14 September 2018

INVENTION and EXALTATION



Exactly three years ago, I delivered a lecture, Invention and Exaltation at Franciscan University of Steubenville, in which I discussed the tasks of the religious artist in light of the two feasts of the Holy Cross, and the cult of relics in general. A revised version of the text is on my personal website here.

Some excerpts:
I often quote the fathers of the Second Council of Nicea, which was convoked in the year 787 to end the first iconoclast crisis. They said: The tradition does not belong to the painter; the art alone is his. True arrangement and disposition belong to the holy fathers. I consider the arrangement and disposition that belong to the fathers to be something like a relic, and the art that belongs to the painter to be something like the making of a reliquary. Artistry without tradition is like an empty reliquary; beautiful perhaps, but unworthy of veneration. Tradition without artistry is like a relic kept in a cardboard box; worthy of veneration, but deserving of better treatment.

***

Few ever have understood the power of touching God so well as that woman afflicted for twelve years by an issue of blood, who but touched the hem of His garment and was made whole. This woman, traditionally called St. Veronica, is an important figure in the history of sacred art. Early ecclesiastical historians attest that she erected a statue in her home city of Paneas commemorating the miraculous cure.

***

Christian tradition is based on real memories of real events. Something either is part of that tradition or it is not, just as something either is part of a body or is not. If it is part of that tradition, this is evident in the law of worship and the agreement of the church fathers; these are the epistemic bridges between the age of the eyewitnesses and our own.

By looking to liturgical and patristic sources, a religious artist can draw a more complete picture, he can dig deeper, than by looking to magisterial documents only. He may unearth something wonderful. Discovering a tradition that has been lost is thrilling; it is like knocking the dirt from a buried piece of lumber and finding that it can yet raise the dead.

***

I consider it a sad mischance that the spirit of Gothic art was expelled from Christian Europe just as the Age of Exploration began. A few treasures of the Aztecs crossed the Atlantic Ocean in time to be admired by Albrecht Dürer, an artist who stood astride the end of the Middle Ages. Most of the treasures arrived too late. Medieval artists never saw the art of the Safavids or of the Khmers. Just imagine what they would have done, had they seen it!

***

In the fourth century, St. Paulinus of Nola recorded that the portion of the True Cross kept in Jerusalem had a miraculous property; no matter how many pieces were broken from it, its size did not diminish. St. Cyril of Jerusalem compared it to the loaves and fishes that fed multitudes and left over basketfuls. John Calvin famously scoffed that if all the pieces of wood venerated as fragments of the True Cross were collected together, they would make a big shipload. There are studies refuting this claim, but if the old tradition is to be believed, it might be correct!

***

Indirectly, the cult of relics gave JohannGutenberg his funding. I think that it gave him also the idea for the printing press itself. Consider the mechanism of a printing press: a matrix - which might be a wooden block with a holy picture carved in its surface, or a Biblical text set in forty-two lines of metal type - is inked, and touched to a different object, a piece of paper. Through touch, the matrix makes the paper into something like itself. The process can be repeated with practically no exhaustion of the matrix. Every printer knows that typeset text must run backwards; when printed, images are reversed, just like things reflected in a mirror.

Gutenberg believed that relics can impart their virtue through contact and reflection. In the years when he conceived his printing press, this was at the forefront of his mind, as was the problem of sharing this virtue among great multitudes; we know this as a fact of history. What Gutenberg invented was a technological metaphor for pilgrimage.

21 August 2018

A COMPLAINT about DESIGN COMPETITIONS, and ADVICE to THOSE WHO HOLD THEM

image source


A little less than a year ago, an Irish priest kindly sent me a message to let me know about a liturgical design competition. This was for the vestments to be worn at the upcoming World Meeting of Families in Dublin. The announcement of the competition is still online, here. It begins by saying:
How would you like to have one of your designs featuring at the heart of an event with an international audience of tens of millions? Would you like to see one of your creations being worn by the Pope? This opportunity is open to you as the World Meeting of Families 2018, being hosted in Dublin, Ireland, seeks a unique and inspirational design for the vestments to be used during the week of celebrations taking place from 21st to the 26th of August 2018.

The seminal 20th Century artist Henri Matisse famously designed chasubles for the Chapelle du Roasire in Vence, France, copies of which are now exhibited in the Vatican and in MOMA in New York. Elizabeth and Lilly Yeats, sisters of the poet William Butler Yeats and members of the Dun Emer Guild, crafted vestments used in the Eucharistic Congress held in Ireland in 1932. Their cloth-of-gold creation with intricate Celtic embroidery influenced by Elizabeth’s time in the circle of William Morris are still in use in St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral in Dublin today. Here’s an opportunity for you to follow in their footsteps.
The prize was 1000 Euros. After reading through the complete rules, three things came to my mind.

