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Questions and answers about professional aspects of art

Q. I prefer Prismacolor colored pencils but because I sell my work I wonder how lightfast they are. Do you recommend another brand?

A.So what to do when you require archival reliability? You have some options. There are other brands that claim excellent lightfastness. But the number one place to check out lightfastness ratings is through the Colored Pencil Society of America. It offers a workbook with lightfastness ratings for many different brands of colored pencils. However at this time you need to be a member in order to receive a copy of their ratings.)

But there is yet another option. Remember that the regular Prismacolor Premier line of colored pencils has always had a decent percentage of lightfast pencils. All you need to do is identify these by testing them--something you can do in your own work space. Testing this way isn't "state of the art" lightfast testing. But it will provide an interesting snapshot of how your pencils are performing, which ones fade fast, fade slowly, or perhaps fade not at all. And it's...kind of fun.  Here is the link:


The photo at right is a chart of pencil colors being tested. Gathering as much information as possible helps to make informed choices. And if sticking with just one brand provides only a partial palette, then consider using pencils from additional brands to complete it.

Q. In your book Colored Pencil for the Serious Beginner you outline your workspace. I was interested in making a double-sized drawing board like the one you made using a hollow-core door hinged to a wall frame, and I was wondering if you could give me any more information that would help me make it. Any pictures or diagrams would be very helpful.

A. Perhaps this will help: The two b/w photos at right show the side of the drawing board.  It doesn't really have a hinge in the sense of a traditional hinge.  Instead it has a series of drilled holes (see 1) on the uprights (against the wall).  The drawing board has a piece of wood with one hole on each end.  When board hole and one of the other upright holes are lined up, a carriage bolt is inserted (see 2).  (Carriage bolt = a bolt that has a rounded head, but just beneath it is a cube shape so that when tightened, it doesn't turn.)  A wing nut secures it.  When you want to adjust the height of the whole board, a person on each end takes the bolt out, moves the board, realigns it, and inserts the bolts again, and then tightens it. The way to make it stand out from the wall (at various angles) is by use of a length of wood that is fastened to the board (3), again with a series of drilled holes. The sheer weight of the board keeps the hollow core door from moving.  It's completely steady and secure.

Any kind of wood texture can telegraph through to a drawing paper.  I've always used a smooth matboard under my drawing sheet to keep this from happening.

Q. I sell my colored pencil work in two galleries in the midwest here where I live. I wonder, however, if I should be exploring public art programs as an additional way of selling and exposing my work in other far-flung areas. I've noticed by reading the credits of your work in your books that you have sold a lot of your art to public collections. Will you share info on how this is done?

A. These public art programs have been mandated by legislation in some states. They require that a certain percentage (usually about 1/2% to 1.5%) of funding for the construction of such public buildings as schools, libraries, transit clusters, walls along freeways, etc. be used for the purchase of art to be placed or integrated into those new constructions.

This practice has been a boon to artists who have made themselves aware of such projects, and have submitted work to the art commissions administering them. But these programs have been changing in recent times, and are not the solid market for two-dimensional artists they used to be.

What has happened is that art purchased by government entities for new buildings originally consisted mostly of two-dimensional work for interior spaces, and free-standing sculpture. This is not usually the case any more. A more frequent situation now is that "artist teams" are selected to work with project architects and building management to create works that are integrated into the actual building process. These can often turn out to be ceramic tiles, large glass treatments of windows, molded doo-hickies for stairwells, cement or whatever. To a dramaticaly lesser degree some projects still request submission of "existing two-dimensional artwork." But individual artists working in traditional media are gradually squeezed out in favor of "artist teams" who fabricate with the hard materials of construction--not paper, canvas, pencils, or paint.

Is it still worthwhile to pursue "public art?" I think so. For two or three days of time spent at contacting various art commissions may produce a stream of prospectuses for years to come. You can find names and addresses for art commissions by searching the internet. Look for references under "Percent for Art Programs" or "Public Art Programs." A useful URL for a listing of state organizations is: http://www.NASAA-ARTS.org . Your objective is to get on mailing lists that inform artists of new projects coming up. Start with your local art commission.

Commissions tend to run programs differently from one another, with rules spelled out in their prospectuses. Some eligibility requirements are strict, some are very open. There usually isn't a fee to submit artwork.

A tip: If DVDs are required for you to be included on a mailing list, be discriminating. Ask by telephone or email if they regularly select two-dimensional work, if their projects tend to be mostly integrated into construction, and about any limitations on eligibility. Weigh your chances carefully.

Q. Can marred or scratched metal frames be restored?

A. Not totally satisfactorily that I know of. Scratches in wood frames are routinely covered and blended by using permanent markers of appropriate colors. And sometimes black metal frames can be saved with a black marker--if the blemish is small.

