Artist Secrets < Deep Thought Thursday

Eileen Downes, Secrets
Eileen Downes, Secrets. ©The Artist

Here's one I get a lot of questions about . . .

Let's say another artist asks you about your technique and secrets. And let's say that you don't really want to share that information.

How do you respond without sounding rude while keeping your secrets?

(Update 1:45 p.m. . . . Read this carefully. I'm not asking whether you would or wouldn't keep the secret or whether you choose to share or not. I'm asking you what would be a good response if you didn't want to share your secrets. We can't judge other artists whose shoes we haven't walked in. Some have very good reasons for not wanting to share. Just asking you to help with a gentle and kind response.)

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48 thoughts on “Artist Secrets < Deep Thought Thursday”

  1. Alyson, you come up with the BEST questions. Most of the time, I think the question isn’t so much a request for a tutorial as a request for a short cut.

    I am happy to pass along tips, but if I think the artist is asking for much more than that, I explain that I’ll be happy to teach the technique, but it’s not simple. I had them my card and ask them to get in touch with me to arrange a series of lessons.

    If they do, I tell them the price and time commitment up front. And yes, I’ll teach my secrets in this respectful and careful way.

  2. Secrets? Everything I’m doing has been done before. I haven’t invented anything new. I’m happy to give a quick over view of my techniques, suggest books and websites. What the other artist does with the information will produce something different from what I produce.

  3. Rachel Hawthorn

    Even given the exact same tools, techniques and subject matter, no two artists will produce the exact same product. I’m willing to share information any time. Helping someone be a better artist/painter/photographer/whatever doesn’t reduce my skills or ability.

  4. I handle the business side of my husband’s work. If it is business secrets they are looking for, I am happy to pass on anything I know that may help them. It is very time consuming and frustrating trying to figure out all the ins and outs of the art business. My motto is do unto others… There was a time when I may have been worried about competition, but I believe what is meant to be (with sales or opportunities) will be. I wish I had more help in the beginning, insights and tips. There is still so much to learn.

    My husband has found he learns a lot through teaching others and is happy to offer lessons to anyone serious about learning. Like Rachel said, no one will produce the same product. It’s very rewarding to be able to help others.

  5. Louise in SW Saskatchewan

    If it is a new or innovative technique I am working on, I just say that it is not something I can share right now. When I can, I will let them know.

    If it is something I’ve learned along the way, probably from someone else, I’m more than glad to pass it along. It’s how I got to where I am right now.

  6. Alyson B. Stanfield

    Quinn: I can’t come up with these on my own. I rely on you all to bring them to me. 😉

    Your response is wonderful in many ways. I am quick to assume that people asking me for help are asking for it for free. In reality, a lot of them are willing to pay for the consultation. I’m curious as to what kind of response you get. Are they surprised that you’re willing to teach? Or surprised that you’re asking to be paid. Many artists haven’t learned to be fully compensated for their work (including their teaching), so I imagine this might come as a surprise to them.

    K: Would you take the time? Would you charge for that time even though it’s been done before?

    Rachel: I love your attitude and I think it’s true. The more we give, the more we get in return. Are you willing to do it for free?

    Sadly, I’ve heard of several instances in which the teacher thinks s/he has been ripped off by the student. Whether it’s true or not, I think that might be the sign of a poor teacher or someone who shouldn’t be teaching. Teachers should be able to teach technique while encouraging (demanding?) individuality.

    Jennifer: (1) Your husband is very lucky and (2) the artists you help are very lucky. Bless you for being so giving.

  7. My mum, who studied business at Northwestern University, came to a painting demonstration I was doing at a gallery…She remarked, “Now everyone knows your secrets…” I have a tendency to want to share everything for free, that I stifle now when I can catch it…For people with no walls, holding things back is work…

  8. Secrets? Seriously! Any artist that thinks they have a stash of magic tricks really has just a poor case of overinflated ego. A true artist is someone that does not fear imitation. They know that copying someone else’s work is not authentic, unsustainable and eventually just plain boring. A true artist is not a one-trick-wonder and will naturally have their work change and evolve over time, thus departing from the “tricks” of earlier work. A true artist knows nobody is willing to work as hard as they do, doing what they do. A true artist has no cause for a fear based response to a curious question.

