Artist Cynthia Decker was our September 2014 Featured Artist. She is the first artist to have won our online Featured Artist Contest, and the first artist I have ever formally interviewed in depth. As a long time admirer of her work, I was humbled, excited and slightly nervous about conducting the interview and learned she felt exactly the same, so that was comforting! This happened to be a particularly long and lively conversation, packed with insights on her life's work, artistic process, and life as a working artist. Like many artists, Cynthia creates by first exploring her ideas on paper. Unlike most artists, she then renders her images on a computer screen in 3D, and eventually flattens them to become art that can be printed on paper. She describes her work as "imaginary realism" as she creates beautiful, fantasy type creatures in remote places far from where humans could touch.
Laura Jajko (LJ): I’ve been watching your work come off the printing area for a few years now and you have this quality that’s mystical and inspiring but calming. Truly you are a fine artist.
Cynthia Decker (CD): I really appreciate that. Thank you so much. I think that any artist who gets to do what they love for a job feels pretty lucky, but it’s really special when you can show people what’s in your head and I feel like that that’s what I can do with this medium. And you guys are a big part of that, me being able to make the stuff physically real and be able to show it to people. Because I use a digital medium, it’s not like I have a canvas that I can hold up and say “hey look what I made today!” Its all zeros and ones until your team gets involved.
LJ: Isn’t that interesting!? So, when did you start producing? Did you go to art school?
CD: I’ve been sort of doodling and drawing for as long as I could remember. As a little girl it was all I ever wanted to do in my free time. If it wasn’t Barbies it was drawing, and my parents were both in technological fields. My father was an engineer and my mother was a computer science instructor. So you know, I had a computer in the house before any of my friends did. I started sort of trying to draw on the computer way back in 1983-1984 when I was nearing the end of my high school career. And from there through college, I studied graphic design and sort of kept doing digital work. Photoshop was available at that time of course, as were a bunch of other programs that allowed you to draw on the computer screen. I can't remember exactly where it was that I became aware of 3D technology; it was either at a movie or something that I saw on the computer, but I was immediately struck by this idea that you could make something that feels so familiar and so real in terms of light and shadow and texture but it can be of anything that you can imagine. It can be completely fabricated. And I was so grasped by that technology and by that idea that I started trying to learn that at that point and that was probably 1997 or 1998. And I've been doing the kind of work that I do now since then.
"And the thing is, (and this is important) if you really want to do something, you do the part that you don’t like that makes it possible for you to do the part that you do like."
- Cynthia Decker
LJ: Wow, so you’re like a pioneer in this field.
CD: Well, there were lots of people who did it the way I did it. I just think that not very many of them did it to a fine art or to a 2-dimensional art end. So a lot of the people who started when I started are working at Pixar now, they’re working at ILM now, they’re working on video games now. There’s a huge breadth of applications for this technology that I use. I happen to use it to create pretty pictures.
LJ: In your artist profile you talk about that, and frankly I had to read it and reread it several times just so that I could understand that you were creating something 3D first.
CD: It’s hard for people who haven’t been immersed in the technology to sort of get it, and that’s why I use that paper Mache analogy.
LJ: Yes that was really helpful.
CD: I think that that really helps people get it. And these days, for example, you watch HGTV and see the 3D architectural walkthroughs and it’s becoming more of a common thing. You know, back 5, 6, 7, years ago when I was first trying to explain this to people it was like trying to translate another language. People relate to traditional media when it comes to art, but with my technique that’s not the case. It’s like, well ‘what part of it is painting?’ and ‘what part of it is photography?’ and it was like no, no, no, let me break it down for you.
LJ: But you really, obviously you need fine art skills to do what you’re doing.
CD: I think so. I’m not as good with paint as I am with the 3D modeling and rendering. Paint was always a little frustrating to me. It was never quite precise enough and a lot of that was my lack of technique. But I think that it’s critical, to make nice pictures, to have a knowledge of the basics of art structure, composition, coloration and palette. And I think that’s critical. It’s the very, very rare person who does that naturally (without training).
LJ: I agree with you on that. There are simply basics to learn before you can really start creating art that you, art that can become an art form in itself and then have a sustainable style.
CD: That it’s technically there. That it’s technically good. You can see a few paintings that are technically poorly done whether they’re by people with no experience or people do it on purpose and they can be appealing, but over a truly fine body of work it’s that technical knowledge and understanding that is there. I think the work suffers without it.
CD: But if you have that background, you can draw in crayon and it can be awesome!
LJ: Isn’t that cool though, that it’s accessible across mediums.
