this exercise won’t be your best. I always tell students in my drawing classes that they have to make bad drawings if they want to make good ones. Instead, take a long term view of your development and remember that progress is never linear. In my opinion, you are doing well if you create two pieces out of 30 that you like.

Once you’ve set up the project, the second challenge is to have the dedication to consistently sustain the exercise for a minimum of one month. I can guarantee that there will be days when you don’t feel like working. Be sure that you force yourself to do the work anyway, as you might be pleasantly surprised later. I’ve seen many students give up on an artwork because they judged it too soon and decided prematurely that the piece was doomed. With my own art, I’ve had many pieces that initially seemed like they were going nowhere, but because I stayed with them, they actually ended up being strong. Patience is critical here, and if you are truly committed to this daily exercise, and you follow through all the way, there is no way you won’t get results.

When you’ve accomplished this first goal of 30 artworks in a period of 30 days, take the time to reflect upon the experience in order to determine what your next step will be. Examine the 30 artworks, how did your artworks change over the 30 day period? What did you learn from creating these pieces? In this way, you’ll be ready and equipped to tackle your next project.

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“How do you learn the basics?”
“How do you break out of your comfort zone?”
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Crunch Time

Studio View

I have been working furiously over the past week in order to get this first phase of mezzotints finished in time to send them off to my framer. I had a few unexpected setbacks this week in my schedule, so I’ve had to squeeze every free moment I can find into getting these prints done.  I’ve been stressed, especially since this is a process that you really cannot rush without seriously compromising the quality of the work.  Scraping the plate has to be done slowly, and the proofing process is time consuming because you have to go through many states before arriving at the final state. Fortunately, today things are looking up as I only have one more print to finish before Sunday. 

Studio View

Framer

Studio View

I have an appointment in one week with my framer, which means I am about to finish the work required for my September solo exhibition at the Sarah Doyle Gallery at Brown University. It will be a relief to meet this first deadline, but I won’t be able to relax, as I have to immediately direct my focus on my solo exhibitions in November. I will keep working on the mezzotints, but I have to get going on the large scale figure drawings that I started a ways back. I am anticipating that it will be challenging to split my attention between the drawings and mezzotints.  Right now my head is completely in the mezzotints and I’m not really looking forward to having to make the mental leap into the drawings.

Learning Curve

Studio View

As of today I now have 7 mezzotints completed. I have to make 2 more before I send the work to my framer on August 17. Already, I have become very picky with the images and have started to notice a learning curve in the mezzotints even though I haven’t been working on them for that long.  This inevitably happens with every project that I do, and it’s unavoidable because you learn with every image you make. My solution in the past was to create more works than I needed and then to choose the best works from there. When I worked on my series of 50 self-portrait drawings, I ended up making 65 drawings and chose the best 50 pieces from there. These mezzotints will be no exception, already there are two that I’m not happy with and will have to eventually replace.  I’m aiming to ultimately create a portfolio of 20 mezzotints.  For my solo shows in the fall I should have about 14 finished, and the final 6 works can be created after the shows are up.

Ask the Art Professor: How Can an Artist Bypass Galleries and Sell Directly to Their Audience?

“Ask the Art Professor” is an advice column for visual artists, now featured in the Huffington Post.  This is your chance to ask a professional artist/educator your questions about being an artist, the creative process, career advice, etc. Submit your question by emailing me at clara(at)claralieu.com, or by commenting here on this blog. All questions will be posted anonymously, and you’ll receive notification when your question is online.  Read an archive of past articles here.

“In the age of social media, do you have any tips for artists who want to sell directly to their audience? How do we artists get above the noise and reach our audience? I would like to bypass the gallery system all together. Online stores like Etsy are popular, but it is more for crafts than fine art paintings.”

There are basically two ways to sell art directly to your audience: 1) in-person, at events like open studios and art fairs, and 2) selling online. While in-person events can be lucrative for artists, they generally occur only annually, and therefore cannot provide a steady flow of income. For this reason, the vast majority of artists now sell their work online. Essentially, anyone with an Internet connection, a computer, and a printer has the ability to sell their art online.

Selling art independently compared to selling through a gallery is like night and day. Art galleries can sell high-priced items to art collectors. The gallery does all the work for you, and they take a 50 percent commission. When you sell independently, your items will need to be priced lower, and your audience is much broader. You have to do all the work, but you receive 100 percent of each sale.

While it’s highly attractive to receive 100 percent of each sale, the caveat is that selling art online on your own is a tremendous amount of work, as you are responsible for every single detail. Setting up your shop, sustaining your shop long term, and promoting your shop is incredibly time consuming. Most artists don’t realize just how much work is involved in having an online shop. To get results, the shop has to be constantly maintained, and promotion has to be ongoing.

Below are some concrete actions you can take when you are starting from scratch. Once your shop is more established and you have built a substantial following, you’ll be able to get more ambitious and sell larger, higher-priced items.

1) Aim to make money on volume.
If you price each piece for $100 or less, you will sell a much greater quantity which will add up over time. At these prices, customers are also more likely to purchase multiple pieces at once. The most popular items in my Etsy shop are works around $40 each, and on several occasions I’ve had people buy 3-4 pieces at a time. It doesn’t hurt to have a few high-priced items in your shop, but keep in mind that online shoppers generally don’t spend hundreds of dollars on a single piece of art. The most expensive item I’ve sold in my Etsy shop was an $150 intaglio print.

