Sunday, November 13, 2011
Why do I paint?
Pastel sketch on light blue Canson paper, Autumn Leaves by Robert A. Sloan
Because I didn't want to work hard, just play all day and have a good time.
Seriously, this is not a bad way to avoid working for a living. You get to do what you want, when you want. You get an artistic license to be as weird as you want and people just think that's a sign of creative genius. I'm a 56 year old man who fusses over kittens and cats. I purr at my friends in conversation. Who else but an artist or a novelist can get away with that?
I had a nightmare of a childhood with many undiagnosed physical disabilities. The normal things children did were all impossible or so difficult they precluded each other. I could get my homework done OR I could do my chores, never both. I had to get up at ouch in the morning, walk farther than my body could manage, endure gym, go to classes that ranged between extremely dull because I already understood everything before I walked in, or impossible because I was slow in that subject.
I limp to a different drummer.
Everything in my life before I was legal age was scheduled and mandated by other people who didn't understand either my limits or my abilities. If I wasn't so far behind I didn't make it to the starting gate, I was so far ahead that I fell asleep out of boredom and exhaustion.
The one exception was art class. Back in the day, art teachers mostly believed in "Do what you want to" and "Be yourself." I'd come in a roiling mass of dark rage and my art teacher would let me sit down, play with colors and do anything I wanted for an hour.
New art supplies and mediums were a constant joy. In actual classes I got to try things like making linoleum prints, stamping with carved potatoes, painting with acrylics, watercolor, drawing with charcoal - I loved charcoal, an early sign that pastel was one of my best mediums.
Whatever I did, they raved over it as wonderful. Art teachers were not prejudiced against the exceptional child. They didn't tell me "Stay back with the rest of the class" if I read ahead or through outside reading discovered something cool. If I wanted to copy Hieronymous Bosch, an art teacher wouldn't say "That's too morbid and bizarre."
They'd just encourage me and if I got it right, they'd rave over it.
When I painted a demon, they didn't tell me I was going to hell for even thinking about one. They though it was great, it was so full of emotion.
My dad taught me scientific illustration with careful stippled pen drawings of fossils and life drawings of my pet white rat that let me draw other rodents easily. He had a Tom Lehrer album on which the great comedian joked "If you can draw well, you'll never flunk biology."
He was absolutely 100% right. Drawing well carried me through every life science class. I turned in the best diagrams and sketches, college level when other kids were doing wobbly stuff.
Why did I get so good so darn fast? Because whenever I had art lessons or time left alone to play with art supplies, I dug into it and practiced with the learning curve and single minded intensity of a bored child. Regular teachers sometimes stepped on me. I remember a grade school teacher who gave me a hard time for trying to draw people with volume and shading when I was supposed to do stick people and flat houses with curlicue smoke from the chimneys.
The thing is, her opinion didn't carry the weight of an actual Art Institute class for young painters. She was obviously a grade school teacher. Lower on the educational totem pole than a specialist. The specialist, who taught adults and college kids too, raved over my Black Painting in acrylics.
I had invented impasto and reserved white when I decided I wanted to do a black cat climbing out of a coal scuttle at midnight. I just used most of a tube of stiff black acrylic paint and sculpted the cat around two green-yellow eyes with slit pupils, sculpted the coal with a palette knife, all the highlights were reflections on the shiny paint.
He used my black painting as an example and credited me for inventing it. Even though I'd reinvented something that was used for centuries, he made me feel like a genius for thinking of it myself rather than reading it somewhere.
I can do whatever I want in art and other people will like it.
My first commission was a scientific paper illustration for my dad. I drew a fossil in pen and ink and a life reconstruction of the little animal, a type of rodent "Something like a gerbil or kangaroo rat" that was close enough to a white rat that I got it right. Dad critiqued the pencils till I got them right and I spent hours carefully stippling and inking with many examples in science books. It was actually published. I got paid with a genuine Rapidograph technical pen, which I wish I still had.