CD: I know. That’s why the medium is secondary to everything else. It doesn’t really matter what you’re making art with, as long as it’s what you really believe in and as long as the foundations are there and it has some quality to it.
LJ: Well the other part of it too, is being able to translate what you as the artist have in your head into something that other people can see and relate to.
CD: Oh, yeah
LJ: So, was your family supportive of you going into the arts or did you have to rebel?
CD: Oh I had to totally rebel! My mother is a doll; she’d support me if I decided to take up naked skydiving or something ridiculous. She was always my 100% champion and she is to this day. My dad was more practical and wanted me to get a job that would pay the bills. I think that he came from a time when if you wanted to be an artist that that meant that you were going to be poor and kind of a bum your whole life so he was very staunchly against it. And it’s funny because he was an engineer and my mom was a college professor. My brother wound up going into music and being a professional musician and then I went the artist route so I’m sure my father was just completely freaked out when we were growing up. He wanted me to go to business school at first in college, and I tried to do that but I was just miserable. I was also taking graphic design classes at the same time I was going to business school and I just ended up leaving college because I got a good job as a graphic designer for a semi-conductor firm. I was doing all their marketing materials and that kind of design and technical drawing. That was sort of a nice little bridge between where he wanted me to be and where I wanted me to be and so that’s where I sort of drew the line and said “Listen I’m going to leave school and I’m gonna go do this job!” and from that point forward I’ve always tried to take jobs that incorporate some sort, if not all, of a creative job description.
LJ: Wow! What does he think now seeing you today?
CD: Well he passed away about 20 years ago.
LJ: Well, maybe he’s very proud.
CD: I think that he would be happy for me. I think that he would be fine with it and I actually think that he was getting fine with it even 20 years ago. I had had a couple of art shows and he had come to them. He was kind of an old school guy - he wasn’t a big emotion guy but I could tell that he knew that I had a little bit of ability there, and I think his resistance to my being creative was much more out of defense of him wanting me to be safe and secure.
LJ: Oh I think that’s true when you’re a parent. You’re just concerned about how your children are going to feed themselves and how they will cover rent. I have a daughter in art school and I get concerned because she’s really disconnected from the business side of it and she’s going to have to learn the hard way. But even though I’m very supportive of that, there is that underlying fear of “how are you going to do it?” But then there’s having faith that, you know what? She’s a smart girl, she’ll figure it out.
CD: And the thing is, (and this is important) if you really want to do something, you do the part that you don’t like that makes it possible for you to do the part that you do like.
LJ: Isn’t that the truth?
CD: You know, I don’t love the marketing side of this. I like people, but I’m sort of a homebody and a little bit introverted. I like to just sit and work on my artwork in the quiet most of the time. But people want to see me and talk to me about the art and you’ll find that this will be the same with your daughter. They’ll want to see her out with her work and learn about it. Being social and marketing myself is not my favorite part of it, but it’s the part that I do so that I can do the other part. And I think everybody who does art for a living learns that. You know there’s give and take with any job. It doesn’t matter what you do. You go in and there’s hopefully more than half of it that you love and hopefully less than half of it that you don’t love as much. And that’s just sort of the way life is. It doesn’t matter if it’s art or not. But if you can have the 50% that you love be something that’s such an integral part of you, like creating art or making music can be then that’s pretty awesome.
LJ: Absolutely, that’s a big win. So you said that you left college. You’re not a degreed artist?
LJ: So how much school did you go through?
CD: Two years. And I probably could have applied for the AA degree but I didn’t. I went straight to work.
LJ: The skills that you have then were just developed over a lifetime of loving the work? Like you were saying, you are a lifelong doodler.
CD: Yes and I’ve had some formal art instruction. I took classes in high school and I took classes in college and I took classes on my own in traditional media. But with the computer stuff it’s all self-taught and there’s a ton of resources, out there on the internet, especially these days. So learning in the arena that I’m in is a lot easier these days than it was back then when the software was new and the technology was pretty rudimentary. I sort of grew as the capabilities of the software grew.
LJ: So you had the benefit of being part of the evolution of this art form.
CD: Definitely - they have whole degrees in college for what I do now.
LJ: Yeah, you could probably teach it!
CD: No, I don’t know about that… But I think about if I were starting at this point. There are probably 30 or 40 different software packages out there and all of them are just so intricate and so involved, like you can create water that actually moves and particle systems where each tiny spec of dust has its own behaviors that you can program. I mean, I think about starting out at that level and it makes me want to cry. It makes me really feel lucky that I started when I did and was able to grow as the technology grew.
