Fine art world

Where any view of money exists, art cannot be carried on. (William Blake)

Unfortunately, from a financial point of view, Blake had it right – at least for artists. Not for collectors like Wall Streeter Steven Cohen, with his $500 million collection – a definite one-percenter. But fine artists (you know who you are) are way down there, sort of 99.999 percenters. Way down.

Why does fine artist = poverty? Well, think about it. If you make a painting, it has no objective value – no comparable market value. It’s not like a can of beer or a bag of potato chips, where the buyer has a pretty clear idea of how much to pay at the checkout stand. It’s not even like when I first wrote this book, that, with its stated price, assumed recognizable value when sold on Amazon and in Barnes & Noble stores. You might not have bought it back then, but everyone who did agreed that it was worth the stated price.

A painting is – different. If your work is ‘discovered’ by the right people, it can rocket in value overnight. But if nobody knows you are there, you’re out of luck; back to flipping burgers and hoping for a gallery show in some small city where nobody collects art and they just show up at your opening for some free wine and cheese.

If you’re an artist, there has to be a better way. I’m imagining taking on the money problem as a typical CIA operation, let’s call it MKINDIGO, where we’ll find investors to bankroll an infiltration of the New York art scene, in order to sell a piece of one's artwork at an astronomical price. Because it's who you know, and, once you get one of the right people to anoint your work with their blessing, the others will chime in so as not to be left out of the party. Seed money for this project would be about $200,000, which would get you to New York, able to buy the right clothes, dine with the targets, and rent a suitable place for 3 to 6 months. For the investor, ROI could be huge, particularly compared to the risks funding a Broadway play or musical. But before you spend the money, read the new-for-2024 book Get the Picture: A Mind-Bending Journey among the Inspired Artists and Obsessive Art Fiends Who Taught Me How to See by Bianca Bosker. The best art book I’ve read in years! Also, so you can fit in, get the hilarious International Art English by Rule and Levin, so you can ‘talk the talk’. And, to ‘walk the walk’, tour leading art galleries and shows in the US and abroad with Mary Lynn Buchanan... look her up here on YouTube.

Where to begin? It’s confusing. From "Show of hands, please: who buys art?" New York Times, Julia Chaplin):

“Rob Pruitt, the artist, was standing by the long bar with David Mugrabi, of the New York art dealer family, who stopped by for a drink before heading to another dinner. Mr. Mugrabi had just purchased Mr. Pruitt’s three panels of glitter and enamel penguins titled “Ladies and Gentleman...(Art Awards Penguins)” for $55,000. Mr. Pruitt seemed pleased but a little confused. “You’d think after 20 years in the art world I’d have been to an auction,” Mr. Pruitt said. “But I’m not really sure how to get a ticket. Do you call up? Do you have to be invited?”

The postwar and contemporary-art auctions happen twice a year in New York — in November and May — setting much of the tone for the global art market. Good times or bad, despite the debt crisis engulfing Europe, COVID, and an Occupy Wall Street protest directed at Sotheby’s, life inside the art bubble remains effervescent, buoyed by a marathon of flawlessly orchestrated parties, invitation-only dinners and blue-chip openings.

Parties? Dinners? Openings? Yes! And you can be there too. Read the full article, one of many great contemporary looks at fine art world that you’ll find online. Just a few minutes on Google will keep you posted on who’s who, where, and when – in Manhattan. Talking to reporters who cover the art scene could yield a treasure-trove of information! As in any deep cover op, just get your story straight, go meet the folks, and get to your target – a top-level gallery show for all the right collectors – where they can purchase your work.

Nothing to show?

If you haven’t yet made at least 12 pieces all to roughly the same theme, don’t despair. There’s still plenty of work for you in fine art world. You can work for an art gallery (low pay), work as a museum curator or restorer (shockingly low pay), or work for an auction house like Sotheby’s (glam job, low pay). Getting the picture? Art world = low pay. Unless you’re highly collectable, I don’t recommend fine art as a profession. But if it’s really you, get a book called Taking the Leap – Building a Career as a Visual Artist by Cay Lang. It’s worth every penny as you start your journey toward a prestigious gallery show. Who’s who? Where are the shows? Check out e-flux... #1 place for fine-art-world info.

A blurred line

There’s a borderline area, a boundary layer between fine art and commercial art. In between the extremes of creating abstract paintings on the one hand, and beer ads on the other. And artists have mined this territory for centuries, making pretty good money.

Art on commission. Portraits of people; portraits of animals. Rich people spend a lot of money on paintings of their children and their pets. This goes back – the Mona Lisa, and my favorite, Da Vinci’s Ginevra de' Benci, in the National Gallery, were painted on commission. Gold florins!

