Royal Society of Painter Printmakers – Elections

Yes, it’s that time of year again when I bang on about applying for membership of the RE, a.k.a the Royal Society of Painter Printmakers .
If you’re interested, you will need to fill out an application form and return it (with a cheque for £30) to Bankside Gallery, by Monday 4th February. Hand-in date for delivery of portfolios is Friday 15th February. (The porfolio should consist of eight prints, together with some supporting material, either a sketchbook or six drawings.) More details can be found here
And below is what I wrote last year about the best approach to putting a portfolio together, in case you missed it or, most likely, would really enjoy reading it all again:

1: Keep things simple. You only have one chance to impress and now is not the time to show how versatile you are. I know it’s tempting to put in examples of all the different aspects of your work but you only have one chance to impress. Random pieces that do not relate to the main body of work are pointless – try to keep the look fairly uniform.

2: Presentation. All applicants are expected to be professional and it’s very important that the work is presented to the highest standards. It goes without saying that all the work should be clean – no crooked mounts, no dirty or creased margins. If you don’t think your work is worth presenting properly, then there’s no reason to think anyone else will.

3: Supporting work. Make sure it is relevant – don’t put in life drawings to support urban scenes, as I once did. You want to reinforce the thinking behind the work and hopefully increase the appreciation of it. If you don’t use sketchbooks, then try to show examples of the process you’ve used to get from the initial idea to the finished piece.

4: CV. Make sure it’s up to date, relevant and preferably on one page – a good exhibiting history obviously helps but so does an interesting project, residency or commission.

5: Don’t get discouraged if you’re not successful – people sometimes get in on the first try but it’s much more usual to have several attempts. The panels who review the portfolios change all the time and what gets turned down one year may well be accepted the next. 

And good luck to all those willing to give it a go – fingers crossed….

Thinking About Open Exhibitions This Year?

Following on from my blog post, Getting Your Work Out There, I’ve had a couple of questions  regarding open submission exhibitions.
So why should you enter this type of show in the first place? A few reasons:

1. If you’re successful, it will expand your exhibiting history and may even prove to be a step towards an invitation to exhibit elsewhere.
2. It provides an opportunity for lesser known artists to hang alongside international names – always a bit of a thrill, unless you happen to be squashed between a couple of other nobodies….
3. There are often awards and prizes on offer so if you’re lucky enough to win one of those, that too looks good on your CV.
4. And if one of the selectors is the owner/director of a gallery you’d love to show at…. well, it’s a longshot but you never know.

And some reasons why you shouldn’t?

1. The cost of entering can be high – the RA fees at £50 for two pictures is not cheap. Also if you don’t live within easy reach of London, where the majority of these shows are held, then the cost of transport can be prohibitive. And once you get in, if you don’t sell your work, you’ll still be out of pocket as you won’t recoup your costs.
2. A CV with nothing on it but open submission shows is not too impressive – you need to get some variety – and there may come a point in your career where you should stop entering any but the most prestigious ones…
3. It certainly gets your work in front of some important people but obviously if they don’t select it (i.e. they don’t like it) then they aren’t likely to remember it (unless it’s so bad it’s been burned into their retinas).
4. And be aware that almost none of these exhibitions is entirely open submission – the percentage of invited artists varies but can considerably reduce the number of non-invited works hung. You have to research the numbers (not always easy to find but they’re out there) and decide for yourself whether it’s worth it or not.

 Here are a few open submission shows that I’ve always liked (obviously the first on the list is the most well-known and in my opinion, the best):

RA Summer Exhibition.
This is the UK’s largest open exhibition and it attracts huge numbers of visitors. Over 1000 works are exhibited from an entry of over 10,000 (although when you consider that there are 80 Royal Academicians and 41 Seniors, all of whom are entitled to exhibit 6 works each, well, you do the maths….)
There’s always lots of national press coverage (not always positive, I have to admit, but you can’t have everything.) Even I was featured in the Sunday Express one year – although I made the mistake of mentioning my three children and the whole article made me look like a 1950’s housewife, squeezing in the Art between boiling potatoes and washing nappies….
One of the most popular and prolific printmakers I know has enjoyed a conspicuous lack of success at the Summer Show. Finally he got in with a fantastic etching, sold out the edition (of 150 gulp!) in a few weeks, the RA used his image for one of their cards and has not got a look in ever since…
And another colleague got in on her first try while still at art college – unfortunately it took her another seventeen years before she repeated the feat…
As for me, the year before last I had no luck at all, last year I got both in, and this year I’m fully expecting another rejection. It’s nothing personal…
So, yes, the RA is a bit of a lottery but if you don’t try at all, then you definitely won’t get in. And if you do, it’s great fun.

