Paint Schoodic

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

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Lonely children, beautiful art

A day painting a mural with kids reminds me of how precious friendship is.

Joe Anna Arnett painting with two girls in Pecos, NM.

Jane Chapin bought a beautiful but worn adobe building in Pecos last winter. Her goal is to create a new Art Center for the town. This will be a place where kids can get more art education than they do in school. The art center will also be a base for adult painting workshops.

Regular readers may remember Jane as the organizer of our trip to Argentina in March. She’d planned to paint a mural with schoolkids in Buenos Aires at the end of that trip. They would work from artwork done by the Pecos kids. In return, she’d bring back artwork from Argentina that would become a mural in Pecos. This cross-cultural effort collapsed with the world shutdown from COVID-19.

My students pitched in too. Here's Jeannie Cole working with a young lady named Mariah. (Photo courtesy of Linda DeLorey.)

Normally, art centers take a percentage of tuition as their fee from instructors. As Jane sketched it out, the new art center would work differently. We teachers would teach our workshop and then do a project with the local kids as our contribution. I don’t often teach kids, but I like them just fine. I was looking forward to working with them.

Then COVID-19 hit, and the whole world ground to a halt. The county dragged out the process of issuing permits. Building renovations are still only half finished.

New Mexico imposed draconian limitations on visitors, so that hotels and B&Bs were essentially closed. My workshop only happened by the grace of God and the graciousness of Jane and her husband, who moved the whole operation to their home in the mountains above town.

Jane and a few of her minions.

As of last week, the Pecos school district was doing remote learning only. This is absurd: to date, all of San Miguel County has had 103 cases and no deaths from COVID. This is a remote, rural, poor community, with some 30,000 people spread out over 4700 square miles of mountainous terrain. That means lousy or non-existent internet and cell-phone service. And it means extended isolation for these kids, who haven’t been in school since the end of March.

Jane gamely changed the mural project so she could salvage something for these kids. Instead of an exchange with Buenos Aires, she would have the Pecos kids paint their own images on the walls of the Pecos Art Center. She transcribed the drawings to the walls, and worried that nobody would show up.

But they did, and both kids and parents were enthusiastic. There were enough volunteers, including artists Joe Anna Arnett, Lisa Flynn, Gail Ewing, and two of my students, Jeannie Cole and Linda DeLorey. We were able to work very closely with the kids, and most of the mural got painted. It’s lovely, a sign of promise and hope.

Not finished, but most of the way there.

But the greatest joy of that day turned out to be the simplest thing. We watched these youngsters play together, chatter, run around and simply have fun. Their happiness was palpable. They’ve been lonely. One mother admitted to me that she’d allowed her daughter’s best friend a socially-unsanctioned sleepover, because the girls have been so sad. I lived in the country. I know that kids who ride the bus do most of their socializing in school.

I left shaking my head at the utter stupidity of adults. Kids don’t die from COVID. While they could bring it home to their families, the chances are pretty remote in a place like this. Yes, children are resilient, but it’s creating completely unnecessary hardships for them.

I’m sorry for skipping Monday’s post. I got in at 2 AM, and there was nothing left in my tank.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Let down your defenses

I understand and empathize with defensiveness very well, but I also know that it is paralyzing.

Annett Sauve lets me demonstrate on her canvas. (Photo courtesy of Jane Chapin)

Thomas Edison is credited with saying that “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” He ought to have added persistence in that equation. It’s a kind of intelligence, one that isn’t measured on tests and used as a predictor of success—but it ought to be.

Of the six students in this workshop, two are returning students. They share that trait of persistence. For both of them, the process of painting has really clicked on this trip. I refine my teaching method with every class, which I think makes it clearer, but the difference is mostly in them.

Mary Whitney's painting in paradise.

Painting is not simple. Learning it takes time, and is a two-way dialogue. The student must be open to what’s being taught in order to make any real progress. Likewise, the teacher must be listening constantly for cues from the student.

For a long time, I was a very defensive painting (and everything else) student. I knew what I thought I knew and wasn’t willing to let others change that, even as I understood I needed help. It was a pity, because it blunted any possibility of becoming a better painter.

