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The journey to my abstract art style

First, let’s start with, what is abstract art?

If we go by the definition from The Tate Guide to Modern Art Terms, ‘abstract art’ is as follows:

“The word abstract, strictly speaking means to separate or withdraw something from something else. In that sense it applies to art in which the artist has started with some visible object and abstracted elements from it to arrive at a simplified or schematised form. The term is also applied to art using forms that have no source at all in external reality.”

The definition continues from there citing styles, origins, and example artists, but I think that first paragraph is enough to go on at the moment. I think it is important to then look at the definition of ‘abstract expressionism’ to understand a little further about what I do:

“Abstract Expressionism- Term applied to new forms of abstract art developed by American painters in the 1940s and 1950s. […] The name evokes their aim to make abstract art that was also expressive or emotional in its effect.”

The entry continues with more information and example artists, but let’s move on.

I do a bit of both, mostly leaning more towards expressionism. The journey to abstract art that pleases me (in so much as it turns out in a way that achieves mostly whatever I needed to achieve) has been a multi-decade process and evolves still.

I’m not gonna lie to you: My early abstract art was derivative, lacked skill, boring and did not come close to tapping the things inside me that needed so desperately to come out. But they were important works. You need – NEED – to make a lot of bad art to get to the good stuff (which comes and goes like a stray cat). I have MOUNTAINS of what I consider ‘bad’ art. The way I put together shape and colour now was learned by years of getting it often wrong, but with an occasional feeling of getting closer to ‘right’ to keep me going and experimenting. I have also had long periods of time where I’ve not painted or drawn at all. It is OK to pause. Take a break if you need to.

I have not wasted a single art supply in my entire life.

This is important to realise and say to yourself out loud in the mirror if you need to hear it. No mark is wasted. No blob of paint you let dry on the palette or scraped off a shit painting, no pile of paper with overworked, contrived, or ugly marks is money down the drain. This stuff is necessary and you have to make the effort. You have to use the pencil in order to find your line.

I have destroyed most of my old work because I believe you can curate however you please. I did not always think that way; I used to save EVERYTHING. Now, I can take a photo and light a bonfire. Not everything I create is worth saving, in fact, most of it isn’t because that stuff is the learning part of this creative process. I gotta learn what works, what materials and marks complete the sentences in my head, which lines take my mind to new places like a drunkard drawing a map.

I recently created and launched a video class on Skillshare called Find Your Line: Develop Your Drawing Style and it’s all about the hard work part. The drawing things over and over, using materials as tools not precious things, and discovering – through lots of iterations – what stuff feels like you, but you in a more authentic and unique way. The exercises work. I found out the hard way over years and years of no one guiding me, but I’m pretty sure the class will cut some of that frustration out for you. I digress.

I am still evolving.

I look at the work I liked even just five years ago and I see that my abstract art has matured and shifted. I figured out what does it for me and am always finding new ways of putting it on paper or canvas. I have changed my entire mindset over the years on how I put down what is in my mind: I start cold. Typically, anyway. No idea. No sketches. Just do. I tend to figure out what material I want to work with (oils, pastels, watercolours, etc.) then pick a colour and make a mark. There is nothing in my mind other than what is in front of me and I let the piece guide me, rather than me guide the piece. At some point, we – the piece and me – work together to find some kind of finish. Sometimes, I let my brain dictate too much and that’s when I usually overwork something by trying to cram ALL THE IDEAS into one piece and it becomes a bit shit. Knowing when to put down the paint is a struggle that I reckon will never end.

If you are frustrated with your progress but have only been creating art for a year or two, maybe five, I have some good and bad news for you:
The good news is that you’re making art and – if you don’t ignore the signs – you’re going to find some exciting and satisfying work along the way.
The bad news is that you are going to make a lot of shit too. You will feel frustrated, lost, and like a fraud. And if you aren’t making a lot of shit, you aren’t growing, experimenting, or pushing yourself as an abstract artist.

Fail often.
I certainly have and vow to continue to do so. That’s how I know I’m an artist and not a machine. And remember, no art supply is wasted unless it sits unused.

Now, a little walk through some stages in my work over the last twenty-five years: (click to make larger)

See all this? Most of it is crap but all of it is important to the process.

Open Studios 2016 Time!

conservatory gallery
It’s Open Studios Cornwall time again and things at Penwarren are already in full swing. I held a preview party last evening to kick things off, and boy did it! Thought up and arranged somewhat last minute – and credit to Pete for the idea and much of the prep – we invited people to eat, drink, check out my art before anyone else, and have a good time. Mission accomplished, and though I hadn’t set up the evening to promote sales, work sold, and I have already had an email from a collector showing her purchase framed and hanging in her house! Still smiling about that as I write this.

