Monday, May 9, 2016

The Germane Game: Preserving Your Artistic Relevance

The only constant is change. 

This truth is the very basis of life, proven everywhere from the natural world to the rise and fall of civilizations. Indeed, things such as culinary tastes, fashion, and music constantly evolve, too, creating infinite incarnations that keep the terminally hip scrambling. Of course then, art is no exception and neither is realistic equine sculpture. Times change as tastes refine and become more demanding in the constant pursuit of accuracy, causing creative sensibilities to evolve in synch. In this way the cutting edge is honed everfiner every year, begging the question, “If nothing stays the same, so should an artist working in equine realism?”

What is Change?

What’s a useful artistic definition of change? At what point does it happen, and is it instantaneous, or gradual? Can we predict it, or is it only recognizable after the fact? At their core, these questions relate to how our work fits into the greater scheme of the market.

For an artist, change is the unrelenting engine of evolution and diversity. It's also the seed of revelation, that moment when things previously accepted as the standard are instantly swept away. While some aspects of change can be anticipated, others are unpredictable, playing on the infinite minutiae of subtle shifts. At its basis, however, change is the essence of the artistic mind, for without it, creativity is doomed to formulaic repetition. And when weighted against an ever–changing market, remaining the same can become a real disadvantage, causing an artist's work to become less and less salient to the evolving tastes.

Here's the trick, though: it's important to realize that "evolving tastes" don't necessarily mean faddish or "flavor of the month." More times than not, they're the result of an actual paradigm shift in what's expected. A new method, a different interpretation, a fresh perspective can rattle expectations to the core, raising the bar ever higher. Those who don't take the leap, for whatever reason, won't enjoy the same benefits as those who do. This doesn't speak poorly of the market at large—people aren't drawn to revolutionary work out of frivolity. They're drawn to such work because it hits closer to the target, and that's something to pay attention to when we seek to improve our work. 

It's for this reason that even one artist can make a world of difference in how the market shifts by introducing a novel interpretation or method that can spin everything on its collective ear, forever changing the creative landscape in its wake. Bach, Kerouac, Pryor, The Beatles, Elvis, Monet, the iPodhistory is rich in examples of the profound effect just one fresh approach can have on everything that follows. Things like this are termed "black swan events," elements of unpredicted but revolutionary influence that change expectations forever.

Yet change is about a journey too, isn't it? Every stage, each distinct point of view, differentiates a progressive step within a genre, and especially so in an artist’s body of work. In this way, change reveals much about what a collector base values, information of particular interest to an artist. And likewise, change illuminates an artist’s evolution by peeling away that which shores up their comfort zones while also demonstrating what they value. Truly, the old skin must be shed before we can grow into another. 

Yet change usually is something we cannot control. It’s either a manifestation of natural evolution, or it’s imposed upon us by the accomplishments of others. In these ways, each artist is a random element of change while also being influenced by it, creating a symbiotic circle that hurtles the entire process progressively forwards. It’s this mechanism that also determines artistic staying power by selecting out those sensibilities too rigid to adapt and rewarding those flexible enough to evolve.

This all adds up to one unavoidable fact: change doesn’t wait for anyone, and it’s merciless to those it leaves behind. Unless we're willing to keep pace, the market is going to pass us by.

The Mechanism of Change

Within conventional art venues, change depends on much more varied artistic prerogatives because there’s more leeway for creative expression. However, in an art form as focused as equine realism, a different set of rules govern the process, producing a different set of consequences. Here, change is uniquely potent because there’s always a new way to make a piece more realistic, isn't there? Indeed, it seems to almost redefine the standard in some way every year! For this reason, an artist working in equine realism must not only work hard to mimic nature, which is hard enough, but also to outdo her previous efforts, which is even harder. This effect catapults the entire genre forward with unusual vigor, making it both exciting and intimidating.

There are two catalysts to this mechanismthe collector and the artist. Usually, the collector can distinguish if one artist’s work is more or less realistic than another’s; their aesthetics are pretty savvy. As tastes become more sophisticated then, buyer choices become more selective, constantly reshaping the ideals ahead of an artist’s ability to keep pace. The result is an active environment that forever selects for "better," further intensifying this feedback loop. 

In spite of this, however, all art is the work of human hands, and so by definition all realistic art is inherently flawed. There are also different interpretations and methods that create similar degrees of realism, but with different appeal to different buyers to expand the possibilities even more. It’s within these aspects that we artists play our part. In pursuit of our own idea of realism, we perfect our craft based on our own sensibilities, contributing a unique spectrum of perspectives of the subject. If we hit the mark, more customers are drawn to our work. This raises the bar of accepted standards and, in this way, we maintain our relevance in a demanding art form while also intensifying the standards that pressure everyone else's artistic efforts. We exist in a giant feedback loop that propels our craft towards increasing degrees of authenticity.