What were the symptoms of this self-defeating viewpoint? Whenever a teacher suggested I try something a different way, I responded with a rationalization. “I know, but…” saved me from having to try and fail. I was unnecessarily critical of others’ work, and there was a very limited range of paintings I understood enough to love.

Karla King and me, working at Pecos National Historic Park. (Photo courtesy of Jane Chapin)

What cured that? My broken self-image was repaired. To explain how I was broken would require delving into a maelstrom, so I will skip it. But the cure was a combination of my developing faith (I was made in God’s image, so I can’t be fatally flawed) and the slow development of real competence. This was not just as a painter, but as a parent, a spouse, and a functioning adult.

I understand and empathize with defensiveness very well, but I also know that it is paralyzing. I can’t fix it by simply saying, “let down your defenses.” That insecurity is the very nut the student is trying so hard to protect.

Instead, I sidestep the whole question by insisting that, for one week, workshop students try it my way. It’s not arrogance on my part, but rather the desire that students get value for the money they’re shelling out.

Historic New Mexico.

Of course, the process I use is not the only way to paint alla prima, nor is it in any way my own invention. Painting—like most other human endeavors—has been developed incrementally by thousands of practitioners. Our best practices are a synthesis of their ideas. Before a student rejects the basic rules of painting, he or she should not only understand why they are used, but have thoroughly mastered them.

I’m thinking about this because I’m going to do a free cocktail-hour webinar on October 2, where I’ll talk about objectives in studying painting. Everyone is welcome, and I hope you bring lots of questions.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

“The first time I felt normal in a long time.”

If you’re depressed or anxious right now, for heaven’s sake, turn off your laptop and TV.

Jane Chapin with my new dog, Guillo (short for Guillermo and pronounced Gee-zho).

There’s a small hamlet here that’s a New Mexican Brigadoon, a tiny community that time forgot. It’s otherworldly, like a set from a movie. Modest adobe houses are set on a bluff overlooking a verdant valley. The dogs and the people are generous and friendly.

This is one of my favorite places, where I could paint the rest of my life in contentment. That’s a fairly high bar, since I’ve painted in many of the world’s beauty spots.

Yesterday I shared this place with the six students in my Pecos workshop. It’s a well-earned reward, because I’m working them harder than I’ve ever worked students before. On Monday, we did a day-long joint project where I demoed step-by-step in watercolor and oils. They followed along, duplicating my processes exactly. On Tuesday, we threw color theory into that mix. All six of them draw well, so they’re able to keep up.

Mary Silver working on values. It's all about that base.

Yesterday, they were spread out along a dusty track running from the road back to the morada, which is the meeting house of New Mexican penitentes. As is my usual technique, I spent much of the day going from person to person, working one-on-one. This creates the opportunity for intimate conversation (and is why so many of my students have become lifelong friends).

“This is the first time I’ve felt normal in a long time,” two of them told me independently of each other. Those within earshot heartily agreed with them. We’re in a place that’s anything but normal. Our group is disparate, with students from students from Texas, Missouri, New Mexico, New Hampshire and Maine. I had to ask them what made them feel normal.

Jean Cole with our ride. And here I thought I had overdone it by getting a full-size truck.

It’s being in a group and not wearing masks, they thought. I suspect they’re right. Human beings are primarily social animals. We read each other through body language and facial expressions as much—or more—than with our words. Here we can talk and laugh, and we needn’t worry overmuch about whether we’re maintaining a proper two-meter separation (as if there was any science behind that rather arbitrary number).

But there’s more to it than that. We’re also in a media blackout. One thing I like about painting here (and in Acadia, and Alaska and Patagonia and other remote places) is that I don’t have cell-phone reception. I’m not seeing the news or looking at Facebook. Here I can’t even take a phone call. If you want me, text me and I may see your message by the end of the day.

Linda DeLorey and Jean Cole painting in Paradise.

