Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Greeting Card Buying Habits in the UK

Just over a month ago I sent an anonymous online questionnaire to every UK resident whose email address I could lay hands on to try to discover our approach to buying greeting cards, where we usually buy them, how much we expect to pay and so on. I asked the recipients of the questionnaire email to forward it to their contacts and as a result, it was completed by 78 people, from all over the UK and from many different walks of life.

There was quite a wide spread of age-groups, with a slight bias towards the 25-55 yrs of age group, which I have read is the group that buys the most greeting cards:

Under 25 yrs - 9.1%
25 - 55 yrs - 46.8%
Over 55 yrs - 44.2%

87.2% of those who took part were female and 12.8% male - and several of the male participants told me that they were 'not typical' because they hate buying cards, which bears out the figures given by the UK Greeting Card Association.

How many greeting cards do people buy in a year?
By far the largest percentage estimated this at 10 - 20 per annum, but this survey specifically did not include Christmas cards, which probably accounts for the numbers being on the low side:

43.6% buy 10-20 per year
17.9% buy 5-10 per year
17.9% buy 20-30 per year
14.1% buy fewer than 5 per year
6.4% buy more than 30 per year

- and remember that these are estimates.

And now for the really interesting bit -
Where do we usually buy our greeting cards? (several people chose more than one outlet)

Card Shop - 74%
Charity Shop - 27.4%
Bookshop/Gallery - 20.5%
Gift Shop - 15.1%
Garden Centre - 2.7%

Only one person (1.4%) said that they would buy greeting cards online!

Amongst the many other places that people buy cards were:

Stationery Department of a big store
Village shop
Local garage/petrol station
Craft fairs

We obviously tend to like our greeting cards left blank inside!

77.9% prefer 'blank inside'
22.1% prefer a verse or text inside the card.

When asked whether they would be prepared to pay more (eg 50p extra) for a card that is printed on heavier board, given that the designs were the same, my impression is that we don't tend to think consciously about it but that it probably is a factor when choosing cards, even if subconsciously. This is what the figures show -

9% said 'yes', they would be prepared to pay extra for a heavier board.
2.5% said 'no' they would not'
65.4% said 'sometimes'

Last but not least, what do we expect to pay for our greeting cards (Christmas cards excluded)?
I do not have percentages for this and I thought of making a graph but to get it to fit in this blog, the print would have been too tiny to read! So here are the figures in 25p increments (I have taken the figures to nearest 25p)

£1 or less....... 5
£1.75............. 8

These figures probably don't add up to 78 because there were some who said that they don't think about the price if they like the card. 

So it seems there is a peak at around £2.00 - £2.50 but also quite a lot of people expecting to pay £1.50 - £1.75.

When it came to asking about the maximum price we Brits are prepared to pay for a greeting card, £10 was mentioned by several participants, as was £4 - £6, but the majority who answered this question gave figures in the region of £2.50 - £3.00.

None of these results has really surprised me but it is good to have my suspicions verified; it will definitely help me in making decisions about selling my greeting cards here in the UK: I hope others may find them useful too.

And to all who gave their time to take part, a very big THANK YOU !!!

Monday, 29 March 2010

Coffee and Cards

I've just come to the end of a long day in which local friends came to my house and drank coffee and bought cards, beginning at 11 am and ending at 8 pm (with a couple of meal breaks!).

The weather could hardly have beeen worse - heavy rain, sleety at times, and flooding had been forecast last night for South Wales. So fewer people actually came than I was expecting, but on the other hand, those who did come bought more cards than I had anticipated and it was great that they came in dribs and drabs as it meant I had a chance to have a proper chat with them.

Surprisingly, I think it was my 'Shed Bleu' that was most in demand. And they all took away a free 'sweet pea' bookmark - like the one that won the TBA on Zazzle - with 'The Kitchen Table Card Company' and details on the back as a reminder!

We had a few traffic jams in the kitchen in the morning session because of the cards being on the kitchen table -

- so I moved the cards onto the worktops in the lunchbreak, away from the refreshments and it worked much better in the afternoon!

(Those are the catalogues I'd made on either side of the basket of  'coastal' cards.)

I had printed out copies of the online 'market research' questionnaire about UK card-buying habits that I sent out last month so that people who don't use the internet could fill it in today. That done, it is now closed and I shall start to post the results here as soon as I've recovered from today - so watch this space!