This is the artist’s print show which the Mall Galleries host every year. It used to be called Originals, and long before that, the National Print Exhibition.
There are lots of prizes and a catalogue. It costs £12 per entry, with a maximum of 6 entries, though only 3 will be hung. This might sound odd but a friend of mine, fed up with rejections every year, decided to load her car up with six of her extremely large abstract woodcuts and enter them all. She only got one in (perhaps she wore them down) but she was delighted.
All my printmaking friends, almost without exception, have exhibited at this one over the years – I think it’s the biggest national open submission exhibition solely for prints. 

The Discerning Eye
The majority of the exhibits here are paintings, I’d say, but there are always a good range of artist’s prints too. Only around half of the exhibited works are from the open submission however – the rest are invited by the selectors. Again it has lots of prizes.
On the other hand, the selectors are always high-powered art world people – each selector has their own display and I think it results in an interesting collection of work. Your work could get chosen by the likes of Albert Irvin (2012) or Eileen Cooper and Brian Sewell (2011).
And you never know, you might get to meet them if they turn up at the PV but be brave – you will have to introduce yourself….

Mini Print Exhibition
This is run by the Printmakers Council (PMC) and is a biennial, touring show. There’s a full colour catalogue which is sent free to all exhibitors.
It costs £22 to enter three works but you can deliver them unframed as the organisers will frame the selected work themselves. That’s got to be a bonus for artists outside the South East.
Be aware that your print and ten copies have to be available for the exhibition for up to two years and it has to be truly tiny, 8 x 10cm, but then it isn’t called the Mini-Print for nothing…..

I guess the moral is don’t enter an open exhibition unless you’re confident that success will potentially advance your career in some way – you just need to be selective and to cultivate the hide of a rhino…..

Getting Your Work Out There

So here’s the thing – you’re enjoying making your work, and you feel you’re progressing with it. The only problem is, no-one sees it. ‘How nice would it be to exhibit regularly and maybe even sell something?’, you ask yourself. Easier said than done, I know.
It may seem self-evident but the most important thing is to get your work out there – no-one’s going to see it if it’s stacked up under the bed or on top of the wardrobe.

Open Exhibitions.
This is a good way to start – with luck, you’ll get your work shown in a prestigious gallery, albeit temporarily, and occasionally you might be hung next to a ‘name’ which is exciting. It also helps to build up your exhibiting history on your CV.

Art Fairs
My studio takes a stand at the Affordable Art Fair in London every Autumn. Local ones, though, are a good place to start – they’re cheaper and you can polish up your sales techniques, chat to your fellow exhibitors and take note of what visitors like (and don’t like) about your work.
Hopefully you’ll make enough sales to cover your costs but if not, then try and see it as a marketing exercise. Overall, 20,000 people visit the AAF during the four days that it’s open – that’s a huge number of viewers – and although they may not buy this time, they may do in the future.

Co-operative Galleries
When I felt ready to take the next step on the ladder, I joined a co-operative printmaker’s gallery. It was a brilliant way to gain experience in presenting your work and to gain some insight into how a commercial gallery functions. Most importantly, looking back, it opened up a whole new world of fellow printmakers, some of whom are still friends and colleagues today.
If you don’t have an artist-run space near you, then how about joining an open access print studio or even a class at an adult education centre? Not everyone has the room/funds for their own equipment and it’s a good way to meet other artists and to make contacts.

The Internet
And what about the virtual world? Facebook, Twitter etc, are excellent ways of making contact with fellow artists without leaving the comfort of your own home. Join in with on-line forums/discussion groups, comment on blogs – hell, why not start your own? There are whole communities of artists out there, offering support, information, gossip and it’s an important way to make connections….
And this leads me on to what is really the most important marketing tool you can have – a website. It doesn’t have to be too elaborate, just a few images and a bit of blurb.
This one is non-negotiable – you absolutely have to have a presence on the web, especially as a visual artist. If a gallery or a potential buyer has seen your work at an open exhibition or art fair and wants to find out more, they will use the internet for initial research. You really need an up to date and easily navigatable site and of course it’s an easy and pain-free way for you to approach galleries as well.