LJ: So, as far as studio, you don’t have a studio, you have a computer?
CD: I have a dedicated office space in my house and I have a computer with a big old screen and I have a book shelf with pastels and colored pencils because I still do some of that, and I make 3 dimensional miniature sculptures. While I do art on the computer I also do some of that in real life. So I have kind of a studio. If there was an artist studio tour, mine would probably be the most boring.
LJ: Your sculptures, when you make them - what medium do you use?
CD: I actually use foam and balsa wood and I have a couple of them now. I just started this about 6 months go and they’re just like tiny vignettes, like tiny dioramas and at the moment I’m putting them under glass domes. One of them is a little house on a rocky spire with a little pathway that leads up to it. They have a similar feeling to my digital work, but they’re more the same subject kind of sculptural thing. And I’m happy to explore that more, I’m really enjoying it
LJ: That sounds fun. So, do you photograph those at all, ever, or manipulate those or do they just exist on their own?
CD: They just exist on their own right now. They’re sitting on a side table in my living room. And I’m trying to decide whether, if I produce a whole bunch of them I’ll probably take them down to the gallery here in my hometown where I sell my artwork and I might display them and offer them for sale. At this point, because I’m so new to it, I put so many hours into them that it would be impossible for me to charge for them, for my time.
LJ: I have a friend who is a mixed media artist working on a similar concept. She says “if I were to charge for my time, you know it’s a joke.”
CD: You can’t do that. You can’t charge people for your lack of knowledge. In the beginning you have to kind of find that number that works and just get your money back for what you put into it and then make another one and hopefully you get a little better and a little faster. But it’s fun for me to see these little worlds, to actually make them with my hands instead of just with a keyboard and a mouse.
LJ: Well I’m sure one must inspire the other.
CD: Definitely. I have a whole little list of things I want to try to make in sculpture that I have no where near the skillset to make yet, but maybe someday I will though.
LJ: Right! It sounds as if today you are a full time artist?
CD: Yep, that’s what I do. I’ve been a full time artist since 2004. My husband and I also own some rental properties and so I manage those but it’s very much a sub part time of what I do but other than that it’s art all the time. And it’s just starting to, within the past 3 years, become more profitable than not. Prior to that I had some years where I’d be good and some years where it’d cost me and you know you go up and down. I think that I have a clear voice and I think people appreciate what I do right now and I think it’s stuff that people can fit into their homes and stuff that people like to look at. And so right now it seems to be really picking up and it’s really going well for me currently.
LJ: Wonderful! So do you, with our art gallery, is that a good venue for you?
CD: I don’t know that I’ve sold anything directly from your art gallery. I do share it with people. Basically I use you guys to populate physical galleries. I order the prints, I order the frames. I hang it in the local gallery and sell it from there, which is great. As I said before in my little Facebook messages that I send to you guys, I never have to worry about anything. I just finish a piece of artwork and I send it over to you and I know it’s going to be beautiful. And that’s huge to me, because, you know, the gallery right now is the bulk of my income. Online income is secondary. And so it’s so nice to have you guys as a resource and know that I just don’t have to worry about it. I know that it’s going to be exactly the way I want it to be.
LJ: Well you know when you posted that, that’s really meaningful to our team. The printing team and the, we have 2 people in the printing department and then several in our finished framing department. And we have it organized so everything flows from one to the other. And it’s always, they just get such a charge out of your work.
CD: I was talking to, I think it was Jennifer in the framing department; this was a couple years ago. And she had called to tell me about a new paper that you guys had which was great and I switched over to that and then she had also called to say “have you considered switching to this mat” and I hadn’t thought about this mat and as it turns out the people in the framing department were actually hand picking flaws out of the mats that I ordered.
LJ: Yes, they do that!
CD: And that just blew me away! I was like “I can’t believe you’re doing that, switch me to the other mat!” I just couldn’t get over that. I just think that’s indicative of that you guys are a group of people that really care about what you do and it shows. Your printing people just completely get me, I guess, because I have never talked to anybody about what kind of print profiles I use or what they need me to do but what I get back from your printing department is EXACTLY what I see on my screen and in my head. I have never had a problem with color adjustment or contrast or anything, so those people just understand me. That’s just pretty great!
LJ: Yeah, you must be working from a calibrated system as well.
CD: I am, but still you never know. You never know what you’re going to get. It’s always a little bit of a gamble.
LJ: Well we’re pretty disciplined about keeping up with our profiling and making sure that our quality is consistent. But I will pass that along!