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Animal Totems

Carole Barkett has just added a fascinating post about animal totems to her 'Countrymouse Studio' blog.  I thought it might well interest a lot of people so here is the link to it.

Do we really need all this technology?

My scanner has been causing me huge frustration today! The sea in this collage is actually 'sea-green' but after scanning, it was definitely purple! No amount of Photoshop 'adjustments' came even close to the original so I've produced two versions, taking the opportunity to make a few collage 'adjustments' between the first and the second attempt. (Sometimes it seems to be easier to see what is needed once the image is on the screen!)

At moments like these, I envy the artists and designers of earlier times who didn't have to get involved in technological issues. Of course computer technology gives us all sorts of wonderful opportunities that they lacked but it certainly brings its fair share of 'ARRRGGGHHH!' moments and challenges to the little grey cells!

There seems to have been something of a revolution in Children's Book Illustration about 50/60 years ago, with illustrators like Eric Carle, Ezra Jack Keats, Quentin Blake, Maurice Sendak and Dick Bruna producing work that was quite unlike anything that had gone before. John Burningham was a contemorary of these illustrators and I was fortunate to receive his autobiography as a Christmas present this year. It is a treasure trove of his illustrations and information about what it was like to be a young illustrator in the 1950s and '60s. I was fascinated to notice that he had used collage figures against a background photograph just at the time when I was wondering whether something similar would be the answer to my difficulties with my 'frog' poem illustrations.

But the thing that made me really sit up and take notice was reading that John Burningham left school at 16, having failed his Art exam!

I ended my previous post at the point where I took Art 'O' Level and for the first time ever, experienced a blow to my confidence when I discovered that my 'Art' mark was the second lowest of all my 'O' Level marks. I didn't mention that a few tedious lessons, compared with the otherwise idyllic hours spent in the 'Art School', had consisted of drawing tins of Vim, balls of string and wilting pieces of Mock Orange with an HB pencil - not far off torture to my way of thinking!

After that I painted the odd wishy-washy watercolour landscape from time to time, but it was about 10 years before I considered going to an Art Class again, having occupied my time pretty fully with obtaining a degree in Modern Languages, teaching in primary schools and raising my family. When I finally got around to joining a local Art evening class, I could hardly believe what we were asked to do! A collection of plastic flower pots and fridge containers was set up on a desk in the middle of a primary school classroom, complete with fluorescent lighting. I took out some charcoal and did a quick sketch, which is all I assumed was required of us, only to be instructed to begin again - with an HB pencil!!!

At that point, I nearly gave up altogether but after a chat with the teacher, we agreed that I would sit in a corner and paint from my photos of the bay where Dylan Thomas had his 'writing hut'. And that I could ask if I needed help but otherwise I would just be left to get on with it. I can't honestly say that I learnt a thing from that teacher, though maybe the rest of the class did. But at least it ensured that I took time off from the domestic and work chores one evening a week so it wasn't all bad!

But I am fairly firmly convinced that 'artistic ability' has more to do with confidence than with talent and that we are all born with the ability to make art; that it's more a case of 'unlearning' than 'learning' when it comes to art lessons. More on that another day....

Here is my second scanning attempt - not sure whether it's any better really but at least the trees are more or less the same colour as the original.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Was I really taught so little - or was I just not paying attention?

I made a second version of this Father's Day card without the text because it occurred to me that maybe only a teacher would appreciate the 'my dog ate it' excuse - one of the standard excuses for non-submission of homework assignments that a teacher is stretched to dispute, along with 'my little sister scribbled on it' and 'Mum left it in her car and she's gone off to Cardiff with it'.

And on the subject of teachers, I've been trying to remember what I learnt from my first proper Art Teacher but have only come up with three things, even after at least five years of 'double Art' once a week! I'm sure I learnt a lot more than those three things but in a less definable way. Things to do with confidence, as with my sister.

My Art teacher between the ages of 11 and 16 was a distinctly gentle, and genteel, lady, soft-spoken, a little nervous, with her silver hair loosely and elegantly swept back to a bun in the nape of her neck. And she always wore a beautiful powder blue smock, apart from on special occasions like Speech Day, when she wore a black one trimmed with bands of coloured braid. In spite of her quiet ways, nobody, as far as I remember, ever dreamt of misbehaving in her class. If ever she needed to raise her voice slightly, her cheeks became flushed and dimpled but that was rare. Evidence of her 'control' of the class was that, when it came to the end of the lesson, all she needed to say was, 'When you come to a good stopping place...' and we knew what she meant. She was a 'Miss' and there was some speculation about her having been engaged to a soldier who had fallen in the First World War, but that was the case with many of our teachers. She was affectionately known as 'Speckled Parrot', which vaguely rhymed with her double-barrelled surname.

