Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Muse and the Marriage

On this Valentine’s Day, I’d like to raise a topic about being an artist and how it affects our relationships with the ones we love.

Blog reader Haylee, an art student, recently wrote me to ask about how an artist balances work with the demands of family life.

First, a couple of slightly depressing quotes:

“Here is a piece of advice worth having. Never let your daughter marry an artist. You will bring her to sorrow if you do…An artist cannot be hampered by family cares. He must be free, able to devote himself entirely to his work.” ---Ernest Meissonier

"If you must economize, be stingy with your wife, your clothes, your food, but never on what will make your pictures better. This may sound almost immoral but in the end if you make better pictures you will make more money and then you can enjoy the food and the clothes and buy your wife a mink coat." --Norman Rockwell

Shucks, guys, say it ain’t so!

I would agree with the general statement that you have to pull out all the stops and do your best work, and both Meissonier’s and Rockwell's legacies are proof of the value of their incredible effort.

Where I would disagree is the idea that the art life has to damage your personal life. Here are some things I would recommend to a young artist who is thinking about balancing the two:

1. Either stay single (like Frederick Lord Leighton or John Singer Sargent) or marry another artist (like Stanhope Forbes) or figure out an unconventional arrangement with fellow artists (The Red Rose Girls). An artist-spouse actually helps deepen your commitment to your work.

Let me hasten to add that there are plenty of happy marriages with sympathetic non-artists. And there are successful relationships where the couple function as a dissimilar team: an artist and a business manager, for example (Frank Frazetta or Andrew Wyeth). Hopefully the partner is someone who is OK with a wildly fluctuating income.

2. Put your studio in your home if it suits your work and temperament. If you have kids, make the studio a place that they're welcome. Then they can be a part of your work life. We used to have a box of Legos next to the painting table.

3. Try to keep normal hours and schedule regular family time off and time for inspiration. This just makes quality and productivity better anyway.

One of the most inspiring examples of an art life wedded to a family life is the Swedish artist Carl Larsson. In his memoirs he reflects that the paintings of his home and family "became the most immediate and lasting part of my life's work. For these pictures are of course a very genuine expression of my personality, of my deepest feelings, of all my limitless love for my wife and children."

I welcome any thoughts you might have, or better yet, comments from your spouse.

Thanks to Francis Vallejo, who brought this topic up, link.
Thanks, Haylee!, and may you have a happy life, whatever you choose.
And thanks to Jeanette, and love of my life and my sketching buddy.


Erik Bongers said...

A sensitive subject that is hardly ever addressed.
Let me stick out my neck here with a little more personal anecdote.

When my young father and mother discussed getting married, apparently my father 'negotiated' that he would be allowed to paint. I always felt that this 'conditional' marriage created tension.
On the other hand, my father always painted right in the living room, where we were playing. While I still dislike the smell of oil and terpentine, I remember those momemts as 'family moments', cosy and warm. And the loud classical music he played is something that stuck with me, as I still often play that while drawing - not necessarily for the music, but for the cosiness it evokes.

Tyler Davis said...

I really enjoyed this posting. I don't have children but I am married. I work a day job and paint at night. My wife, whom I am proud to say is an artist, paints during the day and generally keeps our home running. I really think that marrying an artist was the best thing I ever did. I don't know if our parents thought it was good for us both to be artists, but what the hey? It pays the bills for now, so who's complaining.
Her success has really pushed me to get my own artistic career up and running. It also helps that I always have someone I can count on for a good critique. And who also knows what it takes to be an artist in today's world. I think that between the two of us, things balance very well.
Thanks Mr. Gurney for this fun posting and all the others that you send out for people like me. May your paint tubes never dry out and your brushes never fray.

Gregory Becker said...

