Paint Schoodic

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Friday, August 31, 2018

Like a rolling stone


I understand the impulse to go, but I’m also starting to consider the cost.
The Sound of Iona, c. 1928, Francis Cadell, private collection
This is the time of year when my husband and I look at each other and say, “we never go anywhere.” That’s ridiculous, since I have plenty of opportunity to travel. But I’m a restless soul.

One place I’d like to return, palette in hand, is Iona, in Scotland. It’s home to one of Christendom’s oldest religious sites, but it was also a favorite haunt of the Scottish Colourists.

These were four painters who brought Impressionism and Fauvism home and married them to their own native landscape. They wouldn’t have broken the constraints of Scottish tradition without leaving, but at the same time, they were clearly torn between the two milieus.

I understand the impulse to go, but I’m also starting to consider the cost.
A Rocky Shore, Iona, undated, Samuel Peploe, courtesy City of Edinburgh Council
Samuel Peploe was born in Edinburgh. He studied briefly at the Royal Scottish Academy, and then moved on to the Académie Julian and Académie Colarossi in Paris. His Scottish plein air work started in 1901, when he began traveling through the Hebrides with his pal John Duncan Fergusson.

In 1910 Peploe moved back to Paris. It was a short relocation; he returned to Scotland in 1912. During the 1920s, he summered on Iona with his friend Francis Cadell. He died in 1935, after advising his son Denis to not take up art as a career.
Dark Sea and Red Sail, 1909, John Duncan Fergusson, courtesy Perth & Kinross Council
Disenchanted with the rigid instruction available in his hometown of Edinburgh, John Duncan Fergusson traveled to Morocco, Spain and France, determined to teach himself. By the 1920s, he was settled in London. In 1928, he and his wife, dancer Margaret Morris, moved back to Paris, until the threat of another world war drove them home. They moved permanently to Glasgow in 1939. He died in 1961, a famous, feted artist.

Francis Cadell, too, was born in Edinburgh. He studied at the Académie Julian starting at the age of 16. Unlike his friends, Cadell spent his adult life in Scotland. As a consequence, he concentrated on intimately local themes—landscapes, New Town interiors, society portraits, and the white sands of Iona. He served in WW1 with Scottish regiments.

Cadell died in poverty in 1937. His success is largely posthumous; his paintings now command upwards of half a million pounds.

Boats in Harbour, undated, Leslie Hunter, private collection
Leslie Hunter was the outlier.  He was born in Rothesay, the only town on the Isle of Bute. After the death of two of his siblings, his family emigrated to California. Hunter was 15. By age 19, he had moved alone to San Francisco, where he worked as an illustrator.

In 1904, Hunter made the requisite visit to Paris. He saw, for the first time, the fantastic ferment of Impressionism. He returned to San Francisco and began painting. This body of work was destroyed by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Disappointed, Hunter returned to Scotland, settling in Glasgow. He was introduced to the Fauvists in a 1907 visit to Paris. There, his old buddy, Alice Toklas, took him to the Stein Salon. Hunter was shocked but impressed by the painting.

The outbreak of WW1 forced him back to Glasgow, but by 1927, Hunter was again in France, sending work back to Britain. In 1929, he suffered a physical breakdown. His sister fetched him home. Recovered, he still hoped to break out, this time for London. His health continued to fail and he died in a nursing home in Glasgow at age 54.

As I write this, I am reminded of a beach near me, also with white sand, also lovely. No chance of that, however; I’m leaving again on Tuesday.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

How to get into a gallery


It’s just like a job search.
Yes, gallery representation is an attainable goal.
“I guess I really don’t know how to get gallery representation,” an experienced artist told me. “I tried a couple times, unsuccessfully.” As with a job search, you have to try many times before you get there.

There are no shortcuts.

Make sure your website is up-to-date. It should include your newest work, dimensions, media, and, optionally, prices. A neat, easily-navigated portfolio of photographic images, including current curriculum vitae (CV), is good to have in reserve, but don’t plan on taking it around and sticking it in gallerists’ faces. Instead, introduce yourself, hand the gallerist your card, and follow up with an email.

Don’t assume you have to talk to the top dog. A good gallerist trusts his or her assistants’ judgment.

Do your research. If you’re mass-mailing enquiries, you’re doing it all wrong. At a minimum, you should have visited all the galleries in an area before you approach even one.