So what did I learn from her? The first thing that comes to mind is that it is generally a good idea to make a thumbnail sketch before starting a painting. Since I've had access to a computer and Photoshop, I've stopped making thumbnail sketches before I begin a painting - it's all taken care of by cropping and playing around with 'adjustments'. But I do still often make a 'thumbnail' of ideas for greeting card designs when I'm working from my imagination.

Secondly, I clearly remember a specific lesson in which we learnt about perspective. 'Speckled Parrot' made charcoal drawings of a seascape with cliffs and a horizon which changed position according to whether we were viewing the scene from the beach or from the clifftop. And I still occasionally find that useful !

The third thing I remember being taught was how to stretch watercolour paper. We used drawing pins to hold down the wet paper all around and it was a terrible job getting all those pins into the drawing board almost touching one another. I have never bothered to stretch my watercolour paper since! But I've always felt a bit guilty about it - until one day, quite recently, I was browsing through a forum on an Illustration Course website. Some brave person asked whether anyone else left out this apparently vital step - and to my delight and amazement, everyone else owned up and said they never bothered to stretch their watercolour paper and the sky hadn't yet fallen in!

So that's two useful things I learnt and one not so useful! But there was something else that was taught by example rather than explicitly in those Art lessons. And that was to respect each and every 'artist's' work by not interfering with it! Miss K-B never, ever drew on my work - if she wanted to suggest a better way of doing something she would sketch her idea on a separate piece of paper but never on my work. I think that must have really stuck in my mind because, years later when I went on an Art Therapy course and a huge, round piece of paper was set before us and we were asked to 'make our marks' on the piece nearest to us and then - horror of horrors! - to move round the table and continue mark-making on our neighbour's work, I nearly had a nervous breakdown!!!! I did, though, persuade myself to give it a try and it all ended well enough when I could see what we were trying to achieve in this particular context. In fact it was quite fun! But outside of that setting, I still think there is an almightily important case for recognising 'ownership' of one's (and other people's) art.

It would be interesting to hear whether anyone else feels as proprietorial about their 'mark-making' as I do!

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Just for the record...

I've been out and about a lot this week, away from the computer. On my way to the industrial estate where I get my printer paper, I discovered a little paved garden, hidden behind a high wall to the side of the tithe barn. Even as early as Monday, it was full of daffodils, whereas those in my garden are still few and far between. I didn't have my camera with me but today was such a warm and sunny day - hot even! - that I popped out to take some photos of them:

It turned out to be more difficult than I expected as there was a slight breeze so they were 'tossing their heads' in true Wordsworth fashion!

While I had my camera out I remembered that it is the equinox, so I decided to record the flowers that are blooming in my garden - some hyacinths in the window boxes:

The first tentative buds of the white alyssum:

early miniature tulips -

- and even some brave-looking wallflowers, growing by a wall, of course!

I can see that I'll soon be getting out my watercolours and doing some 'proper' painting!

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

'Blank inside for your own message'

I think this may be the last of my 'Coastal Collection' of collages for now as I'm going to be busy preparing for a 'Coffee and Cards' day in just over a week's time. It'll be the start of an idea I'm working on to sell my cards through a 'Partyplan' arrangement. I'm getting more sales through Greeting Card Universe now and even a few through Zazzle; but I've decided I'm not prepared to make the sort of very specifically targeted cards that seem to sell best through these PODstores - such as 'Wishing you a Speedy Recovery from your Torn Rotator Cuff Surgery' - but to stick with the more 'multi-purpose' blank cards that I, myself, would be likely to buy. So I definitely need to focus on finding more ways to sell in the UK, where it seems that 'blank for your own message' cards are more popular, judging by the results of my survey so far.

Here are some of the cards and other products I have made from my 'seaside' collages on Zazzle.

Monday, 15 March 2010

'People of Importance' - are we over-protecting our children?

When I read Michele Webber's most recent blog, in which she comments on the present-day hazards of sketching or even photographing children, something rang a bell. It's been loitering in the back of my head all day and suddenly I remembered that I thought exactly the same thing when browsing through a couple of my all-time favourite books, 'Important People' and 'People of Importance' by the illustrator, J. H Dowd.

