Q & A ADVICE
For Artists and Art Collectors
by Joelle Steele
QUESTIONS? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org
I answer questions from artists and collectors. I try to answer all questions by Monday mornings at the latest. Not all questions make it into this column, but every reasonable question is answered by E-mail, so be sure your E-mail address is correct. You can use your browser's "find" or "search" function on the Edit menu to search this page.
Q & A Material as of AUGUST 22, 2017
Q. What do you use to make all the gold spatters on your paintings? Is it gold leaf? It looks so shiny.
A. It's gold paint. It looks very shiny because the paint is shiny and I also use a gloss varnish.
Q. What should I use to embed small objects into a painting? I was using white glue, but I notice it doesn't stay clear if it is applied thickly, and I need it to be thick. I'm also concerned about yellowing and the ultimate archival quality.
A. I would use a gel medium instead of glue and apply it in thin layers until they reach the necessary or desired thickness. You may have to lay your painting flat to do this. If the objects are heavy, or you think the gel won't hold them securely, apply glue underneath them and then cover them or secure them in place with the gel.
Q. I am very upset by the nasty, superior attitudes of gallery owners in my area. What is the best way to handle these people? I want to get my paintings into a gallery, but I don't think I should have to crawl on my knees to do it.
A. Fortunately, not all gallery owners are that unprofessional. Whenever I cross paths with unpleasant people I just ignore their ugly behaviors and never take their negative comments personally. People with poor social skills are often quite insecure underneath it all. There are plenty of "nasty, superior attitudes" among people in general, even some artists!
Q. How do you feel about buying art online, particularly old paintings? I have bought a few things and they were in terrible condition. Any tips?
A. I do occasionally buy etchings online, so I know what you are talking about. With sites like eBay, you have to contact the seller and ask very specific questions about condition, even about the condition of the framing. When a seller doesn't offer the "zoom" option for getting a close-up look, this becomes even more important, and many online auctions don't offer that option at all, so you have to contact them for details before you bid/buy.
Q. Do you think that studying art will stifle creativity in any way? I've heard a few artists say that you can become subconsciously influenced by the work of other artists and lose your own imagination because of it.
A. Studying art, if anything, should enhance your imagination and inspire you to create something new and unique. I have studied art and art history in depth and found it to be very helpful in jump-starting my own creativity. I don't think my work looks particularly like anyone else's and I have never felt stifled at all.
Q. In one of your classes, you mentioned that you collect antique etchings. How did you get into that and what do you consider the criteria for a good etching?
A. I started collecting old etchings when I was 15 years old because I liked the graphic look of this particular art form. I had to sell most of my etchings in the mid-1980s, but I began collecting again in 1998. I only buy what I really like. I take a variety of magnifying devices with me when I visit antique stores so that I can examine a piece carefully. Since I mainly collect late 19th and early 20th century hand-colored etchings, I look for clean, crisp lines and rich or minimally faded colors. Condition is, of course, paramount, so unless I am prepared to have the work restored, I avoid items with water stains, foxing, tears, and abrasions.
Q. I am confused about the difference between an acrylic retarder and an acrylic flow releaser. Which should be used for very smooth blending?
A. Retarders are useful in extending the drying time of paint, and the flow releasers are surfactants designed to reduce surface tension of the paint. The retarders allow for more working time and so they are good for blending. But, if you want more of a watercolor wash in your blending, the flow releaser will allow that effect. With retarders you use about 5% retarder and 95% paint mixed thoroughly. With flow releasers just a small drop or two mixed with the paint will do the trick, and you might want to use even less and dilute further with water. If you use too much flow releaser or slosh it around too much, you may end up with a foamy paint mix. I would not use retarders and flow releasers together as the flow releasers already slow the drying time.
Q. I purchased two small oil paintings at a yard sale. They are both very dirty and smelly from years of exposure to cigarette smoke. Can I clean these myself? If yes, how should I do it?
A. If the paintings are not valuable, you can do them yourself. Use a very soft and dry bristle brush to gently remove tiny dirt and dust particles from a painting's surface. Get some "conservative" liquid and put it on a small swab and very gently clean a tiny corner of the painting. If the oil paint remains intact and only the dirt and the varnish come off, you can continue doing small spots until the entire painting is done. Do not rush and do not press down hard because you may accidentally remove paint.
Q. When I purchase tube watercolors, I sometimes buy "student grade" because it is so much more affordable. But I am concerned about how it will hold up over the years. Am I making a mistake by not spending more for my paints?
A. Student grade paints have less pigment in them, but they are still far superior in quality to the paints that were made by artists themselves many years ago. With less pigment, the color can be less brilliant or vivid, and some colors might not look exactly like those same colors in one of the more expensive brands. But, that said, they should hold up just as well, and aesthetically you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who'd notice the difference — including yourself.
Q. What is the best way to store my leftover acrylic paint at the end of the day?
A. I cover my palette with plastic wrap or I enclose a small cup of paint inside a zip-type plastic sandwich bag. If the room is on the cool side, it should be fine that way for about 24 hours. If the room is warm, or if I know I won't be painting the very next day, I put the covered paint in the refrigerator. It usually lasts in the fridge for about 3 days tops before it starts to collect mold. If I know I won't be painting for a week or more, I put it in a plastic bag in the freezer. It completely thaws out in about 2 minutes.
