I'm running out of time: interview with painter Lawrence Lee

Artist interview: Lawrence Lee

How long have you been painting? Can you give us some of your life-story?

My mother encouraged my interest in art for as long as I remember.  I took art all four years of my secondary education, during which I was given an exceptionally broad and deep exposure to both the fundamental basics of design and hands-on experience with a great range of materials and techniques.  I received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Northern Arizona University in 1969 and a Masters in Art Education in 1970.  I started to show my work in galleries in 1972, had my first one-man show in 1976, and became a full-time professional artist in 1979.

What is it that motivates you to paint?

As is the case with many artists who are not independently wealthy, paying my bills has been my greatest motivator since leaving the shelter of school.  Other than that, my motivation seems to be that I am intrigued by the creative things that issue forth from my mind and hand, and I want to see what comes next.  And, finally, I am motivated by the thought that I have still not become the best artist that I can be–and I’m running out of time.

Lawrence Lee contemporary artist

You have a very well defined aesthetic. Where does that come from? Have you always painted Shamans?  

I’ve been making art so long that I’ve been able to try a lot of things, and gradually zero-in on the things that seem to keep calling me back time after time.  My primary interest for the past forty-eight years or so has been in imagined faces.  Straight portraiture has little interest for me, and I found that attaching the term “shaman” to some of my works allowed me to find collectors who would accept my examination of faces that seem “almost human” without complaint about having “a painting of someone I don’t know in my house.”

Mariposa Blanca by Lawrence Lee

Your landscapes speak to wide horizons and a love of the land. Do you spend much time in these wide-open spaces?
I much prefer the studio and living room to the wide-open spaces.  When I was a boy, I spent a lot of time outside hiking and such, and later on, I spent countless hours driving around the Southwest with my eyes on the mountains and clouds.  It all seems baked into me now.  The broad expanses of sky and distant mountains help give me a sense of place in the world. Knowing where I am in relation to other things and people on this planet is hugely important to me.

My Arizona Sky by Lawrence Lee.jpg

Do you see your art practice as a business? What sort of business related activities help you make a living from your art? 

I have viewed my art practice as a business from the very beginning.  When I was attending college, none of my professors seemed to know the first thing about making a living as an artist, so I had to figure it out on my own.  Just keeping a handwritten ledger in which I tracked income and expenses was a sobering activity in the early days.  But I had to make a study of how the “commercial” art world worked: what galleries wanted and how they made their choices about who to show and what to show.  It all seemed rather obvious to me: study my market so deeply that I understood what made it tick, find correspondences between what I wanted to do as an artist and what people seemed to want, and then work to bring the two together.  And a thoughtful analysis of “human nature” proved to be of critical importance.  I was able to make use of what I understood about human nature to engineer my success.  Little happened by accident.

Having been a professional artist for decades you must have seen many changes in the market and what people are buying. Can you explain some of the changes you’ve seen?

I’ve actually not seen much change in terms of what people are buying.  People buy things for their home environments that both appeal to their personal likes and make a statement about them to visitors.  They’ll display different kinds of things in their living rooms than in their private spaces.  And businesses are much the same, wanting to avoid offense or shock in public spaces, but willing to be more experimental in non-public areas.  People buy art for themselves and their own pleasure, of course, but there is also almost always an element of making some kind of statement about themselves, as well.  Sometimes, having the work of a particular artist on their wall is a way of demonstrating affluence, just as having a Jaguar parked in the driveway might be.

Harbinger Shaman by Lawrence Lee.jpg

Where do you sell the most work? Has that changed over the years?

Like most other painters of the late 20th century, I sold most of my work through galleries, at times being represented by up to five in different locations across the U.S. so as to avoid experiencing the financial trauma of an annual “slow season.”  But as early as the late 1990s I started to sell online through a few galleries brave enough to think such a thing could be done.  I retired at fifty-three or so–a millionaire (on paper at least)–and had little to do with the art market for years.  Then about five years ago I re-opened a studio and started to sell again, first at galleries, but increasingly via online points of sale, especially via my own website.  This is why I invest such massive amounts of time and energy into keeping it current and interesting and fresh.  I also spend huge amounts of time corresponding with collectors both old and new.  I never wanted to be in the direct-to-customer sales business, but the internet has rather taken me in that direction in spite of my wishes to the contrary.  I do still show and sell at galleries, though, and can do so because I value their contributions and expertise.  And if I had my choice, I’d still be selling ONLY through good galleries, because if they are busy making sales and dealing with shipping and such, I can stay busy painting.  Every minute I spend working on my website or up to my elbows in email is a minute I’m not able to use pushing paint on a canvas creating something new.  This reality creates in me a powerful and ever-present tension, always feeling like a juggler who has lofted one-too-many balls into the air.

