Paint Schoodic

We're offering four workshops for 2020, at Acadia National Park, Pecos, NM, Tallahassee, FL, and aboard the schooner American Eagle.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Monday Morning Art School: nullification

Don't fuss endlessly with passages you’ve already laid down. This sucks all the life out of your painting.

Blueberry barrens, Clary Hill, oil on canvas by Carol L. Douglas. Available through Maine Farmland Trust Gallery, contact Karen Giles

“Don’t nullify,” wrote watercolorist Stewart White. “Know the mark you want to make before you make it. And once it’s made, don’t try to erase it; it just gets muddy otherwise. Watercolor reveals everything.”

That’s excellent advice. Nullification is bad in every medium, not just watercolor. It leads to weak painting.

By nullification, I don’t mean just scrubbing or wiping out. I also mean repeated overpainting and reworking of the same passages.

Blueberry barrens, Clary Hill, watercolor by Carol L. Douglas. Available through Maine Farmland Trust Gallery, contact Karen Giles.

Francis Bacon scrubbed intentionally, using the technique to depersonalize his portraits. You could say he’s the exception that proves the rule, since his technique points out how badly we view nullification.

In most cases, painters nullify because:

  • They haven’t planned sufficiently, or
  • They don’t like their brushwork.

Process protects us from the need to nullify. By working out errors in a study phase, you avoid splashing them out on a big canvas. But even the most carefully-conceived paintings will have errors. Unless it’s a real whopper, just leave it. The human mind loves mysteries, and what happens between you and your paint is sometimes the greatest mystery of all.

Clark Island Rocks, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas, available through Carol L. Douglas Gallery, 394 Commercial Street, Rockport, ME.

Yes, you can lift watercolor with a scrubber, but it leaves an unpleasant softness in the paper. (Frank Costantino reminded me recently that scrubbing works better on hot-press paper.) In oils, you have more leeway: you can scrape with a palette knife and then wipe off the residue with a cloth. But even so, any alterations in alla prima painting will result in softening the line and contrast.

Nullification is not to be confused with the subtle modifications we do at the end of a painting. That’s often where real artistry comes in, in the heightening of contrast or subduing of less-important passages. One of the reasons I hate hearing students tell each other, “not another brushstroke!” is that it doesn’t respect these critical, end-of-the-painting choices.

But painters do sometimes endlessly fuss with passages they’ve already laid down. This sucks all the life out of their painting. Sometimes we do it because we haven’t got the color right, and we want to modulate it. If the value is right but the hue is wrong, it’s probably best to just leave it alone.

Bracken Ferns, oil on canvas by Carol L. Douglas, available through Carol L. Douglas Gallery, 394 Commercial Street, Rockport, ME.

Just as often, painters nullify because they don’t like their brushwork. The basic requirements for good brushwork are as follows:

  • You’re using decent brushes (that doesn’t mean expensive);
  • You’ve amply experimented with all the directions your brush can travel and the ways it can make lines;
  • You know how to properly marry edges where appropriate;
  • You can draw with a brush as easily as with a pencil;
  • You’re not dabbing or poking dots with the point of your brush;
  • You can make both long and short strokes.

Brushwork is as unique as handwriting. If you can do the things noted above, the problem may be that you just don’t recognize the good qualities in your own brushwork. In that case, “not another brushstroke” is actually appropriate. You need to give yourself time to become accustomed to your own mark-making before you can see its beauty.

Your assignment this week is to do a small painted study that takes you less than one hour. The subject is immaterial. Then, set it aside for two weeks. After that, I want you to look at it and analyze it against the requirements for brushwork above. And ask yourself, do you like it better than you did the moment you finished it? If yes, then learn to embrace your own brushwork. If no, then figure out why.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Volunteering is a trap for professional women

The hours I’ve wasted being a ‘helper’ represent many, many paintings that will never get finished.

Drying towels, by Carol L. Douglas

I was raised in the second wave of feminism, during the so-called “women’s lib” movement. My mother succeeded in her career while still raising six kids and volunteering. Her secret? “You can have it all” meant, “you can do it all.”

She eventually stopped volunteering at a public health clinic when she learned the doctors (then male) were being paid; the nurses (then all women) were working for free. It took a lot for her to turn her back on people in desperate need. But our society trains women to be helpers and then takes advantage of that.

