Saturday, December 29, 2007

Colour Theory

As I described in my last blog, I found it useful to start Junior pupils with a look at pre-historic cave painting. This lead naturally on to a discussion of how paints are made and then on to a discussion of colour theory. In primary school, some (but not all) of my pupils had completed colour circles. However, I never found the colour circle a particularly good way of explaining how colours mix, so I came up with my own system inspired from Venn diagrams. I gave my pupils an A4 photocopy of the above blank template. The Venn diagram at the top had to be filled in using just three colouring pencils, a yellow, red and a blue.

As with oil pastels, if the colours are to mix well it is important to start lightly. I told my pupils to fill in the lightest colours first, starting by filling in the yellow circle lightly, then the red and finally the blue. Then this was repeated several times until the pores of the paper became completely clogged with colour. Done in this way, the mixture which created the secondary colours worked well. (NB: If a pupil filled in the first colour heavily then, where another colour was supposed to overlap, the pencil tended to skid over the first colour and very little of the second actually stuck to the paper!)

For the middle section, pupils were also allowed to use a black and a brown pencil. In the final section pupils were allowed to use orange, green and purple pencils, simply because of the "cleaner" quality of manufactured secondary, colours compared to their own mixtures.

Note for teachers (in particular): If you wish to use copies of the above sheets, go ahead! They are copyright free for private and educational use. However, it would be nice if you would let me know if you find them useful.

The full Colour Theory lesson (and better quality images) is now available at my website ( at and the one on Cave Painting at

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Art History – Cave Painting

My copy, in oil pastels, of a cave painting of a horse. The original is in the Lascaux Caves in France and dates from around 15,000-10,000 BC. I picked oil pastels because I thought that the broad pastel effect would be the closest to the results produced by the original, pre-historic, artists. When working with oil pastels, I like to start by using the colours in a very light, sketchy way. I keep going over the drawing lightly with different colours until the grain of the paper is largely filled in and the pastels begin to “skid” over the surface. I then use a conical “stub” of paper, rolled to form a hard point, to blend the various shades together. (If you work too soon and too heavily with one particular colour and the paper grain becomes clogged, it becomes difficult to modify it by blending in other shades.)

When I first started my website (, I intended to include a series of art lessons, for the possible benefit of both students and teachers, simply because my retirement seemed to otherwise waste a great deal of my experience. (Whether or not the lessons are actually any good is, of course, another matter entirely.) The problem was that, as I became increasingly busy with my own painting, this project has gradually been falling by the wayside. So a change of strategy is called for! What I intend to do is to write up my thoughts on these lessons, as they occur to me, as part of this blog. Afterwards I will tidy them up and incorporate them into my website as time allows.

With regard to Art History, what I hope to do is to take personal “snapshots” of the various periods and movements of Art History. In particular, I hope to provide links between the sections, to show how one influenced or grew out of another - or, sometimes, simply how similarities exist without there being any other connection at all! There is no intention to cover movements in detail - others have already done this and much better than I can! My intention is to create a series of “pegs” that a more detailed study can be hung upon at a later date. For this reason, I am including links to web sites that I found particularly interesting and useful (if you can suggest others that would be particularly appropriate, I would be grateful if you would e-mail me with your recommendations).

This is my first attempt – a look at Pre-Historic Cave Painting. I found this to be a useful introduction to art history for my 1st year pupils (Secondary School). The French Ministry of Culture provides a great virtual tour of the caves at, which, with the aid of a data projector, I found very useful – and the pupils loved it. The site also has a lot of good follow up material.

Paintings like the original of the horse (at the top) have only survived because they were created in nearly inaccessible places which have been protected from the ravages of the weather. But these places would have been even more difficult to get to thousands of years ago, with no more than primitive lamps and torches to show the way. The paints were created from the materials available at the time, such as coloured earths, charcoal and chalk. The effort involved in collecting these, carrying them down narrow passages deep into the earth and then creating the paintings at the other end should not be under-estimated. To justify such effort, the paintings must have been of considerable importance to the people at the time.