His observation of children in the 1930s is enchanting but I should imagine there would be many a raised eyebrow, at the very least, if he were to produce something like this today!

 Notice the detail of the anxious nanny hurrying over the horizon towards the toddler and his new friend. But sadly, today, I think she would be more likely to be dialling 999 on her mobile!

The gruesome story of little Jamie Bulger has been in the news again recently and the irony is that he was not off running wild in the woods when he was lead to his tragic death, but in a shopping centre with his mother.

It's difficult to know whether there is really more abuse taking place these days than there was eighty years ago, or whether it's just that we are made more aware of it. But I do know that, in our well-meant bid to protect children from harm, they are missing a lot of the opportunities to explore, to have adventures and to exercise their imaginations, that I had as a child. And that is a pity.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Salt/snow effects with watercolours

This is the Penguin Christmas Card I mentioned below, in my reply to Michelle's comment on 'Keep Your Chin Up'.

(Sorry to be so out of season!)

'Failure is success if we learn from it'

So said Malcolm S Forbes and I need to hang on to that because this weekend has been quite a 'learning experience'! Two card designs made and I'd say they were both at least bordering on 'failures'.But it doesn't seem quite as depressing now that I have found something to learn from them.

First there was my Easter/Spring collage.

I could claim that I was distracted by interruptions - a visitor who stood and watched me (I can't bear that!) and then a long phonecall from a friend in crisis. But if I am honest, I don't think that was the problem at all. I think the reason I'm not at all happy with this one is simply because I don't much like the landscape in Spring! It's not that I don't like the Spring - I do! I love the first bright days when the sun begins to have a bit of warmth in it. I love the feeling of nature coming to life again after the winter, the buds on the bushes and trees and the green shoots appearing in the flower beds. And daffodils, primroses and floppy tupils are some of my favourite flowers.

It's just that I'm never tempted to paint the Spring landscape. The colours seem too sharp, almost strident! As I've mentioned previously, I find the landscape in winter much more attractive and 'paintable'. Not just the snow, but the soft, muted browns, blues and purplish greys of bare trees, hedges and copses. At one time, before the days of the digital camera. I would freeze half to death painting 'en plein air' all through the winter months. August and September are also favourite painting times for me, when the strong colours of high Summer start to fade but the brilliant Autumn spectacle has yet to begin. Again, it's the softly muted colours that I like.

So the lesson I have learned from this collage is 'Never paint anything that doesn't ask to be painted'!

I could never paint portraits or other people's houses to order, as has been suggested to me. I've tried, but I simply can't do it and why would I even try when there are always so other many things that seem to be clamouring to be painted. It might earn me some money if I could paint what other people want me to paint, but unfortunately, it just doesn't seem to work that way for me.

And then today there were were my two 'Hot Cross Bunnies'.

At the drawing stage I felt confident that they were going to work well. But here again, I made a big mistake, which I will not repeat.

In the past, when I've used my watercolour pencils and wash method, I've painted larger than the finished item, 7.5" x 10.5" instead of 5" x 7". But today I thought I would save my expensive watercolour paper and paint them smaller. But unfortunately that has resulted in the pencil lines being thicker because I haven't reduced the size of the whole thing. I'll know for next time! It was made even worse by the vaguaries of my fickle scanner - I'm sure it has a personality of its own! Some days it works perfectly, other days it takes at least three tries before it will work at all without repeatedly sending me misleading messages about not being switched on! Some days it produces an image that is true to the original - last week's goose was a case in point. Today it was obviously in a contrary mood. The original painting was 'portrait', not 'landscape' and had a pale blue, springlike sky with a sun in the top corner. But the scanner refused to pick up the blue at all and the sun looked slightly silly without a sky so I changed the orientation, which entailed cropping and enlarging - which made the pencil lines even thicker!!!

I've nevertheless uploaded both of these 'failed attempts' to GCU because I'm finding that quite often other people like the designs that I would reject. I'm learning, too, that there really is no accounting for taste!

Maybe I'll paint the Hot Cross Bunnies again some time, but on the other hand, statisically, Easter card sales account for only a tiny percentage of all sales so there might be better ways to use my time. I don't think I've ever sent an Easter card and I can only remember receiving one, so maybe my heart wasn't in it and I'd do better sticking to my summery 'coastal' theme?