Don’t approach a top gallery if you’re an emerging artist. It’s a waste of time. Be sure you like the galleries you approach. While there are often vast differences in style, there are always commonalities, too. Visualize your work on their walls. Are you a good fit?

When you write, direct gallerists to an online portfolio—either your website or one you made especially for them. Always include a current curriculum vitae (CV). Ask the gallerist to review your work against their future needs. Talk about your experience and why you think you’re a good fit. And remember—there are lots of candidates out there. Rejection may have nothing to do with your skills; the gallery may simply be overloaded.

Doing this event in Camden Harbor started my relationship with Camden Falls Gallery. (Photo courtesy Howard Gallagher)
No stealth visits

When I’m scoping out galleries, I make it clear that I’m an artist, not a buyer. I don’t ask to show my work at that visit; I give them a card and follow up with an email if I’m interested.

Misrepresenting yourself is a terrible way to start a new relationship. Many of my best conversations with gallerists have been because I’m an artist.

Respect their time

Never stop to chat when they’re changing their show. They won’t appreciate the interruption. Likewise, don’t interrupt a potential sale, ever. If they say they review portfolios at a specific time, respect that.

Historic Fort Point, by Carol L. Douglas. This painting at another event started my relationship with the Kelpie Gallery.
Maintain your image on social media

You love Facebook; gallerists do too. Be professional, up-to-date, and informative, and don’t include information that will shoot you in the foot.

Reverse engineer resumes

Identify a few regional artists whose careers you admire. Their CVs are usually on their websites. You can track their progress from local shows to important galleries. This will give you ideas on what paths to follow.

A Little Bit of Everything, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard, long since sold.
Choose a smart path in

Almost every gallery invitation I’ve received has been the result of an event I did in that community. Gallery owners pay attention to them, especially when they organized the event. If the gallery you’re interested in hosts group shows, apply to them.

I (almost) never turn down an opportunity to show my work, but I know the difference between my local farm and a university gallery. Not every venue is a resume builder.

The studio visit

Should you be lucky enough to net a studio visit, be neat, clean and organized. This is your workspace, and it shouldn’t look like a party house or boudoir. Don’t expect miracles, and don’t try to push the gallerist into taking work he or she doesn’t like.

And, above all, be nice.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

So you want to be an internet star

A good online presence is focused, consistent and interesting—just like you.
Rising tide at Wadsworth Cove, by Carol L. Douglas. I selected my top Google search images for today’s blog. Seemed appropriate.
This week I’m packing for a residency at the Joseph A. Fiore Art Center. I’ll be a hermit until October 1. There will be two exceptions. The first, of course, is this blog. It runs daily except weekends and holidays, except when I’m out on the ocean. There’s no phone signal out there.

I’ll also be a panel participant in the Maine Arts Commission’s Maine International Conference on the Arts. I’ll be discussing Using Technology to Document & Promote Your Work on Friday, September 28 at 2 PM.

My success on the internet has been seat-of-the-pants. I’ve never taken a class, and whenever I start looking at online marketing courses, I get lost in the jargon. Still, this blog is a success, so I’m using this panel discussion as an opportunity to think through why it works.

A FitzHugh Lane Day at Camden, by Carol L. Douglas
Be consistent

People often ask me how to get started with a blog. My answer is that, whatever they choose to do, they should commit to doing every day. For me, that’s a strict discipline. I get up at 6 AM, write for 90 minutes, publish, and then go on to live my day.

I blogged for years, randomly, as most artists do, posting whenever I had a new piece of work or a brilliant idea. I had absolutely no traction. Then I noticed something about the internet: stirring the pot attracts people, and it has an exponential effect. The more that’s going on, the more people tend to read it.

Offer real content

If you’re looking only for a way to promote your paintings, Instagram is probably a better platform. A blog requires 400-600 words of carefully crafted content every day. It needs meat on its bones.

That isn’t as tough as it sounds. Everybody has interesting experiences, and we tell each other these stories all the time. All that really happened in this post was that my pal got a flat tire, but the circumstances made me smile. Judging by the hits, it made a lot of you smile, too.

Parker Dinghy, by Carol L. Douglas
Find your own niche

I didn’t set out to write an award-winning blog; I set out to get rid of all the thoughts rolling around my head.

Nobody has the time to do everything, and a pallid, overstretched presence will do you more harm than good. Concentrate on what you like to do, and you’re probably doing what you do best.

