Exhibition Tips for the Newbies, part 2


Every challenge an artist faces, with inspiration, with relationships, with money, can be thought of as a painting challenge.

The more skillful we are at dealing with these things the better it is for our art. And so it is with career.

Artists should work on their career skills early on because they will take time to develop, and update them continually.

If you’re serious about showing your work then don’t wait until you feel your training is completely over. Start small and get into the game as soon as you can.

Which brings me to the next set of tips for those of you getting started:

1. Know Thy Art.
Always be ready with brief meaningful answers to questions about your work.

The questions may seem silly (“Is that oil?”) but they also present a perfect opening to share a bit about your process and yourself.

You’re the best rep you’ll ever have, so give your message some thought and practice and avoid wisecracks, no matter what.

Make their job easy.
People in the business are juggling a bunch of artists and tasks.

So without being a pushover, be accommodating and pleasant to deal with. Answer your own questions if you can; be the consummate professional.

The logic is simple; the easier you are to work with, the greater your chances of being invited back.

Buy a great frame. Or don’t.
Go all out with a gorgeous, museum-quality frame, or leave it off completely.

Not having a frame at all on your work is better than having a cheap one, and there is a beauty and modernity to clean painted edges on unframed canvases, especially the larger ones.

Play Nice.
Don’t ever, ever, spread negative gossip about your fellow artists or art professionals.

It’s human nature to complain, we all do it, and in a strange way it connects us.

But inappropriate in business and it makes you sound whiny and unprofessional.

Unflattering comments actually to stick more to the person making them. If you must, share grievances with your spouse or significant other; that’s what they’re for.

Don’t paint in the 11th hour.
The moment your work is accepted for an exhibition, consider it done…for now.

Trying to “finish” or improve a piece too close to showtime can cause stress and backfire, leaving you with something weaker than you had in the first place.

If your art finds a home during the run of a show, great!

If not, you’ve gained valuable perspective seeing it on the wall and can attack it later, so it’s a win-win.

A delicate and complicated issue that could be the subject of an entire post, but here are two rules of thumb:

See if you can find out what artists of similar experience, age and exhibition histories (your competition) are receiving, not just asking, for their work and price yours accordingly.

Imagine that midpoint between what you would like to get and what a collector would like to pay; both sides should be willing to give a little.

Don’t hold out for the grand slam or settle for the sure thing; let your prices be, well, a little boring.

If you ever hear the words, “you don’t seem like an artist”; celebrate!  It means you look, sound and behave like a pro.

Exhibition Tips, Part 1

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Exhibition Tips for the Newbies, part 1

25 years ago I made one of the best decisions of my life.

It was the decision to have a one-hour chat with an art career coach.

The purpose of the meeting was to learn how a glorified student could get his paintings into the world with no previous exhibitions under his belt.

More than an amazing value at $30, it was a beginning. I thanked this man by phone several years later. He thanked me for thanking him.

I learned that the art business is like any other. When you’re new you get your feet wet, forgetting sales or spotlight. As your resume grows, so do the opportunities. It’s a little like dating. You need to court before the relationship begins.

Over time, the right people get to know your work as you position yourself to approach small galleries and apply for fellowships. But you need to lay the groundwork first.

So here are my first five tips, in no particular order:

 1. Get out of town.
Enter competitions in major cities and diverse locations.

You’re creating your history, so avoid looking like a local artist.

The most obscure show in Miami, New York or Boston will stand out on your resume. I see too many artists exhibiting in their own backyards. The expense of shipping cross country will pay big dividends by giving you the appearance of a national artist.

Tons of competitions can be found online, and most artists over 18 can enter for a modest fee.

2. Hire the best photographer you can afford.
The biggest complaint I hear from galleries about artist submissions is poor image quality.

Fine art photography is a specialty, and it’s tricky, so no DIY unless you’re a pro. The quality of your images speaks volumes about your level of commitment and how much you value your own work.

3. Show your very best work.  Hide the rest.
There’s nothing to gain in showing a weak piece.

Astounding work has staying power; average work will be forgotten. As the actor Steve Martin once said, “Be so good that they can’t ignore you.”