CD: The last one I sent it was like so, it was the room full of books and there was a cat sitting on a stack of books and I’m sure you probably don’t remember it but it was very like neutral toned and low saturation and there was a lot of like color subtleties that I worked on and I just couldn’t believe it when I got the framed piece. And it was absolutely perfect; it was really exciting for me. It was dance-around the- living-room-exciting!
LJ: Nice! Which paper do you use? Do you use the photo matte paper?
CD: I do, I use the Lasal paper
LJ: That’s a nice paper; we upgraded to that a couple years ago.
CD: I love it. Nice, good blacks and I really prefer a matte paper because I think it’s a nicer finish.
LJ: I do too! How would you describe you process, like when you are sitting down to create a piece. Do you ever deal with creative blocks?
CD: Oh yeah, all the time. If it’s a good, if I’m in a good flow point and everything is going the way it needs to go, then I’ll have an idea or I’ll see something or I’ll talk to somebody or I’ll have some experience that sets a visual in my head. And it can be just a tiny piece of an image and it may grow over a few days. But I start with just physical sketches. So I’ll write down the idea and then I’ll draw little pictures of it and think about how I might be able to represent it and so those sketches will evolve until I have a little drawing that I like. And usually when I say little I mean, I usually sketch it out 2 by 3 inches…just little tiny concept sketches. And then from there I’ll sit down and just because of the way I do my images on the computer, sometimes I have to make elements of the picture. Sometimes I may already have made them and I have them at my disposal and I’ll pull together the elements that I need and I’ll pull together some basic, a basic palette of color and texture that I want to use and then I sit down and I start to assemble the image in the software. And then that’s kind of a developing process too because sometimes I’ll do what I have in the sketch, and then I’ll start to move things around once I get them physically in place. And so it’ll even change a little bit from that point. And then it’s just a matter of refining it and making sure that all of the I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed in terms of the technical aspects of the work, and whether or not it’s communicating what I want it to communicate.
LJ: How much time does it take for you to create a typical piece?
CD: Anywhere between 40 and 100 hours.
LJ: Oh wow!
CD: So it is like a month, you know, and I usually have 2 or 3 pieces going at a time, sometimes 3 or 4 pieces going at a time. But I won’t sit down and work on one always until it’s completely done. Sometimes I’ll hit a block and I can’t get it to where I want it so I’ll just walk away from it and work on something else. And sometimes I don’t. The muse just disappears and I have no desire to do anything, and that could last for a couple months. I’ve learned to ride those periods out. They don’t mean anything. It’s just a block. It’ll come back. I used to just stress out every time I would get into what I call a dry spell and I would just stress out that it was just gone and I would never be able to get it back again. But it always comes back.
LJ: I’m sure. Is that when you focus more on your rental properties or just doing other things?
CD: Sometimes. I’ll do contract graphic design work and may ‘elbow’ people and see if anyone needs any of that, or I’ll work on a sculpture or I just fill that time with other things and rest for a little while.
LJ: When I look at your body of work on our gallery, it’s storybook, it’s ethereal, it’s, I don’t know, that ‘fantastical’ is the right word but it’s yummy. It draws you in. It puts you in another place. I mean, when you’re describing your body of work, what kind of theme would you say kind of is most dominant or most communicates what you’re about?
CD: I call what I do (and I don’t know if this is a real thing or not) ‘imaginary realism’. That’s sort of where my head is for most of what I do. I want to create like fantasy environments that feel like you could actually visit them. I want it to feel real and familiar and yet contain these elements and ideas that are most likely improbable or impossible. And it’s just because that’s where I’ve always gone in my head. Those are the kinds of places that I want to explore. And I always like people, I like people a lot, but I prefer an empty space. That’s my most comfortable, like looking out into the woods and there’s nobody that I can see. A place where you’re just free to explore and no one’s going to tell you stop or you don’t have to interact with anybody else. There’s often times a sense of emptiness in my work but I don’t think about it as a sad emptiness I think about it more as an unsupervised emptiness.
LJ: Were you the kind of kid that would take off on her bike and go places you weren’t supposed to go?
CD: Oh yes! I had a friend who lived across the street and we lived in the foothills. We would go up to the park and we would set up little environments in the roots of trees and we’d spend all day playing like that, just exploring new places and finding little hollows and little places to play games that were private and quiet and all that.
LJ: Obviously this is just part of your DNA.
LJ: So if you were to say, many artists credit other people or other artists for inspiring or influencing their work, do you have anybody like that whose inspired or influenced you or is it just more of something that just organically come out of you.
