A History of Home

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A HIstory of Home in the window of the Art Museum of Sonoma County

[About Lascaux cave paintings, Paleolithic inspiration, and my abstract painting process.]

Once in a while we are lucky enough to create a painting that somehow is a little bigger than we are.  This painting, A History of Home, was that for me. I want to take the time here to let the painting tell her story, her history of coming into existence.

It’s sometimes difficult for an artist to really explain what went into a particular painting.  In these days of marketing, the emphasis is on the “elevator speech,” a short, catchy, 5-second summary.  What a nightmare– trapped in an elevator and having to give a speech!  I won’t be doing any “elevator speeches” any more, in my studio or anywhere else.  Life is too short to waste it on the superficial.  This will be a wandering journey, like the entries to painted caves.

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A History of Home, detail, acrylic mixed media on canvas, 36″ x 48″, private collection

The second painting of a triptych,  I envisioned painting a series of abstract “maps,” entries to a colored world of cave and imagination.  In this one, we have begun to enter the painted caves, specifically Lascaux cave.  We stand at the threshold.  It is a map of dreamtime,  perhaps similar to Australian ritual paintings that mark imagined geographies mixed with “real” landmarks.

It fascinates me that parts of the painted caverns are actually called “galleries.”  They may have been our first cathedrals: most were not inhabited.  I am often inspired by the maps of the passages of the caves, and their abstract forms that are very unlike maps of the daytime world. Some of the marks in the painting feel like one of these “gallery maps” to me.

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I really love the line drawings the earliest modern archaeologists did as reproductions of the paintings. Because photography was more primitive at the turn of the century, most archaeologists were adept at sketching artifacts and paintings.  Almost all archaeologists who were allowed to enter the caves were male, of course. The most famous was “The Pope of Prehistory,” Henri Breuil.   He did the most amazing drawings of cave paintings and petroglyphs from around the world.

Drawings by Henri Breuil of cave paintings

I’ve spent a lot of time, literally many years,  seeking out  books with Henri Breuil’s drawings in dusty shops in so I could own some of his reproductions, with little success.  I think what was “drawing” me was  the beauty of the originals, but also a fascination of entering the world of the caves through transcribing the marks and animals by hand.

On the other hand, so to speak, I didn’t want to do reproductions of cave animals, no matter how compelling and beautiful.  The caves themselves show centuries, perhaps millennia, of overwriting– animal on top of animal, elaborations and erasures, adaptions, handprints, and abstract graphic marks that were most likely a symbolic language.  Generations of hands, eyes, pigments, footprints, erosion, stalactites,  mud and flickering lights.   Generations of whatever went on in these deep galleries. I wanted that. I wanted to enter that process, the one that started 35,000 years ago and is still going on today.

Back to caves, cave paintings, and my painting.  After a trip in the late 1990’s to the Grotta del Genovese on the island of Levanzo,  in the Egadi islands off the coast of Sicily— where I was led (by a genuine small hunchbacked cave keeper!) to the caverns with paleolithic paintings– I began to wonder why we have so few modern records of women scholars and archaeologists visiting European caves.  (I would love to revisit this island: just look at the setting of the entry to the cave!)

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Entry to cave on the island of Levanzo off the coast of Sicily.

I found that one woman archaeologist had documented Lascaux cave,  Annette Laming-Emperaire.  A part of the French Resistance, she entered Lascaux in the 1950’s and documented paintings and marks as a part of her doctoral thesis. Her method of cataloging and interpreting cave art is still in use today. But what fascinated me the most were her line drawings of cave paintings: sets of different style bison horns, diagrams of colored areas, and superimposed animals.

The young Annette Laming-Emperaire

I wanted to use her marks, so I enlarged them with a copy machine, created transparent acrylic transfers, and embedded them in the painting.  The black line drawings and diagrams are sunk in a dense field of paint.  Because they are transparent, the paint underneath is visible.

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Lower right, bulls and horses, superimposed

The painting has multiple layers.   Just last year I found that my paintings transform with 3-D glasses; the translucent bright layers, and the use of fluorescent paint, help facilitate.  With the glasses, the layers separate, and the lines float in an intermediate space on the picture plane.

