Amateur and Professional Artists

Armand Cabrera

( All Illustrations by Armand Cabrera)
I think it’s time we bring back a word that was popular before the baby boomers started to ‘find themselves’. The word is “amateur”. Do you notice that practically no one is an amateur artist anymore? Everyone has “professional artist” status—their desire and intent are enough to warrant the “professional” claim. I think artists should be “amateurs” until they actually make their living from selling their paintings. That way, they’ve actually earned the right to call themselves “professional artists.”

To those seeking a professional career in art —

Paint and draw daily from life!


Don’t post your paintings on the web or try to sell them on eBay for $100. Just paint— and work at being the best you can be. No one needs to see the artistic equivalent of what would be a 12 year olds’ diary; it is banal and self absorbed—interesting only to other 12 year olds.

I wouldn’t recommend having a website until you’re in a fine art gallery. Don’t show the world what a bad artist you are right now. Spend all your time working at becoming a better artist. (Do grab your domain name right away, though!).

When I wanted to become an illustrator, I worked my fulltime job, came home and painted at night and sent samples to art directors. I stuck the rejection letters on my living room walls. It was a reminder that everyday I didn’t paint or improve my skills, was just another day those people were right and I wasn’t good enough. It took about five years to get my first book cover. I stayed in illustration for another five years, doing magazine and book illustration. I chose not to get married or have a family. My focus—becoming a professional artist.

When I decided to leave illustration and become a production artist in games, I worked harder to improve my speed and skill. I knew that creating a painting every two weeks wasn’t fast enough to succeed in the games industry. When I was hired to paint backgrounds, I was doing two, 10” x 14” paintings a day for my clients. They decided when the backgrounds were good enough for the industry. Having that valuable external input was critical to my artistic growth—and an important reason I feel most gallery artists fail to draw or paint at the level of an illustrator or production artist.

After 15 years in the computer games business, I changed my focus and decided to work for myself as a gallery artist. During my transition to full time fine art, I worked 12-hour days in computer games, then came home and painted until 1 am or 2 am…and also painted on the weekends. Within two years, my paintings were accepted into a fine art gallery. Within a short time, I replaced my 6-figure games income with gallery sales and I quit my “day job”.

As an amateur artist, I sought after and benefited from professional advice. I never thought the art directors were wrong about my skills when they said my work wasn’t up to par. As a production artist, my drawing skills were weak in the beginning. I improved them with drawing from life whenever I could. I studied the fundamentals of painting. I appreciated the successful artists who guided me by offering honest criticism, even though it was sometimes hard to hear.

I’ve noticed that constructive criticism is a thing of the past. Most people are offended if you tell them the truth. It’s very sad that we’ve lowered the bar so very far and that everyone is a “professional artist”. We’re subjected to the worst of art because it’s not “correct” to criticize anyone’s “creativity”. Many art shows and organizations have no jury process—just a fee charged for participation. As a result, anyone, with or without skill, can exhibit their work in the show.

It’s time to demand skill and facility as basic tenets towards becoming a professional artist. Let’s bring back the fundamentals of art and be honest about amateur and professional level art. Perhaps, if we’re all honest, amateurs will work harder and will someday become professional artists in the true sense of the word.

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Anatomy of a Painting – Part 1


