Paint Schoodic

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Monday, August 19, 2019

Monday Morning Art School: painting on demand

Sometimes it’s not fun. Sometimes it’s almost painfully stressful. What do you do then?
Sunrise, oil on canvasboard, is available through my studio at 394 Commercial Street, Rockport.
At my first plein air competition, I was a nervous wreck. “Come on, Carol,” my exasperated friend said. “Get a grip! You know how to do this.” At that moment, it wasn’t exactly true; I’d forgotten everything I ever knew about paint.

For some of us, commissions result in painter’s block. For others, plein air competitions are painfully stressful. Occasionally, I’ll have a student who freezes in my workshops. I used to suffer terrible performance anxiety, which is why I’m a painter and not a musician. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found ways to cope. These strategies have in turn lessened my overall anxiety.

Glade, watercolor on Yupo, will be at the Jackson Memorial Library, Tenants Harbor, ME, in September.
The first of these is to have a plan. It may seem counterintuitive to go into a painting with a process mapped out, but in fact that’s what you have to do to complete any project within an allotted time. When I painted a portrait in Edinburgh in April, I had a tight deadline. I planned how long I had for the charcoal drawings, how long for the underpainting, and how long to finish the top coat. When I do a quick-draw, I know I must finish the drawing and underpainting in the first hour in order to finish the top layers in the allotted time.

You might think that a flow plan is inhibiting, but it’s exactly the opposite. I learned this many years ago while painting a portrait commission for my late friend Dean Fero. It was a surprise birthday gift for his wife. That meant a precise deadline, which he didn’t let me forget. As I worked, I found the tight schedule liberating. I couldn’t perseverate and noodle endlessly on passages. That, in turn, meant freer, better brushwork.

Bracken Fern, oil on canvasboard, is available through Trove on Main, Thomaston, ME.
Playwright Robert More was finishing a comedy when I last saw him. “I can rewrite this ending eight times, and the last one won’t necessarily be better,” he told me. “I’ll just end up with eight different versions.”

Having a set protocol is invaluable for quelling nerves. In addition to providing consistent results, it focuses your mental energy on the doing, rather than on worry. (I’ve given you protocols for oils and watercolor; you can follow them or write your own.)

Once you’ve established a painting process, practice it repeatedly—not concentrating on the results, but on mastering the process. Being absolutely prepared is the best cure for performance anxiety. This is the great benefit of painting-a-day schemes; they’re not about producing great artwork, but about getting a hammerlock on your process.

Castine Sea Fog, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, available.
As you go on, stop thinking about all the ways you can screw up the painting. Instead, think only about the phase you’re in. If something goes wrong, don’t berate yourself, and above all, ignore the voices in your head that tell you you’re no good. They’re wrong. Instead, ask yourself where in your process you made a wrong turn.

In other words, develop enough self-awareness that you can monitor your own progress. When I’m agitated, I develop a nervous tic of constantly rinsing my brush. That’s a mud-making mistake in any medium. Because I know I do it, I can stop doing it before it’s out of hand—and ask myself what’s gotten me upset.

The Golden Hour, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas (private collection)
Even in pressurized painting situations, take time to eat decently and get some exercise. While in Edinburgh, I enjoyed taking my model’s dog, Poppy, out in the magnificent local parks. Exercise lifts the mood and reduces anxiety.

Above all, don’t waste time worrying about whether the client will like the work, or whether you’ll make a sale or win a prize. Focusing on the results, rather than the process, can effectively kill a painting.

Friday, August 16, 2019

When trouble cascades

It’s inevitable. How you pull yourself out of it is another matter.
Waiting to play, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard.
I opened my pochade box to do a tiny touch-up on my nocturne of Tuesday night. A slip of the hand and Cora and Ben were face down in the paint. Wincing, I picked the board up and looked. There were bright hillocks of color everywhere.

Because I’d used a lot of quick-dry medium, the paint was easy enough to scrape off without lifting the bottom layers, and it was simple (albeit time-consuming) to recoat the dark parts. Cora’s face, however, was another matter. How could I repaint it sans model, fire and s’mores?
Saranac River, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard
“My resolution is to not let myself get anxious at these events,” Lisa BurgerLentz told me. That’s a good goal, because agitation undermines your ability to perform. Even the most experienced, successful painters feel it at times. There are fifty of us here, and we’re in direct competition for sales and prizes. It can be a very fraught experience if we allow it.

I don’t generally succumb to that, but when things go wrong at a plein air event, they tend to cascade. In re-reading the rules, it seemed to me that one of my best paintings was disqualified by when it was painted. These events being on the honor system, it was up to me to report the infraction myself. Ouch. Then, I started digging in my car for the nocturne’s frame and couldn’t find it. Somewhere in my house or garage is a lonely frame calling for its mate.
Beaver Dam on Quebec Brook, by Carol L. Douglas
I was pretty frazzled. I can’t get out of that state of mind on my own, so I rely on prayer. I called on a few Christian sisters to pray with me.

