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Friday, October 15, 2021

Carry on!

You can’t always force yourself out of a difficult mood. However, that’s no excuse to not paint.

Fernald's Neck, 9x12, oil on loose linen, available. When Ken Dewaard and I painted here last year, it was in a biting wind and with snowflakes. This week has been warm and sunny.

My painting pals Eric Jacobsen and Ken DeWaard have been at Cape Ann Plein Air, where they bagged a bouquet of prizes. Eric took Second Prize and Ken won Best Nocturne and the Artist’s Choice/Greg LaRock Legacy Award. Greg passed away unexpectedly last year. “As much as it was a huge honor to win this, it was the most difficult award I’ve ever had to accept,” said Ken.

Those prizes are a tremendous honor for my friends, but also for wee little Knox County, Maine, population fewer than 40,000. Of course, about half of these are artists. You can’t throw a cat here without hitting a painter. It’s an exhilarating milieu to live and work in. We learn from and influence each other. Thus are ‘schools’ of painting created.

Eric Jacobsen with his prizewinning painting.

As lovely as it was to have Ken and Eric gone, they were bound to come back sooner or later. With our various schedules, I haven’t painted with either of them in quite a while. This was a good week to rectify that, as the fall color is blazing and the light is clear and sweet. Of course, I can’t suddenly transform into a happy person on demand; I’ve been brooding after the death of my friend Helen.

On Wednesday, Ken and a few other friends and I painted together. I painted a contre-jure landscape I’d had my eye on. I have no idea if it’s good or bad, because I haven’t even taken it out of its carrier.

I am a creature of process and routine. It both saves and exasperates me. “I should ask my boss for bereavement leave,” I told myself, and cackled. I’m self-employed and have built a life of tightly pressing commitments. It’s easier to carry through than to try to reschedule them.

You can’t always force yourself out of a difficult mood. However, that’s no excuse to not paint.

Ken DeWaard's body of work for Cape Ann Plein Air.

Furthermore, there’s never a guarantee that what you paint will be good. That’s also no excuse. Anyone who paints in a disciplined manner will know there are periods when the well runs dry. There’s nothing to do but work through them. That’s one reason our studios are littered with unfinished paintings, false starts and bad ideas. It’s also why paintings are so darned expensive. You’re not just paying for that gem you love, but for all the experiments and tries that are lying on my studio floor.

The Nazis have many great things to answer for. One small thing was their corruption of the phrase Arbeit macht frei, which they emblazoned, with hideous cynicism, on the gates of Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps. It means “work sets you free,” and it was a horrible thing to say to slave laborers you intended to kill.

However, the underlying idea is in fact true. The repetition and structure of work can be redemptive. It pulls your conscious mind away from your troubles. That lets your unconscious mind do its job, which is to process emotions.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

In memory of a former gangbanger

How can she be gone when there’s so much work still to be done?

Grain elevators, Buffalo, by Carol L. Douglas.

I can’t remember when or why I first met Helen McCombs, but I do remember who introduced us: Dr. Jennifer Kruschwitz. That a self-described former gangbanger would know an optics professor is surprising, but Helen was like that. She also called Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, John Fetterman, her friend.

Helen was excitable, easily angered, and wrote in the worst pidgin English. At the same time, she had a penetrating intelligence. She’d been coded as ‘learning disabled’ as a kid. It’s more likely that she was traumatized.

First Ward, Buffalo, by Carol L. Douglas.

“You really don’t think I’m stupid?” she’d often ask me.

“No, but I think whoever gave you that high school diploma really ripped you off,” I’d answer.

She took an entrance exam for community college and failed dismally. We hatched a remediation plan, starting with basic arithmetic. I gave her homework and she did it faithfully. She consumed western history voraciously. Her reading and writing skills improved with exposure to great literature.

You can’t work with someone that closely and not become good friends. Helen was a newly-hatched Christian, so we started reading the Bible together. Two chapters a night, week by week, month by month, year by year. Let God speak for himself, I reasoned.

