The Art of Ideas

The work of S. Christopher James

“I believe that if it were left to artists to choose their own labels, most would choose none” – Ben Shahn

When describing art, we tend to revert to what we learned in art history. Western categorizations are satisfactory to me. I wish to refrain from arguing about what style or category to label my work. However, we all need a baseline to begin the conversation. I like to use icons from the twentieth century to generate concepts pertinent to events of the moment. Those icons include movies, music, art, technology, toys, etc. I utilize the modern-day tools and resources that enable the work to take shape. Using traditional painting mediums like printmaking and watercolor gives me the satisfaction of creating art by hand. Digital tools are also used as a medium to complete the work when necessary. This hybrid way of creating by scanning traditional mediums into a digital format gives me true flexibility in creating concepts.

If there are labels to be had, my work is conceptual, but it isn’t conceptual art in the sense of protest of what art is. It is the art of the idea. The medium is not as important as the idea or concept. It is representational. It uses formal standards in the art of shape, line, color, and composition. Some might even classify my compositions as illustration. However, I do not create art commercially, nor is the work done on commission. I would even go as far as Social Realism, sometimes with a satirical message.

A screenprint of a street scene in the Town of San Augustine, Texas, in 1939
San Augustine by S. Christopher James. This is a serigraph of a street scene in the Town of San Augustine, Texas, in 1939. Does anyone notice the elephant in the room?

The serigraph above was derived from a photo taken by photographer and photojournalist Lee Russell, 1903-1986 (Library of Congress). It shows a street scene in the small Texas town of San Augustine. The image was black and white, but you could tell that the street scene had black and white Americans mingling at what appeared to be a feed store. So we can assume most were farmers. The image was taken in 1939. We have our icon in red to show a general connection in time and place. Being in the south during Jim Crow, we can also make assumptions about what we can’t see. Items such as colored-only restrooms and water fountains. The scene may not tell all the stories, so we move to create the narrative based on our history. That is the elephant in the room.

Creating artwork that has a message is nothing new. However, art can mean something different for all of us. If we empathize with what the artist is trying to convey, we root for them and appreciate the emotions it brings out of us. For the artist, there is always meaning and personal attributes that motivate and inspire them to keep working, rarely achieving perfection in their minds. Knowing there are other works to be created, they move on.

I am rarely in a position for lack of ideas. My subject matter is the United States of America. Seeing everything in real time now is not only a joy but a curse. It all seems overwhelming until we realize it was always part of us. We’ve always had divisions, a pandemic, wars, climate issues, corporate greed, immigration issues, nasty politics, etc. I could drum up some really awful periods in our nation’s history. And yet, our ability to endure has always been humanity’s strength. This is my so-called canvas.

It doesn’t always require the viewer to be a super sleuth to enjoy the work. The creative journey for me, which involves pencil to paper, mixing colors for printmaking, or firing up the iPad, is more fun than anyone should be allowed.

The joy of doodling: Pencil and paper, please!

I am doing what was frowned on in grade school as of this writing. It was seen as a form of daydreaming, boredom, or just wasting time. I was doodling. Little did I know that doodling would be an important, influential exercise that would define me for the rest of my life. It has indirectly guided the career path as an artist and designer that I enjoy today. 

This is a doodle from Josephine Baker.
Doodle by entertainer Josephine Baker.

No, I don’t doodle as a form of income. Well, maybe. Doodling, for me, is a means to an end. It is a way of life for most of us in the creative field. It is an indispensable exercise that has led to some of the most incredible art, design, architecture, film, and photography the world has ever known. I would even go as far as to say that the exercise of doodling expands into a host of other fields and disciplines that have significantly contributed to humankind.

Even though I work with a digital tablet, there is no comparison to the tactile nature of pencil and paper. So, for the purpose of this article, we are talking about this subject using a pencil, pen or brush, and actual paper.

Like meditation, exercise, or diet, doodling can be more than just passing the time. Researchers have found that there are actually benefits to doodling. 

What is it?

Doodling is an art that you do without even thinking. Usually, it accompanies a wandering mind. Of course, some doodles are better than others. After all, not everyone has a talent for drawing. However, no one has to be a great artist when doodling. Doodling is for everyone to enjoy.

