Over the years I’ve live painted at various festivals and events around the country – either by myself or with my wife, Violet. I’ve met a lot of great people, seen a lot of great music, and had a lot of fun. In a bigger context, it’s been twenty years of honing my craft to, over the course of a few days, be able to take a painting from the messy beginnings to the nearly complete finishing details that make up one of my pieces. It might look like jamming, and it is, but it is the result of many hours in the studio, practicing. This is true for a number of artists I know – we create something in the raucousness, the lights and madness that is a festival setting, while also interacting with attendees and inspiring others, while completing something larger than ourselves that is the culmination of all of our practice and dedication.
Live painting at a festival provides a unique kind of artistic interaction with the festival goers. Added to the ‘gallery’ that seems to be de riguer these days, the festivals today have something that the events I went to years ago lacked – a distinct visual component that inspires, illuminates, and, most importantly, provides a safe space of contemplation for the attendees. We have recognized that life and parties are more than simply dancing to whatever DJ or band happens to be on next. As our festivals have transformed from ‘stage vs crowd’ to ‘community experience with multi-sensory interaction’ then we have to reconsider how we treat and value the other elements.
Eventually people wander off from the music, looking for other inspiration. There is only so much to be found in the vending areas where everyone is trying to see something (or multiple somethings). The ‘chill’ spaces are often a bit too sleepy for many people who still want to mingle and interact. The gallery spaces end up being a huge draw. Visual art and the act of painting is as necessary a component of our daily lives as the auditory arts. Creating a space to engage with it at events seems to be an vital part of the structure these days and helps to create something vibrant and inspiring. Crowds gather, entranced by watching painters immersed in their acts of creativity. It’s raw. It’s emotional. It’s very quiet and profound. It’s just arising from that person onto the canvas. It’s kind of wild and it’s kind of inspiring.
Which brings me to why I have not been live painting. When I started, it was a pleasure to just go paint. And, don’t get me wrong, I LOVE TO PAINT. It is a pleasure to make and share art with the world. But the more I was asked to do it for free, or for a ticket, or maybe a hundred bucks tossed my way, the more it felt like I was being used. This isn’t to say all festivals have been like that – some have been incredibly supportive and I’m grateful for them (they know who they are!) but many, more often than not, simply shuttle the ‘visual artists’ into the sideline while at the same time asking them to give their all. I was asked to perform for hours at a stretch for little to no pay for festivals that are not cheap and who pay their musicians very well.
My time is valuable to me. As I’ve gotten older it has become even more valuable (and probably, at least subconsciously, I am aware that I have less of it). Over the years, I’ve continued to sell my work for higher prices, earned a dedicated fan base, and, most importantly, found the health and wholeness of my studio space to be incredibly supportive and nurturing to my artistic endeavors. To take all of that to a festival – to unpack the entire creative process and share it – while certainly a joyous thing – doesn’t feel so good when the festival offers a ticket and, at best, some gas money while using my face, my talent, and my work to sell itself. To be perfectly honest, and I know I’m not alone in saying this, I am too old for that shit.
‘Live painting’ is ‘working throughout the course of the entire festival’. At the very least, over the course of a three day event, it is 12 hours of painting/performing. I’m not playing. I’m working. Think of the musician on the stage: they look like they’re having a good time, and they are, I imagine. But they are working. It takes work to make great art. It’s a full time job. On top of that, there is also planning the piece, and so on. With most events, you are asked to be there from the very start, so there is a day or two of packing and travel to get there, set up, and then another day to leave. So it’s about 5 days to a week of one’s time in exchange for a ticket to an event that you now have to work at throughout. From an economic perspective, you can see that this is actually not a very good business model.
There’s all sorts of ways that promoters and the like try to validate the lack of pay. They will tell an artist that they are building recognition and getting great exposure. Your name is, after all, promoted on the website and you can bring and hang your art in the gallery. You are an attraction! I’ve had people tell me that it was my name and others that inspired them to attend. Art, as much as music these days, has its draw.
Historically, DJs and music producers followed on the heels of bands getting paid X amount so paying X minus the cost of a full band for a DJ or producer didn’t seem like much of a stretch. DJs – not even a headlining DJ – might get $2k – 20k + travel + meals. And they just play for an hour, maybe two. I understand that they put in (perhaps) a considerable amount of preparation for the hour they play. I understand all of this and am not dissing their work or their value. But, as I’ve explained, so does making a painting. What you SEE is the result of hours, days, weeks – an entire lifetime – of constant practice and dedication. This is true for every artist everywhere.
Some promoters and festival organizers validate their reasons for paying visual artists so little by telling the artist that the artist can sell the painting they create without the festival taking a commission. That’s cool – I have a collection of live paintings I’ve made and many sit in my closet. Want one? This is true for many many artists that I know. Again, as well, we can say: how many hours made up that painting? How much work? How long will you hold onto it until you sell it for an amount that feels worthwhile?