    I think it’s good to teach others techniques and “secrets.” The more others come to see, utilize, and value your particular style, the better off you are! People in general will benefit when they realize that being generous pays off big time!

  9. There’s nothing I do that is secret; I’ve worked out some things on my own, that maybe others have done before, but I just wasn’t aware of. And I’ve learned a lot from so many people – I’m happy to just keep the chain going. I’ll never have enough time in my life to do all the painting I would like – no shortage out there of subject matter. Everyone can jump in and play!

  10. I give it all away all the time, by phone, by email, by blog anywhere anyhow. I figure if someone thinks anything I do is worth learning then bless them! And I have full workshops and classes all the time. Many gifted people helped me along the way and I am just “paying it forward”.

  11. Alyson B. Stanfield

    I guess the question has been misunderstood, so I posted an update. Still, I feel I should respond to your comments as they are written.

    Robin: I think you’re being harsh on some people whose stories you have not heard. I understand where you’re coming from, but I do know that sharing is part of a process. It doesn’t come easily for some people.

    Becky and Tesia: You are to be commended.

    Perhaps this isn’t a question that those of you who are so free with sharing information can relate to. I understand that completely.

  12. I think this question can relate back to one you asked earlier about competition. I don’t feel like I’m in competition with any other artist. Many are “better” than me..many are “worse.” Mostly..we are all different, pursuing different goals and expressing different ideas.

    With that philosophy, I am very happy to share information with other artist whether it be business related (where I get giclees printed, which shows I’ve done, photography techniques, etc) or technique related (mediums, supplies, etc). I’ve done demonstrations of my techniques to the public, to art groups, and even been a guest artist as a local college. On the receiving end, I’ve been very fortunate to have been given lots of advice and tips from artists more experienced than myself sometimes to the point of mentoring.

    I view it similar to Tesia Blackburn..I’m paying back those who have helped me as well as paying forward. Like Coach Rachelle Disbennett-Lee put in one of her newsletters (I’m paraphrasing) …You get from the universe what you give!

  13. oops..I didn’t read your update carefully. I apologize.

    My advice would be if the artist didn’t want to share, offer another alternative for the person to find the information or information similar.

    For example, if you didn’t want to share your favorite art shows to participate in, point the asker to an on-line resource. Deflecting a supply or business oriented question should be easy with the resources on the internet or books, especially if you did a significant amount of research yourself.

    If the question is technique related, one could offer to teach a class or again..deflect to another instructor or book. If it really is a “trade” secret or ultra-new technique just tell the person your not comfortable sharing the spark that is making your work “unique.”

  14. What a great question. This is really an issue in the glass world, so I look forward to ready many more thoughtful responses.

    I have a general “how did you do this answer” that suffices when potential buyers want to know more about what they are buying. It gives plenty of info for the layman.

    When a fellow glass artist wants to know specifics on something that’s commonly found in books or the internet, I’m happy to share. If it’s something I’ve developed, I’m vague. For instance, when asked what I use to seal my gilding, I say, “Funny you should ask. I experimented for over a year with every clear product I could buy. Turned out the formula I needed was a combo of two products from unrelated fields.” This encourages the artist to think outside the box and try new things without giving away something that is unique to my work.

  15. “That information is classified ma’am.”

    If they persist I’d say…

    “It’s a proprietary blend of herbs and spices”

  16. I think Degas called making art trickery. I like to think of some techniques as part of the magic. I generally feel comfortable in saying:

    To a non-artist –
    “That is part of the magic and knowing how that was done could spoil your enjoyment of the painting.”

    To a fellow artist –
    “I am not comfortable in sharing that information right now. Ask me again in a year. Maybe then.”

