Michael Garfield – How To Live in the Future: Painting While Dancing, Part 6: Advice To An Aspiring Live Painter

14 March 2010

Painting While Dancing, Part 6: Advice To An Aspiring Live Painter


My motivation for performance painting developed over the last few years from “Jeez, I can do that!” to “I am in this to inspire people.” Consequently, it is evermore important to me that I share what I am learning through all of this. At the same time, repeatedly declaring this intention seems to attract a growing number of peers who seek guidance for living more harmoniously with their gifts and passions. Sometimes I am asked specific technical questions, but most of the time the yearning arrives something like this: “I really just want to know how to begin painting at shows and earning money doing it…”

Which really isn’t one question, but two. There’s an “and” in there. It’s the kind of question I might normally answer off the cuff in person, but since this whole game of mine is about living as a gift I figure it makes more sense to organize my thoughts somewhere they can be retrieved by other interested parties (both as a learning resource for other artists and so I can look back on this and laugh). So here is my own limited grasp of how to answer this twist on an ancient question: “How can I do what I want with my life?”

I got my start painting at concerts in Boulder, Colorado, which is positively saturated with live painters. This has good and bad consequences: on the one hand, it’s a recognized and enjoyed aspect of the culture; on the other hand (and I didn’t realize this for the first year or so), it means anybody who wants to make it with live art is on the wrong end of the supply/demand equation.


In some cities, I have found it is much easier to “brand” myself as something unique and exotic, desirable for my novelty and thus worthy of pay. Put me on a flyer and people will go, “Live painting, what? Oh really? That sounds awesome!” In Boulder and Denver, there was never that kind of mystique, and so getting paid there to do this work is pretty much out of the question. People like John Bukaty, who have been paid thousands of dollars to paint live for corporate audiences, often have to appeal to venue owners so they’re not required to purchase a ticket to get into the show. It’s a tricky situation, because as I am coming to understand more and more every day, you really do have to demonstrate your worth in ticket sales to the producers, no matter what kind of performer you are, and no matter how many people thank you personally during the show.

(Maybe getting people to sign some kind of statement at each show would help: “I loved having this painter here, and yes I’m willing to pay another dollar or two a show to support this person coming back.” I haven’t tried that. Yet. But I might give it a shot, especially in a busy scene like Colorado’s Front Range. Alternative payment ideas, ideas that sidestep event planners and venues to tap the appreciative audience directly, are worth some discussion between live painters and other fringe movements.)

Back on to the positive end of this, it was remarkably easy to get my start in a market like that because since I wasn’t initially trying to prove myself as a pay-worthy performance artist, I was generally free to show up and do my thing, so long as I had the good graces of either the artist or venue. Exactly whose permission you need depends on the show – it’s important to figure out which local venues are happy to have painters without prior notice, and which require that the artists include you in their production sheet. The first time I ever “painted” live, I was at a show with two more experienced live artists, borrowed an easel from one of them, worked with a headlamp I tied questionably to the easel’s top post, and worked with brush-tipped Faber-Castell markers on a sheet of white foamcore board with transparent glossy gridlines. Twenty inches across and thirty inches high was larger than any drawing I had ever made by a factor of at least four. And I had zero training in the fine art of painting. In other words, I was horrifically unprepared.


But it didn’t matter, because I was allowed to grow and learn in a low-pressure environment where I was “under the evolutionary radar” so to speak – I was not improving or worsening the “fitness” of the show by affecting ticket sales. I wouldn’t be there if I weren’t painting, so I wasn’t costing them anything to host; on the other hand, I wasn’t professional enough to really be considered an asset, exactly. It was a lovely place to be while I sorted out the basic features of my style, my equipment, my presentation, my conduct.

This all makes sense from an evolutionary perspective: radical new mutations usually emerge on islands or in other small populations, or on the fringes of larger populations, where there isn’t as much resistance from the “status quo.” (In biology, this is governed by the mechanics of genetic drift, where even a fabulously beneficial new mutation is likely to get lost in the noise. Likewise, it is a lot easier to get everyone on board your idea when you’re dealing with hundreds of people, instead of millions. And it’s why every big company has a “skunk works” where new ideas can be nurtured without interference from corporate boardroom inertia during their early, tender stages.)

So for getting started as a live painter, my recommendation would be to start with fairly small and inconsequential gigs where you are able to test new things without putting anybody’s reputation on the line. Experimentation is an eternal and definitive element of live art for most of its practitioners, but those first few shows are almost guaranteed to be sloppy, anxious, exciting, and kind of awkward as you get used to new issues like having an audience and time constraints. (It’s a bit like losing your virginity in this respect.) This is especially true if, like me, you dive right in not only with an alien context for your work but also unfamiliar media.


One of the best things about live art is that the artist gets real-time feedback during the show. Putting your work in front of a smaller audience and inviting people to talk to you while you work (especially other artists, if you’re lucky enough to have them around) is incalculably important, in terms of clarifying your own artistic intent, techniques, and direction. When I started in Boulder, the audience was more familiar with live painting than I was. They had many, many excellent suggestions and recommendations for bringing my work up to a more professional level while still cultivating my own personal style.

Individual and collective realities weave one another into being – it is obvious that individual realities gather to create a consensual “objective” truth; it is less obvious that these agreements create the environment out of which individual, “subjective” reality emerges. It’s easy to not give a damn what your critics think when you complete your work alone in the studio, and another thing entirely when people can just walk up to you and tell you what they think and feel about your work. After all, if you really don’t care about public opinion, then you probably don’t care whether your work has a positive effect on anyone, and you should probably examine your motives.

I’m not saying anyone should kill themselves trying to consistently integrate the competing commentaries of whosoever is brazen enough to walk up and speak their mind. Rather, that working in public creates a permeable boundary through which information can flow and the evolution of the work can proceed more rapidly, more responsively, more organically – all the while centered in as clear an artistic intent as possible. None of the live painters I know are above this, although many of them get away with only positive feedback. Which is kind of unfortunate, really, because knowing when to listen and when to ignore your critics is hugely important to cultivating a meaningful connection with your audience.

(Written for d/visible magazine.)