I suppose what a lot of this comes down to is that dreaded word, networking. The fact is that most of my initial exhibiting opportunities came through fellow artists inviting me to show with them, or by generously recommending me to one of their galleries. (I’m often involved in organising group shows and I have to say that no-one within these groups would dream of asking an unknown artist to exhibit with them – it’s just too risky as they could be a real liability.) You need to get your work out there but you also need get yourself out there too.

And lastly, be prepared to be in it for the long haul- as much as it takes time to build up a strong body of work, so it takes just as much time to build up a good network of galleries and contacts…. 

Artist or Philanthropist?

I’m often asked to donate work and it’s always for a good cause – support for the art department at a school, charities, an open access workshop, even the local art gallery.
Recently I was asked to donate a work for a charity art auction. I don’t know this organisation, they have never shown any interest in my work and yet they feel comfortable asking me to donate to them – for no reason except that they’re a charity. The problem with this is that artists never make much money and yet they’re always being asked to give up their art, time, materials, etc. for free.

For example, a demo or a talk will involve giving up a working day in the studio, in addition to the preparation time. I’m often told that, in lieu of a fee, I may make some sales – yes, possibly but in my experience most people aren’t there to buy work but to learn.

And when donating a piece to a charity auction, they often say it will raise your profile – well, not if I’m giving the work away for free. What gallery would be happy to work with someone who does that? And what if the artwork sells for less than the going price or even not at all? What does that say about you?

A colleague of mine donated a framed print to a fund-raising auction recently – it didn’t even raise the money that she’d spent on the frame. She’d have been better off selling the work for the full price, and donating some of the money back to the charity. And this all took place in a very prosperous part of London, with lots of well-heeled attendees.
And who was the lucky winner who got this work at a knocked down price? Well, clearly it was someone who could afford to buy the work at the full price. And yet the idea persists that the major donor in this scenario is the buyer of this bargain, and not my artist friend…

And what about the charity? All the people who work there are no doubt on a salary – are they being asked to donate a days income to the cause, like me? And I’m pretty sure that the marquee firm, the catering company and the printers of the catalogue or programme will all get their money. As usual, it seems that everyone associated with the event will get paid – just not the artist.

I know it’s difficult to say no when asked to contribute to a fundraising activity, but working in the studio provides me with my only source of income and if I’m not there, then my income suffers.
If it’s an organisation that I’m involved in, or a cause I am particularly sympathetic to, then of course I’m more than happy to help out.
But otherwise, I try to imagine that I’m a dental surgeon being asked to do a root canal treatment for free, and then I say sorry but no.
Just keep channeling that inner dentist…


FAQ’s on a Printmaker’s Working Life…

I’m often asked to answer a set of questions by art students, as part of their studies I guess, and as these were particularly interesting ones, I thought I’d share them here. A cheap and cheerful post, that’s what I like…

What are your motives for the subject matter you work with?
I just like to record the world around me but I’m drawn to the idea of the journey, of being in between places.

Have you remained faithful to your original narrative and ideas or have you adapted them towards a more commercial slant?
I think that in an ideal world, you would just produce what you felt like at any given time but unfortunately if you want to make a living, you have to learn to be flexible and adapt.
If you want to be taken on by commercial galleries, and that’s where a lot of potential buyers will see your work, then you have to be able to sell for them. It’s not too difficult getting galleries to accept a couple of paintings for a group show, say, but if they don’t sell those paintings, they won’t ask you again. They have bills to pay too.
Of course, you can always make your art in your free time and have another unrelated job that pays the bills. Personally I never wanted a regular job and, other than a few stints temping in offices, I’ve never had one.
I guess I have adapted to what sells in order to keep the money coming in – but in moderation. You have to be pretty bloody-minded about your work to keep slogging away year after year in a freezing cold studio and anyway, people aren’t stupid. They pick up if you’re just going through the motions – passion about your subject always shines through.

Was linocut your first medium, or did you investigate other ways that would be sympathetic to your work?
I have a degree in painting and half of my practice is still painting. When you’re starting out, getting a foot in the door is easier if you have prints to offer a gallery at first. Like any other retail business, they have to justify the space they let you have and a few prints in a browser is less of a risk to them when you are still unknown than a big spot on the wall.

