Sunday, May 6, 2012

A black and white artist in a color world

While researching on the web about colorblind artists, I came across a post in which an art student (who was partially colorblind) asked if he could be successful if he just produced black and white art.

A counter-question would be what is success for an artist? If the question relates to financial security, then very few artists would be considered successful. At Xanadu Gallery’s Art Marketing Blog, the preliminary results from its “State of the Arts 2012 Survey” on artists’ earnings were released earlier this year. Admittedly, the survey is not scientific (the survey was online, and limited to people who visited the site and voluntarily took the survey), but the results I think are indicative of general trends. 

The initial results mainly covered painters (who made up 58% of the respondents). Seventy percent of the painters in the survey made less than $9,000 in 2011 and fifty-four percent made less than $4,900. Now the Census Bureau’s poverty threshold in the U.S. in 2010 was $11, 139 for an individual ($14,218 for a couple) so it appears that the majority of painters in the survey would not be considered financial successes. It appears that if financial security is your goal, you would be better off studying accounting, or becoming a plumber’s apprentice.

It is pretty obvious that we do not become artists because we worship mammon. Personal satisfaction, recognition by our peers or the public, exploring the world through art, or sharing a vision with others, are probably much more important.

That being said, where does black and white art fit into the modern art world? I think most people would acknowledge that black and white art sits much lower on the rungs of the art popularity ladder than it once did, at least in the U.S. and Europe.

Before the advent of inexpensive color illustrations in books and magazines, and the introduction of affordable color reproductions in the art world, black and white art (in the form of intaglio, woodcut, or lithographic prints) was one of the primary means for the average person to have access to the established art world. But now, especially with the rise of modern mediums such as television, movies and the Internet, color is indeed king.

Picasso - "Guernica

Kollwitz - "Death with child in lap"
I believe that black and white art can be just as powerful, and evoke the same intensity of emotion that color art can. Just look at Pablo Picasso’s painting, “Guernica;” or the prints of Kathe Kollwitz or Francisco de Goya.  Unfortunately, I also believe that black and white art has been devalued by the saturation (pardon my pun) of the modern world with color images, and the foisting on the art-buying public of the "limited edition color print (reproduction)" scam by art sellers.

de Goya - "And it cannot be helped"

This means that it is increasingly hard for black and white art to find acceptance among the art consuming public. I have found (at least in the small city I live in) that as a producer of black and white art, it is very hard to get gallery representation, and virtually impossible to get a one-person show at a gallery. 

Most galleries are profit-making ventures, and gallery owners are not interested in hanging anything on their walls that does not have a good chance of selling. And the unfortunate fact is that black and white art does not sell as well as color art. 

I have also been told by several gallery owners that if I wanted to sell my art, I need to add color. And artists I know that have done primarily black and white art in the past, but have moved to color, have told me the same thing. I know of one intaglio artist here in the Fairbanks area, who, in order to make his art more saleable, has to colorize it before hanging it in galleries.

But to me, although I greatly enjoy color in other people’s art, color is a distraction, even an enemy. I am much more attuned to value than hue, and enjoy interpreting the multiple visual cues of a colored world into monochrome images. I also feel that many artists “cheat” with color, using it as a substitute for talent—as easy trick to add interest, differentiate areas of a painting or convey a mood. I think that Henry Bowie (artist, author and Japanese authority), in his book, “On the Laws of Japanese Painting,” mirrors my feeling when he writes that, ‘Colors can cheat the eye but sumi (black pigment) never can; it proclaims the master and exposes the tyro.”

Some people might suggest that I move to an area with better art opportunities, but, like Anteaus in Greek mythology, I am very much grounded and gain my strength from the land around me. Since I spend much of my time in the field, often miles away from the nearest road, working in black and white allows me to pack a much smaller kit. I also do not need a large studio.

To sum up—I derive satisfaction from my art, other enjoy it (even if they don’t often buy it), it is part of what I consider a worthwhile endeavor (recording the history of my area), it has taken me to places I otherwise would not have access to, and I even make a little money in the process. Is that success? I guess it’s all a matter of perspective.

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