First, I was grateful to have the vestments made by the Yeats sisters brought to my attention; I had not known about any sacred artwork made by the Dun Emer Guild, and I am determined to research it.

Second, I understood why the priest thought me a good artist to undertake the project. I have some experience designing vestments. Although I have not done much of it as a freelance artist, I take very seriously the task of depicting vestments in my drawings. (I wrote about this here.)

I also have a strong interest in early medieval Northumbro-Irish ornament, and in the traditions of Celtic Christianity in general. The Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells are among my favorite works of art, and I have drawn dozens of pictures that imitate their style. I am dismayed by the appropriation of this sacred art by practitioners of neo-paganism and New Age spirituality, but even more dismayed by the haste with which many of the faithful misjudge it due to these appropriations. I recently made a coloring and puzzle book, Christian Labyrinths, with the intention of defending Celtic art as an expression of orthodox Christianity.

The pages in that book I composed from modular units of ornament, all scanned from my ink drawings. I have a big collection of knot, braid, spiral and key patterns that I can use to make Northumbro-Irish designs for textiles relatively quickly. Because I am unusually well-prepared for this kind of project, it only took me about 45 minutes, the day before yesterday, to mock up this cope.





This is sort of thing that I would have submitted to the WMOF competition, had I decided to enter it. But the third thing that came to my mind after reading its rules was that I definitely would not enter it. It seemed so likely to work out poorly for the artists who chose to participate. I considered writing about this back when it was announced. Having seen its results, I regret not having done so.

***

In a form letter sent to those artists who did submit proposals, the organizers of the WMOF competition stated:
We were delighted with the number of submissions and the range of designs received. On this occasion, however, the Liturgy Committee for World Meeting of Families 2018 has decided not to select a winner from the received submissions.
Instead, according to their press release,
The vestments were produced by Haftina, a family business based in Poland, which specializes in liturgical vestments, chalice gowns, altar tablecloths and canopies. The vestment designs were created by Haftina in collaboration with the WMOF2018 Liturgical Committee.
These vestments are the ones in the picture at the start of this article. In the few days since these were revealed to the public, they have been disparaged quite a lot, mostly for their pastel hues and the triskelion emblem. It is not my intention here to offer criticism of them as art; I will even say for the record that I do not think that there is anything inherently wrong with either these particular colors or that particular symbol.

My complaint is rather on behalf of the artists who entered the competition, who put serious effort into preparing their proposals, making artwork that nobody else is likely to buy. None of these artists received so much as a cent in return.

Since the Liturgy Committee, by their own account, rejected a delightful number and range of submitted designs (which I am very curious to see), and instead gave their own instructions directly to the manufacturer, it is reasonable to assume that the resulting vestments represent exactly what they wanted all along.

If this is indeed the case, the Liturgy Committee could have gone to the staff artists at Haftina with specific instructions and payment at the start. There would have been no reason to dangle 1000 Euros before the artists of the world, challenge them to submit something unique and inspirational, or encourage them with lofty words about following in the footsteps of famous artists and having their work seen by an international audience of tens of millions. And there would have been no reason to disappoint them all, effectively putting the money back in a pocket and telling them never to mind.

Now I am not accusing the Liturgy Committee of the WMOF of any crime or fraud or sin that cries out to heaven, since they did say right there in the rules that they reserved the right not to reward the prize. And to their credit, they did not charge an entry fee. But still, what a waste of artists’ valuable time and hard work this competition turned out to be.

***

Design competitions do not need to be like this. They can be run in ways that benefit everyone. I do not think that their organizers act out of malice, but I do think that many of them have never really thought about the matter from the perspective of an artist.

Setting aside now the WMOF vestment competition and speaking generally, I advise anyone who holds a design competition to remember several things. Bear in mind that I am speaking about design competitions that require entrants to make new artwork according to instructions, not competitions that allow them to submit artwork that they have already made. Please remember, whoever you are:
1. Your design competition does not inspire creativity; it merely diverts it. I imagine that the organizers of many competitions, when looking at the submitted entries, think to themselves: How wonderful that we were able to help bring all this new artwork into being! Wrong. Artists, generally, have more ideas than they have time to realize. We do not sit around idle, making nothing, until some competition is announced. The time and effort put into making artwork for a competition is time and effort that is not being put into another project. That other project may very well be more artistically excellent, more personally fulfilling or more lucrative.