I have a wife and daughter whom I love very much and balancing time is sometimes difficult.
My daughter is very much included in my artistic endeavors. If I draw she draws. If I paint she blends the colors. She is only 3 years old she blends with my hand as a guide. It's fun to look at those paintings and think I'll be able to tell her one day that she helped me on this one or that one:)
My wife on the other hand is a different story...She constantly tries to pull me away like the woman in the illustration. Or she interupts me to ask me what blouse looks good with these jeans. I am a person who kind of drifts away when I draw or paint so interuptions are costly to me. I try to be patient but it can lead to conflict and when that happens there's not much room for inspiration.
I wish she had never seen that movie, "Girl with a Pearl Earing."
Although I don't think of her this way but she compares herself to Vermeer's wife in that movie. She can even get bitter at times.
I did find a solution that helps ease the tension.
I saw a video on a Russian classical painter named Alexander Selyton on youtube. (I highly recommend watching it, 3 part video)
He promised his wife 1000 paintings and they seem very much in love.
So I promised my wife a thousand paintings and whenever I sense an impending conflict on the rise or just think she needs to hear it, I tell her what number is going on the back of the painting I happen to be working on and she eases up on me.

Patrick Dizon said...

Haha! Thanks for the advice. I think I'll need that someday.

John Rocco said...

Okay James, I have done just about everything right. I married another children's book illustrator, my studio is in my home where my daughter is welcome anytime (we live in an open loft) and I definitely make time for family. I even cook and do the dishes every night. Now tell me, how do I get my work done with only twelve hours left in the week???
Loved the article.

James Gurney said...

John, you said it. I guess we have to get a lot done with those 12 hours.

Michael Dooney said...

I think that a person's commitment to family etc has more to do with their own temperment than it does to their career path. My experience is that most of the artists I know are more involved with their family life than most people. Particularly where the children are concerned, if the studio is in the home they spend a lot more time together as they grow up than the normal bread winner.
Perhaps its the difference between being a working artist and an artiste, but I always figgered that since I don't watch sports on TV, there's like 10 extra hours a week right there where I can be drawing and painting ;)

Tracy Flynn Art said...

When Dana and I first got married, we decided that I should be the stay at home dad and she go to work while I try to get the "career" off the ground, we had my studio in the family room so I could draw, paint while we all had family time together, and that was fine until we moved to a different place............things are still fine by the way.

In the new house my studio is on the first floor and accessable to all, we have the computer set up in here for the kids to use, Dana has her sewing stuff, and it is sort of an everybody place where I paint.

Now I am working in a retail outlet to help with bills, Dana still has her job, and I try to get my painting done in the inbetween times..........when she is at work and I am home, or when she cooks I paint,( I usually cook because I have more flexible hours)but there is also the times when she is in the office/studio doing her thing and I do mine, sometimes she will be in there and I don't feel like painting, or I will be in there while she is doing something else.

Basically we make it work for us. I am extremely fortunate to have her and that she allows me the freedom to wrok if I am in the mood to when she is home, it is not"I am here and you are going to spend time with me!!" most often she tells me I should go paint because when she is home I am wanting to spend timewith her.

We make time for all things in our life, and if you want it bad enough you will find away. You have to be willing to make it work and it will. How you do it is up to you.

I guess my main point is that like painting there is no set way to do it........if it works for you that is the way to do it. YOu just have to be flexible and able to adapt to what comes along.

Larry said...

I could see value in all the previously stated advice... I've been a freelance illustrator for twenty six years, the last twenty three of which, happily married to the same non-artist.
Staying single of coarse is less complicated and allows plenty of time to work, but working at home is already very isolating. I spend most of my waking hours alone in my studio. then consider no commute, no water cooler banter, no happy hour with the work mates, no holiday office party. When you start to look forward to food shopping or a trip to the post office, you begin to appriciate the value of human connection. Even if you work sixteen hours a day, working at home allows you to be their to make your kids lunch, pick them up from school, and share a meal with your family.
The artist- non artist relationship is not without it's issues. In the beginning, I think my wife had a hard time dressing each morning for a day at the office and leaving me home in my sweat pants and slippers. But the grass is always greener,.. from the few years she worked from home she discovered she was not only too distracted being home, but spending your days together sounds more romantic than the logistics of getting your work done allows. She discribes sharing a space with an artist as trying to have a meaningfull talk with a your husband while he's on the couch and prepetual football games play in the background. We found it was more important to enjoy the limited time we spent together. Also having a person with a different skill set (my wife is an accountant) is not only helpful professionally but the dichotomy can bring an escape from your work.

