Who am I Painting For?

Lori Putnam Blog

October 14, 2016


The first year I participated in the Maui Plein Air Invitational I had a hard time deciding which paintings to submit for the exhibition. I was torn between a group of quirky paintings that I loved, and a group of more typical landscapes. When I asked the other artists which paintings to submit Larry Moore had the best response. “Do you want to make money, or do you want the respect of your peers?”

I think of that line regularly, when I’m questioning what to paint. It speaks to me because of its simple truth. Who is your audience? It cuts right to the core of the problem with painting for a living. I don’t want to get wrapped up in painting for sales. I hope to paint for myself, without letting money affect my choices. Sometimes I’m better at this than other times. But like Larry asked, it really does all come down to who I’m painting for. Do I paint for sales, for other painters, myself? I want to paint for myself above all others, but if I’m honest with myself the other audiences creep in here and there.

For the last year I have been painting for a solo show at Dowling Walsh Gallery in Maine, and wanted to make a major part of that show paintings of my kids. I knew these might not sell as well as the usual landscapes, but they were paintings I couldn’t stop thinking about. Even if I couldn’t depend on a lot of sales, it was worth the risk to make such personal work.

For a couple of reasons I wanted to make these paintings. My life revolves around parenting, and I want to make paintings about my life. I like the idea of seeing my paintings as a kind of journal that tells my story. These paintings are partly about the different personalities of my children. When I had my second child I could see how innate their character is at a very young age. Their character is shown through the poses they hold in the paintings, and the way the figure engages in the landscape. In a broader sense, I want to make paintings of childhood and its quirks.  But they are also paintings of my children, and I hope to put my love for them in every image.

Another idea I had with these paintings was to show how my kids, and little kids in general, fall into parallel play so naturally. They love to play together, but sometimes that just means engaging in their own solitary activity while in each other’s company. In most of these paintings the kids are happily playing in the same space and enjoying each other’s company, but they aren’t actually engaged in the same activity. For me this brings a kind of inward quiet to the paintings. It feels more true to my experience of watching my kids play when they are getting along. I love painting my children and hope to make paintings that are honest and real, without getting too saccharine. 

I’ve heard some people suggest doing one painting for the customer, and one for yourself. For the most part, I try not to think too much about what is the more saleable subject. I don’t have a formula for figuring this out. The idea of sales sneaks in there once in a while, but most of the time I trust that the best paintings come from following my own interests. Sometimes I want to paint lobster boats and Maine harbors, and other times I want to paint an old beat up truck, or pictures of my kids running around the front yard. Some of the subjects might sell better than others, but if I try to force myself to paint a canvas for sales alone, the art suffers. And bad paintings are much less likely to sell.

Back in Maui I chose to show the quirky group of paintings, and it paid off well. I made a few sales, including a painting bought by a fellow artist. And more importantly I was proud of the body of work I showed.  It was a good reminder to paint meaningful paintings, and have trust in my audience