Since framed pictures are most vulnerable to scratching when being stored or in transit, the best strategy may be to use a barrier method to prevent scratching in these situations. There are various approaches to this, but one of the most clever is the use of foam pipe insulation, available in different sizes at many home and hardware stores.

These long sponge-like tubes, being slotted to fit around pipes, can be easily cut to short lengths with scissors, and slipped over frame rails (see photo). They can also be re-used many times.

Q. What is the best way to present colored pencil art work? Is dry mounting ever used?

A. Colored pencil work is almost always glazed under glass or acrylic sheet, then framed with or without a mat, but usually the former. If without a mat, spacers should be used to keep drawing surface from making contact with glazing material. (btw "glazing" refers to using glass.)

Dry mounting is not recommended for colored pencil artwork regardless of whether done with oil or wax based pencils.

About matting: Because colored pencil produces a thin film surface on the paper, a single matboard will often suffice. But whether one or more are used, good conservation practice holds that the opening should not overlap the drawing. There should be a margin of at least 1/4" between drawing edges and mat. This is because an overlapped matboard--even acid-free or 100% rag--will in time "burn" or leave a mark on the drawing.

Commercial framers usually prefer to overlap the image with its mat because a light-valued margin can take attention from an image. But if longevity is a concern, don't overlap.

And while it can be a temptation to sign work in its margin, signing in the image itself more clearly shows that it is not a print.

Q. Last summer I began selling color copies of my work in outdoor festivals. They sold well enough that I think I should do it again. But I worry that these color copies will fade.

A. Color copies will indeed fade. How soon this happens will depend a great deal on how much light they are exposed to.

But in my opinion, if your prints are fairly inexpensive--say $40. or less--it really shouldn't matter that their life expectancy is somewhat short. You might disclose on its reverse side that the print is a Canon, Epson (or whatever brand) color copy. Not only would this kind of full disclosure show that you are not trying to hide anything, it would protect your own future reputation as an artist.

As a general rule, I would not recommend selling color copies more pricey than the above amount. Color copies are just not a fine art medium. If your color copies are done professionally
such as a giclee print, and are archival then you may be able to price the work higher.  The next Q/A may also be helpful.

Q. I am interested in having notecards made of my colored pencil art, but am not sure how to go about it. I wonder if colored pencil reproduces well, how such cards are printed, how expensive it is, and are there opportunities for selling greeting cards.

A. Colored pencil artwork reproduces very well as long as the original art contains good value contrast. 

About printing costs--the method used for professional quality fine art notecards is standard four-color offset lithography.  This is very expensive and minimum runs would depend on the individual printers. 

My friend and small card company owner Helen Waters very kindly put together a page on some of her experiences in publishing greeting cards as a business. It identifies some issues to think about.  Here's the link: Read Helen's Notes

A useful alternative to self-publishing artwork may be to find a publisher--a greeting card company--rather than a printer for handling your work. Such a card company would take complete charge of your images, would handle all printing and distribution, and pay you a flat fee or a royalty. You would then be free of these complications and yet be rewarded (although often somewhat short of lavishly).

And how does one find a card publisher?

The steps are much like those for finding a gallery. Visit card racks and  identify images similar in spirit to what you have to  offer. Look on the backs for card

company names. Often there are even addresses, but if not, look them up online.  When you have a list of publishers you think/hope may work with your art, contact them--by phone or letter--and ask what their procedure is for submitting your artwork. Then take it from there.

A final thought: the card business is an eminently sophisticated venue. Think long and hard before leaping into this arena as your own publisher. Because notecards can be printed fairly easily now, it can look like an easy business. But selling a small line of cards, over and over, to a small customer base is a pretty doubtful proposition. The card business, more than most, is a "what's new" kind of business. It will necessitate printing many new images at least two or three times a year--because that's what your larger competitors will be doing.

Q. While looking through some old notes made during one of your colored pencil workshops quite a while back, I found that I had written the word SHOSHU and underlined it. Now I can't remember what it meant, although it must have impressed me at the time. Can you refresh my memory?

A.Shoshu is a Japanese expression which loosely translates as "beginner's mind." It refers to a concept that beginners have not yet acquired the biases and preconceptions that those more sophisticated probably have, and are therefore often able to bring freshness and originality to a given situation or problem.

This concept has meant to me, in an art context, that no matter how experienced or professional we believe ourselves to be, we must always strive for a measure of shoshu. For although it is often difficult to soften or mute our most hard-won skills, there are times and passages when we truly must do this, must see things as if for the first time, and seek solutions we have never before used.

Q. I have been showing my work in a gallery for about five months now. My prices range from $500. to $1200. I sold three pieces during the first two months but nothing since, and I'm afraid the gallery is going to ask me to pick up all my remaining work, because it's not selling. So far they haven't contacted me. Should I call them?

