Two roads diverge before serious artists early in their careers: What happens if they decide to become commercial artists, customizing their craft to satisfy a specific market? What happens if they don’t?
“If you do, you’re beholden to that market, and it can be very difficult,” said Eric Wiegardt, a professional watercolorist based in Ocean Park.
Wiegardt and Darren Orange, an Astoria-based mixed-media artist, discussed their entrepreneurial paths through the art scene — their paintings, processes and practical wisdom — during the final lecture of the Columbia Forum’s 26th season last Thursday night in Columbia Memorial Hospital’s Community Center.
The first road, they said, is replete with compromise. The final product may never reflect what artists consider their best work, let alone fulfill their highest vision of themselves as artists.
On the other hand, the road is often replete with money — precious, comforting money that makes food materialize.
Not taking that road, Wiegardt said, may have made his life tougher than it needed to be.
“But I had my freedom, and I would not have received the recognition I received had I done that,” he said.
That recognition includes the 2012 American Watercolor Society Gold Medal of Honor, an award open to international artists and given out once a year to the finest work in the field.
Orange — an intuitive and largely abstract artist who also paints nonrepresentational landscapes, seascapes and local scenes — chose not to “perform to sell,” he said.
“I did that for a while, and I wasn’t very good at it,” he said, “and I felt it cheapened what I was trying to do.”
So where can an artist unwilling to sell out tap some reliable income?
“The art of understanding how to produce a painting, a good painting, is a huge discipline,” said Wiegardt, a graduate of the American Academy of Art in Chicago. “Understanding how to market it is another discipline, and it’s very complex and can get very involved, and you can go down the wrong path very, very easily.”
When he launched his artistic career after a stint as an engineer, Wiegardt was fortunate that his Ocean Park gallery stands in a well-traveled vacation area. But that didn’t make his situation easy.
“Back in the early years, I think the community felt sorry for me, and they all came and bought paintings,” he said.
To raise his profile and build a reputation, he entered national competitions, “not the biggest ones, but they were in New York, and I let the local paper know, and they wrote those up, and that was very helpful,” he said.
Eventually, Wiegardt — who has now taught more than 5,000 watercolorists through his seminars — figured out that teaching helped broaden his exposure while upping his income.
And he freely admits that he had help, especially from his wife, Ann. The couple sells painters’ products, like brushes and videos, out of their Ocean Park gallery and online.
“I would not be here as an artist without her support,” he said.
Orange — a graduate of Western Washington University who began using nontraditional materials like tar, house paint and concrete and has lately branched out into acrylics — said it’s extremely difficult to make a living on art alone.
“I don’t know too many working artists who just do art,” he said.
While finding galleries that believe in their work and will aggressively push it, noncommercial artists often have to cobble together a livelihood.
Orange — whose paintings appear in collections around the world, including England, Sweden, the United Arab Emirates and Canada — works as a house-painting contractor, a gig that offers him a flexible schedule and big blocks of time to create.
Much of his exposure as an artist has come through exhibitions, competitions and commissions, he said.
His work appears as the album art for The Holiday Friends’ “Major Magic” and the jacket cover art for Pamela Mattson McDonald’s novel “Kilned Again.” Recording artist Lindi Ortega commissioned a painting from Orange of her signature red cowgirl boots. And Elizabeth Pitcairn, a classical violinist, commissioned a painting of the world-famous “Red Mendelssohn” Stradivari violin (aka, the Red Violin), which she performs with.
The money made on such high-profile fine-art pieces, or even something as simple and short-lived as his chalk drawings on Fort George Brewery’s beer menu, can help offset an artist’s expenses, Orange said.
And, make no mistake, art can be an expensive habit: “I mean, a 6-foot-by-6-foot canvas could have $300 worth of paint on there very easily, or more,” he said.
Long ago, Wiegardt and Orange decided to gamble on their gifts speaking for themselves, on their artwork finding an audience able to appreciate it the way the painters wanted it to be appreciated.
In avoiding the mercenary route, they remained untouched by market constraints that could have stunted their artistic expression and growth. They were allowed to develop at their own paces, to change course and challenge themselves. And prevented their work from becoming boringly, numbingly easy.
“I still suffer,” Orange said. “As long as I’m suffering to some degree, I feel good and strong about that. I think if everything’s going too smooth, then I feel I’m not making progress.”
For Wiegardt, this creative freedom is the whole reason he became a painter in the first place.
“That’s why I don’t think it would work very well for me to be a commercial artist, where you’re just told what to paint, and how to paint it, and when it’s due,” he said. “A lot of money in that, but it’s not a real good situation for me.”