Another argument that is often thrown around is that the DJ doesn’t create an asset that he/she can sell later. However, that’s not exactly true. If they do their work well, they create a dancefloor, a photo-op. They created a vibe around themselves. The next festival sees that and it is used to sell the musical act and support the asking price. So those experiences and scenes – they are the assets the musical act walks away with. This is great and every band will admit to the value of these things in selling themselves elsewhere.
But you, too, are a photo op of the festival. You came and created beauty. EVERY festival will show you pictures of live painters, artists, galleries, etc. You, the artist, you validated their event. You helped make it beautiful. You make people want to attend to see that beauty (because it’s more than just light shows). But YOU deserve more than the free ticket. You deserve to be supported in your work.
This is a broken business model. This isn’t working and it isn’t actually supporting the artists you know and love. If you’re an artist, this is allowing the festivals to use you to promote themselves and pat you on the back.
My advice: stop going. Don’t go to events where you don’t get paid. Simple as that. Be very clear. Be very straight forward. Set your boundaries. Tell life where you would like it to meet you. Otherwise, you just allow yourself to be taken advantage of and, in so doing, perpetuate this broken system.
Life is busy. And time is valuable. I love what I do and I love sharing it with the world and inspiring others to joy, happiness, and growth. I have found my studio time to be more and more valuable to me as well as to my patrons over the years. While I have thoroughly enjoyed spending time with you and painting at various events, for now, until that is treated by the festival producers as a tangible asset and not simply something to take advantage of, you won’t be seeing me performing at any events in the near future.
I strongly encourage other artists to do the same.
Thanks for reading.
Back in 2003, inspired by a chapter of The Fan Man by William Kotzwinkle, I painted “The Dorky Painting.” The book is one of my absolute favorite books ever. It’s a hard to describe little book. But it’s a perfect book if you’re into that sort of thing. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote in the introduction “It’s like an egg: everything that is supposed to be in there is in there.” There’s really nothing else like it. So this painting is based on one of the chapters in the book – “Dorky Day”. I can’t explain it – you just need to read it. Broadly, however, it is a chapter about clearing the cobwebs from the mind. This painting was made to help clear the cobwebs of my mind.
In any case, on a whim the other night, I looked up the Mr. Kotzwinkle website and sent him a link to the painting above along with a short note of thanks. Below, is his response.
It’s sweet to be able to share inspiration. :)
Dear Michael Divine,
Thanks so much for your email. I apologize for taking so long to answer. I was having an extended Dorky Day. Which brings me to your painting, your very beautiful painting. I’m happy the voice of the Fan Man can be found in its remarkable depths. It’s a very suitable place for a voice such as his, which echoes from the interplanetary phone booth as it soars into orbit.
I looked at all the paintings on your website. It’s clear you are no stranger to the labyrinth of strange happenings. All your paintings are beautiful and masterfully polished to perfection, so that the purposefully unhinged mind can move smoothly through the luminous doorways leading to the land of bounding mushrooms. Only in the best kind of dreams, which balance on the edge of terror and wonder can one find your visions in their original form. For I’m sure the worlds you created don’t remain only on the canvas, but have for some time been seen floating behind the closed eyes of travelers from other dimensions.
In a time of immense triviality and unbelievably boring conversation, you provide the required shock. In the shadows of Manhattan, where the impossibly weird loves to hang out, I’ve seen figures that suggest we’ve barely begun to get real. Work such as yours, pointing to things no conversation can capture, are a great help toward a more useful orientation as regards dreaming.
Back when I took electric shop in manual trade school, we were taught by a small electrician we called Short-Circuit Jones. We were constructing two giant electric candles to be placed on the face of the school at Christmastime, signifying Peace to All. The minute Short-Circuit Jones left the room we armed ourselves with wire missiles and shot them at each other at high velocity, propelled from heavy rubber slings we’d hidden for such an opportunity. The wounds received were indelible, proud marks of the electrically constructed warrior.
You have such electricity shining through your work. Were you bitten by an electric eel?
Whatever the origin of your genius, you’ve provided me with inspiration for which I’m grateful. Good luck to you in your struggle to create the improbable and the impossible.
I want to give you a tool that will help you stay more organized and have a cleaner backbone for the business side of your art career. At the end of this post is an Excel sheet with a set of formulas designed to provide you with a pricing format for your prints.
First off, I’d like to just talk business in general. Microsoft Excel itself is seen as one of those ‘businessy’ things with a certain mystique around it that ‘artists’ don’t want to associate with. That’s a hump in the road to success that you get over it you’ll never achieve the level of success you desire. So I urge you: get in there – learn the tools! One of the things we talk about a lot in my Artist Mentorship Program is the business of art – marketing, branding, self-organization and self-motivation, and a host of other aspects that are important elements to the business – and LIFE – of being a self-employed artist. These are things I think about when I’m painting but also when I am creating the container around my work – the container that helps me to guide this ship through the world.
