Cover story
Mensa Magazine, June 2005

Cover text
ART ON THE NET - How technology is helping to create a new market place

Comment from Contents (p3)
Mensan artist Cliff Colman has some very forthright views about the art world. And a novel way of marketing his own work. Find out more in Art for Art's Sake, Page 12

Introduction (p12)
Mensan artist Cliff Colman argues the case for painters being paid a proper price for their endeavours - and says the internet is helping to provide a new market place


At the start of 1976 I was working as a general labourer on a construction site. From February onwards I worked on producing paintings prior to returning to college. With the possibility of a one-man show towards the end of the summer I set about pricing paintings. I formulated a method for doing this; firstly I calculated the average time taken to paint a picture, excluding time taken to originate ideas, sketch and refine them, apply drawings to board or canvas, construct and prepare frames and boards or stretchers and canvasses, set out materials and clean equipment after use. Nor did I include time taken to buy materials. I multiplied the average hours per painting by the same hourly rate that I had earned as an unskilled labourer earlier in the year. I did not include the cost of materials in my calculations. An average price per painting of around 300 resulted from this formula.

I've spent a number of years working as a teacher... reluctantly! Driven to working as a teacher in the great wen by economic necessity - clearly punishment for having done something dreadful in a previous life (this probably also explains my support for Sunderland Football Club, a club I blame for the grey hair, the bald patch and the nervous ticks).

When I moved to the London area I thought one of the benefits would be the opportunity of approaching art galleries directly with a view to exhibiting. It's no good sending slides or photos - they don't look at them, and they struggle to return them. On more than one occasion galleries have even sent me another artist's slides in my SAE. My assumption, however, was wrong. Even when presenting in person they prove far too self-important to bother looking.

As one of a group of trainee cartographers with the Ordnance Survey in the early 1970s I had to spend two days surveying a sewage farm as a means of learning how to accurately map circular objects. The stink of a sewage farm is so profound that it lingers in the nostrils for days afterwards. Days dedicated to speculatively visiting art galleries with a view to exhibiting invariably brought that memory to mind.

In 1977 I had a painting selected for the Northern Young Contemporaries. The first successful entrant from that college in three years. I've been able to exhibit from time to time, most notably a one-man show in 1999 at London City Airport. I have met two decent gallery owners. Both actually looked at slides of my work. One in Manchester included some of my work in a group show, the other, in Chelsea, was content with the artists he already had but offered some worthwhile observations.

From this you can see that attempting to mount work in public galleries is, to say the least, a frustrating business.

I'm sure there is something to be said for mornings but I can't think what. I have two alarm clocks and one radio alarm with a two hour play. All of them spring into life at six. I sleep on. At around 6.50 the radio finally succeeds in making me aware.

By around 7.20 I am sufficiently conscious to get up, but not enough to be absolutely certain of putting the toothpaste on the toothbrush rather than on the razor or the comb.

That half hour or so of radio has the quality of a dream. I'm aware of it, intermittently attentive, but none of it sticks. In one ear and out the other. Except for one morning in the late Nineties.

There was an item about the internet; all manner of research material, eventually the contents of all the world's libraries, all available from a home computer. Very interesting, very worthy, very quickly drifting out of the other ear, another snooze on the way.

Except that now I am wide awake. The interviewee has just said you can put pictures on the internet. Not just text but pictures as well. Pictures on the internet. Wide awake; sitting up and taking notice and as wide awake as one is with lungs full of fresh air in the face of a north-easterly gale. No more stench of sewage farm, no more wading knee deep through the ordure of the 'art world'.

Here was a different way to do things. I launched my web site (now www.cliff-colman.net) in the summer of 1999 with around 190 images. I increased the number of images to around 250 early the following year, and up to around 500 this February.

Gradually listings on Yahoo and Google and various art-related search engines have appeared. The site receives a lot of visits from North America and Europe. Following a visit by members of the selection panel I have been asked to enter work for an invitation-only show supported by the UN and the Italian government to be held in Florence later this year. (Sponsorship warmly welcomed.)