Armand Cabrera
I have not always painted in oils. I originally started painting in acrylics at fifteen. Later when I was hired for my first job in the entertainment industry as a background artist, I continued to paint with acrylics. It wasn’t until I decided to make the jump to gallery painting that I switched over to oils and before I did I researched the proper use for oil paint and read up on materials and techniques. I talked to a conservator and asked about proper technique to ensure long life for my paintings. We talked about what to paint on and about sizing and grounds and pigment layers.
 Basically the paintings that have the best chance of survival are ones that follow certain rules to insure anatomical strength for the physical painting. Paintings on hard surfaces have less chance of cracking than paintings on stretched surfaces. if you don’t use linen or cotton the surface must be prepared with a ground to hold the paint. If the surface is wood it must be completely dried to prevent warping and flexing as it dries. Kiln dried wood is best for painting. Gesso and oil prime are what most people use as a ground today. If painting on linen or cotton the fabric must first be sized or sealed to prevent rotting or allowing moisture to invade the layers of pigment. Animal glue was the preferred size for years but that has now given way to polymer sizes made with PVA.
Traditional gesso was made with glue and mixed with chalk or gypsum. Modern gesso is acrylic paint, usually titanium white and calcium carbonate with preservatives like ammonia and formaldehyde added as a preservative,
Oil prime was originally lead carbonate pigment mixed with turpentine this has been replaced with titanium white for safety reasons. Lead white is more expensive and carcinogenic than other whites and has fallen out of use as a commercial ground and as a paint for application although it can still be purchased.
After the ground applying the pigments should follow the fat over lean rule where layers of applied paint contain more oil in the later stages. Thinning your paint with medium or solvents breaks down the paint and makes it more prone to flaking and cracking. I was told the impressionist paintings were the easiest to preserve because the paintings were layered very simply. They usually contain a size and ground for the canvas and then pigments were applied and then a varnish was added. I have followed this advice for my career using oils and I have not run into any problems of permanence.
This is a different approach than more academic paintings which could have layers upon layers of pigments and glazes with different types of mediums and extenders to retard or quicken drying times for the paint. This latter type of painting has a greater chance of problems for permanence s as the painting ages. Extra care must be taken to insure the stages are preserved correctly when drying so the pigment doesn’t delaminate or crack over time. This includes using liquin which has become a popular commercial medium and homemade mediums of various mixtures and consistencies.
A trip to the museum will show the veracity of this advice. Paintings on stretched surfaces and paintings that have many layers of pigment and glazes show a tendency to crack and come apart even in as few as fifty years. This is especially true of the modern art movement where some painters introduced fugitive substance into their work that destroyed the integrity of the pieces and created a nightmare for restorers. Other paintings like some orthodox Russian Icon paintings on oak panels or copper look as fresh as the day they were painted.
Recommended Reading
The artists Handbook of Materials and Techniques (fifth edition)
Ralph Mayer
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Art and Free Speech


Armand Cabrera

I have been writing these articles for over ten years now and in that time I’ve rarely strayed from the narrow topic of the general nuts and bolts of art but with recent events taking place here in this country and around the world I feel compelled to speak out against what I see as an assault on free speech.

Art does not exist in a vacuum. To flourish it needs certain conditions and to my way of thinking the most important is the free exchange of ideas. Ideas that challenge our comfort zones and push our boundaries and even may offend us are an important part of what goes into making all forms of great art.

In this country free speech is being strangled on college campuses by individuals who only want a platform for their narrow worldviews. They have set themselves up as the overlords of all things right and good and in doing so have destroyed any chance for dialogue between opposing viewpoints. Surprisingly this is coming from the left side of the political spectrum instead of conservatives.

This goes against everything America was built on. Freedom of speech is a fundamental right even when it is distasteful or outright offensive. As an artist I am well acquainted with this kind of fascist control over what people can say or do or write or draw. In my career I have been blocked from showing my art because it had religious overtones, political commentary, nudity, violence or in some cases fantasy elements.  I abhor censorship as much when this comes from the left as I do when it comes from the right of the political spectrum.

Stifling free speech leads to an insular worldview and limited thinking which leads to extreme and sometimes violent intolerance of other viewpoints. Reports of students spitting on people listening to speakers they disagree with or locking out and threatening journalists trying to report on news events shows how far they have fallen from American values on our campuses.

Even more disturbing are the recent bombings around the world showing that democracies are being threatened by extreme fundamentalism. Attacks on musicians, writers, journalists and cartoonists some with murderous outcomes for the victims of the aggression, have been increasing around the globe. This type of attack goes against the core beliefs of a free democracy and capitulation to the aggressors is not the answer. No ideology, social or religious, should be exempt from criticism or outright ridicule by anyone in a free society.

Artists of all disciplines have always pushed society’s boundaries. They have always been the forefront of free thought. In my opinion the world is now a better place because of this, do not let a few extremists who fear progress and change alter that. 