Q. I inherited a dozen or so small watercolor paintings that are more than 100 years old. I really love them, but they are in very badly-damaged old frames with no mats, and the backs are sealed with brown paper. Can I safely remove these paintings from their frames, then mat and reframe them myself without damaging them?
A. Probably. But, if you are uncertain as to their condition in these frames or you can't tell how to take them apart yourself, then I recommend that you have the unframing, matting, and reframing done by a professional.
Q. I am trying to find a gallery to represent my work. I follow their instructions for submitting links to my Web site, and I write a very polite note in my E-mail, but they never respond. I don't know if they even receive my E-mail. What am I doing wrong?
A. It's not you. It is a very unprofessional practice for any business to not respond to an inquiry from someone who wants to do business with them, especially when you're not spamming them. Unfortunately, this is just a sign of the times we live in, and a pretty sad sign at best. Just keep contacting galleries until you find the right one for you and assume the others were not interested.
Q. In class, you emphasized skills and techniques. Don't you think that the uniqueness or imagination of the artist should be most important?
A. No, I think that imagination and skill are equally important. They work hand-in-hand, and you can't truly create art without both. To effectively convey what you envision in the medium of your choice, you must fully master that medium. A great artistic vision will never be realized if it is poorly or incorrectly executed.
Q. I put varnish in a cup when I am varnishing my acrylic paintings. I notice the varnish in the cup starts to pick up the colors of the painting. Does this mean the paint is being removed as I varnish? If so, what can I do to stop the problem?
A. First, make sure the painting is fully dry before you varnish it. I wait at least three days, but if your work is heavy impasto, you may have to wait as long as a week or two. Second, be sure you are using a very soft brush so that it won't rub the paint off as you apply the varnish.
Q. I took one of your classes and you said to buy the very best brushes. How can someone who is just starting out afford to buy such expensive items?
A. Buy the best you can afford and keep upgrading as you go. Brushes are tools, so they are an investment in your art. The best ones produce the best results. A great brush holds the paint well and allows you to apply it with skill. If kept clean and in all ways well-cared for, a great brush can last a very long time. I have some that I use regularly that are almost 30 years old — an excellent investment.
Q. I'm so glad I found your site. It's very helpful. I've been painting for 25 years and have 230 very small paintings I want to sell. What do you think about selling online?
A. I think it's a great idea. There are many Web sites out there and you can start one of your own as well. But don't put all your eggs in one basket, i.e., the Web. Sell at art fairs and co-op shows too. Small pieces tend to sell rather easily in those kinds of venues because they are not too pricey and they are very portable. Good luck!
Q. Can I mix latex house paint with acrylic paint? I want a very liquid paint for use in creating backgrounds and for occasional dripping.
A. The terms "latex" and "acrylic" are actually misnomers, since both are made of water-soluble synthetic polymers and do not have any latex or acrylic in them. As for your question, house paints are not sufficiently archival for use in works of art on canvas, so I do not recommend mixing the two. If you just want a "thinner" paint, you can purchase large containers of soft-body artist's acrylic paint and dilute them further with a 50-50 blend of water and/or gel medium.
Q. I want to commission a painting from an artist whose work I admire very much. I like her style, but the colors she uses conflict with my taste. Is it okay to ask her to paint something for me in colors I like better, or does that make me sound like I just want her art as decoration?
A. There is nothing wrong with wanting art in a different color that matches your decor or your aesthetic taste. Commissioned works are done to match the needs of a buyer, whatever they may be. I have done commissioned paintings in odd sizes and shapes, in slightly different styles than my own, and in colors to match an interior designer's palette — sometimes when I haven't even seen the place where the painting will ultimately be hung. That's what commissioned works are all about.
Q. How old should a child be before they can begin private art instruction?
A. It depends on the child. I started when I was 9 years old and I have met people who started as early as 7 and as late as 14. The motivation to learn and the attention span necessary to do it are the main criteria. When a child really wants to make art and can also keep focused on something for more than an hour at a time, that is probably the right time to begin.
Q. What is the difference between "gallery" wrap and "museum" wrap canvases?
A. With gallery wrap, the canvas is stapled to the stretcher on the back, rather than the sides, and is hung "raw," i.e., unframed. This allows the sides of the canvas to be painted, often in a continuation of the painting itself. For that reason, gallery wrap canvases usually have deeper (thicker) sides — up to about 1-1/2" or so. A museum wrap canvas is traditionally stapled on the sides and is not deep, because it is meant to be framed. However, most canvases these days do not have staples on the sides, as stapling on the back is now the preferred look.
Q. Is there a "green" way to dispose of my acrylic paint, especially the water with paint in it?
A. This is really a three-part process. First, do not waste paint. Use only what you can use, a little at a time, adding more as you paint. Second, when you are done, wipe your brush and your palette thoroughly with recycled paper towels or other recycled paper (newspaper comes to mind). Third, use only small amounts of water when diluting your paints, and dump your water into a large bucket so that the paint can sink to the bottom and so that the water can evaporate. Some people re-use the water if it does not evaporate. Some people fill the bucket part-way with sand.
Q. Is there a difference between the terms "art" and "design"?
A. Yes. It was easier when we simply said "fine art" (art) and "commercial art" (design). Art is a personalized creative expression of the artist; design is a purposeful and practical application of art. In art, the artist can use their imagination and skills to create without limit; however, in design, the designer must use those same skills to create within certain confines that ultimately serve or fulfill a specific need, e.g., the creation of a Web site, a car, a piece of furniture, a business card, etc.