I seem to remember feeling rather lacking in inspiration for Easter cards last year too but did manage to come up with this one - now on sale in my Greeting Card Universe and Zazzle stores -

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Another one for the 'Coastal Collection'

I am really enjoying making these 'coastal' collages! I suppose that's hardly surprising as I grew up by the sea, in the Isle of Wight, and it's the one thing I miss in Abergavenny. In fact I think I was probably about ten years old before I actually saw a lighthouse but all the same, I feel as if they were part of the backdrop of my life as a child.

'The Island', as it is always known, is quite small (380 sq. kilometers, according to Wikipedia) and diamond shaped and the River Medina runs from North to South, dividing the island in two - the West Wight and 'the rest of it'! The famous Needles lighthouse is on the westerly tip, I lived on the north-east coast and in those days never the twain did meet! In the forties and fifties there were not very many cars in the Island, mostly because of the cost of bringing them over from the 'mainland' so we were heavily dependent on the buses and there were only a couple of buses a week to the 'West Wight'. Even the 'Round the Island' coach tours rarely went west of the River Medina and it was only really much later in my life when I took my car down to the Island for a holiday that I realised how close I had lived all those years to an 'area of outstanding natural beauty' - and, of course, the Needles lighthouse.

But in spite of that, I always felt it was part of my 'heritage' because it featured on postcards, tins of toffees, packets of fudge, tea towels, trays and practically everything in the seaside gift shops! I was reminded of this just last week when a friend of a friend brought back some holiday gifts from the Island and with them a postcard with the Seven Wonders of the Isle of Wight. 'Ryde' (my hometown) where you walk, 'Cowes' you cannot milk, 'Newport' you cannot bottle etc - and of course 'The Needles' you cannot thread'! (I got a bit of a shock when I saw a recent photo of the lighthouse there - it now has a helipad on the top!)

Naturally the Sea Scouts thrived in this location and my parents and some of my older sibling were involved in the organisation, along with another family who seemed to me, as a child, to have countless big brothers! We spent many idyllic (for me!) weekends working on the Sea Scouts' boathouse on a small and usually deserted bay just round the corner from Ryde. One of the 'big brothers' made me a rope swing from a tree in the woods that came right down to the beach. Another sometimes rowed me round to the next little bay, where we would land and I would imagine that I was discovering a desert island. The beach was stony and full of rockpools with crabs and shrimps galore and I had a wonderful time while the adult worked. One day I decided I was going to stay overnight in the Scout Hut. I made up a bed with deckchairs and found flags and bunting for bedclothes so I was most upset when my plan was thwarted and I only agreed to go home when someone reminded me that we might spot some glow-worms on the homeward walk across the golf course!

There was one brother in this family who only appeared occasionally and I was told that he was away, working as a lighthouse keeper, which I thought was mysterious and therefore very exciting. Later I discovered that he was not on a lighthouse, but a 'light-ship' and, as I had no idea what a light-ship was, I was bitterly disappointed. Remembering all this as I worked on my collage, I decided to have a look at some photos of light-ships on Google images. Most of them are not particularly attractive and I don't think I'll be making a 'light-ship' greeting card. But there was one that I liked the look of so you never know....in fact, I'm wondering whether my lighthouse design has perhaps turned out rather too 'pretty' to be included in my 'Cards for Men' and maybe a light-ship would fit the bill better?

And now for something different...

There wasn't time for another collage yesterday and this goose had been lurking in my sketch book for a while so I went back to the watercolour pencils combined with watercolours for this one. It was relatively quick and the longest time was waiting for the masking fluid and the salt to dry. The salt didn't really do what it was intended to do; I was recommended to use coarse salt crystals but although I ended up with some dark grey salt, no white raindrops showed up. Tips, anyone?
I normally upload thumbnail-sized images to my blog but this one is the full 5" x 7" so if anyone is feeling in need of a reminder to 'keep their chin up', please feel free to save it and print it out to attach to your fridge - or whatever!

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

'Shed Bleu'

This week didn't start off too well!

After the excitement of selling my dragons to the newsagent last week, there was almost bound to be a feeling of anticlimax but as well as that, all the rushing to get the cards printed for the coffee shop had not had a good effect on my slightly dodgy back and it was threatening to go into spasm all weekend. Added to that was my failed attempt to make a collage birthday card for a friend on Saturday. The card was fine and I was sure she would like it but the scanner had turned the little bits of gold paper I'd used to a nasty shade of khaki and photographing it instead hadn't produced anything better.
And then two of my former neighbours in other parts of the country, who have been pestering me for months to send them some of my cards so that they could sell them, suddenly seem, just as I am almost ready to do that, to have been plunged into rather all-consuming situations of their own; so, understandably, selling my cards is the last thing they want to think about. By yesterday lunchtime I was feeling quite sorry for myself and the thought of spending the afternoon making a Christmas catalogue for the newsagent was hardly enthralling!

