Being A Religious Artist — Two Open Letter Responses
Aerin: Hi Kirk,
We met once at that Christmas show the church held in the JS building a few years ago.
I’ve been a fan for a long time. Mostly because I see someone painting not only what they love, but images of Christ. This has been my life’s ambition but I have felt held back because of the marketability of the subject matter. But I haven’t been satisfied selling what I’ve been painting. Would I be considered competition, and therefore shouldn’t ask for advice? I could greatly use some.
How do I get started being recognized as a religious painter? What am I looking for in ways of galleries? Are you more successful outside of Utah? How long did it take for you to build enough reputation to have your income sustainable?
I can use any advice you have time to give me.
Thank you for all you hard work and dedication, and for being an example of devotion.
Kirk: Hi Aerin. It’s great to hear from you. I don’t know if my advice will be helpful, but I’ll give you my two cents worth:
I welcome your questions. Art is not a competitive endeavor. Each artist develops a unique style and takes a unique path to gather a unique audience. There may be some overlap, but unless you’re persistently and overtly copying another artist’s style, the overlap is not competitive. Whenever I’ve needed advice or encouragement, artists have been generous with their time and knowledge.
Let me take one thing back. Actually, art is competitive, but the competition is with ourselves and against mediocrity. Does your work hold up next to excellent works of art through history in terms of craft and passion? Is it uniquely filtered through your personal lenses of experience, time and place? If you can say yes to these questions, you’re winning the competition.
Much of the greater art world is secular, so whether or not to paint Christ and other overtly religious subjects can be a difficult decision. You’ll be shunned in some circles but embraced in others. You’ll be taken less than seriously by some galleries, critics, and museums, but championed in a select few. I had teachers discourage me from painting religious subjects. Put it off, they said, until you’re proficient in the language of painting—an approach which I now see as a mistake. It’s a mistake because there are many languages within painting; and within those, religious imagery is a unique subset. Craft and subject matter go hand in hand. An image of Christ needs certain things that a portrait of my neighbor doesn’t need—or a landscape, or a still life, or a secular figurative painting. Subject matter informs approach. In other words, jump in with both feet and paint the subjects you want to paint most, eagerly looking for aesthetic solutions that satisfy you and your audience.
The question of being recognized begins with the above-mentioned questions regarding the excellence and uniqueness of the work. It’s a good idea to start showing your best pieces in group art exhibits. “Best” here implies excellence in composition and execution, but also the direction in which you want your work to go for future pieces. If you have a painting that worked out great, but you don’t want your future work to move in that direction, it might be a good idea not to show that piece in a high profile exhibit. On the other hand, if you have a piece representative of what you like to do, but it didn’t turn out really great, don’t show it. Chances are it will be rejected from the show (which might happen anyway, art being as subjective as it is) and you’ll be frustrated. Borrow a great piece back from a collector, if necessary, to include it in a show. I recommend submitting entries to the International Church Art Competition and the Annual Spiritual and Religious Art of Utah exhibit. Also, phone in and get on the list for other exhibit calls for entry at the Springville Museum of Art, the Bountiful Davis Art Center, the Rio Gallery, and any other organization that might interest you. To sum up, regularly enter your best work in group shows.Galleries? It took me seven years before I made a gallery connection that lasted. It’s easy to think: once I get into a gallery, my problems will be solved, because the gallery will take care of all promoting and selling, and I will focus on painting. My experience has led me to believe this approach works for very few artists. It’s better to think of a gallery as one of many tools at your disposal. In fact, if you can find success without a gallery by setting up your own solo shows/small group shows and selling online with websites and social media, it’s much more likely a gallery will hear the buzz surrounding your work and ask to represent you. Once that happens, your work to promote is not over—I can’t tell you how many sales I’ve handed to my galleries to keep momentum going, much to my wife’s chagrin. Often the collaborative efforts between the gallery and the artist are necessary to make progress happen. Having your own personal client base will facilitate an easier transition to working with a gallery. My short list of things to look for in a gallery: the staff is excited about my work; they respect my artistic vision; they pay me in a timely manner; they’re honest; they don’t try to own me—in other words they’re content to be one of many baskets my eggs are in; and bonus points if they’re located outside my home town where I prefer to do my own selling. My short list of artist responsibilities toward a gallery: create work specifically for the gallery and don’t sell the work before it gets to the gallery; commit the work for a set period of time and send your personal clients to the gallery to purchase those works during that time period; send the transaction back to the gallery if a gallery client comes to you personally; try to avoid underselling the gallery by keeping your personal retail prices comparable to gallery prices and avoiding deep discounts.
