Posting Date: February 26, 2010
Artist Robert Meredith shares his experiences
Speech to alumni offers career insights
Robert Meredith with one of the paintings he displayed at the reception, which was attended by alumni from across KSU.
Meredith's Tips for Artists
- You measure success by the quality of your work and the quality of your life.
- Sometimes you have to create your own market.
- At first, you may have to "do anything" to survive: commercial art, teaching, etc.
- Enter art shows, but make sure they have a good spread of prize money.
- Don't price your work too high as a beginning artist.
- You must love what you do; an artist never retires.
- You must be disciplined.
- Every painting should be your best painting.
- Go to New York.
- Learn to say "no": not every opportunity is a good use of your time.
- Your best customer is the one you already have.
On Feb. 15, trompe l'oeil artist Robert Meredith was among several business and arts leaders who shared their insights with KSU alumni at a networking reception hosted by the College of the Arts. Meredith's remarks were so well-received by the crowd, that he was asked to send a copy for all of the College of the Arts alumni to enjoy.
The theme of the evening was "The Business of Art/The Art of Business."
Here are Meredith's remarks:
"I have been musing over the irony of being asked to speak on the business of art. If I have any qualifications for being here this evening it is simply as a survivor. I have now spent more than 40 years supporting my wife and myself and raising four children with the tip of a paintbrush. I think it was Cezanne who said, “The only unsuccessful painter is the one who gives up.” You see, painting, is the only business that isn’t measured by how much money you make; it is only measured by the quality of your work and the quality of your life. It was well said that the life of the artist is something you must be willing to pay for. The real value of an artist’s contribution is often not seen until long after his death. Van Gogh sold only one painting during his lifetime; of course then he shot himself.
"As I understand business you first identify a need and then fill that need with a product or a service. The problem with art as a business is that no one actually needs a painting. The market for original works of art is very, very small and the creation of art is extremely labor-intensive. Sometimes I spend years developing an idea that is ultimately expressed in one little painting. How do you put a price on something like that and where do you find someone who recognizes what you have done let alone is willing to pay for it.
"Let me give you a little background. I have always been an artist. Mrs. Lindley, one of my first teachers told me she still has a drawing I gave her when I was in her class in the Powder Springs elementary school. I was six years old. Every time I run into a classmate from South Cobb High School they tell me how I spent all of my time in class drawing. At 16 years of age I landed my first summer job as an artist in the design department of the old McNeal Monument Company in Marietta. One example of the work I did that summer is the entrance to the Georgia Memorial Cemetery at the corner of Cobb PKW and Windy Hill Road. There are two large granite blocks in the shape of the state of Georgia on either side of the entrance and a low brick wall. Another is the huge marble slab with brass lettering that is the sign for the Center for Continuing Education at the University of Georgia. And yes, I did design a few tombstones.
"I received my BFA in drawing and painting from the University of Georgia in December of 1964. I was accepted in the graduate program with a teaching assistantship at the University of North Carolina, Greenville but I decided that if I studied for two more years I would be in the same place; only two years older. I knew instinctively that if I ever had a steady income I would never be able to let go. I knew if I wanted to be an artist I could never take a job. I spent the following year painting, entering shows and trying to make my work known. My greatest success was in selling three paintings to the actor and art collector Vincent Price. The following summer I went to Nags Head, North Carolina to spend the summer painting. A young lady was shown my paintings and asked a friend to introduce us. We married the following spring.
"On leaving the UGA I entered a cultural Sahara. In the mid-1960s everything was modern art, it had been all modern art at Georgia but I wasn’t trying to earn a living then. Now it was modern art everywhere and I was a representational painter. Not only did I have to create the product to sell, I had to create the market. To give you an idea of how pervasive modern art was, I entered a major juried show in Nashville, Tenn. and my painting was the only realistic painting out of the 40 chosen to be exhibited. That painting was later bought by the state of Tennessee.
"I survived or I should say we survived because there were now two of us to support, by doing literally anything and everything. If you needed commercial art, I did it. If you wanted a portrait, I painted it, I taught private classes and drew architectural delineations for an engineering firm in Atlanta and all the time I painted and entered shows. Occasionally I got some encouragement; I entered a major southeastern show held at the High Museum. The first prize was $2000.00; I took second place and a red ribbon. (Don’t ever enter a show that doesn’t have a good spread of prize money) I won several other shows outright. I became a member of Grand Central Gallery in New York City. Occasionally I sold a painting. In 1967 I was given a one-man show at the Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee and of the 30 paintings in the show I sold ten. That was the moment I knew I could make it as an artist. It was just in time; my wife was expecting out first child.
