Thursday, July 31, 2014

Top Ten Ways to Deal with Curious Spectators

Yesterday's post about the challenges of curious spectators generated a lot of interest— 35 comments on the blog.....and on Facebook: 533 likes, 104 comments and 83 shares. Thanks for your input, everyone!

As promised:

James Gurney's Top 10 Ways to Deal with Curious Spectators 

10. Deflect questions by answering them in advance. There's the "Critic Be Gone Shirt," marketed by Guerilla Painter, which has a rather sarcastic tone.....
....and blog reader Christian shared this T-shirt design made by his friend Graeme Skinner for a friend Laura Young.

9. Place headphones on your head, so that you look zoned out, even if you're not listening to any music. Good way to overhear candid comments.

8. If you like to smoke, blow smoke out of cheap cigars. It keeps away mosquitos, too.
The only problem with these first three solutions is that you can miss out on the really rewarding encounters that can come from curious spectators. How do you make the experience work out better for both parties?

Let's remember that most spectators mean well. They're not as judgmental as we suppose them to be. They almost universally admire an artist who is courageous enough to bring their studio outside. Spectators often ask dumb things because they're shy and they don't know what to say to an artist.

If a person comes up and they seem unsure of what to ask, I usually have a stock line ready to help orient them, such as, "Hi, I'm working in casein, which is an old fashioned milk-based paint that people used before acrylic was invented."

In other countries, the language barrier often helps. When I sketched in China, people watched with quiet, respectful absorption, or they would just smile and make encouraging gestures. In my experience, Europeans tend to be really considerate and watch for a reasonably short time, and just saying a kind word or two.  In Ireland everyone is such a wonderful and witty talker that every encounter is great fun, so I love painting in public there.

In Africa, curious spectators have volunteered to be models. In Morocco, kids can't resist gathering very close and even blocking the view.

Most of the time when kids hang around, it makes sketching much more fun. If you bring an extra sketchpad to loan to a really interested kid, you might change a life. Long-time blog readers may remember the time I wore a steampunk outfit to Amish country, and everyone totally accepted me.

But being inviting and friendly doesn't always work, and sometimes I get annoyed, especially by questions that obsess over sales and careers and money and commerce, and all the things that stop the wings of inspiration from flapping., let's continue the list:

7. Let them know it's OK to take a quick look, and invite them to come back later. That gives them permission, but it lets them know implicitly that you may not want them to park too long next to you. If you're in the middle of a difficult passage, and can't talk, just briefly explain that you'd love to chat, but you can't right now because your speech centers aren't working. People get that.

6. Change the topic of discussion away from you, your proficiency, or the price of your painting. Ask the person something about the place you're in or the thing you're painting. For example: "Do you know who owns that old building?" Or: "How high did the floodwaters get here in the last storm?" This often leads to truly interesting encounters, and it lets them do the talking so you can concentrate. I've learned a lot about many of my motifs this way.

5. Before you go out painting, create a web page or blog post with common questions and answers, including information about your galleries or your books, or whatever, and generate a QR code so that they can read your answers on their cellphone. You can put up a sign that just says FAQ and the code, and it will be fun for them to read it on their cellphone.

4. Bring a friend or a spouse along who doesn't mind fielding the questions from the spectators. (Thanks, Mikey!)

Andrew Wyeth en plein Jeep
3. Choose a motif where you can back up to a wall or a rosebush so that no one can get behind you.
Or sit up high. Andrew Wyeth would sit on the hood of his car, with his feet on the bumper so that no one could watch from behind. (image courtesy Making a Mark/Squidoo).

2. Wear a uniform shirt and surround yourself with traffic cones, or crime scene tape or "caution" barricade tape. If there's more than one of you, and you're wearing uniforms, spectators are so bewildered, they don't know what to say. That's what our sketching group, the Hudson River Rats does—we disguise ourselves to look like some obscure municipal department. The "Department of Art" patches add to the official effect. (Thanks, Steve).