4. Be ready, and be prompt.
If someone reaches out with an inquiry or opportunity, get right back to them with the info requested, as requested.

Give them what they ask for, to the tee and early; they’ll love you for it. I often promise delivery of something within seven days, knowing it will get there in three, remembering the saying, “Under-promise, and over deliver.”

5. Create a killer body of work…
…before committing to a solo show.

You never know when you’ll do a great piece or a not-so-great one. To promise twenty gallery-ready works in advance is a lot of pressure for an emerging artist. Some veterans thrive on the adrenaline of a show date, but you shouldn’t take chances with your career, or your sanity, at this stage.

Someone once said that the business of art is closer to business than it is to art. Think of building your career as your new part-time job and give it the same energy as you do your work!

Exhibition Tips, part 2

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What advice would you give the person you were ten years ago?

cdg st maartin 1991 bw
Caribbean, 1991

A wonderful question to ask, difficult when directed at you.  This came my way during podcast interview.

A decade ago I had, miraculously, everything an artist could hope for.  A big New York City gallery, exhibitions, sales, but the real miracle, unlimited time to work in a killer studio.

And I couldn’t have been more stressed.

Stressed, because I missed the teaching I’d given up in my thirties.  The design work I gave up in my twenties.  The outdoor labor jobs before that.  The friendships with students and co-workers.

To get just a little dramatic, the studio that I loved felt like a prison and  I was the warden. I wouldn’t let myself leave.

I told the podcast host about my favorite painters- Velasquez, Rubens, William Nicholson, and Robert Rauschenberg* successful artists with vocations outside of their art, and contemporary artist-entrepreneurs like Israel Hershberg and Jacob Collins.

The great artist-teachers, past and present, all passionately involved in things that fed them creatively, and still do.

Somehow I had forgotten this while buying into the myth that you were not a “real artist” unless 100% of your income came from the production of art.  I believed this right up until the time it happened for me in the early 2000’s.

Desire for personal success aside, we want to please others, the collectors, the gallery staff and especially the people we are closest to.

Internal and external pressure to sell each piece will quickly put the kibosh on experimentation, causing a painter to play it too safe. Freedom to experiment and make mistakes are absolutely essential to an artist’s growth.

That said, my hat goes off to anyone who paints and exhibits full-time because these guys are a special breed.

These were the thoughts that surfaced as I considered the advice I would give a young artist, younger self-included.

And the advice would simply be this: Have a sideline, whether you need one or not.  15-20 hours a week in another activity will make you more creative, not less.

The teaching has long since returned.  So has the physical labor (just on my own property). The freelance design work is returning. And the painting is more enjoyable than ever.

Technology makes it easy to wear a couple of hats.

I used to believe that hard work and narrow focus were the answers to everything.  I’ve since learned that balance, though difficult for everyone these days, is more powerful.

*Velazquez worked for the court, Nicholson was a graphic designer, Rubens was a diplomat and Rauschenberg, at the height of his career, designed sets and costumes for the stage .
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Get Out of the Art Bubble

You don’t learn to walk by following rules…
You learn by walking and falling down.

 -Richard Branson

I once saw a beautiful painting by an artist I hadn’t known of, depicting a thin layer of dough flattened out on a sheet.

Josephine HalvorsonThe piece was so original and unassuming that it stayed with me for years.   I’d never seen uncooked dough rendered in paint before, though the two substances seem perfectly matched, and I doubt the artist had either before taking it on herself.    The work seemed  to come straight out of personal experience and fondness for the materials.  I just recently learned that it was painted by Brooklyn artist  Josephine Halvorson.

I begin this post with the Branson quote for two reasons.  First to point out that what we learn from artists often leads to following the rules (or trying too hard to break them) more than it does a heartfelt connection with our subject. Second, the quote is an example of wisdom from a high achiever living outside the art bubble which can be applied to the creation of art.

“Which artists have influenced you most?”, is one of the most common questions we get.  

I love Velasquez.  And Holbein. Sargent, Hammershoi, Edwin Dickenson, Morandi, Richard Diebenkorn, Lopez, Wyeth and a bunch of others.  And I look at their stuff in small doses, knowing that their vision will alter my own whether I want it to or not.