"I may have made this seem too easy. What I haven’t said is that the 10 paintings sold for a grand total of $1000.00 and that the most expensive painting sold for $250.00. Do the math. Most of the paintings sold for $100.00 and less. Now this was gross profit. From that you have to subtract your expenses, now these weren’t cheesy little nothing paintings although it was mostly the smaller paintings that sold. They were quality paintings, the product of years of study and months of work. There’s not one of them I wouldn’t buy back today. I’ve said that to say this: you have to sell a lot of $100.00 and $200.00 paintings to make a living as an artist. Like other businesses the value of a painting is based on supply and demand. Until you create a demand for your work it has no value. It took 7 years of hard work from the time I left college before I sold my first painting for $1000.00. The most costly error made by beginning artists is in pricing their work too high. At the end of the day, if you can’t sell your paintings you can’t be an artist. A $200.00 sale may not buy you a car but it will replace a bald tire.
"The reason I have been able to hang in there for so long is that I love art and I love to paint. An artist paints because he must; because he cannot not paint. I have never heard of an artist retiring. Numerous artists have painted well into their nineties. Titian painted until he was 99 before dying of the plague. Picasso lived to 92 and painted right up to his death. Renoir painted his last years with his brushes tied with soft rags in his arthritic hands. On his deathbed he was painting a small bunch of flowers and he said “I am beginning to understand them now”, and laid down his brush and died. There is nothing in the world that I had rather do than what I do. I take my paint box on vacation. I go on vacation, not to get away from painting but to find new subject matter. I go to Europe and travel around and paint for six weeks at a time, I come back, sell the paintings and write the trip off on my income tax. I take groups on painting trips. I have another painting trip to a chateau in France scheduled for September in case anyone is interested. If your work is something you enjoy you are always on vacation.
"But, to be an artist you have to be disciplined. People often tell me; “I only paint when I’m in the mood”. Hey, you’re not having sex. Mood has nothing to do with it. People who say they only paint when they are in the mood never paint. An artist paints until he gets in the mood or “in the zone’ as we call it. I may paint for several hours before I finally get “in the zone” but when I do I can do a day’s work in an hour. I paint all day every day. I often take a completed painting off the easel and replace it with a fresh canvas and keep right on painting. I generally begin painting as soon as it gets light enough to see and paint until it begins to get dark.
"I work continually getting ready for shows that are often one and two years in the future. Even before I complete one show I am often already at work on the next. I am currently working toward two one man shows this spring, my 49th at 2021 Collections, a gallery in Atlanta this April and my 50th in May at the Lagrange Museum of Art in Lagrange, Ga. and I have just completed two shows this fall. I am very close to finishing my book on oil painting. Every time I speak to a group such as this I think if my book were only finished I might be able sell a few copies.
"The Bible says, “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches.” Of course this means to deal ethically with everyone but it also to do your best. To me this means never compromise; it means that every painting must be the best painting that I am capable of painting. Artists often tell me that they keep their best painting for themselves. I don’t. My best paintings are the ones I want seen and sold. You build your reputation with your best work. Why would you even want to show or sell a painting that isn’t your best? If you buy one of my paintings you can be assured it is the best I can do because I painted it first to please myself. After all, no matter who owns it, it is still my painting. I have 45 years of paintings hanging on walls all over the United States and a handful in France and I can honestly say that I am proud of every one of them. “That’s good enough” is just not in my vocabulary. I did my very best on every one of them.
Photo by Linda Tincher
"During the late 70s and early 80s the economy took a downturn; we had what was called stagflation; high inflation and a stagnate economy. In the fall of 1982 I had a wonderful one man show given to me by Richard Myrick a realtor who was one of my best patrons. He had just built a several story office building and thought an art show would be an excellent way to introduce his building to the business community. I showed 40 major paintings. Now a lot of work goes into putting on a big art show. You first have to paint the paintings and this show probably incorporated two or three3 years of work. You have to frame the paintings. Have any of you ever had a painting framed; expensive, isn’t it? Try framing 40. Then you have to prepare and mail invitations and you have to get your paintings to the venue and you have to hang them; in this case, in a building that had no provisions to hang paintings. For the show we had a lovely harpist, catered hors-d’ oeuvres, two bars and a crowd of about 250 shakers and movers from the Atlanta business community; a handsome, well-dressed crowd; I did not sell a single painting.