In the end of coarse the most important variable is love.

Happy Valentines day!

Tracy Flynn Art said...

The isolationism can be a daunting factor, I had moved 500 miles only knew Dana and her imediate family, was away from everyone I knew, and can completely relate to that. I found that the job outside the home helped and honestly made me balance the family /work/art stuff more. I was better able to budget my time for all. Family for me being the most important one, the rest fell in behind according to need. Dana is a pharmacy tech so her career is much different than mine but we have great discussions on all subjects.

Unknown said...


A lot of good posts. Larry said it for me as my wife is a bookkeeper and she brings a perspective to my art from a different mindset.

After 21 years of marriage that we celebrated yesterday, challenges always arise therefore I have learned that its not just about me.... its about WE. I loves my woman and cannot imagine life without her.

Ps. On an interesting note. My mentor Sam Hyde Harris, was personal friends with Norman Rockwell. Norman would visit him at his Studio in Alhambra Ca and attend Sam's wild parties. Sam eventually introduced Norman to his second Wife Mary Barstow, a school teacher in Alhambra.


I am a married single income freelance illustrator with three kids. My family enriches my life and that spills onto my paintings. My wife has an artistic eye and can see when I'm at my best and worst. Her love encourages me to deepen my commitment to my work.

My love for both my family and my work forces me to make the most of the precious time I get to spend with each.

When I'm with the family, I'm with the family (even with sketchbook tucked under my arm).

Thanks for the post James, and seeing your wife included in so many posts shows that you and your wife still spend regular nad meaningful time together-correct me if I'm wrong.


Thomas Haller Buchanan said...

My wife and I are both artists and, too, have been married 21 years. We met when we both worked on paintings for the Denver Museum of Nature and Science: an exhibit for Ramses II. Our marriage was coined a 'Ramses Romance' by our co-workers. 21 years later we have a lovely 16 year old daughter who we consider a partner in our art studio.

Family has always come first.

We will never be rich or famous, but our art is good and our marriage is great. I like it with that proportion.

Jon Hrubesch said...

I can see this particular post has gotten many responses. Not surprising as family and relationships are what enrich us the most. But when something like an individuals passion for art comes into play that can build a wall. For me it has been something that has caused problems in the past as I would work with a bit of an obsession. Something my college art teacher had even stated once about me. After three children came into play I ended up with my passion in boxes in the basement I found myself growing increasingly depressed and easily angered. Work and family became my only reality for many years. When my wife and I bought our new house I found myself obsessed with the need to build an office with the idea that it would become my art room. I spent what money I could to put it together and took a full year to finish it. Many conflicts came and went during that year as you might imagine but slowly I have found a bit of comfort in knowing that I have my little place to go on weekends. My point is the compulsion to produce art for whatever reason is something that cannot be tossed away and placed in boxes. It is in your soul. It is the thing - along with family - that completes you. Without it, I, at least felt incomplete.

My wife is the complete opposite to me. Numbers rule her thoughts. She has even said that she has no creativity at all. But I believe that is what makes her perfect for me. She completes the part of me that I lack.


Victor said...

I took an art history class on women artists a couple of semesters ago and I think they have it especially hard. There have been so many female artists in the past whose stories and careers have ended as soon as they had kids and/or got married.

Alex Louisa said...

Now here's a topic that isn't brought up often! I thought I might add my ideas to the subject:

If you're with a non-artist, I've found that if they also have their own interests, it can work out nice and balanced, because you actually understand each other.

I am marrying a Mechanical Engineer. Everyone always says "Oooh, you'll have to be prepared for him to be in his shed all the time," but when he has shed-time, I have studio-time, and vice-versa.

And when he's travelling the country or going on overseas trips with his work, I have even more studio time! Yet when he comes home at night that's when we spend time with each other and we both look forward to it.

