Artist’s Notebook – Living in the Shadows of Robert Bateman

Robert Bateman, High School Art Teacher (1972)
Robert Bateman, High School Art Teacher (1972)

Artist’s Notebook – Living in the Shadow of Robert Bateman

Robert Bateman had been a teacher at my high school. By the time I got there, Bateman had moved on to fame and fortune.

There were always stories about early Bateman paintings being hidden away by teachers. I swear I saw a Bateman painting in one of the offices, but it was likely a copy. These sighting, however, gave support to the urban legend of hidden treasures.

During these years, I was really keen on pursing a life in the arts. Every year, I would travel to Toronto and see the end of year student art show at the Ontario College of Art (OCA); what would later become the OCAD (and still later, the OCAD University).

I faced two major challenges: I was a painter; I love realism.

At the time, realism and painting were considered to be dead, but artists in New York and California were proving these declarations to be false. There were the hyper-realists like Richard Estes and Chuck Close who had been doing amazing works for over ten years. I was also inspired by the work of Eric Fischl. I loved the notion of creating narrative filled paintings like the old European masters.

Unfortunately, there was bit of a counter-revolution after Bateman left. Why do painting when photography could do a much better job?

It also didn’t help that one of leaders in the Hamilton arts community was someone devoted to a more abstract-conceptual approach. He was also my art teacher.

When I looked beyond high school, things weren’t much better. Many of the Toronto galleries that supported emerging artists were still dominated by conceptualism.

The OCA was a bit better, but it was still tilted towards conceptual art. I was also concern about not having a degree at the end of my studies if I went to the OCA (they didn’t start granting degrees until 1996).

So, I decided not to go to art school.

After finished my academic studies, I returned to art, but the local scene was still focused on conceptualism, including the artist run centres. In those days, there weren’t many galleries in Hamilton, so you had to look to Toronto.

For a realist, this posed a serious challenge. On the one hand, the artist centres should be the place where you could get exposure, but my work was considered too retro to be seriously considered. On the other hand, galleries that were open to realism demand a level of craftsmanship that required years of practice.

I remember reading the criticisms of Eric Fischl work in the mid-1980s when critics would attack his painting skills. By the 1990s, Fischl would respond to this criticism by going to Italy to work on his skills and re-inventing his approach to art.

Fischl was lucky that his psycho-tense paintings found patrons and popular support that allow him to survive the criticism of art critics.

So, living in the shadow of Robert Bateman was challenging, but I am still painting.

Challenge of Blogging – Part 3

Chris Erskine, Urban Landscape Artist
Chris Erskine, Urban Landscape Artist

Challenge of Blogging – Part Three

The biggest challenge to blogging is feeding the beast.

Just remember, we are not just talking about a few postings, but hundreds of postings over many years.

If you post only once a week then you will need content for 52 postings. In the crowded world of blogs, expect 3-5 years of effort before your audience reaches a critical level of support (however, you define that).

Ask yourself, what topic will give yourself enough content to get to the promise land of brand recognition and then beyond?

I am a big fan of Film Riot on Youtube. Film Riot explores the techniques of film-making, but even these guys have mixed up things to generate new content and to keep things interesting.

Recently, they invited other film-makers to create short films with behind the scenes look at how they did it.

This raises another challenge, the content must be relevant, it must provide value to your audience. You know why you want people to follow you, but why should they?

For example, I love watching artists create their art, but it is a slow process and needs something more to keep me coming back until the project is finished. If all you offer is essays on how it is to be artist, then do you really believe that people will stick around?

My answer to the challenge is to be local. However, not just with a few references to coffee shops and places to shop, but detail studies on the urban landscape and how the past has shaped the places where we live and work. Further, I try and visit these places and create regular written and visual postings. All this being directly or indirectly connected by my art.

The results may be very rough, but it is my hope that the focus on local urban architecture and local landscapes will compensate for the lack of polish.

Next week – defining your audience.

The Challenge of Blogging – Part Two

Chris Erskine, Urban Landscape Artist and Blogger
Chris Erskine, Urban Landscape Artist and Blogger

This week: What’s your goal?