1. I mocked up this T-shirt design to suggest a final thought. The challenge of spectators is just one of the things that makes plein air painting so exhilirating. There's also wind, rain, bugs, animals, traffic, and changing light. Dealing with all these issues helps develop our concentration and gives us a sense of urgency that makes us do our best work.

Winston Churchill said about painting: "Painting is complete as a distraction. I know of nothing, which, without exhausting the body, more entirely absorbs the mind. Whatever the worries of the hour or the threats of the future, once the picture has begun to flow along, there is no room for them in the mental screen."
Previously: Interview on Urban Sketchers


greenishthing said...

My Teacher Glenn Vilppu has a secret: he answers in Finnish! (his of Finn origin) so far he's never met someone who could answer back in Finnish - talking in a foreign language - even a made up one seems to be a good trick, personally i wear ipod headphones attached to no ipod (I tried answering in russian once - I speak a few words - and bad luck the guy and his family were Russians!!!

Andy said...

Number 1 sums it up for me. I don't mid spectators or their questions. It's the least of my worries when painting en plein air.

Jeff Suntala said...

Honestly, the tone of this discussion! The 'rubes' looking on at the serious master artist at work. How dare they distract him!

You're in public. Put your big boy pants on and deal with it. You're the one who has chosen to be on stage.

Edward Morris said...

Dealing with the public when you paint en plein air is just part of the process. I actually enjoy the encounter with people I meet when I paint outside. The only time I don't is when the painting is taking a nosedive and it's get a little embarrassing to show to people!

I am always grateful for any kind words I get about my art.

Keith Parker said...

Last night I went to get pancakes at a local restaurant. As usual I brought along my trusty moleskin...well, one of the them. One of my friends insisted I draw her something. I asked what she wanted, and as is so common she wanted her portrait drawn. I've gotten fairly comfortable drawing in public, but I was a little nervous about drawing Marie, because she is a bigger girl. I usually try to make drawings where the person is shown in a favorable light. I hope the drawing didn't offend her. She seemed to like it, but I've seen larger people get offended by very accurate drawings in the past. Its almost like people can see things for what they are in drawing form that they normally ignore somehow. Any tips on capturing a likeness in a favorable manner? Or is there a polite way to decline this sort of request, when it is from a friend that knows you draw everyday?

David Teter said...

James, I like how you included a tech answer on number 5. Very smart these days.

Scott Quick said...

I really appreciate the patient, considerate and thoughtful tone of your posts. I tend to be sarcastic in nature, so it's helpful to be reminded to consider another person's (spectators)point of view.

Rich said...

After all; to see and meet a proficient painter at work while walking somewhere outdoors is a rare sight.

Luckily not an endangered species yet...

James Gunter said...

Thanks for showing the Andrew Wyeth pic! Do they make jeep hoods strong enough to sit on anymore?

John Brian Guernsey said...

not sure i saw everything here, but looks like one of the more common spectator comments was missed.........i.e.....Have you ever seen that painter guy on TV with the big curly hair-do?. (bob ross, of course). Fun blog topic, thanks!

Vinod Rams said...

here's one more from a zoo drawing excursion long, long ago that my wife and I still make fun of to this day:
"oh they're not drawing, they're just sketching."

Robert J. Simone said...

I enjoy most encounters. The only really annoying comment I get is when they make comparisons to Bob Ross! I'm bald! I don't have an Afro! And my trees don't look happy!

JCW said...

For the most part, spectator questions don't annoy me. They would be far more annoying if they knew that I can fix their computer. The questions you get as an artist take up very little time and don't require you to sit under someone's desk with three generations of dust bunnies. I did think that the guy who tried to yank the pen out of my hand to "show me something" was going a little too far, though.

Nikole said...

Jeff -- I don't think there is am arrogant tone to this discussion. Of course you are in public. I have painted in a public park for at least 25 years and I have met them all. I have met wonderful people and even a snide artist who put me down! It's still a problem trying to concentrate at certain points in your painting. You have to have strategies to keep yourself separate and in the zone (zorry for the phrase) at various times and you don't want to meet anybody new at that time. No harm in trying to concentrate even if 'in public.' Kids are the best.

