Paint Schoodic

We're offering three workshops for 2020, at Acadia National Park, Pecos, NM, and Tallahassee, FL.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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

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.

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.

Your assignment is to make and paint a tinfoil hat (which is very useful in an election year). Your tinfoil will become a little battered and less reflective in places as you fold it. Work fast. Make your neutral greys using complements, not black.

Expect that your painting will look disjointed until you finish. Don’t overwork it. This is an exercise where rough brushwork is a virtue.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Are you bored?

I can’t tell you the last time I was bored.

Sometimes it rains, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard, available through Ocean Park Association.
Bobbi Heath blogged about boredom earlier this week. I didn’t read it until this morning because I’ve been so busy. Apparently, boredom is a big problem for people stuck at home during the pandemic. I have certainly noticed a lassitude among some of my friends that could be a symptom of either boredom or depression from the long isolation.

Personally, I don’t understand boredom. In part, this is protective. As kids, if we whined “I’m bored!” our mother would just give us more chores. That’s a parenting technique I grew to admire, and I’ve passed it on to my children.

Channel Marker, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas, available.

Mainers have perfected the art of making hay while the sun shines—working like banshees for 120 days a year so that the larder is full for the winter. Plein air painters do a variation on the same dance, of course. This year has set that on its head, as I’m reminded when I see our beautiful old wooden schooners in their winter coverings in August.

However, I’m working harder than ever. I believe in the Sabbath—rest is a gift, after all. But it gets harder and harder to find the time as I dive deeper into this busy season.

I’m writing this in Yarmouth, where I’m staying for Cape Elizabeth Land Trust’s Paint for Preservation. This ought to be the easiest of events, because we have three days to do one painting, but they want us to paint big.

Fog Bank, oil on linen, by Carol L. Douglas. This is one of those paintings that I didn't know what to make of when I did it, but that's growing on me.

On Wednesday I wrote that I was debating whether to bring the oil-primed 48X48 canvas I built for this event. The winds only got worse, and when I attempted to lift the canvas onto my roof rack, it slammed back down to earth. On the way down, it put a nasty scratch in the rear panel of the car, reminding me of Jane Chapin mangling the side of her pickup and insisting “that’ll buff out.”

It did buff out, more or less, but it was a sign that I shouldn’t try to paint that large in unsettled weather. Bobbi ran to Artist & Craftsman in Portland and got me a 40X40. I’m now carrying that, a 40X30, and three ‘smaller’ canvases.

They wrest their living from the sea, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas. Available.

I told this to Ken DeWaard, who’s also in this event. He called me crazy, and then told me he’s packed a 30X40 and several smaller canvases in his car. He drives a Honda Fit—and he’s 6’5”.

Why do we bring so many canvases? We can guess, but we can’t predict what the best size and shape will be for the scene that presents itself. Even when we know the location (and I don’t, this year), the light and atmospherics are constantly changing.

I’d intended to take Wednesday off, but all that packing and planning ran right through my day of rest. That doesn’t include the work I never got to, like writing my Zoom lessons for next week. Listening to someone else’s to-do list is boring, I know, but I’m just demonstrating why I’m never bored.

Bobbi’s husband took exception to the idea that one could go through life never getting bored. “What about boring tasks?” he asked. We all have them, of course, but these days we just listen to music or a podcast. And I have a secret weapon: a sketchbook I deploy in meetings or anywhere else I’m expected to sit quietly for long periods.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Big Rollers

I’ve been checking the weather all week, trying to decide whether my super-large canvas will go airborne.

Heavy weather, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvas, available.

I’m in a Big Roller mood this week. No, I’m not talking about straightening my hair, but about the long, slow waves that come in from the open ocean. Their stateliness, power, and rhythm are compelling painting subjects, and I plan to tackle them at Cape Elizabeth Paint for Preservation starting Friday.

Before that, I’m teaching my weekly plein air class. We’ll be painting rollers at the iconic Marshall Point light at Port Clyde. I’ve asked my students to study the Maine paintings of Winslow Homer beforehand. He uses strong diagonals to draw us in to his tempestuous seas. I want them to concentrate on design, nor just on the froth on the rocks.

I’ll head south to Portland after class, so I’m packing today.