"I told my wife that we had reached the point where we had to make a major change in direction; we had to shake things up. I sold our home, drew a 50-mile radius around New York City and after five months of searching bought a house in New Jersey, 12 miles from New York City. You could literally see the skyline of Manhattan from our neighborhood. This meant enrolling our four children in a private Christian Academy because the schools were no good. I had deliberately made an irreversible decision and it was either sink or swim.
"People ask me why New York City, I tell them that if you want to be a movie star you go to Hollywood, if you pick a guitar you go to Nashville, and if you want to be an artist you go to New York City. New York is the center of the art world. If I made one major error in my life it was that I did not go to New York City the day I graduated from college and stay there; I just didn’t know better.
"It took two years before I sold my first painting in New York. In the interim, however, my work was evolving from a traditional realism and subject matter into my individual vision of trompe l’oeil (fool the eye) realism that you see here. By the time we returned to Georgia in 1994 my paintings had been sold by five major New York galleries and my paintings were in several major national collections. Among my collectors is that wild and crazy guy, Steve Martin who also happens to be a major art collector. Richard Manoogian, the number one collector of American art who has five of my paintings and Eddy Nicholson. When I first heard that Eddy Nicholson had bought one of my paintings I called an art dealer friend and asked, “Who is Eddy Nicholson?” Oh, He’s the first man to ever pay $1,000,000.00 for a piece of furniture. I have since sold him another 15 paintings.
"One of the most important things I have learned is to SAY NO. There are a lot of opportunities in the art world that will waste your time and yield no results. The difficulty is that they come so artfully disguised that they are hard to recognize. Some of the best decisions I have ever made were in saying no. One test I give myself is ‘if I were a car dealer would I do this, if I were a grocer would I do that’? If they wouldn’t do it I probably shouldn’t either.
"I have found that the best customer is the one you already have. Most of my customers have more than one of my paintings. I have a patron in Nashville, Tennessee by the name of Hap Townes. He is single-handedly the man who forty years ago first began to buy my paintings and encourage me and promote me to his friends. Over the years Hap has bought approaching 30 of my paintings. He is in his early nineties now and has given his collection to Belmont College. Hap wasn’t a rich man; he owned a little working class restaurant in Nashville and all Music City came to enjoy his country cooking. Hap just loves art and he loved discovering and buying the work of young artists. I wasn’t the only one. If a person likes your work they will buy again and again. This may sound like a sudden windfall but it isn’t what it appears. Hap began to buy when my prices were quite low and the purchases were made over many years. However, when times were hard I could pretty much count on Hap to buy a painting. He and a number of steady customers have been the bedrock supporting my career. Mr. and Mrs. Lex Jolley were long time patrons and also patrons of this School. The portrait I painted of them when they were both 90 years old hangs in the Jolley Lodge that they gave the school. I painted it from life, by the way, not from a photograph. Through the years they also bought and commissioned about 30 paintings. I have several more mega collectors; the Strain family from Dalton Georgia who have an entire wall of my paintings and Richard and Winney Myrick who have one of my paintings in every available spot in their home. Lately my son and his wife have become collectors and they now own the largest group of my paintings in private hands. I could not have made it without my steady collectors; God bless them every one.
"I found a painting in a garage sale when we lived in New Jersey by a painter named Raphael Sawyer. I called to ask if I could bring the painting by his studio and have him authenticate it. He was in his early 90s and I had heard that he had cancer. I had read a couple of his books and I wanted to meet him. The studio was in an apartment building in the 90s on the west side. It was just a big square room with a high ceiling, dingy green wainscoted walls that hadn’t been painted since the building was new and an unpainted wooden floor. Windows covered the north wall. It was a perfect studio. Raphael Sawyer was a tiny little man, less than 5’ tall and very thin. His easel was near the window and he painted seated with his canvas leaned back toward him in a way had never seen before. We sat and talked about painting and he asked me about my work and I showed him a few photographs. I didn’t want to impose on his time so I thanked him and rose to leave. As I opened the door he called me back. Looking up at me he said; “It gets easier.” "