Painters Are Assholes (& Other Important Truths)

Two years ago, I was lucky enough to find myself at the NCECA (National Council on the Education for the Ceramic Arts) conference in Portland, Oregon. Amongst the hustle and bustle of meeting tons and tons (no, seriously) of amazing ceramic artists that were surprised to see a painter in their realm (and delighted, because ceramists are wonderful, accepting humans that love sharing their craft with the world), I got to see the art critic Jerry Saltz give an eye-opening lecture about art and artists. Don’t know Jerry Saltz? Open up another tab and google him.

One thing about Jerry that I’ve always admired is his ability to be completely and totally honest with his audience. He isn’t afraid to say what many artists and critics avoid bringing to light. In this particular lecture, he said something that really stuck with me about the personalities of makers in my own field. After talking about how amazing the personalities of ceramic artists are (and trust me- ceramists are INCREDIBLY supportive, positive people for the most part), he threw this truthful, comedic gold into the audience-

“Painters are assholes.”

My student sitting next to me (bless her heart) looked at me amongst the roaring laughter of the audience, gasping as though he’d cursed her grandmother and stepped on her cat- “Oh my god, but Claira, YOU’RE a painter!”. Touché, my dear. I am.

This post is a more detailed explanation of why I agree with Saltz’s point, and how one of my main goals as an artist and maker is to abolish that perception as much as possible (though I can’t do much about the painters that are assholes… There’s not much hope for them until they hop off that high horse and take a nap).

You’ve ruined it for everyone, insert name here.

The history books will tell you that painting is considered a High Art- the website The Rapidian defines High Art as the art form appreciated by those with a more “cultivated” taste. The article goes on to mention that High Art is revered as the form in which aesthetic contemplation is considered, where “Low Art” is for the common audience and functional (Yo. I’m common af, and I’m a painter. Sit. Down.) . My opinion? Total and utter crap. It’s 2018, people. The cups and bowls I’ve purchased from my potter friends are stunningly beautiful and very much deserving of aesthetic contemplation, even if I’m drinking my morning coffee from them. Unfortunately, many painters (and artists specializing in other “high art” media such as sculpture) still follow the guidelines of high art/low art, allowing that hierarchy to go straight to their heads.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I understand and respect the importance of high art/low art, and its place in Art History. However, I also agree that functional objects and the fine crafts are worthy of High Art praise just as much as painters and sculptors can dive face-first into low-brow aesthetics while still producing thought-provoking, worthwhile content. The beauty of time is that art is always evolving as it goes on. We don’t have to follow an archaic caste system that throws us into categories based on the media we choose to express ourselves with. Post Modernism already happened, and broke a metric ton of barriers and opened doors for us contemporary makers. Make what you want. It’s. Still. Art (with a capital A).

Fortunately, the vast majority of painters today are very aware of the fact that Fine Art has changed and now includes the Commercial Art, the Fine Crafts and many other forms of art! A great example of the inclusivity of painting today is the publication New American Paintings, or perhaps the painter Anselm Keifer. Both publication and artist expand beyond the traditionally narrow viewpoint of what “painting” means, allowing for exploration outside of “use the best paint and the best surfaces and ONLY paint this way- this is the way of High Art” (read that with your nose so high in the air that you can’t possibly see anything but sky for proper effect). One of the wonderful ways in which some painters of today cling desperately to this High-Art mentality is through their materials, placing themselves on a higher pedestal than those even in their own community. Come on down, y’all. The paint fumes are fine.

Story Time (Crack your knuckles, this is gonna be good.)

I have a wonderful example of this attitude in the world of painting that I’m stoked to share with you. I was recently a member in a group on social media dedicated to very traditional methods of painting. I joined because I was interested in expanding my community of painters, as well as my visual bank of artists to refer my students to when teaching. No harm in sharing the contemporaries, right? They’ll be the greats someday!

Boy, was I in for it.

Once in this group, I noticed that many of the painters were just what I was looking for- people that were technical wizards in their skillset, willing to share tips and techniques (and accept some as well). Some people made beautiful landscapes on oil-primed linen, using only the best paints that money can buy. Others were more frugal, using the best materials they could afford, and creating equally stunning works of art and willing to share their own tips and tricks for making the materials work for you.

Unfortunately, this group also included a few bad eggs- I won’t say any names, as I don’t want to draw negative attention to them or myself, but DAANNNNG, Y’ALL. These artists weren’t necessarily concerned with helping others reach their goals (and even went as far as to say they wouldn’t share their “secrets” for success with you), but were more interested in discussing how you can only utilize the best materials and only follow certain color mixing recipes in order to create the perfect painting. If you’re looking for technical perfection and nothing else, look no further. If you’re looking for enrichment and a great community of painters that are helpful and have your best interests at heart, these are not the painters for you.