Let your technology do the metrics for you

I don’t chart my progress, but I regularly check where my readers come from, both geographically and by platforms and traffic sources. I use this information to get the biggest bang out of my effort. I used to post on Tumblr; it was pointless and too much work. I’ve recently added Google Business to my daily posting, even though its numbers are small. It’s easy to do, and it promotes my physical studio.
Bathtime, by Carol L. Douglas. I don’t set out to sell paintings on my blog, but this one was purchased from a post. The buyer has become a friend.
Be patient

When I started Monday Morning Art School, I thought it was a bang-up idea. It went nowhere. I was just trying to figure out how to pull the plug when I noticed readership rising. Today, Monday is my top readership day.

The dreaded “you should”

If someone else isn’t telling me I should do something more, I’m telling myself that. They’re usually great ideas, but I also want time to paint. I keep a document on my laptop of all these “you should” ideas. I refer to this more than any other document except my packing list.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Separating art from the artist


If you’re in a rut, move to Tahiti and take a string of child-mistresses. It worked for Gauguin.
Two Tahitian Women, 1899, Paul Gauguin, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art 
Last year, the Metropolitan Museum took heat for a 1938 painting by Balthus, Thérese Dreaming. The painting is not overtly obscene, but Balthus had a sexual obsession with prepubescent girls. In light of that, Thérese’s panties are an art-history problem. Where should the line be drawn between censorship and veneration?

The Met also owns many paintings and prints by another Frenchman with a girl problem—Paul Gauguin. Excising Gauguin would be far more problematic. He profoundly influenced 20th century art.

Gauguin is most famous for traipsing off to Polynesia at the end of his colorful, fractious life. He wrote that he wanted to escape European civilization and ‘everything that is artificial and conventional,’ but his grand statements always had the whiff of dross about them. He had a family in Copenhagen whom he’d abandoned, and he expected to get rich in Tahiti.
Vahine no te tiare (Woman with a Flower), 1891, Paul Gauguin, courtesy Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek
He arrived in Papeete in 1891. Instead of nubile, naked Tahitian girls, he found church-going ladies in Victorian dress. Moreover, it was full of expatriates and colonists and was expensive. Disappointed, he moved to a bamboo hut in Papeari.

Gauguin’s first Tahitian portrait was Vahine no te tiare (Woman with a Flower), above. It’s neither exotic nor exploitative. Instead, it is investigatory. He studied her face, and he put her in the western dress that she really wore.

Back in Paris, Gauguin had read some Dutch texts written in the 1830s, about the Arioi. This was a Tahitian secret religious order. They practiced complete sexual freedom before marriage and aborted or murdered any babies that were conceived through these unions. They worshipped a war god named ‘Oro.
Te aa no areois (The Seed of the Areoi), 1892, Paul Gauguin, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art
If this sounds like a Marvel comic book, you recognize the basic tone of 19th century ethnographers. These stories were probably a farrago of lies, rumor and truth.

Gauguin was fascinated. He was free to invent the details, which meshed with his own self-promotional legend as a depraved sensualist and a martyr to his art.

Gauguin did twenty paintings and a dozen carvings over the following year. Nine were shown in Copenhagen. Gauguin was sufficiently optimistic to return home, although he was still broke. Moreover, he was already showing the signs of tertiary syphilis.

Paul Gauguin with his mistress Pahura (second from left) and another woman, who looks less than thrilled with his hand on her breast. Courtesy Daniel Blau.
Gauguin took three young native girls as vahines, or ‘wives’, during his Tahitian period. They were 13, 14, and 14 at the time. There’s no suggestion that they were unwilling.

He used them as models and to do the work of survival in a pre-industrial society. While Papeete was westernized, Papeari had no corner grocery store; its families fished, hunted and gathered breadfruit and bananas from the mountains.

But mostly, it was about sex. “He loved the whole idea of someone getting pregnant and showing the world that he still had it,” said art historian Nancy Mowll Mathews.

Gauguin returned to Paris in 1893, swanking around the Left Bank dressed in Polynesian costume and carrying on with a Malay teenager called Annah the Javanese. As usual, it rapidly went sour. He was broke and bitter. In 1895, artist Eugène Carrière bought him a cheap, one-way ticket back to Polynesia.
Self portrait, 1903, Paul Gauguin, courtesy Kunstmuseum Basel
Gauguin spent the next six years living an apparently comfortable life in and around Papeete. His vahine during this period was Pahura, who was age 14 when she moved into his house. Later, he would accuse her of thievery, and rail at the colonial police for not taking him seriously.