Cape Elizabeth Cliffs, by Carol L. Douglas

I’ve been nervously checking my phone all week, although weather forecasts are notoriously unreliable here on the coast. Will it be clear enough for me to bring the massive 48” square canvas I made, or should I downsize to 36X40? I’m watching the wind dancing through the trees, as if I have a clue what that means. I do know that these gusts will send a large canvas airborne, even on the sturdiest of easels.

Bobbi Heath points out that days are two hours shorter this week than they are in July, when this event is normally scheduled. It’s a good point, because I’ll need every minute of daylight to finish.

This week’s unsettled weather brought much-needed rain, but it’s also meant thunderstorms and wind. If the forecast for Saturday is right, I’m going to need a rain shelter. I’m stopping in Boothbay Harbor to borrow a pop-up tent from my Sea & Sky workshop monitor Jennifer Johnson. I’ll need large rocks to hold it down. Luckily, they have an almost infinite supply in Cape Elizabeth, so I don’t have to pack my own.

Four Ducks, by Carol L. Douglas

The weather will influence my composition. I like to paint rocks and surf from a high vantage point, but that’s also the most exposed place. If I need shelter, I’ll be down on the shingle, where the tent can be anchored.

Bobbi is graciously providing me with a bed. That’s been the sticking point for most plein air events this year, and why so many have been cancelled. Normally, communities provide housing for artists, but nobody wants strangers in their homes right now. I usually stay with Bobbi anyway, so this hasn’t affected me, but other artists have scrambled.

Le Pipi Rustique is a gender-biased activity if there ever was one. Women can’t pee discreetly behind a boulder as our male counterparts do. I’ve tried not drinking much water, but that’s dangerous. Leaving our setup to drive to a restroom is risky, especially in heavy weather.

Often a neighbor will offer us the use of a powder room, but I doubt that will happen this year. My health-care provider has refused to catheterize me. So, I’m packing my porta-potty and its little tent.

Add to that a cooler and lunches, and the oversize brushes and easel I need, and I’ve got more stuff than my poor little Prius will hold. So, if you’re looking for me, I’ll be driving a black RAV4 instead. I’ll be at Zeb Cove, along with Marsha Donahue. Just set your GPS for Zeb Cove Road, Cape Elizabeth, ME.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Monday Morning Art School: using angles for measurement

Measurement and angles are the basis of drawing. Learn how to use them, and you can draw anything.
Geraniums, by Carol L. Douglas, pastel. Available, but has to be collected in person as it's glazed in non-reflective glass.

Last week’s lesson on the pencil and thumb method was easy to teach in person, but difficult to write out in steps. Today’s lesson, on using angles, is easier to write, but will be a little trickier to master.

This has to do with how our brains are wired, not how ‘talented’ you may or may not be—that’s mostly, as Mr. Edison pointed out, a matter of persistence anyway. But the human mind simply doesn’t ‘read’ angles and negative space when it’s not focusing on them. This is why we use our pencil as a visual aid. It forces our brains to pay attention.

The good news is that you can rapidly teach your brain to notice angles and negative space.

Two pieces of silverware and a coffee cup: a surprisingly tricky thing to draw. But when you're done, you'll have the basic tools to draw anything.

Once again, close one eye and focus on the pencil, not the object you’re measuring. Hold the pencil along an imaginary plate glass window in front of you, and tilt it to match the angle you’re measuring. Then reproduce the line on your paper.

If at first you screw up, it’s probably that you’ve canted one end of the pencil away from you. Straighten it up and try again.

Once you’ve mastered measuring with the pencil and thumb method and learned to see and copy angles on to your paper, you can draw anything from portraits to animals to landscapes to figure.

Start by measuring the basic shapes using the pencil and thumb method we learned last week. Mark off the  heights and widths of all the basic shapes.

 

Use your pencil to determine the angles at which the silverware, the sides of the cup, and the handle are traveling. Draw them in as straight lines. This takes a little practice, so be patient and take your time looking at each one.

 

Use your measuring and angle hash marks to block in the major shapes.

 

Often, you can see distortions, objects that are too close together, etc. more easily in the negative space than you can in your drawing of the positive objects. It's best to check this before you go on to finish your drawing.

You can use angles to check your work. Here I checked the angle from the right tine of the fork to the handle of the cup, and the angle across the top of the two pieces of silverware.

