Years ago my wife asked a couple to spend a holiday weekend with us at the lake. When the power went down on Friday afternoon and we realized we’d blown out the breaker box, the husband, an electrician by trade, generously offered to fix it. So we went to the local hardware store to buy the parts. He pointed out what I needed, and I pulled the items off the shelf. I then watched as he grabbed a handful of screws out of a bin, said, “We’ll need these too,” and put them in his pocket. He winked at me and said, “I’ll see you in the car.”
I was mortified.
At the checkout counter, I told the clerk my “friend” stole a handful of screws that I estimated to be worth a dollar or two, but, to be sure, I gave her a twenty. I apologised and went to my car.
I was also fuming mad.
When I got in the car, I asked why he stole the screws, and he started whining about how the store didn’t need the money, that it was just a few pennies, that it was a big chain that was ripping off customers, and lots of other excuses.
I then did something I’ve never done before or since, because I’m not a confrontational kind of person.
I told him he was a common thief and that whether it was dimes, dollars, or thousands of dollars he was stealing, it was all the same to me. I said I don’t hang out with common thieves and that if he would steal from them, he would steal from me.
As I drove to our house, I told him I wouldn’t embarrass him in front of his wife and kids, but that I wanted him to go into the house and say that something came up and they needed to leave right away. I told him I would not tell his family that he was a thief, but he needed to be gone within an hour.
That was the last time I ever had contact with him or his family.
Everyone has to draw a line in the sand.
If someone is a thief, I write them out of my life. If someone betrays me, gossips about me wrongly, is two-faced or lies to me, I try to eliminate them from my life. That is my line in the sand.
Every artist has a line in the sand they must draw, but it’s not often as simple as it was for me in the case of my thieving acquaintance. If a gallery steals from you or doesn’t pay you, or if someone betrays you or lies to you it’s easy to draw a line in the sand and end the relationship.
But the line in the sand I’m talking about for you as an artist might not be quite so clear.
Where do you draw the line when it concerns “selling out” as an artist? It isn’t always about ethics. It’s about what works for you and your career.
For instance, I publish a couple of art magazines. Artists always want articles because those articles help their careers, and we love helping them when we can. But sometimes artists offer to buy ads if we will run an article about them. We always turn them down. That is the kind of line in the sand I’m talking about.
It’s not illegal, or even immoral, to sell ads in exchange for articles. A lot of magazines do it and are quite open about it. We’ve simply decided that our readers won’t trust our content as much if they believe someone might be featured who isn’t otherwise strong enough as an artist or who paid us to be there. It’s a choice we’ve made to maintain our credibility, and we’ve walked away from a lot of money because of it. It’s not easy, but for us, that’s the line we won’t cross.
As an artist, you also have choices you have to make that are not about what is illegal or immoral in themselves, but that will be very personal for you.
The best example I can think of concerns painting what sells.
Your gallery owner calls you and says, “Those little red barns you painted sold better than anything else you’ve painted. Can you send us more little red barns?”
If you’re sick of painting little red barns, or they don’t inspire you anymore, you’re then faced with whether or not you draw a line in the sand.
Will you paint more barns because they help the gallery?
Will you paint more barns because more paintings sold means establishing more collectors?
Will you paint more barns because selling more is validation that people like your work?
Will you paint more barns because you need the money?
Will you refuse to paint more barns?
Where is the line?
One friend who is a brilliant landscape painter and who was selling well decided she was sick of landscapes, so she started painting buildings and figures instead. Her gallery mounted a show, and nothing, I repeat nothing, in the show sold except the few remaining landscapes. Her career took a dive. She had branded herself as a landscape painter and couldn’t escape it. Her line in the sand was between not making a living or going back to painting landscapes. She opted out of landscapes, continued on her new path, and endured a two-year dip in her career until her other paintings caught on. But she was happy she made the decision because her heart was no longer in landscapes.
I applaud anyone who follows their heart. But I would not have criticized this artist if she’d decided to go back to painting landscapes, if that was what she felt she had to do.
Early in my career I was a wedding photographer. I did so many weddings that I got sick of weddings and swore I’d never do another, even if I had to starve. My soul could not take even one more wedding. I dropped it cold turkey and found a job doing something else. I drew a line in the sand. I still avoid weddings to this day when I can, and if I do go, I refuse to bring a camera. But someone else may have decided to forge ahead, to keep supporting themselves or for other reasons. Neither decision is immoral or unethical.
What is your line in the sand?
In my blogs I write mostly about marketing and the value of building your name and your brand, and increasing awareness of your work. I teach techniques you can use to speed up your sales and your progress as an artist, and I’ve watched hundreds of people change their lives and see their dreams come true.
Still, some people view the very act of marketing as crass, or even wrong. Some feel they want nothing to do with the business aspects of painting. I even know artists who refuse to sell their artwork to willing buyers, because they don’t want to have their artistic purity challenged by the act of making a sale.
I think it’s important to understand that any of these decisions is perfectly acceptable.
It’s acceptable to market yourself and your art. It’s just as acceptable to wait, doing no marketing and hoping your work will be discovered and sell organically. It’s rare, but it does happen.
Most great artists who have accomplished some level of success are also brilliant marketers, though they handle it in such tasteful and subtle ways that it’s usually not recognized as marketing. Frankly, that’s the best way to market, if you can finesse the style. Other older, established artists did the bulk of their marketing long ago, when a lot of us weren’t around to see it, and we assume they never stooped so low as to self-market (or that they never needed to). Some were those rare cases who were genuinely discovered by collectors or a gallery, with no marketing at all.
Some are willing to market their careers and find it perfectly acceptable, while others won’t cross that line because they find it objectionable.
There is no right or wrong here. This is not an ethical issue. It’s a personal issue.
That is the most important take away: These are your decisions. If you need to paint more red barns to sell paintings so you can pay the rent, it’s not ethically wrong to do it (though it’s not a good idea to create the same painting again and again). If you still love painting red barns, so much the better — there is absolutely no reason not to paint something that satisfies you just because buyers want more of it.
Ultimately you have to search your soul for what works for you, what inspires you, and what is over the line for you.
I know a lot of famous artists who painted what their galleries wanted for a lot of years until their names and careers were established, and now they won’t do anything unless they want to do it. I know others who have always painted only what they want to paint. No one should judge you for the decision you make. As my dad always says, “You never know why someone does something until you’ve walked in their moccasins.”
Careers are delicate things. There is nothing that can overcome hard work, putting in the time to learn and grow and develop your career. But once that heavy lifting is done, that’s when you need to decide where you should draw your line in the sand.