2. Paying someone fairly for his work is an obligation, not a prize. That is to say, if the prize to the competition amounts to no more than the cost of a commission, it is not so much a competition as a job application process. And it is absurd to ask job applicants to complete the task for which they will be hired (or a large part of it) before they know if they will be paid! If you want to know whether job applicants are well-suited to the task, you should determine that by using the same means that every other employer uses. You can ask for portfolios; you can ask for résumés; you can ask for interviews. Do not ask for free work.

3. Promise to give out the prize. If you are concerned that there will not be enough entrants, then you should do more to attract artists to the competition. That no artist will give you exactly what you want is the risk that you assume when you hold a competition. The entrants should not be required to assume that risk instead.

4. Do not charge an entry fee. Do not even consider it. If the artists are doing the work and you are benefitting from it, then the money should flow from you to them, not the other way. If you are using the entry fees to subsidize the prize, then you are just making the money flow about the pool of entrants, not into it. If artists want to wager their money against each other’s, we don’t need to enter design competitions; we can just get together and play poker instead.

5. Do not make any claims on the intellectual property of the submitted artwork, whether it wins the prize or not. If you want to purchase a copyright or an exclusive license, you should negotiate that separately.

6. The artists should have the possibility of profiting from their work even if they lose. If the artwork that you ask them to submit is so specific to your own purpose, organization or event that it has no chance of being sold on speculation, then you really should not hold a competition. Instead, you should find an artist whose modus operandi includes making drafts and revisions, and hire him for the job.

7. The artists should get some creative fulfillment from their work even if they lose. If you have such a specific idea in mind for the winner that you need to include a lot of detailed instructions about how the entrants should approach the project, then you really should not hold a competition. Instead, you should find an artist who is willing to collaborate with you to realize a project over which you exercise artistic control. The entrants should not be asked to forgo both artistic control and the certainty of payment.

8. The artists should get some publicity for their effort even if they lose. Display the entries, all of them, after deciding upon a winner. This will also hold you accountable for making a good decision.

28 February 2018

INFLUENCES: KELMSCOTT PRESS CHRONICLES of FROISSART


William Morris is of course one of the towering figures in the 19th century medieval revival, the Arts & Crafts Movement and fine press bookmaking, and a major influence on my own art. I have learned many things from studying the celebrated volume of The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer published by his Kelmscott Press; yet nothing in that book has impressed me so much as the two-page specimen and few versals prepared for The Chronicles of Froissart, a book left unfinished at Morris ’s death in 1896.






Here, Morris abandoned the strictly orthogonal borders and versals of the Chaucer; the spiky, lively delineation of the left bas-de-page is something that I have imitated in at least three dozen of my own drawings.

http://www.danielmitsui.com/00_pages/millefleur_last_judgment.html


***

www.danielmitsui.com

22 February 2018

CAN I REALLY MAKE a LIVING at THIS? (part 3 of 3)



Can I really make a living at this sort of art? Is the market big enough to support one more illuminator or sacred artist?

I was asked these questions recently by a talented painter who had just begun to sell her work. This is the third part (of three) of my reply:

Religious art is necessarily traditional, and an artist making it in the present day has a challenge that no artist of the past had. With so many museums and galleries and rare book libraries making digital records of their collections, it is possible to obtain a file (sufficient for printing) of almost any historic masterpiece. That isn’t too much of a concern when making original drawings, because there are certain places where only original drawings are accepted. But if you sell prints of your work, you end up competing against the old masters for business!

In the fifteenth century, a painter who was a slightly-less-talented imitator of Jan Van Eyck might still be the most celebrated artist in his native city. In the nineteenth, he might be one of only a few in the world making those sort of paintings, thus successful in his own domain. But if he were selling prints of his work now, people would start to ask: Why shouldn’t I just buy a print of a Jan Van Eyck painting instead?

So it is advantageous now to make religious artwork that does not too closely imitate past artwork, even if there is nothing wrong, on a religious level, with being imitative. A lot of my patrons say that what they appreciate most about me as an artist is that I advance the tradition rather than just represent it. I think this can be done while keeping correct principles - the arrangement a disposition that belong to the holy fathers (as was said at the Second Nicene Council) and the presentation of space and time and light that agree with the scriptures and the liturgy and the fathers. The expanded flora and fauna in my drawings, the integration of Gothic art with Northumbro-Irish and Persian and Japanese art, the experiments with double-sided drawing: these are the sort of things that especially draw interest and praise.