There are many reasons we doodle. Sometimes it’s unconscious, and at times, it’s a purposeful, intentional way of constructing something physically or mentally. It is said to be an expression of your inner self, and a peek into your subconscious mind. For an artist, doodling is not only fun; it is necessary to allow you to create visually what your mind is releasing with your hand being the physical tool as a means to an end.

Some of the benefits of doodling

The act of doodling actually has a few benefits to brag about. Some of them are as follows:

Relaxation. Coping with life, in general, can be a challenge. The problems associated with stress are no joke. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), stress can contribute to issues such as feelings of fear, anger, sadness, worry, numbness, or frustration. Also, changes in appetite, energy, desires, and interests. Physical issues include headaches, body pains, stomach problems, skin rashes, and worsening chronic health problems. Increased use of tobacco, alcohol, and even drugs. Meanwhile, scientists, artists, and teachers agree that doodling soothes our feelings of distress. 

 

Doodles from President Lyndon B. Johnson
Doodles from President Lyndon B. Johnson

One 2016 study of 39 university students, staff, and faculty found that after making art, 75 percent of participants had lower levels of cortisol (stress hormones) in their saliva. It didn’t matter whether the art was representational or “mere” scribbling. (Karen Sosnoski, Ph.D.)

It did not matter that some participants were artists and others were not. Art-making or doodling as a stress reliever was equally effective. The researchers also concluded that “art-making could be a way to regulate mood and addictive behaviors.

Enhanced Memory. A memory test was conducted by the School of Psychology, the University of Plymouth, U.K. Participants in the case study, were asked to doodle during a phone message. Those who engaged in the doodling recalled more information than the non-doodlers. The study done by Jackie Andrade concluded that “doodling simply helps to stabilize arousal at an optimal level, keeping people awake or reducing the high levels of autonomic arousal often associated with boredom.”

A doodle by former president,President Barack Obama
This is a doodle from President Barack Obama.

Doodling could be a last-ditch attempt at staying awake and attentive. Doodling keeps you from falling asleep or staring blankly when your brain has already turned off. I, for one, can definitely vouch for this. The permission to “free-draw” keeps your brain online just a little longer. Touch is a powerful sense in our ability to recall information. When our sense of touch and sight are at play, we tend to be in a zen state. It’s an excellent feeling.

Many researchers believe that doodles can reveal what is going on in the subconscious mind. Hand-eye coordination is helpful as some of us are very hands-on in mastering a physical skill. With doodling, we tend to have more of a connection. We feel more invested in the composition of whatever it is we are doodling. This is helpful in memory retention. Even if we listen to a conversation or attend a meeting, this is the case.

Problem-solving for visual communicators. As creatives, we work out problems through doodling, pencil roughs, or thumbnail sketches. We are activating ideas and concepts from our visual storage place – The hippocampus portion of our brain. We not only recall good elements of design, but we also memorize symbols, icons, events, and visual stimuli such as movies, architecture, industry, commerce, travel sites, books, art galleries, and design. 

A doodle by the author, S. Christopher James
A doodle by the author, S. Christopher James.

Doodling also tends to make us a more relaxed and focused visual communicator with the ability to generate many ideas by filling the gaps in our thinking process. In the book “Drawing is Thinking” by late Graphic Designer Milton Glaser, he notes that “commitment to the fundamental idea that drawing is not simply a way to represent reality, but a way to understand and experience the world.” How you experience the world is unique to each individual. 

This is ideal for an artist who wants everyone to experience how they view the world. For the designer who needs to capture and interpret visual meaning in how they solve visual communications problems, it’s an invaluable tool.

The advantages are clear for artists and designers engaged in doodling (or thumbnails). If you feel the pressure of tight deadlines, you may think it’s easier to engage the digital assets for a quick fix. It may work in a pinch, but it does not generate an emotional connection to the problem presented before you. As a seasoned professional who has worked on thousands of projects in my career, doodling or sketching is still my go-to for problem-solving and the creation of ideas. 

