by Dr. Lori Verderame
You’ve seen the TV ads, “Buy a framed, sofa-sized oil painting for only $49.99!” Then, you think to yourself, “For only $49.99, no wonder the artists are starving.” You temporarily consider a quick trip to check out the art offerings at a local hotel or convention center hosting the deep discount sale. You eventually return to your senses, but you’re still curious.
Your fantasy image of a handsome young artist standing at his easel overlooking a snowy landscape creating a masterpiece just for you is–a fantasy. Most of us don’t think that there is a connection between overseas labor and a $49.99 painting. On some level, we like the emotional image that artists are starving for the love of art!
Here comes your reality check. The $49.99 sofa sized starving artist paintings are products of outdated printing plants and art sweatshops. The inexpensive offerings at starving artist sales are either cheap oleographs or paintings produced in a repetitious assembly line manner.
The oleograph or imitation painting is a print. For instance, an image of a fruit bowl is machine printed onto a piece of canvas instead of a piece of poster paper. After drying, a clear varnish (like clear nail polish) is applied on top of the printed image to simulate brushstrokes. The oleographic process dates back to the 1800s. Its name refers to any imitation graphic work just as the term oleo is used to describe imitation butter.
While printed oleographs rely on machines rather than real live artists, some starving artist sales keep the age-old sweatshop in business. Some of these budget paintings are not printed oleographs but rather are produced by groups of underpaid and overworked factory laborers.
Factory workers stand, for hours at a time, in front of machines that support a long roll of blank canvas. With brushes and paint, each worker is responsible for painting a portion of a painting’s entire composition. For instance, when producing a landscape painting, Artist #1 will paint a tree, Artist #2 will paint a bird, and so on. At intervals and without warning, the canvas is automatically repositioned by machine to expose the next blank area of canvas which workers will then paint it. The workers repeat the painting process. During the process, Artist #1 paints that same tree over and over again for the next 20 hours straight.
Well, just like Artist #1 whose job it is to paint that tree, there is another artist in the starving artist sweatshop who signs paintings. Despite their country of origin, the signed surnames on most of these paintings have a western sounding surname. Marketing dictates that westerners expect to buy paintings signed with western surnames like Smith, Worthington, Nelson, or Jones. The artists sign all of the paintings with a few of the most common western surnames. This piecemeal art process continues until hundreds of look-alike paintings are produced. Completed paintings are cut from the end of the canvas roll, stapled to a wooden stretcher, framed, and crated for shipment to a hotel lobby near you.
Now that you know the inside scoop on the starving artists sales, don’t you think that your $50 would be better spent on a good pencil sketch by a student artist at your local college or university art school? I do.
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