***

While the task of an artist is to create a new market for his artwork, the potential size of that market is limited to those who find the artwork agreeable. There just are not very many traditional Catholics, so I depend also on patronage from people on different sides of the many fractures within the Catholic Church and from people without it entirely. (Honestly, I am hoping that more Protestants will take notice of my work.) I can honestly say that accepting patronage from all directions has not required me to compromise the content of the artwork; I think that what I have drawn can stand pretty well as a personal Credo - that I can profess belief in what it depicts. Early in my career I accepted some commissions that I should not have (New Age type things), but this was not out of financial necessity so much as my being too bashful to decline a request politely. Nowadays, I am pretty confident that when I am commissioned to make a religious drawing, I can figure out a way both to uphold tradition and to satisfy the patron - even when I find out that the patron does or says or believes things that I find profoundly disagreeable.

One thing that I’ve come to appreciate as a perk of the artistic profession is that people are inclined to like you. When someone asks me what I do for a living, and I say I’m an artist, they almost always smile and express admiration for that and assume that I am interesting and intelligent. Moreover, they are slow to take offense at anything I say in the context of discussing the artistic process. My lectures present a lot of provocative ideas, and I have worried about audiences reacting hostilely. They never have; I don't think that a scholar or journalist or theologian or priest would get such benefit. Indeed, I think that most people are more open to being convinced of something by art than by verbal argument.

I would recommend for now that you avoid making opponents among other religious artists or criticizing their work in public. That was something I realized I had to give up when I became a full-time professional. It will prompt others to belittle your own work in retaliation, and will repel more patrons that it attracts. I certainly do, privately, consider some religious artists to be incompetent or lazy or dishonest. But their patrons certainly do not need to hear that from me; their patrons are very likely to be interested in my artwork also, but not if I tell them that their taste and judgment are poor. And as I said, fine art isn’t exactly a market; other artists aren’t exactly competitors. I tell myself when they offend me that if every single person applying his creativity in the advertising industry were to give it up and become a really, really bad religious artist instead, the world would be a better place.

***

www.danielmitsui.com

21 February 2018

INFLUENCES: MASTER of the EMBROIDERED FOLIAGE

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Master_of_the_Embroidered_Foliage


I am always interested to find ways to present natural forms that are beautiful and detailed, yet still compatible with a medieval style. The artists upon whose influence I draw for this task include Benozzo Gozzoli, Sultan Muhammad and especially Eyvind Earle. I am surprised that an amazing Flemish painter (or possibly school of painters) of the late fifteenth century escaped my notice until recently.

***

www.danielmitsui.com

15 February 2018

CAN I REALLY MAKE a LIVING at THIS? (part 2 of 3)



Can I really make a living at this sort of art? Is the market big enough to support one more illuminator or sacred artist?

I was asked these questions recently by a talented painter who had just begun to sell her work. This is the second part (of three) of my reply:

As I wrote earlier, only about half of my income comes from original drawing. The other key (of mine, at least) to making a living as an artist is to make use of the artwork that I have already made. A copyright to a work of art can be more lucrative than the work of art itself (especially here in the United States, where big evil media corporations and wealthy cults have such strong interest in keeping their intellectual property out of the public domain. If the current laws continue to stand, my artwork will be making money for my heirs eighty years after I am dead). Don’t ever surrender, sell or share a copyright. And be sure to have a (very) high-quality scan or digital photograph of every work of art you make, backed up on multiple data storage devices, kept in different locations.

Obviously, I don’t want to cheapen my artwork by reproducing it carelessly. A religious artist should use his life’s work to fight against falseness and trivialization. I don’t want to set up a Zazzle or CafePress store where my artwork would be printed on iPhone cases and coffee mugs. I can’t claim to be a total purist here, or I would not even scan it and display it online at all, but I do try to give careful consideration to what is implied by the different ways of reproducing it.

In an age of flashy mass media, people generally do not look at pictures long enough to notice their details or learn from them; a couple of seconds, if the studies taken in art museums and galleries are accuratue. So I am willing to present my pictures in certain popular forms if they have the effect of making people pay attention to them longer. I’ve had three coloring books published, and I am looking into jigsaw puzzles.

I design a lot of ornament and lettering in the process of making my drawings, and I have been trying to find ways to make this profitable also. I have a line of print-on-demand fabrics in the works. All of this, though, is experimental at this point; giclée prints and letterpress prints are what actually make up a substantial portion of my income.

Giclée prints are made from a high-resolution digital scan or photograph, by a spray-jet printer, on thick archival paper. My drawings are small enough that I can scan them myself and prepare the print files (remove dust, fix the color balance et cetera) using Photoshop Elements. I do not own my own printer; probably I would save money if I did, but I don’t want to deal with another machine - so I send the files to a commercial print shop. What is nice about giclée prints is that, even though they are more expensive per-print than offset or letterpress prints, there is no need to order a lot of them at once. I only ask the pressmen to run them as I receive orders. That way, there is no risk of losing money by investing in a lot of prints that do not sell.