I do this because most people are understandably too busy with career, family, and life to familiarize themselves with the masters, whose work may seem distant from a 21st-century perspective. Too much reverence for art, past or present, creates a pictorial language and style that connects artists mostly to other artists.  Or as I sometimes put it, we’re sharing an inside joke and leaving everyone else out.

Every great thinker says the same thing… Don’t do what the others are doing.  But don’t reinvent the wheel either.  Just five percent different or five percent better says Brian Tracy, is enough to set you apart.

It could be a difference in the work itself or one’s way of getting it out there.  The west coast painter Antrese Wood maintains a beautiful site filled with her paintings, a blog, her Savvy Painter Podcast interviews with career painters, articles, and useful info.  One could easily spend an hour of inspiration there and: surprise!  Her pieces are being snatched up by collectors as she becomes a household name.

I’m not suggesting that one shouldn’t go to museums and seek inspiration from the world’s great talents . Just reminding readers, especially the younger ones, that every old master was once a modern master whose work was a big surprise in its time.

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A Note to a Student

Studio Christopher Gallego NY State

The following is an e-mail that I sent to a student just after one of our private classes.  We had discussed whether to push a particular piece a little further and risk losing some of the freshness and spontaneity …

Nobody loves beautiful paint, brushwork, and an expressive touch more than I do. These are the things that make art such a treat to look at.

However… Like details, they shouldn’t be a painting’s primary reason for being.  Art is all about connection – the artist connecting with her subject, and the art connecting with the viewer.  Your first priority is to put the viewer into that space, and into the experience, you’re having. Painting is all about creating the illusion of space.

This is done by turning the forms, making them advance and recede.  Paint quality is that little bonus, something to please and delight the eye.  All of your thinking is rooted in observation.  Look at your subject, as I was taught a long time ago as if your life depended on it.

But… Don’t be a slave to your observations.  Interpret and transform things in ways that will add depth and make the art beautiful. Canvases are flat, so a little over-compensation is needed.  These are judgment calls made by you, but they should be informed judgment calls.

Your brushstrokes will be more assured if you have really seen things, even if you exaggerate or underplay.  The work doesn’t have to go from loose to tight.  You can start loose, tighten up, and then go loose again.

The key to doing great paintings is to simply become a great painter.  I would never rate another artist, but a level 8 painter (on a one to 10 scale) will pretty much do level eight paintings.  We all get lucky sometimes, but generally, we can only do what we can do.

So the goal is to just get better.  How?  By taking small chances…constantly…doing small experiments…constantly…keeping what works and dropping what doesn’t.  Most of your attention should go toward the process, the visual information in front of you and your state of mind while working.  Minimal attention toward the work itself, and don’t waste any energy on the fiction called “finishing”.  Avoid repetition and formulas; they don’t challenge you and where there’s no challenge there’s no growth.

See if you can put some distance between yourself and your art.  Imagine critiquing the work of a friend when you look at your own.  You’ll not only find this liberating, but you’ll have an easier time dealing with the critics, particularly the one inside you.

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What Kind of Art Sells?

Giorgio Morandi Still Life-Christopher Gallego Blog-What kind of Art Sells?  Giorgio Morandi

 Answer: “Great Art Sells”

This from an art dealer that I met years ago.  And although her words can certainly be argued with, I’ve never forgotten them.

While it’s impossible to define great art, I think she meant that artists typically sell their strongest work and that subject matter is secondary.  Knowingly or not, art collectors respond  to the intangibles such as the artist’s level of inspiration, commitment, and passion for their craft.

Every gallerist  I’ve spoken with says the same thing:

Don’t  paint for the market.
Paint what you love, not what you think will sell.

If you’re showing multiple pieces then don’t expect the stronger works to lift the weaker ones up – expect the opposite; the weaker pieces will pull the rest down.

The 80/20 rule applies: 80% of the work that you do is for artistic growth, experimentation, and development; 20% is for show.

The best part about this is that it leaves the artist with a nice archive of work.  This applies to studio time as well; 80% observation / 20% execution.

