Art on the blockchain 2

I started selling NFTs on Crypto on 14 February 2021…

(Read the first article here).

A month is a long time in crypto — more like 6–9 months in real life. In this time, my first project has gone live and gained some traction (see it here) and I’ve sold out of stock again and again.

It’s a series of digital paintings based on a ‘fil rouge’ of a cross on a template. 100 unique 1of1s, all the same size and produced in the (nearly) the same way.

It sometimes seems like an onerous task to make 100 but a lot are already half-made (‘Beeple’ has done one thing a day for 15 years). A day in the studio with ‘one thing’ in mind is surprisingly relaxing (and quite normal for me), and once you get into the rhythm — the ideas flow. No clients badgering you about deadlines, no ‘meetings about meetings’ and no ‘client changes’, just pure creation.

I can trace the origins of this work back to around 1988 with this black painting (one of a series). Call it a ‘style’ if you wish, I’d say it’s more a set of obsessions that I’ve come back to again and again — this stuff has been sitting in the creative side of my head for such a long long time and now it’s all just flowing out.

Painting 1988
Painting 1988

I’ve previously done ‘figurative’ digital work but always seem to come back to a semi- abstract state. These pieces are from 2013 — the mountainous Cathar castle of Monsegur and the Haçienda nightclub in Manchester — both centres of cultish obsession.

But back in 2017 I embraced colour and started creating works more like my most recent. Limited prints (proper old school) were made and framed with ‘art glass’ then exhibited in a public gallery in Hertfordshire, UK and subsequently in South West France. Here’s the catalogue:

None sold (misunderstood once again!) and I kept them in my personal collection and the whole project on the backburner, wondering what to do with them. Every so often I returned to them, keeping 20 or 30 ‘works in progress’ on file.

Jump forward 4 years and I’m now a ‘crypto-digital artist’. Finally some of these things have a home and possibly an audience.

So what might appear — on the face of it — to be a production line for this ‘100’ series has actually been sitting here in my head a long time, just waiting to emerge, completed, re-done, deleted, fought with, finalised and minted. Just because it’s digital — doesn’t mean it’s easier.

In February I started with waiting a week or so for ‘gas’ prices to drop to add my first artworks, it was a slow start, but I sold 3 or 4 — mainly to a few encouraging friends.

Suddenly one Saturday afternoon, the first 10 sold out to people I didn’t know. I think I can trace that back to my first ‘Medium’ article (here) and sending a link to kaigani— a former colleague from London who is now in LA (we re-met via #crypto on Twitter; cheers Kai!). He tweeted about it and then it blew up from there. It was amazing and exciting and all of a sudden things that were digital and ephemeral suddenly became very real.

I added another 10 pieces from the project and they quickly sold out too. Buyers appeared mainly to be into ‘collectibles’. A lot of them looked like they had been around the crypto space for quite a while (probably old ETH from when it was ‘cheap’ perhaps?).

‘Collectibles’ have very similar features to a ‘series’ in painting. Think of Picasso’s ‘pink period’ — you could love and want to buy all his pink paintings and want nothing to do with his cubism (after all Braque was the better cubist anyway).

There’s a collector mentality to human nature — it might be music, cars, stamps, spoons, ‘paintings of all the bison I killed’ on french cave walls — anything. Equally at school — people joined subcultures. If you weren’t a Punk you might have been a Mod or a Biker or into Dungeons & Dragons and/or computers or something else. (perhaps showing my age there!).

We’re used to subcultures and groupings, particularly online; with crypto it seems it’s all mixed in together — a collector might have a cryptokitty, a punk, a 3D animation and a beautiful painting in their collection. That’s fine by me — you might like different music — i’m not about to attempt to make any sort of comparison — we’re all different and into different things.

This experience was quite different from the ‘art market’ that perhaps I was used to or expecting. There was none of that sniffiness you can sometimes get with some (not all of course) gallerists.

I often wondered gallerists did for their 50%+ cut apart from — have a gallery, pretend they know about art, put on a private view, publicise stuff, have a mailing list.… (I might have answered my own question there). Anyway crypto is all quite different to that world and my advice to any artist would be — don’t expect it to be anything like the same.

Initially I found some of the NFT world — that is successful — ‘visually challenging’. I come from a Fine Art background and I’ve seen hundreds of thousands of paintings in my time. I’ve spent 35+ years in design and branding and so have a very high level of visual filter. Initially I dismissed anything with a skull on it or a Bitcoin symbol (even though Andy Warhol screen printed those dollar symbols) or anything with a bald 3D shiny mannequin figures in a futuristic landscape. These are genres, or perhaps fashions and simply not my cup of tea. I’m not about to get into a dialogue about what is ‘art’ and what is not, it’s pointless. People are simply into different things and come from a different background or culture with a different aesthetic. If that’s what you’re into then fine, we’re united by the technology — we can get our stuff easier and guarantee its provenance.

What I did find missing was ‘good painting’. Particularly ‘good abstract 2D’ stuff. The stuff that I like. So I started collecting and curating a few Twitter links of those artists and adding them when they came up — and they’re quite hard to find. Here’s my tip collectors — if you want ‘rarity’ then look for “2D, abstract digital”. Of course it’s still early days and I like the idea that there’s not many of us around.