So I decided to 'play truant' from my laptop and make a start on my ever-growing list of ideas for card designs. After all, that's what's at the heart of all this - if there were no designs, there'd be no catalogue to make, no printing and no online promotion to do!

Immersing myself in my painted papers and glue (almost literally!) did me the world of good and this is the result -

Although I called it 'Spring Garden' when I uploaded it to GCU and Zazzle, it will always be my 'Shed Bleu'! Maybe it's someting to do with the famous 'Gilet Rouge' - I don't know! But I realise with horror that, even after more than 7 years studying French at school and two terms at University, I don't know the French word for a 'shed'! I could look it up, I suppose, but 'Shed Bleu' seems to have embedded itself in my mind!

Late in the afternoon the usual bombardment of emails from GCU arrived. I normally leave looking at them till the end of the day as they are invariably notifications from the forums. (How I wish we could be more selective about which notifications to receive. But it seems to be an 'all or nothing' approach so I opt for receiving them all, just in case there's something important or useful in one of them!) To my utter amazement, amongst them was a sale notification! Someone in Virginia had googled '60th Birthday' and had come up with my 'Life in your Years', Adlai Stevenson quotation!

That seems to be a popular design and I've sold another one this morning to a lady in the walking group.

In the middle of the evening, the Zazzle 'New Product Alerts' arrived - or so I thought. But no, amongst them was another sale notification! This time a mousepad with my collage sailing boats on it. I could hardly believe it! It's been so quiet on the PODstore front for the past three or four weeks and then two sales in one day!

So you can imagine my amazement when, just as I was going to bed, GCU emailed me to tell me that someone had googled '1st birthday' and ended up buying this one -

Three sales in one day - it's altogether rather like the buses; you wait and wait and then three come along at once! I actually don't much like the Rainbow Fairies and I only decided to give them a whirl because one of the little girls I was teaching when I made it last summer, drooled over them. It's not the first of that series that I've sold so the lesson there is that you never know what other people may like!

I absolutely love Margaret Tarrant's fairies and there are quite a number of other artists of her time who painted similarly magical fairies. But my own attempts at fairies came out looking like Barbie Dolls so I decided that if I was going to paint fairies - and they're obviously popular with little girls of all ages! - they would have to be so tiny that there was no possiblity of mistaking them for Barbie dolls. These designs were quite a fiddle to make as I used both transparent watercolours and gouache and each fairy was underpainted in white gouache - and I don't like 'fiddly'! (Which makes my penchant for collage a bit of a mystery!)

I fully expected that third sale to be the end of my good fortune for now - things go in threes, don't they? But no, another surprise was waiting for me at the coffee shop this morning, when the manageress handed me a little plastic bag full of money, which aroused enough interest for another member of the walking group to have a look at my basket of cards and purchase - again! - my dancing man! She suggested that I should do something similar with a woman on it - which I will, when I find the time!!!

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

UK greeting card design 10 years ahead of the rest of the world?

I just came across these 'facts and figures' for the UK greeting card industry.

I'm not sure what they can possibly mean about UK greeting card design! There are some really gorgeous non-UK designs from Judith Cheng here!

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Guest watercolour artist and teacher, Michele Webber, answers the question: Can Art be Taught?

Prompted by a small email discussion with Judy, I thought I would talk about something  I am often asked. I have been teaching classes for several years now. I have taught toddlers, teenagers, adults, the middle aged, the very elderly and the disabled. People from every type of background and profession, ranging from people who are pretty competent with a paintbrush to people who haven't painted since school.

And they all ask the same thing: "is it just natural talent, or can I learn it?" I must admit, I used to think that it was only about talent; art always came easily to me. But years of teaching has made me profoundly change my mind. Of course some people are more talented than others, but that goes for lots of things, like driving or cooking or operating computers. I have never taught anyone who did not improve, and some made remarkable strides that surprised themselves as much as me. It is very personal; some people progress slowly, others fast, some find talent in detail, others in bold abstraction. Some people can paint portraits, but struggle with landscapes; others paint fabulous landscapes but have trouble with still life.