I know little about the commercial success of the great Giorgio Morandi’s paintings.  I only know that I saw the one featured above in a small gallery a decade ago and it has stayed with me all this time.  I can see it with eyes closed, and smell the dust on the table.

Making an impression is one thing.  Connecting is something else entirely.  And that’s what this game is all about – connecting.  Briefly taking someone out of their reality with your art and bringing them into your own. It’s a liberating sensation.

If an art enthusiast can recall and describe a specific piece you have done along with the feelings it evoked, rather than having a general impression of you as the artist who does “such and such” then congratulations! You’ve hit a home run.  Hit a few more like that and you’re well on your way.

Here are links to a couple of bloggers with wonderful insights on the subject:

artsy shark | artbusiness.com

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on the spirit of play

Christopher Gallego-Blog-Image Title-Picasso  Pablo Picasso

Most of the artists I know can get way too serious.

Though I don’t always practice what I preach, I’m always telling my students to lighten up, with the reminder,”People; It’s just a painting!”…or something along those lines… “You’re not on trial.”  If that doesn’t work  then I’ll belt out a bit of opera in my flat voice just to make them  laugh.

Richard Serra, arguably one of the most serious artists in the business, has stressed the importance of cultivating playfulness in one’s work, and you can see it in his drawings. Rembrandt seems to have had a sense of humor and Dali could be just plain ridiculous. Some of the world’s greatest talents weren’t all work or all play, but a healthy mixture of both.

Salvador Dali

It all comes down to curiosity.  You simply can’t be stressed out and curious at the same time.  Curiosity and creativity go hand in hand.  One leads to the other.

The word creative, to me, doesn’t refer to any finished product, but to the solutions that are born while doing one’s work, and doing it with enthusiasm.  And the answers to whatever challenges one may face in work or in life for that matter will be found only by trying something different.  “What if?”, is a wonderful question to ask throughout the day.  “Let’s give that a try; see what happens.”  And if it succeeds then congratulations, you have a new tool.  If it doesn’t then remember…it’s just a painting.

A quote from R.C. Barker –
“A changed experience can only happen to a changed individual.”

Keep being the same and you’ll get the same.  Put some fun into the process and you will naturally become more experimental.  Then get ready for some serious…no pun intended…growth.

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painting perceptions interview

Christopher Gallego, Small Studio Jar

November 1, 2012 | download pdf 

Larry Groff, Editor, Painting Perceptions
I’d like to thank Christopher Gallego for taking the time to share his thoughts on painting in our recent email interview. Mr. Gallego studied at the National Academy of Design in New York and teaches workshops in New York area. He has shown with OK Harris Works of Art, Hirschl & Adler Modern, Seraphin Gallery, the New Britain Museum of American Art, the Brandywine River Museum, the Cincinnati Art Museum, The Naples Museum of Art, and many others. He is the recipient of fellowships from New York Foundation for the Arts, the Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation, the Pollock Krasner Foundation and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.

Larry Groff
Can you tell us a bit about your background and what lead you to become the type of painter you are today?

Christopher Gallego
First, Larry, thanks very much for this interview. I was born in New York in 1959, a grandson of Spanish and Italian immigrants, and grew up in the nearby suburbs. My father was an energetic painter. He never really attempted to teach or influence me in any way, but quietly hoped that I would pick it up on my own. And the strategy worked beautifully, because I took to painting soon enough and when I did it was completely my choice.

I like to describe my younger self as an introvert who craved attention. And painting was the perfect way to satisfy both personalities. It enabled me to connect with others without actually being there. The visual world always had a hypnotic effect on me and it still does.  So it was only natural that an atmospheric kind of realism would eventually become my language of expression. My studies with the great portrait artist Ronald Sherr left me with an appreciation for the power of sustained observation.

Please tell us about two or three painters who have been your biggest influences and why?

People are often surprised to hear that my favorite painter is Morandi. That’s probably because my paintings don’t look much like his. But I love the idea of Morandi more than the look. Elevating the commonplace to the spiritual without sentiment is for me what painting is all about. I admire Edwin Dickenson very much, and Velasquez has been a lifelong hero, both for the same reason.