Note: last week I wrote about the difficulty of decision-making in the age of coronavirus. My workshop in Pecos is now on, thanks to the Herculean efforts of Jane Chapin. The statewide 14-day-quarantine is expected to be lifted on September 1, but that doesn’t do travelers or hoteliers much good for trips immediately after that, which must be booked now. Jane figured out a great solution. We won’t be breaking quarantine, and we will be able to paint out in the field.

Jane cleaned her studio so we have a backup location in case of rain. Isn't that gorgeous?

San Miguel County, where the workshop will be held, remains one of the safest places in America, with zero deaths from coronavirus. We’re going, using all the safety methods we can employ—masks and hand sanitizer in the airport, frequent handwashing, etc. And we expect to have a lovely, lovely time, paint in some gorgeous spots, and learn lots.

Ironically, airfares are so low right now that the total cost of the workshop has plummeted, at least for me, coming from the northeast.

At this point, the limiting factor isn’t the number of people I can teach, but the number of beds I can rustle up. Jane still has a few up her sleeve. So if you’re bold* and love the western landscape, you’re welcome to join us. Email me to initiate a conversation.

On the road again. I can barely contain my excitement!

*Jane and I have a history, and it always seems to include adventure… and lots of laughter.


Friday, August 21, 2020

More Winslow Homer than Clyfford Still

Mystery boxes for Cape Elizabeth provide an opportunity for a design experiment.

Surf #1, by Carol L. Douglas. 

Next weekend is Cape Elizabeth Land Trust’s 13th annual Paint for Preservation. They’re steering their course through the current crisis with a hybrid event. We will paint live in Cape Elizabeth (and you can still come watch us from a safe distance) on August 28-30. The auction will be online, ending on September 13.

This event always includes something they call mystery boxes. Painters provide up to three finished paintings that are then sealed in 10X10 inch black boxes. These are sold for $250 each. Buyers might get one by me, or by Ken DeWaard or Alison Hill or Colin Page or Jill Hoy or any of the other artists in this event.

The shapes on which it was based. Only the black shapes were transcribed, but I neglected to take photos at that point. Oops.

Since these artists generally command much higher prices, the mystery boxes are always snapped up. I like to imagine them being traded like baseball cards long after the event is over.

Surf #2, by Carol L. Douglas.

I’m an admirer of the color-field painter Clyfford Still. I grew up wandering amongst his enormous canvases at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. His work may look like torn paper strips, but to get that effect is anything but simple. Clyfford Still—like many painters of his time—is extremely rational. There’s little accidental or intuitive painting in his work, although he did layer impasto on with a palette knife. I find it difficult to read enough from his surfaces to help me insinuate myself into his decision-making. And I’d like to understand it more.

The shapes on which it was based.

Earlier this year I decided to copy passages from three of his painting onto 10x10 birch squares and sit with them for a while in my studio. A trip to the beach suggested that one of them might end up as a tidal pool. This turned out to be the most difficult painting and remains the most abstract. The other two designs became rocks and surf. In no case can I tell you how the patterns were arranged in Still’s original work, or what work they actually came from, because once they were transcribed onto the boards, I promptly forgot the originals. They became beautiful dark shapes, isolated from their original settings.

Tidal Pool, by Carol L. Douglas. All three of these paintings will be sold at Cape Elizabeth's Paint for Preservation in the next few weeks.

One issue with painting rocks on the Maine shore is that they tend to arrange themselves in either horizontal bands or ellipses. These are essentially static figures. Neither tells the truth about how ledge works, which is to extend underwater in long grasping fingers, reaching up for the unwary mariner all the way to the Irish coast.

The shapes on which it was based. I was very sorry to lose that foreground diagonal but in practice it just ended up being irritating.

My main goal in thinking about Clyfford Still was to free myself from those coastal tropes. While I wasn’t concerned with maintaining any fidelity to him, I was mystified to see his influence diminishing and Winslow Homer’s rising. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Homer, too, is a magnificent composer, with great formal presence. His Prouts Neck studio was only a few miles from Cape Elizabeth, so the colors of his sea and sky are the same as those I see every day.

In the end, I learned some things, none of which are easy to put into words. I hope their mystery buyers like them as much as I do. What will I take from them onto the rocky shore of Zeb Cove next weekend? I’m not sure, but no experimentation is ever wasted—in painting or anywhere else.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Fear of Failure

People do not become brave in a vacuum—they get that way by taking risks.