Benefits for everyone. Doodling is not just for individuals in the creative field. U.S. Presidents have been known to engage in the fun exercise. If you want to relax more, enhance memory, improve focus, or stay awake when bored, doodling can be part of your whole health regimen. There are even more benefits to doodling than I have written here, such as benefits for our aging population. For more advanced reading on this subject of doodling, check out some of my sources below. They are very informative.

Some of the resources and suggested reading for this article are as follows:

The “thinking” benefits of doodling, by Srini Pillay, MD, Contributor, Harvard Health.

The Mental Health Benefits of Doodling, by Karen Sosnoski, Ph.D. on November 13, 2020

The Surprisingly Powerful Influence of Drawing on Memory, Myra A. Fernandes, Jeffrey D. Wammes, Melissa E. Meade

Sunni Brown, author of “The Doodle Revolution: Unlock the Power to Think Differently.

Drawing is Thinking”, by Graphic Designer, Milton Glaser.

What Does Doodling Do?, Jackie Andrade, School of Psychology, University of Plymouth, UK

 

Does your artwork have provenance

Provenance in art has become the new thing recently. Ever since the massive amount of currency used in the purchase of an NFT (Non-Fungible Token), provenance has gone mainstream. For a collector of art, this is nothing new. Collectors tend to place value on almost everything you can imagine. The most important aspects of collecting art is rarity and authenticity. No collector wants something that can be had by everyone. By definition, provenance is the chronology of the ownership, custody or location of a valued artifact, literature or art. In the 21st century, this list of items can go on and on, even digitally.

The painting “Adele Bloch-Bauer I” is one of five Gustav Klimt paintings that were stolen from Maria Altmann’s family by the Nazis in 1938.
The painting “Adele Bloch-Bauer I” is one of five Gustav Klimt paintings that were stolen from Maria Altmann’s family by the Nazis in 1938.

Lately, the ownership of stolen paintings by the Nazis in World War II (WWII) has been in the news again. The search for who really owns these great works of art has fallen on testimony of friends, relatives or acquaintances. According to information from the National Archive, “The idea of provenance  is as old as recorded time. Museums and galleries are researching the provenance of paintings, decorative arts, and sculpture in their collections in order to confirm the origins of the work. As a result of the war, a significant amount of artwork still is missing and unaccounted for” (National Archive).

Why is provenance so important?

Verified provenance can prove the authenticity of a piece and greatly increase its value. Since art has been collectible for thousands of years, determining where a piece comes from is often a complex combination of historical study and detailed documentation. It is important for most people that their antiques, jewelry, artifact or painting has some value. The Antique Road Show, a TV program that have experts who will valuate your antiques, is popular for a reason. However, appraisal is not quite provenance.

Provenance establishes an item’s collectible significance beyond what it would otherwise appear to have. For instance, art with interesting provenance can have a back story that is just as interesting as the piece itself(Artwork Archive)! 

When purchasing work at an art fair or gallery, chances are you may have questions about the work. You get to meet the artist. Most artist will happily answer any question you have. This might include anything from process or technique to why they chose the subject matter. It’s usually rooted in an emotional connection or influences. Identifying with the artist is a good way to know if you are purchasing an original work. 

Provenance or ownership can take on many forms. Some of the ways to establish provenance:

  • A signed certificate.
  • An exhibition or gallery sticker
  • Receipts signed directly by the artist
  • A video or photo of the artist with the work
  • Verifiable names of the previous owners
  • An article in a book, periodical or online

What about online?

Online art sales has seen a good deal of activity during the pandemic. At times, it was the only way to acquire art. However, this is a buyer beware moment. According to ArtBusiness.com, the art business has always had its problems with fraudulent art transactions. Usually in the way of provenance. As much as the above items could show provenance, they can easily be used to fake authenticity of the work.

Personally, it is hard to part with a piece I put my heart and soul into. The good news is that with fine art printers available, you can get that high cost original at a fraction of the price. This is great for people who want a high quality image of their favorite work. However, not all fine art printers are the same. The bad news is you would probably not go this route when provenance is your goal. Sometimes so many editions can be produced, it loses its potential value to a collector. For individuals who would like to have an original work with a reasonable price point, consider limited edition prints.