This may sound sacrilegious, and perhaps it is, but the truth is that I don’t look at art much anymore. Mostly I like to look at the world, the appearance of things, the light falling on things, whether I’m painting or not. I enjoy looking at the work of my peers, sometimes more than the icons of the past, because of how we share this passion yet see the world in different ways.

I find several of your paintings and drawings evocative of the sensibilities involved with Antonio López García’s work. Any thoughts you can share with us about his work and or influence?

Antonio Lopez has raised the bar on all of us. His work demonstrates that rare combination of power and sensitivity and that any subject can be transformed into art. This helped liberate me from the traditional figure painting I learned in school, and the impact, especially on my earlier work, is clear. But the work of the Spanish Master is often grand, complex and painted with an eye for distance – I’ve moved toward the intimate, the simple, and like to get right on top of things.

How much does working from observation play with your work? Please tell us something about your process in painting. Do you generally build up the painting in a layered, indirect manner or do you work more directly? Any special palette or method of working other painters might find of interest?

Observation is everything. At least 50% of my time in the studio is spent just staring at the subject and not making a stroke. I liken observation to making a bank deposit; the act of painting is the withdrawal. You can’t withdraw without depositing without getting into trouble. I’m full of analogies and metaphors I know, and that’s one of my favorites.

I paint directly and quite freely in the early stages, almost like an abstract artist, and like to really pile the paint on, using a palette knife for most of the work. At some point I’ll turn the corner from near-abstraction to modeling, making corrections along the way. That’s the key; I live with any errors in the drawing while fleshing out the forms, adjusting things here and there.

I use a simple palette of thirteen colors, some opaque, most transparent. I love Old Holland colors and my medium is Turpenoid with stand oil, but use very little of it. The stiffness of this paint is quite compatible with knife work, though it isn’t intended for that. I like when the paint pushes back a bit.

What aspect of the act of painting excites you the most? Why are you a realist and not an abstract painter?

I have a great appreciation for abstraction, but frankly, it just isn’t my language. I’ve tried it a few times, and after a half hour or so of joyful paint slinging am stumped by the feeling of “now what?” I need to have a subject in front of me to spur my thinking. My favorite part of the process is the refinement. Taking a painting that looks OK and pushing it way over the finish line – bringing more depth and nuance into it, manipulating the clarity, splitting hairs with values so to speak. This is the part that takes all of the energy and concentration I have. But I try not to make it laborious.

The game of painting is played on two levels. First there is the artist, making decisions, solving problems, doing the actual work. Then there is the other self that watches the artist at work, monitoring one’s own thoughts and emotions. So if I start to get bored for example, and this can be a problem for me, I’ll pick up the energy any way I can, sometimes by deliberately making a mistake. That usually gets me going. I’m always trying to find that balance of being patient but having a slight edge.

You discuss many important aspects of painting from nature. I was struck by one thing you said; “One of the hardest things for me to witness is an artist laboring over a canvas, struggling to force the work with grim determination and a good deal of sweat. Unfortunately the “no pain, no gain” approach just doesn’t work here, in fact it causes a majority of the problems…” 

Your thoughts here are interesting given that your richly-detailed realist work can take several months to complete. How do you keep paintings fresh and avoid looking overworked? Any thoughts you care to share about trends in contemporary hyper-realism?

The work of some of today’s hyper-realists is nothing short of astounding. My favorite artists however paint more loosely than I do, and I see myself somewhere in between the two. These distinctions don’t matter as much as the approach and the feeling of the work. But I was actually referring to my students in that quote. They work much harder than necessary and I wish they wouldn’t. Trying hard simply doesn’t work. It leads to anxiety which compromises decision-making.

It’s taken quite some time to arrive at the nonchalance of process you refer to. It’s a recent development; it came into being about five years ago. Many of us are taught that great achievements are the result of pain and suffering. I used to struggle like mad with my art, lose sleep over it, lament over “ruining” pieces and so on. Painting became easy the day I decided it should be easy. It was really that simple. This certainly doesn’t mean I feel the work is always successful. But the canvas is merely a reflection of the quality and depth of the observation; it has no reality in itself. This is worth repeating…the canvas is a reflection.