If you’re ever in DC, take a look at it. The detailing, particularly the young woman’s hair, is stunning. And, see the blue areas? Aha! That’s how we know that Leonardo got a nice fat commission for this one. Because the color blue, back then, came from far, far away, across the sea – in Latin, Ultramarine – all the way, in fact from Afghanistan. No AK-47s back then, but the same gangs of Pashtuns and Talibs hanging up strangers who wanted to make off with their precious blue lapis-lazuli rocks, cart them all the way back to Florence and Rome and Venice for jewelry – and, ground into a fine powder, a beautiful rare blue paint that only the richest people could afford on their paintings.

Yes... you can be a portrait artist

Can’t draw like Da Vinci, Raphael, or Tintoretto? Here's something you can do and sell anywhere: you can make fast portraits from digital photos. People love paintings of themselves, their kids, and their pets. Unlike traditional artwork, this process lets you create beautiful acrylic portraits at low cost, so that you can sell them for an affordable price and still make a good profit. Best of all, you don't have to know how to paint or have any formal art training.

Get a digital photo of the subject, head and shoulders. If possible, no smile or just a slight smile. If possible, have the subject looking at you slightly over one shoulder, rather than staring full-frontal right at the camera. Try to get the largest possible original.

Put it in Xara Designer Pro (or Photoshop), and rework the background so that the main focus of interest stands out. Usually, you'll drop out the background and replace it with a dark solid color, or with a different image or pattern. This is where Xara is very useful, in creating new background art that does not take the focus away from the portrait's subject. Look at excellent portraits for inspiration:

After adjusting color and contrast, run the image through one or more special art filters that both reduce the number of colors, and simulate brushstrokes. Akvis Artwork works with Xara and Photoshop. You can also get good results with Dynamic Auto-Painter and Corel Painter Essentials. Set the program to produce very visible brushstrokes.

Work with layers. Copy the original to a top layer, amd alter it with ‘brushstrokes’. Remember that no matter how abstract or impressionistic the image looks, your buyer will want to recognize the face, particularly the eyes. Use the eraser on the top ‘brushstroke’ layer to gently reveal the face area on the base layer.

When the image looks ‘right’, print it on archival-quality photo paper, or on canvas. Use 3M spray Photo Mount to bond the print to an Ampersand Art archival-quality hardboard panel ... which, unlike panels used for Renaissance art, will never shrink or warp.

Then, spray the bonded print with Krylon Crystal Clear Coating, or Liquitex Soluvar clear acrylic varnish, to both protect the print surface and to act as a substrate for further painting. This is important, to stop the underlying image from fading over time.

Next, go over the print with thin (or regular) Golden or Liquitex artist-quality acrylic paint. Suddenly, the photo becomes a painting ... the depth and luminance of the painted colors are beautiful. Paint has so much more color depth than inkjet (giclée) output! (note -- if you are uncomfortable painting with colors, you can skip this step and just build up brushstrokes with heavy clear acrylic gel, as below).

Thin paint works best for me; I can build up transparent layers, drying each with a hair dryer before starting the next. Note -- to save money, you can get small cans of acrylic latex house paint (they'll mix any color you want)... but remember that house paint isn't designed to last for eternity, and, if in sunlight, will fade faster than artist's acrylics which are tested and rated for lightfastness. Note -- don't use oils, mainly because they take so long to dry. You'll want to turn a portrait order around rapidly.

Last steps ... I use thick Golden Heavy Acrylic Gel medium to build up brushstrokes. This adds dimensionality. Many people won't accept a painting as 'real' unless it has visible brushstrokes and is on canvas; they have never seen an actual Renaissance potrait on a board panel. These were not large, as the panels were not large. Cheap canvas came later. Sweet spot, your costs vs. income, looks to be 11 x 14 in.

After the work is thoroughly dry, spray Liquitex Soluvar UV-resistant gloss varnish as a final coat. Or, you can get a liquid gloss varnish, and either brush it on slowly, to avoid air bubbles, or spread it on with your fingers, like fingerpainting, following the shapes in the image.

How to get started? Practice on some inexpensive regular 4 x 6 photos. You'll need one or two 1/8" to 1/4" Filbert acrylic brushes, and paint -- these colors at a minimum -- Burnt Sienna, Primary Yellow, Phthalocyanine Green, Ultramarine Blue, Primary Cyan, Quinacridone Red... plus Titanium White and maybe Payne's Gray. This simple palette will produce all the colors you need – see my Six-Color Guide.

Warranty -- if you use the materials listed above, you can guarantee the painting for a lifetime, or 100 years, whichever comes first. Unlike DaVinci, you won't suffer the indignity of having your frescos slough off church walls, or the color problems with some Renaissance art, where the original white lead paint turned dark over the years. Like the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, at the Jasna Gora Monastery in Poland.