Along the Pecos River in Winter, by Carol L. Douglas. Available.

The newest diversion for small businessmen in America is to sit up nights and think about what they should cancel. I had my most recent conversation about this with Jane Chapin on Saturday, as we try to figure out whether my New Mexico workshop is on or not. The problem in New Mexico is the same one we faced here in Maine earlier in the year: the same advisories that are appropriate for places like Albuquerque are overkill for small mountain towns. Even though painters will be safe in Pecos, we still must abide by state law.

It may seem like tempting fate, but I don’t worry overmuch about coronavirus. It’s wise to be cautious about it, just as it’s wise to be prudent when camping in bear country. But I’m in good health for my age, and my chances of recovery are vastly greater (better than a hundred to one) than dying if I contract the disease. I’d like to live to a great old age, but, as Lucy Angkatell chirpily notes in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, we’re all going to die of something anyway.

Downdraft snow, by Carol L. Douglas

The Hollow was written in 1946, and Lady Angkatell’s attitude toward death is as obsolete as the novel’s melodrama. Modern society is constructed around a fierce desire to minimize risk. We worry about lawsuits; we worry about perceived threats that may have little basis in reality. We’ve been conditioning ourselves out of risk-taking for most of my adult life.

When I was a kid, we routinely walked to school without adult supervision, played games without adult supervision, rode horses without adult supervision, and used tools and equipment with only the loosest adult supervision. Today, kids are barred from doing these things, yet the child mortality rate has never been lower in America (largely because of vaccines).

New Mexico Farmstead, by Carol L. Douglas.

When my kids were babies, the bogeyman in the room was child abduction, which kept a whole generation under the watchful eyes of their mothers. It turned out to be largely illusory, but it effectively ended childhood freedom.

Yesterday I was talking with a Zoom student from Tennessee. He mentioned that he learned to drive a tractor at age 8. Today, he’s a pilot. I was about the same age when I learned to drive our Ford 9N. By age 14, I was moving hay from fields in one town to our home farm in the next. Had I been injured in a farm accident then, it would have been a tragedy. Today, it would be a reason to pass a new set of laws barring kids from farm work.

Pecos hillside, by Carol L. Douglas. No, our workshop isn't scheduled for snow season; I just have a perverse liking for winter.

But being raised as ‘free range’ children was formative to creating intrepid adults. A child who learns how to manage risk will grow into a confident adult. That’s key, as I wrote recently, to success in the arts. People do not become brave in a vacuum—they get that way by taking risks and accepting defeat.

I occasionally have a super-achiever in painting class, a person who has always been the best at whatever he or she attempts. That’s a terrible handicap in art. The inability to accept failure means they can’t accept the risk that is inherent in all art-making. Their fear of failure consigns them to fail.

Art, after all, could be defined as a series of failures on the way to an impossible objective. For that, risk-taking is a great teacher.

By the way, if you wonder why comments must be moderated on this blog, it's because of mornings like this, where I start my day by deleting dozens of bot-spam comments before I can actually write anything.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Monday Morning Art School: anyone can draw

Drawing is a series of actions, rather like dance. It can be learned, just like any other process.

Teachers sometimes tell their students to hold the pencil fully outstretched. I disagree, because moving it up and down and sideways makes you move in an arc, as Sandy demonstrates, above. 


Drawing starts with measurement. Get that right, and everything else is just details.

1. Put yourself a few feet from the object you want to draw. Make sure you’re comfortable.

2. Hold your pencil between your thumb and fingers as shown. Most art teachers tell you to do your measurements with your arm completely outstretched; I prefer to have my arm loose and to visualize an imaginary plate glass window I'm running my pencil along.

Instead, hold your pencil loosely and comfortably, as if there were a plate glass window along which you were running the pencil. You will have to recheck your measurements frequently, but you should be doing that anyway.

3. Close one eye and focus on the pencil.

4. Holding your pencil upright and straight, align the point of your pencil with the top of the vase.

5. Slide your thumb down the pencil until it is at the bottom of the vase. This is now one unit of measurement in space.

Your pencil is your ruler. You are measuring ratios and then transferring them to the paper. (Note: my ratios look slightly different from what Sandy was seeing because I drew the picture later, from a slightly different angle.)