Q. I am new to collecting art and hanging it in my house. Should I paint my walls white? I really don't want white walls, but I'm not sure what is best.
A. You can paint your walls any color you like. You just need to make sure that whatever color you pick does not clash or detract from the art. A lot of the art I have collected, along with my own art, is set against dark green and light beige walls where it looks just fine.
Q. I recently started to paint with acrylics. I like the fact that they dry quickly, but sometimes I need the paint to stay wet longer, especially on warm days when it almost dries as it hits the canvas. If I add too much water to the paint, it doesn't give me the effect I want. Any suggestions?
A. I always use a spray bottle and just spritz water all over the canvas or onto the parts where I need to have the paint stay wet for re-working. You can also use a glycol retarder, which will make the paint easier to manipulate for a longer period of time.
Q. How do I know in advance how my work will be accepted? I have never exhibited before and I am afraid that critics might not like what they see.
A. No one can truly judge art. It's far too subjective. People who appreciate art and people who buy art are quite capable of making their own decisions about what they like and what to buy without the advice of a third party. And, you can't know in advance how your work will be accepted, but don't put off showing it just because you're worried about what critics might say.
Q. Is it okay to paint a canvas flat as opposed to standing it on an easel? I read that canvas can sag, but it seems it would sag either way.
A. Sagging is not about the angle of the canvas. It is the result of too much paint on the wrong weight canvas. Canvas comes in cotton or linen, in different weights, with linen being the sturdier and more archival fabric. If you use the correct weight canvas, you should not have problems with sagging. If you apply heavy layers of paint, you should use a heavier canvas, such as "duck" or even "double fill," to help prevent sagging. And, you should use a stretcher frame that has corner keys so that you can tighten the canvas if it does begin to sag.
Q. I have just started collecting art and I want to buy a painting I really like from a local artist. It is a large abstract (it's almost four feet wide and about six feet high) and it will be the first painting he has ever sold. He is asking $3,000. I can afford it, but how do I determine whether this is a fair price?
A. Depending on how much work went into it — and even abstracts can have an enormous amount of effort put into them — the artist could have easily put 20, 40, or even more hours into it. The cost of a painting is dictated in part by an hourly rate plus the cost of the canvas, which he probably had to also build himself at that size — more hours — and an awful lot of paint and other mediums, including varnish. So $3,000 sounds more than fair to me. But the real reason to buy should always be based on what it is worth to you. You said you really like it and you can afford it, so give the guy a break and do yourself a favor and buy it.
Q. I am tired of being a "poor struggling artist." Why is it so hard to get noticed?
A. I will assume that you are skilled at your craft, because I know a lot of good artists who are far more talented than I am who are always struggling. The way I see it is this: I spend a lot of time marketing my work. I send out postcards, update my website regularly, and in general just do whatever I can to make people notice me. It's not my favorite stuff to do, but you don't get noticed any other way. My rule of thumb is to spend at least one-fifth of my time marketing. Why? Because sales is always a numbers game; the more contacts you make the more sales you ultimately close.
Q. I can't seem to achieve a watercolor-like translucency in my acrylic paintings. I find that the brush lines are too apparent and I can't get that watery look. Any suggestions?
A. I use different things to achieve translucency with acrylics. I use water, gel medium, sometimes both together. I also use flow releaser. They all give you a translucent effect but in a different way. I additionally minimize brush lines by using a damp sea sponge to spread the color or a very soft wash brush.
Q. I want to frame two old charcoal drawings that my grandfather made in the 1920s. Should I use a spray fixative on them, or should I just make sure the mats are thick enough to keep the charcoal from contacting the glass?
A. If the paper is not showing any signs of foxing (brown spots) or other damage, then you can probably safely use a fixative. Keep the charcoal off the glass either way.
Q. What causes paint to sag or droop and exhibit signs of dripping on canvas? I don't think my brush is overloaded.
A. Your paint could be too thin, or you could be painting in a location that is too cold, or where the humidity is too high and the paint can't dry fast enough so gravity pulls it down. All of these can cause the sagging effect you describe.
Q. I found a little landscape at a second-hand store, and I want to reframe it, but when I tried to remove the old frame, the paint was sticking to it. Can I fix this myself or is it a job for a restoration expert?
A. I would not tackle this myself if the painting is of any value at all. I'd take it to an expert, maybe a framer first, and then to a restorer if the framer can't safely remove it from the frame.
Q. I like acrylic paints better than oils because they are easier to clean up and don't smell, but they dry so fast. I heard you can use glycerin to slow the drying time. Do you have any experience with this? Is it effective?
A. I don't use retarders very often, but I would definitely not use glycerin if I did. I think what you are referring to are the commercially-made glycol retarders. They allow more workability, but usually not more than an hour to six hours.
Q. I am somewhat confused about how to properly frame a painting on canvas, or if I have to frame it at all. I kind of like the look of an unframed canvas that shows the drips and the staples or tacks along the edges, but at the same time, I want it to look good alongside my furnishings. Is there a right or wrong to this framing question?
A. No right or wrong at all. How you frame a painting is a matter of how the painting can best be displayed within a frame that matches, at least to some degree, your personal tastes, while at the same time matching and enhancing the appearance of the art itself. If you can't hang it raw, then find a frame that complements both the painting and your décor. Before there were so many canvases available that were stapled in the back instead of on the sides, I bought very thin wood molding strips at lumber yards, stained or painted them, and then just ran them around the canvas edges. It was a clean, simple, and relatively inexpensive framing technique.