CD: Oh, no. I think I was definitely influenced. I think everybody is to a certain extent because you have to have somewhere to start from, or at least most artists are. And especially if you’re a visual artist you’re inspired by everything you see. But I really like the American Realists. I like Edward Hopper, I like Andrew Wyeth. I find their sense of place was super appealing to me as a developing artist. They both have that sort of, quiet thoughtful approach to showing locations and people that I really appreciate. It feels like ‘iceberg’ artwork, where there’s more there than just what you can see. It has certain gravity to it and I really like that. And I like some of the lighter Surrealists of course, like more obviously you can compare my work to Magritte and that kind of thing. I’m not really a surrealist in a sense that some of the true, a lot of the true practitioners of the school were you know. You look at Dali and you look at some of these other people and I don’t necessarily like to warp reality that way, but I do like to play with ideas in that way.
LJ: Your reference to Hopper is really interesting. I can see that, like when I look at a Hopper’s painting, Mansard Roof, I feel like I’m looking at this ‘thing’ but you know there’s a story behind it.
CD: He’s trying to say more than “look at this roof.” It’s about the light, it’s about how he felt when he painted it. It’s about more than just that.
LJ: Even though it was still, it had movement.
CD: Didn’t it though?
LJ: We have talked about keeping a fresh perspective through creative blocks. So as an artist, how do you know when you are finished with a piece or when its time to move on from a series?
CD: That gets easier as you get older. You get more experience because it’s just like, you sort of know when you’re done talking. It’s the same thing. When you’re talking with someone you sort of know when you’ve conveyed your idea by how they respond to you. When you’re making a picture there’s nobody there to respond, so you just have to make sure that YOU have said your complete sentence and then be done with it and hope that everybody else gets what you meant to say. For me, I know if it’s right or wrong, and if it’s wrong, it’s like way wrong. If whole thing bothers me I just keep adjusting little things and try to make it fit. Sometimes I need to go way back and start over from the beginning again. Or, if I’m on the right path it sort of becomes obvious when I’m done. I think it might be easier to recognize that point with digital work than with paint because with paint there are so many variables; like how hard you push on the brush and where the brush hairs happen to be at that time, and how much paint you had on it, that you can just make infinite adjustments depending on how you look at the piece. But I tend to try and step back and look at the piece as a whole. I might walk away from it for a couple days and come back and put fresh eyes on it. But generally, at least lately, within the past 10 years, it’s not that hard for me to know when to stop. I just stop when I’ve said what I needed to say.
LJ: And then its done, it’s finished, it has a finished look. I need to ask you specifically about a couple of your works in the gallery.
LJ: One I’ve got sitting in front of me and titled “The Guardian of Spring”. It’s that beautiful deer with the cherry blossoms in its antlers, sitting alone in the middle of an island, kind of in the middle of the sky it looks like… is it sky or water?
CD: It’s water.
LJ: Okay so, why is that deer sitting on that little piece of, plot of grass in the middle?
CD: This is an easy one actually. They’re all pretty easy. It’s just how people interpret it. But for me, I’m all about March. Here in North Carolina in March I’m ready for spring. It’s like, “okay.. ENOUGH!, it’s been great, but I’m done, let’s move on”. And a couple of years ago I was wandering around in the garden and it’s freezing cold outside, and I’m still trying to do stuff in the yard, like I’m out there pulling little dead weeds from the year before because I want to be outside and there’s one little crocus in the middle of the yard and my yard at this point is like brown and there’s bald patches in it and it is just not pretty out there. Yet there’s just one little voice that sort of reassured me in that moment that spring was definitely coming. Even though I know its coming every year, it’s like this one little clear voice, this one little purple flower in the middle of my dead yard that was just like “don’t worry about it, it’ll come back again”. In Japanese mythology, the deer and the cherry blossoms both symbolize rebirth. So for me that image was about this thing that was heralding the coming of spring. In my real experience it was this tiny little flower and in the picture I decided to make it an actual creature to make it an icon that was bringing spring with it. So the rock that it was standing on maybe previously didn’t have any grass on it, but the deer and his carrying of spring brought a new life to that.
LJ: That is so deep! I just love that piece.
CD: And he has two little birds in his branches that are coming along with him for the ride.
LJ: Oh I don’t see those on my little Ipad here.
CD: I will frequently hide little things like that in my pictures.
LJ: So I have a question about one of your other ones. It’s called “Narcissism." Why did you call it “Narcissism?”