6. Put marks on your paper where you want the top and bottom of the vase to end up. This is now one unit of measurement on your paper. It doesn’t have to be the same size as your unit of measurement on your pencil.

7. Go back and line your pencil up again with the vase so that it fills the pencil from the point to your thumb. Now raise the pencil so you are measuring the flowers. Are they as tall as the vase?  Twice as tall? Half as tall? When you’ve determined this, add another mark to your paper to indicate where the top of the flowers should be. This should be the same ratio on paper as it was in space. But one unit on your pencil does not need to be one unit on your paper. What you draw can be much bigger than what you measure, as long as they are proportional.

Recheck the height with your pencil and then flip it to see how the width of the vase compares. It's that simple. 

8. Go back and recheck the measurement on the vase height. Then just flip your pencil sideways and see how wide the vase looks in comparison to its height. Is the object as wide as it is tall? Twice as wide? Half as wide? Once you’ve determined this, go ahead and put horizontal marks on your paper to represent the width of the vase.

9. Turn your pencil to the side and observe that the flowers are about 2 or 2.5 times as wide as the vase (depending on where you’re standing).  Make those marks on your picture.

It really doesn't matter where you start measuring or what order you measure in. You will figure out a system that works for you.

10. Once you have the proportions of the objects marked out, mark in the big shapes with a light pencil and then start breaking them down into smaller shapes. You are well on your way to drawing the object. 

Once you have the measurement hash marks in place, draw in the big shapes and start breaking them down into smaller shapes. The rest is just details.


Your assignment is to practice this. The more you practice accurate measurement, the better your painting will be. Next Monday I will talk about using angles and negative space to measure.

Friday, August 14, 2020

Find your niche

Be nimble or perish. Find new ways to do things, or resign yourself to “go gentle into that good night.”

The Day Begins, mural by Peter Yesis, Waldo County Justice Center

Whenever I mention to my husband how fine a painter Peter Yesis is, Doug answers that it’s because Peter trained as an electrical engineer. I suspect there’s some truth in that. Engineering teaches orderly processes, and it’s dispassionate. There’s no flailing about, examining one’s soul, in circuit design.

Peter has been as thoughtful about his career as he is about painting. In recent years, he found a way to use Maine’s Percent for Art to get his work into public buildings. The kind of painting Peter (and I) do has been obsolete in public architecture for fifty years. For most of our careers, it would have been easier to sell concrete canoes for the steps of a public building than an ‘old-fashioned’ landscape painting for its lobby. I wouldn't have tried. And yet Peter persevered, calling his paintings ‘murals’ lest anyone get the wind up.

Peter and his newest mural at the Oxford County Courthouse.

I have sat through a murder trial of someone I cared about. It’s a terrifying experience. Rochester’s antiseptic, 1970s-era-courtroom provided no distractions from the litany of evidence. Had the trial been in Waldo County, Maine, I could have occasionally studied Peter’s painting of dawn breaking over the Passagassawaukeag, above. Art’s value may be hard to quantify, but that doesn’t make it non-existent.

Since 1982, Percent for Art has put almost $8 million in artwork into Maine schools, courthouses and other public buildings. I’m not a fan of government art funding, but this is a case of government buying art, just as they buy other furnishings.

Yesterday, Peter went to Paris, ME to install three murals at the Oxford County Courthouse. As Maine’s economy teeters in these parlous times, his project put me in mind of the Federal Art Project, the WPA initiative that did so much to change America’s public buildings during the Great Depression.

One of three murals painted by Peter Yesis for the Oxford County Courthouse.

(Great bureaucracies might, like ocean liners, have momentum of their own, but they are still steered by a captain. The Federal Art Project was a success largely because of the sensitive leadership of Holger Cahill. In Maine, that captain is Julie Richard. She too steers a tight course.)

The tiny post office in Middleport, NY, has murals painted by WPA artist Marianne Appel. Neither the town nor the artist are ‘significant,’ but that post office has an abiding place in my memory because of those murals. Peter will be remembered in Maine because he has placed his art in locations that matter.  

On a practical level, he has found a niche. I’ve known him long enough to know that he got there not with a grand master plan, but by trial and error. He will continue to tinker, even though he—like me—is at an age when many of our peers are contemplating retirement.