And since most of the people who buy religious images do so for the sake of devotion (not as collectors or investors) there is no reason to limit the editions. The buyers don’t care that much about a signature on the front or a number, and will pay about the same for a print without those. The practice of limiting editions started in an era when prints were made from irreplaceable metal or wood plates that wore out over time, and thus had the purpose of quality control. It still has this purpose in traditional printmaking where the plate, block or stone is prepared entirely by hand. But no modern printing method in which the image passes through a digital stage requires this; here, it is just an artificial way to raise prices.

***

I have mixed feelings about making and selling digital prints at all. I think that digital prints are to original artwork as CDs are to live music. I don’t mind musicians making and selling CDs; I own plenty of them. Recorded music is useful for research and education. But I also see very plainly that it is fake, and that a society in which most people are convinced that listening to music is a matter of accumulating data and pressing buttons on electronic devices is a society that will not produce or support many real, good musicians. My wife is a singer, conductor and sometime composer, so I am especially sensitive to this. As Catholics, making a distinction between what something truly, substantially is and what it looks or sounds like is at the center of our religious experience. And any fake thing that we are asked to treat as real (just because it looks or sounds real) undermines that.

So I try my best not to say or do anything to imply that a digital print is a substitute for original artwork. I consider the relief (letterpress) prints that I sell under the Millefleur Press imprint somewhat different. Relief printing involves actual contact between paper and a plate, and a reflected image in a single color of ink. Essentially, it is the same method used by Gutenberg, and I believe that the printing press emerged in late medieval Europe due to the cult of relics and the distinctions between their different classes (I explain this at the end of my lecture Invention and Exaltation). Admittedly, the process of making a printing plate from one of my drawings involves a digital stage (a 1200 dpi bitmap file that is printed as a film positive that is photochemically burned into the plate). But I nonetheless feel more comforatble presenting relief prints as works of art in their own right - derivative works of art, works of art of a lower class, but works of art nonetheless, especially when I color them by hand.

However, the risk involved in making relief prints is much higher, because I need to pay for the press run and materials up front. And while there are people who get excited about letterpress, linseed-oil based ink and handmade laid paper and understand how special these things are, there are a lot more people who would rather have a digital print in full color. Realizing this, after analyzing sales for a few years, I set aside my most ambitious plans for Millefleur Press. One day (when my drawing hand starts to shake, I suppose) I plan to spend my time formatting and publishing fine press books and presenting my life’s artwork therein. But that is no task for the present, when I still need to worry about making ends meet.

A more immediately profitable way that I have found to use my existing work is simply to copy it (by hand, as original drawings to sell). This is becoming a more and more important part of my business. It is such a simple idea that I am surprised it took me so long to realize it: making two very similar drawings earns me twice as much money, but takes a lot less than twice as much time because the research and composition need not be repeated. I am at a point where I cannot devote any more time to drawing that I already do without neglecting my family or risking repetitive motion injuries to my hands and wrists. This is a way to produce more artwork in limited time. I have never been in the habit of making preparatory sketches or rough drafts; if you are, think about making them in such a way that they could become salable works themselves.

***

www.danielmitsui.com

14 February 2018

INFLUENCES: LENTEN VEIL of ZITTAU

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Großes_Zittauer_Fastentuch


In certain medieval churches, large veils were suspended at the entrance to the choir, hiding the altar during the entire season of Lent. Several magnificent examples, in which pictorial summaries of Salvation History are woven, embroidered or painted, survive.

Those at Baldramsdorf, Gurk and Millstatt Abbey are well-known, as is the magnificent one, shown here, held in the collections of the cathedral in Zittau. It was made in 1472.

What impresses me most about these works is that they present many events from the Old and New Testaments in a coherent order, and that they attest to the survival of ancient iconographic traditions at the very end of the Middle Ages.

***

www.danielmitsui.com

08 February 2018

CAN I REALLY MAKE a LIVING at THIS? (part 1 of 3)



Can I really make a living at this sort of art? Is the market big enough to support one more illuminator or sacred artist?

I was asked these questions recently by a talented painter who had just begun to sell her work. This is the first part (of three) of my reply:

First, know that there are a lot of different ways to go about being a professional artist, and those I know who make religious art their specialty have very different modus operandi. I have a friend who makes artwork that is comparable to mine (small drawings in the manner of illuminated manuscripts) but his business is very different. He travels and teachs a lot, and I rarely ever do; I depend very much on a website for promoting my artwork and selling prints of it, and he doesn’t even have one.