Q. My sable brushes are getting very old and I'd like to start replacing them, but I love animals and don't want to contribute to their slaughter. What is your opinion of brushes made of synthetic materials?
A. If you decide to try synthetics, you'll have to experiment until you find a brand that you like. If you're a do-it-yourselfer, I recently was told that you can use pet fur to make brushes by trimming a small amount of fur from a cat or dog. Since pet hair varies considerably in texture, this is probably not an exact science, but if the pet is willing, it might be worth a try.
Q. Several years ago I inherited a small oil painting created by my chain-smoking grandmother. Is there a way to clean it to get rid of the yellow stains and the smell?
A. To remove the yellow stains, mix two cups of distilled water with one teaspoon of hydrogen peroxide. Dip a cotton swab in the mix and don't let it drip. Work in a very tiny area of the painting — about 1" square — and very gently wipe the swab over the area. Do not rub or press hard as this may ruin the paint. I don't know about removing the smell, but it might go away when you clean the painting and the frame.
Q. I paint abstracts and people often ask me what my painting means, if my work has a message, if it is saying something. They tell me abstracts (and art in general) must communicate something. Does my art need to send a message?
A. Not in my opinion. Some artists are trying to communicate with their art, others are not. Some artists have a message in some of their works and not in others. I think that art is not the best medium for sending a message, because it is so subjective, so evocative. An artist can attempt to speak to their angst-ridden relationship or their political sentiments, but the person who looks at the art may not receive that same message and may instead be reminded of a toy they owned as a child, their honeymoon in Jamaica, etc. You can send a message or not, your choice. Your art will always be interpreted through the eyes of those who view it.
Q. About 20 years ago, I was given some beautiful 100% rag, ivory-colored stationery with a very smooth finish. I'd like to use it for drawing since I don't write letters. How do I determine if it is archival?
A. Rag paper is traditionally good art paper, but it all depends on who made it and how it was made. The fact that it has a smooth finish means it is probably hot-pressed, and that is definitely good for ink drawing, possibly for pencil as well. If the manufacturer's name is on the package or in a watermark, you can try to find them on the Internet and ask them about that paper's archival qualities.
Q. I am having difficulty pricing my paintings. Is there a formula for doing this?
A. Would be nice if there was a simple formula, but there isn't. So, you might want to read my article on Pricing Your Art.
Q. This will probably sound like a stupid question, but is there a correct place to sign and date a painting, and should you paint the signature or write it in ink?
A. Select a place that looks appropriate for each painting. Write your signature and the year in the same medium as the work and do it in a color that matches with the rest of the painting. I sign and date in paint for works on canvas and use pen and ink on my watercolors. Keep the lettering small and legible so that in years to come you can be identified as the artist. If the work is likely to be framed, sign far enough away from the edges that the signature and date are not covered or damaged by framing.
Q. A high-end, trendy coffee shop has expressed an interest in letting me display some of my paintings there for an indefinite period of time. Can I sell my paintings directly to anyone who expresses an interest or do I pay the coffee shop a commission? Also, what happens if a painting is stolen or damaged?
A. You can accept payment directly or pay the coffee shop a commission. That is between the two of you to decide. As for what happens if a painting is stolen or damaged, that should be covered by the shop's insurance. This should be part of your written agreement with the shop's owner.
Q. I love the look of hand-tinted photos and would like to give it a try, but not digitally. What kind of media is best for hand-tinting?
A. Over the years, photographers and artists have used chalks, paints, inks, colored pencils, and dyes. The kind of result you achieve is dependent on both the media you use and the paper on which the photo is printed, so you should definitely do a lot of experimenting. I have hand-tinted ordinary black-and-white photographs with oils, inks, and fabric dyes. The outcome with each is very different, and I personally prefer the inks and dyes to the oils, but it all depends on the desired effect.
Q. Are there any rules about the types of brushes to use with different paint types? I have difficulty with rounds and watercolor brushes.
A. There are probably guidelines, but I don't know what they are. I have tons of brushes that I use interchangeably with ink, watercolor, and acrylic. I keep some stiffer brushes for oils only. With watercolors, I rarely use rounds at all, as I prefer soft filberts and other flats. You should really just experiment with different brushes to find the ones that work best for you and your style of painting.
Q. I want to apply multiple layers of paint in my watercolors, but they always turn out muddy. What don't I know?
A. What you are referring to is called glazing. To glaze correctly, always start by purchasing the most transparent or "staining" pigments. Apply the lighter colors first, working up to darker ones. Wait for a layer to dry completely before applying additional color on top of it. Don't rub the paint in with your brush when you apply paint over a previously painted area, even if that area is fully dry, because the paint gets remoistened when you paint over it and that can cause smearing, hence the muddy look. To get a layer to dry faster so that you can apply another one right away, use a hand-held hair dryer.
Q. How many coats of varnish should I apply to my acrylic paintings?
A. As many coats as you think are necessary to preserve the painted surface. I always do three coats of gloss varnish, and I wait about two to three hours between coats, until the previous coat is fully dry and not tacky.
