Over the years, you’ve seen the TV ads, "Buy a framed, sofa-sized oil painting for only $49.99!" Initially, you think to yourself, “Well, for only $49.99, no wonder the artists are starving.” On some level, we like the emotional image that artists are starving for the love of art!You temporarily consider a quick trip to check out the art offerings at some local hotel or convention center holding the deep discount sale. You return to your senses, yet 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 just that…a fantasy. Most of us don’t think that there is a connection between low paying overseas labor and a $49.99 oil painting, but consider this.
The $49.99 sofa sized starving artist paintings are sometimes products of outdated printing plants and/or art sweatshops. The inexpensive offerings at some starving artist sales are either cheap oleographs (printed images on canvas) or paintings produced in a repetitious assembly line manner by workers.
What is an Oleograph?
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 onto a piece of poster paper. After drying, a clear varnish is used to simulate brushstrokes. Like clear nail polish, the varnish is applied over the printed still life image. 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 living artists, the starving artist sales keep the age-old sweatshop in business. These budget paintings are produced by groups of underpaid and overworked factory laborers.
Starving Artists: The Process
Some workers may stand for hours in front of machines that support a long roll of blank canvas. With brushes and paint, each worker is responsible for painting one image or 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 to the workers who will paint it. The workers repeat the painting process. During the process, Artist #1 paints that same tree over and over again for the next 14 hours straight.
Well, just like Artist #1 whose job it is to paint that tree, there is another artist in the starving artist factory who signs paintings. Despite their country of origin, the signed surnames on the majority of the paintings are Western names. Marketing dictates that westerners expect to buy paintings signed with western surnames like Smith, Nelson, or Jones. So the artwork is signed with a common western surname implying that the artist and artwork may be local or at least national. This piecemeal art process continues until hundreds of look-alike paintings are produced. There may be some small variations but in general these paintings probably will not be the art investment lottery ticket you are looking for. 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.
Don’t you think that your $50 would be better spent on a good pencil sketch or small painting by a student artist at your local college or university? I certainly do.