CD: Well everyone looks at that picture and they take something different away from it. People take a sense of peace and calm and solitude from it. It was inspired by a person that I knew who was involved in a kind of a ‘new age’ sort of philosophy and she had become so involved in herself and in bettering herself and in following this path that her life was literally passing her by. She was losing family, she was losing her friends, and she was just unable to see it. To this day, she is unable to recognize the point in which she lost herself. She was so introspective that she stopped caring about what was going on in the outside world.
LJ: Isn’t that interesting? So the idea is that being out there in the middle of nowhere in this serene environment can lead to that?
CD: It’s more like, the bird is looking at its own reflection in the water and as he’s staring at himself his friends are flying away.
LJ: Ahhh. Okay! Wait a minute here, I didn’t get that!
CD: And that’s just what it meant to me. I love that people take different things away from it. But for me it was a pretty profound moment to observe the process. This wasn’t someone who was particularly close to me so I had a pretty objective view point. It’s less about being judgmental about what happened and more about just the reality of what happens when you spend too much time looking inward. I think a little introspection is a wonderful thing but you can get lost.
LJ: Yeah, let’s not get carried away. Well, those are just beautiful!
CD: Thank you!
LJ: Looking at the course of your wonderful career, what would you say is the biggest accomplishment?
CD: Oh gosh, hmmm.
LJ: If nothing stands out, that’s okay too. I’m just curious.
CD: I’ve had little breakthroughs, little things, I remember the first piece of art I ever sold- the first framed piece of art I ever sold was a huge deal. It was a really meaningful. And then there was when I established a cohesive website online and when I got 3000 followers on Facebook. THAT was a really big deal. But I the ones that really stick with me are the ones that were oriented towards my personal achievements, being enabled to show people what I want to show them; getting better at the software, honing my skills as an artist mean the most to me. But certainly being able to quit my job and go full time with art would have to be the really big turning point that I can’t ignore.
LJ: I would imagine that’s truly a defining moment.
LJ: And you did that in 2004 you’re saying?
LJ: So 11 years!
CD: And I’m still alive!
LJ: Imagine that!
CD: Something’s going right!
LJ: Well how do you see your art evolving?
CD: You know, as I look back at my early work, and I think all artists do this, you look back at your early stuff and you see good elements in it but for the most part you just kind of cringe and go “Oh my gosh I can’t believe I actually showed that to people!”…and I think maybe this is true of all artists and people who create, but sometimes I feel like my skillset it doesn’t hold me back right now, but I think that the better I get at what I do, the more I’m going to be able to say and the more freedom I’m going to be able to have. It’s like I sort of think of it like when you get a raise, right? You get a raise and you have more money and you think “oh I’m going to have more money” but you don’t. You use up that money right away; you expand your lifestyle to fit, almost immediately. And so I feel like that as I learn more, my art will sort of necessarily get better and get deeper and get more detailed and more involved and so that’s sort of what I see happening. I don’t have any concrete plans to change anything at the moment. I like the way I communicate through art right now but I do see it getting bigger in that sense and more complete for me.
LJ: Getting deeper. We have a lot of artists who work with American Frame and are constantly trying to learn and be inspired by other artists. One of the questions that I consistently get is “how should I price my work?.” How do you decide what to charge?
CD: Well, really, I look at other artists who do similar work to what I do and who are where I want to be and that gives me a good framework. Everything I do is prints. There is an original, of course, of my artwork but it’s not like I’m ever going to sell that. But I think based on that, based on working on prints, you look around online and see how much framed prints cost which gives an idea of what the market will bear. Then look at other artists that you consider similar in caliber or who work in a similar medium and approach. That’s what I did. And in the beginning when you’re new, you may price a little bit lower but I think the biggest mistake that most artists make is undervaluing their work.
LJ: I completely agree with you on that point!
CD: Because I think people who are buying artwork do it for a couple of reasons but a lot of times those reasons overlap. It’s not just that they love the work but they feel like that they want quality things in their home. And an artist’s effort that goes into a work IS quality, before it even goes into a frame, before it even hits the press, there is quality and effort and time there and I think a lot of artists undervalue that quality and effort and time. So you don’t want to charge $5,000 for a 20 x 20 framed print because its’ unrealistic and nobody will pay that, but you also don’t want to charge $45 because it undervalues your work. I think there’s a perception that if you’re charging so little for your work then you must think so little of it.
LJ: Yes, I always give a similar answer. It’s easy to come down in price but if you start low, then people are going to think your work isn’t worth anything. So start higher.
CD: And look at people who are where you want to be.
LJ: That’s a great piece of advice!
