In an interview with Wildlife Art Magazine many years ago, artist Ray Harris Ching noted that a poorly drawn bald eagle will sell better than a beautifully rendered snake. That statement is a very good example of a phenomenon with which I have long been keenly fascinated; I call it “The Primacy of Subject.” Representational art, art which portrays a recognizable subject matter (not to be confused with “realism,” which is only one type of representational art), is easier for most people to connect with than the purely abstract because, quite plainly, there is something in that artwork that the viewer can instantly recognize and relate to. Certainly, when we view abstract art, we can connect immediately with the color palette, the expressiveness of the brushwork, or shapes and quality of line, but none of these things impact us as quickly, decisively, or viscerally, as a thingwe can readily identify as belonging concretely to our own world and our own experience. Of course, how the viewer relates to the image depends largely on what the subject matter is, and therein lies the rub.
For those of us who paint wildlife, what animals one chooses to paint can dramatically impact one’s sales, as Ching’s comment suggests. We artists all like to think our decisions are never influenced by anything so crass as making a living, but in a world governed by practical realities, it’s a hard reality to ignore. My own interest in wildlife art began in my early teenage years as a vehicle for exploring exotic and lesser known creatures I read about in magazines and ogled in nature documentaries. That interest that has never left me, but as I progressed into the professional art world it was no longer appropriate to count National Wildlifeand Ranger Rick magazines as my source material, and I found myself focusing more on local flora and fauna that I could observe, sketch, and photograph myself. My first several solo shows back in my Pacific Wildlife Galleries days (the gallery where my career began) included many unusual subjects along with the more familiar ones, and a surprising number of those pieces did sell. My feeling then, as now, was that an artist’s enthusiasm for his subject shines through in the work, and that ring of truth attracts admirers (and buyers). As Hemmingway once wrote, “The truth has a certain ring to it,” and that truth, in the case of painting, must always come from an honest and enthusiastic commitment to the work, and not the kind of “punch-card” drudgery that comes from painting a wolf because “wolves sell.” I recall one time when my a very reliable collector purchased a painting of a Victoria-Crowned Pigeon, a very weird and flamboyant bird I had encountered in a friend’s aviary. The collector confided in me that she and her husband had, upon looking at the catalogue for the show, ruled that piece out from their list of potential purchases because it was such an odd bird. Upon seeing the show in person, however, they were shocked to be taken by that piece more than any other, and they bought it on the spot. I had won them over, not by catering to their interest in exotic pigeons (there was none), but by impressing them with my obvious infatuation with an exotic pigeon. Whatever it was about that painting that made it uniquely mine, it was strong enough to override The Primacy of Subject. My friend Tony Hochstetler, who creates incredible bronze sculptures of insects, reptiles, and other less commonly explored animals, says that his favorite compliment to hear is “I hate that animal, but I love how you’ve portrayed it,” and I understand why. What better endorsement can an artist receive than to know that it is his vision that is being purchased, not his choice of subject matter?
Within my own collection, there are some unusual pieces that I bought for no other reason than that I love the way the painting or sculpture was made, excluding all else. Still, as I survey what my partner Guy calls our “big collection of little art” it occurs to me that the vast majority of pieces feature subject matter that speak particularly to our own loves and interests. I had long admired the equine sculpture of Stephanie Revennaugh, but not being especially interested in horses, I never bought one of her pieces until she did an exquisite little sculpture of a whippet, the same breed as one of our beloved dogs, Enzi. Guy and I love the landscape paintings of David Grossmann, but never made a purchase until he hung a series of small paintings of the Sonoran Desert, a place to which we feel a great spiritual connection. For years I wanted to own a painting by my friend Barbara Banthien, but it was her portrayal of a Vulturine Guinea Fowl, one of my very favorite birds, that cinched the deal. Of course, none of these pieces would have made it into our very discerning collection simply because of the subject matter; they are also exceptional works of art on multiple levels. Still, it amazes me, being as aware as I am of The Primacy of Subject, and being as aware as I am that it is not always a force for good art-buying, that my own collection so obviously exhibits this bias. However anecdotal, it is proof positive to me that The Primacy of Subject is something innate and inescapable.