It is likely that there was a 'magical' purpose behind this act of creation, although not perhaps not in the way we might think. I cannot believe that people who were intelligent enough to create such works of art were simply indulging in wishful thinking, i.e., that they thought that by showing the animal pierced with arrows and spears, this would guarantee a successful hunt. I think that the process would have had to have been one of identification with the hunt and the animal being hunted.

When a person totally immerses themselves in a subject, the creative process swings into action. Solutions to problems come to mind without the need for conscious thought, both mind and body tune up for action. I am completely certain that the process of creating these paintings resulted in the participants becoming better hunters - because we still make use of essentially the same process today! This is exactly what a sportsman does when he 'psyches' himself up for a competition. He devotes himself to thinking exclusively about what he has to do, he may run through the act repeatedly within his imagination and, usually, he is surrounded by the paraphenalia and trophies associated with his sport. (Evidence of past success helps to create a mental environment favourable to future success.)

When we do something like this as a group, we often go to a special place dedicated to that purpose. This may be a clubhouse or even a place of business, but whatever its ostensible purpose, its ritualistic aspects are likely to be revealed by its furnishings. These are quite often portraits of earlier sporting or business 'heroes' or perhaps framed certificates, the equivalent of battle honours in military establishments. At one time or another, often without realising it, most of us have been in such environments and participated in group activities designed to promote a group identity and to enthuse us to greater efforts. I doubt if we have really changed that much from the days of prehistoric man.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

What Happens to Prices?

In my last post, I included a jpg of a small painting of mine, which I priced at £120 plus P&P. But that is not the end of the story with regard to pricing. When I first started, I calculated the price purely on the actual working time. Since I was working directly in the street, I didn't even consider preparation time or time taken selecting my subject, working out my idea, or anything else. This gave me the freedom to sort myself out at my leisure, but is not a practical way of working out how much one needs to make from a painting, simply because the actual painting time is so intense. I certainly could not keep up a 40 hour week consisting purely of painting! However, in reality the painting time is interspersed with the need to sort out canvases and materials, to travel to a specific site, to get set up, to clear away and even for things like eating and drinking! All of these have to be allowed for as well.

The example I gave, "Drumlins near Ballynahinch, Co. Down, N. Ireland" was a particularly simply one to create. The site was close by, the painting very straightforward, expenses incurred were minimal. Hence the price calculated is also a very basic one. If someone living nearby saw it and bought it at that price, P&P would also be eliminated and, with a minimum of inconvenience I would receive a sum of money which, whilst not going to make me rich, would be a useful aid to my general maintenance and well-being. (P&P costs to somewhere else in the world will depend on the type of secure packing needed, carrier costs, insurance, etc. But since I have not yet sold any work in this manner, I have not yet got a clue as to what this entails. Essentially, I will be waiting for the demand to arise before I worry about it!) However, I am also getting together a number of landscapes for a group exhibition in February. Already started, these required me to go out of the way to select my subjects, so some extra time will be added in. Some will take longer than others, so this will also effect the price. In addition, I will have to get the work framed, allow for the commission charged by the gallery and the effort and time involved getting work to and from the show. Some of the work may not sell, so I have to allow for the fact that I will have to keep this work until sometime in the future when another opportunity for a sale may arise. So (a lot of guesswork is involved), here is an attempt to recalculated the selling price required for the same small painting if I put it in as part of an exhibition.

£120 - to cover working time in production
£50 - average cost of framing
£40 - to cover an averaged 2 hours collecting and delivering times (guestimate)
£210 total so far.

Galleries charge differing amount of commissions. A local show might only charge 20% of the final price, but a commercial gallery commission could be 60% of the list price. At 60%, the final list price would be:


Some galleries would charge less commission, but I believe that this sort of estimate gives a ball park figure for the sort of pricing that a painting of this type and size would require in the general art market around here.