As for Open Studios, the official event started a few minutes ago for my location, and I’ll be open 11am – 5pm everyday from 28th May – 5th June. It’s always a tiring event to be a part of, but so worth it. I love having people ask questions, see new things in my (mostly abstract) work, and of course, it’s great for sales. Art can be a fairly solitary profession, spending hours alone in a studio, but this event allows me to share my creative sanctuary for a while.

If you find yourself in the neighbourhood, do stop in. You’ll find a map and address on my contact page and additional information on the Open Studios site.
(Photo above is of my conservatory art gallery.)

Getting inside my own head

Been mostly doing shop website stuff today. There are at least a couple hundred more paintings, drawings, and illustrations to add over the next few months, and each of them requires some copywriting.

One copy task is to write individual descriptions for my works, and – alas – I’m the only one who can do it. Although slow-going, I’m finding it really interesting analysing my own art sometimes years since completion. I’m seeing connections I never understood until now, patterns in my marks, colours, and styles. Fascinating.

It’s still going to take me forever (at least) to get something written for each piece, but if I tackle a few a day, I’ll manage. In the meantime, here’s one I wrote up this afternoon that surprised me a little:

(If you’re interesting in buying any of my art, let me know. Due to the complicated nature of shipping what I create, the site only supports UK shipping addresses for now, however, I am always happy to put together a quote.)

2015 and what’s ahead for Jen Dixon in 2016

Greetings! I have gone from being an almost obsessive (personal blog) blogger to a most infrequent long-form typist. This deterioration is the result of a few things: Twitter, depression, and a few major life changes. Dust has, inevitably, settled and you’ll be seeing more regular updates here both in the blog and in the portfolio pages.

2015 was perhaps the best and worst year for me professionally. I’ll explain. I sold a lot of work, both large and small, thanks to a great increase in exposure and hard work via social media avenues. I ended a relationship with one gallery, began (and ended) a relationship with another, had a very successful large, three-week, solo exhibition, followed closely by a well-trafficked Open Studios, great sales and conversations at the unique Cruel and Curious exhibition, and two additional exhibitions including a run (which is still going till the end of this month) at the National Trust in Boscastle.

“How tremendously successful and wonderful,” you might be thinking. And it has been. But… 2015 killed my creativity and led to deep professional depression. I barely painted or made anything creative in 2015 because the focus was on the business end of art, almost exclusively. I didn’t update my portfolio. Or Saatchi. Or get my sales site (minimally) launched until December. I was busy with dates, times, spreadsheets, appointments, sales, space planning, installations, tear-downs, contracts and left the art creation in the cold. I have vowed to myself that 2016 will be different. Here’s how.

Firstly, reclaim the title ARTIST. That’s what I am, and while the business of being an artist is woven into my chosen career, it is not to dominate as it did last year. I was terrible at achieving professional balance in 2015 – and I understand the psychological reasons, which is for my personal blog, not here – so, I am changing the way I operate this year. I am an artist. I need to make art.

Secondly, manage my exterior engagements and opportunities better. I intentionally have not sought another solo exhibition for 2016. I do not need to do one every year – that’s madness. I am doing Open Studios again [28 May – 5 June], but although the work involved is deceptively great for such an event, it is not all-consuming in the same way a solo exhibition is. I am interested in being a part of Cruel and Curious again, but that happens later in the year, so I feel I’m spreading the ‘public engagement’ load.

Thirdly, I am the best salesperson for my art. I have been included in two, very good galleries in Cornwall and have sold one – inexpensive – work through them. That’s after each had a selection of my paintings for – combined – a year and a half. Unacceptable. In the same amount of time, I sold thousands of pounds worth of my paintings, drawings and prints around the world. Direct sales is the way forward, as no one wants to sell like I want to sell. This is my living. I sell to pay rent, go to the dentist, eat, and buy materials to make more art. I don’t buy myself perfume, handbags, or go out to restaurants. I make art for living, and no one will ever sell my art with that in mind but me. So, no galleries this year; I can’t afford them.

Lastly, share the knowledge. I have a huge amount of teaching experience and have had two art book manuscripts started for years. Years. That changes now. I’ll get one written this year, possibly published. I’m also looking into becoming an online tutor with a specific site, and will have packaged, downloadable lessons on my own site as well. Private tuition will still happen in my studio, but growing my student base through online avenues and publications is the way forward.