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Viewer looking at paintings with 3-D glasses at the Paleomythic show. Chalk horses on “cave” wall by Caren Catterall.

This painting emerged out of paleolithic art, a trip to Sicily, Annette Laming-Emperaire, and the modern technologies of plastic, digital copies, and fluorescent pigments. The feeling of the painting is hearth-fire warm yet mysterious, filled with the spirits of people, animals, and landscape, and invoking a great woman scholar.  A History of Home is a story of entering art and making it our home over vast expanses of time— creating the new on top of the old every generation.  This process is hard to explain when someone asks “How long did it take you to paint this?”  (I figure about 25,000 years, give or take.)

I am pleased that it is going to the home of Rachel, Brendan and Tabitha Welsh in Alexandria, Virginia.  Their home was built in the 1790’s, so A History of Home will reside in a home with history.

Suzanne Edminster, September 2018

 

The Permeable Membrane

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The “membrane,” a start for a painting.  Pleasing enough as it is, still it hasn’t passed through the veil, but sits as a tangle of possibility. 16″ x 20″,   paint, ink, graphite, hand-carved block print, crayon.

Some famous researchers into Paleolithic art, David Lewis-Williams and Jean Clottes, believe the ancients may have seen the cave wall or rock shelter surface as a “permeable membrane.”  They say that the shamans encountered the spirits coming through that threshhold and, I suppose, immortalized their visions on the rock, so that the image continued to act as a wormhole for spirit. It’s worth hearing it from them:

“The painted images of another world made sense because of their location on the ‘veil’, the interface between materiality and spirituality.  The walls of the shelters thus became gateways that afforded access to reals that ordinary people could not visit – but they could glimpse what it was like in that realm as painted images filtered through…”

I like to create a permeable membrane.  What comes through are arrangements of lines, ideas.  The more random it is, the more I can see.  Many more transformations are possible.  It’s like ordering chaos, but allowing the background to meld with the foreground, the unconscious with the conscious. There has to be sufficient complexity for the spark to ignite, an invitation for the spirit of creation to arise.

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Painting start on wood.  In the upper part you can see the random use of my own hand-made block cuts to create black abstract marks.

That would make the artist a kind of shaman, though I don’t like that often-misused word.   And here’s a painting on that surface, full of random marks.  You might not know what will come through and leave its tracks, scratches, and breath on the surface.

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A Little Bull (and Roo)

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Detail, from a canvas in the Dionysia series.  Suzanne Edminster

I love cows.  I saw far more cows than people before I started going to kindergarten.  I find peace and soul in the feeling of that huge rectangular wall of living flesh breathing in a green or yellow field.

In this painting, the bright colors of pink/orange spatter are not applied last, but first.  I sanded down after overpainting them with opaque paint to reveal them underneath, like arteries.  In every domestic cow there’s a ancient auroch underneath.

I like like digging up the old layers, revealing the hidden veins: it’s my own version of the X-ray style of aboriginal art.   I find cows make a good imaginary canvases.  All that warm action lies just under a vast surface area.

Ancêtre totémique kangourou - Kunwinjku - Musée du quai Branly, Paris
Australian, unknown artist.

What animal wanders around your dream fields?

Crawling under the earth, leaning into the wind

I saw “Leaning into the Wind” with Andy Goldsworthy yesterday.  In my mind it was superimposed upon my current obsession with Paleolithic art and signs.  Goldsworthy seemed to me to be a shamanic figure, making lines and markets upon the earth with clay and rocks, like our unimaginably distant ancestors.  Who were us.

He climbed into trees a lot; this could have a relationship to the practice of “climbing the world tree,” one of the ways the ancients visualized entering the spirit world.  His body was part of the art.  It’s also interesting to me that the few colors he did use, from leaves, petals, or perhaps natural earth pigments, were deep yellow and red.   The use of ochre, often heated to produce an even more striking red color, is the first evidence of differentiated color preference in early humans.  Goldsworthy spent a lot of time breaking stones, which reminded me of our first tools, the chipped stone hand axes.  He made grave-like stone sleeping hollows and tomb-like tunnels.