But I am still not going to get rich - at least if my work is all sold through galleries on this basis! However, on a more optimistic tone, if substantial amounts of my work start to sell at gallery prices, this will start to increase the value of my work generally. The main advantage of selling through galleries is that my work can, potentially, reach new buyers that otherwise I would not have access to.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Pricing one's artwork.

"Drumlins, Near Ballynahinch, Co. Down, N. Ireland", November 2007.
Oils on canvas, 30.5 cm x 25.5 cm. (6 hours working time).
£120 unframed, plus postage and packing.
Pricing one's artwork:

This is not an attempt at advising others on how they can price their own work, just my own musings on the subject, with an invitation to others to comment.

It seems to me that this is always going to be a thorny subject. Price yourself too high and you are unlikely to find buyers. Too low, and, effectively, you end up subsidising your buyers. You can, therefore, only continue to produce artwork if you have other means of support. This also makes it difficult to raise your prices in the future because you have firmly set yourself in the bracket of amateur artist. Of course, one way out of this dilemma is to find a dealer who likes your work sufficiently to promote it, but this has the disadvantage of meaning that you have to be able to fit into a recognised slot in the art market.

My own case is slightly peculiar. Because I taught art for many years, my skills and knowledge of the subject are quite highly developed. However, because I was concentrating on my teaching career, I have built no reputation for myself as a professional artist and established no slot for myself in the art market. Indeed, on leaving teaching, my morale was so low that, at first, I had difficulty in believing that anyone would be interested in anything that I might produce!

Because I have a pension, I do not rely on selling my art to cover basic living expenses. However, as a mature person with commitments, neither can I completely devote every moment of my time to my art career. Essentially, the two aspects balance each other out. My pension covers my non-art commitments, but my art work has to sustain, through sales, my ability to produce more art work and to develop my career as an artist. I also have no desire to subsidise my buyers. If my work is worth buying, then it is worth the buyers paying a realistic price for it!

I decide that, as an entry level-artist, without an established reputation, that the best initial policy was to price myself as a skilled and professional craftsman. However, I also had to allow that non-commissioned work, which might not sell immediately, would involve marketing expenses which also had to be covered. I therefore decided to that the price of my art work would be calculated according to how long each piece took to be produced, at a basic rate of £20 per hour. Since commissioned work brings in cash as soon as it is completed, I give a discount of one third on all commissions.

This is not great money, but it has been adequate to allow me to establish a local reputation - which is keeping me busy with a steady flow of commissions. This , in turn, has meant that I have started to build up a reserve of non-commissioned work for sale at exhibitions. For the immediate future, commissions take priority, because these are what allow me to keep going. For the longer term future, the non-commissioned work is vital, because these will allow me to establish both a wider reputation and higher prices.

From a pricing point of view, non-commissioned work can be split into two categories. Relatively quick work, such as small landscapes and people studies (which therefore carry relatively low prices) and more elaborate and impressive pieces, such larger landscapes and studies of towns (which are time-consuming and thus have to carry larger prices). Landscapes have proved popular in the local market and, as they carry the full price tag, are more profitable - providing I can wait for the financial return! Larger, more elaborate pieces, have to sell between £1,400 and £2,000 if, even on my present pricing system, they are to be worth doing. Since a smaller percentage of the population is prepared to pay this sort of money, this means that I have to gradually become better known to attract the right sort of buyers. However, by their nature, the larger pieces are more impressive so, eventually, this should happen.

There are limits on how much work that I can produce so. hopefully, a point will be reached when I cannot fulfil the demand (to a small degree, this is already happening). This means that I can afford to discourage some buyers by asking for higher prices. If I am getting higher prices, than the value of existing pieces is also likely to go up and so my work should acquire an investment value, which in turn should boost sales. This is clearly a delicate balance, but the big advantage - to me - of higher prices is that it gives me more freedom to select the sort of work I want to do and to experiment with other media (for example, I have planned some pieces of sculpture that I would like to be able to cast in bronze). Greater financial freedom should also bring me more freedom in terms of where I can exhibit and thus widen my potential market.