Do you find that most of the collectors that buy one of your large works have previously purchased a smaller work?

That seems a thoroughly reasonable idea, and though while in a few cases it may be true, in most cases it simply is not.  People with large, empty walls to fill will often buy a very large painting from me even if it is their first.  There is a place for smaller works, of course, because there are many more small, sometimes more intimate spaces and walls that need art just as badly.  And for many who would like to own my work, the cost of a large painting is just prohibitive.  Still, collecting original art can be addicting, and I do believe that many people who start with a small purchase will come back for more–perhaps not a large work, but other small ones.  And in my view, that can often be a very good thing, since I have less investment of time and materials in the production of a small piece (and can even explore new directions with less risk) and the collector can eventually almost surround themselves with my work.  I always try to remember that even a small painting will expand as needed to fill an open mind.

Do most of your customers come from your local area?

I would say that over the years the Tucson area has indeed provided most of my customers. But since I’ve sold many, many paintings in galleries from coast to coast, it is really hard to say.  I am also very aware that many people who visit Tucson and fall in love with one of my paintings will take it home no matter where home is.  I will sometimes hear directly from folks in such far-flung places that it amazes me.  Outside the U.S. they’ve ended up mostly in Europe and Asia, I believe.  And as it happens, I just started some serious marketing tests in London.  Though the roots of my work lie in the Native American cultures of the Great Plains and Southwest, the pan-cultural nature of Shamanism is having a more and more important influence on my work, and I’m looking to build on that by beginning to incorporate shamanistic iconography from other cultures into my paintings.  My hope, of course, is that this will result in the development of a much broader base of potential collectors.

Lawrence Lee In Studio.JPG

What techniques are you using at the moment to encourage people to move from fans to customers?

I’m trying to find or create easier entry points for people by making available smaller works or small giclées that I can produce inexpensively in-house.  A few months ago, while working on a collaboration with Ballet Tucson, I needed to buy a reliable medium-wide format printer to which I could add a continuous inking system.  That purchase has allowed me to do small print runs very inexpensively yet with high quality.  I even had a real online auction about a year ago that finally brought some fans to take the plunge.  But I’m finding that I have to keep trying new things and reintroducing things I’ve tried before because no single approach will work for all–or forever.  I’m also discovering that some people who appear at every turn to be rabid fans will just never be collectors.  This is one huge annoyance of Facebook, where a few fans will wax poetic about each new work but still will not part with $10 for a signed print.  I’ve learned how to spot this type of fan fairly early and expend as little energy on them as possible.  In a perfect world, I could treat them with the attention and respect they crave, but in my world of having to actually pay for materials and studio rent and utilities and all the rest, I just can’t afford that precious time.

Do you use a service provider to manage your flash sales?

Yes and no.  After finishing the painting, I take photos in the studio in RAW mode using two 24” softboxes for lighting and process the best one in Affinity Photo to crop, straighten, and adjust for perfect exposure and color.  I save the photo as a high-resolution jpeg and then use an app called JpegMINI to create a great looking but much smaller file.  I upload the large file to my online database (artworkarchive.com) and then create a product listing for the painting on my website.  Then I modify a display/sales page for the work to reflect the stats of this sale offering in a visually simple way.  Finally, I access my account on EZtexting.com, create a simple SMS message to be sent to my group of about eighty Flash Sale members and schedule it to run at an appropriate time.  I get a text when the message goes out (because my number is on the SMS list), check that everything is working properly, and wait to see if it sells.  Each sale is limited to three hours, but most sales happen in the first ten minutes, though a few have taken more than an hour and a few have simply not sold.  When a work sells, the buyer is notified automatically about pickup or shipping details as appropriate, but I follow up with a personal congratulatory note. Many local buyers then decide to take me up on my offer of free pickup at my studio, and I have them use my online scheduler to handle that.

Partly Cloudy by Lawrence Lee.jpg

Do you use any paid advertising? How has that worked out for you?

I continue to experiment with paid ads, both online and in print.  For all ads–but especially for print ads–it is important to identify your goals for the ad in advance and to be in a position to run the ads consistently for up to a year.  Think about which ads YOU are most attracted to and emulate them if possible.  I rarely sell a particular work used in any particular ad, but that is not my objective.  I use the ads to elevate my brand and give people confidence that my work is selling well.  It’s all psychology.  If I’m currently showing in galleries, I offer them the opportunity to be listed in each ad (and ask them to pay for a small percentage of the ad cost).  And then I make sure that the gallery receives several copies of the magazine issue in which the ad appears, as well as a hundred or so tear sheets of the ad to hand out to potential buyers.  In the past, this approach has worked very well for me and significantly increased demand and overall sales.  Online ads are more problematic for me since it is so hard to target appropriately and to determine the actual result because I’m selling unique, one-of-a-kind images.  I think that if I were to get serious about online ads, I’d do best by outsourcing their management to someone who can prove their ability to convert views into sales. and I’ll likely focus on print editions rather than on originals.