I can only really speak about my own way of making a living here, and other religious artists are succeeding (or at least surviving) in very different ways - by exhibiting in galleries, illustrating picture books, teaching, getting grant money or something else that I do not do at all. I can attest that my own way has provided for me and my family for almost eight years. And it makes some sense for an artist in your situation, making the transition from an amateur to a professional.

Basically, this is how I operate. About half of my income is from original drawing, either commissions or sales of drawings made on speculation. Most of my drawings are commissioned; for several years, almost all of them were, but I am deliberately allotting time to speculative work now, because I want greater control over the content and to start a magnum opus project (the Summula Pictoria) illustrating the Old and New Testaments.

I frankly hate using computers, but I do depend on them for making my artwork known. Patrons find it through my website and social media accounts; there are payment buttons for buying existing drawings or prints, and instructions to e-mail me about possible commissions. Anyone who buys or commissions something or expresses interest in a commission I subscribe to an e-mail newsletter, sent every few months.

The rest of my income is from selling printed works derived from the drawings. I make a little from writing articles and giving lectures. I have some supporters who are well-known in Catholic media, and I send them prints on occasion to review, but other than this I do not pay for advertisement. I do not actively seek out commissions or enter into competitions.

***

This approach never made me too dependent on others, and thus I was able to become a professional gradually. I launched my wesite in 2005 and worked as a religious artist part-time until 2010, when I was finally ready to resign from my last day job. Those years gave me time to build a portfolio and a reputation.

I was able to figure, based on experience, how much money I was earning from artwork relative to the hours spent making it, and to contrast that to how much money I was earning at my day job. I became a full-time artist when the arithmetic suggested that I would make just as much money that way. I probably hesitated for about a year longer than necessary (much of which I wasted trying to find a different day job). I lost money for the first three months, but after that was making more than before.

So yes, it is possible. But I would recommend making the transition to being a professional gradually. Set up a website and a newsletter first, build a portfolio and a list of contacts. When you make and sell art, log the hours, count the money, do the arithmentic. You can devote more time to art as it becomes more relatively profitable. Take comfort in knowing that if you fail (financially, that is), you can just go back to the way things were before until you are ready to try again. I told myself before I made the plunge: if it doesn’t work this time, I can just go get a part-time job to make ends meet. I won’t be able to accept as many commissions, but I can still accept some, maintain the website and sell prints - and really, nobody else even needs to know.

Now all of that was made easier by three things: first, relative to other artists doing similar work, I draw very quickly. Second, the materials and tools for ink drawing are not very expensive. I can buy the best available, yet barely even think about the investment in materials and tools since it is so much less than that needed for oil painting or sculpture. And third, most of my drawings are small. So I was able to build a portfolio of many different works quickly.

At this time, I recommend that you put most of your effort into building a portfolio. Consider making more, smaller paintings (or drawings, if you are interested in that medium) in order to have enough works to build a website around and to give patrons an idea of what sort of art you are able and interested to make. Your existing portfolio is your biggest asset in securing new commissions.

Because fine art isn’t exactly a market. Artists aren’t fungible. I don’t have patrons come to me saying: I need a work of art. Please convince me that you are the artist who can make it for the best value. And if they did, I would decline to work with them; I don’t want any patron who treats me like an antagonist.

The good patrons, the ones that I want, are the ones who come to me saying: I admire your artwork, and have an idea for a drawing. Can you do this and what would it cost? They do not want an artist (generally speaking); they want me, specifically, to make something. They are willing to trust that I will do a good job based on what I have made in the past. They genuinely like what I am doing and want to help me succeed. So your task isn’t really to enter into an existing market and hope that there is space in it for you. Rather, it is to create an entirely new market, for your artwork specifically.

Aside from a portfolio, one of the best things you can have to establish this is an easy, fast, consistent way to calculate prices. I’ve seen artists lose a lot of commissions for taking too long to tell a patron how much he needs to spend. There are a lot of factors that can go into figuring these rates - your overall cost of living, time spent on the making, the materials, a general sense of what people are willing to pay - but they should be simple when presented to a patron. Mine are a function of area, so many dollars per square inch. There are different rates for black and white and color, for paper and calfskin. I revise them often as I figure out better how long things actually take or how much they actually cost, but never with the intention of differential pricing; who the patron is has nothing to do with it.

Another is to keep in regular contact with people who have already bought or commissioned artwork from you. That is the one population that is most likely to buy or commission artwork in the future. I’ve never done a mathematical analysis, but I would bet that most of my business is repeat. Until recently, an e-mail newsletter sufficed for this; not so much for selling new, featured works as for reminding patrons of my existence. Last September, I realized that it was no longer as effective, so I created social media accounts (half-hoping that they would fail so that I could stop using them, but, alas, they did seem to help).

