Photo by Leonski
Have you ever walked into an art gallery and thought “I could do better than that!”?
Or are you a contemporary art enthusiast, tired of hearing people criticise things they don’t understand?
Whichever side of the fence you’re on, you’re bound to have an opinion on the story of Paul O’Hare, a painter and decorator from Liverpool, UK, who was given just four weeks to transform himself into a fine artist and attempt to fool the critics at a London art gallery.
Paul’s story was featured in one of my all-time favourite documentary series, Faking It. In each programme, a member of the public was given a month’s intensive training at an improbably difficult profession – and then put through a competitive test alongside experienced pros, to see if they could ‘fake it’ by convincing the judges they were the real deal.
Participants were deliberately assigned roles that were radically different to their usual selves: a butch navy officer became a drag queen; a punk singer conducted a symphony orchestra; a factory worker became a fashion designer; a burger van proprietor became a cordon bleu chef.
And a painter and decorator was invited to transfer his painting talents from kitchens and bathrooms to the walls of a swanky London gallery.
Here’s what happened. (Warning: spoiler at the end, so watch the video first if you don’t want to know how things turned out! Sorry dudes-across-the-water, I think this one is only viewable in the UK.)
Have a Go
The documentary team were at pains to present Paul as just an ordinary bloke, a down-to-earth working-class Liverpudlian painter and decorator.
But what made Paul stand out from the crowd was the fact he was prepared to have a go, and attempt something almost impossibly difficult. He looked at the absurdly short timeframe, the ridiculously steep learning curve and the near-certainty of failure and said ‘OK, I’m up for it. Where do I start?’.
Takeaway: Forget how difficult it is and what could go wrong. Ask yourself: “Do I want to do this? Can I live with myself if I never even try?”.
Get Good Mentors
One of the things that makes Faking It so compelling is the relationship between the apprentices and the mentors given the job of taking them from novice to ‘master’ in one month. The short timeframe and lack of common background makes it stressful for everyone concerned, but as well as the inevitable fights, there are moments of genuine respect and affection, and many of the unlikely couples developed a strong bond and promise to stay in touch after the filming.
Paul had advice and support from experienced artists as well as a gallery director. They not only helped him with his artwork, but filled him in on the unspoken rules of the London art scene and coached him on how to present himself as an artist.
Takeaway: Hard work + mentoring = success. Who has already done what you want to do? Find them – and find a way to persuade them to teach you what they know.
Put the Hours In
On his first day Paul pottered around in the studio and was quite pleased with his initial efforts. But his artist-mentor lost no time in telling him he hadn’t done enough. “I want to see more work” she said.
Once he realised art wasn’t the cushy number he had assumed, he rolled his sleeves up and churned out several works a day, experimenting with different media to find what worked for him. Paul didn’t have the fabled 10,000 hours to master his craft, but he made the most of his four short weeks.
Takeaway: Rome wasn’t built in a day. How many bricks have you laid today?
Take Criticism on the Chin
A few days before the big exhibition, Paul was visited in his studio by one of the fiercest art critics from the UK broadsheets. He didn’t mince his words. To judge from the look on Paul’s face, the guy might as well have shredded his paintings with a machete.
Another scene showed Paul watching and listening via video camera, as a group of London cognoscenti dissected his work over drinks in a fancy restaurant.
Paul felt the criticisms all the more keenly because the works in question dealt with a traumatic episode from his teenage years, when he was paralysed for many months. He said afterwards that working on those images was the first time he had consciously processed what had happened to him all those years ago.
He looked devastated in his video diary entries after these critiques. But the next day he got up, went to the studio and got on with the job.
Takeaway: “It ain’t about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”
Have an Attitude
At one point one of Paul’s mentors suggested that he present himself as a ‘printmaker’ instead of an ‘artist’, to lower people’s expectations and the chance of criticism. Paul bristled at the idea: “That may work for you, but it won’t work for me”. He was totally committed to the challenge and prepared to take on anyone who didn’t take him seriously.
Takeaway: No-one is going to do you any favours. As Hugh says, “Power is never given. Power is taken”.
Look the Part
Paul’s mentors took him to the hairdresser, then shopping. They encouraged him to try on flamboyant clothes he would never normally wear. Topped off with a pair of glasses, he looked like he fitted right in at a bohemian gallery that evening.
Superficial? Yes. Essential? Yes.
Takeaway: People will judge you by appearances. You can conform to their expectations, or confound them – your choice.
Talk the Talk
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but one of the odd things about being a contemporary artist is that you are expected to explain your work, in written commentaries and spoken presentations. Paul received a lot of coaching on how to talk about art in general and his own work in particular. At one point, he was told “Don’t say the work is about you, say it’s about ‘the Self'”. To his credit, Paul showed considerable chutzpah, dropping words like ‘serendipity’ into the chitchat over canapés, while evidently not taking all this ‘artspeak’ too seriously.
Takeaway: Maybe it shouldn’t matter whether you know the right terms or can drop the right names into your conversation – but in some circles it does. Knowing the ‘insider language’ is essential for entry. It’s your choice whether you think it’s worth making the effort to fit in.
The final test was an exhibition at a London gallery, where Paul’s work was displayed alongside three artists who had been exhibiting and selling work for several years. The work was judged by three respected critics, who also interviewed each of the artists, to see how convincingly they could discuss their work.
Paul was clearly feeling the pressure as he was grilled by the judges, and his performance wasn’t perfect. But in the event, one of the genuine artists did an even worse job of explaining his own work – it just goes to show you can’t always tell from appearances. And neither could the judges – out of three of them, only one spotted Paul as the fake.
Takeaway: There comes a point where you have to step out confidently and present yourself to the world as the person you want to be – even though you’re feeling terrified inside. And there are no guarantees that the world will buy your bluff.
At the end of the programme, Paul seemed genuinely inspired by his rollercoaster ride through the art world. He said it had changed his outlook on life and he was keen to continue painting.
Maybe he wasn’t really faking it.
Can You Fake It?
Do you find Paul’s story inspiring or does it shatter some of your illusions about art?
Do you think anyone could succeed at a creative profession if they tried hard enough?
Have you ever felt like you were ‘faking it’ at work – but found that nobody noticed and it turned out fine?
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a poet and creative coach.