Back then, Rapidographs looked like high end fountain pens with fat cigar-shaped black bodies, a discreet color tip showing the nib size and of course piston fill inside so you used them with bottled ink. Someday when I'm rich I'll hunt down a vintage one just to replace the long lost trophy of my first sale.
He was family though. I didn't realize "people like me and let me do whatever I want" could replace actual work until I was in my twenties. I did some art to sell at a science fiction con, by my current skills it was awful. That didn't matter. I went in and someone in the registration line bought a dragon sketch for a dollar to put on a button.
I sold everything I brought. I realized art could be turned into real money without having to work hard for it. A corollary was that expensive art supplies paid for themselves. Toys that pay for themselves! I loved my big 72 color set of Prismacolors and the first thing I did after the con was to buy replacements for all the blue and green ones I used up doing the 9" x 12" shark painting that sold.
I lived on the cheap and bummed around. I fell in love and moved to San Francisco, where art was a steady side income between random low pay jobs when I was tired of being broke. I moved to Chicago to get a better job, turned into a workaholic, wasted the entire decade of the 1980s working hard as a typesetter, drawing on weekends and breaks. I sold art at conventions on weekends.
After moving to New Orleans, I got another job that paid a third of what I got in Chicago but had lousier working conditions. I didn't regret it when I got fired on a technicality a month later. I got mad. I decided I should give it a shot living just on art, so I brought my portfolio down to the French Quarter and showed it door to door at shops and galleries.
A commission for a large pencil drawing for a poster got my rent paid and 50 of the posters to resell at market price. I wish I still had one, the last few got damaged in a flood a decade ago. I did the convention art to live on for a year, then when that market dipped I did pastel portraits on the street with a $29 "B" license for the happiest years of my adult life.
Unfortunately some bad decisions like moving farther away from my setup areas and not saving up for the summer slack season meant I ran my health into the ground and couldn't continue that.
Now I've moved to San Francisco and gotten help for my disabilities. I live on SSI and I've got a business doing art and writing about art on websites and also writing science fiction and fantasy. I've just paid my $166.08 Street Artist Program license fee.
The best occupation I ever had, the easiest source of fast cash in a pinch is back in reach again. I lived on it when I wasn't permitted to use the best high traffic spots on a "B" license in a city that had only seasonal tourism. San Francisco's tourism is year round. I've got transportation. I've got help with the things I can't do. Another local artist is buddying up with me because I know the business and he doesn't mind helping me carry stuff or set up - the things that held me back weren't the painting part.
So I'm hoping to be self employed again soon. It may take a while to get out of the poverty income range, but I lived better under the poverty line when I did art and didn't work than I ever did when I was working class and had three times the money. Believe it or not, I had more spending money as a $4,000 a year artist.
So I'm back to my life as experience taught me it should have been. I could fold it up, retire and not have to work for a living at all. I could just live on my SSI and take it easy for the rest of my days. But I'd get bored and there's no substitute for that magical moment of watching someone watch me paint and their jaw drops. Street art is a performance art too, it's like being a magician. There's this paper and these colorful little things and bit by bit, they see someone real or some place real come looking out of the paper better than life, forever caught in a moment of splendor.
I'm a better painter now by far, largely through hanging out at WetCanvas.
I'm looking at all the professionals I know here and thinking - maybe I don't need to stay under the poverty level. Maybe I can build a business that'll make me middle class without a Job as such or having to wear a tie. It would be cool to have more money, to eat better, eat out if I'm out painting, have other luxuries.
The thing is, the lion's share of those luxuries will go into the studio. That's where my spending money goes when I have it.
So I paint to avoid having to work and get money for nothing.
I know that's just a feeling. I have skills honed over years and use them well. I use the best materials and craft my works as well as my German grandpa ever did a weld. I'm working hard. It doesn't feel like working hard when I write or paint though, because I'm that into it.
The more people in this world who quit working hard in favor of doing what they love so much it doesn't feel like work, the happier all of us will be.
Next week - Color Play II: The Big Wheel. I continued from yesterday's Color Play article and wrote another one with an interesting project.