  17. Rachel Hawthorn

    Alyson, In response to your response, yes, I would do it for free, and have. I was in a situation in undergrad where I had been through a portfolio development class, and had a beautiful box of overmatted, perfectly hand printed black and white photographs, with a letterpressed colophon, and I was proud of the work, and the presentation. I asked my professor “Now that we have these beautiful portfolios, and the work, how do we go about getting it into a gallery?”

    Her response (as a paid professor at a major university) was “I can’t tell you that.”

    I never want to make anyone else feel as helpless as I did that day, so if people ask me about equipment, techniques, film, or processes, I share. If someone wants to pay me to teach a class, that’s awesome, but I’ve gotten to where I am at through sharing of information, ideas, and processes.

  18. One more thought.

    Try the Socratic method of answering a question with a question:

    “How do you think it was done?”
    “How would you create the same effect?

    Then engage in the conversation. Who knows, you just might learn something new.

    1. Eileen McConkey

      I agree with your response. If they ask about technique or color I try to use it as a teaching moment, seeing if they can plug into the painting enough to come up with possible ways to achieve the results. Quite often they are just asking out of curiosity and won’t really go back and try to duplicate it. Or, I go into a bit of detail but there can be so much detail that they can’t grasp it all. If they sign up for a class I encourage their own exploration.

      I do get irritated t houghwhen the same people come back over and over again and then brag about getting free lessons.

  19. Alyson–to answer your question about my reply. There are fields in which certain results might be derived in a proprietary way. As new materials come out, new discoveries are made.

    Art glass and silversmithing are two I have personal experience with–people wanting to know how to create a shape or pattern or how to fabricate a certain chain or closure.

    I was happy to create a technique class because explaining it is not the same as teaching it. As I would supply the material and tools, plus the time and knowledge, I felt justified asking for payment. I enjoyed teaching someone a technique they could learn to apply in their own way.

  20. I have had people ask me about my materals before, and I tend to respond with a very friendly but very generic answer that changes the subject, such as: “I go into the city to buy my paints at this really neat art store… do you have a good art store where you live?”

  21. This is a great question!

    As an artist and an instructor I tend to be a “sharer” of information, website/blog/YouTube/demos
    Lots of this is free but classes and workshops cost money to attend. I hate seeing new artists with tons of potential frustrated and held back because artist/teachers won’t share the information needed to create paintings. So much has been done before by other artists I don’t believe there are many “secrets” in painting.

    Other more process driven mediums, printmaking, glass, mixed media etc. may have unusual and unique techniques developed by the artist and I certainly respect that.

    When asked about technique or “secrets” I do tend to share information and almost always the person asks if I teach and then I am able to pass along my teaching schedule and often gain new students that way.

    If it were something I really didn’t want to share I would say that each painting is unique and many techniques that I’d learned by trial and error and hard work along the way contributed to the painting.

    It’s been my experience that most artists share freely with each other. I once new an artist who asked another artist which color she used in her skies (these were both very talented artists, peers in every way) and the artist responded “Well, you’ll have to take my class to find that out” I can tell you that that answer was not well received, word got around and let’s just say it wasn’t very good PR for that artist.

    I do take to heart the comment above that artists (myself included) don’t always seek the compensation they deserve for their work or their knowledge. It’s actually good to be reminded of that.

  22. Have to agree that most things have been done. But, I guess I would say for “technique” that it is ‘painted’ or ‘collaged’ or ‘inked’ etc. Not really giving a secret or telling the technique. If I got the idea from a particular book or site (even if I tweaked it, which I normally do), I would tell them the book, magazine, etc.

  23. Carolyn, a Jersey Girl

    30 years ago I was a batik artist. Americanized batik done with colored waxes and dyes. People were always making comments in my booth such as “Oh look Joe…Buddy did this in kindergarten”. It made me smile but it got tiring by the end of the day. Other artists did ask for my “secrets” and I was always willing to teach my technique. As time went on my work began to evolve and now it feels like those original pieces and their ‘secret’ technique were done by someone else.