Adapt to Succeed

The relationship between the artist and customer is like any other in the natural world, a finelytuned balance evolving in the only directions open to it. This balance remains until another shift occurs, such as a new method or interpretation, or even a new artist, which ushers in a host of revived expectations to create a new balance. For example, we've seen a real revolution in how "ticking" has been approached, moving away from the splatter of a toothbrush or dab of a stencil brush to thousands of minute hairs painstakingly painted by hand, in the direction of hair growth patterns to boot. Likewise, we've seen anatomy go from general approximations to exacting duplications of equine structure and movement. And we've seen patterns go from imagined, primitive fabrications to accurate reproductions, right down to the individual nuances of color and effects that actually mimic the look of real hide.  

How we respond to each shift determines our future then, and our response is dependent on our core sensibilities: are we receptive to honest introspection and evolution? Can we identify a paradigm shift and change our work to keep up? Can we recognize a genuine shift from a passing fad? Only those adaptive to the ongoing evolution of this art form will prosper whereas those unable will find the market increasingly ambivalent. Acknowledging a better idea, method, or medium is always a smart idea. Not only does it arm us with something new to try, but it compels us to reflect on our own work to carve away what’s obsolete and replace it with what’s progressive. Sometimes this requires a minor adjustment, but sometimes a radical metamorphosis is required at key points, and we need to be able to recognize when either these babysteps or big leaps are necessary. Yes, creative habits may be good for setting down roots, but they can also inhibit our growth if we aren't careful. If there’s a lesson to be learned from those consistently successful in their field, it’s that adaptation is key. Staying on the cutting edge means we won't get lost in the fray. 

New talent is another mechanism of change because it seeks to prove itself and establish an identity. In doing so, new talent tends to introduce fresh ideas that challenge the status quo. What’s more, market globalization compounds this effect as different cultures throw more creative viewpoints into the mix.  

Education also generates change by creating more sophisticated artists and more selective buyers. For example, the issues of color genetics and equine anatomy have created a rift between those who have prospered and those who haven’t in the past twenty years. Today’s buyer not only demands correct anatomy, impeccable prepwork, and luscious color, but also expects photorealistic patterns and far more complex, in–scale precision detailing than ever before. This is to be expected since shifts tend to happen along pathways that are weakest. In this way, evolutionary paths are illuminated and intensified, as competition drives buying trends forward.  

On the other hand, not everything “new” has merit or lasting power, does it? It cannot be denied that the market seems to go wild over “The New,” yet it ebbs when the sparkle eventually fades. This is why a smart artist doesn’t take anything for granted and will pause to evaluate all new works to recalibrate her own creativity. After all, it’s only through comparison with our older work and with other work that we adjust our own relevance in the market. And this is exactly what the buyers are doing, too. Sure, it’s comforting to believe, “I do what I do, and that’s enough,” but in a market fueled by competition along very narrow parameters, this sentiment may not be enough to maintain one’s forward momentum. It's also easy to think, "What I do has brought me success in the past, so it most assuredly will do so in the future." Yet the future is open, and if we remain "closed," we're going to run into eventual trouble. Indeed, certain perspectives or methods may have worked in the past, but that doesn’t mean they’re sufficient to maintain success into the future in an everchanging market.

Ante Up!

Change in this genre is like a highstakes game, with each player trying to engineer an advantage. What’s the pot? The collector's attention. So as the game intensifies, artists must “up the ante” just to stay visible, which means they need to push their boundaries with each new piece. However, while an artist may think she’s genuinely jumped to new heights, this may be more in her mind than in her work. Here is where the ability to evaluate our work dispassionately in comparison to our older work as well as to others is needed.  

A deficiency in that ability can sabotage artists, particularly veterans, who become too comfortable with their status quo. While it’s deceptively easy to be lulled into a routine, or satisfied with past accomplishments, the reality is that the industry has dramatically changed. It’s now a buyer’s market thanks to the tightened economy, influx of new talent, and an oversaturation of good sale pieces. In response, “The Wow Factor” has become a powerful advocate for an artist’s work.

While the foibles of media and human hands limit our ability to infuse complete realism in our work, each of us must up the ante to reach that goal. In other words, it’s now about consistently “wowing” the crowd, not just about being consistently proficient. Not only do we have to push the art form's envelope, most importantly, we also have to push our own! And, ultimately, that's a good thing.