And he did. Helen began to look at ghetto life in a different way. We had long discussions about anger and forgiveness, in particular. Swearing and yelling and getting mad was cultural, she told me. “No matter what you call it, it’s sin, and it’s self-destructive,” I’d counter.

North Rochester, by Carol L. Douglas

Go ahead and accuse me of cultural imperialism. But if you’d listened to her agonize over the violence and loss in her daily life, you might feel differently. The blood feud is alive and well in inner-city America. It manifests itself in casual killings that have become so routine that we no longer even notice them.

My pal Cuevas Walker does. He ministers in Rochester, NY. Every few months, he’ll mention that he knew the victim of whatever homicide ticked up the numbers that day. It always brings me up short.

Even worse than not noticing is the idea that it’s no big deal if gangbangers all shoot each other. That’s terrifically judgmental. Each of them is invested with the same miraculous gift of life as you and me, and we don’t know what history brought them to that dismal end. (Also, gangbangers are constantly missing and hitting unintended targets, including my goddaughter’s family restaurant on Monday.)

Heart of Darkness, monotype, by Carol L. Douglas

For these communities, the message of forgiveness and reconciliation is the only hope. Everything else we’ve tried has failed.

In the last few years, the Holy Spirit began to move in Helen. Several months ago, her nephew-by-marriage died by tainted drugs. The community began to mobilize in its usual tiresome way, with accusations and recriminations that threatened to spill over into violence. In the past, Helen would have been the first to break a few heads. Instead, she counseled peace.

Helen died Monday, unexpectedly, alone, and way too young. How can she be gone, I thought, when there’s so much work still to be done? That is one of life’s unanswerable questions.

Monday, October 11, 2021

Monday Morning Art School: painting reflections

The ocean complicates matters by being bouncy, but it reflects light the same way as does glass or tinfoil.

Butter, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard. Even something as transparent as Saran Wrap will have reflections.

Reflections are a distortion of the surrounding environment. That’s true whether you’re painting them in water or from glassware in a still life. Managing them is mainly a question of observation.

Imagine an ocean that is perfectly flat, and that you can walk on water. Looking at your feet, you can see straight down into the water. It’s not reflecting anything. Looking at a rubber ducky floating ten feet away, you’re looking at the surface at about a 26° angle. You’ll see a reflection of the ducky, the sky, and a glimpse of what’s under the surface. As you look farther away, the angle gets smaller and smaller, and all you see is the reflected sky.

Hard Drive, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard.

Reflection involves two rays - an incoming (incident) ray and an outgoing (reflected) ray. Physics tells us that the angles are identical but on opposite sides of a tangent. This is why the reflection of a boat needs to be directly below the real object in your painting. You can add other colors into that area, but the reflection can’t be wider than the object it’s reflecting.

The reflection should be directly below the object. Don't let it grow wider.

Water is transparent, but it has a shiny surface. Some rays of light make it through and bounce back at us from the sea floor. Reflections in glass work the same way. You can see through the glass in the surface that’s facing you, but the curving sides reflect light from around the room. Because glass is imperfect, these reflections will be distorted.

The ocean complicates matters by being bouncy. Even on the calmest day, the surface of water is never perfectly flat; it’s wavy or worse, just like a fun-house mirror. Waves are a series of irregular curves. How they reflect light depends on what plane you’re seeing at that nano-second. It seems like the easiest thing to do is to capture it in a photo and paint from that, but what we see in photos is sometimes very different from what we perceive in life.

My quick watercolor of waves, done from the deck of American Eagle during our Age of Sail workshop

Instead, sit a moment with and watch how patterns seem to repeat. They’re never exactly the same, since waves are a stochastic process (think random but repeating). But they’re close enough to discern general patterns.

Solid objects can also trip you up in their reflections. Consider the humble spoon. It’s concave. That distorts its reflections. There’s no point in trying to predict what you might see; it’s best to just look. Likewise, a mirror only reflects straight back at you if you’re in front of it.