I am often asked to pray for others, and do so happily. But I also doubt that it’s theologically necessary to ask the community of believers to pray with us. God loves us all, and doesn’t hand out his blessings grudgingly.
The cycle of life, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard
But it’s very difficult to pray sometimes. Perhaps that’s where the community of saints comes in: to carry the burden when you find yourself unable to do so yourself. My problems yesterday were minor compared to the troubles people find themselves in, but it was a good reminder.

Many painters tell me that they don’t do plein air events precisely because of this pressure. It could be crippling if one didn’t have a way to deal with the anxiety that failure inevitably produces. You need to pack that strategy along with your brushes and paints.
S'mores (Ben and Cora Pahucki), by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard
In the end, I remembered that I’d taken a photo of my nocturne. I copied Cora’s face from it. It’s not as fresh as the original, but it’s there. I confessed my infraction to the organizer, who told me not to worry about it. And Lisa BurgerLentz kindly sold me a frame she was carrying for her own work.

All’s well that ends well, but I’d rather not do that again anytime soon.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Night sky

Apparently, I’ve been doing nocturnes all wrong.
S'mores (Ben and Cora at Rollins Pond), by Carol L. Douglas, 9X12, oil on canvasboard. It's difficult to photograph a wet nocturne.
Like a good farmer, my bedtime is 7:30. Most of the year, that makes painting nocturnes difficult. They only work in December, when the sun sets at 4 PM at my little snug harbor. Otherwise, I’m tired and fractious when I paint them, and that shows.

This year, there’s a full moon during Adirondack Plein Air. Even I could see the advantages of staying up. Chrissy Pahucki and I had one of those Great Ideas that so often gets me in trouble. She secured a campsite in the state forest. I got the makings for S’Mores. We met at dusk.
The cycle of life (Black Pond), by Carol L. Douglas, 14X18, oil on canvasboard.
It killed me to pay $5 for a bag of spruce logs when I have about ten cords of hardwood behind my shed. However, the ban on moving firewood applies even to artists. I felt a little better buying it from  Paul Smith’s College VIC. I’d like to think I was supporting their athletics program, since the wood is split by their students.

“How about getting hot dogs to roast for dinner?” I suggested. Fifteen-year-old Ben rolled his eyes at me, as if I were an elderly, daft grandmother. I counted on my fingers. Yes, I was old enough, with room to spare. I cackled, since it seemed appropriate.
Beaver dam, by Carol L. Douglas, 14X18, oil on canvasboard. A special thank you to Sandra Hildreth, who took me to this wonderful place.
Cora, 14, has started to look startlingly like her dad, although much prettier. She has a lovely profile and is a good model. I made a mental note to have her pose for a real portrait next year.

We talked about important stuff, such as whether Ben could toast a marshmallow without catching it on fire. Beth Bathe concentrated on the back of Cora’s head, while Lisa BurgerLentz ignored us all and went down to the shore and painted the waning light across Rollins Pond.

The moon rose, magnificent above a Winnebago parked nearby. “Wow, this is beautiful!” exclaimed Chrissy, who’d wandered off and was standing at the shoreline. We trooped down and admired the view, which was, of course, spectacular. The pond was so still that the stars were reflecting in its surface. A light froth of cirrocumulus clouds arced above our heads, and simultaneously, at our feet. The moon, huge and wise, peeked through the needles of an Eastern White Pine.

The view that got away. I stood in the water to take this photo, and now my shoes are wet and cold.
It was, of course, the better scene, one in a million, and we’d let it get away from us. That’s always the way, it seems. I try to be philosophical and tell myself that’s the sign of a great painting location. 

We had the campsite until 11 AM. Could I stay and paint another nocturne? The late hour eventually won out. This morning I feel like I’ve been on a three-day toot, which is why this post is late and barely intelligible. But I learned something important about nocturnes: they’re much more fun if you do them by a fire with friends.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Monday Morning Art School: aspect ratio

When working big, start with a smaller sketch and grid it up. It’s easy.
A large canvas transferred from a 9X12 sketch.

When you're on the road, no two billets are the same. I was confident that I could use a tethered hotspot to write this morning's blog, but then realized I'm in a cell-signal hole. So I'm reworking an earlier blog on aspect ratio. It's especially important when transferring a field value sketch to your finished paper or canvas.

The largest I generally work is 60X60. This is too large to draw directly, as I can’t get far enough away to see the whole thing as I’m drawing. When I’m working this big, I always do a smaller sketch in oil or cartoon in graphite first. Then I scale it up. This prevents proportion distortion.