Do you work to a rigid timetable of production, as in ‘so many pieces per year’ or is it more fluid?
No timetable as such, but for instance, if I have a solo show coming up, that might mean supplying the gallery with forty framed pieces, in addition to which I will have other commitments. I have to have a timetable in my head (if only to reassure myself that I will be able to do what I’ve agreed to).

Has it been ‘easy’ to reach the position you are in now?
Not really – unless you’re prepared to work exceptionally hard, you won’t get anywhere. It’s a very competitive field and there are so many other talented artists waiting to step into your shoes, if you let them…

Would you recommend it to an art student?
Yes, it’s a great life – but if money matters a lot to you, then probably not – you never make enough to relax.

Have galleries been a vital part of your career?
Yes, I don’t sell through my website – I haven’t got the time – and so I’m more than happy to let the galleries do all that for me (in exchange for the commission, obviously). Lots of people I know do sell very successfully through their websites but the downside is that they don’t have good long-lasting relationships with galleries (who are in effect being undercut by the artist selling direct).
It seems to be difficult to keep the momentum going if you don’t show in the ‘real’ world from time to time. Hiring a gallery is an option but it is time consuming and expensive. I prefer to send off work to galleries and let them take the strain.
Does your web site work as an effective tool for sales and publicity?
It’s very effective as a publicity tool and it’s so much easier to send a link to your website than lugging around a portfolio. Also you can reach much further afield (world-wide even!) than would have ever been possible before.
And NO details of course, but can it be considered as a ‘living’ for you?
Yes, I make a reasonable living but I work long hours and I can’t rely on the same amount of money (or any, occasionally) going into my bank account every month.
So there you have it – and if there’s anyone still left reading after all that – are there any questions that were missed out?

The Best Job in the World (Except for the Money)

The other day in the studio, the chat turned to one of our favorite topics – what we’d do if the Half Moon syndicate won the lottery.
It’s funny how we are all absolutely convinced that we wouldn’t give up working, however rich we became. We’d just buy a better studio, preferably one on a tropical island, and while we’re about it, a gallery on Cork Street and, hey, let’s treat ourselves, one in the East End, too.
I guess this is why:

1. It’s not a regular job – so you’re free to come and go as you please. But then I do find I go to the studio five days a week anyway. What can I say, the guilt gets to me….

2.  There’s no-one telling you what to do and when to do it. You choose what you feel like doing each day, even if that’s sitting around all day drinking coffee and discussing what you’d do with your lottery millions….

3.  That interested reaction when you tell people what you do. “Oh, how lovely!” they say, picturing you floating around in a sun-lit meadow with your smock and watercolours
I don’t know why but I always feel compelled to explain, to their increasingly glazed faces, the reality of working in a freezing cold studio and the hard physical work of using a press.

4. Knowing that there are people who actually want to own the things that you love to make (and that you would be making anyway, lottery win regardless….)

So while I’m not completely convinced by this – that us newly minted multi-millionaires would really find that dragging ourselves into the studio to work is a realistic alternative to spending the day water-skiing with George Clooney – I can definitely understand why we might think it…..

Avoiding Your Fifteen Minutes of Fame…

I read an interview with Grayson Perry, where he said, “It’s one of my deep fears that I might become fashionable. All that means is that you are on the verge of being unfashionable.”

I remember when it used to be clothes that went out of fashion very quickly, but it’s absolutely everything now. There was a time when you’d buy some furniture, fully expecting to keep it for years, but now, heaven help you if your new sofa’s covered in amethyst linen – everyone knows it’s taupe barkcloth now. And what about bathrooms? Limestone mosaic is so last year, darling….

An artist colleague of mine got taken on by a very good gallery and immediately started selling amazingly well – so much so that she couldn’t keep up with the demand. Then within a relatively short time, the sales just dried up. Her work was still stunning – so why? Well, her background was in fabric design, she absolutely devoured lifestyle magazines and once supplied Ikea with some of her images for reproduction – her work just hit the zeitgeist. Then the world moved on, she was devastated, got dropped by the gallery and never really recovered confidence in her work….

Another artist I know has a similar approach – good sales for her are a validation of her work and she will focus very strongly on current trends to facilitate this. Somehow though, she manages to move with the times as she’s very inventive and resourceful. But oh, what a stressful way of working – she’s forever having to think up new subjects and colour combinations – windmills, artichokes, turtles, you name it, she’s done it.