Q. Can you explain what provenance is when I buy a painting and why it is so important?
A. Provenance is a French word that translates roughly as "origination." In art, it refers to the history of a work of art and any other documentation about that art or artist, as well as the materials that make up the art itself. For example, the back of a painting may have sales receipts for previous owners or exhibition stamps attached to it, or there may be a newspaper clipping showing the artist painting it or standing in front of it at an exhibition. There may be an artist's bio or references to catalogues of his/her works. The frame itself may also be significant if it is the original or if it was handmade by the artist and is representative of his/her style. The more provenance the better, as it can greatly increase the painting's value.
Q. How do you keep a watercolor from buckling? Mine are always rumpled and I have to cover them with books to flatten them out.
A. If you are painting on a watercolor block, let the painting dry out completely before you detach it from the block. If you are painting on sheets of watercolor paper, wet them, then tape them to a painting surface, such as a table or a board used for that purpose. Paint your picture after the paper has dried. The tape will hold the paper in place and minimize the buckling.
Q. I bought a painting that I damaged when I was hanging it. A small area got badly scuffed. I am an artist and I would like to fix it myself. Should I do it?
A. Depends on how good you are at restoring. It is not the same as painting, per se. If you invested heavily in the painting, I would not tinker around with it. If it is just a small area, it might not be that expensive to repair. Check around with local museums and see if they can assist you.
Q. Is there a formula for calculating how big a mat should be for a painting? I always think the ones you buy in the store look too narrow.
A. They probably are too narrow. You'd do better having your mats custom cut if you don't have your own mat cutter. There isn't really any exact formula. Just go by how each painting looks in different mat sizes. I personally like a mat to be at least half as wide as the painting, but this can be very unrealistic when you get into larger sizes. It also doesn't work as well with oils/acrylics on canvas as it does for ink, watercolor, or prints on paper.
Q. Who is responsible for the cost of framing art when an artist is represented by a gallery?
A. Usually the gallery, unless the artist creates their own frames or wants to exercise full creative control over the way in which their art is displayed. I would check with your local galleries, as these things change with the times and with the geographical location of the gallery.
Q. For the past six years I have been creating assemblages, similar to the boxes of Joseph Cornell (1903-1972), but with a more abstract and modernistic theme. I'm having trouble photographing them because the glass is part of the work and can't be removed, and I get reflections or glare in my slides. How can I avoid this?
A. Photographing art is an art in itself. I personally think that unless you are skilled as a photographer it is probably better to find someone who is and have them shoot for you. If you want to do it yourself, you will probably need to shoot the boxes at an angle — experiment to find the right angle — as that is a common way to avoid reflections in glass.
Q. I read somewhere that if I collect contemporary art I should be thinking video and digitally edited photography. I don't like either very much. What about paintings?
A. You are probably referring to the art critic at the Washington Post who said words to the effect that painting was long dead and that an artist who wanted to be taken seriously should be doing video or computer enhanced photography. That doesn't mean you should ignore paintings or that they are of lesser value. I love looking at good paintings in any genre, and if you do too, that's what you should collect.
Q. I met you at an art show, and you mentioned that you didn't like to participate in juried shows. Why is that?
A. I think that art is far too subjective to be judged by any one person or any group of people, no matter how expert they are in the arts. No one can be the definitive expert on art or put their personal tastes aside sufficiently to be truly objective in determining what constitutes "good" art or "great" art, or even acceptable art. Everyone reacts to art based on their own specific tastes and experiences. No one can say that any artist is better, more creative, more skillful, or more innovative than another. Creating a reliable criteria to do so would be impossible.
Q. My husband and I live in a very small apartment, but we like to collect art, mostly small pieces, and our tastes are quite eclectic. We are running out of room, and I'd like to start stacking the art on the walls. My husband doesn't like the idea of having a lot of unrelated things hanging altogether like that. Is there a way we can make this work?
A. I think stacking looks great, especially with small pieces, and regardless of their artistic styles. The biggest problem with stacking is that it can make a room look overly cluttered if you already have a lot of stuff going on in the way of patterns and colors in your drapes, rugs, and furniture, or if you collect other things and have them displayed too. I recommend that if you stack your art, that you do so against a subtle interior design theme that draws the eye to the art, making it the focal point.
Q. I am trying to find information on the artist who painted a piece I bought several years ago in Florida. The signature on the painting is R.R. Monera and it is tropical subject matter. The painting looks old (maybe 1950s or earlier). I cannot find out anything about this person in books or on the Internet. What do you suggest?
A. You should probably try contacting some galleries, libraries, and historical societies in the area where you bought the work and if you come up dry there, expand your search to other surrounding areas and to the entire state. And don't forget to search Cuba, Mexico, or Puerto Rico, if Florida is not the place. But also remember that not every painting was produced by an artist who is known outside his or her circle of family and friends.
Q. Can you recommend a good place to buy my canvases?
A. I don't make product or vendor recommendations. Visit your local art stores and search online until you find the best canvases you can afford for the type of paintings you produce. Always be watching for sales at your local art stores too.
Q. Is there a taboo with regard to painting from photographs? I don't like painting out in public (en plein air) but I don't mind shooting a lot of photos and then painting from them. A fellow artist said this might affect the sale of my works.
A. People buy art for a lot of reasons. I'm sure someone out there buys art, all the while envisioning the artist painting outdoors and not from a photo. But I'm sure most buyers do not care and will only be interested in the final product. So don't worry about it. Just paint the way you like to paint.
Q. Is it all right to let the canvas show through in places in a painting? I know it's okay to let paper show through with watercolors but I'm not so sure about canvas.
