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08.12.2005

I'm Really Just A Sensitive Artist

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I first got pulled into computer programming - in a very loose sense - through the need to sell paintings. It was 1999, the Web was taking off, and it seemed like a good way to reach a large audience. The traditional way to sell artwork is through an art gallery, but as there are many more painters than galleries, and many more galleries than art buyers, the relationship between artists and galleries is inherently tense. It is in the galleries' interest to keep paintings an exclusive trophy item, bought by a very few wealthy collectors for a great deal of money, while it is in the painters' interest to have the art market grow from its current microscopic size, even if it means selling artwork at more reasonable prices, which is considerably better than not selling any artwork at all.

Having a constitutional aversion to the haughtier, frosted-glass-and-may-I-help-you kind of art gallery, and little prospect of getting my work into one, I thought the Web might be an intriguing way to short-circuit the whole intimidating mess and sell directly to people who had never considered buying art before.

This was in the days before cheap digital cameras, so the process was onerous: take a photograph of a painting, have it developed, scan it in at high resolution, adjust with Photoshop (no handy 'Auto Color' back then), resize, rotate, crop, repeat. Somehow I created a website of about 100 pages, and - I cringe just thinking about this - did it by pasting individual descriptions and URLs into a template, over and over again, editing the various next and previous links by hand. I had never heard of regular expressions, I didn't know how to automate anything, even JavaScript was a mysterious and intimidating new world to me, and the idea of databases and scripting languages had never even entered my mind. I just needed to get the thing done. So with the help of Webmonkey tutorials, coffee, and a series of all-nighters, I cobbled together a website and sent it out into the ether.

This site was extremely bad. But through the help of a fortuitous hyperlink (scroll down to last question), it sold a bunch of small paintings to complete strangers, and let me continue to paint for a year or so longer than I could have otherwise held out.

Six years later, most online art galleries continue to be bad. Flash sites are endemic, and there is a widespread reluctance to provide high-resolution images, presumably for fear that someone will use an image without crediting it, or (implausibly) print it in lieu of buying a piece of art. Museum sites, which at first blush would seem to have every reason to promote their collections, seem anxious not to undercut their lucrative poster and merchandise sales by showing high-quality pictures of paintings.

Many personal online galleries are just clunky. While photo sharing sites like Flickr have helped popularize new ways of navigating images and thumbnail menus, personal art sites lag behind, since most painters don't know the first thing about programming. Thinking back on my own experience, I wonder how I even got my site live, let alone navigable.

Now that I've finally quit my mini-career as a programmer to paint full-time, I have a unique chance to try to make a painting website that is somewhat better, or at least more suited to the web. With a new set of pictures comfortably underway, I've started building an online gallery of my work with a few goals in mind:

  • show how paintings progress over time
  • allow people to subscribe to feeds for various categories and individual pictures
  • offer images at varying levels of resolution, so people can look closely at images that interest them
  • incorporate tags, breadcrumbs and other useful navigation aids
  • try to link geodata to landscape paintings
  • sell, sell, sell, sell

The initial site is pretty rudimentary, as I try to balance time between working on the gallery and actually painting pictures to display within it. But I would welcome any pointers from readers to sites they think do a good job presenting artwork. If you have an account on del.icio.us, just bookmark anything you find and tag it 'for:maciej' - I'll keep a regular eye on my inbox. Otherwise, email submissions and suggestions are always welcome, as ever. And by all means, buy the art!

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