Do you use agents, galleries, or any other representatives?

A few very good agents exist for marketing expensive works, but in all my years in the business, I have been unable to identify one that understood the unique characteristics of my particular clientele and had enough contacts and sufficient drive to be successful with my work.  But that hasn’t stopped me from looking, of course.  These days, the art world seems to be more about who you know than what you know.  If I lived in New York or London or some other very large metropolitan area, my chances would be better, because I could engineer the process of meeting the right people and have an altogether better sense of what was going on, what both dealers and buyers are looking for, who I could trust and who really holds the keys to the kingdom.

How do you balance the business side of an arts practice with regular time in the studio?

I go to the studio almost every day, but most of my time is taken up in marketing and preparation and cataloging and photographing works and dealing with the hundred other things that comprise the inner workings of a business.  I have to struggle to make time to paint without interruption, and my time to paint has dropped precipitously over the past few years as I have had to rely more on studio and online sales and fewer gallery sales.  If I sell the work(s) from my studio, I have to spend the time to do the things a gallery would normally do, such as invoicing and the preparation of Certificates of Authenticity and shipping and such.  The balance between business and production is a constantly morphing dance.  And an artist without a staff or great gallery representation must be very disciplined to make it work.

Sun Spirit Shaman by Lawrence Lee.jpg

Do you have any work-flows that you’ve found help you to market your work efficiently?

My work-flows change as circumstances dictate.  But the root of everything is organization and consistency.  I tend to prioritize getting each new piece ready to hang and appropriately marked on the back for identification, photographed and entered into my online database immediately.  Then I deal with the most pressing non-painting issue of the day, and finally, I try to deal with at least one task that has been hanging around on my to-do list for too long.  Paying the bills the same day they come in has become habitual for me.  And I’ve found that an online scheduling system that is integrated with my personal calendar is a huge timesaver when it comes to arranging for tours of my studio and such.  Collectors can use it to schedule viewings at their convenience without a lot of back-and-forth negotiation in finding a time when we’re both available.  I’ve worked with several such systems, but am currently using the one at Appointlet.com.  After spending a couple of hours setting it up and testing, it just runs itself.  Anything that makes it easier for me to connect with either current or potential collectors is a marketing “win.”

Do you have a marketing philosophy of any kind?

I’ve known since I was a young man that you don’t have to be a good artist to make a lot of money as one; you just have to be lucky.  If you choose to rely on luck, then thoughtful research into the nature of your market is essential, as is an understanding of human psychology.  I also have this crazy idea that you need to Fail From The Top™.  Failing from the top means that you don’t aim for mediocracy.  You might end up showing in a mediocre gallery, but unless you approach the very best gallery suitable for your work FIRST, you may find out only too late that it would have welcomed you with open arms if only you’d made the ask.  But you’d better be prepared.  You’ve got to know going in that your work is priced right for that gallery, that it is the right size and will complement rather than compete with works by other artists showing there.  And in this case, you DO want to search for the middle ground.  You don’t want your work to be the most expensive or the least expensive.  You don’t want it to be the largest or the smallest.  You want it to be able to slide right in somewhere in the middle and then stand on its own merits.  At this point, being good may be almost as important as being lucky.  Oh, I could probably write a book on my marketing philosophy–and perhaps one day I’ll have the time to do just that.  (That’s what’s up with the trademark notice on ”Fail From The Top™.”

Lawrence Lee In Studio.jpg

What’s on the easel today?

Another shaman that’s doing his best to hide from me.  But he won’t succeed.  I know this dance well enough that he doesn’t stand a chance.

If you hadn’t become a painter, what other careers might have you pursued?

I suspect that I’d either have remained a teacher or become a writer–probably of fiction or poetry. Or if things had gone just a little differently for me in my teenage years, I might have somehow found the math to be a theoretical physicist.   Subatomic physics fascinates me because it is just so freaking weird.  Kinda like my shaman paintings seem to be to most people.

What sustains you to keep coming back to the studio every day?

The expectation that one day I will–eventually–finally get it right.

Follow Lawrence on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. See the gallery of his latest works on his website.