Tradition -- artists have always used the latest technology to increase profits. From the first uses of camera obscuras and lenses around 1600, and Rembrandt's pre-painted clothing and ruffles (just add the subject's head), to Norman Rockwell's extensive use of photographs in the last century (and Jackson Pollack's housepaints). Now, with inexpensive computers and amazing art programs like Photoshop, it would be almost criminal not to follow in the footsteps of the Masters and fail to take advantage of all this new century has to offer!

They eat horses, don’t they?

Horses – there’s a whole little world of horse artists. Rich people love race horses, at least before Gallant Ruler comes to the end of his career and is shipped over to Belgium for someone’s dinner. Yo PETA! But if you like to draw horses, you’re already ahead of the curve. Keep it up, learn to paint, and you’ll make a nice living. Sure beats working at Taco Bell! And get a nice hat – you’ll be going to the track most every opening day.

Western art – if you can paint horses, people, and landscapes, you may be able to move into the lucrative nostalgic field of Western artwork. Think cowboys and indians. The Sioux warrior in his feathered war bonnet, scanning the prairie as his horse drinks from a stream. The lone rider at dusk, a Rousseau-blue sky, golden light streaming from the window of the little shack, against the purple sage.

Two ways to go: first, you can paint the West as it was. Study paintings by George Catlin Marshall, who went to the grasslands in the 1830s, and painted what he saw accurately and without romanticization. An artist-reporter on horseback:

But you might not find too many buyers, if you depict Comanches scalping Kiowas, or Sioux women hacking dead buffalo apart to dry the meat against the all-too-soon snows of winter. Lakota Ghost Dancers torturing themselves in a futile attempt to drive the Wasicun off the prairie? No. Too graphic for this market. Remember, romantic? So, second – make it sweet. Noble Indians, sweat-stained cowboys who all look like Ron Reagan on his ranch outside Santa Barbara, stagecoaches... as many iconic symbols of mythical Western Americana as you can jam in.

Google ‘western art’ or cowboy art’ and you’ll see what this genre wants to buy. Paintings by Charles Rusell and Frederic Remington. By Olaf Wieghorst:

Good paintings! Always, pictures of an idyllic past – not of today. No... you don’t want to paint the guys on a Friday night, blasting down wreck-strewn highway 407, south from Pine Ridge at 90 mph on a beer run to the liquor store just over the Nebraska line. Sorry, no life on the ‘res for this Western Art market!

Maritime art – surprising how many boat owners want a nice painting of Lil Darlin’ bouncing through the waves on a coke run up from Colombia. Shipping lines order paintings of Akikaze Maru running down the Mersey, outward bound from Liverpool. Which is where paint-to-order maritime art started, by the way. Clipper ship captains in the 1840’s tied up and had their ship portraits completed before they returned to America. The artist went down to the docks with a sketchbook, carefully noting the lines and the rigging, all the details, and then painted the clipper showing her best features, making 20 knots with a cloud of sails aloft, and never, never becalmed in the Sargasso Sea.

Vehicles – when you get to airplanes and cars, you cross the border into commercial art. Not so much paint-to-order as you, the artist, painting vehicles that you know most people like. Painting on spec. A 1965 Mustang, but not a Hyundai Accent. A Ferrari GTO, but not a Chevy Malibu. Perhaps a 1933 Maybach Zeppelin, but probably not the new one. Nostalgia counts. An older American may enjoy a painting of an 1934 Pierce Arrow 840A, while his German counterpart might appreciate your artwork of a 1939 Mercedes 540K, motoring into Poland on a clear September day.

Here, you, the artist, are deciding the subject material – betting your time and money that there will be buyers for your work later. Think older rather than newer... an F4F Wildcat chasing Saburo Sakai’s A6M2 Zero fighter over Guadalcanal in 1942, or, for the Japanese market, Saburo Sakai chasing an F4F Wildcat. Whatever rings the buyer’s bell.

When first we practice to deceive...

Bet you’ve never heard of Han Van Meegeren, who forged Vermeers in the ‘thirties and ‘forties. Brilliant guy; a very good painter in his own right. One day, he solved the riddle of how to make new oil paint as hard as old oil paint (used then-new Bakelite phenolic resin as his medium). Made millions. The Dutch government arrested him after the war for trading with the enemy, when they found a receipt from Reichsmarschall Goering for a Vermeer; Goering traded Van Meegeren 130 other paintings worth $7,000,000 for it. But Han beat the charge when he proved to the court that he, yes, he himself, had painted Goering’s Christ with the Adulteress. Went from being a traitor to a national hero overnight! The man who fooled Der Dicke Hermann!