A. No, don't call them. Make a personal visit. You need to talk with someone there, to suggest bringing in some fresh work, maybe taking other pieces back for awhile. This is called "rotating work" and may even be spelled out in your gallery agreement. Some galleries like to rotate work every three months or so.

During your visit, try to avoid projecting feelings of sheepishness or defensiveness. Be cheerful and business-like. Although you may feel the lack of sales is your fault, the gallery may feel it is theirs! They may even feel relieved that you are not disappointed with them.

gallery1.jpg (13892 bytes)Many new artists seem to believe that getting accepted into a gallery is the whole score. They think they can now put this task out of mind, and just coast. But this is not how it works. The reality is you can never coast. A new artist in a gallery almost always makes some sales up front. But to sustain this usually requires some additional steps.

Consider this: When a prospective buyer comes into a gallery, the sales person often has an opportunity to guide this buyer into one direction or another. But the gallery may represent a hundred (or more!) artists from which to choose. Much of the work is not currently on display, but is in stacks in a secondary room. This in fact may be where your work is. Your goal is to lay a groundwork for getting some of your work seen. If the gallery salesperson doesn't think of you--or know much about you--your problem may be a kind of creeping anonymity.

How can an artist best combat this? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Resist any urge to hide out from your gallery. Become a real person to the staff. This simply means dropping in to look around from time to time. Remember they may represent a lot of artists so don't feel bad if you must sometimes remind them who you are--especially if their personnel changes. Eventually they will know you. Be sensitive of their time--but try on each visit to be at least noticed.

2. Bring others with you sometimes. Especially if they are genuinely interested in browsing through the art, maybe even in making a purchase.

3. Attend some of your gallery's openings. By this you are not only extending a courtesy to fellow gallery artists, but are also working at becoming more comfortable in gallery surroundings.

4. Check your contract to see how frequently you are supposed to rotate your work. When such times come, call to see when it would be most convenient to bring in new work. A nemesis of most galleries is that their artists don't provide enough new work for them. Try to keep up with the rotations.

5. Think back through your gallery's previous shows. If there were group theme shows that coincide with your subject matter, remind the gallery you would like to participate in any future ones.

6. Always have supportive photography of your work available to your gallery.

7. Keep the gallery informed of any honors, prizes, or articles about your work.

8. Seek their advice about your framing practices. For questions about framing, your gallery's personnel may be your best sources for information.

9. Try to keep sales persons knowledgeable about your aesthetic aims and technical practices. Make it as interesting to them as you possiby can.

10. And if you have a lot of framed work on hand, let the director know that you would be able to substitute on short notice should someone need to pull out of a scheduled line-up of coming exhibits.

In a general sense, you need to be one of the artists who instantly comes to mind when a prospective buyer wants to see something along the lines of what you do. The higher your profile or the more familiar you are to the gallery personnel, the more they are going to expose your work to buyers. And that should generate some steady sales.

Q. I believe I'm ready to seek a gallery for my colored pencil work. So I have been trying to educate myself about how to approach a gallery, and have just finished reading the latest edition of a comprehensive and well-known book on all this.

But instead of feeling energized by the book's advice and information, I just feel overwhelmed. Getting my work professionally photographed and translated onto a disc, commissioning a catalog essay, printing the catalog, maybe having a consultant review my portfolio, my resume, and my statement, studying/visiting galleries (including some out-of-town possibly)--it all makes me feel so inadequate. (And the writer also warns that it may be expensive). I know that I will have to make some preparation for this next step, but I don't know how far to go with all these directions.

Is this what all the artists whose work I see in galleries have had to do?

A. NO. And your very sensible questioning of all this is probably putting you intuitively on the right track. Question any advice that makes you feel confused and inadequate. Commonsense, simplicity, and courtesy are still in effect in this arena.

With regard to approaching a gallery for representation there are two preliminary tasks for you to accomplish. These are:

  1. Identify two or more galleries in which your work would really and truly comfortably belong.
  2. Contact the gallery directors or owners by name and ask if they are reviewing work at this time. If the answer is yes, ask what they would like to see from you, and in what format. Different venues have differing procedures--but let them tell you what to bring or send, and when. And take it from there.

Q. In my childhood, my dream was to write stories for children and illustrate them. In this day of fierce competition, would I be battering against a stone wall to try realizing this dream?

A. Maybe not. Competition in anything is fiercest on a ladder’s bottom rung. But things are less daunting if you are able to enter the fray on a higher rung. Who can do this? Those artists with a portfolio of work that is fresh and engaging, and who also have the emotional readiness to use preparation and discrimination in seeking a publisher.

Fortunately, there is much reliable and specific information for helping artists break into this field. Besides several books that can provide the technical nuts and bolts for designing children’s books, there are at least two excellent organizations that can be accessed right now via the web. Children’s Book Illustration Resources.