Red ochre was used to make signs, dots and forms in the deepest, smallest passages, some of them hardly more than animal burrows.  I am reading “The First Signs” by Genevieve von Petzinger.  She has spent years crawling through dripping, muddy, claustrophobic passages recording abstract graphic forms.  Mud was everywhere in Leaning Into the Wind, along with streaming walls, slick pavements and goopy clay mixed with human hair.

The movie’s soundtrack is as compelling and hypnotic as the film.   Goldsworthy talks transparently about his own evolution as an artist.  For some people,  preferring the Goldsworthy of sixteen years ago in Rivers and Tides, it might prove more of a “Dylan goes electric” letdown.  I found it trance-like and moving.  Have you ever had one of those dreams where you work hard in your dream all night and wake up tired?  The film produces an effect like that.  Recommended.  Currently at the Summerfield, at 3:45 only.

 

My Private Paleolith

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“The Old Ways,” mixed media collage painting, detail, Suzanne Edminster.

What about our private, individual Stone Ages?  What about your art that was a start, years ago, before it ripened?  What’s in your art cave?  Is it brilliant?  Submerged? Rough?  Hard to find?  From ancient eras?  In this post, I’ll share some personal old, extinct art.  Some is destroyed, some still exists hidden, and all are my little secrets.

As I considered paleolithic creativity, I began thinking about my own ancient art.  Art is transient.  Periodically, I clean out and discard my old art.  Ancient art in nature is drowned, avalanched, petrified, faded, scratched and licked by animals, mineral-dripped,  overpainted, destroyed.  Some fragments remain.

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Detail of Doctor Doctor, mixed media collage painting. Suzanne Edminster

I still don’t know why I made this painting, which I named just today after years of existing title-free.  It does look like a shaman within a shaman, or big foot, or a gorilla, with magic biceps.  And a little hippo is sort of irresistible.  Maybe there’s a little bit of Big Bad Wolf, with granny inside.  It’s scary enough that it never got hung on a wall.  It has a personality…. someone you may not want to meet in a stone age alley by moonlight.

And a few more details of old paintings.  I was really into that heavy texture, my own modeling paste, made from thick gesso and lightweight spackle from the hardware store, half and half.

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Antique fragments, excavated up from our own lost ages,  still have power.   What do you do with your own ancient art?

Neanderthal art gives a new perspective on “Old Masters”

 

Detail from a collage painting using ancient art. Suzanne Edminster, mixed media on panel.

Neanderthal art has now been shown to exist and has been dated back to over 60,000 years, before Homo Sapiens was in Europe.  It has graphic abstract forms and seems to have recognizable animals (see the short film below).  As more and more work is done on the “abstract” sign forms in deep caves , we are finding that the abstract is not  more “primitive” than the realistic animals.  They occur together.

It could be more like comparing a novel with a movie made from the novel:  the more abstract marks have known meaning and carry specific information, perhaps a story script, or “credits” with location, authors, and events,  while the beautiful animals are the movie itself.  Books and movies do not exclude each other, but enhance each other.

We always seem to want to separate the “written” and the “visual.”  We have even assigned them different sides of the brain, which has now been shown to be a erroneous.   It reminds me of how much we wanted to believe the Neanderthals were knuckle-dragging apes rather than sharing a known human experience.

I’m going to try to paint my own paintings using some of these beautiful Neanderthal abstract marks.  I’ll keep you posted on the paintings.

Suzanne

Upcoming events:  on First Friday May 4, 2018, I’m hosting a gallery show of modern art in ancient modes created by five artists.

 

The Greek Gods and Polychromy: The Gods Weren’t White

The Greek Gods weren’t white!  We just think they were.  “The Gods in Color: Polychromy in the Ancient World,” recently at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, was a revelation.  Using minute traces of residual colors, historical material from past centuries that documented colored temples and statues, and all the resources of modern science, we now can be sure that temples of the gods in ancient Greece may have resembled a set on Black Panther more than a mausoleum.