In 1901, Gauguin moved to the Marquesas, complaining that Papeete had become too westernized. There he built a house called Maison du Jouir. That’s hard to translate, but “Love Shack” probably comes closest. His health continued to deteriorate. He became a regular user of morphine and laudanum. His lost paradise was falling victim to time. 

His vahine, Vaeoho, seven months pregnant, went home to Hekeani to bear his last child. She didn’t return. By December, 1902, he could no longer paint. He was found dead on the morning of May 8, 1903, by a neighbor. Tioka confirmed his death in the traditional manner, by chewing on his head in an effort to revive him.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Monday Morning Art School: How to paint a really bad watercolor


Painting horrible watercolors isn’t just my special skill; it’s something anyone can do!

A lot of artists don't like Winsor & Newton field kits, but they're still my go-to for extreme backwoods drawing and painting.
Don’t test your colors

Beginning watercolorists usually put down washed-out, delicate colors. These have too much water in the mix. Or, they’ll use too little water, and their unloaded brush will scumble instead of flow. Sometimes they’ll miss the proper color entirely and spend the rest of the painting trying to fix their bad mix.

The answer is to make informal swatches on a scrap piece of paper. Just make sure you use the same paper and brush you plan to use for the final assault.

Pay attention to where excess water might be entering your process. Are you unconsciously washing your brush after every stroke, or not mixing enough paint and trying to stretch it out?

Fiddling

Putting layers and layers of light color down makes great mud. So does putting paint down and then endlessly fussing with it. See above, make the proper color, and lay it down in a few strong strokes.

Do a value study, unless your watercolor is a value study. Then do it anyway.
Too small a brush

Small brushes give you less control, not more. They’re harder to hold still and they run out of paint just when you need it most. Worse, artists get diddly with them. Practice with larger brushes and a lighter hand.

Bloom is almost unavoidable when painting off the deck of an ocean-going boat, but it's still annoying.
Bloom

More properly known as backflow, this happens because the paper is still wet, even though the surface looks dry. Bloom can be used as a watercolor effect, but it more typically happens because the artist isn’t patient, or because environmental conditions are such that your paper will never dry. Or, in my case, because I’ve spattered water all over everything.

Use bad materials

Good watercolor paper contains sizing to keep paint from sinking into the paper. That allows colors to sparkle, and stops the paper from buckling. Cheap papers aren’t properly sized.

Brushes are more important in watercolor than they are in oils. It’s not necessary to have only expensive brushes, however; my go-to rounds are Princeton Neptunes.

As in all painting, cheap paints are a false economy. Better paints contain more pigment.

Watercolor can capture the passing scene better than any other medium. This was painted off the deck of American Eagle. The speckling in the sky was caused by salt spray. What a life!
Don’t bother with a preparatory value sketch

Value sketches are critically important in all media, but especially in watercolor. You should start with a plan, and your plain is laid out in lights and darks.

Unlike oils and pastels, you have few options to correct a bad drawing once you start it. It behooves you to work out all the kinks before you lift a brush.

Don’t mix your colors in advance

Time is a critical factor in watercolor, and if you have to stop and mix in the middle of a passage, you’re going to make a muddy, blotchy mess. Instead, mix the colors you think you need for that step and test them on your scrap paper.

Let your paper breathe!
Don’t leave white space

Watercolor is all about paper showing through, so why not let that happen?

Use all the colors

Watercolorists tend to carry far more pigments than oil painters. Want to keep it fresh? Pare down your palette and keep mixes down to three or fewer pigments per pass. And avoid hues and convenience mixes; they’re already mixtures and will further muddy the waters.

Get fussy, fast

Start by thinking out the big shapes first. Too much detail too fast throws the volume relationships off in a painting or drawing.

Watercolorists who fixate on detail at the beginning tend to delineate everything, everywhere. They haven’t given their minds time to sort out what’s important. Detail belongs in the focal point(s) of a painting.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Was Vincent Van Gogh murdered?


A teenage bully, a troubled artist, wealth, power, and a conspiracy of silence have created the myth of Van Gogh’s suicide.
Farm near Auvers, 1890, Vincent Van Gogh, courtesy of the Tate
I stood for a moment catching my breath in Saranac Lake’s lovely old Beaux-Arts Town Hall. A man sidled up, watching carefully to be sure we were utterly alone within the hubbub. He was reacting to last Thursday's post.