I have a projector, but I find that gridding is more accurate and takes less time.

I realize many artists are math-phobic, but there are times when an small bit of arithmetic can save  you a lot of work. I'll try to make this painless.

The first step is to work out whether the aspect ratio of your sketch is the same as the canvas. This is the proportional relationship between height and width. If you're cropping a value sketch, you want to be sure that the aspect ratio of your crop is the same as will be in the finished canvas.

Usually I grid in Photoshop because it's faster and I can just delete the lines with a keystroke. But you can grid just as well with a pencil on your sketch.
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. You could spend a lot of time calculating the distances, but I prefer to just divide it in even amounts in each direction. 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. It’s time-consuming, but with big paintings it saves a lot of work in the long run.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Sea & Sky Workshop, (almost) finished

My students worked through some crazy weather, and turned out some great paintings this week. 

Last night we looked at paintings using positive critiquing and analyzing the formal qualities of design

This is just a small sample of the work done this week. A caution: the color in these photos isn't great, because they were taken after dark. But I hope you like them as much as I do. I've been constantly surprised and delighted by wonderful, lyrical, unexpected paintings. The week has just flown past and I'm sorry to see it end, even though we're all pretty darn tired.
Watercolor painting by John Magoun
Oil painting by Patty Mabie
Watercolor painting by Rebecca Bense
Oil painting by Lori Capron Galan
Watercolor painting by Cynthia Burmeister
Acrylic painting by Rhea Zweifler
Watercolor painting by Jane Agee
Oil painting by Jennifer Johnson
Acrylic painting by Jennifer Little
Watercolor painting by Lisa Magoun
Oil painting by Mary Whitney
Oil painting by Robin Miller

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

State of mind

If you don’t engage with your subject, you’ll waste time if you paint it.
This year we have a service dog with us. He could make anyone happy. (Photo by Jennifer Johnson)
I started this year’s workshop with an exercise I haven’t done in years. I took the protocols I published the last two Mondays (here and here) and had my students execute them in two groups. Each team member took turns doing a step of the process. Together they brought a painting from initial design to finished product.

Process is everything in painting. Being involved, rather than just watching, makes it stick in the mind.
The oil painting group work on their painting. (Photo by Jennifer Johnson)
An hour in, I asked myself, “What have I done?” In the end, my misgivings were ungrounded. Yes, the students learned my process. More importantly, the exercise took away their performance anxiety. They leapfrogged right over the usual bad first painting.

Unfortunately, we can’t always have group exercises to loosen up. We need other strategies to help us focus. One of the most important—to me—is to work at the same time every day. That tells my body and brain when to get serious.
The watercolor group faithfully executed every step I assigned to them.
Another technique I’ve recently adopted is to sit quietly with a view for several minutes and gauge my reaction. I’ve realized there are scenes which irritate or bore me. They may be iconic, beautiful and lovely, but I’ll be fighting my reaction all the way. There are other scenes which touch a deep wellspring of positive feeling. And there are places where my reaction is simply disinterested. The trick is to give myself enough time to understand these reactions, instead of relying on my logical mind to determine what will make a good painting. Or even worse, a ‘sellable’ painting.

Rhea Zweifler relaxing into her drawing. (Photo by Jennifer Johnson)
This is not a geographical issue. Every place I’ve ever been is multifaceted. I’ve painted lovely landscapes in Terre Haute, Indiana, which is flat farmland bisected by the muddy Wabash River. And I’ve painted absolute gibberish in famous beauty spots.

Yesterday, one student ended up wiping out her afternoon painting. “I set up here and thought, ‘I guess I’ll paint that scene over there.’ But I wasn’t really interested. I should have walked around more and found something that I really loved.” She was irritated by her choice and never fully engaged with the painting. Had she recognized that at the start, she would have saved herself a lot of work.

That’s another way preparatory sketches are helpful. We hate abandoning projects we’ve started. However, if your sketch isn’t dynamic and powerful, you need to stop and figure out why. It could be a composition problem, but it’s equally likely that you don’t really like the view as much as you think you ought.
Into each workshop an obligatory lecture/demo must fall.
I have—too many times—slogged through a painting for three or four hours only to turn around and ask myself, “why didn’t I paint that?” A little quiet reflection at the start of my process would have saved me a lot of wasted time.

It’s far easier to paint something your heart responds to, rather than something that bores or annoys you. If it’s the right scene, you’ll get lost in your work, forgetting time. If it’s not, you’ll spend most of the session wishing you were done. The only way to know which you’ve got is to sit quietly and let it speak to you.