I have been moderately successful with teaching as I decided at the start my main rule would be guide, don't preach. The best art teachers work with what they have. You cannot make someone who is bold and painterly produce detailed botanical work. Nor can you get someone who is precise to paint splashy abstracts. Sure you can challenge them and give them a little push in a new direction, but style is inherent, like genetics, and finding their own style is what will make them happy. That's without even mentioning physical challenges of different glasses prescriptions, shaky hands, or the very common colour blindness (four times as prevalent in men as women!)

And really, is it all about the result? I have seen disabled teens struggle for days to produce something recognisable; but their pride and happiness makes the work priceless to them. I have seen the relaxation and companionship of a painting class help people through divorce and depression. And I have seen the elderly given a new lease of life by having soemthing to do that doesn't require youth and vigour.

But perhaps the best thing about learning to paint is that it teaches you to look at the world in far greater detail than before. Time and again students have told me how they suddenly notice colours and shapes in everyday objects that before would have been invisible to them. The world is fast and hectic, and art forces us to look closely at nature, to be really involved in the world around us instead of just rushing through with mobile phone in one hand and cappuccino in the other. And that may be far more valuable than producing a good picture.

So yes, I say art can, and definitely should be taught.

Thank you to Judy for kindly allowing me to contribute to her blog this week.

You can browse - and buy! - Michele's wonderful collection of cards and gifts with a 'Southwold' theme at her Zazzle store.

Friday, 5 March 2010

How are paintings priced?

The weather has been lovely this week, still a nip in the air but wonderfully sunny! The first daffodils have come out in my garden and the yellow crocuses have been joined by the purple ones.

But I've spent most of the week indoors, making a catalogue of my greeting cards (and wishing I had a lot fewer designs!) and printing nearly 100 cards to take to The Trading Post, one of our most popular coffee shops.

I managed to get them all finished and packed and labelled in time to take them in at the less busy time (I thought!) between the lunchtime trade and the arrival of the 'Afternoon Tea' brigade. As I expected, there were very few customers at around 3.30 - but I was completely wrong to assume that would be a quiet time for the manageress! She barely stopped her sweeping and mopping when I arrived with my basket of cards but just indicated a space on the bottom shelf where I could leave them.

I don't feel very optimistic about selling many - I don't think I would bother to stoop right down to that level to investigate what's in the basket. So I shall check them over when I'm next in the coffee shop after the Wednesday Walk and if there hasn't been much movement, I'll think of somewhere else to take them. I have one or two other places in mind!

Having delivered what had seemed to become quite a heavy load by the time I reached The Trading Post, I decided to try to find a newish gallery that I'd heard about, tucked away up in one of the side streets. Normally I'd be rushing around the shops as fast as possible so I've never managed to track it down till now. But today, having worked so hard all week, I took my time and found it. It isn't actually new at all, it's just that I've been too busy to look for it! I had an interesting conversation with the gallery owner and we got on to the subject of pricing art, which turned out to be one of his specialities. I've always been baffled by how art is priced.

When I first began exhibiting, the gallery owner advised me to price my work just under £200 and that did seem about right, judging by the amount of original pastel paintings I sold at my first exhibition. But a few months later, I only sold prints and photos at my second exhibition and couldn't understand why as it took place in a very affluent area. A friend who helped me cart some paintings down to a gallery in Monmouth insisted that I was under-pricing my work, that I would sell more if I asked more for my paintings. He backed this up by pointing out a window-full of really very bland paintings, just horizontal stripes in shades of blue, suggesting the sea, I suppose, in a nearby gallery, that were priced around the £2000 mark. His argument was that if people saw a high price they would think they were buying something really good - and vice versa. I never did quite have the nerve to try it but it did make me wonder!

I also wondered whether 'size' was a factor? Are there people who buy paintings by the square yard as some purportedly buy books 'by the yard'? If that were the case, I might well become rich as I prefer to paint really big and 'downsizing' for greeting cards that will fit in my scanner has been quite a challenge! I've been known to use full sheets of plaster board for life drawings, though this quick sketch was a mere A2 size!

I was in my element painting scenery for various amateur dramatics groups - these were for a church group's panto, Dick Whittington. The stage was very small and there were a lot of scenery changes so we hit upon the idea of 'minimalist' scenery. Someone somehow obtained some old, brown sheets from Norwich Prison and I painted on those, with powder paint, mixed with washing up liquid. These were attached, top and bottom, to broom handles and lowered and raised by an improvised system of pulleys. Miraculously, on the night (or rather 'nights')  nobody tripped over the ropes and the 'scenery' moved up and down at the right times!