“Chromophobia” is the fear of color.  It may be wrong to apply it to a to a whole society, rather than an individual,  but I think that we live in an era of mass chromophobia.  Modernism in architecture and decor focuses on neutrals, greys, browns, black and white- with maybe a daring splash of green from a succulent.  But from the earliest times, back to the time of Neanderthal woman, we have sought and ground pigments to produce beautiful, durable colors.

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Vivid pigments from mineral sources.

Seeing this exhibit reminded me of the gorgeous color in ancient Roman murals I saw when I was in Pompeii, and other examples preserved in the Naples Archaeological Museum.  I notice that the stone pigments have a chalky quality with a kind of depth found in modern pastels today.  Yummy!

Girl with Horns, Naples Museum
Rich blues, greens and golds
Naples Pompeii Villa
The famous Pompeii Red. How’s that for dining room decor in your vacation villa?
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These ancient Roman pigment sources from the museum in Naples look yummy enough to serve at a decadent banquet.

Look at those pinkish stones!  Pink was a popular color in ancient times.

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A beautiful pink dress.

I speculate that it was hard to get a sort of true blue-red:  Red ocher tends toward sienna/orange/ brown, and any red mixed with a white opaque binder would turn pink. “Rhodophobia” is the fear of pink;  someone with this affliction would have had a hard time in ancient Greece, because pink tones were everywhere.

A few hundred years ago it was still possible to see traces of color on Greek temples.  Pre-photography, you could go out with your watercolorist and his camera obscura and paint from life.  There were still traces of temple color documented in the watercolors of Greek landscapes and monuments by the English antiquarian Edward Dodwell and the Italian artist Simone Pomardi.

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Greek temple with some color still visible in 1805.

The complex friezes of the ancient world take on a vivid, comic book quality in color.

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What we see now vs. the original
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I want this redhead on my side!

The ancients used all the color available to them.  We should too.

Upcoming at Saltworkstudio: “Paleomythic”

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I’m pleased to be a co-curator for PaleoMythic, a show opening on May 4, 2018, in Backstreet Gallery.  I have long loved ancient art and found inspiration in it.  I have joined forces with master printmaker Caren Catterall and three other fine artists to explore our creation of modern myths from ancient sources.  I feel like I’ve been waiting ages to do this show… 65,000 years or so!  I hope that images recalling the sacred darkness of the cave can dispel some of the darkness rising in our collective souls.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leaning Into Twenty Fifteen

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I am leaning into the curve of 2015. In November I dressed up my studio to honor lights in the darkness by decorating paper lanterns for Winterblast, solstice, and Christmas. I respond strongly to the annual winter darkness, and I’ve heard many other artists say this too. It’s a time of a lot of inspiration seeds or acorns stored to use later in the year. (Don’t hide them so well you can’t find them, though.) I chose two themes, Cave and Matisse. One is glowing in the dark recesses of the past, and one is jumping with color into the future. There’s a link to my instructions for making them at the end.

I did a lot of family things this year. It’s easy to overvalue the things that “show” and are visible. Visual artists do this all the time. Home, family, the elders, and ancestors are the deep roots that feed us, invisibly. I cooked a goose and that was very complicated indeed, but was delicious. It was called “roast beef” in the past because the sliced goose is brown and really does taste like beef. And why not? Geese are land grazers, the cows of the bird world. I did this as an edible metaphor to kick off my work on my new series for 2015, The Goose Game. The Christmas goose is eaten, though wishbone, stock and fat are left– the old ways. Come on over and I’ll roast potatoes in goose fat for you– I got that hint from a 1940s James Beard cookbook and they are amazing.

My Goose is Cooked and a Cat Likes It Just Fine
My Goose is Cooked and a Cat Likes It Just Fine

I’ll be starting a Goose Game monotype series soon, using Akua soy inks and etching press. You can come along for the ride: I’ll be posting process photos and blogs. January is coming to an end and a new year is unfurling like a fern frond. Lean into that spiral. Here are Saltworkstudio’s lantern instructions. Enjoy.