That means we haven’t talked or thought about COVID-19 all week. And there’s a lesson in that—if you’re depressed or anxious right now, for heaven’s sake, turn off your laptop and TV. Go for a walk in this crystalline September air. Play with a puppy. Do anything that involves your real community and doesn’t involve the whole generalized human condition. It’s what’s around you that’s real, not what the talking heads keep telling you.

A student asked me whether we are going to have safe-distancing accommodations at Sea & Sky this year. The answer is yes. For this year only, everyone gets their own apartment. However, if you’re coming from Massachusetts or any other supposedly high-risk state, you will need a negative COVID test to stay at Schoodic Institute. (Of course, that too may change by October.)

Last but certainly not least, I’m going to do a free cocktail-hour webinar on October 2, where I’ll talk about objectives in studying painting. Everyone is welcome, and I hope you bring lots of questions.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Monday Morning Art School: mastering value

The essence of alla prima painting is to nail the color on the first pass.

The top of this canvas is a simple grisaille; the bottom is a single layer of paint applied right over that. This is the gist of alla prima painting. 

You cannot overstate the importance of value in painting. Even when artists represent value with hue (a technique pioneered by the Impressionists) the dark shapes in a painting have a form. That form drives our perception and guides us through the painting. There are various ways to get this right, but the most common is a quick value sketch. I ask watercolor students to then make a value study in paint before they start their finished project. I have oil and acrylic students do their paint study in the form of a rough grisaille on their canvases. It has to be thin, and it has to be worked fairly dry, or you can’t paint over it.

Where early oil painters sometimes trip up is in making that bottom layer too dark, thick, or soupy. Then, they hope they can somehow lighten it up by adding white back in. Indirect painting works almost like this, so they may have seen something similar on a video. In indirect painting, the artist works into this dark layer; in modern direct painting, or alla prima, it’s there as a roadmap, so it's applied more lightly.

Close-value mixing is the heart of painting, and the hardest mixing to do.

Direct painting requires great skill in color mixing, because the goal is au premier coup, or to nail it on the first strike. That goes not just the for darks, but every color in the picture. Even a painting with wonderful shadows and lights will have many middle tones, often closely related in value. These are actually the most difficult colors to mix accurately. If you have a painting that isn’t working, ask yourself if it has a full tonal range, or is it simply hitting the highs and lows. When people get in trouble painting texture, it’s usually because they’re overstating the contrast.

Plate IV-4 from Joseph Albers' Interaction of Color, demonstrating how all color is relative. The inner violet colors are the same exact value, but what surrounds them influences how we perceive them.

All color is relative, and that's particularly true when it comes to value. Above see a plate from Joseph Albers’ groundbreaking Interaction of Color. The inner violets are the exact same value. But the framing color influences how we see those values, so one looks much lighter than the other. This is why oil painters should tone canvases, by the way.

I made the oil-painting sample at the top of this page for my students. The top is the value study; the bottom is a finished painting. I keep it around to demonstrate that when we say “darks to lights” we don’t mean a thick mask of dark paint; we mean that we think through our values in that order. (In watercolor, we do the same thing, but the application is reversed to go from light to dark.)

Copy and print me.

To mix paint accurately you must become absolutely conversant with the colors on your own palette. You can download this pigment test chart and print it on watercolor paper (trimmed to size) on your laser printer. Or, just grid off a canvas or paper to match. (Don’t try doing this in watercolor on plain copy paper. It isn’t sized, and your pigment will just sink.)

Use the pigments you usually have on your palette (if there’s more than eleven, we may need to talk).

What is the natural value of your paint, straight out of the tube? Compare it to that scale above.
 
The first step is to identify the natural value of your paint, straight out of the tube. For oil painters, this is easy. For watercolorists, it’s a bit of work to figure out what that really darkest point is, because it’s never the same as it appears on your palette. The colors wetted are a better guide, but you’ll need a test paper handy to experiment.
Your finished exercise should look something like this.

When you figure out the darkest natural position of that pigment, paint it in the appropriate position on your scale. Then make lighter steps to match the greyscale strip you’ve printed from the sample above. For watercolorists, that means dilution. For oil and acrylic painters, that means cutting with white.