Consistent pricing is a key to the business side of art. Knowing how you came up with that price will help you when you are selling your wares and it will be much easier to feel confident in how you came up with your prices. Many people who are starting out set their prices somewhat arbitrarily and most artists tend to undervalue their work because the joy of selling it – of making someone happy – seems to outweigh the need to pay the bills (at least in that moment). Some years ago, I grew frustrated with my own inconsistent pricing because I wasn’t clear on where that price was coming from so came up with a system that I think you will find to be rather solid.
In any case, I was driving home quite late one night and, realizing I needed to codify my pricing strategies, I started imagining Excel functions that would allow me to input certain variables and come up with a clear understanding of a product price (yes, sometimes I daydream about Excel spreadsheets. Nothing is off-limits in daydreams!). There are instructions in the spreadsheet regarding which variable to change. In general the multiple columns of the excel sheet work like this:
The purpose of this is to give you a clear idea on how your money is being spent, earned, and shared. This was an a-ha moment for me when I sat down and made it and I hope that as you try it out, it is an a-ha moment for you as well.
DOWNLOAD THE EXCEL SHEET HERE and give it a try!
Here is one of the secrets of my work:
I paint what I feel like.
No need to mask your disappointment. You thought there’d be more. But that’s the truth of it. There’s a lot of people in the world doing things that they are not. They do things they don’t like, that they don’t condone, that they aren’t proud of, all for reasons they aren’t entirely clear on. There’s also a lot of people trying to be something other than what they are – some idealized version of themselves, with some plan, some big vision, posturing to be of this or that.
There is also a great big world around me insisting that I need to be all kinds of things to complete myself and that it has all the answers as to why I feel so terribly incomplete. Yet what that world will rarely admit to is that the belief of your own incompleteness is part of the equation. Every religion, every corner store, every government works very hard on wedging itself firmly between YOU and everything else and telling you how they complete you.
And it’s true. They do all complete me. Because they are all me. And there is no escaping that and I move on.
So I ask myself “self? how do you feel?” Because there are many voices telling me what to be and how to feel and what to believe, but only I actually know deep down what is going on inside of myself.
Maybe it’s summer and I feel like summer and the sun is out and the windows are wide open and on days like this I feel invincible or, at least, impressively optimistic. So I ask: what does that look like?
Maybe it’s winter and the tides are receding and the rivers are slowing and my blood, exercise and take care of myself tho I do, feels thick. Maybe I feel more patient and I want to explore what it looks like when the windows are closed and the sun disappears.
Maybe now I feel like great broad brushstrokes that have all wrapped up within them all of my passion, my doubts, my fears, my dreams.
Maybe now I feel like fine delicate lines that are the painted diadems on the eyelid of the divine.
Maybe now I feel the slow somber beauty of decay.
Maybe I feel both at exactly the same time and that’s just fine too. Because underneath every feeling is another feeling. Beneath every desire is another desire and another one and another and so on. Follow every one to it’s absolute end. Use your work as your meditation. You were blessed with a tool all your own for your own personal salvation. Use your work to complete yourself.
If your art is what you feel like, you will never run out of fodder. The heart of your work will be flawless. It will be rock solid to it’s core.
People will discuss your technique, your brushwork. They will find things to marvel at and they will find places to critique. That’s ok: we all have room to grow. I do. We all do. That’s life! So we continue on, with patience and care, following those threads to their most complete ends.
If you are ever without doubt as to what to paint, start with what you feel like.
Making art is exploration. It is the act of becoming. We take what we have inside and bear witness to its messy beginnings, the warp and woof of it’s threads and momentums, and weave it together to make the most beautiful vision we can – the most precious thing – of the art which is ours. And even that which is “ugly” can still be the most beautiful if done with love. It all leads back to that.
All of life is art. The act of life is art. Whatever is the thing which makes your soul sing, that is your art and when you do it well – when you preform your art – you feel alive. This is what art-making is. It is to be alive. It is practicing our own ever-becoming selves of this ever-becoming now.
Here are some words from Kurt Vonnegut to an elementary school that invited him to speak, as he was their favorite author. (Note: he is one of my own favorite authors as well.)
“Dear Xavier High School, and Ms. Lockwood, and Messrs Perin, McFeely, Batten, Maurer and Congiusta:
I thank you for your friendly letters. You sure know how to cheer up a really old geezer (84) in his sunset years. I don’t make public appearances any more because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana.
What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience BECOMING, to find out what’s inside you, TO MAKE YOUR SOUL GROW.
Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.
Here’s an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don’t do it: Write a six line poem, about anything, but RHYMED. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. Don’t show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood. OK?
Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash recepticals. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.
God bless you all!
– Kurt Vonnegut”
PS: Kurt Vonnegut was awesome. :)
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