But, after that trip down memory lane, back to the question of how art is priced. This afternoon, in Martin's Gallery, I learnt that it is really quite simple and logical. It all depends on how well known the artist is. So it may be that we're back to the thorny area of 'promotion' again!

I saw very little to get really enthusiastic about in the gallery, but just as I was leaving, I noticed a small rack of greeting cards for sale - and these, by John Knapp Fisher I loved! He is apparently Wales's most well-known painter, though he wasn't born in Wales. His cards are on sale for £2.50 and I shall defintitely go back there when I want a really special greeting card! (Yet another place to buy cards in Abergavenny - I've thought of at least 20 places now!)

On my way home, I went into our little department store next to the newsagents and took this photo.

No, it's not by another famous Welsh artist - it's by the newsagent himself!

He had told me that he works 'next door' on a Wednesday and when I went in to collect my money on Tuesday, he took out a scrap of paper on which he had sketched Sugarloaf mountain (in the pub!) from a photo in a magazine. It was just a pen and ink scribble really but I could see that he had captured the 'moodiness' of the mountain that had impressed him in the photo. With that he left a shop full of customers and whisked me into the shop next door, where he showed me his chalk drawing above the main counter and pointed out all the little details, like the heart-shaped 'bites' he had taken out of the scrolls! He then pointed out various shop-fronts he had painted and decorated and ones he has been asked to do in the future.

If he weren't doing about four jobs already, he might do well on Greeting Card Universe!

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Email from Geree in Chile

I'm sure Geree won't mind if I post her email here -

Finally the power came on today! Just now as I was getting dinner ready before dark. I haven't had a chance to read all the messages but I am sending a quick message to all in case the power or wi fi signal teminates.

The earthquake was the biggest, longest, strongest, most violent and scariest earthquake we've ever felt. We were both awake at the time, pulled on our clothes while lying on the floor next to the bed in case the ceiling fell, then shoes and jackets and flashlights. We walked very fast up to the top of the hill and waited till daylight at about 7:30 to come down.  

No damage to our house at all, only a couple things broke in the studio. No houses damaged at all that we could see.

We went to town yesterday to see the damage and take pix. A tsunami hit the cove at Pichilemu about the time we were heading up the hill. No big wave hit here at Playa Hermosa.The cabana we stayed in for about 3 weeks when we first got here had a steel shipping  container  smashed into the front window. Lots of damage across from the cove in Pichilemu but no deaths!

I am worried that the wifi signal will give out so I'll close and write a narrative later on my blog. Haven't even read all the messages yet.

Check my blog tomorrow to see if I have my narrative and pictures up,

Love to all,
http://www.Gerees.Blogspot.com ( My life and art in Chile)
http://www.Zazzle.com/GereesFish* (The Fish Store)
http://www.Zazzle.com/GereesGallery* (The Sun & Surf Shop)
http://www.Zazzle.com/GereesGalleria*(Hot Chili Peppers)

Time to make Christmas Cards to sell locally!

It really feels as if Spring is on the way today. The crocuses are out in the park and there are buds everywhere. But it wasn't just the sunshine that put a 'spring' in my step as I came back from town this morning; that was the result of a pretty successful meeting with the newsagent!

The good news is that 34 out of 50 of my red dragons have been sold in just over a week and the newsagent said that if I'd brought them in earlier, they'd have probably sold out. And the even better news is that he paid me for all 50 and has kept the ones that haven't sold yet, even though St David's Day was yesterday.

The slightly less good news is that he is already covered for Mothers' Day and St Patrick's Day so didn't want mine. He told me he works 10 months in advance so we agreed that I should take in my Christmas cards as soon as possible. Apparently anything with 'Abergavenny' on it or bi-lingual (Welsh/English) greetings sells well.

So my next job will be to add the appropriate text to some of my Christmas cards and perhaps to make cards from some of the photos of Abergavenny in the snow that I took in January. This one, for instance,  is a recognisable location in town, with the recently restored tithe barn on the left and the Blorenge in the background - and, by chance, a good space for some Christmas Greetings down at the bottom!

It feels a bit odd to be doing that now that the snow seems to have finally left us, but that's the way it works!

As for the Mother's Day cards I'd made - I only made a couple of each and I'll try my luck at the coffee shop after the Wednesday walk.

Greeting Card Universe seem to be taking about a week to approve cards at the moment but hopefully more like this one will be appearing in my online store any day now!