Thursday, October 30, 2014

To schtick or not to schtick

Alternative title:  how I choose my subjects.

I've been sort of grappling with something lately.  Subject matter is such a weird thing.

Maybe it's because, as I mentioned last time, I'm feeling inadequate about long it takes me to finish a piece; or maybe it's because I spend a lot of time on Etsy and Instagram pseudo-stalking crazy successful sellers and thinking about their work...  but I wonder, should I be painting different things?  If I want to make any kind of living selling my art, whose vision and needs should I be catering to--mine or that of my target audience?  And who IS my target audience anyway?

Yuck.  I hate thinking about these things.  But the reality is that there are bills to pay, orthodontia to purchase, and 10-year old tin cans cars to maintain.  Yes, I quit working so that I could focus on creative pursuits, but art supplies aren't free.  And neither is living on Long Island.

Because I am still honing my skills as a watercolor artist, to date I have chosen my subject matter as follows:  WHAT SCARES ME MOST.  Yup.  I paint from my own photographic reference material, so what I generally do is scroll through my photo library and identify subjects that I have NO IDEA how to paint and am pretty sure I can't successfully reproduce.

Like this:

This one scared me for multiple reasons--the sand AND the rust.  I'd never painted sand before.  Yeah, I knew I could probably achieve the results I was after by employing some toothbrush paint flickery, but I was pretty sure it would suck.  I also kept myself up nights worrying about how I should manage those horseshoes while I painted the sand.  Did I really want to use masking fluid on an area that big?  Wouldn't that mess up the paper, especially if I left it on for days?

As it turns out, it all ended up OK.  I masked out the rocks, but I used a waxed paper template to cover the horseshoes and protect them from spatter spray.  And despite all my earlier trepidation, I'm pretty darn happy with the way the rust came out.

And this is why I choose what scares me most--because the payoff in the end is just SO GOOD.  Sometimes when I'm done I'll put my finished painting on the fireplace mantle and stand across the room to look at my work, and I can hardly believe that I'm the one who painted it.  It's the most gratifying feeling ever and I wish I could bottle it, which is exactly why I keep using this method to pick my subjects.

But then... oh, but then.  Every few days or so I'll see an Instagram post from an outrageously successful art seller.  You know the one--the post showing the towering 5-foot stack of packaged prints; the number of prints sold in just one week, packaged by an assistant because the sheer volume of orders is just too great for one person to handle.  And the subject matter?  The exact same thing, over and over, day after day, with only minor variations in color palette.  But it's simple and trendy and would probably look great over any number of couches or fireplaces, and people cannot. get. enough of it.

And I am crazy jealous.

What am I doing here?  Should I really be spending two months on a piece that gives ME inordinate amounts of pleasure but doesn't really resonate with anyone else where I sell?  I'm savvy enough to know what's popular on Etsy right now, and also to know that my style isn't really it.  It would also help if I could produce more and faster.  Do I care?

At the same time I'm listing prints and praying for sales on Etsy, I'm also preparing a submission for the 2015 American Watercolor Society Annual Exhibition--two decidedly different goals.  I don't really know where I should focus my efforts.  Is it possible to do both?  I'm skeptical that it is, at least not with my current subject matter and style.  So do I start painting mustaches and chevrons and stand a chance at making enough to cover a monthly braces payment?  Or do I continue to focus on my own personal goals to the potential detriment of my pocketbook?  Sigh.

For now it's the latter, as I push to finish my current work-in-progress for entry in a juried still life show, due on Monday, which I will pay to enter and get nothing if I am selected.  Except that awesome feeling :)  And maybe that's enough.


  1. You should read The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance---What Women Should Know. The authors point out that women tend to remember their failures, not their accomplishments. You need to love yourself as much as you love your art.

    1. :) Indeed, I do. Wise words. Thanks for the book suggestion; I'll give it a look!