I have higher hopes for my daughters. Laura, age 31, counseled me against volunteering last summer. I wish I’d listened. She’s a software engineer and she regularly refuses ‘office housekeeping’ tasks at work. She’s not heartless; she’s just picky about what she’s willing to do. She volunteers, but not in her profession.

Little Giant, by Carol L. Douglas

Women don’t volunteer because they are inherently more altruistic. They do so, a recent study suggests, because they’re taught from a young age to offer to help. That long silence waiting for a hand to be raised is just quiet for men; it’s a demand and rebuke to women.

Taking on these tasks blunts women’s careers. While women dutifully serve on committees, men do critical research or paint brilliant paintings. That has far-reaching consequences. I can’t blame anyone but myself for the hours I’ve wasted being a ‘helper,’ but they represent many, many paintings that will never get finished.

A lobster pound at Tenant's Harbor, by Carol L. Douglas

Meanwhile, I fight a constant battle between work and the artist’s need for rest and solitude. It’s a delicate balance, and few artists ever get it right. Most start off working another job to be able to afford to paint. Most of my professional artist friends are childless, and for good reason.

My friend Jane Bartlett regularly points out when I’m sliding over the ‘too much work’ line. A great friend manages to make these observations while still making you feel good about yourself. If you want to give, be like Jane: give directly to your peers by being supportive, incisive and kind. I wouldn’t be where I am today without friends like her, and I hope I’m paying that forward.

Headlamps, by Carol L. Douglas

“Artists have to be super careful that they're not enriching everyone else with their work,” a fellow artist remarked about pricing paintings. I think of that every time I buy art supplies. Art supply stores are an $843.1-million-a-year industry, and they didn’t get that way by selling just necessities.

But she was talking about the pernicious practice of asking artists for donations. Every time a non-profit asks you to donate work, you’re paying other people’s salaries. Their staff doesn’t work for nothing, and neither should you. And your donation is not tax-deductible, either.

It’s unlikely that your donation will do anything to advance your career, so donate a painting only if you’d have written them a check anyway. And save your real efforts for promoting your work yourself.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

An impossible bind

We’ve made the working parent the norm in American society, and now we’re making it impossible for them to work.

Best Buds, by Carol L. Douglas. Oil on canvasboard.

Ken DeWaard and I went down to Cape Elizabeth last weekend to paint. It’s the end of peony season here in Maine and the property has spectacular sprawling gardens. This is the last season it will be stewarded by Meghan Wakefield. The new stewards may well be wonderful, but they will create different poetic moments.

I shot a few Facebook videos, which reveal what artists talk about when engaged in painting: nothing of consequence.

I have three daughters and a son; Ken and his wife have three sons and a daughter. His oldest is a year younger than my youngest. I enjoy hearing about what his kids are doing. It reminds me how difficult those years are.

Daddy's Little Helper, by Carol L. Douglas. Oil on linen.

Two of my grandchildren are here this week so their parents can work. They are 4 and 5 and live on a dirt road in the western Berkshires, where they have no near neighbors. Since they have to quarantine while here, they’re starved for normal human contact. There are no casual stops at the Post Office to say hello to Steve and Ann Marie. We can’t run in to Renys or Home Depot. Very little gets done unless I’m willing to park them in front of a screen, which I’m not.

Children—even those not in quarantine—have no sense of personal hygiene or personal distancing. Recommendations are that they not go to stores or public places. That leaves them very much alone.

During the pandemic of 1918, the average American household had about 4.5 people in it. Today, that’s about 2.5 people. My two are lonely and bored, and they have each other.

Baby Monkey, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard. 

My friend Kelly cares for her granddaughter, an only child. The girl misses her friends dreadfully. No amount of computer time can offset the loss of simple play and connection in a 7-year-old social butterfly’s life.

I’ve read various proposals to allow schools to reopen in the fall. These include lots and lots of washing, plastic sheeting to separate the children, and kids attending part time. In one district, the worst-performing distance learners will spend the most time in school. That’s understandable, but it effectively penalizes those kids who’ve worked the hardest.

