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Fine vs. Commercial Art & Consistency

I just wrote this response to a gallery owner’s essay on the importance of being consistent as an artist (he posits that diversity creates unwanted confusion among art buyers). It’s an interesting subject, something I’ve been struggling with for years. I thought I’d share my thoughts on this — and ask for your own.

I read your essay with great interest, as I have a reputation of being one of the most diverse artists in the world (I chalk it up to insatiable curiosity and a short attention span). Being diverse is a double-edged sword, for sure. I’m never bored but it makes my work difficult to pigeonhole and/or recognize. Be consistent and your work will be more recognizable, making it easier to become “famous” — a crucial element when it comes to breaking through the glass ceiling of pricing limits. But being consistent also puts you in danger of becoming the “Flavor of the Month”, ending up with a short burst of popularity followed by being ignored and abandoned as soon as the next “Flavor of the Month” is discovered.

I began as an illustrator with a reputation for being able to perfectly duplicate any art style. Eventually, I developed a few styles I could claim as my own, though I still like to experiment and try new approaches to art. A sort of consistency developed as I found some styles much more comfortable to work in than others. While being more consistent than I was decades ago, I still produce work that’s all over the map stylistically, from comic book-style art to well-researched oil paintings of prehistoric life for natural history museums to ink and watercolor portraits of blues musicians — and everything in between if I so feel moved.

For the past two decades I have developed a healthy fine arts career, while still taking the occasional commercial commission. I differentiate between illustration and fine art this way: With illustration I do my absolute best work in the time allotted to me. With fine art, I do my absolute best work no matter how long it takes. With illustration, the subject matter is often dictated by the client. With fine art, I do whatever the hell I want. The lines occasionally blur, as I often take a fine art approach to my commercial art (though rarely the opposite).

I have many fine art painter friends who complain that their galleries dictate their subject matter (“Your barn paintings sell; paint some more of those for me”). My response is that if they follow that advice, then they are commercial artists — not fine artists. I’ve found there’s a big difference, though, in openly being a commercial artist as opposed to being a commercial artist disguised as a fine artist. The commercial art world is much more honest. You do the job, you get paid. In the fine arts world, everything is on spec. You do the barn paintings your gallery requested, then hope they sell — without any guarantees you’ll ever get paid for your time and work.

I went into fine art bass-ackwards. Instead of spending years represented by a gallery before finally achieving a one man show at a museum, I had over a dozen one man shows at museums while I searched for a good gallery to represent my work. That search for a good, honest gallery took decades. Many galleries wanted my work but I didn’t want them. They either had a bad reputation, wanted too big a cut (some galleries now demand 60%!) or wanted to dictate what I would paint, down to style and subject matter. I quickly discovered that ANYONE can open up a gallery. There is no degree necessary, no license (other than a business license) necessary and, in many cases, no apparent knowledge of art seemed to be necessary. Several of my colleagues have been cheated by unscrupulous gallery owners. Many galleries suddenly close, with the gallery artists’ paintings going to the gallery’s creditors if the artists didn’t keep a careful paper trail of ownership and consignment.

Happy Ending: One facet of my array of styles (what I call my “storybook” or “fairy tale” style) is now represented by a great gallery, American Legacy Fine Arts (we courted each other for years prior to our signing). I’m prolific, so I have no problem supplying the gallery with a flow of work in that style while still experimenting with many other graphic and creative approaches to art (i.e., I recently worked designing a major motion picture, I just drew a cartoon T. Rex atop a stylized chopper for a museum exhibition on motorcycles in art, followed by a CD cover for a famous pop star from the 1970s, followed by a ten plate folio of images of the characters from Peter Pan for my gallery).

Thanks again for the essay and the chance to respond and participate in the discussion.

I offer up my experiences here to show to my comrades in diversity that there is a way to make both worlds work for you.

2 thoughts on “Fine vs. Commercial Art & Consistency

  1. Very interesting post, Mr. Stout. You should forward this on to the folks over at Muddy Colors and see what the response is there.
    For myself, I wondered what goes into “courting” a gallery and have them do the same for you. Seems as complicated as a possible romance.

    Also, I wanted to say that I love your rogue’s gallery of pirates, especially the pipe-smokin’ cap’n. At first I thought you’d missed out on a pirate gal, but she’s probably disguised under the turban and beard. 🙂

    Thanks again,

  2. Bill, I love your diversity, and there is definitely an underlying current which connects them. To me they are recognizable as your work, in spite of the more refined stylings compared to slightly more graphic (design) ones, compared to the more whimsical, and the downright “cartoony”. All handled with great compositions and linework, and accented by an array of color approaches. The oil paintings are in a different realm, so possibly those are the ones not recognized?

    Anxiously awaiting some new book that you have hopefully been working on….

    All the Best,

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