Brian said...

It's all very well when you're some hotshot professional level artist.

My problem has always been this: the best way to learn is to draw from life, but while you are still learning, your work is not exactly going to take any breaths away. And thus I have to sit there and listen to mostly disparaging and sometimes even downright insulting remarks by people discussing me as if I am not even there.

And worst of all, their comments are for the most part regrettably true. No wonder so many students of the visual arts eventually retreat to the safety of reference photos. :-)

James Gurney said...

Brian, I can't speak for hotshot pros, but in my own case, I've had plenty of on-the-spot Floparoos. And just about every painting goes through phases where it looks really lame or hideous. When spectators come by during those stages, they just don't say much. One street person came up to me at the end of my painting and said, "I've been watching you, and it looked like you were in real trouble for a while, but you sort of pulled it off."

Nikole, I agree about kids. When kids come up, they just don't know what to say, and I love to show them the materials. I think for a lot of Americans, drawing, especially drawing on paper placemats in restaurants, is something only children do, so it's a novelty for a lot of people to see adults doing it.

JCW, Yes, or the tourists who yank the brush out of your hand, and ask to pose in front of the painting for a photo op so they can say they painted it.

John and Robert, I guess Bob Ross made a huge impression on people. Did he do any of his programs outdoors?

Keith, I don't know. Drawing portraits is a touchy thing, and the more accurate and skilled you are the more potentially sensitive the reaction might be. The reaction to an impromptu portrait is a mix of the qualities (or lack of them) of my drawing and the vanity of the person. As long as they're not paying you for it, it's not too much of a problem.

Vinod--good one. Haven't hear that one.

Thanks, Scott. People are mostly pretty nice.

Jeff, there really are stages of a painting, especially when you're working in watercolor, that are really tricky and time critical, and you can't be pulled away from it. I was in such a stage when a cop came up to me and said, "Are you James Gurney?" After my concentration was blown, he then said, "My kids love your books."

James Gurney said...

I agree with the rest of you who say that the encounters we have with people can be one of the most interesting and memorable and frustrating parts of outdoor painting.

Sometimes the sketcher is the big show, and people come up and want to talk. Some people are very considerate of our concentration, some not at all. Wouldn't it be funny if you went up to a golfer about to make a swing and said, "Hi, are you a golfer? Do you golf for a living, or is this a hobby? Where are you trying to hit that ball?"

And sometimes you become invisible. How many times have I sat on an average American Main Street and people have really private conversations right in front of me, or drug deals happen right beside me? Has that happened to others?

Nikole said...

"And sometimes you become invisible. How many times have I sat on an average American Main Street and people have really private conversations right in front of me, or drug deals happen right beside me? Has that happened to others? "
I found a good spot in the park -- pretty hidden. I was looking directly at a tree about 25 feet away. A family came with a picnic and sat down right in front of the tree. They saw me; my whole set up was aimed at them. Nobody came to talk to me. I had to stop painting. All I can figure is that they had no idea that an artist might paint something he was looking at. If they knew I was an artist they probably thought I was dabbling something from my 'imagination.'

Brian said...

Nikole: The solution, of course, is to simply paint the family into the picture, warts and all. :-)

Luca said...

I just sketch in public and it's more discrete than paiting, but to me the problem is sketching the portrait of some stranger on the bus or at Postal Office or somewhere else, for that stalker look you have when you do a portrait (James mentioned it some days ago) . I'm learning ninja skills to sketch them in few seconds before they see me, ah ah!

PS: Nikole, that could be a masterpiece! that french guy became quite notorious a couple of centuries ago painting a pic nic... :D

Linda Navroth said...

"Hi, I'm working in casein, which is an old fashioned milk-based paint that people used before acrylic was invented."

LOL! Now that's a sure way to have them move along!

James Gurney said...

Urban, yes, especially if you say, "Oops, I'd better get back to work....the milk is starting to curdle."

Anonymous said...