Printmaking

Another form of print reproduction is the art of printmaking. There are several types of printmaking techniques and most date back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Some notable techniques are:

  • Woodcut
  • Linocut
  • Collagraph
  • Engraving
  • Etching
  • Aquatint
  • Lithography
  • Monotype
  • Screen prints or serigraphs

If provenance is a goal but the art budget is a little tight, consider an artist who is a printmaker. Most of these techniques require lots of physical and painstaking work so the artist cannot output unlimited quantities or the artist may choose a limit on which he will produce them. Many well-known painters also worked in printmaking as well for this reason. Some of the more popular artist are:

In Harriet Tubman I Helped Hundreds to Freedom, 1946, (Princeton)
Elizabeth Catlett. In Harriet Tubman I Helped Hundreds to Freedom, 1946, (Princeton)
  • Andy Warhol
  • Pablo Picasso
  • Albrecht Dürer
  • Edouard Manet
  • Diego Rivera
  • Rembrandt
  • Ben Shahn
  • Elizabeth Catlett

The rule of thumb on evaluating and purchasing a print or any art for that matter is authencity and rarity. Other things to consider:

  • Limited editions (as opposed to open editions).
  • The amount of colors used (in most of techniques mentioned, each color is hand pulled independently). The more colors used, the more expensive the work.
  • Size.
  • Substrate. Cotton papers, canvas, archival quality papers, wood, glass, metal, etc.

The goal here is to have as few prints circulating as possible. Additionally, each print is usually not reproduced exactly like the other. This is because the artist is not a machine and the work is not for commercial purposes, such as you would use for a brochure or magazine. This is ideal. It gives you a work that is original, but possibly at a lower price point. I enjoy the benefits of collecting limited editions prints. I have purchased both giclee limited editions fine art prints and limited edition hand-pulled prints. I suspect that the hand-pulled art prints will hold its provenance better than the former. There are many more sources that touch on the issue of provenance. Do your research and enjoy collecting!

Art as Non-fungible tokens

Ethereum.

Art as a Non-fungible token (NFT)

The art on the blockchain scene seems to be taking shape. For digital art collectors who want to buy and trade these works, read further.

Now to explain a little about the Crypto Art market. It is a very complex undertaking that can reap many rewards or leave some to figure out if it is worth it right now. That goes for collectors as well as artist. As of this writing a work on this platform sold for 69 million in U.S. dollars. That was the value of the Ethereum use to purchase it at the time.

Art in this space is very subjective. The phrase, “I don’t know art but I know what I like”, appears to be name of the game. First of all, the amount of items people classify as an NFT is overwhelming. Anything from Tweets, music and 8-bit gifs to short highlights of an NBA star can be minted as an NFT. These are collectibles making hundreds of thousands of dollars, even millions. If you are looking to get in that game, there is stuff aplenty. If you are interested in the arts, there is plenty of that too.

Some sites are curated which means the artist has been vetted and you are assured that the work was originated by that artist. These are sites such as SuperRare, NiftyGateway, Makersplace and others. Since deception and fraud are always present when there is money to be made, these sites can insure that there is some security in knowing that the art you purchase is genuine. However, it is definitely not foolproof. Digital art, is art that is constructed on a digital platform or created in the traditional sense, then scanned to be in a digital format. Right now, no matter what format an artist uses, it is eventually formatted to be digital. It’s the way artist can be seen outside of the traditional gallery space. This leaves the door open for any number of ways to cheat.

To understand the true value for some art collectors on the blockchain, provenance (the history of ownership of a valued object or work) is an important part of purchasing art. Knowing that the image can be copied is not as important as knowing that you own it  on the blockchain. Value in how they view and enjoy the work and value in its ability to appreciate over time. Art is bought and sold as an NFT on this notion alone. 

For artists, the value is not only in its provenance, but in the continual residual value as it is bought and sold. Like actors who continue to receive money every time there is a rerun, artist can finally realize this gift. This is forever on the blockchain.

NFT’s offers us a new model for digital art ownership. With the blockchain, digital artwork can be registered as a token on a secure, fixed public ledger. By turning an artwork into a token, artists can preserve scarcity and ownership for each work. As the data remains inscribed on the blockchain regardless of copying or piracy, these tokens become tamper-proof certificates of ownership. Again, we are talking about the digital space.

