Finding success as a freelance artist is difficult enough, but when you combine a successful freelance career with a successful career as an author, you know you have found a well-rounded artist. Margaret Peot is a painter, printmaker and writer who has been making her living as a freelance artist for over twenty years. She is also the author of a number of helpful books for artists, including The Successful Artist’s Career Guide: Finding Your Way in the Business of Art, which contains interviews with other artists, personal anecdotes, worksheets and practical advice for making a living as a visual artist.
But, believe it or not, her writing is almost a side project when compared to her extensive experience as a costume artist. Margaret has been painting and dyeing costumes since 1989 for Broadway Theater, dance, television, film and circus. So it is safe to say that when it comes to making a living as an artist, Peot knows what she is talking about, which is why we asked to interview her. We were persuasive enough that she graciously agreed to answer our questions and the result is an enlightening, entertaining, and informative read for any art enthusiast at any level.
LET’S START WITH YOUR ART BACKGROUND. WHAT IS YOUR ART BACKGROUND AND HOW DID IT LEAD YOU TO YOUR COSTUME PAINTING CAREER?
I studied painting and fiber arts at Miami University in Ohio, and also worked in the theater department painting backdrops for plays. When I first came to New York, I painted scenery and murals, and then got a job at Parsons-Meares, LTD, a costume shop, as a dyer. My first painting job for Parsons-Meares was “Creature” (butterfly-like unitards with mullions and wings) and Flower costumes for chorus girls for Siegfried and Roy and the Mirage Hotel.
WHAT EXACTLY IS “COSTUME PAINTING?”
Costume painters are artists who paint fabric to enhance a costume designer’s vision: Monkeys, gnomes, lizards, evil fairies, riveted metal, graffiti, and tattoos–stages full of creatures and magical textures. When the fabric to realize a designer’s vision can’t be purchased, costume painters step in.
Designers provide sketches and research to help the painter start the sample process. The painter imagines how to translate the sketch into full scale reality and then creates a sample to explain her solution to the costume designer. The dialogue with the designer starts with a single sample that initiates reaction and questions on the part of the designer. Some projects can be solved with only one sample, but it is more usual to go through several steps.
“Painting” can mean spattering and spraying completed garments so that they look worn, grass-stained, or old, painting animal skin, fur or feathers, or creating elaborate patterns to be painted onto fabric. The painting is only part of the process: fabric can then be further embellished with applique, sequins, or beads. Every project that comes into the shop presents new challenges. Costume painters solve the problems, using wax resist, shibori, stencils, natural sponges, stamps, painting through laces and nets; paint is applied with brushes, airbrush, silkscreens, a roller or even a feather.
Samples are then tested for wearability and durability, and the draper uses the samples to test different appliques, beading samples or stitch finishes. Costume painting, like the theater in general, is an inherently collaborative process. Everything must fit together, ultimately to serve what is happening on stage.
There is a show of costume painting samples running currently at The Fashion Institute of Technology in the galleries at the research library: On Stages, In Stages: Painting for the Theater from Parsons-Meares, LTD, running til April 30, 2012 at the Gladys Marcus Library, in the Goodman Building (E) at 27th Street and &th Avenue.
CAN YOU TRAIN SPECIFICALLY TO PAINT COSTUMES?
All the costume painters I know come from different backgrounds. There are a couple of college painting majors, a classics student, a scenic artist. Some start as dyers. But it is largely on-the-job learning—lots of trial and error, and passed-down lore.
DO YOU HAVE AN ART-MAKING PRACTICE THAT IS DIFFERENT FROM WHAT YOU DO FOR A LIVING?
As I paint with brushes and lots of colors in my “day gig,” my studio art practice has developed into black and white woodcuts—no colors and no brushes!
YOU HAVE ALSO WRITTEN BOOKS: AN ART TECHNIQUES BOOK, A BOOK ON MAKING INKBLOTS FOR KIDS, AND NOW THE SUCCESSFUL ARTIST’S CAREER GUIDE? HOW DID THAT COME ABOUT?
People have always said to me, “I wish I could be an artist, too. But I can’t even draw a straight line!” My first book, Make Your Mark Explore Your Creativity and Discover Your Inner Artist, is an attempt to answer this, offering no-fail, no-drawing-necessary techniques for making beautiful marks on paper: rubbings, stencils, roller prints, gouache resist, gyotaku (fish prints) and inkblots, to name a few. Some of these techniques are ones that I rely on for painting costumes.
Then the inkblots turned into Inkblot: Drip, Splat, and Squish Your Way to Creativity, a book for kids of all ages.
WHAT COMPELLED YOU TO WRITE THE SUCCESSFUL ARTIST’S CAREER GUIDE?
I began writing The Successful Artist’s Career Guide a long time ago. It started as a conversation with another artist about what we wish we had been told in college about making a living as an artist. So many people get an art degree, and then after six or seven years, give it up to get a “real job,” perhaps with benefits and health insurance. I think now more than ever, it is easy to find work as an artist, and furthermore, to get to choose where you want to live, what specifically you’d like to do there, have a family, pay taxes—all the normal stuff of living. It is possible to live a sustainable life as an artist—no starving necessary!
SO WHAT SORT OF ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO AN ARTIST WHO IS JUST BEGINNING TO THINK ABOUT TRYING TO TURN THEIR ART INTO A CAREER?
The most important thing is to make a decision about what you want to do: what you want to be doing, where you want to do it. Be as specific as possible, and then begin to take steps towards what you have decided you want. Even if you make the wrong decision, it is still better than not making one at all—because if you never decide, you are in a state of perpetual limbo—neither moving forward or backwards.
Once you make some specific plans, doors will begin to open and close, opportunities will present themselves for you to hold up to your plans to see if they fit. Making a decision about what you want is the most powerful thing you can do.