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Art and Labor


Armand Cabrera
 “I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study

 mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and

 philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture,

 navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children

 a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary,

 tapestry and porcelain.” ~ John Adams

We just finished celebrating labor day here in the USA.
 Labor groups have been much maligned the last few decades. Some of the criticism is just but a lot of it is not. With labor groups weakening we are seeing a return to pre-1920 work ideas. Almost gone are the 8 hour work day and 40 hour work week. Gone is the idea you get paid an hourly wage in some industries like entertainment and gaming.

What has this got to do with art you might ask? Well everything. Labor movements of the last few centuries took their cues from the artisan guilds that started during medieval times
and led to the renaissance for arts and European society.
It wasn’t quick, or without suffering but artists were there at the beginning.

Before the guilds you had very few classes of people in Europe. You had the ruling class, the clergy, the military class and serfs or slaves. Serfs were beholden to their masters and their masters could do what they wanted with them. They were expected to do everything to provide their masters with leisure time. It became obvious though that some serfs were better at building things than others, some were better at painting or pot making than others. Some had greater skill at metallurgy or woodcraft.
The division of labor started to fall along lines of skill but these people were still slaves
and when the ruler needed something they stepped to it skilled or not.

Guilds helped to change that. Guilds shifted the power back to the artisans who had unique knowledge that gave them skill with certain disciplines. Groups of people formed guilds around  disciplines to control the quality and the knowledge of a particular craft. The ruling class now hired and paid craft people to produce objects for them. Artisans became a class of people. It elevated them slightly from serfdom and peasantry. Their worth and status was not based on their bloodlines.
Though the artists themselves were not revered individually
their guild could be and that meant a better life for them and their family.
You worked as an apprentice in a guild under a master to learn to reproduce the master’s work exactly, learning over years to create a “master piece” something indistinguishable from the masters own work in the eyes of the patrons. Once this was accomplished an artisan could with his masters blessing then start another guild and continue the legacy of quality and style.
Guilds continued to elevate classes of people as society moved from small fiefdoms of slaves to freemen that were allowed to own property and control their own destinies. Again art and artisans led the way for this. As artists sought more control and expression over what they made the ideas of guilds loosened. Artists had more freedom for innovation and experimentation and this flowering of shared knowledge helped support the renaissance.  Artists were elevated to some of the highest levels of society as court artists, portrait painters, musicians, architects and muralists.
Every century brought greater freedom and a better standard of living for more people. Whenever things reversed and society faltered, groups of people would band together for their common interests and demand fair treatment.  The more skilled they were the more leverage they had over their place in society since their abilities could not easily be replaced.

Art and skill will always drive innovation and social change.
As artists let’s make it for the betterment of all in society. 

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Art Book of Contemporary Masters – NO!!!

Armand Cabrera

There is a sucker born every minute. The quote is attributed to PT Barnum although it has been disputed over the years. Another quote is a fool and their money are soon parted. Both quotes relate to the latest in a series of art books that have cropped up in the last few years asking artists to buy space in their pages.
These books claim to represent master painters in some genre of painting.  For a fee of anywhere from 1000 to 4000 dollars you can be recognized as such a master. Forget about winning awards or having a successful track record of sales through galleries and shows. Now you can buy your master status. These books usually anchor the images with some quality painters to sell the rest of the books pages. Of course after they are printed no one would admit to paying for something that was given away for free to someone else so everyone will claim their spot was given to them.

I have made the list and receive one of these offers every three or four months, if not more. They of course want me to pay; I guess I’m not anchor material yet.  The good thing is they usually arrive as an email so no trees were directly harmed in the making of this scam.

I guess this new crop of artists don’t realize that book publishers pay you to use your art not the other way around. And people wonder whats wrong with the  illustration art market these days. If your work has any value at all, people will actually pay you to use it.

These books are nothing more than a new twist on the old vanity press publications, perpetrated to take advantage of large artistic egos attached to small talents. You know who you are… and now everyone else does too. You can hear them chuckling to themselves in the art section of Barnes and Nobles as they look up people they know when these books hit the shelves.

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