Tin foil hat, by Carol L. Douglas. Oil on canvasboard.

It’s always best to paint the reflections at the same time you’re doing the rest of the painting, rather than adding them as an afterthought. They’re a fundamental part of the design.

Only smooth surfaces reflect light coherently enough to make reflections. That’s why burlap has no reflections. Sometimes, when water is being wind-whipped, it doesn’t have reflections either. To paint such a sea, keep the contrast low.

Ottawa House, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard, available. The wind-whipped sea has very little contrast, but it does have texture.

Some people say that reflections should be lower in chroma than their objects, but I don’t think that’s true. Often, the ocean seems to concentrate color. Sometimes, the water will be lightest at the horizon; other days there will be a deep band there. However, the farther away, the more its colors shift toward blue-violet.

Friday, October 8, 2021

What constitutes a beginner painter?

I don’t want painting students to pass a test before they start with me; I just want them to be able to thread their metaphorical sewing machine on their own.

 Midsummer, 24x36, $3985 framed. In honor of Canadian Thanksgiving, which is Monday, let's feature paintings I've done in Canada.

As soon as I announced that I wasn’t taking beginners anymore, a number of my students expressed trepidation about continuing with me. “But I’m a beginner!” they said. In some cases, they’re right, but they’re already on the path to understanding painting. In other cases, they don’t have a clue how well they’re painting, and how much they’ve learned.

When I said ‘beginning painters,’ I meant people on their first date with a brush. They’re unclear on the materials and what they’re used for. They’ve never mixed paint or handled a brush. They’ve never heard or considered basic terms like hue, saturation or value.

Anyone who’s taken one of my classes is past this newbie-phase, by definition. And anyone who’s studied with another teacher or taught themselves with the aid of books or videos is unlikely to be a beginner, either.

Ottawa House, 16X20, oil on canvas, $2029 framed. All these paintings were done en plein air.

My friend and student Jennifer Johnson—who taught quilting for many years—says that she would have students in her classes with advanced design skills, and others who’d never threaded a sewing machine before. “Neither of these things are more important than the other,” she said. “But I spent 90% of my time rethreading the machine for the beginner.”

I’m trying to describe something analogous in paint. I don’t want painting students to pass a test before they start with me; I just want them to be able to thread their metaphorical sewing machine on their own.

In fact, I think it’s important to have a class of different levels. Hearing the steps justified and explained to a less-experienced painter is often helpful to the more-experienced painter. Sometimes, an essential principle hasn’t really clicked. Or, our willful brains just forget something important.

Clouds over Teslin Lake, Yukon Territory, 8x10, oil on canvasboard, $522 unframed.

As with every discipline, painters improve at different rates. How fast they learn depends on their natural quickness, how much time they can practice outside of class, distractions, anxieties, and other factors. I could start twelve painters at exactly the same level, teach them the same lessons for a year, and there’d still be a wide range of achievement at the end. That’s natural, and if you’re someone who learns more slowly, it’s nothing to worry about.

The greatest painting classes are marked by camaraderie and good will. The best way to learn something is to explain it to someone else. Those painters generous with their own knowledge are helping themselves as much as they’re helping their friend.

Cobequid Bay farm, oil on canvasboard, 6X8, $348 unframed.

Having said all that, Bobbi Heath tells me she has run up against a problem and will not be offering her introductory oil-painting class this fall. That means that for the short term, new oil painters will still be coming to me (subject to space limits in my classes, of course). Cassie Sano will still be offering introductory watercolor classes, concurrent with my own fall classes.

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

A glossary of basic painting terms

Now you, too, can sound like an artist! Here’s my glossary of art terms—highly subjective and relevant mainly to painters.

Fallow field, Carol L. Douglas, 12X16, $1449 framed.

Abstraction: non-representational art in which meaning is expressed through a formal pattern of shapes, lines and colors. Sometimes called “non-objective.” There are degrees of abstraction.

