Art Business: Prolific Painters: Dealing With the Surplus

8 Feb 2008

Most artists want their paintings to be viewed and appreciated by others, and many hope that connection will result in selling art. However, a lot of artists produce more paintings than they sell, and even the most acclaimed artist cannot boast of selling everything he or she ever created.

by Daniel Grant

Barbara Nechis designed a storage space within her studio that can accommodate hundreds of her watercolor works
Barbara Nechis designed a
storage space within her
studio that can accommodate
hundreds of her watercolor works.

Most artists want their paintings to be viewed and appreciated by others, and many hope that connection will result in the sale of their work. However, a lot of artists produce more paintings than they sell, and even the most acclaimed artist cannot boast of selling everything he or she ever created. The result is that artists end up with a surplus of work for which they must find a home. Those who create works on paper may have it the easiest, since most of their work can be stored in flat files. But for those who paint on canvases, with frames adding bulk to the finished work, other options often need to be explored.

The first recourse is usually self-storage. California watercolorist Barbara Nechis stows her paintings in “a large, deep bin that I designed, which is recessed into a cabinet in my studio,” she says. “I can fit more than 100 matted watercolors in that space, and the paintings are easily accessible.” The studio is an obvious place to keep art, but over time that area can become inundated with extraneous work, lessening the amount of available space for creating new pieces. William Reese, a painter from Wenatchee, Washington, built a climate-controlled, 16'-x-20' studio over his garage, but already half that space is used for storage—which he doesn’t necessarily view as a disadvantage. “Overproduction serves a purpose,” the artist says. “If you get sick and can’t work, you have artwork to sell. It’s a retirement plan, too.”

Some artists forgo storage and instead decide to destroy paintings that aren’t up to par. “Over the years, I have burned a lot of my paintings,” Reese admits, “sometimes 100 paintings at a time.” Indianapolis artist Charles Mundy also believes in discarding unwanted paintings. “There’s enough bad art in the world,” he states. “I want to spare the public bad art—especially if it’s mine.” However, the artist still produces an abundance of work, averaging 100 paintings a year. “The more you produce the more experience you have,” Mundy says. “Being prolific means accelerating one’s talent.” Another prolific artist, Frank Webb of Pittsburgh, takes a similarly ruthless approach when his work doesn’t measure up—but he prolongs the process. “I store surviving paintings in boxes labeled A, B, C, and D,” he explains. “If inventory becomes unmanageable, I destroy the paintings in the D box, and then downgrade some of the paintings in the C box to the D box.”

Discarding art can be quite freeing, but it is not something to be done lightly. New York City painter Will Barnet—-who rents public storage space for works that aren’t on display in his gallery or stored in his apartment or studio—says that he has destroyed many canvases prematurely.  “At the time I just didn’t like them or maybe I was no longer working in that style and didn’t want to exhibit those paintings, so I got rid of them,” he says regretfully. Larry Fane, a metal sculptor in New York City who rents a storage facility in New Jersey for his excess work, states that he has weeded out works he no longer liked, only to later realize that he made a mistake. “I’ll see a slide of one of those works later and think, Wait a minute—I threw out the wrong piece!”

Of course charity is always the altruistic alternative to discarding paintings, and one many artists opt for. Nechis distributes paintings to family and friends as “gifts and loans” and has also given work to hospitals, schools, and libraries. Some artists have put works on display in their local city hall or in trusts for their children as part of early estate planning. Geraldine McKeown, of Elkton, Maryland, and Lee Weiss, of Madison, Wisconsin—both watercolorists—regularly donate work to local charity auctions for civic and cultural groups. Ken Austin, a painter in Orlando, Florida, holds annual open-studio sales for long-time collectors, to whom he offers up to a 30-percent discount.

Whether storing, discarding, or donating paintings, every artist deals with their surplus artwork differently. And, unless artists decide to go on strike, it seems the problem of too much art will remain. However, those who choose to discard their work may come to find that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. “I have often thrown out sketches or demonstration pieces from workshops because I just didn’t think it was worth keeping,” Austin tells. “Problem is, my studio is next door to the gallery that represents me, and the gallery owner often goes through my trash can to find the works that I threw out. The next thing I know, she’s framed it and put it on display.” Of course now it’s her dilemma if the work doesn’t sell.

 


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