I think if you both have your own interests things can work out just fine. But if the other person has nothing of their own to focus on when you've got your head down in your artwork, they are only going to feel left out.

Of course, this is SO easy for me to say when there are no kids in the mix yet! (Check back in a few years...)

Super Villain said...

if anything i had more time to spend with family and friends when i was working as an artist. but money was always very very unstable.

but now i work full time it seems that relationships have less time, atleast during the week, but nights and weekends are better. and having money to actually leave the house and enjoy friends and family is good haha.

also, i was going to ask about somthing related to this subject. i was wondering if you would ever think about posting every other day, this way for those of use who work during the day can get in on the conversations too, it just seems like when i check on it at night the conversation is over and then the next day the new toipic is started, haha.

also i'm glad to see the new spectrum has a lot of dinotopia work! just checked it out today! but i'm confused because one painting has an art director listed other then you, do you use art directors for the dinotopia series, i always thought they were more like a one man show, haha. do they give subject ideas and direction?

Campbell said...

I'm glad this is getting talked about. I sent you (James) an email about this issue a little while ago and it's exciting to read peoples perspectives.

My partner I and have recently had a baby, which, obviously, has completely changed our creative lives.

Gone are the full days and nights of painting together. Staying up until 6 in the morning because you're too excited about a work to leave it. Painting, whenever you feel like it.

We're slowly restructuring our work schedule, we have about three hours every evening as it currently stands.

It's difficult, but it's starting to work.

Bonnie said...

That is such a great cartoon, I had to blog it. As a single mom, I have to drag around my tween son. There are usually extra incentives (Red Box movies for the laptop to occupy him) and I try to pick interesting spots to paint, plus to paint smaller/quicker with him around. It certainly does take the support of loved ones.

Peter Breese said...

Mark Twain wrote, "After all these years, I see that I was mistaken about Eve in the beginning; it is better to live outside the Garden with her than inside it without her."

I simply could not produce my works without my wife and kids. They imbue my art with emotion and whimsy. Don't get me wrong, there are tough moments - for sure. However, looking back, I much prefer the artist I am today than the single artist I once was.

Fantastic topic that is, as Erik said, rarely discussed.

Mary Bullock said...

Well, as an artist that has been married for over 40 years to a non-artist - I have to say that the friction stopped when I finally realized that it was o.k. if he didn't fully understand the "fire in the belly" we artists have. What was most important was that he loves me and lets me pursue this obsession with out understanding it. That takes real love.

Francis Vallejo said...

Indeed, a great topic. Still looking for the perfect answer, although I'm sure I'll never find it.

Dan Gurney said...

This topic that struck a nerve.

Balancing work and family is challenging, perhaps particularly for artists.

As someone who is married to a politician, the Mayor of my town, in my case, I'd like to offer the view that it's a problem shared widely: artists aren't alone in this boat.

I'd postulate this: any family that includes a member who is passionate about a career--whatever that career might be--is likely to have to work to balance things out.

Glendon Mellow said...

Since we met (in a gothy dance club), I have been captivated by my wife's grace, beauty and movement. Early on, we both realized we shared a love for fairy-illustrations. Our second date was viewing the Victorian Fairy Art exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario. As such, she remains a muse and subject of many still-life studies.

I work a full-time job, and have been the main bread winner while she has pursued her education. Art is the perilous whirlwind surrounding my full and happy life.

Since beginning my blog almost 2 years ago, the practice of continually yanking some art studio time into my life has been made easier by my wife's encouragement and advice. She is not a painter, but an educator, and I'm incredibly lucky.

To Erik Bongers; I love the idea of that contract, and I marvel in comparison to my own life how I could not make that work! The tumultuous unexpected has a way of making a presence.

Great topic, James, yielding interesting responses.

Unknown said...

