Paint Schoodic

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Thursday, January 14, 2021

The brushes you really need

You don’t need to spend a fortune to paint.

Channel Marker, 9X12, oil on canvas, available.

OILS and ACRYLICS

Expensive brushes are not the place to throw money for the beginning oil or acrylic painter—good quality paints are far more important. Still, brushes do change how the paint sits, and you need proper tools.

For alla prima painting in oils, you want long-handled hog-bristle brushes. They are less expensive than softer hairs like sable. I like Princeton 9700 series and Robert Simmons Signet hog bristle brushes.

Princeton also makes synthetic brushes that are good value for money—the 6300 series. Anything softer really isn’t appropriate for alla prima painting in oils. Acrylic paints will tolerate a little more flexibility, but avoid anything labeled for both watercolor and acrylic—they’re too soft. Princeton has a good chart of fiber stiffness, here.

Home Port, oil on canvas, available.

An assortment of rounds and filberts, a few large flats and an optional fan brush should suffice. More than a handful is overkill. Most workhorse alla prima painting happens between sizes #6 and #12, with a few smaller brushes for detail work, and larger brushes for bigger canvases.

If you like painting itsy-bitsy lines, invest in a rigger and a #1 round. I get more mileage out of spalter brushes, which are large, inexpensive flats for covering lots of area fast. I also keep a few soft sable brushes for glazing and blending.

Parrsboro Sunrise, 11X14, oil on canvasboard, available.

Bristle brushes tend to form a flag (a v-shaped split) at the end over time. If the brush is made properly, with good interlocking bristles, it will have a natural resistance to fraying. However, oil and acrylic brushes can’t tolerate letting paint dry into them, or being left standing on their bristles in solvent. You can wash brushes with Murphy’s Oil Soap, saddle soap (nice), specialty brush soaps, Fels Naptha, or even shampoo or detergent in a crunch. The important thing is that you do it promptly, before your paint has a chance to set up.

First, remove the solids by swishing them around in solvent. Then, put soap on a rag and work it into the bristles from the ferrule down to the bristles’ end. Be sure you’re washing the inside bristles, not just the surface. Repeat until the suds run clean. Shake excess water out, shape the brush slightly with your hand, and let it air dry.

Sometimes it rains, oil on canvasboard, available.
WATERCOLOR

Brushes are far more important in watercolor. I like Rosemary & Co. but they are very expensive. I recommend Princeton Neptune brushes for new painters. A ½” flat, a 1” wash brush, a #6 quill and a #8 round will get you started. If you’re going to invest in a mop, squirrel is better than synthetic. A set of short synthetic flats (or mottlers, as they’re sometimes called) in ¾”, 1” and 1½” will round out your collection.

Riggers and liners are tiny brushes for making very fine lines. They’re more useful in watercolor than they are in oils, in my experience. I buy the cheapest ones I can find because I’m always wrecking their points.

Lastly, you should have a scrubber to take out mistakes. You can buy them purpose-built, or you can just use an old hog-bristle brush.

Never leave your brushes standing in water, even as you work. Cleaning watercolor brushes is far easier than cleaning oil brushes. Hold them under the tap and let the pigment wash off with the flow of the water. I have never washed my brushes with soap, but if you find your synthetic brushes have stained, you can use a small amount of bar soap on them. Squeeze the water out and reshape the heads. That’s all there is to it.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Why don’t I teach private lessons?

You only hear what you are ready to hear. That takes time.

Bracken Fern, oil on canvas, available through Maine Farmland Trust Gallery.

I get frequent requests for private instruction. After all, if group lessons are helpful, wouldn’t private lessons be even better? Absolutely not.

I’ve taken harpsichord, voice and piano lessons. There are many similarities between studying music and painting. In either discipline, instruction time actually plays a small part in the student’s development. Most learning happens during practice, as the student masters what he or she has been shown.

On the other hand, there are significant differences. Painting class is not nearly as noisy, for one thing, so we teachers don’t have to try to sort out each player from the cacophony. We don’t demonstrate the minutiae of fingering or sound production, or concentrate on every note, phrase and fingering. There are aspects of music-making that are intensely detailed and physical. Painting in general avoids that.