In summary, 2015 was great and terrible, but that was largely down to me making it so. 2016 is building on all the tough stuff learned and moving very positively forward. Let’s go!

The Business of Being an Artist Involved with Open Studios Cornwall 2015

This, in no way, is going to be a short article. It’s informative rather than entertaining, and perhaps you’ll find it interesting as a visitor, and helpful as an artist. Making and selling art is what I do for a living, and this is my report on my involvement with Open Studios Cornwall 2015.

Where’s the studio?
When you hear the term Open Studios, I believe there is an expectation to see a studio, and likely, the artist at work. As someone interested in more than my own work, I love the nosy satisfaction of seeing photographs of other artists’ studios: how they file their paper, organise their pencils, brands of paints, dirty brushes, a peek at a work in progress which may shed light on their work habits. This is what I believe to be the draw of an open studio event and to not show a studio is missing the point.

I understand that not every artist participating in an open studios event may have a studio to show. Some artists work in a corner of the kitchen, or use the dining room table when they can. For artists in that situation, ganging together with others to form an exhibition space makes sense, but there’s still one crucial piece of the puzzle missing: the workspace. The curiosity of the visitor is what brought them to you and you’ve – potentially – let them down by not showing how you work.

My studio was opened to the public but I paired it with a pop-up gallery. What I mean by saying a pop-up gallery is that I took the conservatory of the house in which I live, emptied it, used professional display easels, professional signage, and point-of-purchase racks to display and sell my work. I had a gift shop, essentially, attached to my studio. This was crucial to my event success. I gave the curious public what they came to see – the working studio – and after engaging with each and every one I could (I had many guests), I gave them an opportunity to buy from a wide range of works. An untidy kitchen linked the two event-focussed areas, but that’s how it goes.

Think like your catalogue-clutching visitors. Give them what it says on the tin and more. Sell your lifestyle, not just the work, and they will buy. They might even return for a second visit, bring friends, and buy more. I experienced that blessed situation a few times in the last nine days.

They’re not just buying art.
Being prepared to not only talk about your own art, but the artists your visitors mention, is worth the effort. You don’t need to know all the artists there ever was, but if you can involve your visitor in the conversation by letting them steer it to their familiarities even just a bit, you will leave them with an even more positive impression. You listen. You engage. You appreciate their visit. That is how you work a visit into a conversion, but most importantly, you must be sincere. If you don’t want to engage in that way, you’re probably better off with less public-facing ways of selling.

Several visitors told me that group exhibiting didn’t do it for them. That the person(s) “watching the shop” so to speak, wasn’t necessarily interested in promoting/discussing the work of the others there, and didn’t engage them. I was told it was disappointing to not see artists at work. This feedback is so important. You – as a group exhibiting artist – are paying to be involved in a catalogue event, potentially hiring a venue, and then not maximising the opportunity. It costs you sales. I know this, because some of the visitors giving this valuable feedback were buying my work.

Being on-site for the duration of the event is not practical for everyone wanting to participate as an artist, I understand that. I am in a position where art is my job and I don’t report to anyone else for employment. However, if I did, I’d take vacation time to be on-site, making art, and engaging with the public. It makes business sense. Being on-site for nine days straight, from 11 – 5 daily, and constantly looking out the window to see if someone is approaching is draining mentally, physically, and emotionally, but also necessary. I signed up to be an Open Studio, and that’s exactly what I gave my visitors.

Normal life and risk:
Interruptions of lunch, damage to art, being on hold with my bank for 47 minutes while engaging with my guests… I had it all. I’m recutting two mounts due to dirty visitor fingers marking them whilst looking through stacks of my work. That’s a risk I took, but I wasn’t about to say no to a person genuinely excited about my art. I don’t know if that person bought anything, because I only spotted the damage later and many people had been through. Doesn’t matter. I assumed that risk by having strangers in my studio.

No one wants to sell your work like you do.
I had a little over a week between the closing of my three week solo exhibition in Bude and the start of Open Studios 2015. I earned twice as much money in nine days out of my open house than I did during that exhibition in a popular venue. Why? Because I want to sell my work more than anyone does. The lovely venue has a heritage centre and café, but no full-time art selling staff. My art, though many came to see it through promotional or word of mouth recommendations, was incidental. I wasn’t there every day to engage, to sell, to promote. For Open Studios, I was all of that. The studio was the focus, and the investment was in me. Makes all the difference in the world, and certainly in my business bank account.