CD: And then look at what they’re charging now and figure out how that fits into your world. And for me, I have different tiers of work. Work that is in the gallery, work that you guys produce, has been, I oversee that, I send it out, I choose the framing, there’s a certificate of authenticity on the back, I hang it. I get involved in that work, so I charge a little bit more for that because it is higher quality than a piece that somebody may be able to order off of one of the print on demand services that I use online. I think it’s smart for artists to diversify that way. It gets your work in front of more people.
LJ: So before we let you go, we are wondering; do you have any framing tips you’d like to share?
CD: Oh, you know I actually worked in framing for a long time. I worked at Aaron Brother’s Art Mart and I worked at Michaels and I did framing for a long time.
LJ: Oh that’s great!
CD: I like to think that I have a little bit of knowledge and the ability to not make overcuts on my mats. I think it’s important that you frame NOT for your décor. Frame for the art. Don’t frame to match your sofa and don’t let clients do that either.
LJ: Isn’t that funny?
CD: And I also think it’s important that when you’re framing to sell, that you frame in a neutral way that allows anybody to hang the art in their house. If you can appeal to both the 20-something with the first apartment who’s real edgy and you can also appeal to the 75 year old grandma who wants to hang something in her kitchen, then there’s no risk there of losing a sale because of your framing tastes.
LJ: I agree with you 1000% on that one!
CD: And so for me, it’s always been dark wood frames and an acid free white mat. I just think that anybody can put that anywhere, and I have never had any pushback on my framing. I think that people really like it. And I think that you have to remember that even though you made the art, your taste is not going to be the same taste as the person you’re selling it to. Don’t interject your personal style into the framing. Frame the art, let the art be the star. Do it with high quality framing that makes it easy for people to take home.
LJ: I love it. Were going to quote you! “Let the art be the star” I love it!
CD: I have seen some hair raising combinations from some of these sites where you can sell art and people can frame it themselves let me tell ya! You know the StoryWorld picture with all the books? Someone used a bright yellow top mat and a bright blue secondary mat underneath with a red frame.
LJ: Who did that?
CD: I don’t even know! Some customer! And I get a little notification of what sold and I saw it and I literally like did the old 1800’s thing, like I put the back of my hand to my forehead and went “oh my”!
LJ: No kidding!
CD: I know! And then I was like “whatever, you know, it’s their house – they can do that!” But in terms of what you are offering to the customer I think it should be consistent, low key and classic.
LJ: What you just said too, it’s almost like when you sell a house. You live in a house and you fix it up and you make it beautiful, or what you think is beautiful, and then you sell it and then the house goes back on the market a few years later and you come to find that the previous owner totally undid everything!
CD: I know!
LJ: It’s like really!?
CD: You take it personally!
LJ: You do! It’s awful, it’s almost too much information.
CD: I don’t even look anymore when somebody says “you sold this print in this frame.” I’m just like “that’s great!!”
LJ: That’s probably good, so you don’t have to cringe.
CD: Yeah! But its only been a couple of times when I’ve cringed and usually it’s, you know that they’re going to hang it over a particular piece of furniture that has that color in it or something like that. And I just think that that’s the wrong approach to framing.
LJ: So, do you have any questions for us, while we’re online together here?
CD: Well I guess my husband and I were talking about the last time that we got prints, when I told you about how I was jumping around the living room and how the last print looked. We were just talking about how big is your organization, how many people are working there?
LJ: Oh gosh! During the busy season we’re close to 50. Right now we’re about 45. We’re in the midst of an expansion. I don’t know if you know that were a family business?
CD: I do now!
LJ: Oh, okay! So my father started this company in our garage when I was 13.
CD: Oh wow!
LJ: He started out just by cutting metal picture frames in the middle of winter on this saw in our garage. Me? I was the 13 year old brat that came home from school one day and its like “oh my gosh Dad you are so weird…” And you know 40+ some years later my sister and I are running the company and my dad is on our board of directors. We’ve had our ups and downs but we’ve experienced some really good growth over the past couple of years. We had, we used to have nearly 100 employees before the recession hit and we lost nearly half of our business. So that was really scary, we weren’t sure if we were going to make it after that.
CD: You know, art is discretionary income. It’s the first thing to go.
LJ: It is. It’s the first thing to go and it’s the last thing to come back. But we feel grateful for that in a way, because we feel that we learned so much about how to really run a strong business and we learned about how to keep our vision going when it seemed like it wasn’t the right thing to do. We redid our website, our web sales are up probably like 18% over last year and the year prior.
CD: Oh that’s great!