***

www.danielmitsui.com

24 January 2018

On DRAWING STARS, IDEAS of PRECIOUSNESS and RUSSIAN LACQUERED BOXES

I ignored the night sky for most of my life. I could make excuses for this - I have terrible night vision due to misshapen corneas, and until recently I lived in Chicago, surrounded by photopollution and buildings obstructing the view - but the real reason is that I simply did not pay attention. When my oldest son began studying astonomy as part of his homeschooling, our entire family began to notice the astronomical phenomena that we could easily see even in the middle of a large city: eclipses, the brightest constellations at different times of the year, the phases of the moon, the locations of Venus, Jupiter, Mars and Saturn.

I discovered above me something dynamic, varied and extremely interesting. Having moved recently to the semirural perimter of the metropolitan area, I am happy to see the stars more easily, although it is still not dark enough to see the Milky Way. Indeed, I can only remember having seen the Milky Way once or twice, ever. It is strange to think of it as something strange and special, since it would have been visible on every clear night to every person with reasonably good eyesight for the entire length of preindustrial human history.

I have been attempting to express in my art a new interest in the night sky. Although I have long used stars as part of my ornament, these have been perfunctory: basically regular five-pointed shapes and little circles, all of similar size and color. This hardly did justice to what almighty God created for signs and for seasons, to shine in the firmament of heaven and to give light upon the earth! I now try to use astronomical forms symbolically; developing the patristic association of the Old Testament with the moon and the New Testament with the sun, I give the patriarchs and prophets lunar haloes. These are crescents, except on those who encountered Jesus Christ (the Sun of Justice) face to face. (For an example, see my drawing of the Tree of Jesse.) I hope eventually to present the planets and stars also as symbols - as St. Zeno of Verona did in his homily that interpreted the zodiac as a baptismal allegory, or as Dante Alighieri did when associating the planets with different degrees of beatitude in his Paradiso - but reconciled to the observational knowledge of the present age.

More immediately, I have been trying to find a more interesting way of drawing stars. Looking first, as I usually do, to Gothic art, I was somewhat disappointed. So often here, the presentation of the night sky is even more perfunctory than mine had been. Consider the fifteenth century St. Thomas of Canterbury altarpiece painted by Master Francke. This is, undeniably, a great work by a great artist. But the only really interesting thing about the sky here is that it is red rather than blue or black; the stars are identical geometric shapes, evenly spaced on a grid of equilateral triangles.

Panel from the St. Thomas of Canterbury altarpiece by Master Francke

In defense of Master Franke, I can think of a few reasons why he might have chosen to draw the stars this way. In some artistic media, repetition is necessary. Obvious examples are woven damask and wallpaper. Architectural ornament, due its scale and its being made with bricks, tiles and stenciling, is necessarily repetitive in many applications. Master Francke drew a connection between the Nativity of Jesus Christ and the Martyrdom of St. Thomas by using the same background for both. The latter, of course, happened inside a church, so the background pattern needed to be recognizable as either a night sky or as a diaper pattern painted on a wall.

Panel from the St. Thomas of Canterbury altarpiece by Master Francke

But more than this, nobody who lived in the fifteenth century (unless, perhaps, he were wearing eyeglasses for the first time) discovered the stars as an adult. There was basically no photopollution, anywhere. I suppose that certain medieval men may have paid little attention to the night sky, as I long did. But few could afford to do this at a time when the stars were the most reliable way to tell direction and time. Clocks and compasses existed by the fifteenth century, but they are hard to see in the dark! The night sky was necessarily familiar to a medieval man.

What almost certainly was unfamiliar (and therefore remarkable and impressive) to him was a perfect geometric pattern. Think about this; flat, completely regular grids rarely occur in nature. Nobody who lived in the fifteenth century would ever have seen one, outside of a beehive, unless an artist took special care to measure and mark and make it. I expect that some of the people who saw Master Francke’s altarpiece for the first time excitedly whispered to each other: Isn’t that amazing? The stars - they are all exactly the same size! And they are all exactly as far apart! How did he do that so flawlessly?

Nowadays, repeating grids and patterns are everyhere around us; they are a mark of industrial mass-production, and therefore of cheapness - not of extraordinary care by an artist, certainly not of preciousness. This demonstrates a thorny problem for the contemporary maker of sacred art. Certain patterns, materials and colors that appear in older sacred art have a symbolic meaning based on Holy Writ, sacred liturgy or patristic exegesis; they are part of a tradition with an objective content that any maker of sacred art is required to uphold. But some were favored simply for being precious or rare, and this is bound to the economy and technology of the time and place in which the art was made. I see no reason for an artist of another time and place to repeat them.