Alkyd: an oil-based medium which uses a polyester resin to speed drying.

Alla prima: a painting finished wet-on-wet, in just one or a few sessions.

Analogous color: those next to each other on the color wheel.

Atmospheric (or aerial) perspective: creating a sense of distance using color.

Autumn Farm, Carol L. Douglas, 12X16, $1449 framed.

Binder: the material that holds pigment together in paint.

Chroma: The purity or intensity of a color. Also called “saturation.”

Color: an object’s pigmentation, comprised of three elements: value, hue and chroma.

Color temperature: a convention where we agree that greens, blues and violets are cool and that reds, yellows and oranges are warm. Entirely subjective but it works.

Color wheel: a circular grid that shows the relationships between hues in color theory.

Complements: hues directly opposite each other on the color wheel.

Three Chimneys, Carol L. Douglas, 12X16, $1159.

Composition: the fundamental design of the painting, created by line, color and shape. See also design.

Contour: a line that encircles a space, separating it from what’s next to it.

Direct painting: laying down colors opaquely on the canvas, with the same hues and tones as are intended in the final work.

Focal point: the object(s) given the greatest dominance in a painting. There can be more than one.

Glaze: a transparent layer of paint applied over a dry layer.

Grisaille: a painting in monochrome, in my classes used as an underpainting.


  1. The substance applied to a drawing support in preparation for painting, e.g. gesso;

  2. An initial coating in printmaking (doesn’t concern us here);

  3. The background in a painting, as distinguished from the figure.


  1. The position on the color wheel, i.e. red, orange, blue, yellow—that which we generally refer to as ‘color’; sometimes these are referred to as ‘color families’;

  2.  A pure pigment; e.g., not a tint or shade;

  3. An analogous combination of pigments that mimics a single-pigment paint color that may be obsolete or expensive.

Impasto: thick paint.

Imprimatura:  an initial stain of color painted on a ground that creates a transparent, toned surface.

On Fernald's Neck, Carol L. Douglas, 9X12, $696.

Indirect painting: applying layers of glaze onto a drawing or underpainting to subtly alter colors and tones. See Rembrandt as an example.

Linear perspective: giving a sense of three-dimensional depth on a two-dimensional surface through drawing.

Lost-and-found edge: a line that goes from hard to soft (or invisible) in different passages in a painting.


  1. The material with which an artist is working;

  2. The binder in a pigment or its equivalent, which is used in the top layers of painting to provide viscosity and prevent oxidation.

Motive force: the energy within a painting.

Motive line: the line that carries the motive force.

Negative space: the space around an object.

Neutral: having low saturation or chroma.

Pigment: the material in paint that gives it its color.

Plein air: painted outside while looking at the subject in question.

Primary colors: Colors that can’t be mixed; e.g., red, blue and yellow.

Proportion: the size relationship between things.

Realism: art which attempts to represent things as they’re seen. This is, of course, a moving target.

Secondary colors: colors that are made from mixtures of two primary colors; e.g., orange, green and violet. A secondary color is always opposite a primary color on the color wheel.

Sketch: a preliminary drawing for a work of art.

Still life: any combination of inanimate objects that form the subject of a painting, in contrast to a landscape painting or figure painting.

Solid media: media designed to create an opaque surface, e.g., oil paints, pastels, gouache, and acrylics.

Tertiary color: the six colors located between the primary and secondary colors on the color wheel.

Texture: real or illusory roughness or smoothness on the surface of your work.

Toning: painting a light, warm transparent stain onto a primed canvas, see also imprimatura.

Transparent media: media designed to work transparently, e.g., watercolor and acrylics.

Underpainting: the first layer of oil painting, usually a value statement in monochrome.

Value: How light or dark the color is.

Value sketch: a drawing designed to create a value map for the finished painting.

Wash: a broad thin layer of diluted paint; primarily a watercolor technique.