Now we have proof of ownership on the blockchain. For artist who are trying to keep their work from being downloaded and massed produce might have some recourse in proving that the work is theirs besides watermarking it. But like everything in the digital space, there is no guarantee that someone in the world with lax copyright laws will be deterred from pirating your work. It’s happening and there is really not that much you unless you find out about it. Most sites will handle your complaint, but the rush to millions is overwhelming. The NFT sites are doing the best they can.

If you are an artist or collector, give it some time. I believe the only fad is time. NFT’s are not going away because some of the largest players are in this big. These players are young and they are winners in the space. This is part of the process to get to the potential that it is destined to become. If you are not wealthy, getting in early is only to figure out how to navigate this space. Know the key words like non-fungible, minting, tokens, blockchain, etc. and wait for the opportunities this new thing will present. Be creative in how you present your work and use this technology in ways that no one has yet thought of. Some have already begun to do this. I believe NFT’s are here to stay.

 

 

 

Society Of Illustrators Sketch Night

SIsketchnightbarsmIf you are an aspiring illustrator and have not paid a visit to the Society of Illustrators in New York City, I encourage a stop on your next visit to the city. My undergraduate studies in advertising art (as it was called back then) were filled with dreams of creating an illustration for the cover of a national magazine. For an artist, I equate that to being in a movie or TV show. My influences were many at the time. Rockwell, Leyendecker, Holland, English, Mahurin and too many others to name here. Other aspiring illustrators and I would purchase the Society of Illustrators Annual of American Illustration every year ($50.00 at the time) and mull through every style, concept and the medium used on each illustration that made it into the book. We were groupies of the highest order. And why not, we were all doing art in some form or fashion since we could hold a pencil. My first trip to the Society was in the late 80’s. My work had made it into the student show. Years later as a graduate student in New York, I still found The Society of Illustrators to be a magical place.

The set up was a little bit of work. It justified the entrance fee which varies depending on whether you are a member or not. The Society would transform the dining room area upstairs into a platform or stage for the models and place chairs in a semi-circle all around it. In the front near the upstairs entrance of the room was an open bar. To the left was a jazz band that I heard was made of members of the Society that can play a little. They were very good. Now, the mood was set. I found a spot in the corner area of the stage to set up. The participants were of all ages. Students, men, women, professional artists or just people wanting to have a good time drawing. This day was a little crowded, so it was best to get drinks before the first session began.

This particular night was the African Warrior and African Queen as far as I could tell.  The man had dreadlocks. I couldn’t place the period or wardrobe, they were dressed more like Apache Indians but no matter we were ready to draw. In drawing sessions, it is all about enjoying the challenges of timed poses and for some of us, to see if we still got it — whatever IT is. There was also a little unspoken silent competition in the works I’m sure. It was not just a competition to determine the best sketch artists, but also who might be carrying in a unique style into the mix. I saw artists with paint, color pastels, and ink pens. This was going to be good.

nubiankingThe timed sessions were done not just for a challenge, but also to get the models moving and artist warmed up for the final 30-minute pose. The sessions seemed really fast. I started drawing as if I had all day to finish. I would do a base gestural drawing and start with details only to hear time called. There was no finishing later. The models went into a new pose. If there was ever a time I felt nearly inadequate as an artist was that night. Walking around during breaks gave us an opportunity to see what everyone was creating. There was cubism, watercolor, beautiful pastels and stuff that any gallery owner would be proud to display. All of this was done in timed poses that range from 5 to 15 minutes. It was some of the most wonderful displays of craft I have ever seen in one room. It was in the later sessions though, that I started to get my mojo.

Finally, when it was all over, I felt good about how my sketches ended up. I came in with a 16 x 20 pad of newsprint and some pencils I had purchased from an office supply store on the way there. I left with something I would keep — decent sketches and a wonderful experience. I continued to go to sketch night during the three years in graduate school in New York City.