A post about brands of paint was the deal breaker for me that resulted in my leaving the group. A member was interested in what brands of oil paint others were using, as her usual brand was getting a bit expensive. She wanted similar quality for less dollars (a totally understandable plight). Many artists were great, sharing their brand knowledge with the artist. A wonderful man (who shall remain nameless as well- mostly because I forget what his name was at this point) reminded the group that the brand of paint does not make you a painter (paint snobbery is a very real thing- I’m sure there’s a 12-step program for it), but how you use the material to set your vision into motion. He talked of how he used more affordable paints (Gamblin, actually- which is what I tend to use, because that MFA was expensive), and that his collectors loved his work and couldn’t care less about the cost of his materials. Many individuals agreed with this, stating that cheaper paints weren’t a terrible idea, so long as you’re still able to create a product that reaches your individual standards.

Then? The snobs arrived. A few members wrote that the paint this man used was garbage, and that he needed to “do better” in order to be more legitimate in his craft. One man took the cake when he said that he was interested in knowing if the artists in his group were using “subpar” materials to create artwork, and if their collectors were aware that the artists were cheating them out of a quality product. The most important thing about a painting was good paint to this person, plain and simple. The most expensive brands- anything less than that, and you should probably stop painting altogether. Painter knows best.

That was my cue to leave the group, as that kind of negativity actually ebbs my mental health down to a wobbly stump. This attitude of entitlement is exactly why so many artists think that painters are jerks- because some of them truly are.

Don’t be that person.

Luckily, there’s a great community of painters out there today that are helpful, supportive, and overall positive when helping you reach your goals. They’re genuinely excited to see you succeed, and won’t give you crap for using whatever you can scrape together to create work you’re proud of. I’m one of those painters- though I will give you suggestions on mid-grade paint to use if you want the colors to resist fading from UV light or want a paint with a higher pigment load, I won’t degrade you for starting out with something less expensive. That’s a horrible way to go about things, and your artwork is no less legitimate than mine if you can’t swing anything more than cheap paints (and those painting with the best paints aren’t any more legitimate than either of us). Even if you’re making work with craft paint, keep at it! Make with what you can afford. There are painters out there that make a living off their work while using less expensive materials. The general collector acts on emotion and visceral response to your work- if they love it and have to have it, they will buy it from you regardless of whether you used Georgian oils from Walmart or Vasari. Of course there are collectors out there that only want to buy work created with expensive materials- let them. They aren’t for you, and there’s a painter out there more than wiling to cater to that collector’s needs. Most of the time, the collector is more concerned with the way the work makes them feel, or how well the colors match their couch or general aesthetic (that’s not a dig at collectors- I don’t blame someone at all for wanting to keep their home palette cohesive).

Where is this magical land of supportive artists? Help!

A quick reminders for those of you who don’t know me personally- I went to a very traditional school for my MFA in painting, and was taught to use higher-grade materials for more practical reasons than “it makes you legitimate”. Though the idea of better materials = better pigment and paintings was taught, it wasn’t heavily enforced- I was still encouraged to explore my options in paint (I also had a wonderful grad committee with inspiring artists who weren’t afraid to explore beyond traditional methods and materials, and didn’t particularly give a tiny rat’s ass if their materials were top notch). When I first started questioning the validity of whether or not expensive materials were imperative to the success of my work (long before finding the online group that made my anxiety blow through the roof), I looked to Instagram for inspiration and possibly an answer to my questions about said materials. I found a wonderful community of painters who were not only passionate about what they were making, but also making a living solely from their artwork! That’s the dream, right? (It is for me and millions of other artists!) When asked what materials they used to create these stunning works of art, a variety of answers appeared on my iPhone screen, ranging from the cheapest of the cheap to staggeringly expensive. With these answers came the most important piece of advice I can give any artists starting out in the world of paint- Don’t be ashamed or intimidated by your materials or anyone else’s. You don’t have to have the best paint to create a masterpiece. At the end of the day, it’s all dirt suspended in oil, gum arabic or some form of acrylic polymer. Just paint.

Some of the most beautiful art in my collection is made from whatever materials the artist could afford. Not everything is on oil-primed linen (hell, half of my collection is on store-bought canvas and NONE of it is on linen), and it certainly isn’t painted with Vasari oil paints or with brushes made with the hairs of baby Jesus.

The moral of the rant is…

Don’t allow the snobs of the art world to make you feel like less of an artist because you aren’t using fancy materials or the most educated or well-traveled, etc. Don’t allow yourself to become one of these snobs, either- even if you use the best materials you can afford, please be supportive of those who utilize less expensive methods to create their work. Try not to be an asshole, and support each other. The world of painting can be as beautiful and inclusive as the worlds of other art media if we work on it and help each other! Find a supportive community and let them into your bubble- you won’t regret it. Just make sure to check yourself every now and again to ensure you’re putting out the same energy and support you want to receive. We’re all in this together. Let’s change the future of painting!