World’s Oldest Painting in Spain: Abstract, of course

The world’s oldest painting is now found to be an abstract red “dot” or circle dated reliably back to 40,000 BCE. This makes it older than the previously dated Chauvet Cave paintings so eloquently documented by Werner Herzog. It’s also provoked speculation that Neaderthals may have been artists– the ultimate reversal of art from highbrow to lowbrow. Or perhaps abstraction is, once again, seen as “lower” art, thus the Neanderthal question… just kidding. Sort of. You can see the red area and the mouth-blown hand stencils below.
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The work, age-verified last year in a series of North Spanish caves, seems to be a mixture of abstraction, hands, and animals. The figures below are called “seals”. Huh? Maybe. Or maybe female figures with a vulva mark at the end… or, even, abstractions. There is an assumption that the abstract is more primitive and came before the figurative, but if the exquisitely worked animals of Chauvet are only a thousand years off, I think it’s likely that all the styles, including the popular figuative animals, existed simultaneously, as they do today.
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Here are horses, almost always found paired with aurochs. Look at the cute little zebra leg. It’s easier to love the horsie than the red dot, except for abstract fans. You have to interpret the dot yourself.

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Let’s hear it for the red dot! A red circle is primal, like the sun, like hands, like animals.

 A red dot also means the painting sold! Do you think it means he sold his wall of marks? Here’s my red dot– Over Underworld, a meditation on cave paint, civilization, and what’s underneath. You can see it during ARTrails this October in Studio 92. I hope to see you in my cave then. P1000487

News Release on World’s Oldest Art

Ancient drawings discovered in Spain have been crowned the world’s earliest cave art. Scientists claim the images date back 40,800 years and may have been done by Neanderthals. The find in 11 caves in northern Spain has beaten the previous record held by Chauvet cave in central France, which boasts drawings of animals thought to date back 39,000 years. Scientists say Spain’s cave art is now the oldest known in Europe, and probably the oldest in the world. The drawings feature animals, round red dots and a series of handprints known as a Panel of Hands. “We find one of these [handprints] to date older than 37,300 years on the Panel of Hands, and very nearby there is a red disc made by a very similar technique that dates to older than 40,800 years,” Dr. Alistair Pike, archaeological scientist from Bristol University explained to reporters. Working in the caves, scientists had to solve the difficult task of dating the ancient images. Pike explained that unlike bones or tools that can be carbon-dated and associated with artifacts found nearby, cave art is “not associated with anything but itself.” The team of scientists used a special technique to date the drawings. They analyzed the calcite patinas that form with mineralized water dripping over the art for thousands of years, just like stalagmites and stalactites form in caves. Over time, the calcite accumulates naturally occurring radioactive uranium from the water. Uranium atoms with years decay into thorium at a very precise rate. The ratio of the two different elements in a sample forms a so-called clock that can determine the sample’s age quite accurately.

Art vs. Marketing: Five Ideas to Consider


What’s the difference between selling out and simply selling?

I found myself arguing with myself over this post when I put it up last week or the week before, feeling oddly insecure and conflicted. I ended up making it a draft again, unposting it and pulling it offline.  Yes, there were typos, but I think it was more that I had some problems with feeling authentic addressing the issue.   My success in the arts is modest and my own skills at using the internet to market are certainly not advanced.   Who am I to tell you what to do?  Some of my advice goes against common consensus on internet marketing.

That said, I found that I had the most conflicts  with the section called  post and publicize carefully, so I’ve included the original draft and some revised thoughts below.

Sometimes I feel sickened by using the internet  to publicize my paintings.  It gnaws my brain into small pieces and inflates a sort of Virtual Persona Girl who has a crabby,  fragmented, and narcisstic ego. That is certainly one form of selling out, and a dangerous one.   That said, I’ll  begin again…

What’s the difference between selling your soul and simply selling your art?

Many of us can envision– or have experienced–  life  before or without a television, but few younger people  today can reconstruct the era of a world without  internet.   The Web now reaches its tentacles into every moment of our lives and every part of our bodies. ( I have a theory that cellphones are the new cigarettes, but that’s for another day.) Artists are engulfed  in a tsunami of information and marketing possibilities. It has become harder and harder to decided what to do, or decide if what you’re doing is worth it.  Here are a few ideas for those who feel adrift in the flood.