Some of my buyers remain anonymous. I was trying to get in touch with a few in order to send them a signed, limited print at the end of the project — but not many seemed interested at all. Some bought several NFTs and immediately placed them on the secondary market at 100 times buying price. It reminded me of the cut and thrust of the money markets and I decided not to be too worried about pricing thereafter. (I freelanced as a designer at the ‘open outcry’ Futures & Options Exchanges in London back in the 90s — and I think some of what I learned there might have actually been useful after all). The actual delivery of a physical commodity never seems to happen or bothered with, same as when you’re buying 9 month pork belly futures.

I keep finding myself out of stock but with plenty in the digital pipeline. Mindful of not flooding my own market and keeping the quality up (and of course retaining artistic integrity); the next batch I tried as a ‘Dutch auction’. Start high and drop in price — over a period to a minimum. Huge, huge mistake — nothing sold until the price had dropped enough (that’s how markets work of course); the upside was that I got a few days off. I discovered collectors just want to either bid or buy, they don’t want to wait or come back later. Again — all a learning curve.

The majority of my 5th batch sold out in 6 minutes. All of them in under an hour. I hadn’t even publicised them publicly. This was completely new territory — all I’d done was send Twitter DMs about the start time to everyone who’d bought, missed out previously or shown interest. Then word of mouth kicked in. Selling out that many, that quickly was a shock.

Interacting with non-anonymous patrons, maintaining the direct end-to-end relationship is useful. Some (not all) like the interaction and I’ve had some interesting conversations. I also started writing (on Twitter) a few lines and anecdotes on each piece — it’s a replacement for the gallery catalogue or those direct conversations you might have with someone at a private view.

All the time and in the background, I’ve kept up applications to Known Origin and Superrare. This was how i’d found out about the technology in the first place and so was particularly interested in joining both. But to this day I’ve heard nothing back from any of them. (Shrug emoji).

I see people plying their invites as though they are Willy Wonka golden tickets and seeing work being pushed by the platforms that I personally find a bit derivative. Now, as I’ve said I don’t want to diss other people or their work — but I don’t get the attraction of a copycat Basquiat. (Basquiat died over 30 years ago whilst I was at art school — so for me it’s quaint and ‘old style’, — ‘dated’ even). If I want one of those I can knock one up myself. I want to see stuff I’ve not seen before, not a rehash.

Where are the curators? Where are the knowledgeable art people? Where are the group shows? Where are the groups of painters with a common philosophy? Where’s the good NFT art writing? Where’s the conversation about digital art going on? Is it all so new and such a ‘Wild West’ that those things haven’t emerged yet? Have we been trashed by the media already on ‘eco’ grounds and completely disregarded as an irrelevant ‘tulip bubble’ by luddites?

Any new technology starts out being incredibly self-referential. (Remember the 1995 websites where the homepage was a swoosh of hyperlinks and no content? — “ooh, clickable!”) Perhaps that’s why there’s so many Bitcoin symbols? But the interesting dialogue just isn’t taking place yet. It’s so early there’s hardly any self-analysis. Get on, dive in. Head first.

I’m seriously asking myself now if I want to be part of the ‘gallery platforms’ anyway. They take a huge cut, yes they promote; but I’m selling on my own already — that’s the point isnt it? End-to-end. Artist to collector. No gallery, no middleman.

The philosophy of having a gatekeeper to the platforms just seems slightly backward. Having ‘invite only’ appears retrograde (as well as annoying). I’ve never really been a joiner and I’m with Groucho Marx when it comes to clubs. We’ve hardly started with NFTs and the goldrush hasn’t even started. One or two have staked their claims already, most of us are just loading up our donkeys. Tech-aware artists are going to be in demand and the platforms are simply going to run out of good art. After all, there’s far more buyers in the world than there are artists and creators.

Platforms need be to be getting artists onboard faster and supporting them in the process. Perhaps even paying their gas fees. Don’t ever piss off the artists or take them for granted, or far worse — ignore them. To quote the McCarthy era US phrase “Beware of artists, they mix with all classes of society and are therefore the most dangerous”. Don’t treat us like a commodity we’ll just go to another platform or simply go it alone, taking our friends with us.

I’m looking at self-minting. Tokenizing my own work. With the next version of the blockchain networks it could be easier and cheaper. Just do it directly from a website, wallet to wallet, end-to-end, no platform involved. Where will the platforms be then?

Since my last article I’ve made or completed 50-odd pieces. All of which have sold. Creatively I don’t think I’ve ever completed so much work or had so many ideas for new work in such a short time. I don’t think I’ve ever sold any series so quickly. For 40 or so years I’ve been making art; yes, I’ve had exhibitions, sold now and again but never even been supported by a gallery. This is something I’ve always wanted to do: make art, sell art, live off the proceeds and then make more art. It’s my ultimate definition of freedom. No clients or client meetings, no deadlines, no brief.

Thanks to this technology it’s starting to like I might be able to make my art and live off it.

Who knew?


My first project:

Gallery portals (aka platforms in this article)

Twitter folks mentioned

My curated list of ‘2D abstractionists’ on Twitter

Artist, designer, typographer, curator. Digitally-native paintings. Ex Camberwell School of Art. UK/France. $ETH $SOL. Probably ngmi.