Dec 1, 2011

A Colorful Journey

By Linda Lover

In this series of articles, I’d like to share my journey from learning to paint to turning it into a part time job that I thoroughly enjoy most of the time. Like any job, freelance design has its ups and downs. Someone once suggested the best way to describe it was “feast or famine” and that was definitely not an understatement. Decorative painting has given me many opportunities over the years and it all began with that first step, to pick up a brush and just try. Even with the excitement to discover what painting had to offer, it was accompanied by frustration. But persistence won and, as I began to see small shreds of success, that’s all it took to keep the momentum going. It seemed the more I taught myself, the more I wanted to discover and, even after all these years, the learning never stops. I think that is the allure of painting. Having done the paint by number canvases early on, it was interesting to see how color played out, how darks and lights created detail, shadows and even the mood of the painting. I’d always felt pretty observant when it came to nature and things that surrounded me, but as I grew in painting so did my visual perception. Tree bark wasn’t brown, grass was many shades of green, skies never looked the same, and simply the time of day or the season changed everything. Discoveries are endless, and I came to realize that even though theory has its place, nothing is written in stone. Everything is open to interpretation by the artist and the viewer. A sunflower painted by a child can be every bit as appreciated as one painted by Van Gogh. Individuality in painting is a gift to embrace and encourage.

At the time my own interest and skill was growing little by little, the decorative painting industry was going full steam with dozens of magazines, countless books, SDP was at its peak, classes were easy to find and little independent shops dotted the painting map. More companies were coming into the industry so more paint products were showing up. Programs were beginning and craft chains were entering the scene. As I browsed craft and painting magazines, I was feeling enough confidence to give magazine submissions a try. At first the rejections came one after the other, and just as I was about to throw in the towel, PaintWorks accepted a miniature four season landscape. That’s all it took to get me started and I was on my way to freelance designing. I found a thick skin is necessary because learning to take rejections is as important as enjoying the successes.

Around the mid’90’s the Society of Craft Designers was formed, and what a wonderful organization that was. It brought manufacturers, editors, publishers and designers together, opening up the opportunity to network and make industry connections. However, it quickly merged with HIA and soon after CHA, Craft and Hobby Association. The biggest loss in the exchange was the educational seminars that offered valuable information on how to navigate the industry. The only show I attended was in Pittsburgh one year. It was the who’s who of designers and I truly felt out of my element. Some designers were walking around with what looked like a volume of their published works and I had left the few tear sheets I had at home. However, at one of the seminars, the speaker said that editors, publishers and manufacturers were not interested in what you “had done”; they were interested in what you “could do” for them. That turned the key for me and some of the apprehension I’d been feeling evaporated. I met with the designer liaison at Delta at the Pittsburgh seminar and it eventually resulted in having the opportunity to author several books with Suzanne McNeil’s Design Originals.

As a freelance designer working strictly from home, I continued to explore opportunities and take notice of trends and new products. I was pretty much on my own at the time since I didn’t attend shows or network with other designers. I also discovered that I was quite naïve to the negative side of the decorative painting industry and was caught off guard when it managed to find its way to me. Imagine my surprise when I noticed one of my projects on television being done by another artist and also marketed as a $25 kit. The design was originally on one of my paint books. The next insult was a magazine project I’d done with a unique application that was turned into a kit and commercially marketed to sell a company’s products. Imitation is not necessarily the best form of flattery when a designer is denied recognition for their work. However, feeling like a relative novice yet, ringing in my ears was a statement I’d picked up at SDP, “don’t burn your bridges if you want to work in the industry”. I took this as meaning complaining will get you nowhere. So I chose to let it go and chalked it up to a learning experience, though I felt such a lack of consideration toward designers was very unprofessional. Shortly after, I noticed a series of snowmen I’d done for a published project had shown up in an advertisement flyer. Someone had taken my design and had it licensed with the only changes being the color of the scarves. Before I could get to the root of this situation, it was a holiday item and gone. Much later, I heard stories from other designers who had experienced similar. One had every project in her book licensed by a gift company and, when she looked into addressing the issue, had found that she needed to have filed an international copyright. Another designer has had line work and directions copied. While yet another designer has had her innovative products reproduced or imitated by others for commercial gain without benefit of credit or royalties to her. Too often designing is not taken seriously enough when it’s viewed as doing something a person is good at or enjoys doing, like a hobby. In reality, it is every bit as much of a business as any other business in the industry. There are companies that truly appreciate designers and value their talent while some other companies look upon designers as being a dime a dozen and easily replaced. For some designers, their work is their livelihood and for others it’s supplemental income. Even if it’s only a hobby, there are still ethical approaches to using the work of others. Most often it just comes down to giving credit where credit is due; it’s as simple as that. The problem arises when someone commercializes on the ideas copied from another without permission in order to gain profits for themselves or their business.

So where is the line between addressing an issue of copying or just letting it go in order to not make waves? This is often a dilemma as to which road to take because in addressing such a situation, the designer stands alone. Most will pick themselves up and move on, relying on their creativity to come up with the next new idea. Given enough incidences of this sort, a designer may eventually take a stand to protect their work from those who choose to use it unethically. The decorative painting industry, including SDP, chooses to remain neutral when it comes to issues of copyright infringement and the offender is usually only known to the parties involved and generally never becomes public knowledge. On behalf of companies and organizations, I can understand the reasons for remaining neutral in such situations. However, what is puzzling is when knowing a designer has infringed, they continue to support that designer with opportunities to market products or teach. It seems unfair to all designers who are ethical.

Creativity is a gift for some and a labor of love for others. I find myself in the second category. Creativity is also the backbone of designing. Sometimes I wonder if I can paint one more landscape with a barn that doesn’t look like one I’ve already done. I question how many other ways can a snowman or a poinsettia be painted. Creativity produces many challenges in color, surface, design and perspective. There’s a sense of accomplishment in a finished project but also to be considered is will it appeal to other painters, an editor or a publisher. This is probably the most difficult challenge. I’ve heard editors say that choosing designs is not easy. There are so many that are top notch but only just so many spaces. The choice may come down to originality, color, how well it will photograph and even consideration over the surface. The design has to “pop”. With so few magazines now odds for having a project chosen for publication is even more limited. Sometimes designs can also be accepted to promote a new product or if a design fits in with an advertisement.

Self publishing was another experiment in growth for me. By the time I chose to do this, I’d authored books with Plaid and Design Originals and thought I had a handle on things. I knew how to write directions and do line work but there was still important information missing that I knew I should have. I decided to attend HOOT as an observer and talk to designers and publishers. Asking question is the best information highway and learning from the experiences of others is invaluable. The basic advice was to find a good publisher and one that had a good channel for distribution. It was the only way to have a book in shops, chains and possibly major shows. Well, I felt that if I didn’t give this a try, I’d never know. The result was good news and bad news. The first book was well received but not the second. So the first book paid for publishing the second and I broke even. It was a lot of work to simply break even but I was happy just not to be in the red. I had to take a step back and re-evaluate the situation. I’d actually liked the second book better than the first so it had me question my judgment on color, theme and surface. I couldn’t understand how I could have missed the mark so badly. I didn’t self-publish again until several years later.

To be continued………

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