Paint Schoodic

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Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Cleaning vs. painting: the great dilemma

Some people can paint no matter how messy their house is. I’m not one of them.
My studio on a bad day, by Carol L. Douglas
I saw my friend Karen at the Farmers Market on Saturday. “Do you paint every day?” she asked me. I had to laugh. I hadn’t picked up a brush in almost a week.

True, I worked non-stop from June until the end of September. On October 1, I declared myself on vacation and spent the week with my grandchildren and some treasured friends. Sadly, that wasn’t the end of my time off. There was still mail to answer, a piano tuner to call, and windows to be cleaned before winter. A summer without a hausfrau left this place downright grimy.

OK, so it wasnt' the only bad day.
I’ve written before about the difficulties of working from home. They’re my problem and not my husband’s. His office is next to my studio, the two spaces separated by a glass wall. He spends his days staring at monitors. Apparently, this transforms him to another dimension. He can plug away without noticing anything. On the other hand, I’m irritated and distracted by disorder. Let it get bad enough and I’m completely immobilized. I find it confusing, and distracting.

This is a common problem, but one I hear about mostly from other women artists. I’ve always thought of it as a uniquely female problem, one of the few gender differences I’d admit to. Last week I had coffee with Rockland painter Stephan Giannini. He was as distracted as me, but about his roof. I guess it’s not about gender after all, but about what side hustles demand your attention.

Butter dish, by Carol L. Douglas
I know two professional cleaners. I asked them how long it takes to turn over a summer rental unit compared to cleaning their own homes. They figured they could turn a rental property over in two hours or less. (The biggest time-consumer is the laundry.) Their own homes took much longer. I asked them why.

“Every time I turn my back there is a mess being made around me!” said Sarah Wardman, who has four young kids.

“Cleaning my own house always takes longer than it would for a cleaner to do because I get sidetracked with tidying, or little put-off projects,” said Naomi Fiehler Aho. Naomi retires at the end of the year, which will allow her to make art full time.

I forgot how fun some of these things were to paint.
Later, I ran into D., who is an artist who also owns a seasonal rental. He and his wife do the turnover together. It takes them longer than the pros—basically a full day between the two of them. “But our own home is a wreck,” he added, laughing.

My friend Toby has convinced me to embrace the ideas of KonMari, although nothing ever really stays joyously, starkly, beautiful in my house. Three years after moving here, our closets, attic basement, and, especially, kitchen are bursting at the seams. This winter, I’m going to be systematically weeding out. I don't like doing it, but it will make for a better season next year.

But before that happens, I need to make this place surface clean. Nova Scotia painter Poppy Balser is coming to visit tomorrow and we’re going to paint.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The portrait commission


A portrait is a ticklish intersection of your viewpoint and the client’s.
Andrea, by Carol L. Douglas (private collection)
Last spring a gentleman stopped by my studio and handed me a battered photo from his wallet. It was of his wife, taken when they were very young. It was tiny and terribly worn. Only her face was unmarred, but what a face it was! It radiated a quiet joy at being caught in this moment by this cameraman. No wonder her husband had carried it with him for decades.

I took a few pictures of his picture and handed the original back to him for safekeeping. Summer is no time for me to take on a commission; he would have to wait for autumn. Still, I’d stop and take a few swipes at it whenever I was in my studio for a day, and by late August it was finished.

A detail of the worn surface of the photo.
In one way, it was a painting only a woman of a certain age could have done. It was easy enough for me to plausibly reconstruct her clothes, her makeup and her hairstyle, because there was a time when I’d styled myself the same way. But I couldn’t get lost in a retro fashion show. My client was clear that he wanted an impression of the photo, not a faithful reconstruction. It was not only a portrait of his wife in her youth; it was a portrait of a photograph he’d carried for most of his adult life.

Drake, by Carol L. Douglas (private collection)
I’ve painted several portraits from bad photos and tiny snapshots. Usually, they are nowhere as joyous as the one at top. The model often can’t come to me because they’re dead. The painting is a way to help his or her survivors grieve. The most difficult one I’ve ever painted was of a stillborn infant, above. It was painted from a blurry snapshot, taken hurriedly in a hospital room.

Such paintings are, artistically, as difficult as it gets. There’s no light in the photos and you’re making up most of the details. And there’s a lot riding on getting it right. The mother of that infant asked for the painting several years after her baby’s death. As a mother, staring at the snapshot for hours on end, it was easy for me to feel her grief. It was my duty to help bind it up, in any way I could.