If I’ve grasped something visually, I can get back anything I’ve lost; if I can’t get it back; then I never had it to begin with. Knowing this brings a contentment or rather a trust in the process, and the end result is a look that is fresher and more elegant than would be achieved by trying to force things.

You also talk about the need to paint out carefully worked details if those areas looks fragmented from the whole, calling this “pulling it together”. I’ve also heard it referred to as keeping the painting open and not being precious with the painting. This seems like a more modernist approach to painting – to keep everything open for major changes right up until the last finishing brushstroke.

This seems not unlike the abstract-expressionistic manner of an all-over approach. This seems a painful concept for some painters who fear losing days or weeks of hard-won work. Often you see them take the opposite approach of protecting the fragmented areas and just building up more and more details – further shutting down the painting.

What advice can you offer about seeing the big picture, getting harmony and finding the courage to paint in an open manner?

The tendency to protect is fear-based; I call it “painting defensively”. It’s helpful to remind oneself that if you’ve done something once, you can do it again. Details and masses work in concert – the masses support the details while the details assist in constructing and refining the masses. I prefer to drop a few details in place early on, knowing that they will be lost and found many times over. It’s not necessary to keep the painting open because it always is! Anything can be changed.

We’re so programmed to believe a project should move in sequential steps from start to finish, but painting doesn’t. Moving forward and backward can actually be fun, but the important thing is to keep it moving. Sometimes a mistake will lead to an insight that you wouldn’t have had otherwise, so mistakes shouldn’t be feared. Here’s my recommendation to the aspiring artist: forget about creating a work of art. Don’t get too attached to the outcome; get attached to the process. Turn this into a challenging game that will make you better in the end.

Another statement resonated with me; “I’ve noticed how inexperienced artists tend to darken things, moving down the value scale, strengthening boundaries, creating weight and solidity. Mature artists do the opposite; lightening, moving up the value scale, losing edges, making things look ethereal while maintaining clarity.”

This is very useful advice and is part of what makes good painting so engaging. People can get so hung up on making something look real that they can lose sight of the need to make a good painting. You also went on to state that:

“An awareness of the countless shifts in intensity, color and light light reveal a profound beauty in the most ordinary things. Suddenly, the world seems fresher and more alive.” Would you say that the real subject is the artist’s engagement with the motif not just making the motif look real?

Yes, I completely agree with that. The engagement, or the embrace as I like to call it, is at the heart of the work.

Representation can move in a few directions at once, which include clarity and atmosphere. One doesn’t negate the other, they balance. Too much line and too much detail will make a piece look stiff and motionless. But the tonal changes, and there are hundreds to consider – you can never paint too many of them and the work will just get richer. Sharpening up one area gives me permission to soften another. If the work gets too busy with details it can pulled it together with the method we’re talking about. Oil paint is more transparent, even the whites, than we think, so it would take a very thick layer indeed to completely obscure previous work.

Another consideration is effortlessness. It’s the most beautiful quality any art form can have. What’s the difference between a great dancer and an average one? Ease of execution, fluidity. Laboring over a work will give you just that – a labored look, which can make the viewer feel uncomfortable. It’s not just about satisfying yourself, you have to keep others in mind. You might feel proud about all that hard work you’ve done. But is the piece moving, or just impressive?

In a world threatened by global warming, political and economic chaos, and the never-ending disasters of all kinds; why should painters still care about beauty?

One of the things I like about my job is that I know it is not going to save the world. Because I don’t want that responsibility, it’s too much. Given the things you mention, it’s true that civilization doesn’t really need painters. And it doesn’t need poets, actors, musicians or athletes either. But how dull would life be without them? These people motivate us.

The role of visual artists and all artists, in my view, is to remind people of the extraordinary things they are capable of. I can get inspired for example by watching a master pizza maker tossing and spinning the dough, casually doing something that to me seems so impossible. The joy of doing, of being in the zone with work that you love is unlike any other. The evils of the world can’t simply be eliminated and they can’t be defeated; they have to be replaced by something higher. Art is about more than the creation of beauty; it demonstrates an enthusiasm for life, which is contagious. Spreading some of that enthusiasm around is the artist’s contribution to the world.

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