Bona Fide Change or Just a Phase?

There’s a big difference between a passing fad and a genuine shift. So what may appear as a pivotal moment can fizzle out under the weight of precedence. We've all seen a trend appear and then vanish, so we need to be able to discern one from the other if we want to keep our work current. The question to ask is, "Does it make my work more realistic?" If so, it's probably a trend that will stick, but if not, most likely it'll fade away given time.

And the whims of the market are cyclical, too, alternately enthralled or chilled with a particular interpretation. This effect can fool new talent into a false sense of success to then backfire once the novelty has worn off. It can also cause an experienced artist to resent a market she perceives has abandoned her, taking personally that which was only a function of market demand. 

Ultimately, though, the true test of staying power is time. Like all things in a competitive market, it’s those who ride the decades at the top who are the ones to study, both their work and their strategies. Consistent cutting edge quality and a creatively open mind are failsafe strategies for us to embrace change, and keep our work progressive and evolving. This is especially so if we're established artists if only to avoid a rut, or an artistic plateau. Some might read this as "selling out," but how is improving our work a sell out? On the other hand, some may believe that coasting along on a certain proficiency level is enough, which is a mistake easily made when we've attained a certain measure of success. Eventually, our work will appear "dated" because the truth is if we're not setting new standards, someone else is. 

Symptoms of Stagnation

One of the most dangerous artistic detours in this art form is an inaccurate assessment of our work as compared to our older work, and that of other artists. Our blindspots are our greatest foil. Being so, it cannot be forgotten that working within equine realism is really a study of comparison. Customers not only gauge our faithfulness against the work of other artists, but they’re also doing so against the real thing! And that's a tough act to follow, by any measure. Equine realism isn't for the faint of heart!

Complicating matters, however, buyers and judges can base their decisions on ambiguous criteria. Moreover, they can be seduced by novelty, regardless of the intrinsic quality of a piece. And then on public forums, we can find people “blowing sunshine up” (well, you know), even when the work may not justify the kudos. In other words, the most obvious forms of flattery may not be the most reliable. Because here’s the thingwhile the crowd may appear enthusiastic about our work, will they actually buy it? People can like a piece all they want, but the true test of their approval is a purchase. This glitch often catches newbies off guard when their first pieces meet with great enthusiasm but meet with low sales. So just because a public may seem to applaud our efforts, they do their actual voting with their dollars, so we shouldn't confuse accolades for genuine interest.

Basically, what we want to avoid is a personal demonstration of “The Emperor’s New Clothes." Show wins and public applause are nice in the short
term, but we need to play the long game. So perhaps rather than anguishing over the question, “Why isn’t my work selling like it used to?” and blaming the market, an objective reevaluation of our work is probably the better option. It could simply be that our methods and interpretations need an update.  

Because creative paralysis is sneaky and often masquerades as our comfort zones, preferred formulas, or habitual interpretations which can become entrenched and exaggerated over time. Our methods can become static and unchanging, and that can lead to formulaic work as well. We can root it all out by recognizing the symptoms, such as:  
  • Our current work looks the same or very similar to that which we created ten years ago. If someone cannot identify artistic periods within our body of work, there’s a problem with forward motion. 
  • Our work looks increasingly formulaic, taking on an assemblyline appearance. This tells people that we lack passion for our work. Remember that buyers are collectors, and therefore favor art pieces that are unique and speak to their individualism. Each piece should infuse our artistic voice, but in novel ways. 
  • We settle into our methods too easily and quickly. If we aren't on the proverbial precipice of creativity, we're probably not pushing ourselves enough to stay ahead of the game.
  • Our mailing list, newsletter, website, or social media has diminishing hits, particularly with an announcement of new sales. The buyer’s interest in our work usually reflects the growth or changes within the market. 
  • Our use of increasingly desperate methods of selling to entice increasingly disinterested buyers, and so the market seems sluggish to us. 
  • We find ourselves tempted into unprofessional defensive public behavior stemming from frustration, particularly when referencing the work or practices of more successful colleagues. Taking public swipes at colleagues, for any reason, speaks to an attitude that hardly instills confidence in our work. Such behavior also cuts us off from potential networking and opportunities with colleagues, stifling our options even more. The last thing a struggling artist needs is a negative impression within the collector base and among her fellows. Instead it's better to focus on continued education, critique, experimentation, or adopting new methodologies. We should always be mindful of how we express ourselves in public, especially when referring to other art work. Being "tone deaf" can be a PR disaster! And make no mistakepeople notice.
  • We find ourselves tempted to give up. Don’t. If we embrace change rather than resist it, we might actually surprise ourselves in wonderful ways. Yet the moment we quit is when we’re going to fail 100%. We cannot progress without first engaging!
Making Natural Selection Work for You