It is always easier and more successful to work from life or a combination of life, sketches and photos (the more feasible solution for a group portrait). One still must consider the motivation of the client.

Reclining figure, by Carol L. Douglas (private collection)
The nude figure, above, was technically easy, since I had the model in my studio. What was difficult was the model’s public identity; she is a doctor. For the past twenty years, I’ve spent a lot of time with doctors, and I have a great respect for them. Still, I wasn’t her patient. It wasn’t until I started the painting that I realized how much her clothes defined her in my mind. I never got past my own reaction to her undress. That is apparent in my intentional simplification of her facial features. Still, the painting is a success, one of my favorites in a long career of painting.
The Children of Dean and Karolina Fero, by Carol L. Douglas (private collection)
Another portrait that’s among my favorites is The Children of Dean and Karolina Fero, above. I didn’t know these kids before I started this painting. Many years later, the daughter is my close friend and her brother a valued acquaintance. It’s full of symbols that mean something to the sitters but not to the casual observer.

Next year I’m booked to go to Scotland to do a portrait in situ, in the manner of Francis Cadell. I’ll spend the intervening time thinking through what the painting means, both to the person who commissioned it and the model. Get that right and the painting part is easy.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Monday Morning Art School: seeing abstract shapes


If you start with a shed, you can ramp yourself up to Windsor Castle in no time.

It all comes down to abstract shapes.
This week I gave my painting class the assignment of doing three thumbnail sketches of their own home or the view from it. This is an assignment with two goals:
  1. To see beauty in the everyday;
  2. To learn how to draw better thumbnails.
Most of us, including me, think we live in uninspiring houses. My first reaction when I started these drawings was that the shrubberies at the front of my house really need attention. I also realized that I have only a vague sense of what my house looks like from the outside. And it’s nothing special, just an old house that also needs its shutters painted.

My house, shivering in the first frost of the season.
Ultimately, though, everything comes down to a pattern of light and shadow. Will my viewers know I have vinyl siding and replacement windows, and that my house is located on busy Route 1? Or will they see it in its bones, as an old Maine farmhouse at the top of a hill? Unless I’m remarkably picayune with the details, it’s the essence that shows.

I think I like this view better. It's what I used for the drawing at top.
A big part of learning to paint is learning to see. In my class we don’t use viewfinders. I also discourage doing thumbnails in pre-drawn boxes. That means creating a bounding box in the same aspect ratio as the final painting, and then drawing your thumbnail inside it. (If you don’t know what aspect ratio is, see here.)

Those devices defeat the purpose of the thumbnail, which is exploration.  A good thumbnail sprawls without boundaries, even though it’s quite small. When it’s finished, you can figure out how you want to crop it. Or, as in my example below, you may find that you need to crop it more than once to get it right.

First, figure out which border is critical. In my example, it’s the top; I don’t want that much tree. What’s the next most-important border? Since I want a little light sneaking into the background, it’s the right side. The bottom crop is at a natural point, below (but not too close to) the shed. After that, I approximated where the left line went to make the drawing fit a 12X16 canvas.

You may take a ruler to my drawing and determine that it’s not exactly the right aspect ratio. That doesn’t matter; it’s easy enough to make fix that on the fly. 

That wasn't too hard, was it?
Let’s build on this exercise and do marker sketches of the same three views. By doing so, we start to see them as abstract shapes. That’s actually tricky to do, but it’s the key to all good drawing.

You must force yourself to stop thinking of the object you’re looking at as “my shed” and start to see it as a series of shapes. First, draw a series of pencil lines to indicate the overall shape. Then, using a pen or marker, doodle in the dark values. If you catch yourself thinking “window,” or “door,” stop and force yourself to relabel your object as merely a light or dark shape. Your brain will catch on, I promise.

If I painted my house from this angle, it would be about the shadows of the tree, which I didn't even notice when I was drawing the thumbnail.
All objects can be reduced to a certain, limited number of shapes, which build on each other to make a whole. When you see things as abstract shapes, you expand your possible subject matter. A plastic pencil case is not inherently much different from a shed, which in turn has the same, simplified, forms as a house. If you start with a shed, you can ramp yourself up to Windsor Castle in no time.