Blueberry barrens, Clary Hill, oil on canvas, available through Maine Farmland Trust Gallery.

Instead, a good painting class is an ensemble of well-matched peers. They build on each other’s questions, suggestions, successes and failures. They ask questions that are pertinent to everyone. They borrow ideas from each other. My students often have insights that elude me, and I trust them enough to occasionally say, “I don’t know the answer.” I’ve frequently said I learn as much from my students as they do from me.

I have students who drift in and out of my classes and workshops over years. That’s a good thing; it means they’ve taken ownership of their own learning process. Last summer, one of them asked, “Where do I go when I’m done studying with you?”

The truth, to be brutally honest, is: nowhere. And everywhere.

Blueberry barrens, Clary Hill, watercolor, available through Maine Farmland Trust Gallery.

There are people who flit from teacher to teacher, workshop to workshop. They’re looking for a silver bullet that will circumvent the learning process for them. What they don’t realize is that most painting teachers are saying—more or less—exactly the same thing. The ones who aren’t, are selling a gimmick.

Nothing about painting is particularly revolutionary. The basic process is thousands of years old. Yes, it’s been refined, and a good teacher ought to be able to elucidate how it’s changed and why. But paint still gets attached to paper and canvas in a specific way.

Sea Fog, oil on canvas, available through Folly Cove Fine Art.

There are degrees of competence in painting teachers. If your teacher can’t articulate his process or doesn’t know color theory or art history, consider finding someone else. But beyond that, what we’re teaching is pretty similar. It ought to be.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy, or that you can take lessons for a year and nail it. For most of us, learning to paint at a high level of competence takes years. The lessons are deceptively simple. The teacher lays out the same information over and over, but the student is only capable of hearing what he’s ready to hear.

Good teachers repeat things—often—and watch and listen to see who’s getting it and who isn’t. Suddenly, there’s an insight somewhere in the room. When that moment happens, it’s an epiphany for everyone in the class. Everyone leaps forward; everyone benefits. No individual lesson can give you that.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Monday Morning Art School: scaling up a painting

It may seem time-consuming, but with big paintings it saves a lot of work in the long run.

My watercolor sketch. It's gridded on a piece of plexiglass laid over the drawing.

On Friday I wrote about losing my painting reference and going to great lengths to find substitutes. The human mind being so fickle, writing that post made me suddenly realize what and where my original reference was. I came downstairs to my studio convinced that I would wipe out the interloping boats and go back to my original drawing.

I drew the mast positions in with charcoal and a straight-edge before starting to paint. That way their angle will match my sketch.

However, when I looked at the canvas again, I realized it wasn’t that bad. Different from my original intent, certainly, but not bad. I walked the dog and pondered. By the time I was home again, I’d determined that I should just paint both iterations. It was possible to differentiate them enough to make two different works out of them, both speaking to the flying sensation of sailing.

That meant gridding up a second version. This time I decided to go with the original aspect ratio of the sketch, rather than cropping it. I liked the yawl I’d truncated the first time around.

Straight lines, curves--it doesn't matter. Just find the point at which they intersect the grid, mark those points, and work from there. I usually do this in monochrome but since I was working from a watercolor sketch, I just massed color.

I have a projector, but I find that gridding is more accurate and takes less time. Knowing how to do it is imperative for large projects, but it can be surprisingly useful in small paintings, too. Whenever you have trouble going from your thumbnail to the canvas, gridding is your go-to answer.

Boats v.2, laid out 24X36 in just a few hours. Later today I can actually paint them.

I realize many artists are math-phobic, but there are times when a bit of arithmetic can save you a world of pain.

First, work out whether the aspect ratio of your sketch is the same as the canvas. This is the proportional relationship between height and width. Sometimes this is very obvious, such as a 9X12 sketch being the same aspect ratio as an 18X24 canvas. But sometimes, you're starting with a peculiar little sketch drawn on the back of an envelope. You can use a trick you learned back in elementary school.

Remember learning that 1/2 was the same as 2/4? We want to force our sketch into a similar equivalent ratio with our canvas.

Let’s assume that you’ve cropped your sketch to be 8” across. You want to know how tall your crop should be to match your canvas.

Write out the ratios of height to width as above.

