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Working in the Public Eye

How it feels to paint with an audience and why you should!

For the past month, I have been working in public on a large-scale painting in the lobby of Dunedin Fine Art Center. This was my choice and my idea. At first, people were skeptical-would I get anything done? Won't it take longer to paint? Would someone vandalize the painting? I discussed these concerns with the principal people behind the project; the people who commissioned the work, the administration at DFAC, and God. Yes, I prayed about this, and about all big decisions, and I listened...

This was my set up at DFAC-you can see the front doors behind the framed painting.

Yes, it took longer to paint, but I'd do it the same way again. It took longer because SO MANY people were interested in the process and the project that they drove 50 miles (some came as far as Citrus County) to see it and talk to me about it. Plus, I'm a really fast painter because I have been painting so long that I've developed a quickness that comes with practice (like any skill) so I knew it wouldn't take me more than 20 hours to paint the whole thing anyway. So, I gave myself 40 hours spread out over the whole month.

There is a video of me painting this project which is being edited. The editor told me that for every 5 minutes of me painting, I spent 15 minutes talking and taking photos with people. People had some great questions. Most centered around the support and how to preserve it-its an Ampersand Pastelbord custom-made 48x72" and cradled on a wood armature to keep it flat. It will be framed, under non-reflective glass, in a thick gold frame, and hung using a French cleat-like a heavy mirror would be.

Fellow pastelist Alice Andersen stopped by to visit

Other visitors wanted to know about pastel, was it chalk? How did I get the sparkle? Many people have never seen or tried pastel and still think of it as something you would use on a chalkboard. Pastel is pure pigment bound with pumice for pastel, but its the same pigment thats in all the other types of paint. Only binders change. Pastels are still considered paint, and a pastel painting is still considered a painting. The pastels I used for this project were Mount Vision Pastels made in Tampa. I especially love the iridescent pastels which give it a little glittery bling.

Many people wanted to know how I would protect the surface. This was a big concern at DFAC since I was painting in the front entryway and practically everyone who walked through the building would be passing right by the painting.

"Aren't you afraid of vandals? What if some child just ran their hand on it?"

I have painted murals and public works before. One for the Town of Montgomery that is still hanging in Town Hall today. It was a large scale oil painting on a canvas scroll that was painted on the side of barn and left on display day and night for three months while I worked on it. Many people came to talk to me during the painting of this mural as well. It could have been vandalized many times as well.

I believe that most people have an inherent respect for art, and other people's work and generally would not try to harm a painting, even if no one was looking. I tend to believe in the best in people and if something bad happens, its usually fixable. I did have a mural vandalized once in Texas. It cost me several day's work, but I fixed it and made it even better. That mural was destroyed by development, but parts of it were saved and in a museum now. I choose to believe that was karma.

Many of my paintings bear tell-tale signs of mischief; paw prints on fresh pastel courtesy of kitty, rhythmic lines on a large painting caused by a wagging dog tail. None of these are real issues and anything accidentally done to a painting can be fixed, short of ripping the paper or putting a hole in the surface.

What truly surprised me was just how curious people are about the painting process. I was awed by the sheer number of visitors, and how some even sat and watched me paint for hours. Two people checked in with me on a daily basis (at different times) to see progress, and these are just the people who talked to me. Many, many more have since come forward to tell me that they stopped by after I left to see what I had done each day.

I often take painting for granted. For me its a basic and simple thing. I just do it, like walking or talking. It's not some magical or special thing, it's a very normal thing to me. I truly feel like anyone could do it if they had the same motivation and passion to do it. I've been painting professionally for a long time. Not because it's a highly lucrative career choice, but because it is a burning passion that I cannot live without.

If you feel that way, you will pour your heart and soul into it and spend as much time possible honing your skill and craft. Malcolm Gladwell says in his magnificent book "Outliers" that it only takes about 10,000 hours to become a master at whatever skill you choose. I believe that, and for me, I think I'm at about 12,000 hours now and still waiting to become a master.

The experience of painting in public was a priceless boon for me. It gave me a chance to meet people who were interested in art and talk about my work. This is GREAT practice. If you ever found yourself in an elevator with a famous art critic who casually leans over and asks; "So what kind of work do you do?" Then you know how important it is to have a few sentences rehearsed and ready to pique their curiosity.

We all need experience talking about our work, our process, and understanding how and why we do what we do. I feel queasy when I have to talk about myself and my work. I often think people will be bored and there's nothing truly interesting to tell them. I can often talk about other people's work with great enthusiasm but not as much for my own.

We have to learn how to promote ourselves and become our #1 fan in order to talk to others about our work and get them excited. While it feels hokey to self-promote, there's no one else who is more qualified or knowledgeable than yourself. If you get the opportunity to paint in public, do it. If not, make an opportunity so you can have the experience of talking about your work. Listen to what questions they ask and think deeply about their comments and insights. This is the best market research you can get. These are your peeps.

I am almost tearful with gratitude for the outpouring of support - from people I never met before, and some I knew previously, and now new friends. If you were one of those visitors, a great big thanks for stopping by and asking me such good questions. I appreciate you!

Finished piece being dropped off at the framers today!

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You share in ways that are understandable and though often talking about often share the values of hope and openness. This shines in everything you do----thank you


This is so inspiring Shawn! Thanks for sharing your experience!


I love the painting and especially love the way you share your time and open yourself to others -- students, as well as general public. 😍 Makes me happy.

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