Is this rational? No. Is it true? Absolutely.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Monday Morning Art School: basic protocol for painting in watercolor

An efficient plan for fast plein air painting in watercolors.
Surf at Marshall Point, by Carol L. Douglas
Last week I gave you a basic primer for oil painting in the field. This week, I've done the same for watercolor.

1. Set up your paint box/palette with pigments arranged in a rainbow pattern.

You don’t need as many colors as you think you do. But be sure to replace a color when you run out, not when you think you’ll next need it.

2. Do a value drawing of the scene in question, in your sketchbook.

Identifying a value structure at the beginning is the single most important thing a watercolor artist can do to make a strong painting.

Blueberry Barrens, by Carol L. Douglas
3. Crop your drawing, and identify and strengthen big shapes and movements.

If you start by filling in a little box, you only allow yourself one way to look at the composition. Instead, draw what interests you first, and then contemplate how it might best be boxed into a painting.
A watercolor value study. I sometimes do this in oils as well, when I'm a little concerned about my composition.
4. Do a monochrome value study, using a combination of burnt sienna and ultramarine to make a dark neutral.

This is where you solidify your choices of lights and darks. It’s a ‘practice swing’ for the final painting. I took a watercolor workshop from the incomparable Poppy Balser a few years ago and was chuffed to see that she teaches the same thing.

5. Transfer contour drawing to watercolor paper.

The more thinking you’ve done about placement and composition before you start, the less likely you are to obliterate your light passages.
Glade, by Carol L. Douglas
6. Apply Initial Washes

Using a large brush, start with the sky and work down. Allow lighter washes to bleed across spaces for darker objects and let the sky bleed into the sea, if applicable.

7. Add darks and definition

Work down from medium to smaller brushes, remembering to leave some white space showing.

8. Paint the Cast Shadows

The cast shadows should be transparent and colorful, not gray. 

Friday, August 2, 2019

Finishing a stubborn painting

Asking a respected peer for an opinion is good, but sometimes we’re stuck fixing our problems without help. That’s where knowing how to self-critique comes in.
Tom Sawyer's Fence, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard.
Yesterday I got a text message from a peer that read, “Working on a commission and can’t figure out how to finish it.” She went on to add, “That last 20% of the painting is always the hardest part for me. I can tell something is wrong but finding it and fixing it is the challenge.”

From my perspective, it was easy enough to see that the background needed to be toned down so that the focus could ring. That’s because I wasn’t wrapped up in its creation.
Downdraft Snow by Carol L. Douglas is on exhibition at the Joseph A. Fiore Art Center this summer.
I had a similar experience at Castine. I couldn’t get the contrast to work between the water and a roofline. Kari Ganoung Ruiz suggested I add a shingle edge. That single brushstroke changed everything. Similarly, Kirk McBride asked for an opinion from his wife, who’s also an artist. Her suggestion made his painting more coherent.

Painting, however, isn’t always a game of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Sometimes, we’re stuck answering the question without a Lifeline. One of the best ways to do this is to subject your own work to formal analysis.

That means you ask yourself how each of the five basic elements of painting design are working. That doesn’t mean you have to write a dissertation. It means you consider your painting in terms of each of these design elements. Are you using line, shape, space, color and texture to guide the viewer through the space you’ve created? Have you emphasized important passages and subordinated others? Is there repetition, pattern and rhythm in the piece?
Marshall Point Rock Study, by Carol L. Douglas
A painting that doesn’t work almost always fails in several of these areas. You are as qualified as anyone to analyze your paintings based on these objective standards. There’s a great advantage in learning to do this: you will never be led astray be a stupid critique again, and you can help yourself fix what’s wrong.

I like to consider my own paintings first on the questions of motive, line, and value. I’m looking for a strong impulse—created by dark shapes—that pulls the viewer through the painting. I’m not relying on chance to create a focal point; I want to drive the viewer there at warp speed.

Good group critiques teach us to look at our own work dispassionately and objectively, rather than possessively and emotionally. For those of us who’ve experienced the nasty criticism of art classes, it can take a lot to unbend from the defensive posture. That’s why I practice positive critiquing.
Ottawa House, by Carol L. Douglas
Positive reaction, done right, is harder than negative criticism. You need to catch a person doing something right before you can comment. That means constant vigilance and a rock-solid understanding of process. It requires being able to differentiate between idiosyncrasy, style, and the real technical issues that can cause a painting to fail. Above all, it requires confidence. Nobody is supportive from a position of weakness.

I demonstrated this technique to my friends in the Knox County Art Society this week and realized I’ve never blogged about how to do it. Look for it.

Meanwhile, I have two new opportunities for you: a Tuesday class from my Rockport studio, starting on August 20, and a second watercolor workshop aboard American Eagle, September 25-29. I’d love to see you there!