2) Sell small works.
Most frequently, the artwork that sells is small, around 9 x 12 inches. Although there are exceptions, most artists don’t sell 4 x 6 foot paintings online. Remember that the vast majority of people who buy art online are not affluent art collectors. Shoppers are usually purchasing the artwork for their home, and for the average person, fitting a 4 x 6 foot painting into their home is not likely to be an option.

3) Stock at least 100 items, and continually add new ones.
Maintaining this kind of inventory may seem intimidating at first, but this strategy is highly effective and is well worth your time. A wide inventory will sustain a customer’s attention, as they are much more likely to stay and browse through your shop. On top of that, with more items your items will show up more frequently in searches. Demonstrate that your shop is lively and active by adding new items, which gives customers a reason to come back to see what’s new.

5) Set up your shop on an established retail site.
On a large retail site, you will reach many more customers because people do searches for specific items that lead them to your shop. When I tried to sell on my personal website, I sold nothing. On Etsy, almost all of the purchases have been from people who found my work through a search on Etsy.

6) Keep your art cohesive.
When I first set up my Etsy shop, the majority of my inventory was my fine art work, which is very dark and somber. I also had many still life watercolor paintings leftover from art school, so I put these items in my shop thinking that they would probably sell better. On the contrary, the fine art work has done very well, while none of the watercolors sold. My resin sculptures of anguished faces were significantly more popular than the pretty pictures of plums and peaches. In retrospect, I realized that the watercolors were extremely generic and common, while the fine art work was much more distinctive and specific. The watercolor paintings were actually a distraction in my shop, being stylistically too different from the fine art work.

7) Promote in consistent increments.
Think about your shop like a plant that you need to water once a week. Spread out your promotional announcements evenly over a period of time. Aim for a minimum of once a month, and no more than 1-2 times per week. When I have a lot of news to share, I put it in a queue and release new information incrementally. If you promote too much all at once, you risk losing your audience because people get annoyed when they are bombarded with too many notifications. On the other hand, you want to promote often enough that people don’t forget about you. Send out your announcements via the main social media networks, and use multiple networks. It takes time (usually years) to build a substantial following on social media, but it is well worth the investment.

Related articles:
“How do I leave my gallery?”
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“How do I approach a gallery?”
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Printing technique

Studio View

I was examining several of my proofs up close today, and noticed that the grain of the tone was quite different in many of the proofs.  In some proofs, the grain was coarse looking, while I found a few others that lacked the grain and looked significantly more refined.  There proofs had an almost velvet-like texture. Even the color of the ink seemed slightly different; the coarser proofs looked more grey while the smoother proofs had a warmer, brownish tone. (the ink I print with is Renaissance black, a black ink that has a lot of burnt umber mixed into it)

I concluded that I’ve been over wiping many of my proofs, which is what creates that coarser texture. I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to it earlier, but upon closer inspection I could see that the difference is really quite dramatic.  I had been frustrated by the coarser proofs because they lacked the subtlety in tone that I’m looking to achieve.  It’s nice to know that it is simply a technical printing issue, and not because I am doing a bad job of the scraping the plate. Now I know that I have to stop wiping the plate much earlier to achieve that smooth velvety surface that I want.

Bolder

Studio View

I’m working on scraping the plates every day, even if it’s just for an hour or two at night. I’m going to the studio to print proofs every other night.  The continuity I gain from this work schedule is so important. Each time I sit down to scrape a plate, I feel like I can remember pretty quickly where I left off, and this allows me to get back on track immediately.

I think I’m becoming more efficient with my scraping technique on the copper plates. My first proofs are further along than my earlier proofs.  The overall contrast is better, and I haven’t been as conservative about digging in bright white passages. This really cuts down on the number of states I have to make to finish the print, which is a huge time saver.

Work Rhythm

Studio View

I can tell that I’m getting in a strong work rhythm because I’ve found myself daydreaming during the day about the next time I get to work on my mezzotints. I haven’t had that feeling in a long time. After a lull that definitely lasted far too long, I’m finally excited about my artwork again. With these mezzotints, all of the imagery has been worked out in advance, so I can focus exclusively on the technical execution.  I’m fairly inexperienced with mezzotints, so I need all of my concentration aimed directly on the process. Every plate I’ve worked on is teaching me something new about the technique.

I was talking to some of my students yesterday about the importance of turning your brain off at a certain point in the creative process.  Once the imagery has been established, it’s really just a matter of executing the work. The temptation to judge your work prematurely is always there, and I find that the majority of the time this just becomes a huge problem that keeps us from staying on task. For this reason, I’ve been trying to mentally zone out while working on these mezzotints.  For me it helps to listen to something that will keep my mind preoccupied. I listen to music once in a while, but after a while I stop hearing it and it doesn’t hold my attention the way I would like it to. I used to listen to NPR a lot, but stopped after a while because many of the news topics were too depressing or upsetting.  Lately I’ve been listening to stand up comedy recordings which work well because they’re light and entertaining, but keep me distracted enough so that I am not fussing over every little detail of my work.

I’m starting to feel my September deadline breathing down my neck. I’ve been working furiously on these mezzotints over the past few days, using every waking moment I can to work on the plates. For my September solo show, I need a minimum of 5 mezzotints finished, although I am going to do my best to finish more. I also need to build in a few weeks to have mats cut, which means I really only have about one month to get the work ready for the September show.

I’m starting to feel my September deadline breathing down my neck. I’ve been working furiously on these mezzotints over the past few days, using every waking moment I can to work on the plates. For my September solo show, I need a minimum of 5 mezzotints finished, although I am going to do my best to finish more. I also need to build in a few weeks to have mats cut, which means I really only have about one month to get the work ready for the September show.