To make them equivalent, you cross-multiply the two fixed numbers, and divide by the other fixed number, as below:

Use your common sense here. If it doesn't look like they should be equal, you probably made a mistake. And you can work from a known height as easily as from a known width; it doesn't matter if the variable is on the top or the bottom, the principle is the same.

The next step is to grid both the canvas and sketch equally. In my painting above, my grid was an inch square on the sketch and 4" square on the canvas, but as long as you end up with the same number of squares on both, the actual measurements don't matter. You can just keep dividing the squares until you get a grid that's small enough to be useful. For a small painting, that could be as simple as quartering the sketch and the canvas. I use a T-square and charcoal, and I’m not crazy about the lines being perfect; I adjust constantly as I go.

The last step is to transfer the little drawing, square by square to the larger canvas. I generally do this in a dark neutral of burnt sienna and ultramarine. On Friday, however, since I’d already done a grisaille and a watercolor sketch of the subject, I just transferred large blocks of color. It may seem time-consuming, but with big paintings it saves a lot of work in the long run.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Some days I hate learning experiences

Painting boats is a great metaphor for life. The wind in your sails is the easy part. It's the rigging that's ticklish.

Breaking storm, 48X30, oil on canvas, available through Folly Cove Fine Art.


There are 47,000 photos on this laptop, another 41,000 on our server, and thousands more on my phone. (There is, of course, significant overlap). They’re in folders titled by seasons or events—except for images of paintings, which I store by the year they were completed. The problem is that I’m more likely to remember the curve of a taffrail than where or when I saw it.

Last autumn I did a watercolor sketch for a boat painting. I got as far as laying it out on canvas and then got derailed. I just got back to it this week and I had no recollection of what reference photo (if any) I’d used. There’s a low-res collage called Boats on my thumb drive. That’s a terrible name, since I have almost 400 other pictures with similar names. I looked at them all. No luck.

Sunset Sail, oil on canvas, available through Folly Cove Fine Art.

The shore in my sketch looks like the Camden Hills. Did I use a photo from the Camden Classics Cup regatta? Howard Gallagher and the late Lee Boynton and I once watched the start from Howard’s boat, but if I have any photos I no longer know where they are.

Let this be a lesson to me and everyone else—when you decide to paint from a photo, put it somewhere you can find it later.

I searched online and found a delightful Cornish sloop and a couple of beautiful Camden Class daysailors. I roughed them in and sat back to look. I’d just realized the scale was all wrong when Ann Trainor Domingue stopped by.

“Does it matter?” she asked. If you know Annie’s work (which is terrific) you’ll understand why she questioned that. But to me it mattered.

I can paint the sails of most fore-and-aft rigged vessels in my sleep. They feel as natural as the wind to me. But when it comes to attaching them to a hull, I must be careful. Placing the cabins, the masts, and the sheets properly is ticklish.

It’s a great metaphor for life. The wind is the easy part.

The trouble with combining reference photos of boats is that the wind, the light, the angle and the scale all must be roughly the same. For my painting to work, the different boats’ sails can’t exactly mimic each other. However, boats running in the same wind tend to be trimmed the same way. I debated how much license I wanted to take.

I ran this past my pal Bobbi Heath, who not only paints boats, but also sails. She, in turn, ran it past her husband. He thought my gaff-rigged cutter might plausibly be jibing at the same time as the sloop was running downwind.

“We may be overthinking this,” Bobbi added. I wasn’t worried; Bobbi and I do some of our best work while overthinking things. Still, I was unhappy. My painting had developed a patina of historical drama, and that wasn’t what I wanted at all. I was trying to paint sheer larkiness.

Rising Tide at Wadsworth Cove, 12x16, oil on canvasboard by Carol L. Douglas. Stimulus sale price, $675 (regularly $895 unframed)

Last February, Ann Domingue and I planned a workshop called Uncovering Your Mark, which was a guided exercise to help artists get to the heart of their own work. She planned to teach it in my studio here in Maine in June. With the pandemic, she offered it online as a Zoom class.

I had expected to learn something about how I might change my work. Instead, I realized I was painting exactly what I’m supposed to be painting right now. She couldn't have given me a greater gift.