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Friday, October 12, 2018

The number one key to success as a plein air painter


It not only gets you through terrible weather, it keeps your brain supple.
Eventually, my easel fell into this manure pile. Of course.
The end of this week is dripping, sloppy and cool in the northeast. Nevertheless, there are painters trying to knock out paintings at events on Cape Ann and in the Hudson Valley. When they’ve committed to paint, they don’t have much choice but to succeed.

“100% chance of heavy rain tomorrow. more sun but much colder and windy on Friday. Cold and windy and cloudy on Saturday. Sunday there's a reception in Middletown; that's the day its sunny, but cold,” Elissa Gore noted on Wednesday. That’s a forecast that has the artist scrambling to pack every possible contrivance against the weather. Their only comfort is that every person in the event is facing the same lousy conditions.

Watch Her Paint! by Ed Buonvecchio. He painted this as we sheltered inside during a torrential downpour. (Private collection.)
Wind makes you wish you had five hands, because, outdoors, every item in your kit has the potential to go airborne. We can weigh down our easels, but umbrellas are useless. It’s difficult to clamp down a large canvas, so we switch gears and paint smaller. Or, we huddle in the lee of our cars, sacrificing the best view for what is possible.

Last week my class painted at a blueberry barren in Union, ME. The forecast was for fog, and when we arrived the clouds were kissing hilltops. My students’ value studies were developed accordingly. By 11 AM, the sky was clear, and the scene had changed entirely. It takes flexibility to salvage a painting in such radically shifting light. But it can be done.

Obstacles can include a garbage truck, as in here, in Manhattan.
Rain and snow are almost impossible obstacles for watercolorists. Even under cover, their paper just won’t dry. It’s almost as bad for oil painting. Once the moisture settles on your paints, any mixing creates a rigid emulsion of water and oil.

If you set up in a public place you stand the risk of something or someone getting between you and your view. It’s one thing if it’s a person. It’s another if it’s a delivery truck.

Or, a lovely boat is in harbor when you arrive and you decide to include it. You’re half-finished when you realize the lobsterman is preparing to leave. Even without people, boats move constantly on the water, and always according to their own mysterious plan.

Or the obstacles might be tourists, as here, in Camden harbor.
So how do you avoid coming home with a fistful of half-finished paintings? You learn to be flexible, to sub in other details for the ones that just vanished. You learn the cycles of places: the rotation of boats on their moorings, or when the food truck arrives and departs. You get creative about draping and bracing your easel to protect it. And, above all, you learn to paint fast.

All of those are signs of cognitive flexibility. This is the ability to switch your thinking or focus, or entertain multiple ideas or viewpoints at once. It’s an important part of learning and thinking. It’s one that declines through adulthood, sadly. The young brain is simply more plastic than the older one.

But your brain responds to exercise just like your body responds to yoga. The more you have to scramble, the better you get at it. Next time your easel falls down, remind yourself that you’re not just there making brilliant work. You’re exercising your cognitive flexibility.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Is that your final answer?


Plans change, but I’m absolutely certain that something wonderful is going to happen if I just show up. It’s never failed yet. 
Hedgerow in Paradise, by Carol L. Douglas. It's so old it seems like a different artist.
My pal Bobbi Heath stepped wrong and rolled her foot. Being in France at the time, she bandaged it and carried on, assuming it was a sprain. Yesterday, she went to her own doctor in Massachusetts and learned that she has a Lisfranc fracture. That’s a complex, multiple-bone dislocation where the metatarsal bones affix to the arch of the foot. That means the end of the painting season for Bobbi. No driving or standing for the next month.

I feel awful for her, of course. I’m also feeling a bit dislocated myself. She was coming here to paint next week. Then we were planning to travel together to Brandywine Plein Air at the end of the month. I’d happily drive and carry her gear, but Bobbi knows she can’t paint on crutches. Having tried it myself earlier this year, I know she’s right.
Crabbers on the Eastern Shore, by Carol L. Douglas, pastel.
Meanwhile, it’s a nine-hour drive from here to Wilmington, DE, and it suddenly got much more boring. But it’s a matter of professionalism, so I’ll crank up the music and head south on my own.

Emily Post was the doyenne of good manners in my youth. She said that once an invitation is accepted, it was inviolable. You were going unless you were injured, ill, or had a death in the family. The only ‘better offer’ that got you off the hook was an invitation to the White House or to meet the Queen.