Speaking as an artist, you will be either selling your artwork or promoting your brand. Your choice will become a filter for what material is posted and how.

If you use your blog to sell your artwork then you are setting the bar fairly high with regards to content.

Based on my experience as a consumer, you want:

1. Postings that are not only relevant, but also tightly focused on the product. You are not going to wander into politics or give your opinion about a recent movie or game. Post nothing that weakens your case for the customer buying your art.

2. Postings that are consisted; yes there can be variations on themes, but your audience should know what to expect when they read or view your blog.

3. Postings have to be polished. You want to remove all grounds to saying no to a purchase. This means spelling, grammar, layout, visuals must look finished. The amount of work in getting those last little details right increases exponentially as you near perfect.

4. Postings need to be regular, whether it is hourly, daily, weekly, or monthly; your customer needs to know how often to visit to see new material. This will generate huge pressure on you to create new content and/or product.

5. Your blog needs to link into a secure form of online purchasing system. You need to carefully work out how the visitor goes from your blog to your site where the financial transactions take place.

A good example of the above points is

From my perspective, building a brand is the easier way to go. You can experiment and discover your narrative.

What is your story and how are you going to tell it to the world?

It is a difficult challenge and takes time to work out the details.

Again, like selling a product you need to focus on the brand, but the brand can cover more things:

– How to make art
– How to appreciate art
– How to make art work in a home or office
– Review the latest gallery openings
– Profile local artists from an artist perspective
– Show people how you make your own art

My approach is twofold:

1. I show people how I create my works of art. I always love studio tours, so I try and show people what I am up to in my studio.

2. I use my skills as an urban landscape artist to reveal the world around me. How we shape and re-shape the landscape and the buildings that sit on the land, an amazing subject. So, a lot of my postings relate to the landscape, particularly with the past.

This leads into next week’s challenge of finding content.

Odds and Ends – studio tours


Aug 17, 2015 – What I really enjoy is studio tours, particularly if the work is something you really like.

Every studio is unique. Most are small, particularly in the city.

The ones that I find most interesting are those in the country side, where the artist have space to work properly. These artists tend to have been around for a decade or two and have found some way to survive with their art.
Some are children book illustrators, others are potters, and a few are painters.

There is a print maker near Ottawa, who has this fantastic space. It is a farm made up of several small buildings that have been connected. The main building (located next to the farm house) is his studio and it holds two 19th century presses. There also enough room for two work tables and a nice sitting area. Attached to this space is small building that once stored wood, but now contends a mini gallery for visitors.

Every fall, hundreds of visitors flow through his space and buy his prints.

He has been a successful print makers for three decades. Rural life keeps the costs low and he can afford to travel to different countries to get the raw sketches for future projects. He has also founded two artist’s collective stores that feature local artists. As a founder, he is able to reserve an area of each store to display his work. As a result, local tourism provides another source of healthy income stream.

The first studio I ever visited was a painter from France who purchased a century old farm in Flamborough. The place was called “Long Lane Farm.” In the huge barn, he would display his oil paintings each weekend. In the stone farm house, his family would sale bake goods and coffee or tea in the kitchen and people would sit down on the front porch.

On Saturdays or Sundays, my parents would drive out to the farm for something to do. I would wander the fields and then explore the barn filled with his art.

He did very well with his art that featured barns and rural landscapes. After a few years, he went back to France.

Another example of a successful artist is the painter, Sylvia Simpson. She combines store with studio in one location. I often drop by her Westdale store/studio to see her latest works.

One studio I wish I could visit is Edward Burtynsky’s. He created a business producing high quality photographic prints that also advanced his art. This is how he survived the lean years. I still wished I had purchased the Rock of Ages #4 print for $5,000 at the Nicholas Metivier Gallery back in 2005. He had just had his first New York City showing and prices had not yet sky-rocketed.

So, where am I going with this posting? That there are artists out there who can make a living with their art, but they have to be creative. Studio tours give you a chance to see how some artists are making it, year in, year out.