So what were my figures? I’ll share.
Over nine days, I had 156 visitors (that I counted), 56 items sold, and £935 in takings. A large number of the 56 sales were postcards at £1 each. The highest price for any single item was £150. Big money? No, but I’m about £1000 better off than I was nine days ago, and the discounts I offered or negotiated were all under my control as the artist on-site. No gallery commissions to pay. A few works were chopped right down in price because I want to sell, but that was my choice during this event. I don’t know what other artists in the area made (I have a rough idea from one up the road, but not his final total), but I do know that I consider the event a success. Every £1 postcard I sold – and there were dozens – puts my name and a reminder of my work in a new home. Many visitors bought three at a time. One visitor bought five of the same card to give to his friends. I also have PayPal Here, allowing me to accept credit and debit cards. That made the difference on three separate occasions. Bottom line: I will be doing this again and refining my business strategy for Open Studios 2016. If I get it right, I know I can double my 2015 earnings.

Curation matters.
I make a lot of different types of art, but opening my studio needed to be as carefully curated as my three week exhibition. I can paint figuratively, I can draw well, but I needed to focus my visitors to ultimately sink or swim with sales. Showing everything I can do is a scattergun approach that does more to alienate the visitor (snow-blinding them with choice/information) than engage them. I focussed on a selection of works in several price ranges, but all were of my abstract art. In the studio, I displayed my daily drawing sketchbooks as a subtle testimony that I can, indeed, draw “properly.” Word travelled of my sketchbooks. Several visitors mentioned they’d “been told to see your sketchbooks.” Conversations sprung up about the sketches and how they relate (or don’t) to my paintings. I was asked so many great questions! Being approachable is good, but strict self-curation has benefitted me greatly. I am not looking for validation from my visitors, I am sharing. It’s a conversation, and the brief nature of our encounters requires management. Curate.

Organisation is professionalism:
The number of people who said I am “so organised” surprised me. I think my studio space is chaotic, not in a Francis Bacon studio sort of way, but untidy. I didn’t clean up for my visitors. This is how I work, and you all want to see how I work, so here it is, warts and all. I have a lot of drawers. I label drawers, jars, and have all my postcards in matching, individual containers with names, SKU numbers corresponding to my database, location and sub-location codes on inventory, and so on the surface, this must strike most people as organised. Well, it is, but it’s also necessary for me to operate as a professional. I make and sell art, and will one day make a living from it alone. I am in a position that I have a few thousand pounds in the bank and so I don’t have a “day job” but my safety net will run out one day and I need to make damn sure I’m not organising my business after it does. Now is the time and everything needs to be accounted for. That people saw my jam-packed, untidy studio as organised is interesting, but also tells me I’m on the right track professionally. That’s pleasing.

Promotional materials:
I went out of my way to promote my involvement with Open Studios 2015. I designed and had printed two-sided, full colour, thick, glossy invitation postcards months before either my exhibition or studio event. I had a custom lawn sign made that gave visitors a clue what to expect, including the days, hours of operation, that I accepted credit cards, and that they are invited to Visit, Browse, Chat, Buy. I mailed out 70 of 100 invitations, and gave away the others. I go nowhere without promotional materials. Every encounter is important when you’re selling yourself, your art. Invest in the opportunity.

Prices, labels, lists:
Information helps sell art. Proper artwork labels with prices (and event specific, incentivised prices) leaves out visitor guesswork. One thing I will do next year, which I feel was something I should’ve done this year, is to print a full price list showing the before and after discount prices of my mounted works, which, this year, I was offering 15% off the marked prices. People don’t always read signs that say that stuff, nor do the math, and so making it clearer at a glance could be helpful and increase sales. I had it on a clipboard for my reference, but left too much guesswork on the shoulders of the visitor. Bad move, me. Must do better for 2016.

In summary:
Open Studios 2015 was a big success for me. I met lots of people. I was able to engage with 99% of them and discussed a wide range of topics. I had a discussion with a gallery who want to work with me. I have two potential commissions. I may have new tuition students. A whole lot of people who didn’t know me or my work now do. Some visitors are now collectors, having purchased up to multiple art pieces from me. Between the passive sales environment of a gallery exhibition and the pro-active, personal sales environment of open studios, the studio wins, hands down. Passive exhibition environments are still a valuable piece of the bigger picture, but utilising the potential of an Open Studios event should be a part of the selling artist’s business plan. I know I’ll be doing it again next year.

If you’d like to discuss how you can make the most of your Open Studios event, including leveraging social media and other promotional avenues, get in touch. I can provide consultancy.