Things I Learned as an Oil Painter: Thing #15

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Thing #15 is:

It's good to know what you're good at, but don't make it a shtick.

I'm sure you know what I'm talking about: the artist that paints the same thing (with minor variations) over and over. Usually these artists are quite successful; in fact, it's what they paint that plays a major part in their success. It's not just a signature style, but a signature subject.

I once heard a tale of an artist who was starting out in his professional career and landed a solo show at a prestigious gallery. He liked to paint landscapes and particularly enjoyed painting winter scenes of rural villages in Québec, Canada with a church and a group of kids playing ice hockey on an outdoor rink. This is quite a common and popular theme in Québec where the church and sports play a big role in a lot of peoples' lives. About half of the work in the artist's exhibition were scenes such as these and they sold out. The other half of the show did quite well, but didn't sell out.

The gallery owner was obviously very pleased and told the artist to keep producing the church/hockey paintings, in fact he refused to accept anything else from him. Before long the artist had a reputation as the church/hockey guy and "the public" expected it of him.

Fast forward a decade or two and the artist has made a comfortable living out of church/hockey paintings, but the enjoyment evaporated years ago. It's now a job like any other - they very thing he was trying to avoid all those years ago by becoming a professional artist.

This is a trap I'm very wary of. Clearly I like cars, city scenes, trees in snow and skies...but that's four things and none of them as specific as the scenes in my story. I'm trying to concentrate less on the subject matter and more on the technique: tight cropped composition, high contrast, contemporary treatment, the still life aspect of the landscape. Less recognizable as a shtick, but still enabling me to focus on what I like to do.

Admittedly I've never had a gallery or buyer only accept a particular type of scene from me, so it's kind of easy for me to advise against a shtick. It would be a tricky situation and by keeping my options open I hope to avoid it. The "comfortable living" part may be harder to come by, but I don't think many people get into making art for the money...

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21stCenturyDamocles's avatar
i don't know how artist can paint the same thing over and over i would go nuts with the tedium of that. and yet every time i try to find a gallery all they want is for me to paint a certain thing all the time i can't and won't do it my. subjects are varied even more so than most artist i do landscapes, figurative, portraiture, still life, animal, technical and florals painting its the variety that keeps me painting. plus i like to stretch my skills its all so why i use multiple styles of painting too. i refuse to do abstracts though many of my realist paintings have abstraction within them. its a good point and one that needs to be covered with new artist.
glunac's avatar
I knew an artist who painted wonderful Abstract, but when the rent was due & he needed money he painted Still Life of a single pear. Several paintings of a single pear (over & over again done in various colors to match peoples decor). They were his money maker, as they always sold. Once he made enough to cover his costs, he'd switch back to what he loved to paint.

There are artists on this site that have entire galleries of basically the same painting (s) done over & over again, yet they are very popular. As Andy Warhol figured out, People LOVE repetitiveness.

I paint what is in my head & it has a short attention span. My original purpose was to illustrate the poems I had written so I could one day publish a book of Illustrated poems as a personal memento for my kids & grandkids.
TomOliverArt's avatar
Very wise tip. Thanks.