I've never had much besides compliments (most of them wildly undeserved) It's just people being curious about the world.

I find the best tip is honesty: if you're just starting out, or if the painting is in a bad spot...say so. Most people will understand and be encouraging.

Second to that is to go on about some technical aspect until people's eyes glaze over.

Thirdly, I always try to find a spot that's semi private to being with so I won't have much of an audience. Although that's not always successful -

In Maine I was perched on rocks by the water with my back against a cliff when over the waves I could hear people talking behind me...and then some more...when I finally glanced up there were about 20 people all standing 15 feet on the ledge above me looking down. No one said a word. Soo... I just went back to painting.

HeatherRose said...

My grandmother's Godfather was Will J. Quinlan, an artist (etchings & oils) in NYC who was also deaf and mute. He was plein air sketching at the Hell Gate bridge in NYC around WWI, I believe, when some police officers noticed him and started asking what he was doing. He didn't answer and was presumed to be a foreign spy refusing to speak and thrown in prison. His etchings are in several museum collections, including the New York Historical Society.

Douglas K said...

I sketch on the street a lot and am usually inspired by all of the good will sent my way. People driving or walking by will give me the thumbs up or words of encouragement even if they can't see the work. My experience is that most folks are pleasantly surprised to see an artist working in their midst and they want to show their approval, not necessarily of the quality of my painting, but the act of my painting.

Unknown said...

If I am in the mood I will turn my head to answer questions. If not and I am in "the zone" I will give a quick answer and not look at the person. They get the message. If there is a kid, I will ask them if they are an artist. Always when I turn back to the painting and not look at them anymore they will get the message. Meanwhile I was nice for a minute or two. They are satisfied. Besides it is good to take a break from your painting once in a while.

bernicky said...

This is the most intimidating thing about plein air to me being new and not good. I want to get out and paint, but don't want to have to deal with the fall out. Last summer I went to a spot and was working on a watercolour when a couple came up and the gentleman literally scoffed at the sketch I was working on (btw the migratory bird sanctuary in LaSalle, Qc is a great place to get a woodsy painting in the middle of the city). Anyway, it's not for the thin skinned especially those of us who are not particularly talented to begin with.

Unknown said...

Interesting sidebar on being invisible. As a young aspiring artist in my teens, I was avid to learn anything I could to improve my skills. But alas, in Oklahoma City in those days, arts education ops were thin on the ground. Then I stumbled on to posing for professional artists in their studios. As an artist's model you get a front-row seat for how artists work, it pays well, and bcs artists often share a model to economize, I got to overhear their comments, struggles, process. Being still made them completely free of any reticence to speak freely. Also, I think most of them didn't realize I was even a living, breathing human. The stories I heard!

Cornelia Emery said...

I always ask if they are artists (kids too!). And/or where they are from. Since I live in a seaside town in California, there are lots of tourists. People answer one or two of these questions and move on. If I am really messing up, I wipe off the painting (it’s oil paint) and it really blows their mind!
Anyway, I have never had a bad experience and, in fact, one person told me that my painting was beautiful and I hadn’t even put the panel on the easel yet! You just have to get out there and paint. It only gets easier!

Mike Strickland said...

I enjoy having people come up to see what I am doing. I've had some commissions result from being friendly.

Whenever I am working an art event, I love to sit and paint. It helps to attract people to the booth because it doesn't look like I'm ready to pounce on a "potential customer"! At one show, I had a teenage girl come up to ask a few questions and she ended up staying for three hours. Delightful visit!

Another thing I enjoy doing is copyist painting in museums that allow it. I was at the Booth Western Art Museum trying to capture the delicate snow colors in "Marie Dorian Winter Refuge" by John Clymer. I would speak to people as they came up and usually explain the difficulty I was having getting the colors right.

My advice is to enjoy the visitors! IF you are just beginning, let them know. They will usually be impressed that you are willing to try it!

Mike Strickland

Robert W. Crowley, Project Design, Management, and Training said...

I just ask for money. That usually sends everone packing :).