So what happens to those ordinary artists who quietly develop their own visual language over the years and then one day wake up to discover that their work has just become the latest thing? I should be so lucky, you might think – but what happens when fashions change? Do you sigh and quietly get back to work? Well yes, of course you do, but unfortunately your work now looks curiously dated and you’re left feeling very frustrated that no-one seems interested anymore.

I guess the ideal is a slow but steady career progression, with time to make mistakes and to learn your craft. I fully intend to go on working until the day I die – or until I win the lottery, I haven’t quite decided yet.

Imitation Is Not A Form of Flattery

The other day, a colleague tells me she’s just seen some work ‘exactly’ just like mine. ‘Oh really?” I say, politely (whilst thinking something else entirely).
“Where did you see it?” I ask her.
“Along Southwark Street, I think,” she replies.
“Which gallery?”
“I don’t know if it was a gallery as such,” she says.
“Well, what then?”
“I don’t know precisely – I only saw it from the top of the bus.”
“Yes, but were they linocuts?”
“Well, like I said, I was on the bus, and it was going fast and I didn’t have my glasses on.”

Really though, this whole copying thing is a bit of a nightmare – using someone else’s images is just plain wrong. Of course, there can be a fine line between using another person’s work as inspiration and copying it – but often, that ‘personal interpretation’ might not be personal enough.
And be honest, there’s not a lot you can do about it, short of challenging them to a paint-off – artists have always borrowed from each other and always will.

Paul Catherall was asked the other day on Twitter if a current poster featuring Battersea Power Station was one of his. His answer was, “not me though does look similar. Still, I don’t have patent on Battersea (much as I’d like!) ;-)”.
Absolutely. When you’re using actual places as the starting point for your work, you have to be relaxed about it – I didn’t invent the London Underground, more’s the pity.

And, looking on the bright side, you know you’ve arrived when other artists start to copy you, right? They wouldn’t bother if your work was rubbish…..

Because Your Work Is Worth it?

How many times have I gone into a good gallery and seen badly presented work? Very rarely – because believe it or not, gallery owners and buyers really care about that stuff.
Unfortunately I know a fair few artists who don’t – they create wonderful work but then their frames are falling apart, the mounts aren’t cut straight or the print margins are ink-smudged…..

A good friend, who’s something of a repeat offender in this department, once left a short and curly black hair squashed between the mount and the glass of an etching of his – I’m cringing as I write this – I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when he actually sold it. I guess he’d argue that this proves his point, that presentation doesn’t matter and that it’s the work and the ideas behind it that count….

Well yes, of course the work is of prime importance but give a thought to those potential buyers. If they fall in love with your work, dodgy frames and all, then fine, they’ll buy it regardless (or they’ll buy it unframed and sort it themselves).
I find, though, that there are often several pieces that they’re looking at and so which would they buy? Probably not yours – they’d choose the one that’s beautifully presented and therefore ready to put up at home – it’s the easiest option.

And that goes for galleries too – they need a vibrant and immaculate set-up to get those buyers through the door. All those white walls and wooden floors will go for nothing if the display is second-rate. They want work that’s ready to hang too, as they have better things to do than sort out shoddy frames (like selling the work?)

And, in any case, what does badly presented work say about you, the artist? Does it show how professional you are? How seriously you take your work? Not really, no.

I don’t think I’m being finicky for choosing quality frames for my work – and I’m convinced that if the artist doesn’t think their work is worth presenting properly, then no-one else will either…

Artist’s Cards

When I was first approached by a publishing company, with a view to supplying them with some images for cards, I was worried it might have a detrimental effect on my sales. After all, why would you want to pay £250 for an original linocut when you can have the card for £2.50?

I’m not sure if I’ve had an upsurge in sales of original work through this (although other artist friends say they have) but they do raise your profile very efficiently. I’m quite happy to walk into the Royal Academy, say, or the Transport Museum, and see my cards displayed in their shop.

There can be the odd drawback, though. Not so long ago, I was taking part in a printmaking demonstration to coincide with a gallery exhibition. Alongside me was a very successful printmaker friend, who also happened to have a beautiful range of cards of her wood engravings. A nice couple came up to tell her how much they admired her work.
“We’ve just bought six of your cards” they told her, smiling enthusiastically, “and framed them for the kitchen. You really can’t tell that they’re not the originals”.
All said with the best intentions, I’m sure……..

Anyway, here are some of my cards, all available now. Those on the left are from Canns Down Press and those on the right are from Art Angels