There are three things to remember:

  1. These judgments are subjective. There’s no reliable way to measure the value of a color. The camera is as subjective as the human eye.  

  2. You can’t get a color to go darker than its ‘natural’ value without distorting the hue or chroma. Thus, there is no natural dark version of cadmium yellow, so the shadows in a yellow object require a workaround.

  3. All pigments can make about the same number of discrete steps. While the yellows have a shorter range, the steps are more noticeable. Blues can mix from almost-white to almost-black, but the middle points are very similar. 

Friday, September 11, 2020

Practical painting

Art theory is great, but workshops and classes should give you a clear process by which you can design and produce a better painting.

Blueberry Barrens, Carol L. Douglas, available through Maine Farmland Trust Gallery.

Natalia Andreeva is organizing my Find Your Authentic Voice in Plein Air workshop in Tallahassee in November. She asked me for objectives. That was great timing on her part.  I leave for the Pecos National Wilderness Saturday night and then head to Acadia National Park in two weeks.

The list (which follows) is short, but it took me more than a day to write. That, in turn, led me to redesign my workshop process. I already had a good reputation as a teacher, but this year has radically sharpened my focus. For that I can thank lockdown.

Ocean Park Beach Erosion, available through Ocean Park Association.

The biggest problem in plein air painting is what my buddy Brad Marshall once memorably referred to as “flailing around.” It’s easy to get stuck in the tall grass. In my opinion, the only classes worth taking are ones that give you a clear process by which you can design and produce a better painting. I love art theory and history, and I share them with my students. However, they have little to do with the mechanics of making a good picture.

Nor am I very interested in ‘style.’ To me that’s very personal—it’s what’s left when we’ve pushed our technique to the highest limit. When people try to teach it, they just create a small army of copyists.

Dawn, available through the artist
Parrsboro Dawn, available through the artist.

I’ve always focused on practical painting, but Natalia’s question got me thinking about the how and why. These are the objectives I came up with:

Finish a painting in three hours or less

Working fast (and well) in the field requires a clear, easily-understood process. We’ll go through the steps, explain why they’re important, and practice each one.

Better composition

A good painting has a structure of lights and darks with clear focal points. We talk about how to improve the structure of your painting, both with rules and by breaking rules.

Accurate, fast color mixing

Mixing right the first time is the key to beautiful, clear color. Theory is important, but how do you apply it with the paints on your palette?

Sea Fog, available through Folly Cove Fine Art.

Landscape perspective and pictorial distance

A sense of space sets off the best paintings. Learn to create that using drawn and aerial perspective.

You don’t need to record everything you see

What you leave out is as important as what you include. Learn to lose edges and direct the viewer’s eyes where you want them.

Let your own voice shine through

Process-based painting is all about technique, not style. That allows your own inner voice to emerge.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Packing to fly

We don’t have to give up our joy be safe in the Age of Coronavirus.

Fallow field, by Carol L. Douglas. Oil on canvasboard, available.

This weekend I will take my first flight since I came home from Argentina. I’m off to Pecos, NM, to teach a workshop that, mirabile dictu, has six people enrolled.

No, I’m not worried. I’m booked on a good carrier, and modern planes have HEPA filters. I’ll carry hand sanitizer, wear a mask, and enjoy myself. Flights are dirt cheap right now, as American carriers try to entice us back into the air.

When I’m preparing a workshop, I send supply lists to students, along with this packing list. These are general, and they don’t account for every circumstance. The weather in Pecos is going to be stellar this week; I won’t bring rain gear.

The biggest disconnect is between what oil painters need and what they’re allowed to fly with. Solvent is banned, except for very small bottles of Gamsol, which has a slightly lower flash point than Turpenoid. I avoid carrying either. Far better to buy it when I land.

Autumn farm, by Carol L. Douglas. Oil on canvasboard, available.

Nor should oil painters carry most painting medium; its flash-point is too low. That’s a big reason why I’ve switched to straight-up linseed oil for field painting.

I can fit a pochade box, tripod, two weeks’ worth of boards, my paints and everything else I need into a single checked bag that weighs less than 50 pounds. I put my clothes, toiletries, etc., in my other bag. Southwest has a two-bag limit, so there’s no additional charge for bringing my painting gear.