“It’s been proven conclusively that Vincent Van Gogh was murdered,” he whispered.

Van Gogh’s suicide is legendary, so when biographers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith questioned it in their 2012 biography, they were met with furious criticism. Some of their arguments don’t convince me. He left no note; not all suicides do. And anyone who’s had the misfortune to know a suicide knows that they can be simultaneously planning for the future and for their final exit.
The Church in Auvers-sur-Oise, View from the Chevet, 1890, Vincent Van Gogh, courtesy Musée d'Orsay
Other parts of their argument are more compelling. Shooting oneself in the gut is a painful and unlikely way to top oneself. Equally unlikely is staggering home over a mile of countryside to seek help.

If not Van Gogh himself, then who? Naifeh and Smith drew the bead on one René Secrétan, the 16-year-old son of a Paris pharmacist. He was a rich, privileged bully. Obsessed with Wild Bill Cody, he wandered around Auvers dressed in fringed buckskin, a cowboy hat and chaps, twirling a decrepit pistol. (And his neighbors called Van Gogh crazy.)

René cozied up to Van Gogh. He modelled for the artist, shared his porn stash and paid for drinks. He and his friends let the artist listen as they consorted with ‘dancing girls’. At the same time, René taunted and tormented Van Gogh.
The Road Menders, 1889, Vincent Van Gogh, courtesy the Phillips Collection
Van Gogh was shot on the road to the Secrétan villa, using René’s pistol. (“It worked when it wanted,” René joked.) Why wasn’t it investigated as a murder? Secrétan was the child of wealthy summer people, while Van Gogh was a dodgy weirdo. But he was also starting to be recognized as a painter. The suicide story was a neat cap on his legend, helping to create careers and drive up prices for his paintings.

Naifeh and Smith hired noted forensic expert Dr. Vincent Di Maio to analyze the records. They published the results in Vanity Fair.

Auvers Town Hall on 14 July 1890 (Bastille Day), Vincent Van Gogh, private collection. This was painted fifteen days before his death.
“It is my opinion that, in all medical probability, the wound incurred by Van Gogh was not self-inflicted. In other words, he did not shoot himself,” Di Maio wrote. As mystery fans might have expected, the gun was in the wrong hand.

The evidence for Secrétan’s guilt is there. But, as a curator at the Van Gogh museum wrote to Naifeh and Smith, “I think it would be like Vincent to protect the boys and take the ‘accident’ as an unexpected way out of his burdened life. But I think the biggest problem you’ll find after publishing your theory is that the suicide is more or less printed in the brains of past and present generations and has become a sort of self-evident truth. Vincent’s suicide has become the grand finale of the story of the martyr for art, it’s his crown of thorns.”

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Road warrior living, by the numbers


Do all plein air artists work in this frenzied way? Only if they want to make a living.

Full stop, by Carol L. Douglas (sold).
I received a number of reader responses to my recent post, How long did Van Gogh take to complete a painting? They came by email, because Blogger’s comment feature is a little wonky right now. Some comments are going through, but if you have trouble, just email me here.

“Are these events increasing the market for art?” wrote S, who is a statistician in real life. That’s a question I can’t answer, because it’s too small a market niche for the government to monitor. The Bureau of Labor Statistics identifies only 11,000 people in the category of Individual Fine Artist. (I’m not sure it’s true, since I know at least 11,000 artists personally.)
Headlamps, by Carol L. Douglas (available, and a favorite painting of the artist).
That compares to a global art market in the $60 billion range, depending on whom you ask. This is concentrated in the US, and 70% are paintings, almost all by dead people. Researchers are understandably more interested in that lucrative aftermarket than in the art that is being created now.

I can only note that there are more plein air events every year, which is a sign that they work.

Lobster pound at Tenant's Harbor, by Carol L. Douglas (available through the Kelpie Gallery).
“You lump all plein air painters into this frenzied bunch,” wrote C. “Perhaps your view is informed by the competitive way you’ve decided to paint. I find it hard to believe that everyone works this way. Or is it only the non-professionals like me who take it slow?”

Professional plein air painters work in this circuit, and I’m typical, I think. None of the other 49 painters at Adirondack Plein Air, for example, had any problems completing a finished, lovely work in the two hours allotted for our Quick-Draw. I’ve observed that artists tend to produce around one-two paintings a day at these events, depending on the size. That puts them square in the 3-5 hour range per painting.