The New York Post reports that the nation’s largest school district is considering alternate weeks of in-school and online learning, sending kids to school on certain days of the week, or continuing full online instruction. Returning as normal in the fall isn’t even being suggested.

More than 126,000 Americans have died with Covid-19, but only about a dozen were school-age children. Meanwhile, each year about 1,700 children die in the United States from abuse or neglect. Who are the people tasked to watch for signs of child abuse? Most commonly, their teachers. That won’t happen when kids aren’t in school.

They're painting some wonderful things in Grandma's studio, but the floor may never be the same.

The 20th century model of the nuclear family—mom stays home, dad works, kids go to school—is obsolete. The US has the world’s highest rate of single-parent households—almost a quarter of all kids, compared to about 7% worldwide. Those parents lucky enough to be married are often both working to be able to afford to run a household. Very few people can afford nannies, and child-care is not designed for school-age kids. Needless to say, this social model can’t possibly stand the strain of these children being home year-round.

The ancient Levant’s deities, rivals to the God of the Hebrews, are known collectively as the Baalim. Their contemporary critics complained that they required the sacrifice of children. (The story of Abraham and Isaac is, on one level, a cautionary tale against the practice.) We have to be very careful lest we fall into the same trap.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Monday Morning Art School: know what you’re doing

If you don’t have technique, nobody’s going to notice your emotional content.

Boating, 1874, by Édouard Manet, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s beautifully composed, serene and yet energetic.

In one of my classes, an advanced student (who has probably won more awards than me) asked why I focus on systematic painting. “What about emotion and feeling?” she asked.

Oddly enough, for all that we’re social beings, our souls are insulated. We are born alone, and we die alone. At times in between, the lucky among us carry on conversations with each other or with God. But our emotional intelligence is very personal and private. We can share it if we choose to, but I doubt others can influence it. The best we can do is encourage others to be moral and empathetic.

Self Portrait at 28, 1500, by Albrecht Dürer, courtesy the Alte Pinakothek. Is it possible to have a crush on a man who’s been dead for 500 years?

That doesn’t mean I can’t teach students to see and recognize beauty. This is why I often have my students look at and learn to analyze great paintings. I’m a firm believer in the non-linear, associative, synthetic mind, and our sympathetic intelligence. “Think with your gut” is not just an expression. If you’ve ever been truly terrified, you know that only a small part of you is controlled by your rational mind. Beneath that, we run on very primitive lines. The interchange between that and our rational minds is what drives creative expression.

The Census at Bethlehem, 1566, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, courtesy Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium. I love how Brueghel always pushes the main action into a corner. Just like life.

But art—no less so than mathematics—is an intellectual discipline. Most great painters approach the problem in the same way: they make design decisions, color decisions, and lay their paint down in the prescribed manner handed down to us over centuries.

Why do they do that? Because it works.

Late Afternoon, Monhegan Island, by Rockwell Kent, courtesy Jamie and Phyllis Wyeth Collection. It's always a toss-up between Lawren Harris and Kent. The light is spectacular, the colors are the essence of sunset.

System is liberating. If you doubt that, consider the last time you flailed around trying to make a picture and ended up with mush. It happened because you either forgot what you were doing or changed your mind in mid-painting.

I used to write music. It sometimes shocks me to sit down at the piano and realize I no longer can run through chord progressions automatically. How did I ever learn that? By learning lots of music by rote. I read it, I regurgitated it, and occasionally, I managed to be lyrical with it. Now that I’ve forgotten it all, I can’t express any emotion through the keyboard.

Moonrise, 1894, by David Davies, courtesy National Gallery of Victoria. It’s simple, austere and powerful.

On the other hand, I’ve painted more than a thousand paintings. Occasionally I surprise myself by being brutally honest, as I was with The Dooryard, painted last week. Its emotional kick wasn’t conscious but it comes from a deep and real place: that’s my darkened bedroom window.

I don’t have to ask myself, “can I do this?” I know the process and I approach a painting the same way every time. Knowing the limits means I know where I can push. I can rise above the technical issues to occasional lyricism.

Haymaking (Les Foins), 1877, Jules Bastien-LePage, courtesy Musée d'Orsay. Exhaustion is something I understand intimately, and he has expressed it so poignantly.