I have wet panel carriers that I love. However, I’d need half a dozen for a week of painting. Instead, only the wettest paintings travel in them. I lay out my paintings to start drying as soon as they’re finished. On the last day, I separate them with waxed paper and tape the package together. I write in sharpie, “Wet paintings—be careful opening!” I’ve been doing this for years and have only ever messed up one painting.

Print me and fly.

If you’re checking your oil paints, you can bring any size tube you normally carry. If you put your paints in carry-on luggage, they can only be the smaller tubes, or they will be confiscated. A lot of us paint with a 150 ml tube of white paint. It’s easy to forget. (It’s the nominal size that matters, not how much is actually in the tube.) I also print out the label, above, made by Gamblin for artists. I stick it in my paint container. I do not empty and clean my palette before flying. There is nothing hazardous in loose paint.

I carry a sketch pad and a travel watercolor kit in my backpack along with my laptop, phone charger, meds and a day’s clothing. I haven’t had luggage lost by an airline in a decade, but it’s always a possibility, and I’d hate to be bored.

I never actually bring dress clothes or makeup when I travel, but with social distancing, I no longer feel guilty about that.

Shadows, by Carol L. Douglas. Oil on canvasboard, available.

When I come back, I’ll be heading to Acadia for my annual Sea & Sky workshop. There are still openings, as there are in my Tallahassee workshop in November. Meanwhile, watch this space. I plan to be a good example to you, proving that we don’t have to give up our joy in order to be safe in the Age of Coronavirus.

Note: Cape Elizabeth Paint for Preservation auction is open for viewing. All thirty paintings can be seen here. Bidding opens Saturday, September 12 at 8 AM and closes at 9 PM the following day—bookmark this link for the live auction. Last month, I wrote about my paintings for CELT’s Mystery Boxes. These will be on sale Saturday and Sunday as well, here. You pay a flat $250 and what artist you get is a crapshoot—but with the caliber of artists in this event, you’re guaranteed to get something wonderful.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Meet your oppressor

It’s horrible to watch a city you love overdosing on hate and violence.

High Falls of the Genesee, by Carol L. Douglas.

I’d like you to meet my friend Ha. He’s a portly gentleman in his seventies, with a thick thatch of white hair and an irrepressible smile. His wife, Khanh, is a tiny, self-contained woman. Ha’s sister, Nu, is tall and rangy with an outsize personality to match. They run a small restaurant on lower Monroe Avenue in Rochester, NY. This is a part the city that has been described as “up and coming” for the past twenty years.

Ha's family is from mainland China, and their trade was food service. Like many petit-bourgeoisie, they fled when it was clear that the communists had won the Chinese Civil War. The skill to roast a pig is international currency, and they resettled in Saigon. There has always been a large and successful Chinese population in South Vietnam. But by the late 1970s, ethnic Chinese were being violently suppressed, especially the capitalist ones. I once asked Nu how they managed to escape. She rubbed fingers and thumb together in the international symbol for payola.

North Rochester, by Carol L. Douglas. This is where my old church is.

They were on the move again, this time by boat to an international refugee camp in Malaysia. One brother died before they landed. They have a worn photo of that landing; they are carrying what they can through the surf from a rickety cruiser.

From there, some went to Canada. Ha and his sisters came here. He met Khanh in a match arranged by her brother. They lost a child, they had another. Nu and her husband had a daughter. Two sisters died. They set up shop on Monroe Avenue, and all of them worked like navvies to establish the restaurant. They’re there from late morning until late at night, every day of the week. The first time I ever saw them take a day off was for their daughter’s college graduation.

Last year, Khanh and Nu were assaulted by a drunk. They were both seriously injured; Khanh suffered a broken hip. While they recovered, the restaurant was closed; there is no other staff. They don’t speak English so you didn’t see them on the evening news. Besides, inner-city violence is a tiresome fact of life, hardly newsworthy.

Canal, by Carol L. Douglas. Rochester has its idyllic moments.