She added that last-minute cancellations were a good way to make yourself unpopular with hostesses. It never pays to be unreliable.
Campbell's Field, by Carol L. Douglas. Equally old, done in Eastern PA, but more like my work today.
Artists are like the AKC-registered purebreds at the dog show. Our work is actually the smaller part of the whole event, but it’s the part people see. Meanwhile, there are organizers who have been hard at it for an entire year. If possible, we should honor that.

I like doing plein air events with my friends, but this has been a year in which my plans have been repeatedly upended. Each time, something has happened to stop them, so I’ve traveled to Parrsboro, Santa Fe, and the ADK alone. And, every time, there’s been some compelling, wonderful result that’s more than justified the trip. Furthermore, I always seem to know someone who’s there, ours being a small community of painters.

Storm at the mouth of the Chesapeake, by Carol L. Douglas, pastel.
My philosophy of life is based on my faith, of course—I am not the master of my fate, the captain of my soul. I’m more of a jellyfish washed along by time and tide. Fighting the ocean is a useless, painful exercise in futility. I’ve committed to this event, so I’ll go, with or without my buddy. I’m absolutely certain that something wonderful is going to happen if I just show up. It’s never failed yet.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Learning to see


Art class expands your capacity for creative thinking. No wonder we’ve cut it from school.
Sometimes it rains, by Carol L. Douglas. Available through Ocean Park Association.
“That’s not grey,” I inevitably find myself saying on the first overcast day of a new class. “It’s a dull, desaturated blue-grey.”

The new student will stare at the subject, shrug and say, “If you say so, but I don’t see it.” And then, somewhere along the way, he’ll suddenly ‘get’ it and begin to see all the colors there are in a leaden sky.

He didn’t suddenly grow different cone cells in his eyeballs. Neuroplasticity is wonderful, but it doesn’t go that far. Rather, by practicing seeing, he exercised and developed the neural network he already had.

Sea Fog, by Carol L. Douglas. Living in the northeast, you develop a fine sensitivity to grey.
The idea that doing art makes you more artistic is hardly revolutionary. In other fields, we call that ‘learning’. Art is encoded in the genes the same way math is. That means that some of us will have a tendency toward art or math, but all of us benefit from studying both disciplines.

A 2014 study monitored brain growth in art students. It observed changes in prefrontal white matter that corresponded to an increase in “their ability to think divergently, model systems and processes, and use imagery,” the researchers wrote. In a matter of a few months, "prefrontal white matter reorganizes as (art students) become more able to think creatively.”

“Maybe there are gene variants that give individuals a proclivity toward art (e.g. make them more open to new ideas or more prone to make connections or see patterns), but that is a long way from saying they were born an artist and that those without such gene variants are doomed to being uncreative,” the researchers concluded. “It also propagates the strange myth of the artist as a special class of human. I hope our study will help to debunk the notion that there are ‘artists’ and ‘the rest of us.’”

Inlet, by Carol L. Douglas. Seldom are grey skies actually devoid of color.
My mother began a slow descent into Parkinson’s Disease about a decade ago. She was deaf and suffered from tinnitus. Trying to find a solution, I stumbled across Norman Doidge’s The Brain that Changes Itself. It talks about redundancy in brain wiring. Our auditory processing runs on parallel channels to other mental processes. What happens in one circuit affects the others. Deafness might do more than just socially isolate us. It may contribute to the failure of our brains in extreme old age.

Inlet, (watercolor) by Carol L. Douglas. There are a million ways to depict the grey skies of late autumn.
Visual art and music are important for the young, in that they help develop creative, flexible brains. That’s why it’s so disturbing that both have been so significantly cut in schools.  You’d almost think society doesn’t want kids thinking independently.

But art is also important for older people, because it helps support those creative, flexible brains. I have a Facebook friend who regularly paints with her great-grandson, age five.  He’s developed into a fine young artist, and she’s working in her studio when he’s visiting. 

“He is learning to focus and think on his own more,” she told me. “He is now telling me specifically what he wants to paint. That’s a far cry from pushing colors around. And his Dad tells me he colors a lot at home. He is really developing—on his own—this interest in creating with colors.

“I think it’s helping him to slow down,” she added.

More of us should follow her lead.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

The importance of time off


Most of us were trained to work hard. It may be killing us.
Schoodic sunset, photo by Carol L. Douglas
Yesterday I went to the top of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park. A gigantic cruise ship slowly disentangled itself from Bar Harbor. In the distance I could make out Winter Harbor and the Schoodic Peninsula. As the sun slumped toward the horizon, swarms of leaf-peepers swung their cameras and phones about and clicked away.