A. I personally don't mind seeing a bit of canvas if it adds something to or is part of the artwork. I personally don't like to see an entire painting on canvas in which the paint layer is so thin that you can see all of the canvas throughout, but if that's how an artist wants to paint, I support their creative choice to do so.
Q. My husband purchased a painting for me as a gift. I like the painting a lot but the canvas has staples on the edges and I like this type of painting hung without a frame. Can I remove the staples from the sides?
A. I would not recommend removing the staples, but you can put a very thin strip of plain wood molding over the sides to cover them. You can paint or stain the wood first. That creates a frame of sort, but one that would come closer to giving you the cleaner and unfinished look that you prefer without risking damage to the piece.
Q. I would like to try painting with a palette knife instead of a brush. Can you please tell me what kind of palette knife I should buy? They all look so different and some are pretty expensive.
A. Palette or painting knives do come in a variety of shapes that help you create different effects. You will have to try out a few to see how each works with your personal painting style. As for price, you can start with something cheap but, in the end, if you decide to continue painting with a knife, you will want to own good knives that are well-made, have a good spring to them, and have a sturdy, bent handle to keep your knuckles away from the canvas.
Q. I have recently retired and I took up drawing again as a hobby. I like to draw in India ink, but the final look is not as shiny as I remember it being back in the 1960s or so. What has changed?
A. I have noticed this too and I think it is probably because some of the older inks had (more) shellac added to them. Also, I notice that some of the water-soluble inks today dry to a matte finish and also are not waterproof as they do not allow me to paint a color wash over them without making my black lines bleed, even after they are long dry. There must be some brand(s) of ink that has the qualities of the inks from the 1960s. I suggest you shop around online and see if you can find it. And if any readers know of a source, please write to this column.
Q. For two years I've been selling my watercolors at craft shows. I've also done a few canvases in oil but I prefer the watercolors. My oils sell more quickly and for a lot more money than the watercolors. I don't spend much more time on my oils than I do on my watercolors, and I just wonder why I can't sell my watercolors for more?
A. I believe there is a perceived value in oils that isn't there with watercolors. First, many buyers see the longevity of the oils on canvas as superior to the "fragility" of watercolor on paper — even though this is not entirely true these days with far better quality paper and watercolor paints. Second, some buyers do not know how much time goes into a work and can't even guess how long it takes for something to be painted in watercolors versus oils. They assume that watercolor is always done quickly and oils are always done slowly and over a longer period of time. So it appears to them that more effort or talent has gone into the oils than the watercolor.
Q. I purchased two "old" paintings at a yard sale because I fell in love with them. The sellers did not know anything about the artist. I only paid $50 for the two of them, so I'm not heavily invested in the works, but I can't find out anything about the artist and I'm very curious.
A. You might want to go to the Web sites for the Antiques Roadshow or Sotheby's or some other auctioneers and see if any of their appraisers can direct you. There are artist directories and books about artists, but unless this artist's works have been catalogued at one time, it may be a fairly lengthy search to find out who he/she is.
Q. I am a 44-year-old amateur artist. I would like to go to college next year and fulfill my dream of being a professional artist. I can afford a four-year college or an art school, and both are nearby, but I don't know how to evaluate which will give me the best career opportunities after I graduate.
A. You should select the school that has the best instructors and that has the best reputation in the community. Since I don't know anything about the schools in your area, I would ask around at your local art galleries and advertising agencies, etc., to see what they have to say about the two schools. Also see if you can find out who has graduated from these schools and what they have to say.
Q. I bought an old oil painting for $25 at a yard sale. It is probably not worth much, but I like it a lot and it goes with my dining room colors. However, it has a few spots where the paint has scratched off. Can I just paint over those spots?
A. You can. But before you do, I would research the painting to make sure it is not valuable. Even though you only paid $50, you should try to find out something about the artist before you do your own restoration and possibly damage a valuable work of art.
Q. Is there a proper way to store rolled canvas? I want to be sure it does not become damaged.
A. Store your canvas in the same environment in which you would be comfortable — not too cold or hot, not too damp or dry, and out of direct sunlight. Rolled canvas should be stored hanging rather than on its end to prevent stretching and wrinkling. Most artists just hang the roll on a metal dowel or on a piece of PVC pipe.
Q. I am confused about the terms used in reference to "abstract" art. To me anything that I can't recognize is abstract. I'm new to collecting, so could you briefly explain the difference between works referred to as "expressionism" or "nonrepresentational," etc.
A. This is really a question that is far too long for this column, so I recommend that you go to the library or bookstore and read up on abstract art in depth if you're serious about collecting it. But, in general, any art that depicts subject matter that deviates to any degree from the normal or natural appearance of the subject matter is considered to be abstract. The additional terms applied to abstract refer to the manner in which the person or thing has been altered or abstracted. For example, "expressionism" is a term used to describe art that is created from an emotional center in the artist and usually has nothing recognizable in it and may never have had a tangible subject to begin with. It's just color, shape, texture, etc. The term "nonrepresentational" is also called "nonobjective," and it is used to describe abstract art that does not have any recognizable person or object in it. Other terms, such as "cubism," refer to the squared and angular abstraction of the subject.
