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.
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