They cost so much because there’s a lot of other work and expense involved, and because the longer the artist’s sales record, the more his or her work is worth. In comparison, nobody ever asks how long their Nike Lebron X sneakers took to make. It was probably just a few minutes.

Bahama Palm, by Carol L. Douglas (available). So far I haven't been able to successfully monetize my southern journeys. That would extend the season.
“Do you like being able to do a mix of plein air and studio work?” asked S. “How many months in a year are dedicated to plein air events? Or is this the wrong metric?”

In fact, it’s an important question, one we ask ourselves at the end of every season. What is a sustainable level for plein air events?

Studio painting is the normal place to finish commissions or larger, more involved work. Currently, I’m doing events only from June through September, but I hope to spread them out more across the year. However, the farther I travel, the higher my expenses become.

The answer is highly individual, and it changes over time. In fact, I was planning to have coffee with Stephan Giannini this morning to discuss this exact question, but I forgot I’m supposed to be in Buffalo. We’ll take it up again in October, which is the next time we’ll both be home.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Devastatingly resistible men and the stupid things they say


The sexualization of a young, competent competitor is a way to put that woman in her ‘proper’ place.
Athabasca Glacier, by Carol L. Douglas
“She's great,” a woman told me about a young woman artist. “Excellent drafting, fantastic brushwork. But, actually, I think she has more ground to cover before she hits her full potential.” It was an admiring, supportive, incisive comment.

“Nice ass,” said one of her male peers.

The vast majority of the men I know in the art world are kind and decent fellows. But not all. (Sadly, the offenders are unlikely to read this blog.) Consider the artist who importunes a woman his daughter’s age for a date, while he has a long-standing partner at home. Or the pair who mutter suggestive comments about another artist to each other while sitting right next to an older lady. (As women of a certain age know, with wrinkles and grey hair comes a magic cloak of invisibility.)
Parker Dinghy, by Carol L. Douglas
When I was young, I put on a stiff face and ignored cat-calling. After all, women are trained to be polite. I wish I had said something instead. It wasn’t until my own daughters reached that age that I realized how corrosive it is. But, for some reason, young women generally don’t have the power to control the situation. “It’s not important,” they tell me, or “It happens everywhere. Might as well get used to it.”

I talked with another young woman artist yesterday. She’s changed her mind about it. “I’ve resolved to call them out,” she told me. I wish her well. More young women should do so.

Three Graces, by Carol L. Douglas. Courtesy Camden Falls Gallery.
The sexualization of a young, competent competitor is a way to put that woman in her ‘proper’ place. If a man objectifies her, he can ignore the fact that she can paint circles around him. The problem is his, not hers, but it’s still offensive and it coarsens the community.

“It’s a thin veneer of bravado painted over a thick layer of insecurity,” commented another woman artist, comparing that behavior to pack mentality. “These men are not going to take down an older woman, so they hunt the young one instead.”

In the old days of chaperones, a man couldn’t get past an older woman and her sharp stick to make lewd comments. A young woman had the weight of an alpha female on her side. We artists travel alone for the most part, putting us all outside our comfort zones. 

Lake Moraine, by Carol L. Douglas
I have some advice for the men who act like this: get over yourself. You’re not devastatingly irresistible. You’re not funny, either. You’d do your career far more good by shutting up and being a gentleman. That way, even though your painting is lousy, you’ll be remembered as a nice guy.

Young women: bear in mind that these old gaffers feel threatened by you. But don’t let them objectify you. Call them out.

Old men: that could be your daughter. Don’t let that kind of thing pass.

Old women: nobody expects a grandmother to have a sharp right hook.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Why am I hoarding art supplies and not getting any work done?


That bad habit will die, dear reader, when you finally own everything.
I paint random, meaningless still lives when I can't get started. This is a stuffed birdie and the Douglas tartan.
“Why is it so easy to buy and hoard materials, then so hard to begin the artwork? Or is it just me?” wrote a correspondent.

The “Just Do It” campaign brought Nike’s share of the North American sneaker market from 18% to 43% over a decade. That tells us that dithering is a real, important part of the project-starting experience.

The dark shapes at the bottom left are credit cards, dear reader. Your problem is universal.
I can be a real ditherer. I spend way too much energy debating the order in which I should do simple tasks. None of this is productive, so my solution is to do all rote tasks in a specific order. I always make my bed, for example, when I get up. It saves me the hassle of debating whether I should make my bed. That battle can easily use more time and energy than just doing the chore.