Q. Can I paint with tempera on thick paper, or will it crack?
A. I wouldn't, but if anyone has any experience with real tempera (not gouache or modern poster paints) on paper, please contact me and I'll update this question. Original tempera paint required an absorbent ground with a lower oil content than the tempera binder that was used in making the paint. This is where the term "fat over thin" came about in reference to tempera. These paints were traditionally applied to rigid surfaces such as wood panels, and I would recommend that you do the same, but possibly making use of today's panels made of things such as untempered masonite.
Q. Are the hand-colored photographs and illustrations that are glued into old books worth anything?
A. It depends on the book itself and who did the artwork. There are two issues involved when it comes to art in books, and that is that sometimes the art is worth more when it is left inside the book, and in other cases the art is worth more than the book. You should check with an antiquarian book dealer to find out the value of the book, and then find yourself a good auction house or art appraiser to assess the value of the photos and art as separate entities.
Q. A few years ago I bought some old-fashioned framed prints at a flea market because I liked them. They are not numbered. Does this mean they are one-of-a-kind or more valuable?
A. Not necessarily. You should probably take them to be examined by a professional who can attest to their authenticity, to the reputation of the artist, and to their value.
Q. About ten years ago, I purchased some tube watercolor at a yard sale. I never used it, but now I want to, and it looks fine, but is it still fresh enough to use?
A. If it comes out of the tube looking fine and blends with water well, it is probably fine. I have tube watercolor in colors I rarely use that is a lot older than ten years and it works just fine.
Q. I am an amateur artist. How do I enter art contests? Are some better than others?
A. Pick up a copy of an art magazine such as "The Artist's Magazine" or "American Artist" and look in the back pages in the classifieds. Also look online for art competitions. There are not really any contests or competitions that are specifically better, but you will need to find out which ones you are qualified to enter.
Q. When I go to estate sales or garage sales I often see posters and prints that I like. How can I tell whether they are worth anything?
A. You won't be able to tell at the sales unless you become an expert on the subject, which you can certainly do by studying. But, in general, whether it's dirt cheap or moderately priced, if you really like it, that's what you should buy, regardless of whether it ever appreciates in value. When you collect you should only collect what you love and what you will enjoy while it's hanging on your walls.
Q. I had five years of private art lessons from a well-known artist. I am now entering college and plan to get a degree in art, but there are so many classes I have to take that are just repeats of what I have already studied.
A. Most colleges will let you challenge a certain number of units — sometimes as many as 30 — to show your skills, knowledge, and overall proficiency in a subject. I recommend that you contact the art department and find out what their policy is in this regard. They may give you assignments to fulfill or they may just require a portfolio, which you can assemble of some of the works you have done to date. But, you will still have to take more college art courses to obtain your degree.
Q. I recently purchased two great antique prints on eBay. But they have some brown spots (foxing) and they are extremely brittle. Is there anything I can do to remove the spots and make the paper less brittle?
A. There are things that can be done by professional restorers who own and operate such equipment as humidity chambers, and who have all the right kinds of fungicides and other chemicals and know the procedures for salvaging your prints. This is not something that anyone other than an experienced professional should ever attempt to do.
Q. Most of my paintings are very large, so I photograph them with my digital camera and then put them up on my website. But my work is highly textured and it always ends up looking flat. I tried scanning some of my smaller works in segments and then pasting them together in Photoshop and editing them, but they still lack that dimensional quality.
A. If you were not able to bring out the texture by using Photoshop to edit the photos of your paintings, it is probably because the lighting is not correct, the camera lens is simply not up to the challenge, or you are scanning at too low a resolution to achieve the amount of detail needed. To achieve texture, you need your lighting to come a little from the side and not directly overhead. There are also services that scan large textured works of art and they do an excellent job.
Q. My 13-year-old daughter is very artistic and I have been sending her to private art classes. The instructor is a well-known artist in our community, but I am concerned about his methods. A lot of her work seems to be copying works by other artists. Is this a common practice?
A. With some art instructors it is. It is also one of the older time-honored traditions of training the hand and eye to make shapes and colors by duplicating the works of known artists. I was taught that way and was also taught to draw from life. But you should ask the art instructor about anything you don't understand or about which you are unsure.
Q. When using acrylic paints, how much water can I use to get a transparent look without having the paint break down?
A. You should probably not do more than about 40% water to 60% paint. If you really want to go for the transparent look in a big way, try adding some gel medium to the mix until you get the look you want to achieve. The gel medium will keep the paint from breaking down and losing its adherence to the canvas.
Q. Can I create a painting from someone else's photograph without asking their permission?
A. You should always ask permission first. They will probably give it freely, and it is better to ask than to use their copyrighted image illegally.
Q. My paintbrushes never last more than a few months. I am tired of replacing them in order to keep on painting. Any advice?
A. First, always buy the best brushes you can possibly afford. They will usually last considerably longer under normal wear and tear. Second, maintain your brushes very carefully. Clean them thoroughly after each use and do not let them dry brush end up as this can damage the ferule, the metal part that secures the bristles. Third, if you are rather vigorous in your use of a brush, be prepared to replace them more frequently. Nothing lasts forever under harsh treatment.
Q. If an artist dies, does the value of their work automatically go up? I have some original 30-year old oils by a woman who was well-known in my area, and I just found out that she died two months ago.
A. Sometimes the value goes up, but not always. Art is, in many ways, like any other commodity. It is driven by the laws of supply and demand. If this artist was highly skilled and much sought after, then there is a good possibility that her works may now become more valuable. To know for sure, find the gallery or agent that represented her and get their input.