    Someone earlier commented on the fact that you can give the ‘secret’ to any number of artists and no two will ever be alike. That’s what makes art so wonderful … no one can EVER really duplicate anothers work and in trying to do so will only lose themselves.

  24. If, for whatever reason, an artist finds it unwise to share some information, I think humor can help. A smile and a wink, with, “oh, but that would be giving away the store!” can soften the refusal. Pointing them toward resources is another option.

    While I love to share and teach, I have met a few people in my time who have been rude or offensive with demands, and it probably would have made ME feel better in those situations to politely decline to share. Thank goodness most people are not like that!

  25. How do I respond without sounding rude while keeping my secrets? I think I would say, “I’m flattered that you’re asking me, but what I have learned is that the best teacher is our own willingness to explore.”

  26. I tend to ‘tell all’. But I’m also an instructor by trade. And I find that potential students still want the hands-on experience. What has been hardest for me is when I’m with peers; that when I come up with an application of something that is a new twist on an existing material — I have had so many people grab that technique and run with it; and I feel that I got completely lost in the shuffle. For the first time I felt like, ‘hmmm, perhaps I shouldn’t share’. But it goes against my fabric NOT to. At the same time, I wonder if I’m losing an opportunity to promote myself. I see well known people in my field of endeavor doing techniques that are NOT unique and yet copyrighting them and calling them theirs… what’s a Kansas-girl to do?

  27. I remember this being an issue in the small fantasy art online community I was a part of a few years back. One rather well known and well respected artist at that time had a tutorial she put up on how she did he water color works. It was a signature style of hers and soon a number of budding artists began producing works simialr in sty;e as well as technique as hers.

    This caused a range of domino-like effects that in turn made her take the tutorial off the site. Some people seem to feel that how they do their art is part of their personal identity. Their “short cuts” and “tricks” are the sum of their personal learning processes. Others, I have found, feel that they shouldn’t offer for free what they spent a lifetime or more refining.

    I personally am one who shares tidbits, tricks, and offers suggestions. So when someone asks me for such advice I often give it to them. Good Karma after all.

    But I have seen the gambit of reactions to this kind of query. From flat out ignoring the question, to telling the questioner off, to offering the questioner an explanation of why they won’t in a more professional manner, and through to saying “trade secret, sorry” and that’s it.

    I’ve had my own run ins with secretive artists. When I have an early heads up I’ll ask to watch instead of asking for secrets out right. It may be a more shady move, but it’s less intrusive as well. Doing such though, I will comment on the art and try to get them talking “shop” as it were. If they aren’t up for it, I leave them alone. Better to allow them their comforts then be an annoyance to them. 🙂

  28. Recently, I saw a piece in a local art gallery that was almost an exact copy of something I demonstrated on the Carol Duvall Show. My first thought was “Hey, this is a copy of my work! How wonderful is that?” I have found much inspiration from sharing ideas and the more I share, the more I receive!

  29. If you don’t want to share, the best way is to (in the nicest way possible) tell them you appreciate their interest, but you don’t feel comfortable giving up your secrets. Honestly, I don’t know another way.

    I have been known to share artistic secrets before, but for recipes I develop – NO WAY will I share it.
    I have Pumpkin Chocolate Truffles that I developed myself absolutely from scratch. I have had people on Etsy message me and basically say they don’t want to buy them from me, but could I give them the recipe for free. THAT I will not do, as it gives them the opportunity to then sell MY truffles in competition with me.
    As far as techniques in art go… I don’t mind sharing that, because the person you help is hopefully not going to make the exact same “picture”. Usually, their own inspiration should come into play.

  30. I usually try to explain most of what I do but let the person inquiring fill in the blanks, if they can spot them. But a lot of what I do was shared by another artist. A friend once said, “It’s not necessarily who invented or started something, but who’s still doing it (and hopefully running with the ball) that’s important.