Luckily, there exist a few strategies that can retask our relevance in the market, such as:
  • Taking a look at the market itself. What are some niches we could fill? Consider the types of works and the price points offered. Sometimes simply filling a niche can be enough to jump–start our relevance.
  • Creating work entirely outside our comfort zone as an artistic exercise. Take big risks! Who cares what anyone thinks. New interpretations rekindle passion, rebuild a skill set, readjust prerogatives, and infuse freshness into our portfolio. 
  • Along those lines, producing work in an unrealistic, abstract style can really snap our creative mind out of complacency. To see the subject with new eyes and new ideas can inform our realistic work in wonderful, unpredictable ways. 
  • Adopting new methods and media; new approaches ask for a new way of thinking and that inevitably gets us rethinking our work.
  • Going back to school. Engaging a learning environment can challenge our status quo, plus being surrounded by other creative points of view can reinvigorate our artistic sensibilities.
  • Making full use of social media to keep people interested in our work. Sneak peeks and inprocess shots lend buzz and appreciation for our efforts. And people love to see the process behind the art, so include them in the loop!
  • Recognizing that not everything "new" is necessarily good. Being able to cherry pick those ideas that are genuine improvements helps our work to stay relevant rather than faddish. 
  • Creating distinctive work. A lot of great work exists out there nowadays, so our work should stand out in both quality and savvy. Here's where our artistic voice can come in handy, too.
  • Create consistent work. Our auction horses should be no different from our other work, as we give 100% to each piece. Simply being dependable in this regard can go far towards staying ahead.
  • Infuse a bit of novelty into each piece. This could translate into a distinctive use of media, a unique way to use color, or to infuse physical eccentricities that entice us, or how we choose to portray the subject. For example, try to take the piece beyond the representational and more towards a narrative.
  • Studying the work and strategies of successful colleagues, especially those who have been successful for the longest time.   
  • Seeking honest critique and guidance from successful, established artists. Be quick to absorb and consider each comment, and be slow to dismiss them in a defensive way. 
  • Stretching our abilities with each piece to keep pace with the market. The adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” may be useful in life, but not for preserving artistic relevance. 
  • Seek to discover something new with each piece because if we just repeat routines, we may be risking more than we know. Remember, we not only have to keep up with the market, but we have to stay ahead of ourselves, too! 
Our New Skin

Evolution is both a destructive and a creative process, and so change doesn’t come without a price. So while many symptoms exist, the typical ones that show our evolutionary strategies are working are:
  • We’ll look at our older work with entirely new eyes. Inadequacies in our previous pieces will become obvious to us, to the point where we’ll marvel at how we couldn’t have seen those missteps in the first place! 
  • Our creative motivations will change. 
  • Buzz over our work will increase and become selfgenerating because when something we've created hits the pulse of the market, word gets around all by itself!
  • Our customer base will change, either growing in number, or attracting a different kind of buyer. While the steady old customer is a blessing, the truth is if we aren’t stretching beyond our abilities, we aren’t offering them anything newand collectors get bored. 
  • The demand for our work will outstrip our supply, so selling is far easier than in the past. Absolutely, the more demand we have for any given piece, the more likely we’ve hit the market’s bull’seye. 
  • We finally gain artistic autonomy. We have control over our decisions, allowing us to create on our own terms rather than having to make unwanted compromises. In this way, we’ll enjoy the independence needed to explore the subject freely, and what better mechanism for continued evolution is there than that?

It’s good to reflect on our creative niche. Taking stock in where we are is often useful for deciding where we want to go. In turn, understanding the nature of the market is essential for shaping our talents into something more compatible to improve our chances at success.

The germane game takes no prisoners, and one of the toughest artistic challenges is to keep our work current. It’s only our attitude that offers escape routes, with a determination to keep moving forward that keeps our work relevant. Though it may be difficult, it's definitely worth our effort. Our voice is important to the diversity of the genre, so keep it robust and constantly progressing.

As the years pass and we reflect, it’ll eventually be clear that each change was a positive step, in ways we could never have imagined. Plus, the more change we adopt, the easier it becomes, making our abilities and sensibilities bloom. This will place us at the forefront of a shift rather than behind it, constantly scrambling to keep up. Truly, when it’s we who help to hone the cutting edge, the better positioned we are for the future, and the more satisfaction we find in our studio. And what’s more relevant to our art work than that?

"Without change, something sleeps inside us, and never wakens." ~ Duke Leo Atrides

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