I didn’t sketch; I didn’t paint; I took no reference photos. I was there as a tourist, enjoying the changing fall foliage in our oldest national park.

It’s not that I don’t like to paint in Acadia. I’ve taught there for years. In fact, I will head back up later this month to work. (For one thing, the LL Bean outlet didn’t have any insulated boots in my size.) However, sometimes one needs a rest and a beautiful view. That’s true for every worker.
Drying towels, by Carol L. Douglas (private collection)
The Framingham Heart Study is a long-term ongoing cardiovascular study that began in 1948. Among its findings is a correlation between time off and longer, healthier lives. Men who skipped vacations for several years were 30% more likely to suffer heart attacks than those who took annual vacations. These vacations didn’t need to be elaborate or long; they simply needed to be a time when the worker downed tools and did something else, preferably with family and friends.

Then there’s brain function. We need time off in order to do our jobs better. Neuroscientists believe that chronic stress changes neural networks. Cortisol interferes with learning and memory, lowers immune function and bone density, and increases weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, heart disease, depression and mental illness.
High Tide, Scott Island, by Carol L. Douglas (private collection)
I understand how the real world lives. My husband would love to take some vacation time, but he’s on a project that’s perennially behind. He works long hours, and when he’s not working, he’s thinking about work. It’s taking its toll mentally and physically. That’s the killer of the American salaryman. As much as you will agree to work, that’s what your company will take.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American works 44 hours per week, or 8.8 hours per day. We have the longest work-week in the world, and even though we’re four times as productive as our grandparents were in 1950, we haven’t seen that translate into more time off. That’s a cultural phenomenon as much as it is a necessity. Most of us were trained to work hard, and we don’t know how to get out from under that except to retire.

Flood tide, by Carol L. Douglas (private collection)
There's a hidden way in which our workload has increased. The percentage of women in the workforce has nearly doubled since 1950. Housework is now a burden added to the paid workweek, for both men and women.

I’ve read that unemployment is at a 45-year low. Even the U6 rate, which includes marginally-attached workers and people working part time because they can’t find full time work, is approaching historic lows. That gives workers the kind of power we haven’t seen since Nixon was President. I hope as people renegotiate their terms of employment, they remember to ask for more time off. Maine is waiting for you.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Monday Morning Art School: how to do a gesture drawing

Fast, effortless drawing is the artist's most important skill. It's easy to learn and lots of fun.
Michelle reading, by Carol L. Douglas

Drawing sometimes seems like the “eat your vegetables” of art lessons. It’s what students need most, but they believe its unpalatable. So we teachers are always hiding it in our painting lessons. Once you start drawing from life, however, you realize it’s tremendous fun. I’m constantly sneak-drawing in unlikely places: the train, waiting rooms, or in church.

The single best exercise you can do to get better at figure-drawing is the one-minute gesture drawing. When I taught figure, I started my class with ten of these, progressed to a five-minute drawing, then to a twenty-minute drawing, and from there to the long pose everyone believed they were most interested in.

Gesture drawings not only free up your hand, they teach you how to measure painlessly. If you’ve never done one, conscript a friend or family member to model. The more twist and curve in the pose, the better. After all, they only have to hold it for a minute.

Gesture drawings are conventionally done nude, but that's not really necessary. You’ll still benefit from drawing clothed figures. The important thing is that you use a timer and not exceed one minute per drawing.

The paper and pencil you use are unimportant. In fact, gesture drawings of your co-workers are the best possible use for your pre-printed meeting notes.

There is no right or wrong way to do a gesture drawing. On the other hand, the method I outline below is fast, easy and accurate, so why not try it?


Draw a single line indicating the axis of motion. My model had an extreme torso twist, so I got a little more engaged in this line than I usually do. Usually this is just a simple angled or curved line.

Next, scribble in the shapes of the pelvis and the shoulders. One of my students called these "atomic string balls." The term fits. The two most powerful joints in the human body are the pelvis and the shoulders. This is a fast way of indicating their angle. By scribbling a ball, you also give them volume and energy.


 I then make smaller power balls at each additional joint, locating them quickly in space. I don't lift the pencil up much, but drag it along between joints. As rough as this looks, you already have most of the essential information about the pose.


From there, it's a simple matter to add volume. Use the remainder of your time to shade and refine. However, you shouldn't really take time to erase.