This is not always easy to disentangle. Did medieval artists use purple and blue colors for symbolic reasons based on Divine Revelation, or did they favor them simply for the preciousness of murex dye and ultramarine pigment? Did they carve liturgical objects such as this crosier, or this one, out of rock crystal for symbolic reasons (referring to the Virgin Birth, perhaps, or to moral purity; it is noteworthy that they were carried by abbesses), or simply because perfectly clear objects were rare at the time? That matters to an artist deciding whether to make a similar crosier nowadays, when clear glass is cheap and abundant and unremarkable.

Panel from the St. Thomas of Canterbury altarpiece by Master Francke

I do not know the answers to these questions, but I venture to propose that simple geometric patterns, applied in media where they are not necessary (such as painting), no longer have the same meaning or effect that they had in medieval art. When drawing stars (or mountains or trees or any natural forms) a maker of sacred art would do better to present them as varied and dynamic. I venture also to propose that flat gilding - such as that forming the background in other panels of Master Francke’s altarpiece - is no longer especially impressive in an age when shiny flat surfaces are made through industrial processes such as electroplating. That is not to say that a painter should eschew gold leaf backgrounds - merely that he should consider adding tooling or ornament or color to them, as was done in many of the best works of sacred art in the past.



Moving on in my search for a more interesting way to draw stars - one that is yet agreeable to my basically medieval art - I remembered the Russian art of lacquered papier-mâché miniature boxes. I first learned about this art by accident, at a book fair where I found and purchased both volumes of Russian Lacquer, Legends and Fairy Tales by Lucy Maxym.

Working on a surface of dark lacquer (usually black), the painters of these boxes depict in bright colors and gold leaf scenes from secular Russian folklore, literature and history. Many of these stories I had encountered before in the illustrations of Ivan Bilibin and Gennady Spirin, and in Russian opera. The tiny paintings have an obvious stylistic affinity to the sacred art of the Russian Church, but depict Vasilisa the Brave, Baba Yaga, Ivan the Fool and Koschei the Deathless instead of Jesus and Mary and the saints. Their skyscapes are some of the most interesting that I have ever encountered - vigorously medieval, but not at all repetitive or perfunctory. This is how I wish the night sky had appeared in Gothic art.



Studying this art more closely, I learned the circumstances by which it became established in four Russian villages (Fedoskino, Palekh, Kholui and Mstera) - circumstances that explain both its secular subject matter and its stylistic resemblance to sacred icons. Palekh, Kholui and Mstera were all important centers of icon painting before the Russian Revolution. In its aftermath, the icon painting was suppressed. Eventually, the artists found new work painting these boxes, using methods already established in Fedoskino. So while this art is deliberately secular, it was largely developed by icon painters; in one regard, it is a continuous development of the older sacred art. I would be very interested to see contemporary makers of sacred art claim some of its methods for their own. (The author of the two books mentioned appears to have done this herself.)

The Black Hours in the Morgan Library

After their subject matter and size of these boxes, the most obvious difference between them and sacred icons is their background: black instead of gold. Black is of course traditionally associated with death and sin, so its use as a background in sacred art is questionable - although it has been used to striking effect in some exceptional works, such as a group of Flemish Books of Hours illuminated of the 15th century.

The use of a dark red, green, purple or blue background is better established in sacred art across the centuries. The purple uncials of the sixth century are religious manuscripts written in gold and silver leaf on dyed parchment. In medieval Byzantium, small icons were carved in low relief on tablets and pendants of bloodstone, serpentine and lapis lazuli and given gold leaf details.

In the late medieval occident, colors were associated with specific gemstones and specific planets; this is demonstrated, for example, in blazonry:

Gold/Or = Sun
Silver/Argent = Moon
Red/Gules = Ruby = Saturn
Blue/Azure = Sapphire = Venus
Black/Sable = Diamond = Mars
Green/Vert = Emerald = Mercury
Purple/Purpure = Amethyst = Jupiter

I question the assignment of certain planets in this scheme, but the idea here is, I think, a useful one nonetheless: symbolically, colors (even dark ones) may represent gemstones and celestial bodies. They too (not just gold) may communicate the ideas of preciousness and effulgence in art. Carefully applied, they do not change the traditional perspective of sacred art as a view out of heaven, in which the reflected light of the Sun of Justice illuminates everything. For this light is not one that destroys colors and distinctions, like a floodlight shone directly in the face; it is not blinding, but sight-giving.

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