Art forgery is a way to use your art skills to make a great deal of money. When I was 18 and went to New York for the first time, I looked up the father of a high school friend. Robert was about 45, owned a townhouse on East 51st street (nice), and lived quite well with no visible means of support. Which was in the basement, as I found out when he needed help one day getting a fake Queen Anne traveling writing desk ready for sale into the antique market. Had me hand-drilling little holes, into which he carefully inserted small dead worms and a dollop of dust.

Nov. 15, 2023 update – from Agence France-Presse in Paris

“A leading French art expert is to face trial on charges of forgery for building furniture that he falsely claimed to be from the 18th century and that was sold at high prices to buyers who included the Palace of Versailles.

“Bill Pallot, an expert on 18th-century French furniture, is charged with implementing the scam between 2008 and 2015, in one of the biggest forgery scandals to rock the art world in recent years.

“He is accused along with his fellow defendant Bruno Desnoues, a prominent woodcarver, of producing and selling chairs from 2007 to 2008 that were claimed to be historic pieces that had adorned the rooms of the likes of Madame du Barry, the mistress of Louis XV, and Marie Antoinette.”

But that wasn’t the half of it. Rob had a worker, a Filipino artist, and they forged Tiepolos. Don’t have a picture in your mind of one? Good. Nobody else does either, but we all know that Tiepolo was a famous Italian painter in the 1700s.

The story went like so: rich collector comes to town from Dallas, from Houston, NOT from Manhattan. “I have something for you,” says Rob. “My friend the Contessa di Cantiglione, who is losing her palazzo to the tax authorities? We spoke of her a month ago? Yes. And a new painting just came in. A Tiepolo. Hank, she wants so little for it. Maybe you can help out here. It’s quite a piece, very much like The Madonna of Mount Carmel, you know, in Milano. Same style, same period... and I think she’d be happy with 100, maybe 150...”

And then – “We’ll send the crate right to your place in Fort Worth. Insured, of course. And – just like the last one, Hank – please don’t spread the word around about this. If it goes public, she’ll be arrested for smuggling out Italian art treasures, and we won’t have any more opportunities. Keep it tight.”

Ka-ching! Rob made two Tiepolos a year, taking down about $250,000 at a time when that was real money. Lived well. The good old days, when you couldn’t find a genuine Paul Klee serigraph (silkscreen print) on the whole Upper East Side. When, on a tip, I went to a top-drawer gallery one day and, very quietly, asked to see the Da Vinci cartoon. Cartoon? Topolino?* No, ‘scusi. Back then, a cartoon was a large preparatory drawing by the master, used as a guide to transfer the art to a plastered wall – to make a fresco painting.

Now this gallery was selling a Da Vinci cartoon for the Battle of Anghiari, a painting, now lost, that we know he made around 1500. Several cartoons and smaller sketches exist, and it was only natural that another one should surface in New York, for such an affordable, reasonable amount, just $500,000. With the same story, of course – sshhh! We don’t want our source in Italy arrested, do we? Because, in reality, Italy's Ministry of Culture enforces an antiquities law passed in 1939 — during Benito Mussolini's fascist regime — that declares valuble old artworks to be the property of the state, and prohibits them from leaving Italy.

Could you have a future in art forgery? Helps, perhaps, to work for a while in art restoration (low pay) at a major museum. Carefully cleaning, patching, re-painting, re-varnishing invaluble works of art. Learn those skills! And get a copy of The Art Forger’s Handbook, by Eric Hebborn. It’s a real recipe book. Hebborn and Van Meegeren, like other successful art counterfeiters, never tried to sell a copy of an existing masterpiece. Instead, they made originals in the same style, so that avid collectors could buy a new undiscovered work by a famous artist. This avoids detection by exact-copy art detectives, who, as of 2024, are using new tools like Bosch Corp’s Origify optical recognition system, first made to detect counterfeit car parts. It takes a deeply detailed digital image of an original, making fakes easy to spot by comparison.

But remember, art counterfeiting can be a rough game. Because you are, basically, stealing a great deal of money from very rich people. And some of those people didn’t exactly get their money in nice ways. Hebborn, who forged Old Master drawings, turned up dead one day in Rome, his head bashed in. They call it blowback, like the hot gas recoil from an M-16. He’d sold pieces to Sir Anthony Blunt, the Queen’s art collector. But what Hebborn didn’t know, back then in the ‘sixties, was that Blunt was also the head of MI-5, Britain’s CIA. Oops.

No, let’s skip right past art forgery. In fact, let’s take a pass on the whole fine art world. Too little money for all the minions who keep it going. Less chance of becoming collectible – in your lifetime – than winning the lottery. There are much better ways to parlay your drawing skills into a good, good living – as you’ll see in the chapters ahead.

*Topolino = a Mickey Mouse cartoon, in Italy, from 1932. And also a delightful very, very small post-WWII Fiat 500 car.

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