A gesture drawing by nature emphasizes the torso at the expense of details, extremities and the face. Once you've mastered the one-minute gesture drawing, you can move along to the five minute drawing, as shown below. That's a continuation of a one-minute drawing, but it allows time to develop more detail.


Friday, October 5, 2018

Goodbye, old paint


How did the ‘renovation’ of the American Boathouse end up with it being torn down? Where is the line between private property rights and preservation to be drawn?
Pamela Casper did this painting of the boathouses during my workshop several years ago.
The American Boathouse was an historic boathouse on Camden harbor, one of the nation’s oldest remaining recreational boathouses. It was built to house the 130-foot steam-powered yacht Maunaloa in 1904. Three boats of this name belonged to Chauncy Borland, the first commodore of the Camden Yacht Club. The building had been on the market forever, its redevelopment encumbered by its being on the NationalRegister of Historic Places and in an area zoned for business.

Earlier this year, I’d read in the paper that the boathouse was going to be ‘restored’ as a private residence. “[T]he Reeds want to buy it and spend approximately $5 million rebuilding it from stem to stern, and convert its use to a residence, with room underneath for a yacht,” reported the Penbay Pilot. “They need, however, to change town ordinance so that the zone in which the boathouse sits – Harbor Business District – will allow residential development at the first floor level.”

The boathouse in happier days.
What I didn’t realize is that ‘rebuilding’ it meant razing the original structure and starting again. I’m apparently not the only one who thought that. “It would not have lasted very long vacant in its old age. We residents are so glad the Reeds wanted to repair it and use it, after going through changes in zoning, etc. We are fortunate that the American Boathouse has been saved,” wrote local historian Barbara F. Dyer.

Maunaloa off Camden.
I have an architectural historian visiting me this week. I thought she would enjoy seeing the schooner fleet at Camden. Instead, she watched me goggle and sputter at the irredeemable loss at the head of the harbor. I haven’t painted at Camden since the Camden Classics Cup in July. In my absence, the boathouse has vanished and a new building is being constructed on the site.

Not that I have any say in the matter, of course. I’m not a Camden voter, and the boathouse was private property. At $2.4 million for a derelict building, it was also too expensive for any local yokel to buy. That’s the fate of waterfront property these days: it’s the exclusive province of the rich.

Drying sails, by Carol L. Douglas. Private collection. The boathouse is a soft background.
But the boathouse was an icon on Camden harbor, and now it’s gone. It’s figured in my paintings, and been the subject of many other artists. That long sloping building was difficult to draw correctly, and its green doors against the red shed next door set the mood of artwork done from the landing side of the harbor.

Wealthy people like Chauncy Borland have been coming to Maine to rusticate in the summer since the end of the 19th century. Seeing old things torn down to accommodate them is nothing new. In that sense, the end of the American Boathouse is historically more accurate than any true renovation would have been.
Spring Pruning, by Carol L. Douglas. This house was also razed to make room for a bigger model, this time in Rockport.
But swank structures are never particularly paintable. Old or new, they sit astride the landscape, dominating it. In contrast, the homes and businesses of modest men fold themselves into their settings, becoming one with them. I doubt I’ll be painting that part of the harbor any time soon.

Forty million visitors were on track to visit Maine this summer. They aren't coming here to see luxurious new houses on the coast (although they may be staying in them). How do we negotiate the line between private property rights and the need to preserve the Maine that tourists love?

Thursday, October 4, 2018

The nuts and bolts of social media: getting readers

You’ve written an amazing post with catchy copy and valuable tips. Now, how do you get discovered?
Best Buds, by Carol L. Douglas
Before you start blogging, make sure you have a Facebook business page, separate from your personal page. There are many differences, but the most important is that your business page is always public. It is meant to be a web listing. Spend a little time making sure it’s complete.

This should remain business-like. Keep your political opinions and agit-prop off your business page, unless your art or posts are overtly political. Invite your FB friends to ‘like’ this page; they’re the core of your following.

Also, make sure your email list is up-to-date.
Cut and paste this to each repost site.
Once your blog post is published, you’ll want to fashion a new ‘hook’, different from the tagline below the headline. You’ll use this and the link every time you repost, as in the illustration above.

