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Friday, June 8, 2018

Fears and doubts


To go where no man has gone before, you have to give up the safety net.
Keuka Lake Farm, by Carol L. Douglas. In honor of my friends painting at Finger Lakes Plein Air this week, I give you some work from that region.
 A reader yesterday sent me a long, thoughtful response to my post on leisure. “I, too, beat myself up for contemplation time,” she concluded, “but then I have learned that I do better work if I give myself over to it. What I do battle with most is the belief that I am a complete hack, so contemplation can’t go on for very long. My enemy, anymore, is being riddled with doubt.”

The painting world is as fashion-driven as any other human endeavor. There are always themes which get a response and are relentlessly copied. (Today’s landscape motif, for what it’s worth, seems to be birches. Last year it was nocturnes.)

Autumn in the Finger Lakes, by Carol L. Douglas
This is not to be confused with the major developments of an art period. These are driven by technology and the zeitgeist, and the painter is wise to understand his own place within them. Our own time, for example, values intensity, immediacy, and direct painting. That’s in part because we have the tools to make those things possible, and in part because we live in a culture with immediate, nerve-racking stimulus. We can appreciate the painting of our Renaissance forebearers, but any attempt to paint like them is doomed to be a curiosity.

But that’s not a fashion question. Catching the wave of fashion is a good way to gain public approval and sell work. It’s not a great way to think radically outside the box. Push it far enough and you’ve turned yourself into a mass-market commodity as did Thomas Kinkade. He created an empire, but it made him so miserable that he died at 54 of acute intoxication.

Finger Lakes Farm, by Carol L. Douglas
We say we want artists to be visionaries, but the ease with which we sell birches and the difficulty in finding a market for paintings of abuse tells us just how commodified art is. In the end, people want something to hang on their wall that makes them happy. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you understand where you're standing.

More commonly, we’re straddling the line. On the one hand, I’m painting landscapes. On the other, I’m not painting them in a way that makes them terrifically accessible. We should always be going places that make us nervous.

Bloomfield Farm, by Carol L. Douglas
Writing this blog often requires me to look at my work going back several decades. I always notice:

  • It’s better than I remember;
  • The work which I like the best now is often the work I hated when I did it.
  • The work I loved then sometimes seems very conventional in retrospect.


Even if you don’t write a blog, you can take time to review your past successes. It’s the best way I know to calm my own internal doubts. On a road with no signposts, the only way you know where you're going is to remember where you've been.
Keuka Lake, by Carol L. Douglas
If you are sometimes paralyzed with the doubt, frustration, and creative blocks of making art, read Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, by David Bayles and Ted Orland. If nothing else, you’ll realize you’re not alone.

I leave Sunday night to teach my watercolor workshop aboard American Eagle. There’s no internet (and darn little cell phone service) out in Penobscot Bay. I’ll pre-publish Monday Morning Art School, but after that my blog will probably go dark for the week. Don’t be alarmed!

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