They’d like to retire, but their assets are tied up in the restaurant. They had buyers in mind, a Vietnamese couple with a small jewelry store around the corner. These young people want to put their feet on the first rung of the American ladder themselves.

Fast forward to last month, when riots rocked Rochester. My friends got off lightly; their building was tagged, not torched. But buildings on either side of them burned, and their prospective buyers’ Hispanic neighbor was severely beaten trying to protect their shop for them. 

This weekend another round of rioting closed down Rochester again. I have the greatest sympathy for Daniel Prude’s family. Anyone who’s lived with a mentally-ill loved one has to be thinking, “there but for the grace of God go I.” The circumstances of his death should be investigated—but not by a mob.

My friends are not oppressors; rather, they’ve fled two oppressive regimes in their lifetimes. They’ve been stoic about the current round of violence. They’ve seen worse.

This weekend, the damage was centered a few blocks north of their restaurant, in a much ‘nicer’ area. For twenty years, the city has marketed this neighborhood to middle-class professionals. Perhaps you think that’s okay, that somehow these people are the oppressors. Instead, they’re the people who’ve propped up the tax base in a moribund city.

The net result of Rochester’s 1964 riots was the flight of capital and brains from the city—“white flight,” they called it then. I have no idea what they’ll call it this time, but it’s horrible to watch a city you love convulsing in another overdose of hate and violence. Apparently, it has learned nothing whatsoever from its own history.

Friday, September 4, 2020

Heart and Soul

People are working very hard to find ways to do their job as well as in pre-COVID days. That includes my fellow artists at Cape Elizabeth Paint for Preservation.

Zeb Cove, by Carol L. Douglas, 40"x40", oil on canvas, available through Cape Elizabeth Land Trust's Paint for Preservation auction.

When Cape Elizabeth Land Trust’s Paint for Preservation first went virtual, I debated whether it made sense to paint large. Not only is it physically demanding, larger paintings don’t read as well on the internet. A tiny painting occupying 600X600 pixels shows off its brushwork to advantage. A huge painting loses its presence on the screen. You simply can’t see the brushwork and colors.

In the end, I decided that professionalism trumped hard-nosed common sense. I’d go on as I began. Zeb Cove, above, is a massive 40X40”. There’s an old saw that a painting should work at 30 feet, three feet, and three inches. This one, I think, does.

That big beast of a canvas, photo courtesy of Betsy Manganello

The sale may be virtual, but the painting itself sure wasn’t. Working at the end of a private road, I was worried that I’d be totally isolated. I shouldn’t have. I met the neighbors. Friends and students stopped by. It was a revolving party—all socially distanced, of course.

This year, I made a video of the first layers of my painting. It’s here on YouTube, for those of you who are interested in the process. This was a 12-hour painting stint, cut down to several minutes of video. The only parts I cut out were the long pauses when I stepped back to look. (I’ve also made a video about preparing for this event, here.)

The last few hours aren’t included because the wind was rattling my tripod so much my camera wouldn’t focus. In fact, it was so gusty that I snapped my trusty old Gloucester easel. Luckily, the photographer for the event was carrying gorilla tape, and we patched it back up.

Snap, crackle, pop! Easel down. A little gorilla tape and I was back in business.

We’re allotted three days to make one painting. Saturday was a washout, with gouts of rain. By mid-day Sunday, I was done with my subject (which is called Hair Rock). I decided to paint another rock formation out in the middle of the cove and mostly submerged except at low tide. The wind increased; the surf roared. Alas, my canvas kept working itself loose and flying at me. The final indignity was when it hit me amidships, flipped over my head, and soared about 35 feet to land in scrub. I dusted it off and packed up my gear.

One perk of being a painter is that you get to see the competition before everyone else. My peers clearly came with the same attitude as me—we would pour heart and soul into this event, regardless of the outcome. I’ve found that to be the case in my dealings this summer, whether in the grocery store, doctors’ offices, or the post office. People are working very hard to find ways to do their jobs. It’s heartening.