A few days after the radio item, while researching into hardware and software in a computer shop I show the young lad serving a sheet of slides to illustrate what I intend to use the computer for. He darts off and returns moments later with an envelope full of photos which he hands to me. They are photos of his paintings. Water-colours of seaside scenes, yachts, boatyards and so on, not subject matter that particularly interests me. They are attractive and lively, well observed and skilfully drawn, painted with a light touch and a good use of subtle colouring.

He is just about on the point of giving up on art, his experience of touring the galleries is the same as mine. He is a talented painter. He works as a shop assistant. He tells me that when people have expressed an interest in buying his work he asks for 100 or so.

Considering the time involved in their production and my own calculations from over 20 years earlier this seems an extremely modest price. When the potential buyers say the price is too high he has asked what they think he should charge. They seem to consider anything over 30 to be exorbitant. Sadly none of this surprises me.

I have no argument with people who want pictures on the wall to match their decor; wallpaper 14.99 a roll, matching border 5.99, picture rail 1.99 a metre, and a nice tasteful painting at 30 a throw - good luck to you.

There are countless shops specializing in 'original' art for that kind of price - mass-produced on production lines in China.

One person paints the sky, another the mountains, another the stonework, another the foliage, and so on. That's 30 for you.

I wouldn't encourage anyone to buy art; the kids have got it right - posters will do just fine. For the buying of art is a funny business.

It's not really about buying original works of merit produced by talented artists, but rather it's about buying status.

There's many an individual who would demur at paying 100 for a work they really liked by someone 'unknown' but would readily consider paying ten times that for something they didn't like produced by someone famous. My own view is that art should be freely available for anyone to see as and when they choose. That's what the public art galleries are for after all.

But if it is to be sold then it should be at a price fair to the artist. How much do you pay for a pair of trainers, produced let's not forget at a pittance by child labour in the Far East? How many restaurant meals can you have for a 100? What's the hourly rate for minicab hire?

Part of the problem I believe is that artists have had a bad name for a long time, made considerably worse in recent years by the activities of the mocohwis (MOdern COllective of Half-WItS - to name a handful; the Turner Prize, Saatchi, Goldsmiths College, Serota, the Tate, and I haven't even mentioned the likes of Hirst, Emin or the Chapmans). It was ludicrous that the seriously out of date claptrap offered up to us at art college in the Seventies was being presented as 'avant-garde', 'leading edge', 'innovative' and so on, in the public domain in the Nineties. The only thing more laughable was the sound of droves of vacuous trendies falling over themselves to declare their 'understanding' of the nonsense (yes, I do have the full text of Hans Christian Andersen's Emperor's New Clothes on my website).

A few years ago while working as a driving instructor one of my pupils introduced me to her boyfriend. He showed me some of his artwork, semi-figurative, semi-abstract with a strong use of colour. It had considerably more merit than anything the mocohwis have to offer. He had given up on art and worked in a call centre.

The lads from the call centre and the computer shop and another of my driving pupils, a lass working in a snack bar, all talented artists, all with similar experiences of approaching galleries, all giving up or having given up on art. All compared their own lack of progress within the art world with its lionizing of the dreary, the empty, the pretentious.

When I visit art galleries I want to leave with a lightened step and a sense of time well spent having seen meaningful work by thoughtful skilful artists. I seldom go to art galleries now; I've seen enough undiluted tat produced by talentless attention-seekers to last several lifetimes.

Unsurprisingly many people recognise that they are having their intelligence routinely insulted by the arty-farties, and sadly end up placing real artists in the same bracket.

When I set out to write this I intended it to be a fully positive piece, partly to encourage others frustrated by the dismal cuckoos in the nest of the 'art' world, to get their work out on the internet, and bypass the problem, but it was perhaps inevitable that I would take a detour through murkier areas. Still, wipe your shoes clean and no harm done.

Let me finish with some advice about looking at art. 1) When you go to galleries stop only at work that genuinely interests you, then spend time with it. 2) Never read the 'artist's statement' that accompanies exhibitions. 3) Trust your own judgement, think for yourself - ignore the 'experts' in the 'art world', they seldom are. To quote from Jake Thackray's excellent song The Bull: "If you must put people on pedestals wear a big hat."


The article as it appeared




[Back to 'FAQs']