Kim and Peter Yesis installing a mural at the Oxford County Courthouse.

For every tale of frustration in the current crisis, there’s another of opportunity. Yesterday I talked with an elementary-school art teacher. She told me about her response to sudden lockdown this past spring. Her kids had no art supplies at home, so she encouraged them to make art with recycled materials. This year, she’s made kits for them to use at home. She’s doing her best to cope with something none of us wanted. Along the way she’s discovering new ways to teach art.

The lesson of our age is: be nimble or perish. Find new ways to do things, or resign yourself to “go gentle into that good night.”

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Confidence is key for women artists

Do you allow yourself to believe you’re good at what you do? If not, why not?

Campbell's Field, by Carol L. Douglas. At the time I painted this, I thought I was a pretty poor painter. 

I rudely eavesdropped on a conversation about negotiating salary. The speaker, thirty-something, was describing input from friends and family. “Dad said, ‘ask for the highest figure in their range,’ and Steve said, ‘ask for $5000 more.’” The negotiator—a woman—asked for $1500 more. She low-balled herself. At her age, I would have done worse. I’d have meekly accepted whatever was put on the table.

The gender pay gap is more complicated than simple sexism. It starts with college graduates’ first jobs. Part of this is based on the college tracks women prefer (non-STEM) but part of it is simple confidence. The responsibility for that rests with us, as women. No manager has ever insisted that a candidate take more than what was first offered.

Bridle path, by Carol L. Douglas. Same vintage.

The confidence gap is even more of a challenge in the art world, where success is based on selling oneself. Frankly, women are lousy at it. I’ve written hereherehereherehere, and here about gender disparity in the art world, and it hasn’t gotten any better. The gap between men’s and women’s pay in the arts is worse than it is in the economy as a whole. That’s a clue that the gender gap is about far more than just majoring in STEM subjects.

My daughter and her husband have turned job stereotypes on their head. She’s a computer programmer; he’s a social worker. “When she knows she’s excellent at something, she’s very confident about it,” he says. That is new. As a recent college graduate, she was unsure. She allowed herself to be hired at the bottom of the pay range. She’s wised up and is working to narrow that.

Upper and Middle Falls, Letchworth, by Carol L. Douglas.

I often tell people I only know how to do two things well, and one of them is not cooking. I can paint, and I can write and teach about painting. In those narrow tracks, I’m competent. More importantly, I know it.

But I wasn’t always that way. Paintings I did twenty years ago are no less accomplished than my paintings today (albeit in a different style). Why did I feel then that I was a poseur and today I feel capable? What has changed?

In part, I was influenced by what others said about me. There are supportive communities and others that subtly undercut our self-esteem. Think back through recent interactions with your peers. Did they encourage you to take risks, or float good ideas for improvements? Or do they subtly discourage you? If the latter, perhaps you need new friends. (Family is not so easy to change, unfortunately.)

Lower Falls, Letchworth, by Carol L. Douglas

Sometimes the person who smack-talks you is not your so-called friend, it’s you, yourself. Your inner monologue has a critical impact on your confidence. Try to listen to your own commentary and analyze it dispassionately. If you find yourself constantly running yourself down, stop and redirect those thoughts.

Start by intentionally choosing a posture of thankfulness. I know of no more powerful tool to reframe our attitudes. In giving thanks, we focus on what’s right and good, rather than on what’s broken.

Women, in particular, are trained to be modest about their achievements. But there’s a fine line between humility and self-effacing meekness. Confident people take credit for their own achievements—to themselves as well as to others. As a teacher, I’ve noticed that people who were successful and confident in their careers bring that expectation of success into painting.

If you don’t have that, don’t despair. Instead, challenge yourself in some area that’s far outside your experience. Doing something risky and difficult is a great way to start to understand your own strength. The time I’ve spent alone in the wilderness has been a powerful spur to my own self-confidence. We send boys to camp to get filthy and learn to start fires without matches; we don’t send our daughters. We should.

Women are trained to be helpers and—as I mentioned before—that can be a trap. But it’s also a strength we can build on. I have found mentoring to be a great spur to my self-confidence, if for no other reason than that the people I’ve mentored admire me.