This is indeed a very good post. I'm fresh out of art school on my journey to becoming a freelance illustrator and am dating the girl of my dreams, who I believe I'm sure to marry someday. She's an artist as well and we both have a deep commitment to our work. My hero is Donato Giancola for many reasons, and I aspire to him quite a bit in terms of art and lifestyle. When I met him and visited his home/studio, it struck me that he has found a perfect balance to art and family. He treats his illustration like a 9-5 job, with obvious overtime a lot of times. But for the most part he spends as much of the evenings with his wife and two daughters. AND he doesn't work on weekends, devoting his time to his family. I'm sure things come up and he probably does work on weekends, but that balanced devotion to both work and family struck a chord with me since I'm a very family oriented person as well. So although Messioner and Rockwell, both prolific and astounding artists, were married to their art and put everything else second I believe that there can be a good balance. Thats my two cents on the subject :)

Unknown said...

It is tough. I have a non-artist wife who is very supportive but sometimes not entirely sure of where I'm going with my art. We also have 2 kids at 4 and 8 who spend a lot of time with me while I'm painting. Although I love having them around and spending the creative time together it also can lead to endless hours of distraction which sometimes become frustrating.

On top of this I have a full time job as a senior animator which takes up a lot of my work week time sometimes getting up around 80 hours. Finally, I teach a figure drawing class 2 nights a week.

Oddly enough, the fits and starts I experience due to my situation has developed into something of a working style. I usually don't have much in the way of real blocks of time so when I paint it's very very fast and I don't have a lot of time for thoughtful contemplation and lots of methodical actions. Honestly, in the end, it's worked out pretty well for me as I approach the canvas in a much more spontaneous way. I had to learn to stop caring that something didn't look this way or that and just give in to my instincts. Funny that once I gave into it and stopped trying to work against my environment my paintings started having a lot more energy and excitement.

Jennifer G. Oliver said...

I guess that I have to disagree strongly with Larry; staying single and being a freelance artist is exhausting for it's own reasons; there is never any help with domestic duties, the business side is all on your shoulders, as is the home, lawn, everything. Unless you live like a slob and have no interest in other people it's a pretty lonely and stressful existence. There is no dating website for single artists, so how do we find one another if we're already out of college? I'd like to see a discussion on that subject!

Having once worked in a large animation studio I witnessed the breakups of many an artist and non-artist's marriage. Indeed, those artists who were married to someone else at the studio seemed to have a better chance than most. The key seems to be the degree of equity and respect in the marriage. When I think of personal friends who are artists with enviable marriages they are always those who share domestic duties equally and find time to balance work with time for friends and travel. Friends Jeff Smith ("Bone" RASL") and his wife and company president Vijaya Iyer take several vacations a year and always make time for gathering with friends on the weekends and during an evening or two. They work hard together but knowing that the down time is just on the horizon keeps it all from getting too stressful. Boris Vallejo and Julie Bell work only a few feet from one another-and often on the same painting. Fortunately they really enjoy one another's company and can be just as sympatico in the kitchen as they are in the studio. Both couples employ a little domestic help from time to time, and I think that's really important-a "must" for any artist couple who can afford it! One of the problems I see too often here in the South is the belief from husbands that wives-artists or not-should shoulder ALL of the domestic and child rearing duties along with the demands of being an employee or professional artist ("biblical principle"). That was the reason Howard Pyle told the Red Rose girls that they should never marry; in certain cultures it's pretty much impossible for a woman to ever succeed as a married artist, and that can cause real frustration and tension.

I think I'll have to build up my tolerance for cold again and move back North!

Jennifer Keysar said...

Well I am grateful for this conversation, as no one really understands my husband and I's pursuit in life. Most of the people we know here are bankers (men) and teachers (wives). My husband is an artist. We met just before he graduated from art school. I think that was a difficult time to meet, but we wouldn't change a thing. He could have gone down a path of isolation (he moved to the middle of nowhere to get out of the city after graduating), and we could have gone off in sole pursuit of his work, but we met in the middle, as two people struggling to figure out their calling in life.