Q. I enter art competitions—some local and some national. Most of the time I get juried in, but I have never taken a prize in any of them. Can you figure why I always seem to be an "also ran?"

A. Excellent technique will get you into a show, but subject matter will usually decide the winners. If that sounds too glib, it probably is. But without seeing your work and knowing which competitions you’ve entered, this concept can still be very useful.

Because technique looms so large to many artists, it’s easy to fall into a habit of thinking that once enough technical skill is accomplished, you are home free. But art is more than just technical competence. What you choose to depict or communicate is more important. And subject matter doesn’t refer merely to categories such as landscape, figure, or still life. It refers to subject plus treatment or technique, including your attitude about it, and your effectiveness at communicating all this on an engaging level.

Q. I use the most light-resistant pencils I can on work I offer for sale. But should I also frame using a UV filtering glass or acrylic sheet?

A. Yes, if you can afford it. Both are pretty effective, but also expensive. The acrylic has the advantage of having less tint of its own. I also recommend including this brief statement on the back of each framed piece:

"As with all fine art, this work should not be hung in
direct sunlight. In the event of reframing, conservation
materials, including UV filtering glass or acrylic, are

Q. I would like to have my work made into notecards, but I have heard that artwork done in colored pencil won’t reproduce well. Is this true?

A. Not true. Colored pencil can reproduce beautifully, if the artist makes sure there is good value contrast in the artwork. And therein lies the problem. Because c-pencil looks and feels like a graphite or regular drawing pencil, the need to construct strong darks (not routinely done in graphite pencil) is overlooked. Most work done in c-pencil is just too light.

Adding to this lack of awareness is the fact that c-pencils come to us from the manufacturers with medium-dark to light inherent values. Most c-pencils are too light to deliver a good dark—even with maximum pencil pressure. But this can be easily overcome by darkening such pencils with other darker colors—not black necessarily—but other colored leads. The darkest pencil color I’ve found is Prismacolor 901 Indigo Blue. It can be used universally to darken any other color (except yellow). To do this with minimal change to the color you’re darkening, I recommend a three-step technique. First, apply the color to be darkened; second, add its darkest close relative (for example orange, then dark red); then add 901 Indigo Blue as a final dark.

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Q. Will galleries accept work done in colored pencil?

A. Some will, some won’t. It’s up to you to do some homework before you approach a gallery about representation. Determine if they already show artwork executed in c-pencil, or its close relative, watercolor. If there is neither, then that particular gallery narrows it focus to oil or some combination of other media. You would find it an uphill battle to try selling them on a new medium.

An exception would be if you had a specialized subject (for example equine art), and found a venue that also specialized in it. Then whether they had other examples of c-pencil work or not, I would try them. (The entire last chapter in my newest book Colored Pencil for the Serious Beginner deals with fine art and livelihood.

Q. My colored pencil artwork often gets bumped from the painting category in art competitions, and relegated to the drawing category. I don’t think this is fair. How can I fight this kind of prejudice?

A. Drawing itself is not a lesser art form. But I understand your dismay if you feel you are producing paintings, not drawings, yet are assigned to the drawing category. However I wouldn’t think necessarily that the Art Committee is showing prejudice. More likely it is revealing a lack of discrimination and/or experience and falling back on the stereotype that pencils yield drawings—not paintings.

How to fight this? Pick your battles. Each of us must decide how much time can be spent away from our work to fight petty injustice or politics. If one or two conversations or letters don’t provide a resolution, then I would give this competition a pass, and get back to work.

Q. Colored pencil is wonderful, but it is so time intensive. I exhibit work and enjoy steady sales but I feel my work is underpriced for the time I put into it. When I try to increase prices I find resistance. I don’t want to change mediums because I produce better work in colored pencil. Is there an answer to this dilemma?

A. I’m not surprised that you do your best work in c-pencil. I hear this from many artists, and it’s been true for me too. To answer your question, the situation you describe boils down to this: your audience is willing to pay X-amount of dollars—but no more—for your present work. And this shows you too little profit. The answer has two parts. The first of these is that you probably need to get better at what you do for your work to be perceived as having more value. For most artists this is usually accepted and welcomed as part of a lifetime occupation. We all struggle as we search for clues, insights, and new skills to better communicate what we are trying to say. We also struggle to fight off complacency.

The answer’s second part however, is something you can do probably immediately. Many if not most artists who use colored pencils tend to use the very time-intensive techniques of deep layering. Experiment with less layering of your colors and more juxtaposing of them. You may be pleasantly surprised to see a new vibrancy in your mixtures. And it’s much quicker.

Do you have other questions about the professional aspects of art? Email them to Bet Borgeson: borgstudio@roadrunner.com

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Copyright 1999 - 2016 Bet Borgeson. 
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