A Watercolourist in Otago

By Brian Millard

My partner the watercolourist Marilyn Palmer and I live and work from our studios and gallery near Arrowtown in Otago. We have been painting there for ten years or so.

We built our home with its gallery and studio wing on two acres of farm paddock, after a little research and a great deal of luck, on an existing ‘art trail’. It was our intention from the outset to custom design our home as a gallery and teaching facility where we could produce and sell our fine art. Since 2002 the gallery has provided us with an income and a way of life more or less as we intended but not entirely - we have had to make a few compromises and to learn from our mistakes.

Marketing and positioning became of prime importance at the outset. The luxury of painting anything and everything on a whim was not an option. We soon learnt that if we were to sell on a regular basis, a degree of pandering to the market was required. Our customers on the whole are tourists, a great many them from overseas who are looking to take home something that reminds them of the beauty of the area. As a result, the decision to concentrate on local landscape subject matter came early. The majority of our work now goes overseas to America, UK, Australia, Singapore, Holland, France and South America. We have couriered paintings to some fairly remote spots around the globe.

Coming to terms with being a retailer and a merchant with a zip zap machine has been a steep learning curve. Running a commercial gallery comes with its own set of responsibilities and they cannot be ignored. We are in the business of creating and selling fine art. The creation is one thing and the selling another. It may not be in fact possible to ’sell’ someone a painting. If a client falls in love with a painting, it actually sells itself. Paintings are not in that sense a commodity. They are not bought purely on price. I do not believe reducing the value of your work is a good idea and not a sustainable strategy indefinitely. What is needed is to create an image the client finds irresistible, something they must have at any cost. What that something is, is always the problem. Not everyone who visits our gallery is a potential client, the great majority have little spending power but it is always gratifying to hear positive comments and to realise that what you have produced gives them pleasure, better still when they call again or email to say they have been thinking about a particular painting and they can now afford to buy it.

We are fortunate in us both being watercolourists and it is unusual to have a double act like ours on the art trail. Our fellow artists in the area are in the main oil painters and there are some great ones amongst them. It is a healthy, competitive environment. We artists do not socialise a great deal but are generally helpful and supportive of each other. Marilyn and I would welcome more artists to the area, some might disagree but we would like the Queenstown area to be famous as a centre for the arts as much as it is for adventure sports.

The teaching side of the business is something of a balancing act. We have catered for several groups of painters from overseas and around New Zealand. As well as workshops I have discovered I enjoy teaching ‘one on one’ a great deal. I think learning to paint in the watercolour medium for some people requires more than the occasional workshop. I have several American ladies with holiday homes in the area who have been coming to me for six month periods for a few years. They, plus local students and a group of painters who attend my workshops on a regular basis and others who enjoy painting on location, keep me busy and out of trouble.

My painting style has not changed dramatically over the years. You cannot create a style out of the blue, a style just seems to creep up on you. You try a few things and if they work then you might use what happened a few times again. I have found a way to paint snow for instance, something I never thought of painting when we lived in the North. I have found ways of creating accidents ‘on purpose’ and possibly my work seems more bravura. I can’t be sure, I sometimes think I have little say in what happens and my job is really to agree with what the medium is telling me it wants to do and not to get in the way too much. It is sometimes best to hang on to the end of the brush and just ‘hold your mouth right’.

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