All of this is calculated entirely from the point of view of the money required by me, personally, in order to be able to continue to produce work and expand my own art career. However, a time should come when established, commercial art galleries find my work desirable purely from a business point of view. The difficulty with this is that galleries have to factor in their own profit margins, so an increased selling price will not necessarily immediately reflect in more money for myself. What would make this worthwhile would be if the gallery was promoting my work into new markets and could reach further afield. It would also lift the burden from me of having to organise my own exhibitions! In the longest term, this is probably the way that my career has to go, since eventually it would result in the greatest freedom to concentrate on producing the work I want to. However, it is not something that I am feel any urgency about. Galleries have their own concerns! If they see a profit in promoting my work, I think that this will make them keenest to do so!

From an artistic point of view, I am happy with what I am doing. I know my work to be unique and I believe that it offers something special to the various people who have bought my paintings. I just want the financial freedom to be able continue expanding the scope of my art. The above writing encapsulates my thoughts on how I can establish this greater financial freedom. If anyone reading this is also a working artist, I am would be interested in their comments and curious as to their own approach(s) to promoting and financing their careers.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Jokes and understanding Contemporary Art

I was just reading an article, "Young at Art", from the Sunday Times Supplement (2/12/2007). The main part of the article was about how the paintings of a young girl of four had been fetching prices of about 300,000 dollars. Later, some evidence came to light which seems to indicate that it was not simply all the girl's unaided, unprompted work. However, it does raise the question of how the value of items of art can be established - which also raises the question of how they can be understood, particularly if they are non-figurative.

It seems to me that an important tool is to apply the same rules to understanding art that you would apply to understanding humour. Much of the best modern work – that I believe is liable to last – I would associate with inventiveness and a sense of fun (whether or not ostensibly meant so by the artist). A joke shares something with a work of art: it twists things so that you look at them in a new light, often juxtaposing things that you would not normally think of as going together. In this light, Damian Hurst's diamond-coated skull can be thought of as a rather obscene joke about the art market - and how much some art collectors are prepared to pay - rather than a profound statement about death. The crack in the floor of the Tate Modern works well as a visual joke - which is why it appears to be attracting many fascinated visitors - but perhaps not so well as a deep statement about the separation of developed and under-developed countries and alienated minorities.

Jokes - like art - can be thought-provoking, witty, simple or complex, cynical, satirical, in good or bad taste, offensive, upsetting, re-assuring and - sometimes - just plain bad! I think that this way of understanding art is obtained from one's first reaction to the piece - without reference to what the artist might say about it. Just a feeling about what the piece is saying based on what the piece looks like, the materials it is known to have be made from and the context within which it is presented. Looked at like this, Duchamp's ready-made "Fountain" (a ceramic urinal which he signed (R. Mutt"), can be understood as being a work of art, but also a rather unpleasant and deliberately offensive joke on the art-going public of the time (1917).
If you decide that you appreciate the "joke", it is then worth considering other factors in order to decide if its purchase (presuming it is purchasable) represents value for money. In a recent TV programme about the Frieze Art Fair (“Imagine: How to Get On in the Art World”), the presenter, Alan Yentob, bought a sculpture, one of an edition of three, by George Henry Longley, at £3,500. It represents a play on the idea of a ladder. Longley transformed it by sealing off the ends and changing the five rungs by using a diamond cross-section. The final piece in, presumably, welded metal is painted bright red. When you take it that the dealer is probably getting at least half of the final price and taking into account the difficulties of making the piece, the cost does not seem unreasonable. Displayed against a white wall in a room of Alan Yentob's house, the ladder made a striking display and, to me at least, made art historical connections with a whole type of contemporary art. Hence I think that it was a very reasonable, if not earth-shattering, purchase. Witty enough to be interesting and decorative enough to work in the context of a private house. Not the sort of work that I would want for myself, but one that I can appreciate in someone else's house.

The big question, I think, is to establish whether or not you can laugh with the work of art, or whether the joke is on you!