The karma of art

December 17, 2010
by Robert Genn

Yesterday, John Dinan of Cross, Mayo, Ireland wrote, "I earn my living from my
paintings so, like any skilled worker, I'm entitled to some reward for my labour.
But I have a problem. Every so often I ask someone to sit for a portrait and I
feel uncomfortable about asking to be paid for it. These are not commissioned
portraits, of which I do quite a few, but rather people with faces I need to paint.
How do I handle the situation diplomatically? Do I offer them at half price? Many
of these sitters cannot afford the work at any price. In this small community, how
do I charge one and not another?"

FYI, we've put some of John Dinan's work at the top of the current clickback.

Thanks, John. I may be a bit soft in the head on this one, but they need to either
pay the full price, or receive it from you as a gift. You need to make it clear
right up front. The sticky stuff comes when you keep the work and later sell it
through your regular channels. Your sitter may feel a sense of participation and
may also appreciate some payola. It's your  call--consider sharing.

A few years ago, in a small park somewhere west of Gallup, New Mexico I met an
elderly Navaho by the name of Nastas, which he told me meant "curve like the
grass." After offering him $20 and a glass of lemonade, I had the soft-spoken,
well-lined fellow sitting at ease under my motor-home awning. I told him if the
painting was any good I'd give it to him. As it turned out okay, I did. I can
still see him carefully laying the still-wet 16" x 20" oil onto the hay-littered
bed of his blue Ford pickup and taking off in a cloud of dust. I never saw Nastas
again, but a decade later a woman wrote to me from Phoenix, Arizona to say she had
purchased the painting in one of those native-run pawn stores you see along
Southwest highways. The photo she enclosed showed it in an opulent home,
magnificently framed and looking like a regular Nicolai Fechin, Sergei Bongart or
Bettina Steinke. 

Paintings have stories. Paintings carry karma. Paintings can brighten the spaces
between brothers. Paintings given away and perhaps just starting their rounds
already have more going for them than a lot of those that have merely been sold.

Best regards,


PS: "I've learned that you shouldn't go through life with catcher's mitts on both
hands. You need to be able to throw something back." (Maya Angelou)

Esoterica: Another way to handle the problem is to give the sitter a giclee or a
decent photocopy--even if it's not of your particular effort together. Most will
understand that you are a professional and art is your livelihood. With regard to
the "small town syndrome" many artists deal with, most collectors, in my
experience, understand the situation of the self-employed artist. Collectors also
have goodwill to offer.