In the beginning, there was some resentment on his part, as if I was taking away from his time painting. There was no instruction on actually making a living as an artist, and the expectation of paint it and they will come was soon squashed, as we struggled for years to try to figure out "the game" and the business side. I could tell that my husband, then boyfriend, was happy at doing nothing other than painting, and he didn't have many marketable skills to get a "real job". His goal always was and still is to make a living as an artist. So after just a few months of dating, I started helping out financially, so he could focus on painting. That was probably not the wisest choice as I think he became somewhat spoiled. It is not very practical that, if you intend to make a living, you can paint as you are inspired (subject matter and time of day), at least not until you have "made it." He has since accepted that there is a balance, and works part-time giving private lessons and workshops, which he does well. I think the feedback and the lesson planning also helps him with his work, as he looks at it from a different perspective. My parents were not thrilled at their daughter taking care of her husband, but they allowed us the room to grow, and have never been negative.

We married two years later, and I continued to work full-time as the main breadwinner. I was always interested in art growing up, but am much more gifted in business and computers, which happens to be a perfect compliment to my husband. Since we knew we wanted to and eventually did get married, it seemed best for me to focus my education (I was four years younger and still deciding on what to pursue) and work in complementary fields, such as web and graphic design, marketing, and business administration. While I like doing this work, it was not always easy for me to take on the role of breadwinner, especially being a woman, and also needing to be the caregiver, and my husband's business manager. I also didn't have the proper time to market his work with my other responsibilities.

This down economy has been a blessing to us so far, even though it didn't seem like it at first. We moved to a more affordable area just before "the bubble burst", and I was laid off from work shortly thereafter. I searched for work, but knew I would not be happy with another full-time job. Everything pointed to me pursuing independent contracting work, which has allowed me to work from home, and have more time to spend managing my husband's business, as well as pursue some of my own interests. We both work from home. He has his studio, and I have my office, and we have never been happier. It has taken some adjusting, and we still struggle to pay our bills every month (though even with a full-time job, we were still paycheck to paycheck), but we are incredibly blessed.

My advice to other artist's would be to marry someone who loves your work and wants you to succeed, and seek someone who compliments your skills. It is a great asset to have someone who can handle the accounting, marketing, scheduling, sales, etc., so you can just focus on your work. But while you can, make the most of every opportunity. Go travel in Europe, study under a master painter, or in an atelier because sacrifices do have to be made once you get married. You will either have to sacrifice time with your spouse and family to pursue your career, where family is not allowed (e.g., a residency), or miss out on some opportunities as an artist to be with your family. And, don't put all of the burden on your spouse.

My advice to artist's spouses would be to be their biggest fan. You have to love their work. Rejection can be devastating, and an artist needs confidence to promote his/her work. Let them do what they love; figure out a balance that works for both of you. When they want to stay holed up in their studio, push them to go out and make connections. You may have to do a lot of pushing. You may have to make sacrifices early on for them to succeed, but it is worth it. Realize that it is not going to be easy to have a fluctuating income, but at the same time rest in the knowledge that as long as you are pursuing your calling in life, and working at it with all your might, that God always provides.

JCW said...

I have no real problems with my non-artist spouse (I married a guy with time-consuming hobbies) except for one -- vacations. I haven't figured out a good way to keep him occupied while I sit and sketch for a couple hours. It seems like he should be able to read outside just as well as in a coffee shop or hotel room, but it never seems to work out that way.

Prettylines said... the end, an artist-non/artist relationship has everything to do with how the artist feels supported in his or her endeavors, right?

Balancing "ART" isn't really an option is it? Why is it that the majority of folks assume art is a luxury or a hobby that can be easily 'dismissed' versus a compelling compassion that MUST be carried out or we die inside...

Anonymous said...

Wow, Jim, you touched on a subject about which an entire book can be written! Such thoughtful input and thought-provoking replies. I can't help but wonder if this is somewhat a shared case with any relationship where one person is a professional creative force, a writer, an actor, a dancer, a singer, or a painter or illustrator, and the other partner is, say, a dentist, an accountant, a lawyer, etc... I guess that as long as they repect each other's way of being creative, and don't take the other one granted by having them deal with all the day to day household and child raising tasks, then it works out. Balance is the key, and that is something that has to be ongoingly renewed. A relationship is a living, and hence, evolving, changing, and growing form. What was balanced last year, may have to be recalibrated this year.