Still lives are especially amusing when the technology they record is now obsolete. That's not even a flip-phone.
The same holds true with my work. I always write my blog as soon as I get up. That’s usually 6 AM. Then I do other paperwork, and then I go into my studio.

The human brain reorganizes itself during learning. Scientists have studied activity in the ventral striatum of the basal ganglia, which is the brain region that controls habit formation. It shifts from fast and chaotic to slow synchronization pace as rats learn the ‘habit’ of running a maze.

“This is beneficial to the brain because once that habit is formed, what you want to do is free up that bit of brain so you can do something else — form a new habit or think a great thought,” MIT Institute Professor Ann Graybiel said.

Speaking of hoarding, the computer I bought this for died before the hard drive was ever installed. But I did enjoy painting the bubble-wrap.
One side-inference of this research is that even rats calm down when they have mastered habits.

So, the short answer to working efficiently is to develop the habit of regular work. This is the gist of the book Art & Fear, which I frequently recommend. The importance of habit is true across all disciplines, but creativity also requires a seemingly contrary characteristic: creative flexibility. Is that possible in a highly-ritualized person?

Those smarty-pants at MIT also discovered that brain synchrony, starting in the striatum, supports rapid learning. The human mind can rapidly absorb and analyze new information as it flits from thought to thought. These functional circuits are rhythm-based, and they’re controlled by the striatum, the same area that controls habit-formation and addiction.

Two very important elements of the backwoods painter's experience.
The question of buying unnecessary art supplies is a different one. It happens because art is a system of dreaming and prototyping, and sometimes our ideas ‘die aborning.’ That’s not unique to artists; it happens to all visionaries.

I’m the opposite of a hoarder—I throw everything out. And still there is stuff in my studio for which I have no use, or that I bought for projects I never did. That habit will die out, dear reader, when you finally own everything.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Monday Morning Art School: when to do major surgery


Nothing in a painting is precious because it looks great in and of itself. It must support and add to the painting, or it should be replaced.
Electric Glide, by Carol L. Douglas. 24X36, oil on canvas.
Among my cardinal rules is to never add tchotchkes* at the last minute to try to balance out a bad composition. “It needs something,” is seldom fixed by adding a pine tree or a boat. Rather, you must return to first principles to figure out what’s wrong.

Last week I did the painting, Electric Glide, over several days. I started laying it out on Tuesday, and then spent all day Wednesday dodging electrical storms to get the version I showed you here. Taking a photo and looking at it on my laptop was a real eye-opener; I hated the bottom third of the composition. The water was accurate for the stormy day on which it was painted, but it was turbid, rollicking, and uninviting. It didn’t have the intimate, welcoming quality of an iconic Adirondack lake. Furthermore, the elongated diamond of light I’d invented for the water did absolutely nothing to support the top of the composition.

Before I removed and repainted the water.
If you painted it once, you can paint it again one thousand times. Stop believing your delightful passage is a happy accident; you can and will do great things again and again.  Nothing in a painting is precious because it looks good in and of itself. It has to support and add to the painting, or it should be replaced by something else that pulls its own weight.

The motion in the bottom of the painting did nothing to support or enhance the motion in the top. It justflattened everything out.
When I went back very early on Thursday morning, the surface was glassy and flat. This is a telling characteristic of Adirondack lakes, and I knew it would strengthen the painting.

That meant major surgery, which could only be done with a palette knife and patience. I started at the waterline and worked down. This painting was on a canvas rather than a board. My hand had to be light to avoid stretching the fabric. It took many passes to knock it down.

Had the painting been dry, I'd have had trouble making that change. The changes would have produced pentimenti, which are visible traces of mid-painting changes. That's why it's wise to keep impasto down until you're sure you've solved the major composition questions.

I did not use any solvent in this scrape-out. It would have created a soup I couldn’t work over, with a risk of damaging and softening nearby paint. Moreover, the remaining watery grey was a great foil for the reflections. I scumbled them vertically over the grey paint and then worked in the horizontals with a large brush.

I like doing wet-on-wet corrections with a brush held nearly parallel to the surface of the painting.
Scumbling is a technique where a layer of broken or speckled color is laid over another color so that bits of the lower layers show through. There are many ways to do this in both oils and watercolors, but, wet-on-wet, my preferred method is to hold a brush almost parallel with the surface of the painting and drag. This prevents the brush from digging in and disturbing the underlayer.

