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Creating emotional engagement

No painting is ever truly experienced until you stand before it and see it with your own eyes. Art has something akin to a mystical capacity to engage us emotionally. When we experience a work of art, we are not being moved directly by the technique, composition or colour; we are being moved by a communion of these elements that has been created by the artist in order to make us feel something that none of us can put into words.

In this way, being an artist is so much more than just painting. Being an artist isn’t just staying in the studio, throwing paint around and playing — that’s a hobby. Being an artist is about having an itch that is never quite satisfied: it is about having a curiosity about the world, and a deep need to share with others how profoundly we feel for what we see and experience around us; coupled with an insatiable desire to replicate the immense inspiration gained from viewing other peoples’ art.

'We've got this', by Kathy Ellem, oil on linen, 2018.

However, as a practising artist in today’s world, I’ve found I’ve had to step back from this core of being an artist, in order to go ‘all business’. The business of being an artist today means looking at marketing, liaising with collectors and curators, and understanding GST and small business management. It has certainly been an interesting process for me to become a gallerist (at Kathy Ellem Fine Art in Beechworth) at the same time as being a full-time practicing artist. One of the most surprising and rewarding things has been connecting directly with my collectors, and finding similarities of interests and values with them. Running a gallery has also had the effect of researching and attempting a diverse range of methods to get my work out there in order to maintain sales and keep the doors open.

The problem with running a gallery is that it puts me in danger of being distracted from the very thing that creates the ‘emotional engagement’ in my art — the very thing which drives me to create art, and which draws people to want to purchase my work in the first place. I spend many hours pondering exactly what it is that I want people to get out of my work: thinking about how I can distill the things I want people to feel, and working out how to translate these into brush strokes of various colours. When someone asks me ‘How long did that painting take?’ the answer, in all honesty, is it didn’t take all that long at all in terms of ‘brush mileage’, but this doesn’t include all the extra hours I’ve needed just to create the headspace, and define the goals that I am aiming for within each work of art. In other words, an immeasurable amount of time in creating art lies in the process of thinking about how to create a work which will engage viewers emotionally.

When I reflect upon the amount of effort that goes into the ‘thinking side’ of creating each work of art, I realise that it’s the questions that I ask myself which create the direction for the piece, as well as the direction of future works. The better the quality of the questions I ask myself before a painting, inevitably leads to a higher quality of the resulting work. My big question is always ‘How do I express and imbue my work with strength and joy?’ This question lies at the core, and I then I break it down into smaller and smaller questions — like Where do I want the viewer to look? What do I want their eyes to rest on? and eventually, these questions go right down to the style of brush strokes I use, and the colour palette (remembering that tone is vastly more important than colour).

As much as I love the business side of Kathy Ellem Fine Art, I know that the business itself hinges upon me taking the time to ask the really important questions about what I want to achieve in my art, and thinking deeply about creating emotional engagement.

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