Does that get stale? Of course not. There is enough mystery in painting to keep me working until I die. Recently, Colin Page told me he was studying John Singer Sargent boat watercolors. Colin certainly knows how to paint, and he has a process that works. But that doesn’t mean he’s stopped searching.

Your assignment is to identify your current five favorite paintings and tell me why you love them. Since I’ve demanded that of you, I gave you mine as illustrations for this post. Don’t get too excited. The list might change tomorrow.

Friday, June 26, 2020

How much is that painting worth?

For some artists, the hardest thing in painting isn’t drawing or color-mixing but how to price their work.

The Dooryard, 11x14, oil on birch panel, is available through Parrsboro Creative's PIPAF in Isolation, here. Don't panic; the prices are in Canadian dollars.

A student has someone interested in one of his paintings. “How do I know how much to charge?” he asked. That’s a difficult question in normal times and an impossible one right now.

A British study says that the arts are being hit twice as hard as the overall economy. Meanwhile, other sectors of the economy are booming. The stock market rebounded quickly. Housing remains a seller’s market, with demand outstripping supply.

Nobody knows how this will affect painting sales, least of all me.

A proper price is the meeting point between how much you can produce of the product and how much demand there is for it. If you can’t keep your paintings stocked, you’re charging too little. If your studio is full of unsold work, you’re either charging too much or not putting enough effort into marketing.

Summer Home, 11x14, oil on birch panel, is available through Parrsboro Creative's PIPAF in Isolation, here

Art sales are regional. If you live in a community with an aging population and a prestigious art school, you’re going to have low demand and high supply. If you live in a booming new city, you will have more demand and prices will be higher.

A painting’s value depends on the artist’s prominence. Most artists are terrible judges of their own work, seesawing between believing they’re geniuses and thinking they’re hopeless. Such subjective judgments hinder their ability to price their work.

You can simplify the problem by setting aside your emotions and basing your selling price on your selling history. How do you do that if you’ve never sold anything before? Survey other artists with the same level of experience and set your first prices in line with theirs. Visit galleries, plein air events and art fairs. If you see a person whose work seems similar to yours, find his resume online and check his experience. Know enough to be able to rank events. Painting in Plein Air Easton is not the same as painting your local Paint the Town.

Charitable auctions are a good way to leverage your talent to help others. They provide a sales history to new artists. (But they aren’t tax deductible contributions.)

Six Bucks a Pound, 12x16, oil on panel, is available through Parrsboro Creative's PIPAF in Isolation, here

Let’s say you gave an 8x10 watercolor to your local historical society, which turned around and sold it for $100. Great! You have a sales history (albeit a limited and imperfect one) from which to calculate prices. Just figure out the value per square inch and calculate from there.

Square inch is the height times the width. That means your 8x10 painting is 80 square inches. Dividing the $100 selling price by 80 gives you a value of $1.25/square inch.

To use this to calculate other sizes, you would end up with:

6x8 is 48 square inches. 48 x $1.25 = $60
9x12: $135
11x14: $240
12x16: $315

In practice, my price/sq. inch gets lower the larger I go. This reflects my working and marketing costs, some of which are fixed. If you started with my example, above, a 3x4” painting would more reasonably sell for $3 a square inch or $36, and a 48x48” painting for $.75 a square inch, or $1700.

Fogged in, 8x10, oil on birch panel, is available through Parrsboro Creative's PIPAF in Isolation, but it's not on the website. Contact them directly if you're interested.

Charity sales are known for seriously underpricing work, but it’s better to start low and work your way higher. Periodically review your prices, and make sure you have a copy with you at all times.

Once you have a price guide, it should be absolute. Adjust it fractionally for family members (or just give them the painting), but use the same prices everywhere you sell.

Once you've created a price list, keep it handy and updated.

Continuously update your prices based on your average sale prices for the prior year or two. The goal of every artist ought to be to sell at steadily rising prices. When you find yourself “painting on a treadmill” to have enough work for your next show, it’s definitely time to charge more.

And don't explain your prices. Does anyone ever tell Christian Louboutin that $1695 is a ridiculous price for a pair of mesh ankle boots? No; they either understand Louboutin’s market or they don’t buy designer shoes.

Parrsboro Creative’s PIPAF in Isolation is online! Vote for your favorites here.