The route to success is not soley through the internet, or through sales.  Many masters were obscure in their own time. I’m not suggesting that this is the way to go, or that you shouldn’t bother to try to publicize on your own behalf.  But I will say that the  artwork has to be strongly felt, beautifully crafted, and cohesive to make a mark.   Artwork that is well-made will find an audience and buyers of some kind, with or without Twitter.  You do need to clarify what success is for you.  There’s a wide range on the spectrum.  Are you Vincent Van Gogh, Matisse, Thomas Kincaid, Bouguereau?  Are you looking for a small circle of people who love your work, or do you want to make big money?  Somewhere in between?

Don’t chase genre.   “Landscapes sell.”  I’ve heard this too often to count.  The other thing I’ve heard is “I’d love to do more abstract work, but it won’t sell.”  The flood of images now available online and print has sensitized us to cliché and to inauthentic artmaking.  Now more than ever, it has to be your own, even if your own work is very odd.

Find your own relationship with internet marketing.  Marketing online will periodically change, and you’ll have to master new skills.  It will repeatedly and radically shift its form, and  you will have to find your own way through the maze.  No one solution will fit without alteration over time.  It’s useful to ask  “Who is my real audience?”  Why are you doing social networking, for example?  If it is to socialize, you’ll be successful.  If it is to sell, it may not work for you.  Use networking to build authentic, friendly support systems.  They may bring far more than you can anticipate.  There’s no magic equation for marketing.  And if you do things which feel false to you, simply to market, they won’t work anyway.  Choose to focus on a few venues that feel fun and manageable to you.  Be polite.  Publicize others.  Spend time online doing unto others what you wish they would do unto you– viewing, commenting on, and appreciating artwork.

Pipe smoking in Lascaux! Those were the days.

Post and publicize carefully. Don’t rush to show too many works-in-progress,  unless that is part of a plan or goal.  “Works in progress” are intriguing, but save your energy for the finished work. Sometimes work can appear more impressive online than in reality, but it needs to be the other way around.  If you find yourself “tweaking” your images too much, you may be over-identifying with an online image, not your original impulse.

Here’s where I started arguing with myself.  I do think we can use blogs as a journal; they can clarify direction and act as a reflection.  If we can use notebooks to move our artistic process along, then we can also use the internet as a to0l to amplify our creative process.  Regarding the “works in progress” riddle– what to show, what to hide, what to contain– I’ve decided to show selected works-in-progress online, but limit their  frequency. In my last post, Six Phases of Creativity, I decided to put the raw or “draft” works in context by showing them sitting on my worktable.  I have a strong feeling that marketing really can overtake and subsume the production of quality art.  Look at Thomas Kincaid.  I think we must always delicately adjust our courses, and to consider containment or withdrawing from marketing as an option.

Though painting-a-day posts have their place, posting prematurely– or too often– can be mildly deceptive to the viewer, and  can rob the work of energy needed to explore the work.  After all, you’ve already gotten a charge from having it seen online.  On the other hand…

The quest for the perfect art shot.

Get your work out to everybody possible.  Make links available and write simple email show notices.  Don’t get caught in the false reality of virtual approval.  The statistics and numbers give us a feeling similar to gambling.  They are fun, but not real, and have addictive qualities.   Shows, sales, and real-life appreciation by actual, not virtual humans is what feeds us.  The internet can be a net that falsely traps us in distant admiration, or it can be an open, inspiring road to reaching out to more people in an authentic way. Success may choose an indirect route, and require time, that rarest of all elements in the shifting cloud of Internet.

Cow Carrying the Neolith on Her Back, acrylic on canvas, 24″ x 24″, by Suzanne Edminster

Acknowledgements: Thanks to photographer Marco Zecchin, whose wonderful premise “Art is Sacred” is the cornerstone of his marketing philosophy and workshops.  I enjoyed using the magnificent, rare and unpublished photos of Lascaux in 1947  from Life Magazine.  My thanks to author Matt Ellis, whose article on David Gaughran’s blog provided the inspiration and framework for this post.