Value sketch of a different painting.
Changing a section or passage of your original design is one response to “it needs something.” The other is to restate the dark pattern. This is where a separate value sketch, on paper, is so important. If you’ve just done your value study as a grisaille underpainting, you can’t refer back to it. If it’s on paper, you can always compare it to your work in progress. If the pattern of lights and darks is gone, you need to put them back in, regardless of what the shadows and sun are now doing.

The value structure of the initial underpainting slavishly follows my sketch.
Still, adding that electric boat in the last hour broke my own no-tchotchke rule. I didn’t do it to balance the composition. That never works. I added it because I was utterly charmed by it.

How did I get away with it, without ruining an already-balanced composition? I lightened the value of the hull, which was very dark, almost black, and tied it chromatically with the reflection of the land mass on the left. Otherwise it would have stuck out like a sore thumb.

*A tchotchke (CHOTCH-kə ) is a pretty, sentimental bauble that serves no purpose. If Granny loves it but a burglar wouldn’t steal it, it’s a tchotchke.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Best Buds


The carousel at Saranac Lake is a community work of art, and part of the town’s renaissance.
Best Buds, 11X14, Carol L. Douglas. I tried to recapture that kaleidoscope feeling of riding on a carousel as a child.
Serendipity is a beautiful thing. If I hadn’t stopped at Saranac Lake Artworks to collect a 5x7 canvas for the silent auction, I’d have painted from Route 3 looking down on the village. Instead, I decided to stop by and see the carousel, since I was downtown anyway. I’d heard it features local animals. I thought that I might like to bring my grandkids up someday. Instead, I found inspiration for a very happy painting.

The Adirondack Carousel, courtesy of AdirondackCarousel.org.
Saranac Lake is on the upswing these days, with the newly-renovated Hotel Saranac and a $10 million economic development grant from the state. But the carousel is also part of this trend, very popular among locals and visitors. It’s a story of how art helps transform communities.

Local woodcarver Karen Loffler read about a tiny Northwestern children’s carousel fitted with four woodland animals and filed the thought away. During a visit to the Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum in North Tonawanda, it sprang back again, but this time in the form of a classic American carousel from the last century.

Sandra Hildreth has to tell me why my buddy has colored teeth.
“I just thought, why can't we build one in Saranac Lake?” she told the Syracuse Post-Standard. Well, lots of people have such big ideas; few can muster others to get it done.

In 2001, Karen met with a group of local residents, who promptly formed a non-profit board to bring the idea forward. It took twelve years, countless volunteer hours, and $1.3 million in fundraising. In 2006, the Village of Saranac Lake donated land for the carousel’s home at William Morris Park. Ground was broken in 2011, and it officially opened in 2012. It’s a 3600-square foot space that includes the carousel, a gallery, workshop, store and classroom. There’s a playground outside in the park.

Raccoon and skunk are fellow banditos. The animals are often paired in delightful ways.
The result is indistinguishable in craftsmanship from the great carousels once produced in North Tonawanda. Yet it’s distinctly local, and clearly beloved by children. Many of them stopped by to see what I was doing. “Look, Mom! She’s painting John Deer!” they exclaimed.

A very red squirrel, bald eagle, and a bouncing fox.
The pavilion has 24 handcrafted wildlife animals, eighteen of which are on duty at any one time. Do I have a favorite? How could I, when they’re all so perfect? (You can see them here.) I think the black bear, decked out in the colors of the Hudson’s Bay Company point blanket, captured my attention first. Later, I read that it had been painted by my pal Sandra Hildreth. But each animal has its particular charms—except maybe the black fly.

A loon with a lily-pad saddle.
There’s a wheelchair accessible ride in the form of a Chris Craft boat. The overhead scenes of Saranac Lake were painted by local artists, as were the floral medallions. A local blacksmith made the weathervane, and a local carpenter built the ticket counter. The building was painted and stained by volunteers. The result is distinctly local, happy, and very Adirondack.

Bunny is beautiful, but Porcupineoh, my!
The ride never stops in the same place, so I was better off painting it while it turned. I’ve painted a ride in motion once before, a Tilt-a-Whirl at Seabreeze Amusement Park in Rochester, NY. There is a rhythm of looking that works for a constantly-revolving object. Of course, after several hours of this, my head was spinning.

The girl is a complete invention, vaguely reminiscent of a kid I know in Maine named Meredith Lewis. I debated on the title for quite a while, finally settling on Best Buds. Even if my girl is riding the otter, her heart belongs to John Deer.