Stormy Weather, 16X20, oil on canvas by Carol L. Douglas. Stimulus sale price $1000 (regularly $1400 unframed)

The brilliant thing about art is that neither Ann’s approach nor mine is ‘right’. We’re each saying different things in our paintings, speaking to different audiences. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Thinking about that, something clicked and I remembered where the photo that inspired my sketch was filed—under Eggemoggin Reach Regatta. The human mind is inscrutable, isn't it?

If I don’t have the exact boats, I certainly have the right wind. Today I can scrape out my flailings and paint it properly. At times, art can be a cruel taskmaster, but if you're patient you will get there.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Five ways to spend your stimulus check

It’s meant to be an economic stimulus, not life-support.

The Dooryard, 11X14, oil, by Carol L. Douglas. Stimulus sale price, $550 (regularly $735 unframed)

Whether or not you wanted it, the government recently put $600 (or more, or less) in your checking account. It’s meant to stimulate the American economy, but I’m not sure how much is helped by our usual purchasing patterns. After all, much of what we buy at big box stores is made overseas. Assuming you don’t need the money to pay the rent, how can you spend it to benefit your neighbors as well as you?

Invest in your health. Sadly, $600 won’t buy a tummy-tuck, but it will pay for exercise classes or a gym membership. It could also buy physical therapy for that persistent pain, or a round of preventative dental cleanings. How about good winter gear from Maine's own LL Bean so you can exercise comfortably in the winter? The person who said “there’s no bad weather, just bad gear” is an idiot, but warm boots do help. 

Fallow Field, 12X16, oil, by Carol L. Douglas. Stimulus sale price, $675 (regularly $895 unframed)

Don’t forget mental health. I’m from New York, where all the best people have had therapy. It’s not cheap, but it can exorcise the demons that keep tripping you up.

We're all suffering from disconnection these days. More data on your phone plan or a fiber-optic internet service provider can mean better connections with others. If your technology can’t keep up with modern communications, update them.

Jack Pine, 8X10, oil, by Carol L. Douglas. Stimulus sale price, $315 (regularly $420 unframed)

Buy art. I’m not talking just paintings here, although that’s a great idea. Instead of replacing the next item on your list with something utilitarian, why not buy something beautiful instead? Consider handmade jewelry, hand-dyed textiles, or a handcrafted table instead of yet another particle-board whatsit from a big box store. (As a dedicated green, I’m a firm believer in good used furniture.)

This is not just about making work for a starving artisan, or even about indulging yourself. If carefully selected, art can yield better long-term gains than the stock market. Not only will you enjoy handling and seeing the object every day, your heirs may thank you after you’re gone.

A caution—there’s a world of difference between ‘collectibles’ and art objects. If you don’t understand the difference, find a competent gallerist to help you.

Winch, 12X16, oil, by Carol L. Douglas. Stimulus sale price, $675 (regularly $895 unframed)

Learn something new (take a workshop or class). There’s been an explosion in on-line learning because of COVID. Why not use your spare time to learn to sing, do Pilates, or paint? You can find classes on almost anything. (Sadly, my own Zoom painting classes are currently waitlisted.)

Or, sign up for a workshop in the summer. I’ve got four on the docket for next year—Sea & Sky at Schoodic, Pecos, and two watercolor workshops aboard schooner American Eagle.

If you’d rather figure it out yourself, acquire the tools you need. One of my painting students has been buying router bits; he’s teaching himself to make frames. Get a guitar or a good used piano and make some music.

And there are always books, which were the original door to shared knowledge.

The Whole Enchilada, 12X16, oil, by Carol L. Douglas. Stimulus sale price, $675 (regularly $895 unframed)

Buy a tree. I’m a pretty cheap person, so my idea of planting a tree has always been to dig up a sapling, transplant it, and wait for it to grow. The older I get, of course, the less practical that approach is.

All of us could use more beauty in this world, and our local garden center is a great place to find it. I’m seriously thinking of yanking those overgrown, dormant shrubs this winter and replacing them with something pretty in pink.

Donate to a charity. There is always need right in our own communities, especially in this pandemic year. Mainers can consider Maine Community Foundation. In Rochester, I like Gerhardt Neighborhood Outreach Center. I’m sure there’s an organization in your town that could use help.