LJ: Our next step is to create a state of the art retail Showroom. We have about 3500 SF of office here, and we’re in the midst of constructing a new space. We’re going to relocate the offices around the corner and then expand and modernize the Showroom, keeping it co-located with the plant. It will be a real destination for artists and really for anybody who’s interested in art and framing art to come and work on their pieces. We’re going to have meeting rooms for art clubs to hold their monthly meetings or lectures or learning sessions.
CD: Oh that’s great!
LJ: We’re also creating exhibit space, gallery space for local artists. So that’s our big project right now.
CD: I think that’s great! And I think giving back like that; it always sort of repays you.
LJ: It does! This community needs this. Artists are always looking for ways to expand their reach and we want to help them. There are also small businesses and charitable organizations that need a place where they can gather together and meet, and it’s all going to be free. And we have a Michaels here in town and we have a Hobby Lobby and they’re really hurting a lot of the smaller local businesses around here. So we thought it’s time to really go after them.
CD: Well and frankly the amount of money that they charge for framing is obscene.
LJ: It is obscene and people think that they’re getting a deal!
CD: They fall for it because they don’t know what else is available. They think that’s just what they have to do. I mean, I went to Michaels for something that I needed recently, I cant even remember, oh, it was some, I had bent a frame hanger for my metal frames so I had gone over there to see if I could just buy one or two of those so I had some extras, and there was a lady next to me who was getting a piece framed and she was spending you know $600, to get a piece of artwork framed that was maybe 13 x 19 and it wasn’t archival or in the fancy UV glass or any of that, it was just the straight up double mat, big gold frame kind of a thing and I just, I was just stunned.
LJ: Oh, that just makes me want to cry!
CD: I know!
LJ: I mean honestly, that’s just gouging.
CD: Yeah it was crazy! And you know they offer these 40% off coupons all the time but it’s like you do that because your prices are 80% higher to begin with.
LJ: So, our prices are nearly up to 60 to 70% less than their 50% coupons.
CD: Oh I know! And you’re never going to get rid of me!
LJ: Well that’s the best news I’ve heard all year!
CD: People ask me where I get my frames and like, you know, I tell them because I want your business to grow but I also want to keep you to myself.
LJ: I understand. Over the years we’ve evolved into an artist resource. We’ve always tried to keep in mind who we’re serving and why we’re serving them and why they’re relying on us. But then there’s this whole do-it-yourself movement. So, we want to grow our business by reaching those do-it-yourself customers as well, along with individuals who want to print and frame their work like you do.
CD: See that’s great! You’re covering both sides of the spectrum. I’m kind of at the point now where I couldn’t do it myself. I don’t have that kind of bandwidth. Not to do it well and for what I need to stock in the gallery, I just couldn’t do it myself, so I need you guys because I can rely on the quality and I know that you can do the production that I can’t. And so if you can reach out to the people who CAN do the production, and help them get their hands on good quality materials and how to use those materials, I think it’s a pretty brilliant strategy!
LJ: It’s a lot of fun! Well keep you posted on that, maybe you’ll come visit us sometime.
CD: You know, I have family in Columbus so that was going to be my other question for you. What if I just show up one day will you give me a tour!?
LJ: Oh gosh! Absolutely! But I would love a days notice so I can clear my schedule!
CD: Okay good, because I would love to meet everybody. I seriously feel like you know, as personal as everyone is there, I get calls about when frames are out of stock and there’s a little bit of chit-chat and you know the thing with picking the flecks out of the mats, it’s just amazing to me. So I feel sort of like, even though I don’t know everybody there, I sort of feel like you guys are part of my team.
LJ: Oh absolutely! You would be treated like Queen Cynthia! We would love it, in fact I’ll shoot you a note when our construction will be complete.
LJ: So do you have a time frame when you think you might be coming up next time?
CD: Oh, no, we’re up maybe once a year or so. It’s not that far from Asheville and if you are ever in Asheville, which is an artsy town if ever there was one, I’ll show you a good time.
LJ: Awesome! I’d love it I’ve never been there but my husband’s been there on business and insists that I have to go. It’s just a matter of making the time.
CD: It’s beautiful and it’s all, the entire town is built around an artists and creators community.
LJ: Well that’s a deal! Such a pleasure to get to know you.
CD: Yeah, it was really nice! I was really nervous about this interview and you really put me at ease and made it real fun.
LJ: Likewise! We have new friends now!
LJ: Well thank you Cynthia, we’ll be in touch!
CD: Hey, thanks a lot.
LJ: Talk to you soon. Bye-bye