Q. How can I tell what is a fair price for a painting I want to buy? It seems overly expensive and it is by a little-known living artist.
A. Paintings are priced according to the demand for the work as well as the quality of the work and the amount of effort that went into creating it. If you purchase it directly from the artist it should be considerably less than if you purchase it from a gallery. But some artists never make it into galleries owned by others, so when they sell their own work it is priced comparably to art that might appear in any other art gallery. In the end, what constitutes a fair price largely depends on how much you want to own the piece.
Q. I have always been an artist, but my parents have me in nursing school and will not send me to art school. I feel like I have nothing to look forward to in my future. Can I still be an artist somehow?
A. Of course. You can use your nursing career to fund an art education or an art career. Or, you can start looking for a way to go to art school without relying on your parents for financial assistance. When you are meant to be or do a certain thing in life, it is pretty much impossible to deny it, to live any other way. Who you are and what you are is at the very core of your being. It is your fate, your destiny, and somehow it will be fulfilled, because you will ultimately find ways to make it happen. In fact, when you are meant to do something, you just can't help doing it.
Q. I have submitted sample illustrations to several publishers over the past few years, and most of the time they don't use my services and they don't return my samples. What am I doing wrong?
A. If you want your samples back, you need to send a self-addressed stamped envelope large enough and with sufficient postage for them to return them to you. If you do that and they don't return the samples, perhaps they keep them in a file or they are just irresponsible. Hard to tell. As for not using your services, publishers select the kind of work that best suits their needs, and if your style is not what they want at the moment, or if your style is so unique that it is not adaptable to the needs of the average publisher, you will get less work. You can live with that, or you can present other styles as well to increase your odds of getting more work.
Q. Whenever I paint a picture the colors come out looking kind of cartoonish. How can I make a landscape or other subject matter look more natural?
A. This is really something you should probably learn from a book on color theory, but basically, you can look at a painting as having an underlying color, such as blue or yellow or some other color of your choice or an underlying color that you can visually detect by looking at the subject matter and the quality of the light surrounding it. By adding that underlying color to the other colors in your palette — in varying quantities from just a tiny speck to 50% — you should be able to achieve a more natural effect.
Q. How much study do I need to do to start collecting art? Can't I just buy what I like and hang it on the wall?
A. You absolutely can buy what you like. In fact, that is just what you should buy. Even if you are purchasing art as an investment, you should buy what you like. Not everything that's "hot" now will necessarily be as popular in ten or twenty years, and you will have to look at it every day in the meantime. Buying art as an investment can be "iffy" at best, unless you've got deep pockets and you can afford to pick up a Kandinsky to brighten up the spare bedroom! As your collection grows, you will notice that your aesthetic tastes and your budget will dictate the type of art you buy, and you should probably do your homework on that type of work to better understand where it comes from, how it fits in with other art of its genre, etc.
Q. I have had some of my illustration work published in recent years, but I also have a lot of ideas for fine art that I started but never finished. Is this common for artists?
A. If it isn't, it should be. An artist needs to have a lot of ideas and works in progress all the time. Just because you don't finish something in a single day doesn't mean that it wasn't a good idea or that it will never be finished. Maybe its time has just not arrived — yet! I have literally hundreds of ideas for my art and for my writing, and I just keep them all in an "ideas" folder on the computer and in a bunch of sketchbooks. I look through them all from time to time to see if anything grabs my attention. You never know when you'll look and see something in a new way and be inspired to complete it.
Q. I would like to find a gallery to represent me. What should I look for?
A. You want a gallery that will do everything for you short of creating the art itself. You want a gallery that showcases art that is similar or complementary to your own, so that your work will be presented to buyers of your kind of art. You want a gallery that has good exposure, that takes out ads in major art magazines where collectors will see it. You want a gallery that is not so big that it can't give you personalized attention, but not so small that no one knows it's there.
Q. I'm kind of old-fashioned, I guess. I don't work in Illustrator; I still use a brush. How can I assure a publisher that I can do an illustration job just as well without a computer program?
A. You can scan your own hand-done work or have it scanned. I scan mine all the time. It does put some limits on size when it comes to the cost of scanning, because if your illustrations exceed the size of a basic flat bed scanner's scanning bed, which is about 9" x 12", you will have to find a service to do the scanning, or you may have to scan your work in segments and piece them together in a program like Photoshop. Another option for a large size work is to photograph it, but that will likely have to be done by a professional in order to ensure that it is sufficiently high quality for reproduction.
Q. I often get kind of depressed because I work alone. Is this a common problem with artists?
A. Isolation happens to everyone. Even people who are working with other people can feel isolated at times. Art is a job like any other. If you lack friends, it is not because you are working in a solitary profession as an artist. I suggest you do two things: 1) seek professional help, even if it is just a few one-hour chats with a local psychologist, and 2) develop some hobbies and interests and go out and make friends with people who share those interests. Art is not the only game in town.
Q. I want to draw and paint, but I get so stuck and I end up being unable to finish a project, to just sit down and do it. How do ordinary working people like me ever become professional artists?
A. Artists are ordinary working people. They have just made room in their lives for creating their art, made it a greater priority, found the necessary discipline, etc., to do it. I know it is shameless to plug my own books, but I recommend that you get a copy of my e-Book, Unblocked: How to Expand Your Creativity by Overcoming and Preventing Creative Blocks. This book contains all of the information you could possibly want that would help you achieve your creative goals.