Since that time, almost ten years ago,  I have done the SI sketch night several times and even once with my now adult daughter. I hope to do it again someday as my daughter and I seemed to have a love for the city and its many cultural offerings. It’s funny that my career path didn’t quite go the way I planned as a full time illustrator (that’s another story). I seemed to also have a knack for advertising and design which is what I do to this day. However, I still find time to paint and draw and even been in a few juried shows. As I continue in the visual communications industry, I will always painting, drawing and now printmaking as my passion.

My personal rules for limited edition prints

seventeenth street

Seventeenth Street, 1991, by Nancy McIntyre

water-base silkscreen with 96 colors

edition 65 plus 7 APs

24 1/4 x 19 1/4″ image on 30 x 22 1/2″ Arches 88 Silkscreen 100% Rag

With new technologies being introduced on a yearly basis, one of the most perplexing is the way technology and artistic expression have become intertwined. It can be both good and bad. Although I have utilized both to a satisfactory conclusion, it did not come without some degree of confusion. None more so than the options provided to reproduce flat art. These are the images applied to portable flat substrates such as paper, wood, canvas, etc.

 

Specifically, the printing of art in multiple copies or editions of a singular piece of work. As a fan of the more traditional ways of creating art, I personally place no real value in what you can print on a commercial press (offset, digital or web). These are the presses that print brochures, catalogues, POP, stationery, packaging and so on. As an experienced visual communicator, commercial printers are indispensable for those products and have used them my whole career.

 

For an artist who has spent time creating only one painting, he or she may feel like a commercial printer will not fulfill the artist needs for quality reproduction. The artist may decide to go the route of a giclée high-end digital art printer. These high-end large format printers purport to have excellent color reproduction and longevity. I have bought one or two myself and I am completely satisfied with the results. However, I don’t expect that it will have any value outside of my own personal enjoyment. It was one of 500 copies. Officially, it is a limited run. At 500 copies, you may question what is the cut-off for a limited edition. Also, what value is there really for that amount of prints. Say the print was 60.00 for an 16 x 20 print on high quality archival grade of paper. That would place that artist painting if he just sold that at $30,000 dollars. Size does matter in art. A 16 x 20 inch painting in the contemporary art period may not command $30,000. That’s a pretty good take for an artist.

 

Many of us in the art world will not sell a painting for that much at that size. With galleries getting up to 40 percent of the take, a high end art print edition might be a way to go, especially if you can sell all of the prints. What if you did sell all of the prints. That would be great and a sign that maybe more could be sold if available. Would there be the temptation for the gallery or the artist to print more? If so, how would you the art buyer feel about the value of your work in this scenario?

 

Limited edition printing for fine are reproductions has no rules or governing body. There are no rules for substrate quality, number of colors for a high end press. Some will say it starts at 8-colors. Some fine art dealers have printers that go as high as 12 colors. And, what quantity constitutes limited runs? And lastly, what is that worth to you the buyer to have a reproduction instead of the original?

 

With these factors in mind, my personal rules for limited editions are as follows:

  1. It has to be hand pulled. Not digitally printed. It all about the craft. If the artist was breaking a sweat washing screens and pulling a squeegee by hand, dry pointing an image on copper or plexiglass, using a huge stone and turning a press wheel by hand, cutting into a sheet of linoleum or wood with blades that can take out a finger or putting on an apron and gloves because ink and chemicals are being slung everywhere, then you’ve got my attention. Signed and numbered by the artist.
  2. Substrate. Is the paper going to last a lifetime. Most 100% cotton paper meet this criteria. There are not doubts that new long lasting papers are out on the market that may last 100 years or more.
  3. Very limited editions. Less than 200 would be ideal but not a deal breaker. If your going above that, you might be using a machine or the artist stamina is off the charts. Just saying.

 

When it comes to the art I enjoy, I have a few rules. The image used to illustrate this topic meets all of the criteria and then some. However, don’t let my idiosyncratic nonsense influence your way of viewing and purchasing art. Art has no price limit if you are that jazzed about the image. I’ve purchased all kinds from traditional hand-pulled prints to high-end fine art giclée prints. It’s fun and makes for great conversation or even reflection. You may be lucky enough to collect a value added work that will appreciate over time. I welcome your thoughts or experience about this topic.