What concerns me is that less discriminating collectors make choices all the time based almost exclusively on the Primacy of Subject. I never want to be an elitist, but I have watched the art market closely enough and for long enough to know whereof I speak. Certainly many a thoughtful and educated collector has bought a piece of art that I wouldn’t simply because it is to their tastes and not mine. I’m not talking about differences in preference. I’m talking instead about the deep and visceral power that subject matter exerts over the viewer, oftentimes to the exclusion of all else. Every time I visit Jackson Hole, Wyoming, home to the National Museum of Wildlife Art (which houses four of my artworks) and something of a mecca for wildlife artists and wildlife art galleries, I am assaulted by an endless parade of gobsmackingly awful portrayals of elk, moose, bears, and bison. There are, to be fair, some amazing artworks featuring sensitive and original interpretations of these subjects (mine among them, I like to think) but the sheer numbers of mediocre to outright terrible forays into banality, and the accompanying “sold” stickers, drive home just how much more difference it makes what you draw, paint, or sculpt than how you draw, paint, or sculpt it. Elk, moose, bears, and bison are popular subjects, and there is no doubt in my mind that a good portion of the artwork featuring these subjects is not the result of great artistic inspiration, but rather what Robert Bateman has called (and admonished against) “painting to the market.”
Anyone who has painted wildlife for as long as I have knows that there are certain subjects that are statistically more relatable across the board. Wolves are certainly one of them. But there is also a distinct regional element to The Primacy of Subject. While bears, bison, and elk, are popular subjects across the whole of wildlife art, they are especially popular in Western markets like Jackson Hole where these animals are common visitors, and thus foremost in the personal experience of art buyers who either live in that area or visit there frequently. Friend and fellow artist Stephen Jesic lives in Australia, so naturally his work focuses on the colorful parrots and songbirds that are familiar backyard visitors in those parts, as well as charismatic endemics like Koalas, which are iconic emblems of his country. This hardly means that Australian animals won’t sell outside Australia, or that Western Wildlife won’t sell when exhibited in an East Coast gallery, but it is important to recognize that, for instance, an African Elephant is more likely to sell to someone who has traveled to Africa and loves elephants, which means that an African Elephant exhibited in Jackson Hole, WY, is probably statistically less likely to sell than the moose hanging next to it, regardless of which one is a better painting.
When I was painting for Contemporary Wildlife: Modern Masters at Astoria Fine Art a couple of years back, I made a very calculated decision. I had some concepts and approaches in mind that I knew would make this body of work my most modern and cutting edge to date, and I was adamant that I not blunt or soften that modernity in any way. The question was whether or not these stylistic choices might make the work harder to sell. Rather than letting those concerns soften my resolve, I simply decided to focus on the most familiar, popular, and recognizable subjects for which I had good reference material available, namely owl, elk, chickens, bison, cougars, and so on. I only selected animals I was genuinely excited about painting, but there were certainly some more questionable choices that I could have pursued but instead edited out to focus on what I deemed to be more likely saleable. Fortunately it paid off; not only was I enormously pleased with that body of work on an artistic level, but I sold every piece. It would seem that either viewers bought these very modern pieces because the subjects won them over, or they bought them because they loved how I chose to portray the subjects, regardless of what they were. I’ll never know which. What I do know is that by acknowledging The Primacy of Subject, I at least felt like I was sidestepping a visible and easily avoidable pitfall.
It is both the curse and blessing of the artist that he has more artworks in his head than he will ever be able to bring into being during his lifetime. We cannot afford to waste our time with paintings we don’t truly want to paint. Nor can we starve if the work we produce does not connect with collectors. Nor can we ever truly predict what will sell regardless of what we paint or how; that is certainly something my more than sixteen years of experience as a full-time painter has driven home. I would never recommend to any artist that he or she not take on a project simply because she is afraid that the painting might not sell. In fact, it is those occasions when I feel truly nervous about a painting that I force myself to take a gulp and dive in, because that is how an artist grows. Moreover, it is far better to put in the necessary effort to find the market for what you love to do than to shoe-horn yourself into a market that is a poor fit. Still, if I have ten potential paintings in mind for a show, and five of them are subjects I think are more likely to relate to my audience, guess which paintings I’m going to prioritize? The Primacy of Subject is something that all of us artists and art collectors would do well to acknowledge. Inspiration, whether to create a painting or to own one, is largely subconscious, deeply visceral, and always a pure reflection of one’s innermost desires and deeply imprinted memories. The feeling I get when the phrase “I have to paint that” comes into my head is almost identical to the feeling I get when “I have to buy that” asserts itself instead. We want what we want, both as creators and consumers. Certainly, as an art maker, I am indulging in my preferences every time I create a painting. The professional artist, however, as ultimately driven as he may be by the subconscious, hones his craft by becoming, through practice and hard work, as consciously aware as possible of the decisions he is making and why. With so many pitfalls before us, we art buyers can surely train ourselves to be just as aware. I often ask myself the question “Is this a good idea for a painting? Am I painting this eagle because it’s a good idea or because I like eagles?” We can all ask ourselves the same questions about why we buy what we buy, and in so doing make certain that when we buy a painting of an elk, it’s a damn good one.