  31. If the question is about “secret” skills or techniques, I guess I would say that there are no secrets. There are skills and techniques that we all learn at some time or another. It sounds like most of us willingly share our skills. And, I’ve found that a question about techniques from a non-artist is a good sales opportunity. In my opinion, the only “secrets” to achieving a good piece of art that are not obvious to non-artists or new artists are working every day and not being afraid to try something new.

    I agree with Sari’s post about ego, too.

  32. I met a fellow artist online who perpetually asked how people did everything – they clearly did not experiment on their own. In the end, being drip-fed constantly was not helping them develop their skills.
    The most graceful reply is a simple one that saves face for them. Something like “I’m not sure I can explain to be honest” – leaving the ‘fault’ with you, not them.

  33. From a personal perspective – I once asked Lori field (lovely artist)about her technique and she was so helpful. She started my love for Prisma’s! Her work would be so difficult to duplicate even with the information she gave me. Each artist will create something different with the same tools. Isn’t it the actual work and the style that matter?

    I don’t think I would have got as competant at my craft without her encouragement or advise. I want my work to be as good as Lori’s, not the same.

    Hope that makes sense.

  34. What do I say to a person who wants to know “How do you do that?”. Well, my work is large scale wood sculpture using chainsaws, chisels, Dremels etc,. It is sometime done as performance art and it is dirty, very dangerous work. People have died or been seriously injured from a split second lack of concentration. So, my answer is simple. “I don’t have the insurance required to teach you how to carve.

    That being said, when a fellow carver shows up at the studio we will spend hours discussing technique, tools, wood, chain tooth angles, carving bars and chisels, etc.
    There is also a website where carvers from all over the world share their work and trade secrets on a daily basis. I think this guild spirit comes from the fact that there are fewer than 2000 people in the world who do what we do.
    In My state, NY, there are only about 20 and maybe only 5 who actually make a good,full time living at it.
    The tightness of the group promotes sharing but, if your not part of the group and have paid some dues, there’s always the insurance answer.

  35. Ah, yes. I got carried away reading the responses and lost the original question. If I did have any special techniques that I didn’t want to reveal yet – I would either be vague or possibly just have to be straightforward and say that I was still working the technique out and wasn’t ready to share it. Quinn’s idea about offering to teach it could work nicely for some situations. I know that people are always asking me where I get my rocks – and I don’t tell them specifically where my favorite places are. I may tell them some of the sites and also places that I avoid. So I guess I do have some secrets.

  36. By the time another artist is asking about your methods you should have grown/experimented/thought another step yourself. Otherwise, you’re just repeating what you already know over and over and you’ll stagnate.

  37. I haven’t been confronted with that yet, but if I was, I would reply on the order of this: “Well, y’know, most things I’m happy to share, but in this case, that’s a proprietary process that cost me a lot of time and money to research, so I keep it a secret for now”.

    If there was a way to monetize it profitably, such as a book I was publishing or a class I was teaching, I would then use the opportunity to promote it… but, as I said, I don’t really own any information I consider proprietary. A lot was freely shared with me – I believe in paying it forward.

  38. If I didn’t want to share a particular technique, I would offer another secret that would divert the attention of the one asking the question. :^)

  39. Mike Pendergrass

    I must admit that we artists can become Indiana Jones when we hear about secret art techniques. We have got to explore every nook and cranny. Plus come across a few snakes along the way! I honestly believe that there are no secret techniques. Two artists that I truly admire as portrait and figure artists have very different approaches to drawing and painting figures but they each get beautiful results. I thought that they had some secret formula to achieving those beautiful results but I found out from them that the secret was practice and a sketchbook! I admit that I was a little let down. But they were right. That’s the secret I share when I teach.

  40. I share freely on my blog because I have learned from others similarly.

    I have, however, been on the receiving end of the question and the response to me was, “We (husband/wife duo) have worked very hard to develop our technique and prefer not to share.” I respected their short answer and understand where they are coming from since I know how much time goes into researching and perfecting a technique through trial and error.

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