Most of what I do is in Utah, though many of my clients are outside of Utah. I ship paintings regularly to Texas, Tennessee, and Georgia. I just shipped one to United Arab Emirates. This out-of-state clientele is partly the result of the unglamorous practice of occasionally taking my show on the road—setting up makeshift art shows in acquaintances’ out-of-state homes. I’ve gained friends and clients through these types of shows, making it well worth the trouble. I’ve typically done one of these road trips per year.
How long did it take to have a sustainable income? Amy and I kept our expenses low from the outset, so I could spend my full-time work hours painting. We lived in a basement apartment for two years and rented out the top of the house to cover rent. We lived with Amy’s parents for the two years that followed. We did whatever we could to not spend money while I figured out where my style was going and what I wanted my art to become. I was making art full time but producing only about twenty paintings per year. There were moments of financial strain, but we made it through. We even made it through the economic recession, at which point I felt financial pressure and put my hobbies aside to really focus on painting. Soon I was finishing one hundred paintings per year, and then two hundred. Many of the paintings were small and quick, making it easy for me to finish them and easy for others to afford them. And when a big painting sold, it put us that much further ahead. Hiring studio assistants helped increase my output and my focus. I’ve been a full time painter for fifteen years, and things really started to take off when I started producing more, about five or six years ago. But those first ten years were essential, because they established a foundational client base and work history.I apologize for my somewhat scattered responses. I hope there is some useful information in here somewhere. There are other articles on this blog–though somewhat dated–with more information, such as a calendar showing what I regularly do as a career artist, information on pricing work, etc.
Aerin, I wish you success! Let me know if you need clarification on anything I’ve mentioned here. Also, if you’re interested in free master classes, group feedback, workshops etc, please visit the educational part of my website learn.jkirkrichards.com.
Brandy: I’m an artist in Denver. I’m wondering if you could give me some advice. I want to put together a series of works centering around the plan of salvation. I’ve made a prototype, but have much more work to do, and hope to exhibit or display in the church here in Denver, for investigators and members (basically the public). Do you have advice on doing something like this? I plan on elaborating on the pre-existence, birth, earth, death, fall, veil, Jesus Christ as the savior, judgement, etc. I feel like eloquent drawings would be suitable as a finished product. Thinking to do them in large scale. Anyway, I’m seeking advice on planning, execution, places to exhibit (would a church allow this, for non-profit?), and a delicate way to show the human form, yet not hide it. Anyway, I’d appreciate any thoughts. Suggestions on the prototype, etc. I’d really appreciate your advice. I’ve followed your work for a few years, have a nice print in my home, and appreciate your approach to art.
Kirk: Hi Brandy. Sounds like such a cool project! I’m so excited to see what you do. You’ve hit the nail on the head–the hard part may be finding a place to show the work. There are potentially elements that might make the work great artistically, but disqualify it from exhibiting within a church building. In the end, you’ll have to get permission from local church leaders, and it will pretty much depend on their judgment. My recommendation is to make the work as moving as possible–envision the most powerful images you can, execute them impeccably–make sure the lighting feels natural and dramatic, make sure the figures are well rendered, even if it’s loose. In short, make great images free of external concerns. Don’t make it for a church building. Make it powerful for all of God’s children. Once the work is done, a place will appear (though it may take continued effort) for you to exhibit the work. I’ve always believed that if I did great work, the place to show it would appear.
Let me know how it goes!