Surf interrupted. I'm waiting until it dries enough to scrape the debris out and then I'll get back to it. Those distant blues ended up on my arms as it hit me amidships.

I’ve been so focused on the impact of COVID-19 on working artists, I was shocked to read that Paint for Preservation funds about 25% of CELT’s annual budget. As non-profits cancel their annual fundraisers, the stress on the charity side of our economy is tremendous.

Normally, Paint for Preservation ends with a very swank gala, the highlight of which is an auction presided over by the irrepressible Kaja Veilleux. It always sells out, because demand far exceeds the venue’s capacity. Obviously, that party is a no-go this year. However, the upside is that anyone, anywhere in the world, can bid. No ticket is required. My painting will open at $1500, which is a small fraction of its retail value. I believe all other paintings are priced similarly.

All thirty paintings will be on CELT’s website starting tomorrow. Bidding opens Saturday, September 12 at 8 AM and closes at 8 PM the following day. Last month, I wrote about my paintings for CELT’s Mystery Boxes. These will be on sale on the website as well.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Are you a tortoise or a hare?

The person for whom drawing comes easily may not end up being the best draftsman.

Shoes, by Carol L. Douglas. Oil on canvasboard, available.

One of my students is a retired violinist. We were musing on the question of technique last week. “Practice doesn’t make perfect,” she said. “Perfect practice makes perfect.” An aspiring violinist can spend hours dragging a bow across strings, but if someone hasn’t told him about rosin, the resulting caterwauling will be awful.

As a hater of school and generally bad student (I never could sit still) I was probably more self-taught than I was educated. But, to be honest, there’s still very little ‘self’ in my education. My father taught me to draw and paint when I was a child. I then revised my technique at the Art Students League in New York. Whenever I come up against a technical barrier I can’t get over, I find someone who has solved that problem and I study their technique, either by taking a workshop from them or reverse-engineering one of their paintings.

Baby monkey, by Carol L. Douglas. Oil on canvasboard, available.

This past week, I promised my Zoom students the most difficult class they’d ever work through. (You can read it on my blog here.) I also assured them that, if they were patient and mastered what I was teaching, they would immediately be much better artists. That’s because most painters trip up in the drawing phase. Angles and measurements are the root of all drawing.

When people say someone is ‘talented’, they usually mean that person can draw well. But that’s not an innate skill; it’s learned, even by those of us for whom it seems almost intuitive. There will be some of us who can push our skills to become NASCAR drivers, but the majority of us can learn to draw as fluently as we can drive.

Saran wrap and stuffed toy, by Carol L. Douglas. Oil on canvasboard, available.

I’m someone for whom drawing comes easily. It’s taken me a long time to realize that can actually be an impediment to real skill. Because people like me can see spatial relationships quickly, without having to think through them, we don’t always take the time to measure. That’s great, except when our intuition fails us—and it will. The human mind is stubbornly attached to regularity. Left to its own devices, my brain will shorten long distances, generalize the shapes of trees, and otherwise cut corners. Artists who rely on their intuitive drawing skills will never understand why all their rocks look the same and their trees have no character.

Meanwhile, our tortoises struggle to draw an ellipse, and find the business of measuring difficult. Still, they persevere and practice. They draw through their daily lunch break, taking fifteen minutes a day to measure and depict the most prosaic things—a box of tissues, their keys. Suddenly—aha!—the idea of angles as a tool of measurement makes sense. They suddenly understand that the same technique they used to measure their car keys can also be used to mark off the rivulets and turns of a river valley, or a mountain range. It takes them longer to get to the stage where they can draw anything, but—unlike our intuitive draftsman—they learn to draw those things accurately.

Happy New Year, by Carol L. Douglas. Oil on canvasboard, available.

Cornelia Foss once told me that her painting teacher made her draw a matchbox one hundred times. Today, she is able to play with paint handling and composition precisely because her drawing is so perfect.

I have to admit that I didn’t like that lesson when Cornelia handed it out, but I’ve come to appreciate it. If you want to be a better artist, sublimate your inner hare. Be a bit more of a tortoise. Take the time to learn to draw accurately, and your painting will improve immeasurably.