Reading, by Carol L. Douglas, private collection.
I repost in this order:
  1. Share photos to Pinterest. This has the longest half-life of any social media site, it’s extremely easy to post to, and it has high viewership.
  2. Google+. Why add a social media platform that nobody reads? Because what you post on Google+ is indexed on Google.
  3. Twitter. Remember to manually add a photo to your text and link here.
  4. LinkedIn
  5. Facebook business page. From there, share back to your own personal page, as well as to any user groups in which you’re a member and who might be interested.

There are three other marketing channels for related, but not duplicate, material:
  1. Google My Business, if you have a brick-and-mortar location.
  2. Newsletter—I use it only to announce upcoming workshops, 2-6 times a year, but you should definitely use it to introduce your blog to your fans. Ask them to subscribe.
  3. Instagram—related content, 1-2 times daily.
Tom Sawyer's Fence, by Carol L. Douglas
Why hashtags? Those words are indexed by the social network and are searchable by other readers. If you click on a hashtag, you’ll be brought to a page that aggregates all posts with that tag.

All blog platforms have stats built into them. These tell you how many people are looking at your posts, which posts are the most popular, where your readers come from, and how they’re looking at your blog. Make a habit of looking at it regularly.

Regular readers of this blog know it ran under a newspaper’s aegis for about 18 months. My readership dropped during that time, so I consulted Bob Bahr of Outdoor Painter. He told me that, everything else being equal, it’s always better to work under your own brand rather than someone else’s. My own experience showed that to be true.

This is the last of a three-part series on art blogging. Part one is here, and part two is here.

UPDATE: On October 8, Google announced it is discontinuing Google+ because of a massive data breach.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The nuts and bolts of social media: content

Want to write a successful art blog? Be brief, punchy, disciplined and focused.
Barnum Brook, by Carol L. Douglas. (Private collection) Your blog is primarily to promote your brand, so use your own photos when you can.
I used to post whenever I had a new painting or brilliant thought. That’s how most artists post, and it doesn’t work. To succeed, you must commit to writing on a regular basis. Twice a week is the bare minimum. I now blog five days a week, excluding major holidays.

When I tell people this, they sometimes object:
  • I can’t write fast enough to do that;
  • I don’t want the internet taking over my life;
  • That sounds like too much work.

This blog takes me 90 minutes a day. I do it before I get out of bed. Unless I’m doing bookkeeping or marketing, I seldom open my laptop again for the rest of the day.

I can only do that because I keep a list of future topics on my laptop. I almost always go to bed at night knowing what the subject will be the next day.

A blog post should tell a story. Consider this post about Crista Pisano’s dead battery. Not much happened in absolute terms, but it ended up being a powerful story about women helping each other.

If you’re literate, you can blog. But some people hate to write. They should consider Instagram instead. My Instagram feed is the back story to my paintings. I use it to post the funny or charming things that happen on the way to a painting.

Be brief. Today more than half my readers read my blog on their phones, rather than on a computer. Brevity and punch are more important than ever before. If you have a lot to say on a subject, as I do here, write it over multiple days.

The most important part of the post is the headline and the tagline that follows it. I write these after the post is finished. Use important keywords here, because this is what search engines will see.

I try to cover the basics of a story as taught by my high-school journalism teacher: who, what, why, where, when and how. But other elements of ‘good’ writing go by the wayside—there’s no introductory paragraph and no closing paragraph.

After I’ve written my post, I edit viciously to bring it in under 600 words.

You’re using your blog to promote your own brand. This is a great opportunity to use your own photos. Even so, if your work is in a gallery, be sure to link to it in the caption.

Below Ottawa House, by Carol L. Douglas, courtesy Kelpie Gallery.
If you’re using another person’s photo, obtain their consent in advance and credit them for the picture. Do not, under any circumstances, use uncredited images from the internet. That violates copyright law.

You can use work in the public domain, including artwork owned by museums who make that work available to the public. However, even if a painting is exempt from copyright law, the photo of the painting may be owned by someone. Wikipedia gives instructions for crediting pictures. In the case of a museum, credit the organization.

The Fair Use exemption allows reproduction to comment upon, criticize, or parody a copyrighted work. I use photos of others’ work under this exemption when I write about art history or contemporary art. Go carefully; Jeff Koons has gotten in trouble repeatedly for stomping on others’ copyright. Consult an intellectual-property lawyer if you have questions.

Several people at Maine International Conference on the Arts (MICA) asked me for more detailed information on marketing on social media. This is part two of a series on the subject. 


Part three: Getting readers

Feel free to comment or ask me questions, below.