But there’s something to be said for plain old age. I think in some ways I’ve simply outlasted my insecurities. They’re exhausting, and at this age I have better things to do with my time.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Monday Morning Art School: a brief history of color

Most of us use a mixture of modern and antique colors. We stand on the shoulders of giants, after all.

Best Buds, by Carol L. Douglas. Available. Like most modern artists, my palette is a combination of historic and modern colors.

Minerals have been used as pigments since prehistory. What our ancestors did with color is largely a mystery, but pigments and paint-grinding equipment dating between 350,000 and 400,000 years old have been found in a cave in Zambia.

Most of these earliest colors are warm, and most are named after cities where they were mined and milled. Thus we have the siennas, from Siena, Italy, and the umbers, from Umbria. Siennas are warmer and lighter than umbers; the difference comes from the introduction of manganese to the umbers, either naturally or in the milling process.

Vineyard, by Carol L. Douglas. Available. This painting could have been executed in purely mineral pigments, but it was not.

This ancient family of pigments also includes red and yellow ochre. What they all have in common is the presence of iron oxide. In its most common form, that’s plain old rust.

The last pigment our prehistoric ancestors used was charcoal, which they discovered along with fire. That comes down to us as modern ‘carbon black.’

There is one cool pigment that was available to the ancients: the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli. This comes down to us as the pigment ultramarine blue, so named because it came from ‘beyond the sea’. Needless to say, when you were grinding up the family jewels for color, you used it sparingly.

Striping, by Carol L. Douglas. Available. The search for blue drove pigment synthesis.

That limited palette frustrated our intrepid ancestors as much as it would frustrate us today. They experimented with synthesizing pigments as early as 2000 BC. The earliest of these synthetic pigments were Egyptian Blue, which we still only imperfectly understand, and lead white. By the time of the Renaissance, vermilionverdigris, and lead-tin-yellow had been added to the paint box. These were made from mercury, copper and lead, and were all deadly.

Indian yellow is another pre-modern pigment. Legend had it being produced from the urine of cattle on the Indian sub-continent. Its actual source remains a mystery. Unlike its modern analog, it was fugitive (meaning it faded).

The expense and rarity of lapis lazuli drove the discovery of modern blue pigments. Prussian blue was discovered by accident in 1704, and ultramarine was being synthesized by the turn of the 19th century. Cobalt (cobalt and aluminum) and cerulean (cobalt and copper) blues are about the same vintage. I’m vastly oversimplifying here, but scientists were tinkering with the whole notion of chemistry, mixing up minerals to see what happened. And a lot of what happened were new pigments.

Marshall Point rocks, by Carol L. Douglas. Available. Impressionism would not have been possible without modern chemistry.

In 1856, William Henry Perkin was attempting to make a cure for malaria when he accidentally created the first aniline dye, mauveine. This was the forerunner of hundreds of synthetic dyes and pigments, and the basis of modern organic chemistry.

It is no coincidence that Impressionism was invented simultaneously with organic chemistry. It would not have been possible without the new colors being synthesized in the laboratory.

The last explosion of color happened with mass industrialization in the 20th century, as science searched for coatings for steel. While cadmium has been known as a pigment since the 1840s, it was rare. It wasn’t until industrial chemistry found a way to isolate the metal in the 1930s that cadmium became cheap enough to use as a pigment. Phthalo blue is another pigment that is a by-product of industrial science.

Everything I know about color history comes from Philip Ball’s Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color, and Victoria Finlay’s Color: a Natural History of the Palette. Of the two, I prefer the former, but both are good reads.

Gamblin publishes an excellent chart of colors, classified as either mineral (Impressionist and Classical) and organic (20th century). Your assignment is to look through your paint box and list where your paints came from. Are they:

  • Classical
  • Impressionist
  • 20th Century

If you’re using a classical palette, it will probably be made of modern pigments, because most of the toxic or rare older colors have been replaced. But these analogs have been designed to mimic the historic colors as closely as possible.

If you’re trying to paint like Rembrandt, but are using Van Gogh’s palette, you’re going to fail. Rembrandt painted indirectly, in transparent layers, and Van Gogh painted alla prima. You need to match your paints to your desired outcome.

That doesn’t mean that every pigment you use has to slavishly match some historic period. Most of us use a mixture of mineral and organic colors. We stand on the shoulders of giants, after all.